Friday, June 30, 2017

Silent Comedy In The Television Era

Today's topic: silent comedies that got produced decades beyond the last gasp of U.S. silent movies in 1929. Many in this writer's age group not only enjoyed actual silent comedies on TV, on such shows as Silents Please, Comedy Capers and The Funny Manns (as well as the Robert Youngson comedy compilation features The Golden Age Of Comedy and When Comedy Was King), but also latter-day homages to it on numerous programs, starting with I Love Lucy, Jackie Gleason and Red Skelton. Silent comedy carried on through the 1950's, 1960's and beyond.

Red featured "the silent spot" as part of his weekly CBS show.

Inevitably, discussions of silent comedy in television lead to Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca and their appearances on Admiral Broadway Revue and Your Show Of Shows. Pantomime sketches were a frequent feature of both programs.

The following is a sendup of pre-1913 cinema, from the era of D.W. Griffith short subjects starring Florence "The Biograph Girl" Lawrence.

From the cast of Your Show Of Shows and Caesar's Hour key Sid Caesar (and Mel Brooks) collaborator Carl Reiner made The Comic, a drama about a self-destructive silent film star whose incongruous screen nom de plume was Billy Bright. As Billy's character offscreen is a dark and tormented soul, one surmises this 1969 feature could have been about two comics both Laurel & Hardy knew very well, Larry Semon (1889-1928) and Charley Chase (1893-1940). It's a good bet Mr. Van Dyke, who is a scream in the late teens - early 1920's style silent segments, drew upon his friendship with Mr. Laurel for inspiration.

Then there was an innovative director-writer-comic of a very different sort who also presented silent comedy sketches on television - and sometimes entire shows that were silent - the great Ernie Kovacs.

The "Eugene" sketches reflected Kovacs' love of Jacques Tati's subtle and elegant approach to visual humor. In feature films, Tati's Monsieur Hulot carried on the silent comedy tradition of Chaplin, Parisian boulevardier Max Linder and American "silk hat slicker" Raymond Griffith with style and panache.

And then there were the Brits, who demonstrated emphatically that the pantomime tradition did not die easily. Bits of silent comedy frequently find their way into the Monty Python's Flying Circus universe.

The 1971 Marty Feldman Comedy Machine show, co-starring Spike Milligan, may have been, with Kovacs, the most successful of all latter-day homages to silent film humor.

Giving Marty Feldman Comedy Machine a run for its money was Mr. Bean, arguably the last British attempt at silent comedy and frequently quite good, particularly in the first group of short subjects made for TV.

Rowan Atkinson elaborates:

While the amazing cast of ridiculously talented actors who surrounded Rowan Atkinson in his previous series, Blackadder - Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Miranda Richardson, Tony Robinson, Tim McInerney and more - are much missed in the Mr. Bean shows, it is, that said, a SILENT presentation: perhaps less actors is a means to that end. When Atkinson strips the humor down to its essentials in the Mr. Bean shows and delivers silent comedy, English style, the results can be exceptionally funny.

Since Mr. Bean is not among the more sympathetic of comic characters, just a tad nasty and a bit of a rat, this comedy fan found that extending him to feature films was problematic. Did not want to see more than 30 minutes of Bean, but, that said, 10 minutes of Mr. Bean . . . well, that can be unbelievably hilarious.

An all-time favorite of Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog, who recently celebrated his 91st birthday and is still damn funny, is the great Mel Brooks. Along with Reiner, Kovacs and all the aforementioned British comics, Mel is considered to be among the patron saints of the KFJC Psychotronix Film Festival programs this scribe has been involved in curating since 1992. Mel's 1976 feature Silent Movie, co-starring the great Marty Feldman, must be included!

What sparked this post in particular - wanted to open or close with it - was a certain brilliant 1955 short subject In The Park a.k.a. El Jardín Público, starring Marcel Marceau.

Marceau does not wear the traditional mime pancake makeup in this 1955 film and the more naturalistic look, at least for this viewer, enhances his performance. Could only find later performances of this piece on YouTube or Daily Motion, but not the excellent 1955 film, etc. At least Marcel got to appear for 5 seconds and utter his only word of dialogue in Mel Brooks' Silent Movie!

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