Back in my college days, I was interested in theater and ended up getting myself cast as Peter Quince in a school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I took two important lessons from that experience:
I should not attempt to undertake a career as an actor due to my considerable lack of talent.
This lesson, so eloquently put by one of my co-stars while smoking a joint outside the theater: “These jokes are almost 400 years old, man, and people are laughing at them! This Shakespeare guy is good. Real good.”
I was faithful to that first lesson and did not pursue a career in acting. The second lesson really stuck with me, too. I have always been fascinated with jokes and what makes people laugh. Most humor is ephemeral and has to be experienced in the moment. You see a pompous person excoriating a sales clerk, and then they storm off and trip and fall. You laugh. But later, you might think about it and feel badly for the person who fell. Maybe they were having a really bad day and the fall caused a serious injury and the longer you think about it, the less funny that moment gets. Or the perfect verbal response in a moment that later doesn’t seem so funny because the moment has passed. And as you retell the tale, you get past the punchline and your audience is mute and you have to fall back on “Well, I guess you had to be there…”
If Shakespeare’s jokes have the ultimate staying power centuries later, today I’m asking that same question about a series of classic silent comedy films: Are they still funny? Or has their moment passed and should we now say of them: “Well, I guess you had to be there” and move on?
The movies we’ll be looking at were made in the 1920s to the early 1930s, breathing down the neck of reaching a century in age. They are also all silent pictures. They can’t rely on crisp, brilliantine repartee between characters for the laughs. All humor here is physical. If you’ve not watched silent films before, this can be a bit off-putting. You keep waiting for someone to start talking! But no… Just be patient and accept the world you have entered. It’s a beautiful world, a slightly alien place, but fascinating nevertheless. In fact, I have found that after watching a silent movie, sound, talking, and music in movies seems kind of like cheating. All the balletic screen presences of Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd work best in silence so you can focus on what they are conveying with their movements. Their whole body is acting, not just their mouths.
Buster Keaton is one of the great artists of the 20th century. No kidding. Right up there with Picasso and Faulkner and James Joyce. His art was to make people laugh and this film is his magnum opus. And it is about as absurd a premise as anyone could imagine: a protracted chase between two trains. Think about that. Car chases make sense. Cars can turn and drive just about anywhere and some are faster and can even go through buildings. A train is stuck going on a track and it has a top speed. How is it even conceivable that you could build an entire movie around two trains chasing each other? Well, that, my friends, is why Buster Keaton is a genius and we are not. I rented this movie for my kids back in the 90s and they were absolutely NOT interested in a silent, black and white film. Just give it a try, I said. They did, and gradually started giggling and then got completely swept up in this comic masterpiece. Orson Welles has called this movie “possibly the greatest film ever made.” He’s probably overstating things a bit, but do yourself a favor and rent this and watch it with your kids. It’s about as funny a movie as you’ll ever see.
Keaton was the supreme physical comedian. And we’re not just talking pratfalls here. His stunts often are jaw-dropping, and the story he conveys with his action are balletic. In an interview once, Keaton said the average silent film had more than 250 “cards,” which are the images that recap what is happening or being said. Keaton was proud that his films had only 50 cards or so. This meant that he was telling the story without words. The stunts in this film are particularly astonishing. Here he plays nerdy and scholarly Ronald, who goes off to Clayton College in pursuit of the girl he liked in high school, named Mary. In order to impress her, Ronald tries out for all sorts of sports and is terrible at all of them. The sequence in which Ronald races, leaps, and battles to save Mary from an athlete who is holding her hostage is one of the funniest and more hair-raising comic sequences in film.
For pure silliness, it would be hard to beat this movie. (I’m giggling already.) Here, Keaton is Steamboat Bill, Jr., the son of a struggling steamboat operator, Steamboat Bill. Their rival steamboat company launches a fancy new boat just as Jr. is falling in love with the daughter of the rival company owner. This movie has one of the most famous visual gags of all time—the front of a building falls on Keaton and he just happens to be standing where an open window lands. Pure, laugh-out-loud fun.
Charlie Chaplin considered this his best movie. Keep that in mind when trying to decide which Chaplin film should be the next (or first) one to watch. Set in the gold rush in the Yukon of the 1890s, Chaplin’s Little Tramp character is “The Lone Prospector” this time, who gets trapped in a cabin with a couple of other prospectors during a blizzard. This is the movie where the Little Tramp cooks and politely and carefully attempts to eat his shoe. There’s a lovely romantic storyline with a woman named Georgia, lots of bittersweetly funny moments, and a happy ending. What more could you want?
This, for me, is one of the greatest films ever made. The Little Tramp scrambles and hustles to raise the funds to help the Flower Girl get the eye surgery she needs to cure her blindness. I really could go on and on about this film. It is alternately laugh-out-loud funny and then heartbreaking. The first time I saw the movie was at an arthouse in Minneapolis, and I slid out of my chair laughing—it’s the one where he ruins the unveiling of a preposterous new statue. And the final scene where the Flower Girl, whose sight has been restored, meets the Little Tramp and recognizes him by touching his face. Sigh… This film was made after sound became a standard part of films, but Chaplin didn’t need any talking to make this movie soar.
Harold Lloyd was the third member of the silent era’s holy trinity (joining Keaton and Charlie Chaplin), although he is largely forgotten now. This film is about an inept salesman at a department store and the endless troubles he gets into. It includes the iconic scene of him hanging from a clock arm atop a skyscraper, which he scaled in a suit and straw hat. Lloyd’s “Glass” character—a handsome but dorky-looking man in silly glasses and a straw hat—is a magnificent comic creation. And Lloyd’s fearless approach to stunts is both amusing and terrifying all at once.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.