The Tragedy of Comedy
Curious title? Well, they are curious films which suggested it! Comedies without a laugh, farces which make the tears come, alleged funniments which leave an audience cold, disgusted or untouched, laughs which the producer and scenario author alone have enjoyed, but which never "get over" from the screen.
The public taste for comedy is highly developed. That is, the public wants to laugh. It tries hard to laugh when it is supposed to. It will chuckle at most anything besides a murder or the spectacle of the loving son beating his bedridden mother to death. It doesn't take much to make a moving picture audience explode—only something really funny!
Only something really funny!
But the "only something really funny" is hard, hard, hard to get, seemingly, and the substitutes therefore, so easy to find, so riotously, uproarious in scenario form, so deliciously ridiculous in imagination, that every week we find "screaming comedies," "films with a laugh in every picture" and such other mis-announcements by the dozen. Then, when we pay our little five cents and go into the darkened hall with the idea of pulling our lips out of the frown left there by the last "funny" film, we see some such pitiful attempts to amuse as might get smiles from a professional laugher, but from no one else.
Time was when any procession of people running across the screen, after anything, was funny. But "the chase" is about done as a laugh maker. Then came the procession—not a chase, since they do not run, but a gradually increasing crowd of people, all following something—anything. This, too, has become unnatural (which it always was), and is dying out. Also the accidents—the people falling down, or being doused, or getting run over or running into something—how sickeningly often are we asked to laugh at some mishap to some poor mortal. But real comedy? How rare it is!
Nor are the offenders the little, the unknown, the struggling producers. They all offend, at times. So great and so successful a firm as Pathe puts out some of the prettiest—and some of the worst—comedies one can want to see or flee. Yes, coming right down to cases in a minute. Attracted by the name Pathe, which usually means "well done," the present scribe wandered into a "photoplayhouse" (horrific name this, not to say horrendous)! yesterday, and sat interestedly through "One on Max." Interested, because from the beginning things happened in so unhuman, unnatural and peculiar a manner that one couldn't help wanting to know what the deuce was coming next.
Now, the present scribe is not French, has never been in France and couldn't pretend to say anything about the French character. He hardly imagines that this is a sample of French humor, but if it is—God pity the French!
Max is invited to a party. His boots are tight. He puts on slippers and goes to a shoe store to get a pair of easy shoes. So far, so good. While there, he attempts to flirt with the lady clerk—possibly daughter of the shoe merchant. Shoe merchant is incensed and determines on revenge. So he fastens a pair of roller skates to a pair of shoes, which he is morally sure will fit Max, and puts them on. Max, with that complacency of the moving picture actor (who is listening with all his ears to the stage manager, bellowing at him "now look at the girl—don't notice the skates—you don't know there are skates on those shoes"), doesn't see the skates or feel them or know anything about them. Perfectly natural—is it not? It is NOT. Then the merchant propels Max into the street, where he tumbles about in a really artistic manner. It never occurs to Max to try to take off the skates, or to go to another shoe store and get other shoes, or to take off these shoes, or to call a policeman. No, indeed! His one idea is to get to that party. This he does, with the aid of a cabman. It never occurs to the cabby, either, to help him off with his shoes. And, more and more interesting, when Max comes into the room where the party is being held, it never occurs to him to explain, to ask for help, or to excuse his actions. Mamma, Papa and young Mam'zelle never notice Max is three inches taller than usual—why should they? It would just mean a line from the stage manager! No one thinks anything of his sudden down-sittings and cautious uprisings, nor does Max attempt to sit still. Clearly unable to walk, he must try to waltz with a lady, just the same. Entirely plausible, ridiculously funny and openly hilarious, is it not? It is—NOT!
Finally he falls and smashes things—they try to put him out, thinking him drunk—still unable to see those roller skates—until Max, in despair, tells them he has on rollers. Then they all see them at once, and try to drag them off him. Finally a servant suggests untying the shoes, and all is well with Max, who dances in his stocking feet to the end of the party!
Ugh! And that is a Pathe film, if you please!
Now, Pathe Freres, the present scribe admires you a lot! He likes your attention to detail, your often exquisitely beautiful surroundings and backgrounds, and your always capable companies. But he sees what he sees and says what he thinks, and if "Max" is an imposition on the public, your "Jinks Would Be An Acrobat" is a crime. There is nothing funny about Jinks. No human being could, would, should or might, get so excited over the picture of a man standing on his hands, that he would try to do it all over the street! Nor, if he did try, would he last long out of jail. But while everyone chases Jinks, no one catches him—he has always plenty of time to stand up on his hands and knock over everything knockable. It not only isn't funny, but it isn't even near-funny, except that a responsible, level-headed, wealthy, able firm like Pathe should fall for it.
Nor is Pathe a unique offender. Our own beloved Essanay sometimes slips up on "comedy. "Hank and Lank" may, at times, make some people laugh, but their recent baby-tending exploit wouldn't make a gibbering idiot crack a smile, let alone a cold motion picture audience. Why will producers base playlets on mother's handing their babies to strange men to hold, while they go shopping? And what function does Lank's two-inches-long-nose play? And what sort of fathers are the personal acquaintances of the Essanay people, that they would leave a baby in the charge of an obvious bum, while, for a whole hour, they enjoy themselves in a saloon? Comedy based on improbabilities is farce, but farce must be possible to be funny—all the premises here are impossible of belief—therefore, the result is about on a par with the forced funniments of the average comic Sunday Supplement—one of the saddest sights there is!
When they turn their attention to "serious" comedy, they do better, all these producers, yet it is still Essanay who makes a fatal mistake in "Papa's First Outing." They have a good idea in the meek, little, well beloved father, who goes alone for his vacation, is suspected by his wife, tracked by a woman detective, who manufactures evidence against him by flirting with him. But the lack of attention to details has spoiled a good idea. Wives do not, normally, get suspicious of their husbands because they read of another man's frailty, nor do they discuss infidelities in the presence of half a dozen children, nor do children, who obviously adore their father, take turns in beating him without understanding why! Had the reason for the suspicion been more reasonable, and the ending more probable, Essanay would, in the humble opinion of the present scribe, have arrived with a comedy fully as good, of its kind, as a Hoyt farce is of its kind.
Selig, in "Caught In The Rain," has argued that what makes a good farce on the stage ought to make a good one on the screen. Fatal error! It doesn't. "Caught In The Rain" has.
In this film, then, you see a series of interesting processes conducted in the laboratory by expert hands. First of all the water is examined under the microscope. Then, you have shown a series of enlarged images of the small objects which exist in the water. And how fearful and wonderful these little things look! so involved a plot, one so hard to follow by the average not-over-intelligent audience, and one which moves so rapidly, that the good points are lost in obscurity. The play is well conceived, reasonably well acted—although Robert, as usual with young villains, entirely overdoes the gesturing and facial expressions—and ought to, seemingly, be successful, yet on three occasions which the present scribe took to see this "mirth producer" he heard never a laugh or titter, save at the one scene where the Judge gets soaking wet—the scene which gives the play its name, and which, if it is the only laugh wringer in the whole thousand feet, might as well be shown by itself and same time!
Well, tell us of a good comedy!
I wish 1 could. As I look back over those I have seen in the past year or so, they are few and far between. One, among all others, stands out pre-eminent. I don't know its name or its maker—I do know that I saw it half a dozen times, and that every time the audience not only laughed, but roared, cheered, and clapped.
It was the story of the servant, the secretary and the daughter of the house, who, unknown to each other and to the theater-hating minister, head of the house, steal off to the play. The play is a melodrama, of the most melo character. The film alternately shows the play, a capital satire on the traveling tank drama, and the pit, dress circle and gallery of the house, with daughter and escort, secretary and escort, and cook and escort, all enjoying the play.
The facial expression of the cook was enough to bring down the house—the tank drama—particularly where the hero spent five minutes gesticulating to high heaven of what he was going to do before he finally plunged in to rescue the drowning heroine (one sees, now where this pause and gesture habit comes from in the M. P. actors), and the climax of the film when all three parties met and swear eternal secrecy were really funny—a thing which can be stated without fear of contradiction because the fun produced the laughs. I have never heard more laughter from a moving picture audience over any film—therefore, as strongly as 1 can put it, this was a real comedy, a real funniment, a real laugh producer. It isn't all this because I liked it—but because it made everyone laugh!
That is the first and last test. Comedies which produce no result are not funny. Comedies which make people laugh, and laugh hard, are good. Why, with all the good plants, people, and cleverness of producers, there are not more of them, less of these tragic attempts; further, deponent sayeth not. A la Hashintura Togo, I pause for a reply. C. H. CLAUDY. (Moving Picture World, Jan. 14, 1911)