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The Lost Art of the Comedy Short

The comedy short occupies an odd position in the history of film.

Beloved by audiences, especially during the silent era, but also throughout the 30s and 40s, the comedy short was a hugely important part of any film program.

The geniuses of film comedy for the first part of the twentieth century almost all had a background in short films.

Certainly the major artists of the silent era-Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd-had extensive background in short films. Even after the major comedians had moved into feature films by the early 1920s, there were new crops of short comedy stars-Billy Bevan, Ben Turpin, Charley Chase, Max Davidson, and of course, Laurel and Hardy.

It has been said that, in many cases, the short comedy was even more a draw for an audience than the feature on the bill! When examining the brilliance with which these films were made, it’s easy to see why they remained such a strong audience draw and are still studied and enjoyed by audiences nearly 90 years later.

Of course, in film’s early period, the concept of “short” films didn’t exist, because it was simply the accepted, standard length of films in general. Some of the earliest films were recordings of comedy sketches popular on the vaudeville stage. For instance, Edison made a number of comedies featuring a character called “Uncle Josh”. The films of the Vitagraph company were extraordinarily popular, especially those starring Brooklyn-born John Bunny, who became cinema’s first comic superstar. Bunny specialized in a genteel kind of humor that blended situational and domestic humor. It was a far cry from the kind of roughhouse, breakneck humor that Mack Sennett would soon specialize in. But Bunny proved hugely popular with audiences until his untimely passing in 1915.

1912 saw the launch of America’s first “comedy factory” – the Keystone studio – which quickly became synonymous with American screen comedy.

Mack Sennett, the company’s general director, brought a unique comic sensibility to the company’s output which influenced even the films which he did not personally direct. His stable of stars – Ford Sterling, Mabel Normand, Fred Mace, and others – created a memorable style of screen slapstick that to this day is recognized as a unique art unto itself. Based in Hollywood, Keystone would soon sign its most famous star, British music hall comic Charlie Chaplin. He spent one year at Keystone, in 1914, where he honed his craft for the screen, and was also introduced to the responsibilities of writing and directing his own films. Thanks to the valuable archival work of Paul E. Gierucki, we now know that part of Chaplin’s early experience at Keystone included an appearance as a Keystone cop in the Ford Sterling vehicle, “A Thief Catcher”.

With the rise of the feature-length film, and particularly “prestige” pictures like “The Birth of a Nation” and “Intolerance”, the short film began to occupy a distinct position on the theatrical program. Chaplin was the reigning comedy superstar, but Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle also proved extremely popular with audiences. Chaplin continued developing his character and filmmaking style at the Essanay company, where he made 15 films during the 1915-1916 period, and followed this with a dozen masterworks produced for the Mutual company in 1916-1917.

The comedy short continued to thrive throughout the late 1910s as new stars entered the field – especially Buster Keaton, who had trained under Arbuckle before getting his own series in 1920, and Harold Lloyd, who developed a unique comic persona which was strongly identifiable by his glasses, which suggested much about his character’s personality.

A major shift occurred during the 1920s when the major clowns – Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd, among others – made the transition to feature-length films.

Shorts still dominated the market. Hal Roach, for instance, with whom Harold Lloyd had gotten his start and produced his films through 1923, ran a studio that equaled Keystone as a “comedy factory”. His comedies featured such geniuses of comedy as Charley Chase, who specialized in a kind of middle-class character who found himself in a series of unusual and hilarious situations. Max Davidson was another Roach star, and his comedies display a remarkable level of inventiveness. Of course, there were also Hal Roach’s Rascals – “Our Gang” – a series that continued with various cast members well into the 1940s. Perhaps Roach’s greatest contribution to screen comedy was the series of films he produced starring the team of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, who had been teamed in 1927 and would continue in films for nearly another 25 years, creating some of the most beloved comedies that audiences around the world continue to enjoy.

The comedy short didn’t end with the coming of sound, although it did change and transform.

A number of performers continued working in shorts – Laurel and Hardy continued until 1935, doing their best work in the short medium before switching to features exclusively (a decision which Laurel himself regretted); W.C. Fields made four shorts for Mack Sennett in 1932-33, and even Buster Keaton and Harry Langdon both returned to the short format in films for companies like Educational Pictures and Columbia in the 1930s and 40s. Of course, there were also the Three Stooges, who worked almost exclusively in shorts well into the 1950s. However, the short comedy scene certainly dimmed as it moved further into the sound era.

When James Agee wrote his seminal essay on silent comedy, “Comedy’s Greatest Era”, which appeared in the September 5, 1949 issue of “Life” magazine, he named Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd and Langdon as the four masters of silent comedy. This selection is easy to understand if we see that Agee was operating under the idea that the narrative, feature-length film was the measure of “greatness” by which to measure their work. This prejudice, of course, slighted comic geniuses who chose to work in the short film format. Laurel and Hardy, for instance, were never really at home in features, though they did produce a number of features that came close to the greatness of their shorts – “Sons of the Desert” and “Way Out West” being the most notable. The best Laurel and Hardy shorts – “Big Business”, “Hog Wild”, “Helpmates”, “The Music Box” – are just as complex and rich in their themes and humor as any feature-length comedy.

It was during the 1950s that these short comedies began to be championed again, largely through the compilation films of Robert Youngson, including “The Golden Age of Comedy” and “When Comedy Was King”, both of which featured excerpts from comedies featuring performers as diverse as Will Rogers, Carole Lombard, Snub Pollard, Fatty Arbuckle, Ben Turpin, Charley Chase, and many, many others. Along with television screenings, there was a renewed appreciation for these works.

With the wealth of short comedies now easily accessible on DVD, audiences can once again appreciate the genius of the comedy short. Thanks to the work of film preservationists who help make these works available, it provides a rich comparison with the critically-acclaimed feature-length films that have long been cited as the “great comedy films” by critics over the years.

For further reading, the following works are indispensable studies of the comedy short:
James Agee, “Comedy’s Greatest Era”. Life, September 5, 1949.
William K. Everson, The Films of Laurel and Hardy. Citadel Press, 1967.
Walter Kerr. The Silent Clowns. Alfred A. Knopf, 1975.
Kalton C. Lahue, World of Laughter: The Motion Picture Comedy Short, 1910-1930. University of Oklahoma Press, 1966.
Leonard Maltin, The Great Movie Comedians. Crown Publishers, 1978.
Leonard Maltin, The Great Movie Shorts. Bonanza Books, 1972.
James L. Neibaur, Chaplin at Essanay: A Film Artist in Transition 1915-1916. McFarland, 2008.

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