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Welcome to All Movie Talk! In this audio podcast, Samuel Stoddard and Stephen Keller talk about old and new movies, famous directors, historical film movements, movie trivia, and more.

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Vintage: The Forgotten Silent Clowns

Eighty years later, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin are still admired and enjoyed. Their films are timeless and brilliant, and they continue to be the basis of inspiration for modern comedians.

But during the silent era, there was the general understanding that there were four great silent screen comedians, not two. One of them is still upheld and defended in certain circles. The other, rarely. But both are worth seeking out.

Harold Lloyd
Harold Lloyd always seems like he's just on the verge of being rediscovered. He should be. He made good films, some great. And he worked hard at what he did. He had to -- he wasn't the natural comic that the other silent clowns are, and so to keep up, he had to work at it. Being funny was tough for him, but I know this only from what I've read about him, for it's not evident from his films at all. His comedic performances on film look natural and effortless -- so effortless, in fact, that maybe that's why people have since forgotten how good he was.

In this portrait, circa 1927, he is seen with his trademark horn-rimmed glasses and hat, props as essential to his look as Chaplin's mustache and cane were to Chaplin's Tramp character. The humor of his films, perhaps more than those of any other silent comic's, was based on the anticipation of imminent disaster. We'll be briefly mentioning this idea soon in an episode of the podcast. Let's say there's an open manhole cover, and the wind is blowing strongly. The wind has blown the guard rails around the manhole away, and it makes it difficult for one lone man to see ahead of him and to walk in a straight line. There are different ways to play this idea for comic value. Most comedians of the last few generations would have the guy fall into the manhole, and we'd hear an echoing scream and an abnormally loud crash. The silent comics, and particularly Harold Lloyd, would be more apt to toy with audience expectations: have the guy almost fall in. Then, have him almost fall in again, as the strength of the wind forced him to step back. Do this a few times, then ratchet things up to the next level: have him start to step directly into the hole, and just as his foot comes down, have some loose board blow over the hole, so he steps safely on that. Throughout, he is unaware he was ever in any danger.

After you're done toying with this basic idea in as many creative ways as possible, finally sending the guy down the manhole is entirely optional. Laurel and Hardy would end that way. Keaton and Lloyd would have both spared their characters the terrible fate, but Keaton would have squeezed one more laugh out of the audience by having his character discover the peril he was in and give a startled but straight-faced leap back to safety. Lloyd's character would have remained none the wiser, moving obliviously on to the next peril. All three of these ways of handling the situation work. But we've lost that sense of how to exploit danger for humor. Today, like I say, you'd fall down the hole, expect the audience to laugh, and call it a day. That's why "slapstick" is such a lowbrow word today, but in the silent era it was a true art.

It's up in the air which Harold Lloyd film is his best and most famous. The AFI put The Freshman (1925) on its Top 100 Comedies list. The Freshman shows off Lloyd's incredible athleticism during a football game, where he alternately makes exaggeratedly nimble plays and gets leapt upon by every member of both teams, crushing him into some kind of hilariously contorted pose.

But it's Safety Last! (1923) that's where my heart is. It showcases Lloyd's character and humor in arguably its purest form. The climactic sequence of the film has him scaling the wall of a skyscraper -- for reasons too crazy and complicated to explain but which naturally involve the police chasing him, a case of mistaken identity, and winning the heart of a girl. The sequence is legendary for its vivid sense of danger, both at the time and still today. He wasn't in front of a blue screen, after all. He was really up there on that building, and you can sense that even today. Although a certain amount of safety equipment was used, reportedly it was probably not sufficient, and there was still the very real danger that he could have fallen off the building and been killed.

Safety Last
The sequence culminates in one of the most famous single images in all silent film -- more famous than Lloyd himself, for sure -- that has him hanging from the hands of a clock at the top of the building. It was this scene, in fact, that undoubtedly inspired Robert Zemeckis to dangle Doc Brown from the clock tower in Back to the Future (1985).

Much of Lloyd's films survive today, thanks in part to the fact that he was personally proud of his work and took steps of his own to preserve it, purchasing the rights when he could. But it's not generally been available over the decades, which is perhaps why Lloyd is not as remembered as Keaton or Chaplin. Thankfully, this is changing: a restored DVD collection of his best work was released in November 2005 and is well worth checking out. Amazon and Netflix both carry it.

Lloyd retired in 1938, never really breaking into sound films despite having a voice well suited for his character. He came out of retirement only once, in 1947, to star in a Preston Sturges vehicle, intended as an homage to his career in silent film. But Sturges and Lloyd apparently did not get along on the set, and the film is uneven: hilarious in spots but trying in others. It's worth checking out for fans of Lloyd and/or Sturges, but it's not a good place for the newcomer to start.

Harry Langdon
Harry Langdon is the other forgotten silent clown, and he seems more liable to stay forgotten. But in his day, the popularity of his work rivaled that of Keaton, Chaplin, and Lloyd. Few today rank him in that company, but he was a unique comic talent in his own right. Langdon was brilliant at pantomiming, and that made him a perfect fit for the medium of silent film. He was essentially a child in a man's body, wide-eyed and innocent and quite incomprehending about the complex and/or evil ways of the world, even as he is crossing paths with characters far less naive than he.

This type of persona, which Langdon helped define, is seen over and over in other popular silent comedians. Stan Laurel, for instance, who is particularly notable because in the later stages of Langdon's career, he worked as a writer for Laurel and Hardy. Rowan Atkinson purposely based his Mr. Bean character on the kind of "child in a man's body" persona of Langdon and Laurel. And if you take the same character and infuse it with a libido, suddenly you've got Harpo Marx and Benny Hill. Clearly Langdon's legacy survives his fame.

His films are worth seeking out. His three best were all made in a row, at the height of his career: Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1926), The Strong Man (1926), and Long Pants (1927). The latter two were directed by none other than Frank Capra, at the very dawn of his career.

Two things ended that career high. One, he wanted to start directing his films himself, and as it turned out, he didn't have the same aptitude for directing as he had for performing -- his first solo efforts were colossal disasters. Two, the advent of sound threw his style of humor out of popularity. The great silent comedy producer Hal Roach once said of him, "He was not so funny articulate." But he continued to work up until his death in 1944, making short films and writing, as I said earlier, for Laurel and Hardy among others.

His three best films can be found on a compilation DVD called Harry Langdon: The Forgotten Clown, available from both Amazon and Netflix. In all honesty, I would not recommend newcomers to silent comedy to start with him. Keaton, Chaplin, and Lloyd are better places to start; their films are better crafted and less dated. But those with an interest in silent comedy should eventually become familiar with Langdon's work, keystone that it is in shaping the characters of so many comedians to follow. And as a bonus, you get to see Frank Capra learning the ropes at the same time.

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