Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Talking about Silent Movies

I often wonder why so many people (especially those in my immediate family) are vehemently opposed to watching a silent movie. Perhaps they don't know how to watch a silent film.

Like any other kind of entertainment, silent movies had their conventions -- mostly based on necessity. Modern films rely heavily on sound effects to tell their stories (even the ones without explosions). But how do you convey a sense of impact without sound? Or communicate emotion and conversation when the audience can't hear the dialogue?

Most of these problems were solved rather ingeniously, and it doesn't really take a lot to appreciate this kind of movie making. Simply stop listening for audio clues, and concentrate more on the visual. In other words, look at what's actually there, rather than faulting the film for it couldn't possibly have.

Here's a couple of examples from a 1917 Fatty Arbuckle film, "The Butcher Boy." In this first scene, Fatty Arbuckle's cutting some beef for an order.

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So what made this funny? A lot of humor depends on the unexpected, and this scene had plenty of that. Notice how subtly Arbuckle leans on the scale. He repeats the action three times so that audience gets it. And it's the kind of gag that wouldn't be appreciably improved with sound effects.

Then there's the unexpected use of the whisk broom and dustpan. He sweeps the steaks into it (unusual, but mildly amusing), and then uses the same equipment to clean up the butcher's block (eeew, gross -- but funny in a different way).

The casual way Arbuckle throws his equipment around leads to some humor based on the unexpected, and a little bit of thrill as well. Remember, that there's no special effects here. So Arbuckle really threw those chops over his shoulder and aced them on the hook. And he really tossed that butcher knife up in the air and moved his hand away at the last minute without seeming to watch the blade. These actions catch us by surprise, and we laugh in response (or we should).

Here's another scene. Arbuckle's making time with the shop girl, and his fellow employee, who's a rival for her affections catches them. As things go from bad to worse, customer Buster Keaton (in his first film appearance) walks in, and eventually the store owner enters as well.


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In the beginning of the scene, we don't really need to hear any of the dialogue. The actors make it plain enough what's being said and how they feel.

So how do you indicate how hard the rival gets hit by Fatty's gut without the use of sound? Have the actor make a huge pratfall -- he's literally knocked off his feet. The exaggerated reaction is unexpected, and funny.

And notice how throughout the scene our expectations are set up and then foiled by twists (all designed for laughs, of course). The rival's going to whack Arbuckle with a broom -- but Arbuckle nails him first with a flour bag (and knocks him down again). Keaton enters, and because the rival ducks, unexpected gets a bag in the face (and goes down in a spectacular fashion).

The rival laughs, and Keaton tries to hit him with a broom -- a miss, and another incredible pratfall. Then the war starts (watch the rival leap over the counter in a decidedly odd and funny fashion). The rival's pie (which we expect to hit Keaton) clobbers the owner instead (who executes another athletic pratfall).

When the owner recovers, Keaton points out who through the pie. We expect the owner to retaliate -- but he hits Keaton instead! And then things escalate with comic exaggeration, and Arbuckle contributes just enough to keep everyone occupied while he and his girlfriend make their escape.

And even you don't find all of this isn't uproariously funny, consider the skill involved in these scenes. Without CGI, everything has to happen with split-second timing. At the very least, one can appreciate the high level of acrobatic skill required by all the actors to make these gags work.

The "Butcher Boy" isn't the best film of it's kind -- just one of thousands of two-reelers that packed as much humor into a 30-minutes as it could (notice in the clips how one bit flows directly into the other without pause).

But it's a good example of the kind of comedy that was prevalent in early part of the film era. And, in my opinion, it's still pretty darned funny. I'm not saying modern movies aren't, but if you pass on the silents, I think you're missing a world of laughs. And who doesn't need more of those these days?

- Ralph

Day 39 of the WJMA Web Watch.

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