Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy

Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy

by Saul Austerlitz
     
 

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Charlie Chaplin. Buster Keaton. The Marx Brothers. Billy Wilder. Woody Allen. The Coen brothers. Where would the American film be without them? Yet the cinematic genre these artists represent--comedy--has perennially received short shrift from critics, film buffs, and the Academy Awards. 

Saul Austerlitz’s

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Overview

Charlie Chaplin. Buster Keaton. The Marx Brothers. Billy Wilder. Woody Allen. The Coen brothers. Where would the American film be without them? Yet the cinematic genre these artists represent--comedy--has perennially received short shrift from critics, film buffs, and the Academy Awards. 

Saul Austerlitz’s Another Fine Mess is an attempt to right that wrong. Running the gamut of film history from City Lights to Knocked Up, Another Fine Mess retells the story of American film from the perspective of its unwanted stepbrother--the comedy. In 30 long chapters and 100 shorter entries, each devoted primarily to a single performer or director, Another Fine Mess retraces the steps of the American comedy film, filling in the gaps and following the connections that link Mae West to Doris Day, or W. C. Fields to Will Ferrell. The first book of its kind in more than a generation, Another Fine Mess is an eye-opening, entertaining, and enlightening tour of the American comedy, encompassing the masterpieces, the box-office smashes, and all the little-known gems in between.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
American film comedy is barely a century old and already commentary on it can fill bookshelves, with countless pages devoted to the evolution of physical comedy, the influence of notable comedians like Charlie Chaplin, and the effects of technology on the form. Austerlitz touches on all of these things, but his objective is to provide a chronological set of biographies of the most important figures, both major (the top 30) and minor (over 100 more), and comment on their achievements and influence. The result is a comprehensive textbook that traces a legitimate line of succession from Chaplin to Apatow. Clearly Austerlitz has great affection for and knowledge of his subject; he can comment with equal skill on Renee Zellweger and W.C. Fields. Still, his take on the century is not without bias. Never less than candid ("Mel Brooks is overrated"), his tastes are also present in what he leaves out (Hal Ashby, Hal Hartley, and Cameron Crowe are all missing). Though readers will surely disagree with some of his choices, the breadth of material Austerlitz has compiled here is a feat. Photos. (Sept.)
From the Publisher

"Entertaining reading."  —Booklist

“Conventional wisdom holds that analyzing comedy is a thankless task—who’s to say what’s funny, and why kill the fun of it?—but Saul Austerlitz’s wide-ranging survey of American film comedy is both illuminating and hugely enjoyable. With its sharp insights and vivid biographical sketches, it’s first-rate film criticism and a terrific resource to boot.”  —Dennis Lim, editor, The Village Voice Film Guide

"I was enrapt, argumentative, gobsmacked, amused and ready to rethink what I know about American film comedy. Crack this book open, and let the debate—and the flying pies—begin."  —Glen David Gold, author, Carter Beats the Devil and Sunnyside

"Comprehensive yet reader-friendly account."  LAWeekly.com

"A sprawling but incisive biography of film comedy history."  —North County Times

"Entertaining and amusing . . . this book truly highlights the best of the genre."  —COEDMagazine.com

"Clever and well-researched."  —Library Journal

"Sharp, scholarly."  —AmericanProfile.com

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781556529511
Publisher:
Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Publication date:
09/01/2010
Pages:
528
Product dimensions:
6.44(w) x 11.06(h) x 1.08(d)

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Another Fine Mess

A History of American Film Comedy


By Saul Austerlitz

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 2010 Saul Austerlitz
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-56976-763-4



CHAPTER 1

CHARLIE CHAPLIN


The Most Famous Man on Earth


"There's something about working the streets I like. It's the tramp in me, I suppose." — Charlie Chaplin, Limelight


We begin, contrary to all of Hollywood's most cherished rules of thumb, at the very pinnacle of our narrative. Stories, we have been told, have three acts: conflict, complication, conclusion. Charlie Chaplin's life had three acts, just like the screenwriting gurus suggest, but his life — his work — stands at the undoubted apex of the American comedy. For the American comedy film, there is no build-up, no steady accretion of powers, no development. There is only the sudden, unheralded arrival of absolute genius, of a kind never to be matched. "What Shakespeare is to Elizabethan theater, Dickens to the Victorian novel, and Picasso to modern art, Chaplin is to twentieth-century cinema," says film historian Jeffrey Vance. There has never been, and will never be, another Chaplin.

Charlie Chaplin's life had more than its share of tawdry spectacle — sexual, political, professional — but Chaplin's is a hero's story. It is the story of a man — the most famous man on earth, for a time — who created the most indelible character in the history of film. Think about this for a second: when Chaplin burlesqued Adolf Hitler as Adenoid Hynkel in 1940's The Great Dictator, more people in the audience would have known who Charlie was than the man whom he was parodying.

If we must begin at the pinnacle, let us begin with the pinnacle of the pinnacle, the greatest comedy ever made: City Lights. And if we are to talk of City Lights, should we not begin with its most enduring moment? Chaplin's Tramp has, in the guise of a benevolent millionaire, paid to restore the sight of the impoverished flower-seller (Virginia Cherrill) whose plight had so moved him. Only just released from prison, he walks down the street visibly diminished: pants split, jacket sleeves ragged and torn, hat crumpled. He turns, and there she is.

Amused and repulsed by this unkempt ragamuffin, she chases him to press a coin, and a flower, into his hand. She catches up with the Tramp, grasps his hand, and from the familiar feel of his palm, recognizes the shabby vagrant as her savior. He gazes at her, his face filling the entire frame, and the film ends on a sustained note of transcendent yet troubling emotion. It is, without question, one of the most transporting moments in the American cinema, mingling terror, ecstasy, and an overwhelming pathos. "It is enough to shrivel the heart to see," observed James Agee, one of Chaplin's most steadfast critical champions, "and it is the greatest piece of acting and the highest moment in movies." Let us now freeze that image in our minds, and rewind a ways, to catch up on the plot. Having wound all the mismatched threads of his life and art together into one enduring, perfect instant, we must now reverse the process, unraveling the strands back to their origins. How had the Tramp come to this?

"There is only one way of making comedy richer, and paradoxically, funnier," Walter Kerr opines in his superb book The Silent Clowns, "and that is by making it more serious." Chaplin's career is a story of natural growth, with each gag growing organically out of its predecessor, and tragedy birthed out of comedy. Retracing the steps of his career — from Keystone to Mutual to Essanay to First National, from one-reel to two-reel to feature-length — is to glimpse the astonishingly rapid growth of an unparalleled inventor. Chaplin arrived at City Lights — at that moment of ecstatic perfection — having begun by aiming for something else entirely.

It is a biographical commonplace to refer to the childhood of Charles Spencer Chaplin as Dickensian. Still, the comparison is apt, communicating both the squalor of his early years and a reminder of the era in which he was reared. We think of Chaplin so readily as a product of the twentieth century — its technological prowess, its speed, its ready commodification — that it is easy to forget that the man himself was a child of the nineteenth century, born in London in 1889.

Any trace of Victorian romanticism in Chaplin's persona was extremely hard-won, and protected against all the depredations of his childhood. His parents were both stage performers. Charles Sr. was a popular singer, and Hannah — known professionally as Lily Harley — was an occasional performer after the fashion of then-popular chanteuse Eva Lester. Hannah fell sick, and Charlie shuttled between brief stays with relatives and longer stints in the workhouse. Charles Sr., a shell of his youthful self, died of cirrhosis and dropsy at the age of thirty-seven, and Hannah had developed the mental illness that would haunt her for the rest of her life. At the tender age of fourteen, Charlie was, for all intents and purposes, alone.

After some small roles on the legitimate stage, he came to the attention of Fred Karno, the music-hall and burlesque entrepreneur who had hired his half-brother Sydney in 1906. Charlie was grudgingly given a two-week trial in 1908, and taken on permanently when he received far more laughs than the ostensible headliner. Karno's troupe mingled the comic and the sentimental, with a laugh, and sometimes a tear, for audiences — a combination later revived for use in Chaplin's own cinematic work. In 1913, on an American tour with Karno, he was summoned to a lawyer's office in New York for a meeting. Chaplin assumed it was regarding a bequest from a wealthy aunt, but it was a contract from Mack Sennett's Keystone film company. They offered him the princely sum of $150 a week to come to Los Angeles and act in their films.

The pieces came together rapidly. The costume — too-large pants, too-small jacket, little hat and big shoes — were grabbed out of Keystone's wardrobe closet for an early short. The duck-footed waddle was borrowed from a figure remembered from his London childhood. The raucous mayhem was the trademark of Sennett, creator of the Keystone Kops, but the jaunty tone of exuberant politesse — the tipped hats and twirled canes — were Chaplin's own.

Chaplin's first cinematic efforts are lost to us, though they still exist. They are unintentionally unsettling. We know they are meant to be funny — we can almost sense the punch lines — but, as Kerr astutely observes, all humor has been leached from them, evaporated by the passage of time. In their hectic slapstick, punches are thrown, kicks are delivered, and chases pursued with manic intensity, but the pace and the format seem all wrong to us. We seek explanation, and they give us an unstinting diet of sameness. Did people once laugh at this untrammeled mayhem? We watch them as if their silence were a foreign language, tantalizingly familiar but ultimately incomprehensible.

These difficulties of translation from the past taken into account, it would be mistaken to dismiss out of hand the shorts Chaplin made at Keystone. Their belief in physical motion as the linchpin of all comedy stuck with Chaplin; even after decades had passed, and his work had been rededicated to the principles of internationalism and world peace rather than the comic possibilities of a swift kick in the ass, Chaplin assembled his films in similar fashion. The ideas grew more grandiose, but the methods hardly changed.

As Chaplin grew accustomed to not only starring in but also directing his own films, he grew tired of Keystone's serial manhandling. He still wanted the Tramp to physically engage, to kick the ass of an uncaring world, but sought to explain — to contain — the violence.

He began to succeed with efforts like The Bank (1915), where Charlie is a lovelorn bank teller who thwarts a gang of thieves. Emotion was the mortar smeared between the bricks of comedy, solidifying the structure, allowing Chaplin to build more sturdily than he ever had before. When the Tramp awakens from his dream of a passionate clinch with his love, and finds himself kissing his mop, the reversal of fortune is heart-rending. It is also uproariously funny.

When fond remembrances are traded of Chaplin shorts, they are almost invariably of his work at Mutual, where he settled in 1916 after a year at Essanay. Unlike the Keystone machine, which ground out one new Chaplin short each week, and sometimes two, the Mutuals were produced at a slower, steadier pace. They are the finest examples of Chaplin's virtuosic physical gifts, of the unexpected reversals and inversions that are the heart of his humor, and of his deft sentimental touch. The Tramp is heroic, and heroically self-serving, and his manipulations of the physical world are magnificently cunning. The films' plots are the artificial limits placed on Chaplin's seemingly limitless ingenuity, the net that turns anarchy into a civilized game of tennis.

Charlie does nothing in the expected fashion: In The Rink (1916), he mixes a cocktail by doing a natty little rumba in which everything shakes except for the drink itself. We take our delight in brief, gulping snatches, charmed by his enthusiastic repurposing of the familiar, in which a dishrag can become a ukulele, and a gingham shirt a tablecloth. We see the world through his eyes, and are enriched by his boundless imagination.

We count on the Tramp to behave as we would, or as we would hope to. The slippage between those two roles — hero and charming cad, savant and dolt — gives him a schizophrenic quality, as if Chaplin could not decide whether his Tramp were role model or reflection. In truth, he is both. When he dives into the water to rescue a drowning woman in The Adventurer (1917), we are proud to bear witness to the Tramp's heroism. When, spotting her nubile daughter, he abandons the mother to rescue her more attractive offspring instead, we roar with recognition, acknowledging the calculation inherent in valor. There was little room for flesh-and-blood supporting characters in Chaplin's films because the Tramp himself was so much larger than life. Like Hamlet, or Falstaff, he contained multitudes.

From amidst Mutual's embarrassment of riches, a handful of efforts stand out for particular praise. One A.M.(1916) is a solo act, a vaudeville-inspired routine about a drunken tippler's return home that demonstrates Chaplin's infinite creativity, with only a fishbowl, a swiveling table, and a grandfather clock for company. The Pawnshop(1916) is perhaps the most perfectly formed of his early works, its inventiveness so voluminous as to nearly overwhelm any semblance of plot. In the film's most memorable sequence, Charlie confronts and demolishes an alarm clock, his pantomime transforming it from invalid to rusty can of sardines to diamond, and back again. Sweeping the now-mangled pieces back into the clock, and then into his customer's hat, Charlie shakes his head mournfully, the doctor once more, informing the family that while everything had been done, the patient could not be saved. Easy Street (1917) was a chase film with social content, shoehorning violence, poverty, drug addiction, and domestic abuse into a Keystone-style routine that put the Tramp on the beat. Chaplin was experimenting with films that were greater than the sum of their routines. But if a comedy were more than just a comedy, could it still be funny?

The answer was an unambiguous yes. The Immigrant(1917), the greatest of Chaplin's shorts, is a film whose herky-jerky rhythms match those of the boat the Tramp takes to America: the Cy Young windup Chaplin uses to throw dice, the soup bowls skidding from one end of the dinner table to the other, serving two diners simultaneously, the alternation of whimsical and heartrending sequences. As a director, Chaplin nurtures an irony and delicacy that complement his balletic physicality as an actor. Along with the other immigrants, the Tramp catches a brief glimpse of the Statue of Liberty before an official herds the hordes behind a rope — the symbol of freedom negated by its defenders.

From Keystone to Essanay to Mutual to First National to his own United Artists, from $150 per week to $670,000 per year: Chaplin's rise was meteoric, and unprecedented. There were Tramp dolls, toys, and books. There was an animated cartoon series, newspaper cartoons and poems, and a song by fellow comedian Lupino Lane, "That Charlie Chaplin Walk." Celebrity attracted its concomitant share of controversy; Chaplin's 1918 marriage to sixteen-year-old Mildred Harris, pregnant with his child, unsettled some of his admirers, as did the baseless but persistent rumors of "slacking" from military service during the First World War.

"The way he is able to mount stairs," a fatuous editorial in Britain's Weekly Despatch argued, "suggests the alacrity with which he would go over the top when the whistle blew." As soldiers readily testified, Chaplin was doing far more to boost military morale with his filmmaking than he ever could as a grunt, but the link between Charlie and the war persisted; numerous editorial cartoons during those years pictured Chaplin facing off with the Kaiser, or crouched in the trenches. He had become, for many, the representative of the bedraggled common man at war — a role he would reprise in the service comedy Shoulder Arms(1918).

The last handful of Chaplin's shorts, made for First National before the shift to feature-length films, are a profoundly mixed lot. Some, like A Day's Pleasure (1919), are skilled runs through the knockabout style, while others, like Sunnyside (1919), are lopsided, incoherent messes. There are brilliant moments — the drunken Tramp boarding a food cart that he takes for a trolley car, gripping a salami like a subway strap, in Pay Day (1922), or Chaplin using his artfully deployed arms to turn an unconscious crook into a marionette in A Dog's Life (1918) — but the films themselves lack the concise wallop of the Mutual films. They are neither here nor there, torn between laughter and pathos without settling firmly on an approach, or a style.

Chaplin had demonstrated an infinite number of variations on a well-worn routine with his Tramp shorts. The only direction left to take his character — the direction he had been unconsciously heading, even as he loudly protested that it was impossible — was toward a feature-length film. Chaplin had long argued that comedies, by their nature, could be no longer than they already were, that the requirements of the feature film would inevitably distort any such attempt. The director, though, had been subtly shifting the nature of what a Tramp short could be; after all, The Immigrant or Easy Street had hardly been the stuff of Keystone comedy. The emotional tug of Chaplin's late shorts demanded a broader canvas.

Maybe it is not the First National shorts that come up short, but the lone feature Chaplin made for the company in 1921 — his first — whose glow paradoxically cast its neighbors into relative darkness. "A picture with a smile — and perhaps, a tear," The Kid is a visible extension of the great Tramp's powers, fully embracing the undercurrent of emotional vulnerability that had coursed through his earlier work. It is the most heartfelt of Chaplin's films, the interlinking strands of sentiment and playfulness giving this work its undiminished emotional pull.

The Tramp stumbles upon an abandoned baby in a filthy alleyway, and soon synthesizes the Kid (Jackie Coogan, brilliantly mimicking Chaplin's restless energy) into his makeshift life. The Kid smashes the windows that Charlie, a glazier, repairs; he makes flapjacks as lazy Charlie loiters in bed. More than any of the women after whom he helplessly pines in his other films, it is the Kid who is the ideal complement to the Tramp's buoyantly hardscrabble existence. When the authorities snatch the Kid away, the Tramp becomes a boys'-adventure gallant, scrambling across rooftops to rescue his son. The finale, when the Tramp, the Kid, and the other denizens of the ghetto are transformed into angels, is a touching non sequitur, a paper heart Scotch-taped to the body of the narrative. At this still-formative stage (he had been making films for less than a decade), Chaplin's instinct was to punctuate all serious bits of business with a joke. He had not yet grown entirely comfortable with sentiment himself.

A Woman of Paris (1923) was the first Chaplin film made under the imprimatur of United Artists, the collective he had formed with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D. W. Griffith to counteract the studios' clumsy attempts to monopolize the film market. It was also the first Chaplin picture not to feature him as the star. Instead, it is a sophisticated French romance whose indirect, glancing approach would greatly influence the work of Ernst Lubitsch. Chaplin wanted to prove a point — that he could be more than just the Tramp — but A Woman of Paris is, by any contemporary standard, a terrible slog. The Tramp did not belong in elegant Paris apartments, and neither, it turned out, did Chaplin.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Another Fine Mess by Saul Austerlitz. Copyright © 2010 Saul Austerlitz. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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What People are saying about this

Glen David Gold
I was enrapt, argumentative, gobsmacked, amused and ready to rethink what I know about American film comedy. Crack this book open, and let the debate—and the flying pies—begin. (Glen David Gold, author, Carter Beats the Devil and Sunnyside)
From the Publisher
"Entertaining reading."  —Booklist

“Conventional wisdom holds that analyzing comedy is a thankless task—who’s to say what’s funny, and why kill the fun of it?—but Saul Austerlitz’s wide-ranging survey of American film comedy is both illuminating and hugely enjoyable. With its sharp insights and vivid biographical sketches, it’s first-rate film criticism and a terrific resource to boot.” —Dennis Lim, editor, The Village Voice Film Guide

"I was enrapt, argumentative, gobsmacked, amused and ready to rethink what I know about American film comedy. Crack this book open, and let the debate—and the flying pies—begin."  —Glen David Gold, author, Carter Beats the Devil and Sunnyside

"Comprehensive yet reader-friendly account."  LAWeekly.com

"A sprawling but incisive biography of film comedy history."  —North County Times

"Entertaining and amusing . . . this book truly highlights the best of the genre."  —COEDMagazine.com

"Clever and well-researched."  —Library Journal Xpress Reviews

"Sharp, scholarly."  —AmericanProfile.com

Read More

Meet the Author

Saul Austerlitz is a writer living in New York City.  His work has been published in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Slate, the Boston Globe, and other publications.  He is the author of Money for Nothing: A History of the Music Video from the Beatles to the White Stripes.

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