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Animation and Comedy in Studio-Era Hollywood
By Daniel Goldmark, Charlie Keil
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
The Chaplin Effect
Ghosts in the Machine and Animated Gags
In 1931 C.A. Lejeune noted the plethora of criticism on Chaplin and bemoaned the difficulty of finding anything new to say about him:
So much criticism, and so much good criticism, has been written during the last ten years on the work of Chaplin, that it is hard to-day to offer any portrait of him that has not already been sketched by another hand.... It is impossible to catalogue the good stuff that has been written about Chaplin—for this little clown seems to bring out, by his very shuffle on to the screen, the most acute of our critical faculties—and quite impossible to add to it to-day, unless we give up any attempt to be bright and startling and original, to discover in "Chaplin" the cat or the penguin, the monkey or the poodle, the capitalist or the democrat or any such motive figure, and confine ourselves to the simple fact of his impact on our consciousness, the single truth hammered out of our brains by the creations of his own.
Eighty years after these remarks, the problem Lejeune identifies—saying something fresh and insightful about Charlie Chaplin—has been multiplied manifold, as many have sought to do so. By 1931 Chaplin was already the darling of the masses and the modernists and served to virtually represent every social metaphor in his enduring figure of "the Little Tramp" or "the little fellow." He remains a pioneering icon of cinema: a gifted writer, director, musician, and performer who defined many of the principles of silent film comedy and ultimately spoke not merely to the popular audience but to critical and artistic communities across the world, who viewed him as inherently emblematic of the changing climate of modernity. While Lejeune's counsel not to "over-read" Chaplin is wise, and her suggestion to merely embrace his specific impact on our consciousness judicious, she nevertheless also hints at a way of viewing Chaplin that has been, perhaps surprisingly, relatively unexplored. In many senses the lingua franca of the animated cartoon was the anthropomorphized animal figure, and it is surely possible, particularly given that this figure's early phases of development parallel Chaplin's career, that in discovering "the cat or the penguin, the monkey or the poodle" in Chaplin, and even more pertinently, vice versa, the relationship between Chaplin and the animated film might reward exploration. Indeed, I will go as far as to say that Chaplin is one of animation cinema's unsung and undervalued figures and, more provocatively, one of its greatest implicit auteurs.
Chaplin's work and identity were also extremely significant to the animation community, which embraced his performance skills and outlook as intrinsically related to the development of the newly emergent language of animated film and its own particular claims to becoming a modernist art. Chaplin combined particular qualities in his performance persona and in his ideological stance that proved engaging to other artists, who drew on his work both in a spirit of respectful imitation and as the stimulus and catalyst for more experimental approaches. An immediate barometer of this may be found in what has become a bible of sorts for animators: Frank Thomas's and Ollie Johnston's Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life, which references the ways that renowned figures like Fred Moore imitated Chaplin's movement. Thomas and Johnston themselves imagined how Chaplin would play a scene, saw Chaplin's engagement with "personality" as the key point of access to what was intrinsically funny about a situation, and examined the score as a major facilitator of "mood." In the first instance this might immediately suggest that it was in the American context that animators borrowed freely from his films, and used his gags in unacknowledged "homage," and that it was in Europe that his work was used in a more progressive fashion. This is partly true but ignores the ways in which Chaplin himself straddled the European and American contexts, like Mickey Mouse, mediating his symbolic identity. Chaplin's "Little Tramp" or "little fellow" was a highly resonant figure in many cultures both in relation to the metaphoric import of his styling and in the ways that his comedy reflected the plight of the underdog in luckless contexts and oppressive regimes of everyday existence. At one level Chaplin's comedy is a model of defiance in the face of adversity; at another it is a triumph of tragic-comic defeatism, leavened only by the sheer power of Chaplin's personality. Chaplin's personality is, of course, key here, in the sense that Chaplin can never be read purely "in character," his own self-reflexive presence as an artist constantly inflecting the self-conscious nature of his performance. It is this presence at the heart of Chaplin's work that allies him with the same kind of self-figuration that Donald Crafton has suggested permeates animated film, both in its clear examples of the appearance of the animator himself (in work like the Fleischer brothers' Out of the Inkwell series) and in the obvious artifice and illusionism of creating animated material in general. In this analysis, then, I will explore how the self-reflexive dynamics of Chaplin's persona influence the whole developing vocabulary of the animated film, casting much "mainstream" American animation as more experimental than previously acknowledged, and how notions of European "absurdism" find purchase in a number of American idioms.
Chaplin's work is characterized by a tension between scripted intentions and extensive improvisation, by the refining of physical gags and routines until the actor is satisfied that he has achieved both the funniest option and the greatest resonance with his assumed audience. Richard Schickel has suggested that "his was essentially, a kinetic genius.... It was in motion—the ability to convey emotion in seemingly heedless, thoughtless, purely instinctive action—that his unique gift resided." This sense of the cultivation of meaning through the dynamics of motion itself is, of course, profoundly related to the dynamics of the cartoon and begins to suggest how Chaplin as animator might be defined and understood. Chaplin recognized that he could create scenarios in which his own status as a comic artist, versed in the arts of pantomimic performance and theatrical staging, could readily combine with narrative contexts rich with sociocultural significance, prompting engagements with issues of class, status, empowerment and suffering. Like the animator, Chaplin essentially created an art that remained invisible until interrogated for its construction and execution. A high degree of planning was required to achieve spontaneity. Schickel argues, though, that Chaplin "was a consumer of big ideas, not a creator of them," a suggestion that undermines how Chaplin's gift for "visualization" helps to facilitate the "openness" of the text in a spirit of foregrounding ideas and issues. Though Chaplin's own ideological stance may have been incoherent—it was essentially that of a well-meaning, left-leaning liberal—his radicalism lay in his ability to create a protoanimated space in which the dialectic principles of an issue might be addressed, without the fixity and certainty of didacticism—a context that was to some extent disrupted with the advent of sound and the intervention of "the word."
Chaplin's comic scenarios became dramatizations of constantly shifting social circumstances and everyday anxiety, which were essentially overcome by his own romanticized vision of one man's ability, through accident and design, literally and metaphorically, to achieve a modicum of success, which redeemed a situation on his own terms and conditions. By reworking material culture through the practices of one individual's ability to secure change, played out through substituting comic bravura for the exigencies of daily experience, Chaplin remade the social environment, recasting it in his own light and changing its political implications. In evacuating the social and material environment of its inevitable sense of oppressive routine, and in undermining and reversing the operations of power and authority, Chaplin creates a quasi-cartoonal space in which the reinterrogation of the material world becomes a challenging reinterpretation of social conditions and attitudes. As Elia Faure wrote in 1923, "He imagines the drama. He gives it its laws. He stages it. He plays the parts of all his associates, as well as his own, and re-unites them all in the final drama after having explored it and examined it in all of its aspects."
What I am essentially suggesting here is that Chaplin helped to create a particular vocabulary of expression in the live-action context, which has profound echoes of, and was profoundly influential in, developing the specific conditions of animated film. When Lejeune says, "Chaplin shuffles along down the middle of his film, touching here a hat, there a flower, here a cigarette, there a coat-sleeve, and each thing he touches becomes suddenly and passionately alive, playing its part for a moment in the comic succession," she is surely describing the work of the animator, and it is clear that this model of work chimed not merely with the "new realism" of European modernist art but also with the specific advances in the progressive delineation of the animated film in the United States and Europe. Fernand Léger, who began his Le ballet mécanique (1924) with an animated puppet of Chaplin, exhibited by Friedrich Kiesler for the first time at the International Exhibition of New Theatre Techniques in Vienna in 1924, was intent on engaging with his view that "all current cinema is romantic, literary, historical expressionist etc. Let us forget all this and consider, if you please: A pipe—a chair—a hand—an eye—a typewriter—a hat—a foot, etc, etc, just as they are—in isolation—their value enhanced by every known means ... in the new realism the human being, the personality, is very interesting only in these fragments and that these fragments should not be considered of any more importance than any of the other objects listed." Léger's list, like Lejeune's, acknowledges the primacy of the physical and material object as the focus of the new modern subjectivity and, crucially, the ways in which this constitutes new representational forms outside established conventions. This "plasticity" of the image itself was recognized as the core signifier at the heart of experimental film, particularly in Europe, where it was seen as a chief aspect in the construction of nonnarrative, nonlinear, nonobjective cinema, but it remains less acknowledged as the primary basis not merely of Chaplin's expressive vocabulary but of the language of animation. It is no accident that Sergei Eisenstein noted the very same "plasmaticness" at the heart of the animated form, particularly in Disney's Silly Symphonies, an attribute that, in the same way as Chaplin's "purely cineplastic" imagery, constituted a liberating language of expression, easy to read as a model of political metaphor. Within the American context it is very important to recognize, however, that the plasticity of the image was used primarily for experimental narrative and performative effects, not purely as the abstract expression of form, which was to dominate the development of animated film in Europe. In essence, abstraction in the American context took the form of "the gag," the primary combination of motion and meaning, comic event and concept, content and continuity. Animation as a form enabled the greatest possible development and expression of "the gag" as the new art of the impossible. Chaplin remained its source and inspiration. But what then of finding the cat or penguin, monkey or poodle? Crucially, in America, Chaplin becomes "the animal" before the abstract.
The animation historian William Moritz, himself skeptical of Léger's claims to creating Le ballet mécanique, was equally unpersuaded by the ways in which he believed that Chaplin and his ilk were co-opted into cartoon narratives:
Endless chase and mayhem cartoons (Bugs Bunny, Tom and Jerry, etc) ... attempt to revive the exhausted vocabularies of the silent film comedians, from Méliès and Linder to Laurel and Hardy and The Three Stooges, by substituting animals for humans. Now, the convention of animal fables is ancient and honorable, and whether it be classical Greece's Aesop, medieval Europe's Reynard the Fox or Heian Japan's Choju Scrolls, the use of animal personae allows the storyteller to say something that could not be said by talking about humans due to political, religious or social taboos. But watching a drawn coyote crash through walls, fall down stairs, be crushed by falling objects or burned to a crisp by the explosives he holds is certainly not as amazing or funny as seeing Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin or Harold Lloyd or the Keystone Kops do those same stunts live right before our "camera never lies" eyes.
I have explored elsewhere how animation has represented animals, but in this context I wish to take up Moritz's suggestion that "the gag" does not function as well in the cartoon form as it does in the live-action performances of the silent cinema clowns. "The gag" in the animated form is, of course, different, but it is Chaplin who once more points the way to how it is different. As Mark Winokur notes, "What distinguishes Chaplinesque comedy is a certain transformative ability: whether the ability to transform objects into other objects, himself into an object, pathos into comedy (and vice versa) or the tramp into a gentleman." Winokur goes on to add that "although Chaplin is only one of many silent comics to use transformation, he is the only one whose life thematically connects physical transformation and the fairy-tale transformation of immigrant into American." This idea of "transformation" is again fundamental to animated forms, but it differs significantly in that while Chaplin can work with the material or conceptual conditions of change, he is still at the corporeal center of the transition. He can only ultimately achieve metaphorical change because while he can affect the function and meaning of figures, objects, and environments, he cannot change the properties of these things in themselves. Animation, of course, in many of its forms, can literally change properties, having the capacity, through metamorphosis, to translate some figures, objects, and environments from one state to another. Animation can erase and efface a former image and create another image, showing another state, creating not merely new physical relationships but achieving translations that create unusual, alternative, or seemingly impossible relationships. Animation can achieve material change and operate as an almost inherently metaphorical, if not metaphysical, form. Chaplin is in essence the progenitor of the conditions by which animation as a form demonstrates this vocabulary. Chaplin defines a terrain in live action that is extended and developed by "the cartoon" and other animated forms, one essentially validating the other as a "modernist" practice.
Excerpted from Funny Pictures by Daniel Goldmark, Charlie Keil. Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
List of Figures
Introduction: What Makes These Pictures So Funny?
Charlie Keil and Daniel Goldmark
Part One. The (Filmic) Roots of Early Animation
1. The Chaplin Effect: Ghosts in the Machine and Animated Gags Paul Wells
2. Polyphony and Heterogeneity in Early Fleischer Films: Comic Strips, Vaudeville, and the New York Style Mark Langer
3. The Heir Apparent J. B. Kaufman
Part Two. Systems and Effects: Making Cartoons Funny
4. Infectious Laughter: Cartoons' Cure for the Depression Don Crafton
5. "We're Happy When We're Sad": Comedy, Gags, and 1930s Cartoon Narration Richard Neupert
6. Laughter by Numbers: The Science of Comedy at the Walt Disney Studio Susan Ohmer
Part Three. Retheorizing Animated Comedy
7. "Who Dat Say Who Dat?" Racial Masquerade, Humor, and the Rise of American Animation Nicholas Sammond
8. "I Like to Sock Myself in the Face": Reconsidering "Vulgar Modernism"
9. Auralis Sexualis: How Cartoons Conduct Paraphilia Philip Brophy
Part Four. Comic Inspiration: Animation Auteurs
10. The Art of Diddling: Slapstick, Science, and Antimodernism in the Films of Charley Bowers Rob King
11. Tex Avery's Prison House of Animation, or Humor and Boredom in Studio Cartoons Scott Curtis
12. Tish-Tash in Cartoonland Ethan de Seife
Part Five. Beyond the Studio Era: Building on Tradition
13. Sounds Funny/Funny Sounds: Theorizing Cartoon Music Daniel Goldmark
14. The Revival of the Studio-Era Cartoon in the 1990s Linda Simensky
Bibliography List of Contributors Index
What People are Saying About This
"Anyone seeking understanding of the . . . legacy of Charlie Chaplin, or the sound of funny should read this book, stand up, and cheer."Choice
"Lucid and readable, and as likely to be appreciated by general film enthusiasts as well as high falutin' ivory-tower types."Examiner.com
"[An] eloquent assembly of analyses."Quarterly Review of Film & Video
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
WHERE R THE PICTURES?!?!?!
:(:((((((:(:(:(:((:(:(:::(:(:(:(:(:('(:('((:(((('(:'( F Ff F D D Fff Cf F F Ffffggggffrrt T R Rrrrr R R G T T T T T R R R R R
If i could rate tis a zero i would
I typed in funny animal picks and this came up so i got it. BUT THERE ARE NO PICKS!!!!!! #:(
Im srry, but if u could post 1/2 a star..……… i would.
No pictures. Just tons of words that require you to read to understand them. No funny pics at all. :\