In today’s modern film world, many things are communicated through the use of sound. This includes such things as dialogue and sound effects. However, in the dawn of cinema, there were no such luxuries. As a result, many things needed to be shown on the screen and heard through the musical score. If any dialogue happened, it needed to be shown as text on the screen, because there were no microphones to record the dialogue and syncing the dialogue to the actors’ lips was even more difficult. This is perhaps why these silent films relied a lot on large physical actions to convey emotions, because too many title frames would get far too boring. As a result, many comedies did well in this era because the laughs come from visual gags based in vaudevillian stage acts. This week’s two films highlight the two masters of the silent comedy: Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 87 minutes / 1.45 hours
Modern Times is an interesting data point for silent comedies because it wasn’t entirely silent. “Talkies” had been out for almost a decade by this point, but Charlie Chaplin decided that his work came across better as a silent film (much like George Valentin in The Artist). Along with The Gold Rush and City Lights, Modern Times is listed as one of the top 100 films of the last century at #58, #11, and #78, respectively. As such, Charlie Chaplin is considered the best in terms of silent-era comedies. And yet, Chaplin’s comedies weren’t just for entertainment, but were often made to prove a point. In fact, The Great Dictator (1940) was his only Best Picture nomination (albeit for a “talkie”), due to his strong stance against the Nazi regime that was in power in Germany at the time.
The film that perhaps started his activism was Modern Times. While being similar in message to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Modern Times brought forth the idea that machines were starting to control society in a much lighter manner than its German counterpart. The Tramp (Charlie Chaplin) is trying to fit into a society that is rapidly advancing past him (perhaps as a nod to the advent of sound). When he tries to keep a job working with the machines, it becomes clear that he cannot assimilate, which causes his boss to throw him into a mental institution. With his aversion to the mechanical world he lives in, the Tramp gets out of the loony bin and is promptly labeled a Communist by others. Modern Times is about a cog that can’t quite fit in, and was Charlie Chaplin’s last silent film.
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 107 minutes / 1.78 hours
Another staple of the silent film comedy genre is the work of Buster Keaton. However, ironically enough, The General plays more as an action film than a comedy. Keaton’s skill in silent films comes with his use of slapstick comedy, which produced a lot of action in The General. America’s Film Institute most recently put The General on its top 100 list at #18. And while Keaton has many other films (Sherlock Jr., Steamboat Bill Jr., The Navigator, and Seven Chances just to name a few) that are excellent examples of silent comedy, The General is his best work as an actual film. Since it was near the end of his career, this film showed all that he had learned over the years.
Again, the director of the film (Buster Keaton) is also the lead role, Johnny Gray. The setting for this film is around the time of the American Civil War. As war breaks out, Johnny enlists to fight as a solider for the Confederacy, but is reassigned to the position of engineer, due to his love of trains. However, his human love, Annabelle (Marion Mack) thinks that he was reassigned due to cowardice. When the Union takes control of his train, The General, with Annabelle on board, Johnny gets a chance to rescue her (and his beloved train). Can he turn the tide of battle, or will the Union remain victorious?
2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 silent slapstick gems