Silent comedy

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Harold Lloyd in Safety Last! (1923) Safetylast-1.jpg
Harold Lloyd in Safety Last! (1923)

Silent comedy is a style of film, related to but distinct from mime, invented to bring comedy into the medium of film in the silent film era (1900s1920s) before a synchronized soundtrack which could include talking was technologically available for the majority of films. Silent comedy is still practiced, albeit much less frequently, and it has influenced comedy in modern media as well.


Many of the techniques of silent comedy were borrowed from vaudeville traditions with many silent comedies such as Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin getting their start in vaudeville. Silent comedies often place heavy emphasis on visual and physical humors, often including "sight gags", to tell stories and entertain the viewer. Many of these physical gags are exaggerated forms of violence which came to be called "slapstick". The "prat fall", slipping on a banana peel, getting soaked with water, and getting a pie thrown in one's face are all classic examples of slapstick comedy devices.

Silent film era


The first silent comedy film is generally regarded as L'Arroseur Arrosé, directed and produced by Louis Lumière. Shown to the public on June 10, 1895, it ran for 49 seconds and consisted of a gardener being sprayed in the face with a hose. Most likely based on a popular comic strip of the time, [1] L'Arroseur Arrosé created a new genre and inspired its audiences. [1]

As film shifted from a novelty medium that set out to capture exotic places and everyday actions to an established industry in the early 1900s, [2] films began to tell fabricated stories that were written and shot in a studio. Before 1902, these usually consisted of films that were no longer than a couple of minutes in length and consisted of one shot. By 1902, filmmakers like George Melies began producing films that were closer to one reel in length of film (about 10 minutes running time) and utilized multiple shots. [3] During this time period comedy became a genre of its own.

The first international silent comedian star came was the French Max Linder [4] who worked for the Pathé Film Company. His character, a mustached, top hat wearing, high class man, excelled in taking simple scenarios and everyday tasks and wreaking havoc. His style of comedy was imitated by numerous silent comedians that followed him.

Intertitles almost always served the purpose of introducing characters and setting. Intertitles also often conveyed dialogue. Occasionally these intertitles included illustrations, but most often they were black with white text. Conversation could also be shown using body language and mouthing. Color silent films are quite rare, as inexpensive color film was not invented until the late 1930s; the vast majority of silent comedies are in black and white. Seven Chances is an exception, with opening scenes filmed in early Technicolor.


Hal Roach and Mack Sennett were two of the most famous producers of silent comedies. Famous actors and teams from this era are now legendary: Ben Turpin, Keystone Cops, Mabel Normand, Edna Purviance, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Larry Semon, Harry Langdon, Charley Chase, Laurel and Hardy (who made a commercially successful transition into talking pictures), along with many others.

Modern era

In the early years of "talkie" films (beginning in 1927, see The Jazz Singer ) a few actors continued to act silently for comedic effect, most famously Charlie Chaplin, whose last great "silent" comedies City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936) were both made in the sound age. Another late example was Harpo Marx, who always played a mute in the Marx Brothers' films. An early television series that featured exaggerated visual humor was the Ernie Kovacs program.

Another important legacy of silent film comedy was the humor in animated cartoons. Even as live-action comedy moved towards a focus on the verbal humor of Abbott and Costello and Groucho Marx, animated cartoons took up the entire range of slapstick gags, frenetic chase scenes, visual puns, and exaggerated facial expressions previously seen in silent comedies. These devices were most pronounced in the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons from Warner Bros. directed by Bob Clampett, Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng and in the MGM Cartoons of Tex Avery, the Tom and Jerry cartoons of William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, and of Harman and Ising.

During the 1960s and 1970s, several films made homages or references to the silent era of film comedy. It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World performers and gags form the era and Blake Edwards' The Great Race and Mel Brooks' Silent Movie were full-length tributes. Peter Bogdanovich's What's Up, Doc? also featured slapstick gags and Keystone-style chase scenes, ideas that prefigured much of the humor in The Blues Brothers and Airplane! later in the decade.

An episode of The Brady Bunch featured the family making a silent comedy filled with pie-throwing.

Few feature films today exploit the genre of silent comedy. Occasionally, comedy teams will use a silent character for comedic effect. The most consistent—and also the most famous—is Teller from Penn & Teller.

Rowan Atkinson had huge success in the 1990s with the character Mr. Bean.

In a 1999 episode of Frasier , "Three Valentines", David Hyde Pierce, who played Niles Crane, performed a silent 5 minute sketch at the start of the episode.

Shaun the Sheep is a British stop motion animated children's television series which also uses silent comedy.

However, techniques employed by silent comedy, continue to influence talkie comedies, mainly through silent comedy's development of the older art of slapstick and through artistic reference to the trademark gags of famous silent comedians. In 2010, India's first silent comedy series, Gutur Gu (2010) started SAB TV, and became a hit. [5] [6]

Related Research Articles

A comedy film is a category of film which emphasizes humor. These films are designed to make the audience laugh through the amusement. Films in this style traditionally have a happy ending. Comedy is one of the oldest genres in the film—and derived from the classical comedy in theatre. Some of the earliest silent films were comedies, as slapstick comedy often relies on visual depictions, without requiring sound. To provide drama and excitement to movies, live music was played in sync with the action on the screen, by pianos, organs, and other instruments. When sound films became more prevalent during the 1920s, comedy films grew in popularity, as laughter could result from burlesque situations but now also dialogue.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Slapstick</span> Style of comedy

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Buster Keaton</span> American actor and filmmaker (1895–1966)

Joseph Frank "Buster" Keaton was an American actor, comedian, and filmmaker. He is best known for his silent film work, in which his trademark was physical comedy accompanied by a stoic, deadpan expression that earned him the nickname "The Great Stone Face". Critic Roger Ebert wrote of Keaton's "extraordinary period from 1920 to 1929" when he "worked without interruption" as having made him "the greatest actor-director in the history of the movies". In 1996, Entertainment Weekly recognized Keaton as the seventh-greatest film director, writing that "More than Chaplin, Keaton understood movies: He knew they consisted of a four-sided frame in which resided a malleable reality off which his persona could bounce. A vaudeville child star, Keaton grew up to be a tinkerer, an athlete, a visual mathematician; his films offer belly laughs of mind-boggling physical invention and a spacey determination that nears philosophical grandeur." In 1999, the American Film Institute ranked him as the 21st-greatest male star of classic Hollywood cinema.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Comedian</span> Person who seeks to entertain an audience, primarily by making them laugh

A comedian or comic is a person who seeks to entertain an audience by making them laugh. This might be through jokes or amusing situations, or acting foolish, or employing prop comedy. A comedian who addresses an audience directly is called a stand-up comedian.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ben Turpin</span> American actor, first filmed recipient of pie-in-the-face gag (1869-1940)

Bernard "Ben" Turpin was an American comedian and actor, best remembered for his work in silent films. His trademarks were his cross-eyed appearance and adeptness at vigorous physical comedy. Turpin worked with notable performers such as Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy, and was a part of the Mack Sennett studio team. He is believed to have been the first filmed "victim" of the pie in the face gag. When sound came to films, Turpin chose to retire, having invested profitably in real estate, although he did do occasional cameos.

<i>Silent Movie</i> 1976 American satirical comedy film by Mel Brooks

Silent Movie is a 1976 American satirical comedy film co-written, directed by and starring Mel Brooks, released by 20th Century Fox in the summer of 1976. The ensemble cast includes Dom DeLuise, Marty Feldman, Bernadette Peters, and Sid Caesar, with cameos by Anne Bancroft, Liza Minnelli, Burt Reynolds, James Caan, Marcel Marceau, and Paul Newman as themselves. The film is produced in the manner of a 20th-century silent film with intertitles instead of spoken dialogue ; the soundtrack consists almost entirely of accompanying music and sound effects. It is an affectionate parody of slapstick comedies, including those of Charlie Chaplin, Mack Sennett, and Buster Keaton. The film satirizes the film industry, presenting the story of a film producer trying to obtain studio support to make a silent film in the then-present 1970s.

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<i>Behind the Screen</i> 1916 short film by Charlie Chaplin

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Circus clown</span> Clown performing or appearing in a circus

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Visual gag</span> Humor through visualization rather than sound or words

In comedy, a visual gag or sight gag is anything which conveys its humour visually, often without words being used at all. The gag may involve a physical impossibility or an unexpected occurrence. The humor is caused by alternative interpretations of the goings-on. Visual gags are used in magic, plays, and acting on television or movies.

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Jules White</span> Hungarian-American film director and producer

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<i>LArroseur Arrosé</i> 1895 film by Louis Lumière

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Comedy</span> Genre of dramatic works intended to be humorous

Comedy is a genre of fiction that consists of discourses or works intended to be humorous or amusing by inducing laughter, especially in theatre, film, stand-up comedy, television, radio, books, or any other entertainment medium. The term originated in ancient Greece: In Athenian democracy, the public opinion of voters was influenced by political satire performed by comic poets in theaters. The theatrical genre of Greek comedy can be described as a dramatic performance pitting two groups, ages, genders, or societies against each other in an amusing agon or conflict. Northrop Frye depicted these two opposing sides as a "Society of Youth" and a "Society of the Old". A revised view characterizes the essential agon of comedy as a struggle between a relatively powerless youth and the societal conventions posing obstacles to his hopes. In this struggle, the youth then becomes constrained by his lack of social authority, and is left with little choice but to resort to ruses which engender dramatic irony, which provokes laughter.

French comedy films are comedy films produced in France. Comedy is the most popular French genre in cinema.

American comedy films are comedy films produced in the United States. The genre is one of the oldest in American cinema; some of the first silent movies were comedies, as slapstick comedy often relies on visual depictions, without requiring sound. With the advent of sound in the late 1920s and 1930s, comedic dialogue rose in prominence in the work of film comedians such as W. C. Fields and the Marx Brothers. By the 1950s, the television industry had become serious competition for the movie industry. The 1960s saw an increasing number of broad, star-packed comedies. In the 1970s, black comedies were popular. Leading figures in the 1970s were Woody Allen and Mel Brooks. One of the major developments of the 1990s was the re-emergence of the romantic comedy film. Another development was the increasing use of "gross-out humour".


  1. 1 2 "L'Arroseur Arrose - Film (Movie) Plot and Review - Publications".
  2. Pearson, Roberta (1999). The Oxford History of World Cinema. Oxford Univ. Pr. p.  13. ISBN   978-0-19-874242-5.
  3. Pearson, Roberta (1999). The Oxford History of World Cinema. Oxford Univ. Pr. p.  16. ISBN   978-0-19-874242-5.
  4. Robinson, David (1999). The Oxford History of World Cinema. Oxford Univ. Pr. p.  117. ISBN   978-0-19-874242-5.
  5. "Fans love Gutur Gu cast". The Times of India . Mar 12, 2011. Archived from the original on April 11, 2013.
  6. "Hush: Gutur Gu, India's first silent comedy show, goes on air from March 5". Indian Express. Mar 7, 2010.

Further reading