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 (1900s–1920s) 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.
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, L'Arroseur Arrosé created a new genre and inspired its audiences.
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, 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. During this time period comedy became a genre of its own.
The first international silent comedian star came was the French Max Linder 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 wreacking havoc. His style of comedy was imitated 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.
Mack Sennett and Hal Roach 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, Harry Langdon, Charley Chase, Stan Laurel (who made a commercially successful transition into talking pictures in the team Laurel & Hardy), along with many others.
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.
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 Merry 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.
An early television series that featured exaggerated visual humor was the Ernie Kovacs program.
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.
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.
A Game of Wits is a 1917 American silent comedy drama film directed by Henry King and starring Gail Kane, George Periolat and Spottiswoode Aitken.A Perfect Crime
A Perfect Crime is a 1921 American silent comedy drama film directed by Allan Dwan and starring Monte Blue, Jacqueline Logan, and Stanton Heck. It is not known whether the film survives.A Self-Made Failure
A Self-Made Failure is a lost 1924 silent film feature comedy distributed by Associated First National Pictures, later First National Pictures. It was directed by William Beaudine and starred silent comic Lloyd Hamilton and then child actor Ben Alexander. At the time it was one of the longest comedy features ever made. While this film is lost, a trailer of it survives in the Library of Congress film collection.All the World to Nothing
All the World to Nothing is a 1918 American silent comedy drama film directed by Henry King and starring William Russell, Winifred Westover and J. Morris Foster.Daring Youth
Daring Youth is a 1924 American silent comedy drama film directed by William Beaudine, starring Bebe Daniels, Norman Kerry, and Lee Moran. It is based on William Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew.Don Quixote (1923 film)
Don Quixote is a 1923 British silent comedy film, directed by Maurice Elvey, based on the novel Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. The film stars Jerrold Robertshaw, George Robey, Frank Arlton, and Marie Blanche.Footloose Widows
Footloose Widows is a 1926 silent film feature comedy produced and distributed by Warner Bros., directed by Roy Del Ruth and starring Louise Fazenda and Jacqueline Logan.A print is preserved in the Library of Congress collection.Her Fatal Millions
Her Fatal Millions is a 1923 American Metro Pictures silent comedy film directed by William Beaudine. It stars
Viola Dana, Huntley Gordon, and Allan Forrest. It is not known if the film currently survives, which suggests that it is a lost film.Hogan's Alley (film)
Hogan's Alley is a 1925 American silent comedy film produced and distributed by Warner Bros. It was an early directing assignment for Roy Del Ruth and starred Monte Blue, Patsy Ruth Miller, and Ben Turpin. This film is a precursor to the silent film One Round Hogan, a later Monte Blue boxing vehicle.Partners Again
Partners Again is a 1926 silent comedy, produced by Samuel Goldwyn, released through United Artists, and directed by Henry King.This ethnic Jewish humor film is based on the 1922 Broadway play Partners Again starring Alex Carr and Barney Bernard, which reprises their characters from the very successful 1913 Broadway play Potash and Perlmutter (441 performances from 1913 to 1915). Goldwyn produced a 1923 film adaptation of Potash and Perlmutter, and a 1924 sequel called In Hollywood with Potash and Perlmutter. In Partners Again the two are in the automobile industry.
As with the 1924 film, In Hollywood with Potash and Perlmutter, George Sidney plays Potash, taking up the role after Barney Bernard died in March of that year. Alex Carr continues his winning role of Perlmutter.
What is interesting about this film is that it is one of the two American films that only survives in 8mm.Penrod and Sam (1923 film)
Penrod and Sam is a 1923 American silent comedy drama film directed by William Beaudine and starring Ben Alexander, Joe Butterworth, and Buddy Messinger. Wendy L. Marshall stated that "Beaudine had the Midas touch when it came to directing children" in films like this and Boy of Mine. In 1931, Beaudine directed a sound adaptation of the novel.Red Hot Tires
For the 1935 sound film of the same name, see Red Hot Tires (1935 film).Red Hot Tires (1925) is a silent film comedy produced and released by Warner Brothers. The film was based on a story by Darryl Zanuck, under the name Gregory Rogers, and directed by Erle C. Kenton. The film stars Monte Blue and Patsy Ruth Miller. A copy is preserved in the Library of Congress collection.A Warner Bros. film with the same title was made in 1935 but appears to be unrelated in story.The Big Noise (1928 film)
The Big Noise is a lost 1928 American silent comedy film directed by Allan Dwan and starring Chester Conklin, Alice White and Bodil Rosing.The Caveman (1926 film)
The Caveman, also styled as The Cave Man, is a 1926 silent film comedy produced and distributed by Warner Bros.. Lewis Milestone directed the Darryl Zanuck scripted story taken from the play The Cave Man by Gelett Burgess. Matt Moore, Marie Prevost, Hedda Hopper star. A small role is played by a young Myrna Loy, just starting out in her long career. This picture survives in the Library of Congress with a reel missing.Vitagraph, a predecessor of Warner Brothers, produced a version of this story in 1915 with Robert Edeson.The Pest (1919 film)
The Pest is a lost 1919 silent American comedy-drama film, directed by Christy Cabanne. It stars Mabel Normand, John Bowers, and Charles K. Gerrard, and was released on April 20, 1919.The Printer's Devil (film)
The Printer's Devil is a 1923 American silent drama film directed by William Beaudine and released by Warner Bros. It stars Wesley Barry, Harry Myers, and Kathryn McGuire.Three Weeks in Paris
Three Weeks in Paris is a 1925 silent movie from Warner Bros. starring Matt Moore and Dorothy Devore. No copies are known to survive.Trouble for Nothing
Trouble for Nothing is a 1916 British silent comedy film directed by Maurice Elvey and starring Guy Newall, Hayford Hobbs and Jeff Barlow.Watch Your Step (film)
Watch Your Step is a 1922 American silent comedy film directed by William Beaudine. It stars Cullen Landis, Patsy Ruth Miller, Bert Woodruff, and George C. Pearce. Life considered the film to be a "fabulously expensive production". With no record of a print in any collection, it is likely a lost film.
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