25th June 2018 Comedy — cinema’s first genre? Martin Carter

Comedy – Cinema’s first Genre?  By Martin Carter.

Martin briefly covered:

  • The first 30 years of cinema
  • How comedy became a pop­u­lar genre
  • The early actors and stars

In 1895 at the Grand Cafe, Paris, Auguste and Louis Lumiere were the first to set up and show films.  They were billed as “life as it happened” and were only one minute long.  One such film showed work­ers leav­ing a fact­ory.  The fact­ory in ques­tion was owned by the Lumiere Bros. and was obvi­ously staged as the work­ers were all dressed in their Sunday best and the fact­ory doors were closed.  It lasted forty-five seconds!

Another few seconds’ shot showed a train arriv­ing at a sta­tion­and a fur­ther one was of a gardener look­ing down his hose to see why the water wasn’t coming out.  Unbeknown to him, his appren­tice was stand­ing on the hose behind him and he jumped off caus­ing the gardener to get a wet face!

Another clip showed the dif­fi­culties that the ladies hats could cause!

During the early years the French dom­in­ated the cinema – Gaumont and Pathe being their news pro­grammes.

The first ever film star was Max Linder who was a phys­ical comedian.  He was a very dapper man about town, woman­ising guy.  He joined World War 1, was gassed and never recovered.  Charlie Chaplin took him to the U.S.A in 1920.  He sub­sequently returned to France and died in a sui­cide pact with his wife.

During WW1, film stock was in short supply but film was used to “rally the troops” and for good pro­pa­ganda.  As a result of upheaval in Europe, Hollywood became the lead­ing place for film from 1910 onwards.  Hollywood was a good loc­a­tion weather-wise and a thou­sand miles from New York where Edison resided, and held pat­ents that Hollywood ignored.  Up to 1921 Fatty Arbuckle was the most sought-after comic actor and had a one mil­lion dollar con­tract in 1920.  He fea­tured in two-reelers.  In 1921 when pro­hib­i­tion was in force, Arbuckle was involved in wild Hollywood parties during which a young star­let was needed to be rushed to hos­pital and died.  Randolph  Hearst, a news­pa­per mag­nate, rev­elled in the story and pub­lished facts about the low morals of Hollywood stars. Fatty Arbuckle was tried for murder, man­slaughter and rape.  He was cleared but never worked again and died in 1931.

The Golden Age of Film:  Comedy fea­ture films were pro­duced in two to three hour movies.  New cinemas were built and orches­tras accom­pan­ied the film.

Harold Lloyd stared in “Safety Last” where he was filmed hanging on to a clock and did other hair-raising stunts.

Buster Keaton starred in “The General”.  He was a stony-faced comedian and also screen­writer, stunt per­former and, as many other actors of the time were, he was also a film dir­ector.

Charlie Chaplin starred in “The Gold Rush”.  He was a great figure in silent comedy and many of his films were full of pathos.  His pop­ular­ity was global – but change was coming!

Hollywood was the film cap­ital of the world and in 1927 “The Jazz Singer” was the first talkie to be released. Actually, it wasn’t the first all-talking film as, between the singing, there was pro­jec­ted dia­logue and music from the hired pian­ist.  The first truly all-talking film was “Lights of New York” which was made a year later.  The cost of making stu­dios sound proof was very expens­ive also, to reach a world­wide audi­ence, some films were dubbed in Spanish and French.

Charlie Chaplin ini­tially didn’t like sound films.  He starred in “Modern Times” and “The Great Dictator” and died aged 88 in 1977.

Of the other early stars, Harold Lloyd became very rich and retired.

Buster Keaton was told not to direct his own films and ended up with Jimmy Durante who over­powered him, Keaton not speak­ing very much at all.

The Marx Brothers arrived on the scene.  Chico, Harpo, Groucho and Zeppo were active comics from 1905 t0 1949.  They were suc­cess­ful in word play, slap-stick and musical comedy, their most not­able film being “Duck Soup”,

Mae West was an early film star but was warned about her saucy scenes and use of double entendres.

Laurel and Hardy were very suc­cess­ful.  They first made silent, two-reelers, but adap­ted to sound suc­cess­fully.  Stan, the thin man with a north­ern voice and simple style, con­tras­ted well with Ollie’s over­weight, south­ern pre­ten­tious speech and phrases like “Another fine mess you’ve got me into” which became a uni­ver­sal catch phrase (being a Stanley myself, the phrase is often applied to me).

During the silent age the pian­ists were well paid and added drama to the shots on screen, having to ad-lib as they had often not seen the film before.  They, along with orches­tras, became redund­ant, and the cinema saved much money.

The Cinema  Museum in London houses a unique col­lec­tion of arte­facts and mem­or­ab­ilia which pre­serve the his­tory of early cinema to the present day.

Martin Carter answered many ques­tions from the audi­ence who had enjoyed his present­a­tion immensely.

Stan Hirst.