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.