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Hollywood’s comedians delivered droll one-liners in their cruel repartee

Posted in Actors, America, Cinema, Historical articles, History on Friday, 27 September 2013

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This edited article about cinema originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 412 published on 6 December 1969.

Laurel and Hardy, picture, image, illustration

Laurel and Hardy

In the days of the silent cinema, the comedian was invariably an innocent abroad. He was destined to suffer from the moment he made his first appearance on the screen. A perpetual victim, forever at the mercy of a malignant fate which guaranteed him a series of unpleasant misadventures, he was pursued remorselessly by runaway cars, or chased by lions, inexplicably strolling down Sunset Boulevard. Machinery was calculated to go berserk at his slightest touch, and if he had the misfortune to be driving a car, it was certain to run out of petrol on a level crossing, just as an express train was approaching. If he did arrive home relatively intact, his house was liable to collapse around his ears.

The comedians who arrived on the scene during the early days of the talkies were of quite a different breed. There was less slapstick in their films and more sophisticated humour. Significantly, they generally played characters who were antisocial, aggressive, and rather unpleasant; W. C. Fields was a typical example of this kind of comedian. Fields, who came from American vaudeville, acted people who were mean, ‘misanthropic, and generally unlikeable. He was sly and a braggart, and he was continually venting his ill temper on children and animals. Even his looks were against him. He had a large, red nose, a thin, mean mouth, and a whining voice. But the audiences loved him. This may seem difficult to understand. But the truth of the matter is that Fields realised that times had changed.

The charming innocents of the silent films had become an object of good-natured contempt with the advent of cynical and more ruthless audiences. They were, of course, only reflecting the new age of materialism which applauded the lack of ethics implicit in the title, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, one of W. C. Field’s most popular films. Fields was undoubtedly an eccentric, almost as unpleasant off-screen as on it, but he was so immensely popular with audiences that he was allowed to write his own screen plays. He penned these under fantastic pseudonyms like Otis T. Criblecoblis and Mahatma Kane Jeeves.

The Marx Brothers, a family troupe of Jewish comedians, also played unlikeable characters whose humour was based on the belief that audiences liked to see people provoked and insulted. Their chief victim was Margaret Dumont, a well-built and stately-looking matron, who appeared in most of their films. Despite the fact that there is nothing kind about their humour, their films are achingly funny, especially A Night at the Opera, in which the Marx Brothers turn an operatic performance into a shambles.

Even the famous team of Laurel and Hardy, who had appeared together in silent films, seemed to become more destructive with the coming of talkies. They too, had a semi-permanent victim in the shape of James Finlayson. His shop, car or house would end up in ruins, thanks to the efforts of Laurel and Hardy. But they still retained one essential ingredient of silent comedy – the fact that the comedian was disaster-prone. In one of their most famous short films, The Music Box, Laurel and Hardy have the job of carrying a piano up a long flight of steps, which turns into an exercise of monumental futility. The piano keeps on sliding down the steps, before finally landing up in a pond. Unlike other comedians we have mentioned, they were loved all over the world, possibly because they shared a rather touching screen comradeship.

It was only in England that the old-time traditions of comedy were carried on into the talkies’ era. This is not surprising when one realises that the British Music Hall had supplied Hollywood with comedians like Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel, as well as a large number of not so well-known names. Divorced from their native background, these comedians developed an international style, whereas the resident British comedian tended to carry the music hall tradition of comedy into films.

A typical example of this was George Formby, who played a Northern simpleton, which was an up-dating of a character his father had created on the boards of the Edwardian Music Hall. George Formby’s films were very popular in the thirties, and some of them have appeared recently on television, including Come on George, made in 1939. Two other music hall artists who were favourites in the thirties and forties were Sid Field and Tommy Trinder. Perhaps Will Hay was the most popular of them all, aided and abetted by Moore Marriot, playing a sly, whiskery old fool and Graham Moffatt, as a fat, idle youth. Their most famous film is undoubtedly, Oh, Mr. Porter, in which the three of them take over a derelict railway station which is supposed to be haunted.

Other refugees from the music hall included Arthur Lucan, who appeared in a number of knockabout comedies as Old Mother Riley, a belligerent washerwoman. These films were vulgar and comic, and made primarily for Northern audiences, who in those days were considered to be less sophisticated than their Southern brothers. What is more interesting is the fact that many of the sequences in the old Mother Riley films looked like photographed music hall sketches. We have still not departed from this tradition today, as can be seen from the films of Norman Wisdom, a clown, whose techniques belong to the same past, as does the Carry On series, with its outrageous low comedy puns, and innuendoes, which come straight from the music halls.

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