THE SEVEN LIVELY ARTS
The Keystone the Builders Rejected
For fifteen years there has existed in the United States, and in the United States alone, a form of entertainment which, seemingly with out sources in the past, restored to us a kind of laughter almost unheard in modern times. It came into being by accident,- it had no preten sions to art. For ten years or more it added an element of cheerful madness to the lives of mil lions and was despised and rejected by people of culture and intelligence. Suddenly-suddenly as it appeared to them-a great genius arose and the people of -culture conceded that in his case, but in his case alone, art existed in slap-stick com edy; they did not remove their non expedit from the form itself.
Perhaps only those of us who care for the rest know how good Charlie is. Perhaps only the inex pressive multitudes who have laughed and not wondered why they laughed can know how fine slap-stick is. For myself, I have had no greater entertainment than these dear and preposterous comedies, and all I can do is remember. The long, dark, narrow passage set out with uncomfortable chairs; the sharp almond odours, the sense o - f un certainty, and the questionable piano; and then upon the screen, in a drab grey and white, jiggling insecurely, something strange and wonderful occurred. It was mingled with dull and stupid
things; but it had a fire, a driving energy of its
own-and it was funny! Against all our inhibitions and habits it played
games with men and women; it made them ridiculous and mad; it seemed to
have no connexion with the logic of human events, trusting to an undecipherable
logic of its own. A few scholars found the commedia dell'arte living again;
a few artists saw that the galvanic gestures and movements were creating
fresh lines and interesting angles. And a nation cared for them intensely
until the rem orseless hostility of the genteel began to corrupt the purity
of slap-stick. That is where we are-now: too early to write an epitaph-late
enough to pay a tribute.
LEST the year 1914 should be not otherwise distinguished in history, it may be recorded that it was then, or a year earlier, or possibly a year later, that the turning point came in the history of the American moving picture. The first of the great merger s arrived-an event not unforeseen in itself, a "logical development" the press agents called it-seeming to establish the picture as a definitely accepted form of entertainment. It was a moment when a good critic might have foretold the course of the movin g picture during the next decade, for at that time the Triangle of Fine Arts (D. W. Griffith), Kay-Bee (Thomas H. Ince), and Keystone (Mack Sennett) was formed. Two of these names were already known, and of the two one was to
become, for a time, the most notable name in the profession. the third was hidden behind the obscure symbol of the Keystone; it represented one who had acted in, and was now directing, the most despised, and by all odds the most interesting, films produce d in America. Mr Griffith was already entered on that road which has since ruined him as a director; he was producing Intolerance, and, if I may borrow a phrase from the Shuberts, his personal supervision was not always given to the Triangle-Fine Arts rel eases; Mr Ince was presently to meditate upon the possibility of joining the word "super" to the word "spectacle," thus creating the word "superspectacle"; and Mr Sennett--by a process of exclusion one always arrives at Mr Sennett. He is the Keystone the builders rejected.
I know nothing more doleful as a ' subject of conversation than the social-economics of the moving picture; what was remarkable about the Triangle was not its new method of distribution, its new hold on the timid exhibitor, or its capacity for making or l osing fortunes. The thing to note is that the two "serious" producers, and the hard-headed business men who invested money in their efforts, thought it well to associate with themselves the best producer of vulgar slap-stick comedy. More than that, they c ombined in a peculiar ratio for the scheme provided that there was to be released each week either a Fine Arts or an Ince picture; and that with each of these was to be
shown a Keystone comedy. So that those who were perpetually being caught in the rain, or missing the eleven-o'clock from Philadelphia to New York, saw twice as many Keystone comedies as (a) Fine Arts or (b) Kay-Bee releases. The recent all-hailing of Mr C haplin as an artist because of his work in The Kid, the bright young reputations of Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton, indicate that most critics of the moving picture caught the train and missed the shower. They certainly missed the comedies; for the Fine A rts and Ince pictures were in their time the best pictures produced; and the Keystone comedies were consistently and almost without exception better.
This is not the place to discuss the shortcomings of the feature film; for the moment, let the dreadful opulent gentility of a Cecil De Mille production serve only to sharpen the saucy gaiety of the comic, the dulness of a Universal set off the revelry of slap-stick. There is one serious point which a good critic (Aristotle, for example) would have discovered when he regarded the screen as long ago as 1914 and became aware of the superiority of the comic films. He would have seen at once that while Mr Gri ffith and Mr Ince were both developing the technique of the moving picture, they were exploiting their discoveries with Materials equally or better suited to another medium: he stage or the dime novel or whatever. Whereas Mr Sennett was already so enamour ed of his craft that he was doing with the instruments of the moving
picture precisely those things which were best suited to it-those things which could not be done with any instrument but the camera, and could appear nowhere if not on the screen.
This does not mean that nothing but slap-stick comedy is proper to the cinema; it means only that everything in slap-stick is cinematographic; and since perceiving a delicate adjustment of means to end, or a proper relation between method and material, is a source of pleasure, Mr Sennett's developments were more capable of pleasing the judicious than those of either of his two fellow-workers. The highly logical humanist critic of the films could have foreseen in 1914-without the decade of trial and error which has intervened-what we see now: that the one field in which the picture would most notably declare itself a failure would be that of the drama (Elinor Glyn-Cecil De Mille-'Gilbert Parker, in short). Without a moment's hesitation he would have put hi s finger on those two elements in the cinema which, being theoretically sound, had a chance of practical success: the spectacle (including the spectacular melodrama) and the grotesque comedy. Several years later he would have added one word more, that gr otesque tragedy might conceivably succeed. For it is not only the fun in the Keystones which makes them successful: it is the method of presentation.
The rightness of the spectacle film is implicit
in its name: the screen is a place on which things can be seen, and so long as a film depends upon the eye it is right for the screen-and whether it is right in any other regard depends upon taste and judgment and skill. Omit as irrelevant the news reels, animated cartoons, educational and travel films--all of them good; omit equally those printed jokes and clippings from the Literary Digest which are at once the greatest trial and error of the screen. What remains! The feature film and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. This-the only film of high fantasy I have ever seen-is the seeming exception which proves the rule, since it owes its success to the skilfully concealed exploitation of the materials and technique of the spectacle and of the comic film, and not to the dramatic quality of its story. The studio settings in distortion represent the spectacle; they are variations of scenery or- "location"; the chase over the roofs is a psychological parallel to the Keystone cops; and the weak moment of this superb picture is that in which the moving picture always fails, in the double revelation at the end, like that of Seven Keys to Baldpate, representing "drama." No. The drama film is almost always wrong, the slap-stick almost always right; and it is divinely just that the one great figure of the screen should have risen out of the Keystone studios. He came too early; Chaplin spoiled nearly everything else for us, and he is always used by those who dislike
slap-stick to prove their case. Their case, regrettably, is in. a fair way to be proved, for slap-stick is in danger. The hypothetical critic mentioned above has not yet occurred; Mr Bushnell Dimond, the best actual critic of the movies, is without sympat hy for Mack Sennett and calls him a Bourbon, in the sense of one who forgets nothing and learns less. What Mr Sennett has needed long since is encouragement and criticism; and stupid newspaper critics (who write half-columns about a new Gloria Swanson pic ture and add "the comedy which ends the bill is Down in the Sewer") have left slap-stick wholly without direction.' At the same time the tradition of gentility, the hope of being "refined," has touched the grotesque comedy; its directors have heard abuse a nd sly remarks about custard pies so long that they have begun to believe in them, and the madness which is a monstrous sanity in the movie 'Comedy is likely to die out. The moving picture is being prettified; the manufacturers and exhibitors are growing more and more pretentious, and the riot of slap-stick seems out of place in a "presentation" which begins with the overture to Tannhauser, and includes a baritone from the imperial opera house in Warsaw singing Indian Love Lyrics in front of an art cur ta in. In Paris there are one or two Chaplin films visible nearly every day; in New York the Rialto Theatre alone seems to make a habit of Chaplin
' Except that supplied by the professional journals-often excellent.
revivals and of putting its comic feature in the electric
sign. The Capitol, the largest, and rapidly becoming the most genteel,
of moving picture palaces (but who ever heard of an opera palace~) frequently
announces a programme of seven or eight items wi thout a comedy among them;
and you have to go to squalid streets and disreputable neighborhoods if
you want to see Chaplin regularly. He could ask for no finer tribute, to
be sure; but it is not much to our credit that the greatest mimic of our
time has n o theatre named after him, that it was in Berlin, not in Chicago
or New York, that the first Chaplin festival took place, and that Tillie's
Punctured Romance, a film intensely important in his development, was
last billed in a converted auction room on th e lower East Side of New
York, where Broadway would find it vulgar.
more important are the characters, grotesque in bulk, form, or make-up; and, finally, the events which have as little connexion with the plot as, say, a clog dance in a musical comedy. In the early days of the Keystone, it is said, the plot was almost non existent in advance, and developed out of the set and the props. The one which was called, in revival, The Pile Driver, must have been such a film, for its plot is that two men meet a pretty girl near a river and they find a huge mallet. It is a film full of impromptus--not very brilliant ones, as a matter of fact-in which Sennett and Chaplin and Mabel Normand each occasionally give flashes of their qualities. A few years later you see the same thing when the trick of working up a film from the material i n hand has become second nature. His Night Out presents Ben Turpin and Charlie Chaplin as equal comedians: two men on a drinking party, stumbling into a luxurious hotel, reverting automatically to the saloon from which they have been thrown, mutually assi sting and hindering each other in a serious effort to do something they cannot define, but which they feel to be of cosmic importance. Later, one finds a more sophisticated kind of comic. Bright Eyes has to do with a gawky young man, reputed rich, receive d into a wealthy family, engaged to the daughter, denounced as an impostor, reduced to the kitchen, flirting there with the maid, restored to favour, and, nobly refusing the daughter's hand,
marrying the maid. Here Ben Turpin had good moments, but much of the gaiety of the film depended upon Chester Conklin (or one who much resembles him) as another servant in the house, bundling himself up in furs like Peary in the Arctic, bidding farewell a t an imaginary outpost of civilization, and striding into-a huge refrigerator, to bring back a ham before the adoring eyes of the cook.
The comic film is by nature adventurous and romantic, and I think what endears it to us is that the adventure is picaresque and the romance wholly unsentimental-that is, both are pushed to the edge of burlesque. For the romance you have a love affair, fre quently running parallel to a parody of itself. The hero is marked by peculiarities of his own: the Chaplin feet, the Hank Mann bang and sombre eyes, the Turpin squint, the Arbuckle bulk; against these oddities and absurdities plays the serene, idle beaut y of a simple girl (Edna Purviance or Mabel Normand in her lovely early days), and only on occasions a comic in her own right like Louise Fazenda or Polly Moran. In some five hundred slap stick comedies I do not remember one single moment of sentimentalit y; and it seems to me that every look and gesture of false chivalry and exaggerated devotion has been parodied there. The characteristic moment, after all, is when the comedy is ended, and just as the hero is about to kiss the heroine he winks broadly and ironically at the spectators.
Our whole tradition of love is destroyed and outraged in these careless comedies; so also our tradition of heroism. And since the moving picture, quite naturally, began by importing the whole baggage of the romantic and sentimental novel and theatre, the moving-picture comedy has at last arrived at burlesquing its silly-serious half-sister. Two years before Merton of the Movies appeared, Mack Sennett, with the help of Ben Turpin's divinely crossed eyes, had consummated a burlesque of Messrs Griffith, Ince, and Lubitsch, in A Small Town Idol, far more destructively, be it said, than Chaplin in his Carmen, and with a vaster fun than Merton.
Everything incongruous and inconsequent has its place in the unrolling of the comic film: love and masquerade and treachery; coincidence and disguise; heroism and knavishness; all are distorted, burlesqued, exaggerated. And-here the camera enters-all are presented at an impossible rate; the culmination is in the inevitable struggle and the conventional pursuit, where trick photography enters and you see the immortal Keystone cops in their flivver, mowing down hundreds of telegraph poles without abating th eir speed, dashing through houses or losing their wheels and continuing, blown to bits and reassembled in midair; locomotives running wild, yet never destroying the cars they so miraculously send spinning before them; airplanes and submarines in and out ' Of their elements-everything capable of motion set
into motion; and at the height of the revel, the true catastrophe, the solution of the preposterous and forgotten drama, with the lovers united under the canopy of smashed motor cars, or the gay feet of Mr Chaplin gently twinkling down the irised street.
And all of this is done with the camera, through action presented to the eye. The secret of distortion is in the camera, and the secret of pace in the projector. Regard them for a moment, regard the slapstick as every moment explains itself, and then go t o the picture palace and spend one-third of your time reading the flamboyancies of C. Gardner Sullivan and another third watching the contortions of a fa mous actress as she "registers" an emotion which action and photography should present directly, and you will see why the comic film is superior. There is virtually no registering in the comedy, there is no senseless pantomime, and the titles are succinct and few. In Bright Eyes, as the marriage of convenience is about to take place, the mother sweeps in with these words, "Faint quick-he's dead broke." An absurd letter or telegram is introduced to set the play going; the rest is literally silence.
What I have said about Chaplin regards him as a typical slap-stick comedian.' The form would have succeeded without him and he has passed beyond the form entirely. The other practitioners of the art come out of his shadow, and some of them are excel-
' But there is more to say; a little of it occurs on page 41.
lent. What makes Chaplin great is that he has irony and pity, he knows that you must not have the one without the other; he has both piety and wit. Next to him, for his work in His Bread and Butter and a few other films, stands Hank Mann, who translates t he childlike gravity of Chaplin into a frightened innocence, a serious endeavour to understand the world which seems always hostile to him. He was trained, I have been told, as a tragic actor on the East Side of New York, and he seems always stricken with the cruelty and madness of an existence in which he alone is logical and sane. If he, walking backward to get a last glimpse of his beloved (after "A Waiter's Farewell," as the caption has it), steps on the running board of a motor instead of a street ca r, he is willing to pay the usual fare and let bygones be bygones. His black bang almost meets his eyes, and his eyes are mournful and piteous; his gesture is slow and rounded; a few of the ends of the world have come upon his head and the eyelids are a l ittle weary. He is the Wandering Jew misdirected into comic life by an unscrupulous fate.
His most notable opposite is Harold Lloyd, a man of no tenderness, of no philosophy, the em bodiment of American cheek and indefatigable en ergy. His movements are all direct, straight; the shortest distance between two points he will traverse impudently and persistently, even if he is knocked down at the end of each trip; there is no poetry
in him, his whole utterance being epigrammatic, without overtone or image. Yet once, at least, he too stepped into that lunatic Arcadia to which his spirit is alien; not in Grandma's Boy, which might just as well have been done by Charles Ray, but in A Sailor-made Man. Here the old frenzy fell upon him, the weakling won by guile, and instead of fighting one man he laid out a mob from behind; something excessive, topsy-turvy, riotous at last occurred in his ordered existence. He is funny; but he has no vulgarity; he is smart. He amuses me without making me laugh, and I figure him as a step toward gentility.
Ben Turpin has progressed, fortunately without taking that step. In Bright Eyes he was mildly absurd; in His Night Out, with Chaplin, he was tremendously funny; and what he learned there of the lesson of the master he imported into his private masterpiece, A Small Town Idol. Like Chaplin, he disarms you and endears himself; unlike him, and often to Turpin's advantage, he knows how to be ridiculous. One always sees Chaplin's impersonations as they see themselves. Is he a count or a pretender,or an English gentleman, or a policeman, or a tramp, the character is completely embodied; Chaplin never makes fun of himself. The process of identification is complete and, apart from the interest and the fun of the action, your chief pleasure is in awa iting the inevitable denunciation. Ben Turpin, who has only
a talent for Chaplin's genius, makes the most of it and lets you see through him. His exaggerations do more than reveal-they betray, and above all they betray the fact that Turpin is aware of the absurdities of his characters; you see them objectively, an d through him you see through them.
When he returns home as the Wild West screen hero, and his own picture is shown before those who so recently had despised him, his deprecating gesture before the screen on which his exploits are being shown is so broad, so simple-silly, that it is more th an a description of himself as he thinks it is, and lets us perceive his absurdity. He is exactly a zany.
Three other buffoons of the old Keystone days retain their capacity to be amusing: the galvanic, jack-in-the-box, Al St John; Mack Swain, and Chester Conklin; they are exactly as they were ten years ago, and one fancies they will never be great. The diffi cult person to be sure about is Buster Keaton, who came to the pictures from vaudeville, and has carried into his new medium his greatest asset, an enormous, incorruptible gravity. He never smiles, they say, and I have sat through some of his pictures--The Boat, for one--without seeing any reason why he should. It was a long mechanical contrivance with hardly any humour, and was considered a masterpiece; while The Paleface, in which Keaton played an entomologist captured by Indians, passed unnoticed. It ha d nearly everything a comic needs, and
there were certain movements en masse, certain crossings of the lines of action, which were quite perfect. Keaton's intense preoccupation and his hard sense of personality are excellent. In Cops he took a purely Keystone subject and multiplied and magnified it to its last degree of development: thousands of policemen rushed down one street; equal thousands rushed up another; and before them fled this small, serious figure, bent on self-justification.) caught in a series of absurd accidents, wholly law-abi ding, a little distracted. I do not think one will soon forget the exquisite close of that picture: the whole police force forming a phalanx, hurled as one body into the courtyard of the station-and then the little figure which, having been trapped within , seems doomed to arrest, coming out, itself accoutred in uniform, and quietly, quietly locking the huge doors behind it. It, yes; for by that time Keaton has become wholly impersonal. So affecting Larry Semon has never been; nor Clyde Cook; and behind th em, but longo intervallo, come the misguided creatures who make the kind of slapstick which most people think Sennett makes. I am sure there are other good comedians; but I am not trying to make a catalogue. No one, in any case, has been able to impose hi mself as these few have; and most of the others are so near in method and manner to these that they require nothing fresh to be said of them.
It seemed for a moment, in 1922, that if a con-
fessed murderer were set free by a jury, he or she went into the movies; but if a moving-picture actor was declared innocent, he was barred from the screen. The justice of this I cannot discuss; yet a protest can be made against the aesthetically high-min ded who said that the real reason for barring the films of "Fatty" Arbuckle was their vulgarity and their dulness. For "Fatty" had gone over to a comedy more refined than slap-stick long before 1922; and in 1914 he was neither stupid nor dull. Once indeed, in Fatty and Mabel Adrift (Mabel being Miss Normand) he came near to the best of slap-stick, and the same picture was as photography and printing, for sepia seascapes and light and shade, a superior thing entirely. The fatuous, ingratiating smile was i nnocent then, in all conscience, and as for vulgarity--
Let us, before we go to the heart of that question, look for a moment at the comedy which was always set against the slap-stick to condemn the custard pie school of fun-the comedy of which the best practitioners were indisputably Mr and Mrs Sidney Drew. I n them there was nothing offensive, except an enervating dulness. They pretended to be pleasant episodes in our common life, the life of courtship and marriage; they accepted all our conventions; and they were one and all exactly the sort of thing which t he junior class at high school acted when money was needed to buy a new set of erasers for Miss Struther's course in mechanical drawing. The husband stayed
out late at night or was seen kissing a stenographer; the wife had trouble with a maid or was extravagant at the best shops; occasionally arrived an ingenuity, such as the romantic attachment of the wife to anniversaries contrasted with her husband's negl igence--I seem to recall that to cure her he brought her a gift one day in memory of Washington's birthday. These things were little stories, not even smoking-room stories; they were acted entirely in the technique. of the amateur stage; they were incredi bly genteel, in the milieu where "When Baby Came" is genteel; neither in matter nor in manner did they employ what the camera and the projector had to give. And, apart from the agreeable manners of Mr and Mrs Sidney Drew, nothing made them successful exce pt the corrupt desire, on the part of the spectators, to be refined.
Nothing of the sort operated in the far better (feature film) comedies which Douglas Fairbanks made when he was with Fine Arts. To suit his physique, they were almost all adventurous; they were always entertaining. Flirting With Fate' presented a young man who had decided to die and gave "Automatic Joe," a gunman, his last fifty dollars to "bump him off" unexpectedly. Once the agreement was made, the tide of fortune turned for the young man, and, desiring earnestly to live, he felt the paid hand of the as sassin always upon his
' Scenario by the adroit Anita Loos.
shoulder. At the same time the gunman had reformed; his one object was to return the unearned fifty dollars. And the cross-purposes, the chase and flight, were within short distance of high farce. The comedies of Charles Ray were also unpretentious, and a lso used the camera. These and others were always perfectly decent; but none of them was refined.
And there, essentially, we are back at slap-stick; for the refined comedy was pretentious, and what is pretentious is vulgar in any definition of the word; while slap-stick never pretended to be anything but itself and could be disgusting or tasteless or dull, but it could not be vulgar. I consider vulgar the thing which offends against the canons of taste accepted by hone~t people, not by imitative people, not by snobs. It is equally bad taste, presumably, to throw custard pies and to commit adultery; bu t it is not bad taste to speak of these things. What is intolerable only is the pretense, and it was against pre tentiousness that the slap-stick comedy had its hardest fight. It showed a man sitting down on a lighted gas stove, and it did not hesitate to disclose the underwear charred at the buttocks which were the logical consequence of the action. There was never the slightest suggestion of sexual indecency, or of moral turpitude, in the Keystones; there was a fuller and freer use of gesture-gesture wi th all parts of the human frame-than we are accustomed to. The
laughter they evoked was broad and long; it was thoracic, abdominal; it shook us because it was really the earth trembling beneath our feet. The animal frankness and health of these pictures constituted the ground of their offense. And something more.
For the Keystone offended our sense of security in dull and business-like lives. Few of us imagined ourselves in the frenzy of action which they set before us; none of us remained unmoved at the free dom of fancy, the wildness of imagination, the roaring, destructive, careless energy which it set loose. It was an ecstasy of comic life, and in our unecstatic lives we fled from it to polite comedy, telling our selves that what we had seen was ugly and displeasing. Often it was. I am stating the case for sla pstick, but I do not wish to make myself responsible for the millions of feet of stupidity and ugliness which have been released as comic films. I have seen Ham and Bud and the imitators of Charlie Chaplin; I have seen an egg splattered over a man's face with such a degree of nauseous ugliness that it seemed I could never see a comic again. But as like as not, on the same bill was the James Young screen version of The Devil with George Arliss, or Geraldine Farrar in Carmen, or the "'Affairs of' Anatol." And when people who have seen these "artistic" films, or the barber-shop scene in a Hitchcock revue or Eddie Cantor in a dentist's chair, exclaim (falsely) that moving-picture comedians do nothing but throw pies,
I am moved to wonder what on earth they are expected to throw. They are using the eternal materials of their art, precisely as Aristophanes used them and Rabelais, with already far too many concessions to a debased and cowardly and artificial taste. At th e two extremes simple and sophisticated people have looked directly at the slap-stick screen and loved it for itself alone; in between are the people who can see nothing without the lorgnettes of prejudice provided by fashion and gentility. The simple one s discovered and prospered the slap-stick screen long before the sophisticated were aware of its ex istence; they took it for what it was and cared nothing for the fact that it was made by inartistic people and shown in reeking rooms for a nickel. For lon g the poison of culture was powerless to enter; but not long enough.
I feel moderately certain that the slap-stick comedy is a good thing for America to have; yet, being neither an apostle of pagan joy nor a reformer, I have to put my plea for slap-stick on personal grounds. It has given me immeasurable entertainment and I would like to see it saved; I would like to see a bit more of its impromptus, its unpremeditated laughter; I would like to do something to banish the bleak refinement which is setting in upon it.
Seven years ago, in an imaginary conversation, I made Mr David Wark Griffith announce that he would produce Helen of Troy, and I made him
defend the Keystone comedy. It seemed to me then as now that there is nothing incongruous in these subjects; properly made, they would be equally unrefined, but Helen of Troy, being in the grand manner, would be called "artistic." Mr Griffith has not made Helen of Troy, and the pre-eminent right to make it has passed from his hands. The Keystone, with its variations, needs still an authoritative de fender and an authoritative critic. It is one of the few places where the genteel tradition does not operate , where fantasy is liberated, where imagination is still riotous and healthy. In its economy and precision are two qualities of artistic presentation; it uses still everything commonest and simplest and nearest to hand; in terror of gentility, it has refr ained from using the broad farces of literature-Aristo phanes and Rabelais and Moliere-as material; it could become happily sophisticated, without being cultured. But there is no fault inherent in its nature, and its virtues are exceptional. For us to app reciate slap-stick may require a revolution in our way of looking at the arts; having taken thought on how we now look at the arts, I suggest that the revolution is not entirely undesirable.