Besides being full of scandals due to the “new morality” during the 20s, Hollywood was also full of comedy. It was the golden age of silent comedy with Chaplin in front and a slew of other Keystone alumni alongside.
Buster Keaton had a very similar upbringing to Chaplin and he was an equal to Chaplin as an actor but a superior director. His specialty, mise en scène, or just basically his films looked better than Chaplin’s. Keaton was a firm believer that all comedy stemmed from a strong dramatic through-line. Story was important to him, most of his gags were trajectory gags that propelled us through the story.
In his first film at Keystone he played a Keystone Cop. But after appearing in a number of shorts as comic characters he soon became as famous as Chaplin.
Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, a friend and huge star, quit Keystone in 1916 to start his own production company with Joseph M. Schenck. We’ll hear more about Arbuckle later but right now what’s important is he hired Keaton to work with him at Arbuckle’s Comicque Studios. The first of the fourteen two-reel shorts they made was The Butcher Boy (1917).
In 1919 Schenck formed Buster Keaton Productions to produce two-reels starring Keaton. The home of this studio was the former Chaplin studios. Schenck gave Keaton complete creative freedom and the shorts that he produced from 1920-1923 alongside Chaplin’s are the high point of American slapstick comedy, such as The Balloonatic (1923).
In 1923 Keaton’s first feature was a parody of Griffith’s Intolerance, called The Three Ages(1923). Notice the dramatic story is intact and the humour works to further the story.
One of Keaton’s most extraordinary features is Sherlock Jr (1924). In this metafictional film a projectionist becomes part of a film within the film. Certainly a bit on the surreal side of the fence.
Keaton’s masterpiece is considered to be a film called The General(1927) which along with Chaplin’s The Gold Rush(1925) is considered to be one of the great silent comedy epics in cinema.
Keaton’s studio was acquired by MGM in the late 20s and made one last great film The Cameraman(1928) before being cast in a series of witless talkies (which he had no hand in writing) that did so badly profit-wise he was promptly fired by Louis B. Mayer. His life fell apart and so did his career.
When Hal Roach, the major rival or Keystone’s Sennett, established his production company – he hired Harold Lloyd for three dollars a week. Lloyd’s specialty, comedy of thrills, in which the hero placed himself in real physical danger in order to get that laugh. His most famous film is Safety Last(1923). Here’s his iconic clock scene from the film.
From the above clip, you’ve probably notice how this scene probably influenced many modern action films. It seems to masterfully up the stakes.
Laurel and Hardy were also Hal Roach comedians, minor compared to the greats mentioned above but significant because they were film’s first comedy team. Their first film together was Putting the Pants on Philip(1927).
They went on to star in twenty-seven shorts for Roach. Probably one of the best of this series was The Two Tars(1928).
Laurel and Hardy were one of the few silent stars to make a smooth transition to talkies (because of their background in theatre). They went on to have a long career in the movies.
Another minor comedian to mention here is Harry Langdon who worked for Keystone. He rose briefly to stardom with his charmingly naive character, different though similar to Chaplin’s. Watch this clip Tramp, Tramp, Tramp(1926) – but don’t be angry with me at the end because it’s all I could find.
The last comedian to mention here is Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle who also worked for Keystone until he started his own production company in 1917. His popularity was second only to Chaplin – until one of Hollywood’s biggest scandals struck and the course of movie history was changed forever.
In 1921 he was charged with the rape and murder of a young starlet named Virginia Rappe. The world watched and waited for the verdict…
But before we announce the verdict – let’s take a look at how film was advancing in other parts of the world.
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