Comedy legends vs. new technology

In the beginning, there was vaudeville.  It was entertainment in its purest form: performers would tour the country virtually year-round, repeating their new or established acts for a different audience, in a different town, for modest pay. Vaudeville existed as such, unchanged, for over 50 years.

The Palace Theatre in New York–the Mecca of vaudeville for twenty years.

But in the early decades of the 20th century, new technologies allowed for more and better mass communication and entertainment. In the late ‘20s, silent movies became sound movies, the radio networks were born, and, eventually, television enabled entertainers to reach millions of people at a time. With so many new creative doors open for comedians, they still faced unexpected challenges.

Stan Laurel (far left, seated) and Charlie Chaplin (holding life preserver) with Fred Karno’s troupe in 1910.

The more visual stage comedians were naturally drawn to motion pictures, and the early silent film stars came from either American vaudeville, or, in the case of people like Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel, and others, British Music Hall acts.

With the arrival of sound, adjustments needed to be made. Even the most accomplished silent film comedians had to face the new reality in the late 1920s. They simply didn’t know what talkies would do for, or to, their established comedy, because now they would have to flesh out their screen characters with voices and funny dialogue—things they didn’t need to think about before. Some adapted to sound well, and even looked forward to it; others, not so much .

    Hal Roach, the legendary comedy producer who created Our Gang (a.k.a. the Little Rascals) in 1922, and teamed Laurel with Hardy in 1926, kept pace with the sound revolution better than his main competitor Mack Sennett, even though the industry as a whole was still uncertain  about how sound would affect film comedy in general.

Roach stars Laurel & Hardy weren’t intimidated by sound films, and were the first major silent film comedians to take the plunge into sound successfully.  At first, they planned to use dialogue sparingly, without forcing it on either themselves or their audience, although Fate had given them the voices that perfectly suited their characters’ mannerisms and body language, as did their dialogue.

Laurel & Hardy’s transition to talkies was a fairly smooth one. Despite Roach’s intention to keep dialogue sparse in his talkies, the team’s first sound film, Unaccustomed as We Are plays almost like a television sitcom episode, with considerable (and necessary) dialogue throughout. In addition to the dialogue, the film uses sound for several  gags, including the closing shot of the film, in which we see Stan and Ollie say goodbye in the hallway of the apartment building, after which Stan disappears at the top step of the stairs. Then we hear a long series of thuds and crashes, knowing that poor Stan is tumbling his way to the first floor. Even in this first talkie, the creative team had found ways of using sound for gags.

As Stan once explained, “In that scene we removed the pain, by having the camera stay looking at the top of the staircase. The sound effect of the fall lets the audience visualize its own scene, and that just made it funnier to them.”

Harold Lloyd  also became a star at the Roach studios, and was one of the most revered and highest grossing film stars of the 1920s. After leaving Roach, Lloyd’s first sound film, Welcome Danger, wasn’t originally produced to be a sound film at all.

Scene from “Welcome Danger.”

He had completed filming, editing, and even began to show it to preview audiences in 1929 when he saw how the movie business was undergoing the sound revolution. When he previewed Welcome Danger for about the third time, there was a one-reeler sound film also on the bill, and he saw how the audience was in hysterics over it–even shots of  pouring of water, the frying of eggs, the clinking of ice in a glass. Lloyd said, ‘We worked out hearts out to get laughs with gags, and just because they’ve got some sound, the audience is roaring at these things.”

He realized it was time to make the transition, so he revamped the film by re-shooting major portions, and adding dialogue and sound effects, at the cost of almost one million dollars.

Buster Keaton felt no anxiety about making the transition to talkies, and in fact welcomed the arrival of sound, knowing that even a sound comedy could still be comprised primarily of slapstick anyway. Adding dialogue wouldn’t necessarily hurt the visual gags he was such a master at creating. There was no reason why Keaton couldn’t continue just being Keaton.

It was not sound that threatened his career, but rather the callous treatment he received from MGM studios, which, having acquired his contract, quickly and inexplicably stifled his ability to control his own material. The studio even partnered him with Jimmy Durante for a few films, before conceding that the two of them had no comedy chemistry. It also didn’t help that Keaton had been going through a divorce and an increasingly worrisome drinking problem.

 Harry Langdon, on the other hand, had trouble, due in great part to the character he created to great success in silent. His rather eerie baby face,

Langdon in his first talkie, a 1929 short film welcoming him to Hal Roach Studios.

enhanced with ample make-up, and childlike mannerisms necessitated him to take on a young voice to match. But the sight–and sound–of a grown man looking and speaking like a shy child comes off as somewhat disturbing. This was, not the only reason, but one reason why Langdon’s career faltered in the sound era.

As for Chaplin,  it was no secret that he had been resistant to making sound films. He vowed to continue making silents , even if it cost him millions of his own money. But there was a great deal of anguish behind his defiance.

He saw sound films as a threat to his very career, and was finding it increasingly difficult to justify making non-talking films in the sound era. But seeing how sound pictures were changing the film business had him truly torn between the past and future of the industry. He later wrote, “Occasionally I mused over the possibility of making a sound film, but the thought sickened me, for I realized I could never achieve the excellence of my silent pictures. It would mean giving up my tramp character entirely. Some people suggested that the tramp might talk. This was unthinkable, for the first word he ever uttered would transform him into another person.” It became clear that Chaplin was fighting a losing battle with progress.

Next week, Part II:  How comedians adapted to the challenges of radio.