March 24, 2016
On Learning to Love Slapstick and the Admission That I’m Not There Yet
Some time ago, I sat down to watch Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman, a film with a somewhat stellar reputation, and I would be lying if I said that the film had me in stitches. Oh, I chuckled a bit; there were also a few humor-induced grins that never quite developed into verbal outbursts. However, as a whole I found the film to be quite puzzling. Narratively, it was like a time capsule whose contents were of a time and place so remote as to seem almost inaccessible to someone with modern sensitivities. In addition, to call it a narrative is to mislabel it slightly.
There is no doubt that the film, like many other narratives, has a clear chronological structure. It begins just as Mr. Lloyd’s character is about to enter college and ends toward the conclusion of his freshman year. Yet like many other examples of slapstick cinema, the film is less concerned with moving the story along than it is with setting up the next slapstick gag. For example, a good portion of the film is devoted to showing Lloyd volunteering to be a tackling dummy and, later in the film, throwing a social for his rich and snobby classmates. Neither scene adds much to the overall narrative, nor, for that matter, are they intended to. Instead, they are intended to showcase the comedy talents of the film’s lead star, whose zany pratfalls and embarrassing antics audiences of the 1920s eagerly expected to see. I would lying if I said I didn’t enjoy many of these moments, but I would also be lying if I said I enjoyed all of them or that I didn’t at times wish the film would just move along.
Part of the reason for this, I suspect, has to do with the films I grew up with, almost all of which had a recognizable narrative structure – the beginning established a character, the middle a conflict, the end a resolution, end credits. In fact, my only exposure to slapstick came from syndicated television, where I occasionally came across The Three Stooges or The Little Rascals, previously known as Our Gang. To me, these “television shows” were incomprehensible, lacking in story and content to depict meanness and obnoxious behavior instead of true characterization. It never occurred to me that these had been shown in movie theatres or that they were part of a genre that by the 1980s had been almost completely replaced by verbal forms of comedy. You can just imagine my reaction to the end of the Marx Brothers’ film Horse Feathers, during which the boys drive a vehicle full of footballs into the endzone and get points for each one just before the film signals its completion. It was nothing short of stunned silence.
Slapstick is therefore an acquired taste, perhaps requiring a knowledge of the times in which it was popular, its basic elements, and the sentiments and values that people had when they were all the rage. I didn’t have these growing up, and I admit that my appreciation of slapstick is still a work in progress. However, I now know what to expect with slapstick, and my patience has grown as a result of that knowledge. I will be the first to admit, though, that my frustration can sometimes be stronger than my resolve.
In an interview, Woody Allen once remarked that young people today don’t get slapstick, that they have no idea what to make of the actions of people like Groucho, Harpo, and Chico, and there’s some truth to that. How many young people today would laugh at the scene in Mighty Aphrodite in which Allen suggests naming his baby "Groucho"? How many would miss the reference entirely? My guess is more than we’d like, but less than we think. I say this not to dispute Allen, who knows much more of that time than many people in my own generation. Just look at the realistic way in which he portrays life in Radio Days. Rather, I say this because of all of the young people who reviewed The Freshman and Safety First and absolutely loved them. I say this because of my students’ continued awareness of and esteem for Charlie Chaplin and his Little Tramp character despite many of them having had very little exposure to classic films throughout their lives. I say this because of a young boy here in Taiwan whose his mother showed him Buster Keaton’s The Navigator on a whim, and he couldn’t wait to re-watch it.
And so I’ll keep trying to make sense of a world far removed from my own, a world in which twenty minutes could be devoted to two men trying to fix a boat, a man could spend an entire movie scaling a building, and three men could repeatedly bop one another over the head and poke one another in the eye and have the audience in stitches the whole time. One of these days I’m sure I’ll get the joke.