Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Slapstick Comedy: A Critical Book Analysis

The slapstick genre hones in on situations concerned with a: “defect, ignorance, or mistake” (ibid 88) and by continuously using them to produce comedy, ultimately, the genre ends up fetishizing these subjects. 

As part of the penultimate year studies of my BA (Hons) in Film and Screen Studies I had to author a critical analysis of a published critical film text, as part of a larger Film Theory and Criticism portfolio. 

Additionally, the chosen texts had to adhere to the larger focus of the portfolio, which in my case was silent cinema and Harold Lloyd. Ultimately, this assignment and the portfolio as a whole was awarded a first.

A Critical Book Analysis

This critical analysis will look at Slapstick Comedy, an American Film Institute anthology of essays edited by Tom Paulus and Rob King. The aim of the book is to assert: “A theoretical and theorized awareness of the politics of slapstick comedy’s difference as a form of film practice” (Paulus et al., 2010:4). 

Slapstick Comedy

The anthology is comprised of fourteen essays each with their own author and which are split across three sections, Part One: Originality and Adaptation, Part Two: Mechanics and Modernity and Part Three: Bodies and Performance

However, due to the sheer breadth of the book’s subject matter, this essay will instead focus on two chapters only: “Slapstick Skyscrapers: An Architecture of Attractions” by Steven Jacobs and “Uproarious Inventions: The Keystone Film Company, Modernity and the Art of the Motor” by Rob King. 

Specifically, these two chapters will be examined because they are connected by a common thematic focus based around particular fetishized iconographies that recur in slapstick comedies. Fetish in this sense being: “an excessive and irrational devotion or commitment to a particular thing” (Oxford Dictionaries).

While the primary focus will be on the contributions of King and Jacobs, reference will be made to other chapters.

In “Slapstick Skyscrapers,” Jacobs’ explores slapstick comedy’s exploitation of the skyscraper and explains that:

“the skyscraper can be considered an: 'architecture of attractions'” (Jacobs 2010:160). 

The physical design and layout - the architecture - of the skyscraper is important because, as Jacobs goes on to explain: “High-rise buildings had become synecdoches of the metropolis, the image of the skyscraper city providing a locus of early twentieth-century modernization” (ibid 153). 

On set of Look Out Below (1919), the skyscraper visuals of the silent comedies were achieved by utilising forced perspective, as illustrated in the filming location above.

The idea of the skyscraper visually representing modernity explains at least half of its appeal to silent comedy:

“Tellingly, Buster Keaton adopted the skyscraper as an emblem of the era in his Three Ages (1923). To establish the modern episode in this film, which also comprises scenes set in prehistoric times and Ancient Rome” (ibid 155). 

However, the adoption of the skyscraper was especially prevalent for its master exploiter, Harold Lloyd. Lloyd’s screen persona was very much built around the modern go-getter image popular in the 1920s: 

“Lloyd’s comedies became a much more precise mirror of the 1920s than Chaplin’s or Keaton’s” (Brownlow, 2007:13). 

However, as Jacobs tells us, in addition to the visual iconography of modernity, Lloyd discovered another element of the skyscraper he could exploit - the attractions - and which Jacobs explains he did in the last twenty minutes of Safety Last! (Dir. Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor, USA, 1923).

“Climbing the building and encountering a series of obstacles, Lloyd transforms the architecture into a vertical stack of thrills in which the protagonist finds himself clinging to ledges, decorations, flagpoles and clocks” (Jacobs, 2010:162). 

As Jacobs explains, by its very nature, the skyscraper had truly mammoth possibilities in terms of the scale of its attractions: 

“the structure of the skyscraper answers perfectly to the structure of a cinema of attractions: on every level, another program, another encounter, another gag; on each floor, at each strata, a fragmentary 'montage of attractions.'” (ibid 160). 

Indeed, the slapstick/thrill comedy’s continual exploitation of the skyscraper for perilous situations and thrills, as exemplified in Safety Last!, demonstrates this, as well as ensuring that the skyscraper became: “the thrill comedy’s fetish object” (ibid 162).

Harold Lloyd's most famous climb that started a new trend of thrill comedies.

King goes one step further in his chapter and argues for a larger technological exploitation and absorption of new technologies into the slapstick comedy: 

“One of the things for which Keystone is best remembered is, indeed, mechanical and spectacular surprise, 'super stunts' featuring the haywire tin lizzies, out of control police wagons, somersaulting planes, and other contraptions in which the studio’s films abounded from the mid-1910s on.” (King 2010:115).

King’s ultimate goal is to show how slapstick’s absorption and representation of new technologies allowed the genre to shake off its initial working class audience and open up to a wider mass appeal audience: 

“Integrating the spectacle of modern machinery into slapstick’s carnivalesque ethic of pleasurable disorder, Keystone defined new images of technology that appealed across class boundaries; but it also surrendered the assertions of working-class identity that had previous accompanied such disorder” (ibid 131).

To illustrate this point, King looks at the Keystone film A Submarine Pirate (Dir. Charles Avery and Sid Chaplin, USA, 1915), a film which, at the time of release, boasted having filmed on a real US Navy Submarine and which promoted all the technological wonders therein: “its interior bristling with gears, levers, dials, wheels and other contraptions” (ibid 125).

A Submarine Pirate (1915), starring Sydney Chaplin and with an early appearance by Harold Lloyd.

However, King points out that while the technology may have been dazzling it also denoted an element of danger: 

“there was indeed exceptional public interest in “submersibles,” albeit not for reasons that had much to do with comedy. The sinking of the ocean liner Lusitania by a German U-boat on May 7, 1915 had provoked a widespread outcry which, while it did not precipitate American entry into the war, nevertheless fostered US government support for new defense programs and boosted public anxiety about the nation’s military preparedness” (ibid 124). 

Ultimately, though, what made the use of a weapon of war acceptable for the audience, or at least desensitised the sinister attachments, was the way in which it was treated in the film. Its acceptability is drawn from the fact that the submarine is operated by a slapstick character and this allows for a: “central confrontation between clown and machine” (ibid 126) that invites: “the spectator to view the submarine not as an instrument of war, but as a source of technological amusement” (ibid 126). 

Again, such as with the skyscraper, the idea of a slapstick-fetishized object emerges:

“In effect, the submarine’s technology becomes a fetish, precisely analogous to Marx’s definition of commodity fetishism as a displacement of desire from human relations onto material objects: substituting for the memory of the Lusitania which contemporary movie-goers surely brought to their experience of the film” (ibid 126). 

This rationalisation, or muting of a machine’s other more real-and-sinister-implications, only happened because the slapstick comedy, as a filmic funfair or Coney Island, again un-rationalised it: 

“If Keystone and Coney shared a vision of the world as a crazy machine, then this was not because (or not merely because) that vision exploited technology’s commercial possibilities as a new source of amusement, but, more importantly, because it played a key role, across a range of cultural practices, in transfiguring the experience of modernity and modernization. At Keystone as at Coney, the image of the world as a crazy machine was a fetish for the modern era, in which cogwheels, levers, and gears meshed to such exhilarating ends that there remained not the slightest gap for confronting the costs of a mechanized environment” (ibid 127).

King concludes that It was exactly this exploitation of a safe fetishized image of technology, presented by slapstick as a “crazy machine,” that allowed the genre of Slapstick to be heightened and acquire a mass appealing image: 

“In effect, technological spectacle redeemed physical comedy for a cross-class audience: when once genteel critics had been offended by slapstick’s 'vulgarity,' they now were able to celebrate the “ingenuity” of its mechanical devices” (ibid 122).

This theme of fetishism which Jacobs and King discuss is especially valid in the study of a genre that draws its name from another “crazy mechanism” – the slapstick, which Tom Gunning, in his chapter “Mechanisms of Laughter: The Devices of Slapstick,” (somewhat un-academically referencing Wikipedia) defines as: 

“a club-like object composed of two wooden slats [hinged at one end] so that, when struck, it produced a loud smacking noise” (cited in Gunning, 2010:140). 

The slapstick then, while being inherently symbolic of the genre: “the slapstick undoubtedly gives its name to the dominant genre of silent comedy, because of the high degree of physical violence – slapping, bopping, and especially ass-kicking – that many comedians cultivated.” (ibid 140), is just another fetishized object of the genre. 

Annotating Slapstick Comedy in the Student Union. Photo: Day 80 of my 366 Project 2012.

Indeed, the more you examine it, and apply the arguments of Jacobs and King, the more you can see how many elements of the genre are in fact fetishized. Above and beyond skyscrapers and machinery, the genre is littered with fetishized iconographies of particular recurring characters: 

“The films were a harvest of scamps, demonic children, dumb clucks, gargantuan bullies, cockeyed Romeos, depraved bumpkins, menacing fatties, lecherous matrons, doughy-faced innocents, lolling Bathing Belles, and insanely incompetent Keystone Kops.” (Suffrin 1987:21). 

Even narratives and gags recur: “a seemingly endless recycling of gags and scenarios – even whole story treatments – that define the first three-and-a-half decades of American film comedy” (Bean 2010:236). 

Something else which is interesting to note is that the genre is a good couple of years ahead in its fetishism of grotesques, that would later form a major component of the iconographies of German Expressionism and its later American imitations: “Screen comedy was dominated by grotesques!” (Gill et al., 1992). 

Judging by slapstick’s obsessive ability to fetishize its constituent parts, fetishism obviously forms a huge component of slapstick’s appeal and success.

In fact, we can even go one step further and say that if the genre did not fetishize its constituent parts it would not be funny: 

“Critics generally agree that nothing in nature is in itself comic; it depends on a spectator's appreciation of some kind of defect, ignorance, or mistake” (Hume 1972:88). 

The slapstick genre hones in on situations concerned with a: “defect, ignorance, or mistake” (ibid 88) and by continuously using them to produce comedy, ultimately, the genre ends up fetishizing these subjects. 

It can be further argued that while this process of fetishism helps the genre to produce its comedy, the theme of fetishism can be considered more important to the genre than its ability to produce humour: 

“Sennett considered the Bathing Beauties primarily as a “beautiful break” and decided that their physical activities did not necessarily have to be fast and funny. Indeed, the girls were generally portrayed as beautiful, healthy, young bodies in motion, diving into the ocean or playing a ballgame at the beach.” (D’haeyere 2010:210).

Therefore, the spectacle and exhibition of an object is more integral to slapstick comedy than that object’s potential for humour. 

Mack Sennett's Bathing Beauties.

In this respect, the genre also obtained a humourless, sexual fetishism which, before the Bathing Beauties, the genre had been devoid of: 

“The Beauties were selected to look like a multiplication of a single type of actress: a young, white, lively, and athletic girl, with a pleasant face, an attractive smile, and a beautifully curved, short body.” (D’haeyere 2010:208).

Fundamentally, the genre is built upon the idealization of fetishism and it is this: “excessive and irrational devotion or commitment to a particular thing” (Oxford Dictionaries) which is what provides the genre with its distinctive nature. 

Building on Jacobs comments about how: 

“the structure of the skyscraper answers perfectly to the structure of a cinema of attractions: on every level, another program, another encounter, another gag” (2010:160), slapstick comedy as a genre is therefore not, as has long been held, a presentation of vulgarity: “Sight-gag and slapstick comedy…were essentially a matter of violence” (Everson 1978:267), but an architecture of fetishistic attractions.

While the arguments of King’s and Jacobs’ chapters are insightful, particularly in conveying a view of slapstick’s presentation of fetishism that has been barely touched upon, their arguments are perhaps not as ambitious or as wide ranging as they could have been. 

A case in point is the assertion that has been presented in this analysis' discussion of fetishism. True, it is an offshoot from what King and Jacobs said in regards to fetishism, however, neither of their arguments are as wide ranging to propose the idea of fetishism as being something that is, in fact, integral and inherent throughout the whole of the slapstick genre. 

However, as can be seen in this writer’s assertion of fetishism being an integral part of the genre, King and Jacobs certainly provide a strong stepping on point for further theories to be proposed about the slapstick comedy genre; which, unless you are talking about figures like Chaplin; Keaton; Lloyd or Laurel & Hardy, has been relatively devoid of any intricate theoretical analysis. 

This is the reason for why this book analysis has focused on King’s and Jacobs’ chapters, because of all the chapters their chapters, connected by a common theme, provide the deepest and most refreshing exploration of the genre.

The Slapstick Comedy anthology provides many other interesting insights on the genre: whether it be Bryon Dixon looking at the origins of situation comedy in the British Music Hall or Barry Salt’s chapter on the stylistic influence D.W. Griffith had on slapstick or of the originality of Charlie Chaplin and the imitators he spawned in Jennifer M. Bean’s chapter or the similarities that Eileen Bowser draws between Mack Sennett’s and Henry Ford’s production and business methods. 

However, if you want to understand the fundamental nature and mass appeal of Slapstick Comedy then the chapters by Jacobs and King are required reading!


Paulus. T and King. R. eds. (2010) Slapstick Comedy. New York: Routledge. 

Vance, J. and Lloyd, S. (2002) Harold Lloyd: Master Comedian. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Incorporated.

Everson, W.K. (1998) ‘Comedy’. In: American Silent Film. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc, pp.260-280.

Hume, R.D. (1972) ‘Some Problems in the Theory of Comedy’. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 31, No. 1, pp. 87-100.

Suffrin, M (1987) ‘The Silent World of Slapstick (1912-1916)’. The Threepenny Review, No. 29, p. 21.

Oxford Dictionaries [Online]. Available from: http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/fetish?q=fetishism#fetish__4


Safety Last! (1923) film; Dir. Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor. 70 minutes. USA: Hal Roach Studios, Pathé Exchange.

The Submarine Pirate (1915) film; Dir. Charles Avery and Syd Chaplin. 14 minutes. USA: Keystone Film Company. 

Three Ages (1923) film; Dir. Edward F. Kline and Buster Keaton. 63 Minutes. USA: Buster Keaton Productions.

“American Masters” Harold Lloyd: The Third Genius, 1992. [Online] Available from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z60yZd9MTes&feature=BFa&list=PL8314099849315292&lf=plpp_video

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