In today’s world of crash-bang-wallop CGI effects and state-of-the-art sound, it is hard to imagine that films were once silent. Join us as we take a trip down to the studio lot to recall some mirthmeisters of yore
Buster Keaton: Comic genius Keaton barely made it out of childhood. On one fateful day not long before he was three, he was hit by a flying brick and then got sucked out of a window by a tornado and deposited in the street. He honed his skills performing on stage in a travelling show with his parents, and in the years between 1920 and 1929 he made a series of films that arguably make him the greatest actor-director ever. With his constant stoic, expressionless demeanour and expert stunt work, he ensured films such as Sherlock Jr, Go West and Seven Chances are still enjoyed today. But it is his 1926 film The General that wins the most plaudits even today. The work led no less a person than Orson Welles to quip that it was “the greatest comedy ever made, the greatest Civil War film ever made, and perhaps the greatest film ever made”.
Laurel and Hardy: Although they first appeared together on screen in 1921, US-born Oliver Hardy and UK-born Stan Laurel’s career only really took off after they signed with Hal Roach’s studio, where they were to stay for the next 20 years, in 1926. Their humour centred on visual comedy with a high degree of slapstick, usually centred on an argument between the pair ending up with cartoon-like violence, the best example of which can be seen in the classic short Big Business. Hardy’s tall stature and portly frame contrasted perfectly with Laurel’s slight body, giving the air of an unlikely partnership. Both being fine actors, they easily transferred to the advent of sound in film in the late 1920s and they were successful throughout the 1930s and far into the 1940s, a high point being 1932’s The Music Box.
Charlie Chaplin: Synonymous with both silent film and comedy, Charlie Chaplin needs no introduction. Even if you have never seen his films, you will be familiar with his iconic apparel of a slightly too-small bowler hat and rumpled baggy dark suit, topped off with a swinging cane – not to mention the ‘Hitler’ moustache. Born in London in 1889, he made his fortune and became world famous after moving to the US. Shifting from contract studio star to producer/director in his own right, he became the most-popular star of the silent era. His popularity in the US foundered in the 1940s, mainly due to an anti-capitalist speech at the end of his film The Great Dictator, a parody of Adolf Hitler. This made him the target of a political witch-hunt that prompted him to move to Europe. But his work lives on and many of his films are considered classics today.
Harold Lloyd. He began his film career starring in silent shorts as a character not dissimilar to Charlie Chaplin’s classic persona. Soon though, he decided to present a character more akin to his actual self and success was his. Well known for doing his own hair-raising stunts – he was temporarily blinded and lost most of his right hand in an explosion – his action-packed romantic comedies rivalled Chaplin’s in popularity. His most famous scene is in Safety Last in which he dangles from the hands of a clock above the city streets. The clock scene has been much copied, notably in Back to the Future and Martin Scorsese’s Hugo. Lloyd made the move into producing his own work and became an innovator with his pioneering use of test audiences, but sadly by the 1930s – despite embracing talking pictures early on – cinema-goers had tired of his character.
Fatty Arbuckle: Mentor of Charlie Chaplin and the man who discovered Buster Keaton and Bob Hope, plus a successful comedian, actor, screenwriter and director to boot, the rotund man born Roscoe Arbuckle was up there with the most popular and highest paid silent-era stars. Despite his girth, the star dubbed “The Prince of Whales” and “The Balloonatic” was nimble and agile and this, along with his pie-in-the-face-mournful-look shtick, propelled him into audiences’ hearts. He quickly found himself rejected though, as a 1921 arrest for the rape and manslaughter of an actress and the subsequent negative press coverage saw him fall out of favour with fans. Despite a hung jury in two trials and an acquittal in a third, he was never to reach the highs of his early career, a victim of poison column inches in the newspapers of tycoon William Randolph Hearst.
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