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Comedy Is a Man in Trouble: Slapstick in American Movies

Alan Dale
Copyright Date: 2000
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Comedy Is a Man in Trouble
    Book Description:

    Comedy Is a Man in Trouble presents a lively, accessible, and lavishly illustrated look at a form of comedy that has been expanded and refashioned in film by everyone from W. C. Fields and Marion Davies to Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. Here is not only an amusing look at film comedy history, but an insight into the human condition and what causes us to laugh.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-9197-5
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Preface
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. CHAPTER ONE Comedy Is a Man in Trouble
    (pp. 1-30)

    Since the beginning of the twentieth century, “slapstick” has been our name for popular, rather than literary, low physical comedy. The word derives from an implement—“the double paddles formerly used by circus clowns to beat each other. The loud crack of the two paddle blades as they crashed together could always be depended upon to produce the laughter and applause.” The term is now often used by itself as a pejorative, meaning “merely” low physical comedy, but in part because popular comedy and literary comedy are thought of as belonging to distinct audiences, separate occasions. This was not always...

  5. CHAPTER TWO Chaplin as Proteus, Low-Down and High Up
    (pp. 31-58)

    During Adenoid Hynkel’s harangue to a mass rally in the 1940 burlesque of Nazism,The Great Dictator,Charles Chaplin, as the charismatic leader of Tomainia, leans into a radio microphone, which bends away, holds its new position, and then snaps back toward him. It’s a single sight gag in two modes: when the mike arches away, that’s political satire; when it recoils, that’s slapstick. The impossible back bend is an editorial live-action cartoon in response to the Nuremberg rallies staged by Leni Riefenstahl forTriumph of the Willthat cues us to loathe the Dictator. Itshowsus that Hynkel...

  6. CHAPTER THREE Junior: Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton
    (pp. 59-91)

    The Sunset Inn in Los Angeles, an “ordinary” restaurant at the beach but with “the best dance band in town,” hosted “regular Saturday night parties . . . where [Roscoe] Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, and other comedians entertained everyone well into the morning hours.” When the owners decided to name a dish in honor of star cutup Buster Keaton, they made it a shrimp cocktail. As much as Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton both keyed their comedy to their shrimpy builds. These three clowns, long ranked as the major silent slapstick star, all had wiry, athletic frames on an unimposing...

  7. CHAPTER FOUR Girl Heroes
    (pp. 92-131)

    Theodore Dreiser’s 1928 interview with Mack Sennett produced the following exchange:

    One of the things I [Dreiser] was moved to ask at this point was, slapstick being what it is, was there any limit to the forms or manifestations of this humor? And to my surprise, yes, there was, and is.

    “No joke about a mother ever gets a laugh,” he [Sennett] insisted most dogmatically. “We’ve tried that, and we know. You can’t joke about a mother in even the lightest, mildest way. If you do, the audience sits there cold, and you get no hand. It may not be...

  8. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  9. CHAPTER FIVE The Marx Brothers: The Buoyant Refuse of Our Teeming Shore
    (pp. 132-160)

    Dryden wrote, “The true end of satire is the amendment of vices by correction. And he who writes honestly is no more an enemy to the offender, than the physician to the patient, when he prescribes harsh remedies to an inveterate disease.”Duck Soupis regularly referred to as satire, but does it really seem as if its intention were to improve or heal the citizens watching it? Putting foolish behavior on display doesn’t make a movie a satire. Satire is purposeful and usually compares its objects of ridicule to a norm of better behavior. It hopes to ameliorate. C....

  10. CHAPTER SIX Preston Sturges: Girl in a Jam, Boy in a Jam
    (pp. 161-189)

    In 1890 Elbridge T. Gerry, the founder in 1875 of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, explained his reasons for keeping child performers off the stage:

    The State as the sovereign protects each individual member of its future constituency in the enjoyment of health, vitality, and education, to the end that boys shall, on arriving at maturity, be physically capable of bearing arms in defense of the State and of intelligently exercising the elective franchise; and that girls, on becoming women, shall be so capable of properly discharging the maternal function and of educating their offspring that...

  11. CHAPTER SEVEN Jerry Lewis: The Once and Future King of Comedy
    (pp. 190-212)

    Take it from me, if you need to convince your friends that Jerry Lewis deserves a chapter to himself, show them the 1953 releaseThe Stooge,in which Martin and Lewis play a vaudeville team whose act is based on the nightclub act that had made them big stars in the late forties. Cue the tape to the end to catch Dean Martin singing the team’s signature song in the movie, “Who’s Your Little Whosits?”—one of the times when they peculiarly sing a love song as if to each other—and Lewis, a half step upstage from Martin, miming...

  12. Coda
    (pp. 213-220)

    Jerry Lewis has been the single most important performer of live-action slapstick in the talkie era, and despite his failure to see it, there is a vital link between him and contemporary slapstick comedy. Uncomfortable with the breakdown of censorship in the late sixties, he’s still absurdly prudish about low comedy, saying of the fart jokes in the 1996 remake ofThe Nutty Professor,“Unnecessary.... When comics get in trouble, they go to the toilet.” Nonetheless, the pop climacteric of the counterculture helped make him a major influence on comedians young enough to be his sons. With an accelerating reversion...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 221-236)
  14. Works Cited
    (pp. 237-246)
  15. Index
    (pp. 247-270)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 271-271)