Comic Relief in Silent Crime Films: A Reconciliation
This paper was originally written for the “Crime and Violence in American Film” course within the Film and Media Studies graduate program at Arizona State University, completed October 12, 2019.
Crime and violence in films of the silent era (1887–1928) are described, in hindsight, as silly and unrealistic. However, the drama and impact of crime and violence in the earliest days of cinema was regarded as affecting and influential. Violence, in this case, does not entirely mean “graphic;” filmmakers through the silent era “did not feel the need to temper the violence of the period, but rather reflected the criminal activities they witnessed” (Finn and Langman xi). Within these narratives, writers and filmmakers were already giving early cinematic indications of American mythmaking’s incompatibilities and reconciliatory nature. This was accomplished, sometimes consciously and sometimes not, through comic relief archetypes that altered pace and audience perception. In some cases, an absence of comic relief elements led to films attempting to move past the inconsistencies of the Hollywood plot formulae and American myth, especially and fittingly overseas.
In “The Thematic Paradigm — The Resolution of Incompatible Values,” author Robert B. Ray illustrates Classical Hollywood films’ mode of raising problems then apparently solving them, but through “the troubling incompatibility of traditional American myths” (147). Characters like Huckleberry Finn represent the “Good Bad Boys” of American myth, a through line to the “outlaw hero” (Ray 148). “Official heroes,” the “Good Good Boys,” and their conflict with the outlaw heroes represent natural man versus civilized man, as Ray puts it (148). This central yin-yang argument is found at the heart of many American stories, which often distills larger sociological or philosophical points into the experience of individuals. The comic relief archetypes developed in crime films across the silent era, which continued into the Classical Hollywood sound era, included figures such as servants, journalists, and low-ranking criminals and law enforcement officials. They represented the reconciliation of incompatible values (violence versus humor) into a palatable and sustainable story model, which Hollywood continues to employ.
An important part of this reconciliation is formal. As the film industry shifted from short subjects to feature length films in the mid 1910s, filmmakers were faced with a problem then new to their craft: how could longer movies capture and maintain an audience’s attention? As genres became more defined, filmmakers also had to find ways to subvert them or provide just enough deviation to give new experiences to viewers. This is part of operating within the American mythmaking process; storytellers, and the filmmakers of early Hollywood in this case, created familiar stories with plot points just different enough so as to continue business, and cultivate a feeling of cultural progression. The rise of comic relief in otherwise violent crime films is a perfect distillation of this conflict. Comic relief was a relatively simple answer to the “predicament” of placating an audience, in the most pure entertainment sense, that could get “bored” from too much of the same in a story: tone, characters, events, action.
The Great Train Robbery (Porter, 1903) was America’s first significant crime film. At 12 minutes long, it developed the realism of film with more complex editing and more realistic scenes of violence and murder. It did not, however, feature any scenes of comic relief. The Musketeers of Pig Alley (Griffith, 1912), often considered the first gangster film, ran 16 minutes. It too stuck to its apparent mission of gritty drama, and while its short duration, motion, and luminance varied more widely than The Great Train Robbery, it also didn’t contain moments of real levity.
One of the first feature-length crime and/or gangster films, Regeneration (Walsh, 1915), told a story of a poverty-stricken Irish-American boy turning to a life of crime as he enters adulthood. Despite its tale of corruption, Walsh juxtaposed seedy environments, such as a bar frequented by the criminals, with comic interpretations of human foibles, such as a drunk man seeing an imagined fish in his beer. The brief moments of levity in Regeneration speak to the effect of pace on an audience. The shots are longer and literally brighter, while the motion contained within them increases. The combination of these elements makes for a cognitive connection to the comic relief sequences beyond the fact that they’re “funny.” In Regeneration, the comic relief sequences also look and feel different stylistically.
The concept of “pace” was being developed into a more recognizable Hollywood formula by the mid-1910s while features, as mentioned, were being designed to hold audiences’ attention more strongly. Shot duration, motion, and luminance (lighting) were developed across the silent era and beyond to “facilitate an increase in the engagement of moviegoers” (Cutting). Many dramatic films began to “overlap other genres,” while “more elaborate plotting and more complex characters” were introduced to capture a new middle-class audience that could now be convinced film was enjoyable on the level of the stage or literature (Finn and Langman xiv).
The paragon of “dramedic” pace, Buster Keaton, fused these disciplines most notably in The General (Bruckman & Keaton, 1926). Although not a crime film, this war story was rife with comic yet otherwise violent sequences of mayhem. An experiment in a more dramatic story for Keaton, The General received some criticism for its slow pace. However, its reversal of Keaton’s usual pace (comedies with brief beats of drama to a dramatic picture with beats of comedy) indicates the balance more defined and violent dramas attempted to capture. In a distillation of film theorist André Bazin’s writings, Noel Carroll explains a cinematic experience based on editing relies on inference “since the spectator must fill in so many unseen details as well as spatial and narrative relations.” The montage Keaton employed for The General is reflected in the shifts in tone and therefore pace, which can increase engagement, in the crime films of his peers.
Another part of early Hollywood reconciliation in silent crime films was in the actual content and subject matter. Audiences were given comic sequences in the midst of dramatic, macabre, and violent stories not only to keep them interested, but also to ensure the message of “crime doesn’t pay” was supported.
Although comedy in an otherwise dramatic or violent film might set up further thrills or shield audiences from them to some extent, it generally indicated the return of a status quo. When supported by moments of levity, the illegal activities of film characters did not exist in a vacuum. This is the manifestation of a “sensory reflexivity,” as Miriam Bratu Hansen describes it, that flourished particularly in the slapstick comedies of the silent era. This reflexivity is a counter to a certain reality. Early “haunted house” comedy-mystery The Bat (West, 1926) is based in a reality where the presence of a murderous thief brings out ridiculous behavior in a number of people. However, the idea of an ever-present threat is undercut by comic figures who, together, thwart a criminal, weakening and ridiculing illicit activities.
In The Racket (Milestone, 1928), the extreme head-butting of policeman James McQuigg (Thomas Meighan) and gangster Nick Scarsi (Louis Wolheim) is given an everyman chronicle by the comic journalist characters Miller (Richard “Skeets” Gallagher) and Pratt (Lee Moran). In general, newspaper men in the silent era “were defined on screen by brashness and cunning” (Mitchell and Saltzman). These journalists “embodied the myth of the self-reliant individual who pits nerves and resourcefulness against an unfair society” (Mitchell and Saltzman). Miller and Pratt fit this stereotype, but were given a twist: they acted as buffoons who happen to get involved or witness the key dramatic moments of the movie. They represent the forces that connect the audience to the criminal element. Miller and Pratt are outsiders to the direct, dangerous action of the movie and therefore stand-ins for the audience. At the same time, they are also figures of ridicule; the pair are unscrupulous and Miller is a drunk, evidencing the early love/hate relationship with the press (Mitchell and Saltzman). This is itself another microcosm of the hypocrisy of American myths and their heroes and villains, figures that are interchangeable throughout history. Regardless, this characterization removes the audience from true acknowledgement of direct danger.
The correlation between the formal and narrative formulae cannot be ignored. “Such formulae serve many functions,” Cutting wrote in “The evolution of pace in popular movies.” “Indeed, the familiarity and similarity of narrative forms help to bind a culture, to educate, and to entertain.” Comic relief in crime films, especially in its incubatory form during the silent era, was heralding an era where audiences could take in increasingly “troubling” media while being assured it was all part of the fictional program. This was the binding. Audiences were educated with the assurance, as mentioned, that crime doesn’t pay. And they were entertained, compelled to sit through these binding and educational experiences, by the appeal of comedy. “Classical narration ultimately amounts to a method of optimally guiding the viewer’s attention and maximizing his or her response by way of more intricate plots and emotional tensions,” wrote Hansen in “The Mass Production of the Senses: Classical Cinema as Vernacular Modernism.” This fusion of the formal methods (“optimally guiding”) and the subject matter (“maximizing his or her response”) is a helpful description of the purpose of comic relief in silent crime films. Ultimately, most anyone enjoys comedy in some form; it relieves tension and generally improves the appeal of a person or product. Hollywood films succeeded at a mass level because they “meant different things to different people and publics” (Hansen). Whether it deepened the drama or alleviated it, comic relief provided a unique appeal amid the violent sequences of crime films.
In the silent comedy world, this compartmentalization of humor and danger is best represented by Harold Lloyd. Often representing the everyman striving for success in a modern world, Lloyd and his character, “The Boy,” somewhat ignored the true difficulty of upward mobility by imbuing underprivileged beginnings with miraculous contrivances. The Boy was “harassed, befuddled and beset,” but he “was also a survivor and could show flashes of fire, courage, defiance and ingenuity” (Champlin). In Safety Last! (Newmeyer & Taylor, 1923), Lloyd is placed in a dramatic, action-packed sequence as he climbs a building. The moments of danger are beats within a comic structure, adding an element of risk for an audience accustomed to the “easy” pleasure of watching a typical comedy film. Such comic beats in a crime film do the opposite, easing the appearance of a world gone amok.
Some silent crime films, however, did away almost entirely with alleviating practices. These movies often operated outside of the Hollywood machine, whether abroad or at a low-profile level in the United States. And in hindsight, these movies are often credited with bringing a more realistic or sociologically conscious approach to the origins and practice of crime, existing less squarely in the American mythmaking mode. Comedy does not indicate a lack of thoughtfulness, but there is a certain correlation between silent crime films now regarded as harbingers of liberal or progressive thought and an absence of comic relief. This relation is less a condemnation of comedy as an “opiate of the masses,” and indeed it is often the opposite, but more likely a response to the process taking root in Hollywood that made unrealistic assertions about complicated and dramatic situations. That is, that problems could be solved so easily with a bit of determination and good nature…and yes, fighting crime or being a criminal could be fun.
Josef von Sternberg’s The Salvation Hunters (1925) would not necessarily be categorized as a “crime film.” However, its exploration of a seedy environment and its exploration of sex work (then and still legally and socially a crime) indicated the origins of the desperate acts individuals may take. And it was made outside of the Hollywood system, ultimately distributed by United Artists but made primarily on the streets of San Pedro and Los Angeles’ Chinatown.
Abroad, German filmmaker Fritz Lang depicted the machinations of a criminal genius in Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922). As described by Martin Blumenthal-Barby, the titular mastermind “is characterized by a paradox.” The criminal employs disguises to be invisible yet ever-present. This paradox goes further in the structure of the film itself; Dr. Mabuse the Gambler is beholden to Hollywood adventure serials from as far back as the mid-1910s, and yet it doesn’t resolve its dangerous reality like those films, or even like its contemporary peers. Although Mabuse is ultimately captured, his development as a Satanic character would imply there is still evil left in his wake (Blumenthal-Barby). Indeed, much of Mabuse’s initial plans revolved around the manipulation of the stock market. Even after the collapse of his empire, Mabuse’s fictional influence will be felt for some time. There was a direct relation to the German market’s inflation of the time, a clear commentary on a contemporary issue. The reconciliation described by Ray would find the status quo restored by Mabuse’s capture in another film. But that is not the case in Lang’s, especially since he produced sequels which showed that nefarious forces would always prey on society.
In these films, Siegfried Kracauer’s assertion that cinema could be a “self-representation of the masses subject to the process of mechanization” could be reflected. Mechanization, in this case, leads to crime that exists out of the structure. This is not to say Hollywood films that furthered American mythmaking had nothing to say about crime or society. But the intention to do so is made less clear by a device like comic relief, which is notably absent in The Salvation Hunters and Dr. Mabuse the Gambler.
Credited as the key importer of “pathos” into comedy, Charlie Chaplin is now recognized as the most socially conscious comedy filmmaker of the silent era. Ryan Errington, in describing the themes of Chaplin’s sound works Modern Times, The Great Dictator, and A King in New York, nevertheless hit on Chaplin’s silent era ethos: “Chaplin challenged American industries’ working methods and stood up against political acts, which were accepted under the guise of patriotism.” Chaplin’s stance on “patriotism” was defined as early as 1917 with his short The Immigrant. In the comedy, he depicts the plight of American immigrants effectively, juxtaposing the difficulty of communicating, earning money, or even avoiding being treated like cattle en route to the land of opportunity with slapstick routines. As opposed to the comic relief sequences in many Hollywood crime films and the lack of them elsewhere, Chaplin embraced comedy as a tool for commentary. He took a third route to shepherding his audience to themes he wanted to communicate, using American myths to move past them rather than falling into their patterns (knowingly or not) or clearly taking a stand against them. Eventually, it would cause his exile from America, when in the 1950s the House Un-American Activities Committee found Chaplin’s messages dangerous.
Authorities recognized the potential effect on audiences (and therefore the potential of subversive messages to be communicated to the masses) relatively early on in cinema’s life. In a 1928 League of Nations Child Welfare Committee report, an Italian delegate expressed concern that dark screening rooms and the content of a romantic film could “appeal to his [a child’s] lowest instincts and least noble passions.” The same reasoning could be exported to crime film experiences, and in fact, the same report addressed that issue as well. Two delegates related that children’s judges of their respective France and Belgium “are unanimously of the opinion that the harmful influence of the cinema is one of the principal causes of crime among children.” The conclusion of this report stated that a crime film “publicly represents the facts of life in a way which cannot but over-excite the imagination of children and awaken their natural curiosity while satisfying it in an unwholesome manner.” The moderating influence of subsequent comic relief, which may make a life of crime seem “fun,” could have been an imaginative representation of a “fact of life” that the League of Nations delegates feared.
The fears of crime films turning the youth to a life of illegal activities may have been sensationalized, but the thought behind it is indicative of the American mythmaking reconciliation, which as Hansen points out, was exported internationally with great success. The development of a Hollywood formula that engaged audiences visually at a new level, supplemented by a growing editing, lighting, and movement pace, allowed the mass communication of stories and ideas to flourish. It was with that entertaining mode that filmmakers were able to thrill audiences with violence and crime, while also providing comic relief to make both the comedy and drama stand out more starkly. As for the messages communicated with such techniques, comic relief was employed to reinforce the status quo and a happy life not defined by crime and violence. Comic relief sequences would come before and after violent or dramatic sequences, most effectively deepening the “serious moments” by predicating it with fun ones and serving to help the audience “recover” by closing out a traumatic scene with a bit of levity.
Furthermore, the presence of comic relief did not guarantee a thoughtless or impactless film. However, its absence, especially outside the Hollywood system whether in America or abroad, often implied an effort to make stronger sociological comments on the nature of the crime and violence being depicted. Comic relief in crime films, especially in the crucial era of cinematic development that was the silent movie industry, was an extrapolation of an American mythmaking process that had begun centuries earlier. Comedy is felt more strongly in the wake of tragedy, and vice versa. The progenitors of mass media, the filmmakers of the silent era, capitalized on this to communicate a broad array of messages that was born from and contributed to a comprehensive, American way of telling stories.
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