Today, when most people hear the words “silent comedy” they probably think of things like Charlie Chaplin’s silhouette framed in the sunset or twinkly piano music playing over barely decipherable grainy images and, perhaps, people getting kicked up the arse. A lot.
However, behind the music and hand-cranked camera shots lie something else entirely, for those willing to take a look. It is a world of magic- as novelist Paul Auster described in The Book of Illusions saying the films are “like poems, like the renderings of dreams, like some intricate choreography of the spirit.”
Here are the top ten comedians of the era, some well known, others virtually forgotten, all willing to put their bodies, backsides and in some case lives on the line all for the sake of a good laugh:
10. Ben Turpin
Born in 1869 in New Orleans, Turpin was one of the most distinctive faces of the era. This had a lot to do with his permanently crossed-eyes.
Like most stars of the age he began his career on the vaudeville stage developing a rough and tumble act reliant on the usual mix of pratfall and slapstick and he was noted for his athleticism. When cinema silently burst into life he got work at the Essanay studios in 1907 as an actor…and janitor.
Within a few years he’d left his broom pushing days behind. He became an established star of the day, often acting as a foil for Chaplin – who joined the company in 1915.
And behind it all was his crossed eyes.
Turpin was not a comedy machine like Chaplin and Keaton, who often came up with their own gags. He knew most of his laughs stemmed from his appearance; his character would take a courageous stance against something in a movie and have it all undermined by his crossed right eye. His appearance was so important to his act that the star apparently had his eyes insured for $25,000, though this was surely more of a publicity stunt than genuine fear for his crossed vision.
Once Essanay collapsed, Turpin went on to work with Mack Sennett in typically unsubtle and crude slapstick capers and parodies like The Shriek, that parodied Rudolph Valentino’s major hit The Sheik.
Once sound started to kill off most of the era’s greatest stars, Turpin chose to retire- though still made the odd appearance or cameo throughout the thirties. The Laurel and Hardy feature Saps at Sea in 1940 would he his last appearance on screen. He died of a heat attack on July 1 of that year.
9. Larry Semon
One of the most forgotten stars of the era is one Larry Semon. In his day he was a writer, producer, director and star of numerous silent comedies and even appeared in the first-ever big screen version of The Wizard of Oz.
Born in West Point Mississippi in 1889, he was working as a newspaper cartoonist when Vitagraph approached him to write and direct a few films for the emerging company.
Within three months he was starring in them, having already gained stage experience through his magician father Zera the Great. A gifted performer and director he would appear in his films as a white-faced, derby hat wearing klutz who would stumble into a scene and cause all kinds of chaos.
Once his films became successful he was given free-reign to make them any way he wanted. However his ambition – like many a filmmaker who followed – would prove something of a noose for the talented comic. He became known for his elaborate gags and expensive special effects, often insisting on building his own sets from scratch rather than using the standard available backdrops. Vitagraph was not happy and insisted on him underwriting his own films.
By 1926 Semon’s popularity had began to wane and he was back making shorts. In 1928 he filed for bankruptcy and by October of that year he was dead.
8. Mary Pickford
Mary Pickford was America’s original screen sweetheart. Born Gladys Marie Smith in 1892 she was the first female film superstar and could hold her own with anyone on screen or off it.
Early on she talked herself into jobs with D.W. Griffith and appeared in numerous one-reelers for the director. By 1913, she had been hired by Adolph Zukor on five hundred dollars a week. Three years later, she was earning ten thousand.
Her popularity was based around her perceived innocence. She played teenagers well into her adulthood. For example, she played a teen leading a troop of kids through a swamp in 1926’s The Sparrow (she was in her thirties at the time).
By the 1920s she was thought to be the most famous woman in the world, partly down to her gossip inducing marriage to Douglas Fairbanks that lasted until 1936. They often caused riots when they appeared together.
In 1919 she formed United Artists with Fairbanks, Chaplin and D.W. Griffith and wound down her career when the talkies noisily barged their way in, ultimately retiring in 1933.
7. Mabel Normond
If Pickford was the sweet innocent girl next door, Mabel Normond was perhaps the other side of the coin. Writer, director, producer and star Normand was undone by scandal and drug addiction.
She cut her teeth with Charlie Chaplin and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle at Keystone while also having something of a torrid affair with the studio’s head Mack Sennett.
In fact, she played something of a pivotal role in the development of Chaplin’s career. When the future mega-star arrived at the studios he had trouble adjusting from stage to screen and it seemed his tenure at Keystone would be a short one. It was Normond who stood up for the young English comic and convinced Mack Sennett to retain him.
Chaplin’s Tramp character also made its first ever appearance in the Normond-led vehicle Mabel’s Strange Predicament in 1914 though it would be the second Tramp film released.
However, by the early twenties, there was trouble brewing. After taking to drugs she was implicated in the mysterious murder of her close friend William Desmond Taylor, being the last known person to see him alive. She would go on to make a few more films during the twenties though declining health and TB led to her death in 1930.
6. Fatty Arbuckle
There is perhaps no more tragic a clown in film history than Roscoe Arbuckle. The rotund comedian who would forever be known as Fatty was the first major screen comic. Only Chaplin could stand next to him in terms of box office receipts and worldwide fame. The rise from plumber’s assistant to million-dollar a year movie star was meteoric, however the fall would be just as sharp.
Roscoe was never as ambitious as Chaplin and always felt that you should appeal to the lowest common denominator in movies rather than the highest – it was a constant source of disagreement between him and his good friend Buster Keaton – and his films were destined to eventually pale next to Charlie, Buster and others whether scandal gripped him or not. Still he was a graceful and acrobatic comic for such a big man and much of the mayhem from his pre-scandal shorts still endure – particularly those that feature the young Keaton.
Anyway, his influence on the world of comedy cannot be ignored. It was Arbuckle who gave Buster Keaton both his break in movies and his on-set schooling. He also mentored Charlie Chaplin.
While at the top of his game and about to enter the world of feature length films the Virginia Rappe scandal hit. The young actress died shortly after a party thrown by Arbuckle in San Francisco, with Roscoe accused of raping her. The media was out to get the unregulated movie industry and Arbuckle would be its first martyr. Three trials followed before the star was finally acquitted with the jury even going so far as to say, “acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle. We feel that a great injustice has been done to him.”
He might have been innocent in the eyes of this jury but his career was in ruins and he grew a lonely and bitter man over the ensuing years, until finally the forgotten star was given his shot at a comeback.
In 1932 he appeared in a couple of solid two-reelers and, seemingly forgiven by the public, was ready to make a fully-fledged comeback. Warner gave him his shot and on June 23 1933 he signed a contract that would see him make feature length films for the company. It was, he said, the best day of his life. That night he died of a heart attack.
5. Harold Lloyd
Harold Lloyd was one of the biggest stars of the day, he replaced Arbuckle as the only star that could compete with Chaplin and at his peak far outshined the likes of Keaton and Laurel and Hardy.
He got his break working with Hal Roach in 1913 and became his most successful comic. From 1915 – 1917 he appeared in more than sixtie one-reel comedies.
In 1918 he invented the “glasses” character, an optimistic go-getter constantly striving for success. While filming some publicity for the studio an exploding prop cost him the thumb and index finger on his right hand, like the character he made famous he didn’t let this stop him.
His most famous role would be in Safety Last. Released in 1923 it would forever enshrine the fresh-faced all-American in the public’s mind. The film saw Lloyd scale the side of a building in a bid to attract people to the general store he was working at and get the one thousand dollars on offer for doing so. The scene would inspire every other comic going. Chaplin created the house teetering on the edge of a cliff scene in The Gold Rush because of it and Keaton was pushed to even greater and crazier stunts as a result.
The films that followed, such as Girl Shy, The Freshman and Speedy would all be hugely successful and leave Lloyd a very wealthy man. Once the talkies arrived he took a back seat in the film industry. During the depression era thirties the optimism that once made him a star now grated with the public and his popularity declined. He received a Lifetime Achievement Academy Award in 1953 and died from prostate cancer in 1971.
4. Oliver Hardy
One half of the screen’s first great comic duo, Ollie Hardy became entranced by film from an early age. In fact he worked as a projectionist, ticket taker, janitor and manager of his local nickelodeon in Georgia.
The first movie of his many many film appearances arrived in the form of Outwitting Dad in 1914 and over the next decade he would make over two hundred shorts, often featuring Larry Semon before he was finally united with Stan Laurel in 1927.
The duo churned out the shorts at an enormous rate with stuff like The Battle of the Century featuring probably the most over-the-top pie fight in film history, Another Fine Mess (which perhaps enshrined Ollie’s catchphrase in the public’s imagination, though in reality he always said “that’s another nice mess”) and the classic Big Business.
Hardy and his partner were also two of the few comedians of the age who actually made the successful jump to sound and so their films have probably been watched by more people since compared to anyone else on this list.
3. Stan Laurel
Stan was always the fall guy for the duo on screen. Off screen, he was the brains behind the pair.
Like Chaplin, he was born in England in 1880. He joined Fred Karno’s troupe of actors in 1910 along with a young Charles Chaplin and was Chaplin’s understudy at one point.
In 1926, he joined the Hal Roach studio and started directing his own films intending to work primarily as a writer and director. Things changed when he met Oliver Hardy in 1927. Hal Roach noticed the chemistry pretty quickly and the two became stars.
While their fame extended beyond the silent era and they were more famous after the advent of sound, the duo’s silent movies hold up better today. Regardless of the silliness of the premise, though, the pair were always a welcome sight on screen.
Their careers started to wane after the 1940s around the time Stan Laurel was diagnosed with the diabetes and the health problems that would dog the two of them until Ollie died in 1957. Stan Laurel, his old friend, would follow in January of 1965.
2. Charlie Chaplin
No one is more synonymous with the silent era and film comedy itself than Charles Chaplin. People around the world who have never seen a silent film know the Chaplin silhouette, the shabby suit, the bowler hat.
His influence is considerable. Up until the Tramp arrived film comics were based firmly in the realm of cartoonish slapstick. Fatty Arbuckle could get hit over the head with a frying pan and be back on his feet seconds later without any lasting damage.
Chaplin’s film making genius and storytelling instincts would change all that. Take the film The Tramp, released in 1915. It sees the unfortunate vagabond getting mistakenly shot as he chases some thieves away, he falls to the ground and we cut to the next scene. Audiences at the time would have been expecting him to be fine; however, the Tramp is not back on his feet but is actually in bed nursing his wounds.
Once he made the leap to feature films he would get even more ambitious.
Movies such as The Kid and Modern Times mixed comedy and pathos in a way rarely seen on screen before, while his gifts as a storyteller and actor are matched by very few in the history of film. His sentimentality is perhaps slightly at odds with the cynicism of the industry today but his output remains as timeless and fresh as the day of its release.
1. Buster Keaton
Keaton gets the number one spot. Though in reality the differences between him and Chaplin are pretty negligible, Keaton’s style was very different. Where Chaplin’s Tramp appealed to the sentimental and emotional Keaton’s appeal was much more cerebral.
He was born in 1895 to a family of travelling vaudevillians. Famed for his invincibility, he got his schooling on stage at the hands of his father Joe who would unceremoniously use him as a human mop or flip him into the orchestra pit – from around the age of five.
It was Arbuckle that showed him the way in film, though he knew he could do better than his friend’s simplistic, crude shorts. Once he went out on his own in 1920 he never looked back.
The Great Stoneface was not only a great comic, he was also one of the world’s finest stuntman. Films like The General and Our Hospitality – where Keaton almost drowned – set the standard though that was completely surpassed by the final scene in Steamboat Bill Jnr. It features Keaton lost in a hurricane during which the front of a house falls directly for him. An open window in the roof of the house saves him.
It is not, in case you’re wondering, a false wall, nor is there any camera tricks.Keaton marked his spot and stood on it, he had precisely two inches of space above his head and shoulders. Any deviation, a stray gust of wind say and the three thousand pounds of wall would surely cripple him, at best.
Much of the crew couldn’t watch while Keaton himself remembers standing there and not caring whether it hit him or not. He did survive of course, though this would be the last great – and greatest – stunt he would pull.
Part of the reason he took the shot on was he had just been told that his contract was being bought up by MGM and the total freedom he had previously enjoyed would be lost. Working within the studio system killed Keaton’s career – and his spirit too – he became an alcoholic and never reclaimed his past glories.
He would however live to see his films acclaimed and cheered all over again in the sixties, finally getting the credit his work demanded, even if all the attention did come a few decades too late. He died from lung cancer on February 1, 1966.
Read our list about why Buster Keaton was a true badass.