Film historians tend to treat early European film comedy and the American style of slapstick as two independent traditions, but in fact there was a great deal of bilateral trade being conducted during the silent era. The prolonged chases and bizarre visual gags of turn-of-the-century French comedies directly influenced American producers like Mack Sennett, while Hollywood’s genius for creating vivid star personalities found its reflection in Europe’s feature-length comedies of the 1920s. Certain comedy creators and performers, like Max Linder, Marcel Perez, and Leonce Perret, were busy cross-pollinators, working on both continents and using the best of both traditions.
Another important factor was the onslaught of British comics in American films following the huge success of Charlie Chaplin. Producers, eager to hop on the Chaplin gravy train, sought out performers with similar English stage backgrounds, and created the original “British Invasion” of American popular culture. The expressive pantomime and knockabout gags of the English music hall tradition quickly took root in Hollywood slapstick and, thanks to trans-fertilization, soon ended up in French, Italian, and German films.
By tracing the circulation of comic styles, this series suggests that the European and American silent comedies share a common ancestry and a common aim: laughter without borders.
Organized by Dave Kehr, Curator, and Brittany Shaw, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Film, The Museum of Modern Art; and independent curators Steve Massa and Ben Model.
The organizers wish to thank Robert Arkus, Association Chaplin, BFI, Eileen Bowser, Serge Bromberg, Rob Byrne, CNC, Rachel Del Gaudio, EYE Filmmuseum, The Library of Congress, Lobster Films, Mike Mashon, Elif Rongen-Kaynakci, San Francisco Silent Film Festival, Lynanne Schweighhofer, the late Charles Silver, Rob Stone, and Undercrank Productions.