December 22, 2009  |  An Auteurist History of Film
Send in the Clowns

These notes accompany the program Send in the Clowns, screening on December 23 and 24 in Theater 3.

While this is intended as a fun holiday program, a few comments might be in order. First, I should acknowledge my personal prejudice against slapstick. I have felt that Charles Chaplin and Buster Keaton rose to the heights of screen comedy by distancing themselves from their Sennett/Normand/Arbuckle roots. I know this hurts colleagues like our estimable pianist Ben Model and other friends, but the philosophy of “anything for a laugh” (evident also in most of Mel Brooks’s work and the early films of Woody Allen) seems incongruous to me, if we are talking about “ART.” I won’t even dignify The Three Stooges or Abbott and Costello (there go my other friends) with a mention. (So kindly disregard that mention.) Seriously, though, I have always sought out some logical structure, character development, or visual invention in determining the worthiness of a film. This doesn’t mean that I am incapable of laughing at silly antics, and I fully acknowledge that some of Keaton’s (The General, Steamboat Bill, Jr.) and Chaplin’s (Monsieur Verdoux, Limelight) greatest works can sometimes be painfully unfunny, but there is an imaginary line in what’s left of my brain that makes me distinguish between entertainment for its own sake and art. However, I don’t wish to rain on your parade or your holiday spirit. If nothing else, this program attempts to establish a lineage that eventually leads to greatness.

Mack Sennett (1880–1960), another D. W. Griffith disciple, established the Keystone Studio in 1912, and the great clowns flocked to him. It is legitimate to consider him an auteur, although I would not want to risk a custard pie in the face or a sudden depantsing by getting too close to the screen personality he seemed to embody. While he remained active through 1935, I challenge anyone to cite a near-great film that he made. His gift was in providing a haven or school for ambitious young talents.

Among these talents was Mabel Normand (1894–1930), one of the first women to perch behind the camera and the cinema’s greatest comedienne before the heyday of the equally lovely Marion Davies. It is probably pointless to argue that she had a directorial style or a feminist bent differing from that of Sennett, although I know of scholars who are trying to do just that. As with her compatriot Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Hollywood’s overreaction to scandal ruined her career and hastened an untimely death.

“Fatty” Arbuckle (1887–1933), in addition to making his own films, had the distinction of mentoring both Chaplin and Keaton. As I suggested at the time of the Museum’s Arbuckle retrospective in 2006, Fatty’s persona as the “jolly fat man” constrained him from being something more than that. The more conventionally good-looking Chaplin and Keaton could eventually aspire to roles that were more promising, leading to their ultimate transcendence of slapstick.

Chaplin (1889–1977) and Keaton (1895–1966) will reappear in the coming weeks as the giants they were.

This week at the Museum there are a number of films otherwise worthy of inclusion in An Auteurist History of Film that you should try to catch: James Whale’s Frankenstein on December 26, Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari on December 26, and Paul Wegener’s The Golem on December 28.