Prod.: Pathé; 35mm. L.: 20 m. D.: 1’ a 16 f/s
Few scholars have stressed that after the dominance of the actuality genre during cinema’s first years, comedy was the next genre to arise. Sight gags and slapstick humor fit in immediately with the forms of early cinema, relying on brevity, immediate comprehension, and a universal language of pranks and accidents. Gags offered cinema’s first narrative form. It followed an elementary two-part logic: first, the “set-up” (e.g. mischievous boy arranges prank on old man), followed by the “pay-off”, (e.g. the old man get doused, besmirched or otherwise humiliated). The gag also created the first elementary character types (or roles) in cinema, especially the trickster and the tricked.
Early film comedies are not afraid of either absurdity or cruelty. In the best slapstick tradition, violence, pain and disaster are manufactured in order to raise a laugh. Drunks are robbed; concierges smashed behind swinging doors; and various people swerve down crowed avenues in a variety of out-of-control vehicles. The human body’s capacity for clumsiness, embarrassment and unsightly transformation provides a basic aspect of early comedy. The possibility of longer comedies arose around 1903 with the simple structure of concatenation: adding a series of gags together with a single character. The most frequent protagonists were mischievous boys causing a series of disasters, followed closely by rubes and country folk who simply don’t understand the ways of the modern world. Early comedy is less a genre of gifted comedians, than a series of cartoons brought to life: vulgar, lively, good-spirited and unwilling to let anything – class privilege, family, manners or logic – stand in the way of a good joke.