In my blog Hollywood in the 1920s Part 3: The Comics, I highlighted comedians who were popular in the silent era: Laurel and Hardy, Harold Lloyd, Harry Langdon and Buster Keaton. Well, with the advent of sound came new kinds of comedians who became popular because of how they used sound in service of their humor.
Although I have covered Charlie Chaplin in previous blogs, I would be remiss not to briefly mention him again here. Thanks to his Tramp character, Chaplin maintained the spirit of his silent films in the sound era and he was able to bypass the studio gatekeepers and continue releasing silent films in the 1930s through his own film studio United Artists due to his well-deserved popularity. City Lights and Modern Times remain cinematic classics to this day.
The Marx Brothers
The zany Marx Brothers were the perfect examples of the types of comedians who would not be as successful in the silent era as in the sound era. There were four brothers with distinct personas, Groucho Marx the cigar-smoking womanizing wise guy, Chico Marx the con artist who spoke in a (phony?) Italian accent, Harpo Marx the pantomime troublemaker who never talks but still managed to be the noisiest of the brothers, and Zeppo Marx the straight man.
The four brothers started out in Vaudeville and they adapted their hit stage play The Cocoanuts to film in 1929. That success was followed by other films which were some of the funniest of the thirties, my personal favorites being Horse Feathers (1932), Duck Soup (1933) and A Night at the Opera (1935) which was the best of them all.
Mae West’s comic persona was a parody of the amoral sensual hedonist, and she pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable in Hollywood more than any other comic at the time, often reveling in double entendres of a sexual nature. Her risqué humor was toned down after the Hays Code went into effect and never recovered, but her pre-code film She Done Him Wrong (1933) was the film that was most fully a representation of West’s own voice. Afterwards, she could never again get away with lines like “Are you packin’ a rod or are you just glad to see me?”
W.C. Fields, a Vaudevillian who started out as a silent film actor, became a huge star in the thirties, and just like Mae West and the Marx Brothers, he was a crude antidote to the glamorized sentimentality of the era and he entertained audiences with his brash vulgarity. The character Fields often embodied in his films was that of a drinking, smoking, gambling, swearing snob who had an aura of superiority while in reality being an unlucky sap. In other words, the stuff comedy was made of. My favorite film of his is It’s a Gift (1934).
The Three Stooges
The slapstick-filled shorts of the Three Stooges had been around since the twenties and the cast has changed throughout the years, but they were at peak popularity from 1934 to 1946 when the Stooges at the center of the calamity were Moe Howard, Curly Howard and Larry Fine.
The Three Stooges are not highly regarded. They were unpopular with many critics at the time and are often overlooked by film scholars, not necessarily because their films were violent and bad-natured but because they lacked the subtlety or emotional depth of Chaplin or even the sharp wit of the Marx Brothers. To be fair, this is correct. The Stooges often lacked the discipline to reach their comedic potential because they favored gratuitous jokes and often suspended narrative structure, but I would argue that their low brow and unsophisticated approach is part of their appeal. Even former Tonight Show host Steve Allen said that it didn’t matter that critics didn’t like them because they did their jobs and made people laugh.
It is true that the Stooges are incredibly popular and have outlasted many other comedians, even gaining new fans on television to this day and it is likely due to their lack of pretention. All they care about is making you laugh and if you’re the type of person who likes slapstick (like me) they will likely make you laugh.
Also to be fair to critics, upon DVD releases of The Three Stooges shorts, some critics have grown to appreciate the style and approach to comedy that these films demonstrate (not that Larry, Moe and Curly would care what those high brow snobs think).