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Comedy is a Man
in Trouble

Slapstick in American Movies

By Alan Dale




Comedy is a Man in Trouble: Slapstick in American Movies
By Alan Dale

University of Minnesota Press : Minneapolis, Minnesota : 2002
ISBN 0-8166-3658-3 : 271 pages : trade paperback : $18.95

Reviewed by Carl Bennett
“I do not know that I have a carefully thought-out theory on exactly what makes people laugh, but the premise of all comedy is a man in trouble.” This quote from Jerry Lewis begins this examination of American slapstick films that is, in turns, an enthusiastically low-brow appraisal of comedy films and an overtly academic exercise in strident party-line intellectualism. To his credit, author Alan Dale acknowledges the difficulties in writing any kind of serious analysis of something so irreverent as slapstick comedy, and often he manages to discuss what slapstick is and what it achieves with the fervor of a true fanatic. However, occasionally, he also succombs to his own conflicting impulses and wanders into the realm of the pedant, taking on a stodgily professorial tone.

The book does not focus exclusively on silent slapstick, although Dale acknowledges that the genre reached a frantic pinnacle during the era. After an introductory chapter, the subsequent sections examine the silent-era subjects of Charles Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, and female film comedians in some detail (and, to a lesser extent, other comedians). Additional chapters cover the Marx Brothers, Preston Sturges and Jerry Lewis.

The reader should be forewarned that, in this book, Alan Dale has an annoyingly contentious bone to pick. He is aggressively eager to express his frustration with the consensus assessment of the artistic value of Chaplin’s films, and early on in the book takes the opportunity to state and restate his contrary opinion.

“I’m not suggesting that there’s no pleasure in pathos,” Dale says, “. . . that’s objectively wrong. The problem in Chaplin is that when he gets weepy, he seems to be inviting the audience to join in a session of mutual self-congratulation for identifying with his unappreciated soulfulness, encouraging us to whimper, We’re too good for this world, too, Charlie!”

Dale is quick to condemn and separate himself from the unwashed masses. His repugnance over Chaplin’s oil-and-water mixing of comedy and pathos (at one point characterizing the ending of City Lights [1931] as “masochistic”) is made hollow by his own tendency to idealize certain films by European filmmakers that have been annointed by the academic conspiracy of ‘that which is of artistic value.’ He writes that European filmmakers have made comedies “of the same kind and quality as the American silents, [and] we have little in our [American] canon comparable to these European movies, which, with their close ties to contemporary visual art and literary movements, have graphic, narrative, and moviemaking power unmistakably more sophisticated than you find in the American movies.” After a statement such as this, one wonders why the book at hand isn’t, instead, a discussion of those more-sophisticated European comedy films.

Withstanding the foregoing, the dust eventually settles from Dale’s toe-to-toe slug fest with the Chaplin-sympathetic reader to the point that his examination of the subject matter proceeds without any further substantial conflicts of opinion. The remainder of the book that discusses the silent-era comedies does so with an educated but balanced tone that is both investigatively curious and appreciative of the filmmakers and the films discussed. The sound-era sections cover an oddly diverse short list of latter-day slapstick practitioners.

Ultimately, the reading of a book like Comedy is a Man in Trouble is something of lesser value than would be a reader’s personal exploration of the films themselves. The spirit of slapstick comedy is so visceral as to be beyond the reach of serious analysis. Perhaps the best examination of American comedy films would be a book that is the irreverent equal to slapstick itself, a parody of academic narcissism that points up the ridiculousness of taking oneself and the world too seriously. As Dale says, “. . . you CAN rely on others to see you as you can never see yourself, and you definitely can’t ensure that you won’t appear ridiculous to them.”

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