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Top Documentary Films: The Real Buster Keaton
During the 1910s, popular comedy shorts preceded more esteemed features. By the 1920s, however, comedy developed into a mass-observed genre of feature lengths with stars like Buster Keaton and Charles Chaplin. Silent film, by just referring to its title, suggested a dependence on physical action-slapstick-for comedians. But this alone did not distinguish silent film comedy’s capabilities. Similar action, albeit with sound, had been performed on vaudeville stages and circus arenas. To this end, silent film needed to offer comedians something more to explain its durability with an abounding audience; although the aspect of mass-exhibition is a crucial one when considering the various medium-specific strategies offered to comedians.
A focus on the aforementioned performers’ careers offers an explanation as to how this relationship with not only the medium, but also the audience, affected their approach to silent film comedy. Through the analysis of Sherlock Jr. (1924), The Saphead (1920), and The Immigrant (1917), film evidently offered itself as a representational art form of time and space that could be manipulated to convey a complicated gag and a more sophisticated story. This was accomplished through the comedians’ use of medium-exclusive techniques as well as the development of a filmic persona that worked both for and against audience expectation.
Before any examination of what silent film specifically offered comedians occurs, one must first acknowledge cinema’s general contribution to performers as well as audiences. Before cinema, live performances such as circuses and music halls were the major venues for inexpensive entertainment (Bordwell 3). Yet because these performances were live, the constriction of time and space limited certain exhibition possibilities. For a specific performance, there was only one time and space to see it; there would evidently be a smaller crowd than that of a performance shown in various locations at multiple times.