Who’s the Best Silent Comedian? Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, or Buster Keaton?

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Courtesy of: MGM

Stan & Ollie — a lovingly constructed biopic of an ageing Laurel and Hardy — hits cinemas this week. To celebrate, One Room with a View’s Naomi, Louise, and Tom have come together to argue the merits of this iconic screen duo against their comedic contemporaries.

Laurel and Hardy’s everyman buffoonery, Charlie Chaplin’s trailblazing slapstick, and Buster Keaton’s versatility and risk-taking have earned legions of fans over the past century, and regardless of one’s personal favourite, their full commitment to the timeless, unadulterated art of making people laugh characterises their works and makes them just as amusing today as they were a hundred years ago.

A quick note for anyone looking to explore classic comedy: many of these silent stars’ films can be found in the public domain on YouTube since they are now out of copyright. Links to a select few favourites have been provided in this article.

Naomi’s pick: Laurel and Hardy

When you think of Laurel and Hardy, the first word that springs to mind might be “slapstick”. But this comic duo brought much more than flying pies and concussions to the big screen throughout the ’30s and ‘40s.

Avoiding the social commentary of their contemporaries (see: Chaplin’s The Great Dictator), Laurel and Hardy utilised simple dialogue and everyman plotlines to make their audiences laugh, focusing on clever puns and perfectly-formed sketches (a standout being the piano down the stairs in 1932’s The Music Box) to portray relatable, if exaggerated, situations. And this universality is part of the reason why modern audiences still enjoy their comedy today, despite the fact that slapstick has since slipped out of mainstream popularity.

While the joy of watching Laurel and Hardy comes from the genuine fondness between the two, the pair’s dark art, perhaps, was their ability to play on your sympathies — from Hardy’s fourth-wall-breaking eye-rolls to Laurel’s high-pitched weeping after getting himself into yet another fine mess. The vulnerability of Stan Laurel, who seems to live in a state of permanent discombobulation as he’s pushed around and diminished by the lazy Oliver Hardy, is something that anyone would struggle not to feel amused sympathy for.

And lest we forget — they were also comically beautiful singers and dancers, their version of ‘Trail of the Lonesome Pine’ from Way Out West (1937) even making a resurgence to №2 in the billboard charts during the 1970s.

But perhaps the main reason that they’re still beloved today is because their humour is remarkably neutral and inoffensive. A lot of people’s experiences of Laurel and Hardy will have come from the daily reruns during the 1970s on the BBC.

But unlike other TV shows and comedians that were airing at the time — The Benny Hill Show (1969–89) and Love Thy Neighbour (1972–76) immediately spring to mind — Laurel and Hardy’s films were not racist, sexist or homophobic, and this respectfulness in their jokes is what has allowed them to stand the test of time, as well as to be enjoyed by a wide range of audiences throughout the decades.

Links to recommended films:

The Music Box (1932)

Sons of the Desert (1933)

Way Out West (1937)

Louise’s pick: Charlie Chaplin

It may be over 40 years since his death, but Charlie Chaplin remains one of the most instantly recognisable faces in cinema. The toothbrush moustache, bowler hat and cane associated with his character the Little Tramp first made their appearance in 1914, when Chaplin was consistently churning out short films for Keystone Studios.

These early shorts may not all have been produced to the highest of standards, but what they did do was cement Chaplin as the loveable antihero in the hearts of cinemagoers. The Little Tramp was childish and foolish, but his mocking of authority figures in various scenarios made him incredibly popular with audiences.

His situation was often a reflection of how the poorest of his audiences would have been living at the time, and even though Chaplin’s main aim was to make people laugh, it was always at the expense of the wealthy and successful.

Chaplin was writing, directing and acting in his short films from early on, and it wasn’t long before he made the move into feature-length films. 1921’s The Kid was one of his earliest and most memorable features, and saw Chaplin combining his slapstick humour with more dramatic moments within a well-structured storyline. It was here that the Little Tramp grew out of a two-dimensional character and into a real person, but still maintained the silliness that Chaplin had become famous for.

After the success of The Kid, Chaplin went on to create iconic films such as The Gold Rush, Modern Times, and The Great Dictator, where he parodied Hitler in a way that only he could possibly get away with.

With almost 90 acting credits to his name, it was Chaplin’s earliest films that helped define silent comedy and draw in audiences around the world before the likes of Keaton or Laurel and Hardy had even entered the world of film.

Links to recommended films:

The Pawnshop (1916)

The Gold Rush (1925)

The Circus (1928)

The Great Dictator (1940)

Tom’s pick: Buster Keaton

Buster Keaton might just be one of the most versatile actors to have ever lived. How many others can you name who were equally adept at drama, romance, action, and of course comedy? His films belong in a sub-genre that doesn’t really exist anymore, often hitting all four of those styles with complete mastery. If you were to look at these films’ closest modern equivalents, it could be argued that Keaton invented the blockbuster.

Even then, today’s modern blockbusters generally rely on a huge all-star cast to achieve such variety. Keaton was a one-man show, dominating every screen he stepped into despite, or maybe because of, his unassuming, deadpan presence. Keaton couldn’t help but be the underdog; he played it too well. Just look at how he used that gift in this clip from The General. First forlorn, as he reacts to being rejected from enlisting in the Civil War; then funny, as he compares himself to the other accepted enlistees.

That magnetic screen presence is something he was born with, but plenty of film stars have been blessed with that gift. Keaton’s real brilliance is in the skills he had to work for: his creativity and daring as an action hero, and his ingenuity as a director.

Take a look at this shot from Sherlock Jr. — back in 1924 that stunt could only be attempted for real, putting Keaton mere metres away from a grisly death.

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Or how about this iconic shot of a house collapsing on an unscathed Keaton in his short One Week? Tom Cruise can hang off a jet for as long as he wants, he’ll never beat the thrill of risking your life in the most simple, entertaining way possible.

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Keaton was more than a clownish thrill-seeker. It’s easy to forget he directed most of his films, bringing an inventive eye to the simplest of plots. Perhaps his greatest achievement is in the practical trickery of Sherlock Jr. as he steps in and out of different film sets, and finally, pulls off this trick I still can’t figure out after countless rewatches. He did this nearly 100 years ago. That’s why Buster Keaton is the greatest silent star of all time, and one of the greatest filmmakers full stop.

Links to recommended films:

One Week (1920)

Sherlock Jr. (1924)

The General (1927)

By Naomi Soanes, Louise Burrell, Tom Bond and Carmen Paddock

Originally published at oneroomwithaview.com on January 8, 2019.

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