Moving Beyond the Big Four

I was having a discussion, a polite one, with another film historian the other day.  He’s a guy I like and respect, so I won’t sully this conversation by naming him, because I disagreed with his whole premise.  That’s OK, because he disagreed with my whole premise.

To sum up, this was his position:

Comedians other than the “Big 3” are only of academic interest and should not be shown to general audiences.  General audiences are so far removed from the days of silent comedy that they can no longer relate to it in any way and shouldn’t be asked to.  The whole idea that we have the “Big 3” is because the critics have decided that these are the best and most worthwhile comedians to watch, and therefore any uninitiated audience should see them first.  The other comedians should not be run for first time audiences because they are not as good and unique as the “Big 3.”

The Big 3, of course, are Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd.  Some people will call it the Big 4, including Harry Langdon.

Now I’ll sit here right now and tell you that I have absolutely NOTHING against Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, or Langdon.  I like them, every one.

But I hate this idea to its very roots.

I have this strange and odd counter-idea.  I think comedy should be run because it’s funny.  And I have another strange and odd idea: I don’t believe that there is a Jeffersonian Meritocracy of comedians and that we’ve decided who the good ones are and who the less worthy ones are.  There are just plain too many films that we haven’t seen to judge accurately.

I’ve pointed this up before, but I have to say it again: films don’t necessarily survive and get shown because they are good.  They survive and are shown because they are available, out of copyright, and can be found in nice-looking prints.  Film history is written by the survivors, not necessarily the best films.

This whole notion got started in Walter Kerr’s book called The Silent Clowns.  Now, again, I don’t have a problem with Kerr, either.  My problem is that he wrote his book in 1975 when it was just downright impossible to see a lot of the films that we take for granted today.  In 1975, we could say that DW Griffith was the father of film, because everything we could see showed Griffith streets ahead of everyone else.

Now we see that this wasn’t true, that there were others who were doing really interesting work.  It was the fact that Griffith’s films were seen and preserved that put him in such a hallowed position.  And, again, Griffith deserves a hallowed position, just not as the only guy who made movies move forward.

In 1975, there were only a few Charley Chase films available, almost no Max Davidson around, no Charley Bowers at all, and not even all of the Keaton and Lloyd films were obtainable.  The Langdons were spotty.  Kerr had to rely on memories and prints that he could find in private collections (thank you, Bill Everson.)

Arbuckle?  Not much.  Lloyd Hamilton?  A few.  Snub Pollard?  Hit and miss.  Lupino Lane?  Never heard of him.  Larry Semon?  Yeah, there’s some stuff around.

And that’s only the tip of the iceberg to me.  I don’t think we should look at Kerr’s book as the roadmap for “this is all we should watch” because he studied it and wrote the book for us.  In my opinion, he’s telling us, “Hey, I’ve studied these films, these are some of them that I like, and here’s why I like them.”

That’s valuable, and that’s why the book is great.  But if we limit ourselves only to what he covered, it’s a sad thing.  It’s like eating only Big Macs at a Smorgasbord.  Hey, Big Macs are popular, some of the most popular food in the world, nothing wrong with them.  But you can find those anywhere, and there’s so much other stuff you could try… even just to nibble on!

I would also make an argument that limiting ourselves to these guys is sad on another level.  Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd and Langdon all had an interesting commonality: they had almost complete control of their pictures and basically unlimited budgets.  Chaplin even had almost unlimited time.

Is it really fair to compare Chaplin, who made one movie in 1925, to Charley Chase, who made 19 movies in 1925?  I’d wager that all of Chase’s movies together cost less than Chaplin’s one.  Does that make Chase a lesser comedian, or Chaplin a better one?

WHO CARES?  Chaplin is funny and so is Chase, and there’s not a fair benchmark to compare them.  Want some laughs?  Watch Chase in His Wooden Wedding.  Chaplin?  Well, you know about him already.  At least I hope you do.  Otherwise, watch The Gold Rush.

The guy that I’d like to see analyzed by the academic types is Larry Semon.  This guy was insanely popular in the 1920s, his movies made money, he had a great following, and his own studio.  And his movies are interesting but not very good when seen today.  It is fair to pit Semon against those other guys, but for some reason, no one does.

And we do other odd things.  The Big 4 are to be revered because they came up with individual comic characters, when no one else did.  Seriously?

chaseChase had a unique character, and we can now see him build into it.  Then, when talkies came in, he became too old for the man-about-town-misunderstood-husband, and he changed the character.  Max Davidson had a unique character, quite unlike anyone who has come before or since.

Oh, but Max had help, you cry.  Leo McCarey and George Stevens worked on his films.  Yeah?  You think those other guys didn’t have brilliant writers?  Clyde Bruckman worked with almost all of them at one point.

Apparently, Arbuckle, who invented a lot of things that got ripped off later, isn’t a genius because he didn’t last long enough into the 1920s, even though he did a lot of directing after the scandal that unfairly sidelined him.

Lupino Lane was too British and was willing to use special effects in conjunction with his amazing acrobatic abilities, so that negates him.

Charley Bowers doesn’t count either because he used extensive special effects, and didn’t have a unique comic character.  It was just a ripoff of Keaton, according to those who are “in the know.”


I have two criteria for judging comic performers:

  1. is it funny?  Does it make me laugh?
  2. is it stale?  If I’ve seen it before done by someone else, then I’m not too impressed, and even less so if you don’t do it a lot better than I saw it the first time.

By this yardstick, I officially love Keaton, Chaplin, Lloyd, Lupino Lane, Max Davidson, Charley Chase, and Charley Bowers.  And a lot of other comedians, too.

Let me make a slight sidelight for two of them.  As many of you know, I’m a sucker for something different, something I’ve never seen before.  I really hate boring predictable movies, especially if they’re comedies.

This is why I especially love the silent comedies of Max Davidson and Charley Bowers.  Lupino Lane is great too… but he’s an acrobat with a great sense of timing and danger.  It’s familiar stuff done fantastically well.

bowersBut Bowers.  Wow.  I disagree completely with the dismissal that he’s part Chaplin and part Keaton. (He actually looks a little like Keaton, which isn’t his fault, but it’s led to his being dismissed as an imitator.)  Bowers is all Bowers.  He is a reality-challenged go-getter (actually rather more like Lloyd than the other two) who solves problems in ways that no one ever thinks of.  There It Is (1928), which is probably his finest surviving silent film, is so bizarre as to be beyond description.  Now You Tell One (1926) has some of the most haunting ideas I’ve ever seen in a film: Bowers marches elephants into the Capitol Building, and has invented a grafting potion that allows any item to grow from a stem: cats grow from cattails, eggplants sprout eggs, etc.  The sheer volume of ideas that strike Bowers is enough for me to love him.

And there’s nothing like him again in all Cinema.

maxAnd Max Davidson.  Oh, Max.  I’ve come to really love Max as an actor because he pops up in movies all the time.  A shock of hair, a beard, but an amazingly flexible face that can even portray policemen if necessary.  As a cheap Jewish character, Max got his own series along Chase and Laurel and Hardy in the late 20s.  I love Max’s reaction shots.  Max’s reaction to the chaos that often surrounds him is priceless.  He’s every bit as good (and different) as Babe Hardy was at portraying frustration or just plain bewilderment.  Pass the Gravy (1928) hinges on him not understanding a key element of the plot for 15 minutes, and he absolutely sells the idea that he doesn’t follow it.  The guy sells a one-joke comedy for 15 minutes, and it’s one of the funniest films I’ve ever seen.

And there’s nothing like Max again in all Cinema.

I suppose I should sum up by saying that there’s nothing wrong with watching only the big 4 comedians.  I like them all.  But there’s so much more out there today, stuff that’s funny, stuff that does stand up to the test of time, and if only watch the big 4 you’ll be missing it, along with a lot of laughs.

You can still get a Big Mac at the Smorgasbord, but there’s a McDonald’s on every street corner all around the globe.  Wouldn’t it be fun just to taste a spanakopita from Greece?  I love them, too.  Think what you might be missing.

Don’t take my word for it.  Your tastes may vary.  Find out for yourself, and get back to me.

20 thoughts on “Moving Beyond the Big Four”

  1. Actually, Kerr’s book is a bit more flexible in its approach than it might appear. His ultimate premise was delineating what made silent comedies distinctive, and he does have a fairly inflexible attitude towards camera “honesty” versus camera “trickery”, which lets out a good deal of Sennett and other comedians. But the book does use Lloyd Hamilton’s MOVE ALONG as its initial example, don’t forget, and Kerr was the one who brought Raymond Griffith (who was not an independent like the big 4) back from limbo. He has mixed opinions on Chase, but those are based on his lesser appreciation of social comedy, which Chase combined with slapstick so brilliantly (and indeed which was a hallmark of many other Roach comedies). I want to see and appreciate the whole sphere of silent comedy as well – I don’t believe in limitation either – but one of the problems we have is how shall we see it? Two-reel comedies weren’t meant to be seen in huge viewing chunks, which is how we often see them now, as they can tend to run together; what’s worse, a lot of very good material is subsumed in the mix and only the really terrific stands out in such sessions, which does both a disservice by lessening their impact. I like very good comedies spaced out; they zing up a programme, as they were meant to, without necessarily having to be (use a long face and deep voice here) “art”, and with space, maybe their individual brilliances would shine more easily.

  2. One of the most consistent complaints I receive running Cinecon is: “I’ve never heard of any of the films you’re running.” The implied argument being, “If I haven’t heard of them, then they must not be very good, so why should I bother?” I think one need only look at the Best Picture Oscar winners through the years to understand that a film being well-known does not necessarily mean that it is good–really, “Wings,” “The Broadway Melody,” “Around the World in 80 Days,” “The Life of Emile Zola”? I can think of dozens of pictures released in the respective years of these films that would knock these “classics” off their pedestals. But then I’m a “film buff” who has spent a life watching film and making my own opinions, not relyiung on some established cannon put together fifty years ago before many discoveries. It may be true that the average two-reel silent comedy is inaccessable to modern audiences–but not for the reasons your friend would argue. Rather comedy requires a certain familiarity with the screen character of the lead comic before one knows how to respond. This comes with viewing and study (but only in the fun sense). I have no patience with those who lack the sense of adventure to just look at the next picture on the screen without pre-judgment. Let’s face it, none of us will ever live long enough to watch even the small percentage of surviving silent films in our lifetimes–but that doesn’t mean we should give up the quest. Here are a few that I’m sure most would never go out of their way to see–yet would absolutely cause one to reevalute averything they think they know about movies: “The 100 to 1 Shot” (Vitagraph, 1906)–cross-cutting two years before Griffith; “The Thieving Hand” (Vitagraph, 1907)–hilarious “black comedy” decades before the term was even understood; “Pigs is Pigs” (Vitagraph, 1914) absolutely brilliant filmmaking by the today unknown George D. Baker–and dispelling the notion that Griffith was the only topflight director of the era–and that’s only a short handful of forgotten Vitagraphs. One need only look at unknown films like “The Barker” (First National, 1928) to discover that not all early talkies were stilted, or “Practically Yours” (Paramount, 1944) to discover that not all the great screwball comedies were directed by Capra, MacCarey or Hawks–the truth is that when it comes to movies, there are none so blind as those who will not watch.

    1. Great points, Bob. I do think a “canon” of great films, films that are held in generally high regard by critical consensus, is a great starting point for someone embarking on a study of film history. But they should be used as a jumping off point to investigate further and form original opinions.

      1. I have to say I think Bob’s comment and Matt’s backup are both xlnt —

  3. Kerr doesn’t like comedians, he likes “Clowns”, and I think this explains his dismissal of Chase and especially Reginald Denny. I love Denny – he wasn’t particularly inventive or creative but he wasn’t expected to be – that was the job of the writers and gagmen. Give Denny a good gag and he’d execute it with flair and perfect timing.

    I LOVE Bowers, and if he has a fault it’s an inability to self edit – his mechanical gag sequences are hilarious in themselves but the films stop dead for them. There’s a little bit of Larry Semon in him.

    1. That’s a little simplistic, perhaps – Semon and Lane are both “clown” based figures, more than comedians or comic actors, and Kerr expresses mixed feelings on both. And he doesn’t entirely dismiss Chase; to be honest, I don’t think he had extensive access to Chase’s output. He doesn’t dislike Denny, Hines, or Maclean, but is on shakier ground coming up with ways to define them, going back to his basic lesser understanding of social comedy. Defining Kerr’s actual justifications can be as vague as some of his own definitions. If I sound like I defend Kerr, it’s because I think much of his critical assessment is still useful, even to contradict, and his book was groundbreaking. It’s not gospel, and no pioneering text is – they’re meant to provoke discussion and research, not stop them dead. Rachael Low’s HISTORY OF THE BRITISH FILM is the one text which _is_ gospel in a way, because it was so well done that it remains a great stepping-stone to further research and is still awfully hard to knock down much.

      1. I think nearly all critical assessments are useful, but it’s what we do with them afterward that can vary. I think using someone’s reviews to determine the viability of a whole swath of movies is really sad. For example, I can casually dismiss The Sopranos as being rather disappointing and ultimately more of the same gangster stuff, while a lot of people think it’s groundbreaking. Read the critics, and if it intrigues you, give it a shot.

  4. As I argued at NitrateVille many moons ago, the important thing to understand about how we got the Big 4 from James Agee is that he had certain axes to grind. Some were good– he wanted people to treasure Keaton while he was alive, and to appreciate Langdon upon his death. Some were not so good– he basically wanted to bash modern comedy for not being more like silent comedy, but his argument was contradictory– he claimed to love Sennett-style comics but focused on feature comics of the 20s, when Sennett was mostly over, sort of like talking Chuck Berry but creating a pantheon out of Dylan and The Byrds. Laurel and Hardy get overlooked because they’re still working and it would have been hard to argue for them over Abbott & Costello at that point, while the truest heirs of Sennett– the Three Stooges and Warner Bros. cartoons– are likewise too déclassé for Life magazine back then.

    Kerr is a different matter, I think his preferences are just for better structured 20s comedies more rooted in realism, which is legitimate enough (since I tend to share it).

    Anyway, in the end a great short is a great short, regardless.

  5. I think you need to include Leonard Maltin along with Kerr in the tendency for people to want to push “the big three” and nothing else. Maltin gets credit for getting people to re-evaluate teams like The Three Stooges and Wheeler & Woolsey, but I remember he was quite dismissive of funsters like Lupino Lane and others in The Great Movie Comedians by saying something to the effect (I don’t have my copy with me) that there was a reason people revered Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd and that there were very few injustices in the field of movie comedy (i.e. there’s an explanation for why folks don’t watch, say, more Snub Pollard or Andy Clyde). In his defense, he might not have had (like Kerr) access to the work of “second-tier” mirthmakers like we do today.

    I agree wholeheartedly with the premise of this essay, though you do have to take into consideration that “(I)s it funny? Does it make me laugh?” is mighty subjective. Still, I’ve always enjoyed exploring some of the “lesser lights” of comedy for the simple reason that it’s panning for gold…and sometimes it pays off tremendously in dividends.

    1. Of course it’s subjective. Comedy itself is subjective. I laugh harder at Keaton than Chaplin and many others find it the other way around. I recommend them both.

  6. I’ve only recently started to look outside the Big Four and discovered some wonderful stuff, so I love and agree with the points you make here. And I’ve seen very little of Davidson and zero Bowers, so I’ll have to go check them out!

    I share your frustrations when it comes to sound comedy because I’m a big Wheeler and Woolsey fan, but my friends who love classic comedy generally don’t go for W&W at all, and I think it’s just because they didn’t grow up with them and they’re not part of the talkie-era Big 4 of Marx, Fields, L&H and the Stooges.

      1. I’ve never understood how someone can love the Marx Bros. and dismiss Wheeler & Woolsey. Their best films are as good as anything the Marxs ever did, and even their weaker efforts aren’t that bad. And in several instances, as in “Diplomaniacs” vs. “Duck Soup,” W & W even did it first.

      2. Oh, they were hit-or-miss for sure, but they were a lot of fun and I think they have at least three or four movies that are just as good as anything the Marx Brothers did- and I say that as a lifelong devoted Marxist.

  7. There are many problems with both James Agee’s essay and Walter Kerr’s book — but they were both extremely popular and stunningly influential — Agee praises Keaton, Chaplin, Lloyd and Langdon to the skies, then dismisses the Marx Bros. because they “made their best comedies years ago” — Like that’s not true of the Big 4 in 1949??!! And even the people he omits entirely?! Many’s the time I’ve gone back to re-view a moment Kerr that describes brilliantly, only to discover that what Kerr is describing and what happens on the screen are TWO DIFFERENT SCENES!! The problem, finally, is what Bob says: “…there are none so blind as those who will not watch.” Reg Hartt has made a similar comment about some of his showings of animated cartoons: When what was on the screen varied from something a book promised, people would stay married to the printed word and get mad at him for CHANGING THE FILM! (like that was an option) “Print the legend” indeed!

  8. I agree almost totally with this article, many of my favorite moments in silent film are with Charley Chase, Lloyd Hamilton, Raymond Griffith, Charley Bowers, Max Davidson, etc. The only quibble I have is I think the main blame for starting the Big 3 (in his case, Big 4 with Langdon) was really James Agee, he started a lot earlier, and probably for a bigger audience, in his original article.

  9. I have been following silent comedy since seeing Buster Keaton in “Cops” on TV in the early 1960’s. Never cease to be stunned by how many terrific comedians were making excellent films, how many demonstrate comic genius (hello, Lloyd Hamilton) and how much collaboration was going on between them. Chase makes me laugh the hardest and the most often; his blend of physical comedy and sophisticated farce is a winning one. Max Linder and Marcel Perez were doing amazing work as early as 1905-1907. Would love to see more films starring Alice Howell, Harry Sweet, Gale Henry and Al St. John, among others.

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