How little we know about the silent comedy of Hollywood becomes clear when we recall having seen only one or two Buster Keaton films and dimly remember the name Harold Lloyd. We know silent comedy because we know Chaplin.
If we remember the era as an era at all, it is because of James Agee’s masterly tribute to silent comedy, published as ‘Comedy’s Greatest Era’ in the September 5, 1949 issue of Life magazine. In it he says:
All these people zipped and caromed about the pristine world of the screen as jazzily as a convention of water bugs. Words can hardly suggest how energetically they collided and bounced apart, meeting in full gallop around the house; how hard and how often they fell on their backsides; or with what fantastically adroit clumsiness they got themselves fouled up in folding ladders, garden hoses, tethered animals and each others’ headlong cross-purposes. The gestures were ferociously emphatic; not a line or motion of the body was wasted or inarticulate.
‘Words can hardly suggest’ he says; but it is because of Agee’s words, laid out with the much-rehearsed precision of anarchic comedy, that the era lives on in our memories. In fact, Agee’s essay is a masterpiece of construction with one perfect sentence following another until you feel not only nostalgic for the cinema he writes about, but also for the kind of writing that used to describe it – one that we no longer see except in such long-ago essays.
‘Comedy’s Great Era’ can be found in the collection Agee on Film.