Short film is the almost ideal vehicle for comedy. Comedy is about the bit, the joke, the punchline. Comedy is about surreality and visual incongruity. It does not require elaborate narrative and it does not invite deeper consideration. Comedy careens in, makes you laugh, and trips on its way out the door. Even now, in a culture where short film is devalued as a medium, comedy still comes to us in this format. What is a sketch in a comedy program or funny video clip uploaded to YouTube but a short film, however unpolished?
But there was a time when short films were the norm, not the abberation. They weren’t short films, they were movies — as in they moved. When 12 to 20 minutes was the maximum run time a filmmaker had to work, comedy was the logical content option. And opt for it they did. This was hands down the Golden Age of Comedy Shorts.
Charlie Chaplin famously said: “All I need to make a comedy is a park, a policeman, and a pretty girl.” This is a true statement and speaks directly to why we still watch Chaplin, why we venerate Buster Keaton, why we laugh at Harold Lloyd. A man being chased by a cop in a park while wooing a pretty girl is a universal language. The comic potential is realized without lengthy explanation, without elaborate set up, and it is always funny.
The golden age of comedy shorts was brief. As the technical limitations of early filmmaking lifted, the narrative burdens of comedy increased. Movies were still silent, but they were longer. A park, a policeman, and a pretty girl wasn’t enough anymore. Some masters of the short form survived. Chaplin underpinned his comedy with a moving sentimental structure. Keaton stretched his sight gags into a dazzling and surreal universe. Lloyd charmed us all with his plucky can-do spirit and worked the jokes into elaborate boy-makes-good narratives. Others fell by the wayside and gave way to melodramatic epics.
Here’s a look at just a few of the highlights of the golden age of comedy shorts. These recommendations come with two disclaimers. There are hundreds of brilliant comedy shorts, and this selection is just a nosh at what is actually a smorgasboard. Two, most of these shorts are freely available online at YouTube or at the Internet Archive, however I would recommend seeing them on higher quality DVDs. They should all be available at your local DVD rental outlet.
Charlie Chaplin in The Rink , 1916
Chaplin’s park-cop-girl formula is transformed into roller rink-angry suitor-girl in The Rink . Chaplin plays a waiter in a fancy restaurant and he takes a roller skating break. The rest is 20 minutes of roller ballet history, with Chaplin demonstrating the kinetic grace that he will perfect in his feature films. The Rink also contains pretty much every gag Chaplin will ever use and demonstrates the varied ways in which a human being can fall down. It is also very, very funny.
Harold Lloyd in An Eastern Westerner , 1920
In the Chaplin-Keaton-Lloyd holy trinity of silent comedians, Lloyd gets my vote for funniest. With the “Glasses Guy” characters, Lloyd evokes an empathy in his feature films that the broader characters of Keaton and Chaplin just don’t elicit. But in An Eastern Westerner , that “Glasses Guy” isn’t quite in evidence yet. Lloyd plays a spoiled and privileged East Coast playboy who has stayed out shimmying all night one too many times for his frustrated father. As a punishment for his blase recklessness, Dad ships him off to his uncle’s ranch in the wild west. Because he’s working in the short form here, Lloyd relies on the short comedy mainstay of incongruity to dazzling comedic effect.
Buster Keaton in The Haunted House , 1921
Keaton plays a bank clerk who stumbles into a “haunted house” occupied by a gang of counterfeiters. The movie famously includes a staircase that converts into a slide, serving as a prop in the fake haunting the criminals use to ward away busy bodies. That staircase is hilarious. But The Haunted House also includes a variation of familiar Keaton gag in which Buster dips his hand in a pot of glue while counting paper money. That situation spirals out of control right quick and the viewer finds himself through the rabbit hole with Keaton, in a slightly sideways universe where what should be logical only feeds the surreality. This is Buster Keaton poised on the brink of making some of the most enduring feature-length comedies to ever grace the screen.
Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy in Should Married Men Go Home? , 1928
Laurel and Hardy may be the most loved comedy duo of all time. They made over 100 films together, most of them talkies and almost all of them gems of the early Classic Hollywood era. But before the talkies took root, Laurel and Hardy made a handful of silent two-reelers including Should Married Men Go Home? After really ticking off Mrs. Hardy, the boys head out to the golf course where they team with two lovely young ladies for a foursome. Short of change and temper, they get into scrapes on the links with a soda-jerk and a just plain jerk. For those familiar with talkie era Laurel and Hardy, the dynamic between Laurel and Hardy in a silent film will be fascinatingly different. But the real interest lies in the compare and contrast in how comedy works in a silent versus a talkie. Laurel and Hardy were rare exceptions who successfully made that transition. Many of the gags in Should Married Men Go Home? appear in their later sound films.
Stay tuned for TFS’ featured topic this month. We’ll be exploring short films of all genres and time periods, celebrating the upcoming Worldwide Short Film Festival and introducing you to some of the people who make it their business to give short films their due accolades.