The Sunday Intertitle: Bull!

One last Stan Laurel solo film, then we can move on. MUD AND SAND is Stan’s epic denunciation of Rudolph Valentino (here, Rhubarb Vaseline). All the intertitles, or nearly all, rely on bull-based humour.

Hey, I’m not knocking it.

Visual gags are little more varied, depending largely on the deflation of Dorothy Arzner’s melodrama with pratfalls, but Stan’s first, successful corrida, shot from outside the arena walls, is impressively silly. As the other matadors-to-be anxiously wait for Stan to be carried out arrayed on a stretcher with limbs akimbo, like his predecessors, a stuffed cow flies over the wall, crashing unconvincingly to the ground. And then it all happens again.

The repetition of gags is an interesting phenomenon. Buster Keaton didn’t go in for it, unless he could play a variation on the gag to surprise the audience. I suspect this proud refusal to be predictable was a big part of why he was less popular than Chaplin and Lloyd.

Chaplin repeats incessantly, and the recurring arse-kicks or pratfalls become part of a structured dance. Stan just repeats where it seems likely to get another laugh. It’s been suggested that Laurel & Hardy relied more on predictability than surprise: showing the audience the banana peel before it’s slipped on. The comedy coming from the expected gag happening right on cue. But that doesn’t seem quite right. Everybody shows the banana peel first. But only Buster has characters walk over it without slipping — outsmarting or “double-crossing” the audience.

I want to try to analyse L&H’s approach more closely. I do think they’re the funniest, in terms of intensity and volume and duration and frequency of laughs, of any classic era comedians. It doesn’t matter if you personally like them or not — I think their success is measurable and would be borne out by any laffometer. And they seem to use both jokes of predictability and jokes of surprise — the former making the latter more surprising. And of course there’s the measured pace. They jettison entirely the myriad advantages of pace, to concentrate on getting the most out of every joke by worrying it to death. But there’s even more going on than that, and I want to explore it.

This will mean looking at talkies, since I think the talkies are their funniest films. But maybe a silent or two also…

One Response to “The Sunday Intertitle: Bull!”

  1. bensondonald Says:

    Keaton surprises us all the time, but it’s usually the result of alien intelligence at work rather than trying to be a wise guy. I recall reading how he warned against outsmarting an audience. He specifically recalled avoiding the banana peel in “The High Sign” and literally thumbing his nose to the camera. After a bad preview he reshot it so after thumbing his nose he slipped on ANOTHER banana peel.

    Repetition is tricky. The usual drill is gag; gag repeated with some character aware it’s happening (or just happened) again; and one more time with payoff.

    Usually repeated gags are spread out over the film, and set up so you get a laugh of recognition as the next one approaches. A couple of Pink Panther films end with Kato disrupting a romantic ending; usually we see his stealthy approach a bit before the battle begins. It’s the same gag, but it’s a payoff in that he’s disrupting what you thought was the clear standard fadeout.

    In one old toon Bugs Bunny repeatedly sends a stupid dog over a cliff, impact implied by sound effects. On the last cliff plunge there’s no impact noise. We see the dog looking smug on a mattress he’d placed. He may not be smart enough to outwit Bugs, but he can recognize a pattern.

    In “Go West”, Keaton twice arrives at the dinner table just as everybody else is leaving, not noticing him. Each time we get a small laugh from Keaton’s reaction, and it supports the story of his being a misfit on the ranch. The third time he runs like crazy to make it. The payoff isn’t just getting there to eat. It’s being the one who walks away, elaborately aloof, as the others arrive (who still don’t notice him, undercutting his payback).

    In “Long Fliv the King” there’s a bit where Charley Chase waits for his turn against a dueling villain, and watches as losers get carried off on stretchers. It improves on Laurel because the camera stays on Charley and Max Davidson, giving us their reactions to each bout (enthusiastic rooting, sudden disappointment). The third duelist is played by “Why Worry’s” giant; the gag is that his stretcher takes four bearers. That’s sort of the payoff. When Charley’s finally forced to duel, the stretcher gag goes in a whole new direction. During the frantic action the bearers try to position themselves so he’ll fall onto the stretcher.

    The trick with a good running gag is that you know SOMETHING’S coming, but its precise form may surprise you. Then you can get the anticipation laugh and a new laugh from the payoff.

    Laurel and Hardy do tip some gags, but the real milking comes after. Usually Laurel will do some damage to Hardy’s dignity or person, and Hardy will take a moment to comprehend it. At this point Hardy will often stand still, fuming, and wait for Laurel to grasp what he’s done before Hardy strikes back. Sometimes this takes a while, encompassing Laurel’s awareness he’s in trouble for something, guessing what that something is, and perhaps framing an utterly ineffectual response. This evolves into tit-for-tat, between them or involving third parties who usually take the same measured pace.

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