The Sunday Intertitle: The Gag Man

This is, I think, the only funny intertitle in THE GENERAL, the only one that even attempts to be funny. And even then, it’s just alliteration, not some kind of wisecrack.

It’s a shock to see Keystone films after watching mature Keaton or Chaplin, because at Keystone they tried to cram gags into every title. I think the idea was to take what had been filmed and punch it up with another layer of comedy. Whereas Buster and Charlie knew what they’d got was good enough. Harold Lloyd would do funny titles — “When the man with the mansion met the miss with a mission…” — really witty ones. And they seem to be more intimately connected to the story — that one, from FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE, was going to supply the movie’s original title.

Keaton does gag titles in his shorts, but again, they’re plot-based, as with the boat’s name in THE BOAT. “Damfino.” “Well I don’t know either.”

Weirdly, the writing credit on THE GENERAL names directors Buster and Clyde Bruckman, but adds, “Adapted by Al Boasberg and Charles Smith.” Smith was an actor, who plays the heroine’s dad in the film. And Boasberg was a joke writer from vaudeville who had helped shape the personae of everyone from Jack Benny to Milton Berle and Burns & Allen. Keaton referred to him as an example of how that kind of verbal humour wasn’t needed on his films, and the credit seems likely to be a compensation to Boasberg for not having any of his work used. The straightforward, purely functional titles of the film could be entrusted to a minor actor with, I suspect, Keaton more or less dictating ~



Boasberg’s trumped-up credit reminds me of H.M. “Beany” Walker, who got writing credit on all the Laurel & Hardy shorts, despite the fact that the story was already in place when he came on, and so he’d write a dialogue script full of one-liners which the boys basically ignored. Those titles at the start of many L&H talkies would end up being his major contribution.

But it’s nice Boasberg got a credit because his name goes unmentioned on a lot of films he DID contribute to — notably A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, where he seems to have originated the legendary stateroom scene, a scene dependent on his speciality — verbal quips which not only fit the situation, but the speaker’s unique comic personality.

Info from Ben Schwartz’s amazing bio essay, The Gag Man, available in The Film Comedy Reader.

7 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: The Gag Man”

  1. Gary Hyland Says:

    Haven’t seen The General in years; does anyone know if they ever found what’s left of her rusting hulk?

  2. bensondonald Says:

    Favorite intertitles are generally straight lines or setups.

    The “Damfino” exchange in “The Boat” is a mild laugh, but it makes clear what Buster is saying at the end without a card.

    In “The General” there’s an intertitle where the girl says something about how brave he was to pursue and rescue her. There’s usually a laugh there, because we know he’s really there to save his beloved train. Then the real laugh: He realizes she believes that, and mimes beautiful “t’weren’t nothing, ma’am” modesty.

    All-time favorite intertitle gag is probably in Chaplin’s “Immigrant”. A flamboyant character joins Charlie and Edna in the cafe, gesticulating wildly as he seems to give a big speech. Then the intertitle: “I am an Artist.”

  3. Oh, the Immigrant one is so ideally suited to the form of silent film + titles that it could almost be a parody, of the Mel Brooks / Spike Milligan variety. (Brooks’ Silent Movie is so enamoured of the possibilities of titles it almost forgets to have visual gags.)

  4. bensondonald Says:

    A rare Keaton metagag: In “Go West”, Buster questions the integrity of a card game. His opponent pulls a gun and the intertitle is “Smile when you say that!” There’s a big laugh as Buster digests that, but his business of contorting his face with his fingers is anti-climax at best.

  5. Oh, I like the finger-smile, but you have to spot it as a Griffith-Gish parody (Broken Blossoms) to top the quote from DeMille’s The Virginian. It’s not likely to get as big a reaction from modern audiences, admittedly.

  6. Watched this last night and I have to say, “if you lose this war, don’t blame me!” as he’s kicked out by the recruiter made me guffaw.

  7. Yes, that’s damned good, and BOLD. It’s hard to say whether it’s Boasberg for sure but he COULD do gags that were character/story based, certainly. What Keaton would have liked would be gags that aren’t wisecracks, and that one’s twice as funny for the way it ricochets off history, so it would have appealed to him.

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