Comedy as a film genre is the oldest in existence, long before horror, action, musical, and all the other forms of film that now exist, comedy paved the way. Comedy was ideal for the first films, slapstick did not need commentary as it was a pure visual form of entertainment. Slapstick was particularly popular as everybody loves somebody slipping on a banana skin or being hit over the head with a plank. It is human nature to enjoy physical mishap and slapstick was full of water soakings and people falling down holes.
One of the earliest comedies ever made was The Sprinkler Sprinkled, and the story of the film is basically about a gardener watering a lawn with a hose and is tricked into getting soaked by a mischievous child.
Keystone Studios were the first main American studio to champion comedy, and many of their actors came from the music halls of vaudeville and burlesque. A director called Max Sennet emerged as the King of Comedy and Keystone produced the best comedy films in America. Sennet’s films were loaded with improvisation, and their short time span made them hectic and full of zany action. Sennet achieved his frantic style by filming in slow speed then speeding it up for playback. Any actor was considered for his films and if you had a physical deformity of some manner then you would be cast first. The most famous of his regular characters were the bumbling Keystone Cops, who were a frenetic police troop that failed most times to catch the criminals. The comedy actors that came to the fore during this period were, Charley Chase, Fatty Arbuckle, Ben Turpin, Charlie Chaplin, and Edgar Kennedy.
Chaplin was recruited to Keystone from a touring English comedy act, and was one of the most important discoveries in comedy history at the time. Charlie Chaplin ended up making thirty-six films for Sennet, most of which he played his classic tramp character.
Fatty Arbuckle was another of Max Sennett’s favorite comedy actors, his pure physical size and angelic face made him perfect for slapstick. The highly popular pie-in-the-face farce was created at this time, which has delighted audiences up to this very day. A little-known fact was that Arbuckle was the mentor behind Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton and was instrumental to their great careers. Arbuckle’s demise was curious and tragic as he was accused of raping Virginia Rappe, a young starlet. Although acquitted after three trials, the newspapers had hung him out to dry and his career was over.
The ‘30s Clowns
The emergence of sound in the 1930s changed the direction of comedy in film. Slapstick started to decline, and a new comedy came to the fore that included new elements, themes and clever dialogue. Visual comedy remained strong but new actors using their wit and cleverly written plots were highly popular. This was now the age of the comedy greats that have never been surpassed, actors such as Laurel & Hardy, the Marx Brothers, and Abbot & Costello became world stars.