The semantics of comedy’s universal languageApr 04, 2023 11:51AM ● By Jacqueline T. Lynch
Around 1915, silent film director D. W. Griffith enthusiastically announced of the new movie art form: “We’ve gone beyond Babel, beyond words. We’ve found a universal language.”
The universal language, apparently, was not merely an empathetic insight into the condition of mankind as much as it was the universality of pantomime. No matter what language one spoke in different parts of the world, all could understand pantomime. Even the title cards need not have been read to fully understand the plot in many cases.
One of Griffith’s most famous stars, Lillian Gish, affirmed in her autobiography that he believed “we were taking the first tiny steps in a new glorious medium that had been predicted in the Bible…that when it could be brought to its full power, it would bring about the millennium.”
Perhaps, but the universal impulse to laugh at somebody else’s misfortunes was probably the most likely outcome.
And so it came to pass that Harold Lloyd hid from bullies by crawling up inside laundry hanging from a clothesline.
Charlie Chaplin cooked and ate a boot.
And anybody in a pie-throwing scene took a pie in the face.
The glorious medium that Griffith had believed would bring about the millennium reflected at that time almost obsessively on the common lives of common people, but with just a little bit of exaggeration.
Griffith himself specialized in drama, not comedies, and so perhaps his view of the purpose of film was a bit more serious than director Mack Sennett, who was famous for the Keystone Kops and bathing beauties. Griffith’s hope that silent films would bring about the brotherhood of man fell short of ending warfare for all time. But he was right about the universality of silent film. He was also right predicting the success of Mack Sennett, his protégée.
The universality of silent films was lost when sound pictures came on the scene. Even dubbing in different languages does not have the same effect of universality of meaning. Not everything translates well. For example, the title “Mrs. Miniver” (1942) was “Rosa de Abolengo” in Spanish-speaking countries.
But pantomime goes beyond mere words. In comedy films, pantomime found embellishment in slapstick.
Slapstick evolved into the purest form of film comedy—a gag requiring only a little setup, or sometimes none at all. Afterward, nothing needed to be explained.
There had been physical comedy since the Renaissance. Early 20th century vaudevillian slapstick launched the careers of some famous film comedians, but that slapstick on stage in the vaudeville theater was not so intricate, so carefully plotted, and so technically sophisticated as it became on film. With special effects, physical comedy reached its zenith on film.
In silent film, comedy could be represented successfully only in its broadest terms, and so the Keystone Kops formed a bumbling brigade that raced through the city streets, tumbling off the running boards of the un-PC “paddy wagon.”
In 10 years, Laurel and Hardy were taking a piano up a flight of cement terrace stairs (“The Music Box”, 1932), dropping it and being run over by it as they ushered slapstick into sound film. However, sound allowed slapstick to meld into “screwball,” which added another layer of nuance: it was verbal.
The dinosaur skeleton may have tumbled into a heap in “Bringing Up Baby” (1938) but the film is as much noted for its nonsense banter, which is the essence of screwball, between Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. The Marx Brothers’ tomfoolery required one to understand social and political comedy, current events of the day to get the gag; it wasn’t just the boys in hot pursuit of the next pratfall.
Carole Lombard’s comic prattle in “My Man Godfrey” (1935) begins to overshadow her considerable talents at physical comedy, and all the pratfalls taken in “Sullivan’s Travels” (1941) by Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake take a back seat to Preston Sturges’ witty script and his observations on society’s ills and foibles of the day.
The script was mightier than the prop in screwball, for though something verbally witty could be just as silly as slipping on a banana peel, it required more understanding. Never again would comedy be so simple and so universally understood.
If Griffith was right about silent films being the universal language, then pantomime was its grammar. Slapstick was its exclamation point.