Monday, September 6, 2021

Pantomime Panic

 Well, the days are getting shorter here at Uncle John Partners Limited. Will the gutters hold this year or will they flood  the carport of my conscious mind? Now and then I can think of something worth posting here. It just has to stick in my craw and I can't find anybody else challenging it.  It's like that.

Animation is a popular place for urban myths. Outrageous things like Walt’s frozen head are mostly (I hope) understood to be ridiculous. But some myths have a ring of authenticity.  One such story goes like this:  the silent movie clowns like Buster Keaton were put out of a job when producers found they could get the same results, cheaper, by doing pantomime comedy in animation. 

Buster Keaton was a cinema talent on a level with Fred Astaire but was his career destroyed by cartoons?


Audiences could tell these early Chaplin cartoons were no match for the man himself.  Maybe the myth of cartoons being second fiddle to the pantomime clowns starts here?

I’ve heard this one off and on over the years  and always reckoned it somehow related to  Disney’s ‘action analysis’  classes of the 1940’s. Here animators studied and copied the films of Chaplin/Keaton (and others) frame by frame in hopes of profitable use in Donald Duck and other cartoons.

Donald Duck in a Keystone comedy-type get up.
Frankly I have no idea where it originated but, perusing some old episodes of Dick Cavett on Youtube recently, I discovered one of it’s agents was none other than Frank Capra! The panel of the 1972 episode (which included Capra, Mel Brooks and directors Peter Bogdonovich and Robert Altman) was not discussing cartoons specifically but drifted there by way of a discussion of Buster Keaton. Here’s the link (the discussion starts 1 minute 40 seconds in).
Here's what they said:


Peter Bogdonovich

Frank Capra

CAVETT: “Why did Keaton hit the skids? That seems like one of the sad mysteries of Hollywood…”

“Well, he was essentially a pantomime artist and, when sound came along, the pantomime artists went out of business really and also they were killed by something brand new: cartoons.”

CAVETT: “That’s right. Cartoons could do a lot of things they were doing and more”

“ Cartoons could do (stammers) … and the cartoon became cheaper …”

ALTMAN: “Now we’re making films that imitate the cartoons”

(crosstalk, Bogdonovich states a scene in his film ‘What’s Up Doc’ was lifted from Buster Keaton)

BOGDONOVICH: “But Chuck Jones, who did all the great Bugs Bunny cartoons told me … it’s funny you mention that (points to Capra) because he directed most of the great Bugs Bunny/Road Runner cartoons and he said he was totally influenced by Buster Keaton. Said everything he did in the cartoons was taken from Keaton.”

CAPRA (circling back): “That’s right … and they just dropped right out of business…”

After that Capra changes course and starts discussing ‘It Happened One Night.

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. Capra is well known today for his apocryphal anecdotes: a distinction he shares with Orson Wells. But most people in 1972 wouldn’t have been aware. Peter Bogdonovich is probably best known today for his extensive interviews with Wells, John Ford and other Hollywood luminaries. His contribution to the memorializing of these people is laudable but, in this instance, I think he was a little too eager to validate Capra’s statement. As a result he added an unrelated half truth. Was he misremembering (or misinterpreting) a comment Jones made regarding action analysis?


This photo was taken in the 1930's when Fleischer Studios was working full steam but it gives an idea of how many people it takes to make a cartoon. And this was only one room! Hardly a 'cheaper' under taking!

McCay's Gertie was released the same year Chaplin started making films. His 'Little Nemo' was completed years earlier. Both inspired a long list of future animation luminaries.

Animated cartoons existed long before sound and even before the film careers of both Chaplin and Keaton. Cavett’s statement: “Cartoons could do a lot of things they were doing and more” is partly true. Cartoons distinguished themselves from live action comedies by doing gags that would be impossible with flesh-and-blood performers. Many drew attention to the fact that they were drawings. Essentially they carved out a unique comedy/novelty niche based on metamorphosis, surrealism, special effects and other stuff animation does well. The characters had personality too, long before Disney, but the craft was not at a place where they could approximate the expressions and movement a live action performance might give. 



This Keystone-like exploding car gag, from Winsor McCay's 'Little Nemo' (1911) occurred two years before Chaplin's first short. The metamorphosis gags in the film would become a staple of early animation.

 A baby's mouth forms a subway entrance in a late 20's Koko the Clown cartoon.

And, speaking of Jones: he probably did study and lift gags but I doubt he said everything in his cartoons was taken from Keaton (unless he was kidding of course). Also, his animation directing career started long after the introduction of sound. So his cartoons didn’t kill Keaton.


Did not kill Keaton.

The obvious reason for the death of the silent pantomimes was changing public taste. With sound came the opportunity for rapid-fire dialog. Even in 1972 TV audiences would have been aware of The Marx Brothers. Their films combined pantomime, witty dialog and music into a brew so powerful they pretty well wiped up the floor with the competition (the exception being other fast talkers like W.C. Fields and Mae West).  The silent stars who transitioned were able to use their voice as assets to their characters i.e. Laurel and Hardy. All pretty well known stuff today but a lot of people probably saw this broadcast (3 networks only in 1972) and were apt to believe what was being said.

My take is that Bogdonovich, Cavett, and Capra were all a little too eager to accommodate the other. Capra possibly felt he had to bring something to the cineaste table -I don’t know- but his comments seem vamped. Since the other two don’t seem so sure (and it was Capra’s interview anyway) they happily moved on to ‘It Happened One Night’. Also germane is that, in these early days of film scholarship, nobody outside still living animation old timers was really sure what the history of animation was outside Disney's perfunctory version. Leonard Maltin's 'Of Mice and Magic' had not yet been published in 1972 and the expertise of this panel was not animated cartoons.

If there's a take away I'd say that where cultural narrative is concerned there’s always going to be the odd fender bender. Sometimes interviewees have off days. Showbiz is a busy business. The culture makers of any era are often too busy doing it to make careful note of anything but essential information related to the task at hand. Did Capra even know his studio (Columbia) made cartoons? The important thing is for the correct information to supplant the incorrect and to remember the record is sometimes fallible. 


A great director but wrong in this instance.