“What’s funnier than watching someone fall over? Watching a dozen people fall over.”

Mack Sennett (Producer of Keystone Studios who made his career from slapstick comedy)

Slapstick dominated silent screen comedy – a physical form that relies on pratfalls and the comedy potential of inflicting pain.

The name derives from the batacchio, a couple of pieces of wood bound together that would make a ‘thwack’ sound when it hit a character in com media dell’arte, an Italian theatrical tradition. It is a form of theatre that depends upon stereotype, sketches and schtick. It’s linage is passed down through the circus, pantomime, vaudeville, burlesque and cinema.

When cinema emerged, it was at the end of a century where comedy had experienced substantial growth in popularity. Thanks to the restrictive practises regarding scripted dialogue in the theatres in Paris and London, there was an increase in the use of music and mime. There were a couple of famous performers and styles to emerge, such as Baptiste Debureau at Le Funambles in Paris.

Later in 19th Century Europe and America there was a growth in Music Hall, Variety and Vaudeville. Troupes like Fred Karno’s Comedians were direct fore-runners to the one-reel comedies. Karno trained two of the greatest screen comics in history: Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel. He ran a kind of ‘fun factory’ where comic artists could perfect routines and knock-about sketches.

From the very early days of FRED OTT’S SNEEZE (1894) filmmakers saw the comic potential of the new medium. It was the first copyrighted film in the US and can justifiably lay claim to the title of ‘the first screen gag’.

Chaplin was a master of it, Harold Lloyd excelled at pushing the limits of stunts and impossible situations, Buster Keaton pushed the form as far as it could go with clever inventions that would surprise audiences by redefining the limits of slapstick.

On the arrival of sound, there were comics such as Abbott and Costello and The Three Stooges who struggled to keep the form alive, but it became a component of comedy rather than a genre in its own right. Tom and Jerry continued the tradition in animated shorts.

In modern cinema it has become a term of derision thanks to its use in gross-out comedies of the Farrelly Brothers, such a THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY (1998), or in the infantile, but internationally popular HOME ALONE (1990) and BEAN: THE ULTIMATE DISASTER MOVIE (1997). For a more innocent, sophisticated continuation of the tradition, there are good examples in Bollywood and Hong Kong chop-socky movies.



220px-CC_Easy_Street_1917“I always think of slapstick as silent thing, so it is perhaps fitting that its 100 years since Chaplin made his big impact in KID AUTO RACES AT VENICE (1914), however I think all of his best films were made in 1917: EASY STREET, THE CURE, THE IMMIGRATION and THE ADVENTURER; they’re all shorts that capture Chaplin ‘the clown’.

Without question Buster Keaton’s best film is THE GENERAL (1926) but there are many other essential films including SHERLOCK JNR (1924), OUR HOSPITALITY (1923) and COPS (1922).

The most underrated silent clown is Harold Lloyd – SAFETY LAST (1923) THE KID BROTHER (1927) and SPEEDY (1928) are all superb.

The best represented are Laurel and Hardy. The silents that I like the most being TWO TARS (1928), BIG BUSINESS (1929) and YOU’RE DARN TOOTIN’ (1928). They’re the only ones that were able to take slapstick into the talkies.

Its a shame that Harry Langdon, Fatty Arbuckle and The Keystone Cops are all but forgotten.”


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Using a format that they would frequently revive, Stan and Ollie are workmen who are asked to build a house (for the princely sum of $500) with predictably disastrous results. There are some very funny set pieces involving  a plank which culminate in a scene where Stan is apparently bearing the weight of Ollie on the end while struggling to saw it. What is striking about this short is to see Laurel’s adeptness at the physical comedy – he never misses a chance to fall over – and Hardy’s talent as an actor who’s expressive face is the source of much of the comedy.

– Dirk Malcolm




  1. Well I can never say no to an opportunity to rewatch ‘The Finishing Touch’. To my mind it’s the first real Laurel and Hardy film, and simultaneously the first classic Laurel and Hardy film. It launched both Laurel and Hardy and the Chuckle Brothers.

    Thoughts on rewatching:

    * I love the gags that depend on Stan’s ridiculously childlike yet somehow borderline genius logic, like where he puts the two short thick planks on top of the long thin plank to make a walkway. Better yet was to come when they would take this logic and actually run with it within the film, like Stan lighting his thumb in ‘Way Out West’.

    * Did any workman in the metallurgical history of iron ever take an entire mouthful of nails when his hands were full? Health and safety gone mad. One of the joys of slapstick is the anticipated gag, where you know what’s coming and the pay-off is in seeing how we get there. I maintain that all decent comedians nowadays still structure gags around this idea, and it’s only shit ones that think comedy arises from the unexpected.

    * On my Universal DVD ‘The Dance of the Cuckoos’ comes in just after the halfway point as incidental music. Very strange to hear it mid-film, feels like the Bond theme striking up just as Roger Moore is beginning to furrow his brow.

    • Thanks for the additional notes Dr Roof-Dirk. I thought the same thing about the nails. This is what Health and Safety will be like once Farrage is in charge.

      You’re right about the importance of ‘anticipation’ in a slapstick gag. Keaton’s genius was the misdirection – you think a gag is going one way, he sends it into another.

      Other than SONS OF THE DESERT and LAUGHING GRAVY, I’ve not watched any other L&H since I was a kid. They used to be a staple of the early morning schedule over the school holidays.

      What would be your Dirk Five?

  2. Pingback: DIRK’S FILM SCHOOL: THE CHASE SEQUENCE | The Dirk Malcolm Alternative·

  3. Pingback: Dirk’s Five: Rik Mayall | The Dirk Malcolm Alternative·

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