Silents are Golden: Beyond “The Big Three”: Some Silent Comedy Suggestions

Silents are Golden: Beyond “The Big Three”: Some Silent Comedy Suggestions

If you’re a fan of silent comedy, I’m willing to bet you fell for it one of three ways: by watching Buster Keaton’s films, by watching Charlie Chaplin’s films, or by watching the films of Harold Lloyd. And honestly, you can’t go wrong with any of the lauded “Big Three” – they’re legends for a reason, and each of their filmographies can be happily explored for a lifetime. Heck, Charlie alone was in dozens of films, equalling hours of silent comedy enjoyment.

While these three geniuses were certainly some of the most influential artists of their generation, they were surrounded by a vast world of talented men and women (and even animals). Exploring that zany, creative genre is endlessly rewarding, so if you’re interested, here are eight suggestions to add to your film-watching lists! (And believe me, this list could’ve had at least 75 entries!)

8. The Waiter’s Ball (1916)

The Waiter's Ball (1916) Roscoe Arbuckle
The Waiter’s Ball (1916)

This was one of Roscoe Arbuckle’s last Keystones before leaving to helm his own series (which would involve a certain young vaudevillian named Buster Keaton). The action revolves around an ineptly-run restaurant where Roscoe is the cook and the gangly Al St. John (his real-life nephew, by the way) plays a waiter. Both plan on attending a “waiters’ ball,” but Al doesn’t have a tuxedo–and Roscoe does. Schemes ensue! Roscoe was at the height of his popularity here, and he pulls out many signature gags such as pancake-flipping and running around in drag. It’s a silly, breezy delight, and keep an eye out for those touches of magical realism.

7. The Policemen’s Little Run (1907)

The Policemen’s Little Run (1907)
The Policemen’s Little Run (1907)

You’ve all heard of the Keystone Kops, but ever wonder what inspired Mack Sennett to create them? Why charming little comedies like this one from the early days of cinema. Made in France, it revolves around a dog that steals a leg of lamb from a butcher shop–sacre bleu!–and an entire police force that ends up pursuing him through the streets of Paris. It’s simple but irresistible if you ask me, and I dare you not to smile during the scenes of the dog and officers “climbing” a trompe-l’œil building.

6. The Picture Idol (1912)

The Picture Idol (1912)
The Picture Idol (1912)

If you fancy comedy a little more on the genteel side than the slapstick, look no further than the Vitagraph studio’s appealing work. Famous for stars like tubby John Bunny and rail-thin Flora Finch, they did a wide variety of light comedy that still packs plenty of charm. A favorite of mine is this one-reeler starring Clara Kimball Young. A girl who has a huge crush on a “film idol” gets to meet him when her father invites him over for dinner–in those more informal days of early cinema. (Wide-eyed Clara reminds me of a Pixar character–just a bit!)

5. The Extra Girl (1923)

This comedy feature stars the always-lovable Mabel Normand in the familiar story of “small-town girl goes to Hollywood to become a star”–made way back in 1923! It’s always nice to spend time with Mabel, and I also love all the period touches such as the furnishings in the old-fashioned family home and the shots of early Hollywood. And there’s a surprisingly intense comedy sequence involving a lion. Yes, a lion.

4. Saturday Afternoon (1925)

Saturday Afternoon (1925)
Saturday Afternoon (1925)

You can’t say you’ve explored silent comedy without getting to know Harry Langdon, the baby-faced comedian who was eternally slow on the uptake. Some folks say his style of humor can be hard to get into at first, but I say that if you have a keen sense of humor you should have no problem at all. A huge influence on other comedians at the time (Stan Laurel likely wouldn’t have been the same without him), Langdon first made his mark in shorts and Saturday Afternoon–about two friends’ bumbling attempts to score a double date–is one of his best.

3. Egged On (1926)

Egged On (1926)
Egged On (1926)

This is one of my favorite shorts that no one’s ever heard of, starring a comedian who was only recently saved from being completely forgotten. The former head of the animation studio that made Mutt and Jeff cartoons, Charley Bowers was an eccentric dreamer who appeared in a series called “Whirlwind Comedies.” These whimsical shorts featured surreal stop motion animation which he dubbed his “Bowers Process.” In Egged On Charley is an inventor who creates a machine that can make eggs unbreakable, with unexpected results. You probably never dreamed you’d see Model Ts hatch from eggs, but thanks to the wonders of the Bowers Process, now you can!

2. Liberty (1929)

Liberty (1929) Laurel & Hardy
Liberty (1929)

You likely know and love Laurel and Hardy, but how often do you watch silent Laurel and Hardy? The boys made a number of silent shorts before Unaccustomed As We Are (1929) came along, and many are every bit as funny as their talkies. Liberty is regarded as a classic, involving a run from the law, a trousers mix up, and a shriek-worthy sequence in the high girders of a construction site. It’s simply one of the funniest films the two ever made.

1. Mighty Like a Moose (1926)

Silent comedy fans often argue which comedian should be on the Mount Rushmore of silent comedy alongside Keaton, Chaplin, and Lloyd. Many argue Langdon, a few (such as myself) push for Arbuckle, but others think multi-talented actor/director Charley Chase fits the bill. His delightfully well-crafted Mighty Like a Moose tells the story of an unattractive couple who both decide to secretly get cosmetic surgery. Post-surgery, they meet by chance but don’t recognize each other–and embark on an affair. A wonderful screwball comedy years before the genre became official.

Many of these films are readily available on YouTube or Archive.org, and others can be sought out on DVD. Seek them out if you can, enjoy, and consider them just a few jumping-off points for even more explorations into the rich era of silent comedy. There’s truly something for everyone!

–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub

You can read all of Lea’s Silents are Golden articles here.

Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.

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2 Responses to Silents are Golden: Beyond “The Big Three”: Some Silent Comedy Suggestions

  1. Erik Andersson says:

    Thank you for the recommendations. I recently came across both the Charley Chase and Charley Bowers you listed on Ben Model & Steve Massa’s “Silent Comedy Watch Party” for the first time and immediately ordered DVD compilations of both of them. How fun to discover “new” artists from 100 years ago!

    Another recent revelation is Wanda Wylie – her “”A Thrilling Romance” – she was wonderful. Unfortunate that there isn’t more of her work to be found.

  2. Domzy says:

    Fantastic read, I absolutely love the oldies. Thank you for sharing. Buster is awesome.

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