MoMA showcases 'Cruel and Unusual' slapstick shorts for the fifth year running


Running from January 13–26, the latest edition of the Museum of Modern Art’s Cruel and Unusual Comedy: Astonishing Shorts from the Slapstick Era series features a total of 84 films detailing the rise and growth of one of the movie industry's greatest art forms.

Now in its fifth edition, this year's series comes with the same warning the previous four had. The curators aren't kidding about "cruel" or "unusual."

"We came up with the hook of 'cruel and unusual comedy' as we noticed that there was something 'politically incorrect' by today's standards in practically every silent comedy short," independent curator Steve Massa wrote in an e-mail. "So instead of shying away from it, we decided to make it our theme."

So beware if you're offended by whites in blackface, or performers imitating any number of other ethnicities. And these shorts are equal-opportunity offenders. The skinny, overweight, effeminate, macho, snooty, vulgar, elitist, wealthy and poor all come in for their share of abuse. Waiters, shopkeepers, secretaries, educators, farmers, livestock and especially the police are mocked and tortured, as well as the Irish, Italians, Chinese, Indians, Germans and the clergy. Parents are ignored, siblings threatened, and even infants are tossed about for laughs.

That's how it goes when you are searching for jokes in a format that is some ways is as restrictive as a sonnet. Slapstick comedies date back to the earliest movies by the Lumière brothers and Edison. As the industry grew, the genre matured from the knockabout physical gags used by Mack Sennett (famous for his bathing beauties and Keystone Kops) to the more character-driven humor from the Hal Roach Studio, which introduced the team of Laurel and Hardy to filmgoers.

Organizers Dave Kehr (curator at MoMA's Department of Film), Ben Model (a noted film accompanist and distributor of silents) and Massa (a film historian and author) have split their Cruel and Unusual selections into fifteen separate programs arranged by theme. Viewers will be able to compare how different performers and studios approached the Wild West, high art, trains, ghosts, sports and the looming presence of Charlie Chaplin, for example.

Like today's television sitcoms, comedy shorts unfolded over twenty minutes or so, enough time to introduce characters, put them into a situation and then pile on jokes one after the other. Popular characters returned in series like the widely imitated "Our Gang" shorts. With a large troupe of comedy veterans, filmmakers at the Roach studio could try out the same gags with different performers. If it was funny when Laurel and Hardy tangled with cops, why not see what happens when the team of Marion Byron and Anita Garvin do the same thing?

The individual programs not only provide a crash course in film history, they help train viewers to recognize how jokes are structured. Slipping on a banana peel is a sure-fire laugh getter, but watch how Leo McCarey, one of the greatest comic minds in the industry, uses it in 1929's Going Ga-Ga. And then notice all the other items that provoke falls throughout the series. Like oil, batter, soap, pebbles, steps — in fact, just about anything.

See enough of the shorts, and the fundamentals of film comedy become more apparent. When a watermelon appears, for example, expect an either mildly or ghastly racist joke to follow. Just picking a bottle of castor oil evokes terror in any number of children. Dream sequences are a chance to animate bizarre objects, from bottles of soda to giant tomatoes.

Silent comedy fans will recognize many of the performers in the series: Harold Lloyd, Roscoe Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, John Bunny, etc. Some surprising talkie stars show up as well, like Mickey Rooney, Jean Arthur and Edward Everett Horton. One whole program is devoted to Charlie Chaplin imitators.

But as Massa points out, "There are a number of unsung and overlooked players that we try to highlight in the series. People like Alice Howell, Gale Henry, Hank Mann, Marcel Perez and others who were popular in their day but got overlooked — often because many of their films were missing, and the ones that survive reside in archives and aren't in circulation."

The behind-the-scenes talent is impressive as well. Along with McCarey, who as head of production for Roach served as a sort of executive producer like James Brooks, the series features titles directed by Sennett, Roach, Arbuckle, Edgar Kennedy, Norman Taurog, and frequent Buster Keaton collaborator Eddie Cline.

The studios involved include heavyweights like MGM, Fox and Universal, as well as scrappy independent outfits. And the tone and style of the shorts range from the viciously anarchic to gently bucolic.

Samuel Goldwyn bankrolled a kids' series called "The Adventures and Emotions of Edgar Pomeroy," based on stories by Pulitzer Prize-winner Booth Tarkington of Penrod and Seventeen fame. (Tarkington is perhaps more famous today for his novels Alice Adams and The Magnificent Ambersons.) Edgar's Feast Day is a nostalgic look at two young friends snacking their way through a lazy summer day.

On the other hand, The Ransom of Red Chief unleashes a holy terror of a boy on two unsuspecting vagrants, who end up paying his father to take him back. The Edison short was inspired by the same O. Henry short story filmed some forty years later by Howard Hawks.

Massa and Model started working together while helping to assemble a Roscoe Arbuckle retrospective at MoMA. Along with Kehr, they have an encyclopedic knowledge of slapstick comedy. Massa is the author of two books about slapstick: Lame Brains and Lunatics: The Good, the Bad, and the Forgotten of Silent Comedy and Marcel Perez: The International Mirth-Maker.

Model not only accompanies silent film at screenings around the world and on TCM,, but for DVD and Blu-ray releases. In addition, he has released several compilations of silent films, including The Marcel Perez Collection and The Mishaps of Musty Suffer, both with extensive notes by Massa. Model is also up to Volume 4 in his Accidentally Preserved series, which collects "silent film shorts that only survive because home-use copies were made in the 1920s, 30s and 40s to rent and watch at home."