Physical Comedy in Modern Times

by Greg Cwik

© Touchstone Pictures/Spyglass Entertainmentd

© Touchstone Pictures/Spyglass Entertainmentd

Like Joseph Cotten standing over Harry Lime's secretly empty grave, moviegoers have been mourning the false death of physical comedy for almost 70 years. In his seminal essay on Comedy's Golden Age, “Comedy’s Greatest Era,” published in Life in 1949, James Agee laments the usurpation of comedic artistry by the talkies. Meaning well, Agee argues that lazy reliance on dialogue killed comedy. Instead of using exaggerated facial tics or riotous slapstick, people used their words to tell joke, much to Agee's chagrin. His article spurred a renewed adoration for Buster Keaton, who had been dwelling in an alcohol-saturated stupor for years, but it didn't spur a physical comedy New Wave. Dialogue, that bastard, prevailed, while the idle class of silent comedies stayed silent.

A little over a decade later, Blake Edwards and Peter Sellers injected slapstick with a dose of pure, undiluted stupidity, turning the bumbling, thickly-accented French inspector Clouseau into a cultural icon. Then in 1963 Stanley Kramer’s sprawling It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World collated the era's top comedians, tossing in a few throwbacks for kicks (i.e. the Three Stooges, whose very presence is presented as a joke), but traded in the sharp timing of the silent comedians in favor of a seemingly endless deluge of jokes. Some work, some don't, but with so many spilling out all over the screen, you don't really have time to sift between the good and the bad. In America, physical comedy lived on in a bastardized form, the accidental heroics of Keaton and Lloyd transmutated into stupid people doing stupid things with almost ontological luck. At the same time, French auteur Jacques Tati offered a style of physical comedy antipodal to Kramer’s; Andrew Sarris pointed to the sly, acerbic wit of Tati as a possible successor to Keaton's calibrated comedy, though by the time Tati made Playtime, his solipsistic masterpiece, the filmmaker eschewed the outright comedy of his earlier efforts, instead conjuring worlds of gleaming glass and concrete carrion, a modernity inhabited by drones in suits. He now had a political edge, slapstick replaced by satire. With dialogue relegated to background noise, akin to the incessant hum of a neon sign, Playtime is a more esoteric Modern Times.

In the subsequent 50 years, what happened to mainstream physical comedy? Did it go the way of the radio star after the advent of MTV? As recently as last year, with the Criterion release of Harold Lloyd's Safety Last!, critics have pondered what happened to that reliable retailer of American chortles. But contra the arguments of the nostalgic, physical comedy didn't actually die with Keaton and Chaplin. As with so many formerly American enterprises, it got outsourced to China, by way of a young man named Jackie Chan.

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To best appreciate Jackie Chan's innovations, and they are many, one must first understand what made the progenitors of physical comedy so great to begin with. For this, I'll defer to noted gadfly and lifelong curmudgeon David Thomson for assistance. (Important: Thomson's not a fan of Chan, for rather silly reasons I'll soon disclose.) I find myself physically uncomfortable whenever I agree with Thomson, the man who dismisses Scorsese in a few paragraphs, and whose entire analysis of Fire Walk With Me is, simply, “The worst thing that Lynch has ever done.” But his musings on Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin admittedly offer insight that eludes most other writers, and helps parse Chan's style. It's a subject he returns to again and again, the styles of Keaton and Chaplin acting as a root note around which he enwreathes his singular snark, sharp and incisive:

"That is what strikes us today as the most admirable thing about Keaton: the serene capacity for absorbing frustration and turning a blind eye to fear and failure. If Chaplin’s films are always working toward self-centered pathos, Keaton never disguises the element of absurdity in a lone romantic’s dealings with the world… Keaton is the more profound artist because he was not beguiled into comfort by his own self-pity. He saw that the conscientious, humorless hero he played must prove himself by facing frustrations and disasters without ever cracking."

In elucidating the most significant difference between the styles of Keaton and Chaplin, Thomson inadvertently extrapolates what makes Chan's own contributions to physical comedy so important: as with Keaton, his is a world of hostility, replete with bad guys waiting to steal your girl and punch you in the face; and yet, Chan remains jocular, even with a literal hole in his head. He does violence with a smile.

Jackie Chan is the only actor-director-stuntman whose vast body of work (and whose broken body) can rival that of Keaton, Chaplin, and Lloyd. Despite the myriad skirmishes, drunken brawls, and chaotic fight choreography that most associate with Chan, his breed of physical comedy comes from the same lineage as the aforementioned masters, characterized by the same perils, the same theatrics, the same persistent search for that perfect stunt (the opening scene ofDragon Lord allegedly holds the record for most takes of a single shot, though details are sketchy). Of course, Chan doesn't cop the style of his predecessors; he dapples allusions lovingly and expounds on their innovations, takes the vertical stunt work of Lloyd, the nonchalance of Keaton, and the slapstick violence of Chaplin and amalgamates them into something special, an East-Meets-West action-comedy hybrid some 13 years before Rush Hour made Chan a celebrity in America.

Chan began his career as a stunt double and supporting player in martial arts movies, notably getting his ass kicked by Bruce Lee in Fist of Fury and Enter the Dragon. Chan segued into lead roles and engendered a new style of comedic martial arts with Drunken Master in 1978. (Worth noting: two years later, Sammo Hung's Encounters of the Spooky Kind mingled comedic martial arts with horror, giving birth to the jiangshi genre; Hung worked as a stunt choreographer for Chan on several of his finest films.)

In 1983, Chan helmed the ambitious Project A, which co-stars Hung as a pudgy (but deceivingly fit) con man aptly named Fats. The film displays Chan's dilating aspirations: the actor-director taps Lloyd, dangling from a clock tower before plummeting 60 feet through canopies onto the ground. Without cutting, he keeps the camera's gaze on himself as he’s dragged to his feet and continues with the scene, which is maybe the most amazing part of the whole set piece. In that same scene he fights a henchman on a rotating cog, harkening back to Chaplin's Modern Times. The film essentially plays like a highlight reel of incredible stunts and set pieces, loosely knitted together with a story about 19th-century pirates and the Navy. In one of the standout scenes of the film (and of Chan's career), Chan rides a fixed-gear bicycle through the narrow confines of a small village while thugs chase after him. With shades of Keaton circa Sherlock, Jr., Chan crafts a send-up of New Hollywood's fascination with car chases with a decidedly Chinese bend.

In Project A part 2 (a title that surely suffered in its English translation), Chan riffs on Keaton’s iconic Steamboat Bill stunt, literally dropping a house on himself, with only a precisely placed, man-sized window allowing survival. There are also nods to the Marx Brothers, and a memorable extended gag about Chan being handcuffed to the film's villain while a gaggle of different baddies chases them. This is Chan at his most fun, every action and reaction calculated for maximum entertainment.

While Chan's occasional use of modern societal issues takes its cues from Chaplin (Police Story 3 has some obvious but admirable gender discourse tossed in), he noticeably draws far more from Keaton and Lloyd than he does the Tramp. A distinct seek-sorrow quality pervades Chaplin’s films—he’s hostile to the world around him—whereas Keaton, and subsequently Chan, depicts the world as hostile, and they manage to get by through perseverance and good fortune. In his fairly dismissive entry in New Biographical Dictionaryon Chan, Thomson harps on Keaton's stoicism, opining that Chan is a lesser filmmaker because a dopey grin adorns his face, while Keaton's sad sack is a true artist. Of course that's an asinine argument; the brilliance of Chan's comedy is rooted in his cordiality.

As with Keaton there’s no chicanery, no trickery. Chan has the emergency room bills to prove it. And yet the discursive, yet tightly-choreographed fights of bothProject A and Drunken Master II (1994) rank as Chan’s most successfully comedic films because Chan exudes an amateurish air—that perpetual look of affable anxiety on his face, the way he can wait until the very last second before dodging or striking. Comparatively, his excellent Police Storyseries, which is based in modern times and thus makes use of gunplay and bloodshed, feels heavier, almost mean. People actually die when you plug them with an Uzi, and Chan appropriately plays his character, nicknamed Supercop, straight. He's not a dunce or klutz, like Project A's Dragon. He's a professional. In his comedic offerings, Chan performs feats of physical prowess that beguile and boggle, but gives the impression that he doesn’t know what he’s doing. Think of Keaton sitting aloof on the locomotive’s drive rod as it vacillates, or Chaplin just barely avoiding the open sidewalk grates while gazing at his reflection in a window: Chan channels this sense of obliviousness to keep things exciting.

This faux-nescience extends to the pantomimic martial arts. Chan’s style of fighting, especially in Drunken Master II, isn’t really fighting. It’s play fighting—elaborate, genuinely life threatening, but artifice all the same. The thrills don’t come from wondering who’s going to win a scrap, since that’s never really in question; you don’t wonder if Keaton will be crushed by a house, and you don’t ponder if Chan will lose to a horde of nameless cronies. The thrills come from the complexity of the choreography and stunts, the celerity with which he reacts to objects thrown his way—fists, feet, buckets, brooms, bamboo, sharp stabbing weapons, chairs, everything including the kitchen sink.

Chan continued to incorporate his masters’ influences as recently as 2003’s would-be blockbuster Shanghai Knights, the sequel to the 2000 would-be blockbuster Shanghai Noon. In the otherwise forgettable film, Chan grabs an umbrella while fighting off a gaggle of goons. The camera takes a wide, sideways view, almost an arcade brawler-style shot, and Chan procedes to fight the baddies with the umbrella as the music from Singin’ in the Rain starts to play. He’s not even trying to hide his influences here. It’s easily the best fight in the film, that rare moment endowed with magic. The kicker to the scene is a young boy (played by the not-yet awful Aaron Johnson), watching Chan from a hiding spot, who looks profoundly inspired by the acrobatics going on in front of him. That young boy’s name is Charlie Chaplin.


Greg Cwik writes, often about movies, sometimes for money. He's a regular contributor to Vulture and Indiewire, and his work also appears in The Believer, Slant, Sound on Sight, Movie Mezzanine, and elsewhere. THE SOPRANOS > THE WIRE.