But one of Agee’s most notable achievements, as a film writer and historian, was his epic “Comedy’s Greatest Era,” which appeared as the cover story in the September 3, 1949 issue of Life magazine. In it, he paid tribute to the comedians of the silent era, focusing on four key figures: Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Harry Langdon. The piece’s impact cannot be overstated: by that point, 20-plus years after the introduction of the “talkies,” these silent comics had been all but forgotten (save Chaplin, whose cultural ubiquity had dimmed yet remained, thanks in no small part to his controversial private life and continued, if sporadic, output). The story resuscitated Buster Keaton’s moribund career and reignited interest in the era.
It was also a key moment in the relationship between Agee and Chaplin, who had become friends and would later work together on a never-realized film project that Agee had written for Chaplin. (That treatment, and the story behind it, is included in the recent book Chaplin and Agee .) But that relationship had begun back in 1947, when Chaplin released a film called Monsieur Verdoux. The story of a modern-day Blackbeard who marries rich widows and murders them for their money, it was Chaplin’s most scathingly received film; the critics loathed it, and audiences stayed away.
But Agee thought it was a masterpiece. On May 31, 1947, he began a “frame-by-frame appreciation” of the picture in The Nation, a lengthy and detailed defense which ran in three parts; the third of them, appearing on June 21, began with a note indicating that the film was no longer even in release. But Agee had to say his peace. “Disregard virtually everything you may have read about the film,” he insists, and if anything, that one line indicates exactly how far ahead of his time Agee was; the defensive posture, naysaying of colleagues, and fierce loyalty for an unloved film shows a writer who might have been at home writing contrarian film criticism for Slate.
When Agee died, at age 45, in the back of a New York cab, he had ceased writing film criticism on a regular basis, though he still wrote occasional pieces for film publications like Sight & Sound. His great success as a screenwriter and novelist might’ve meant he was done writing about film. But film writing was not done with him. His style, passion, and wit would continue to influence film writers for generations, from Farber to Kael to Sarris to Ebert to Schickel to Morris; in many ways, Agee’s decade of work at Time and The Nation would come to define how we think of film criticism, and of film critics themselves.