The Greatest Silent Comedians of the Sound Era

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Attention cinephiles: your new must-have Blu-ray box set is Criterion’s Jacques Tati Collection, which assembles the six features and seven shorts of the exquisite French comic writer/actor/director, offering an immediate refuge from the cruelties of this ugly world. The first of them, the disarmingly lovely Jour de Fête, was released in 1949, which also makes Tati a bit of an anomaly: a performer leaning far more on physical than verbal comedy, yet working well within the sound era. The introduction of sound in the late ‘20s was, among many other things, a demarcation line for screen comedy: most of the silent icons struggled to make the transition (or chose not to make it at all; Chaplin was still making mostly-silent movies like Modern Times in 1936), as studios rushed to fill their talking pictures with talking comedians from the Broadway and vaudeville stage. But a few comic actors through the years have managed to preserve the invaluable comic tool of silence, even as sound raged around them.

Harpo Marx

Harpo — the stage name for the Marx Brother first dubbed Adolph, then rechristened Arthur — initially appeared on screen during the silent era, in the long-lost Marx Brothers debut film Humor Risk and as a quickie supporting player in the Richard Dix effort Too Many Kisses. But he wouldn’t make an impression until their team’s first feature, 1929’s The Cocoanuts. The Marxes were a talky act, between Groucho’s nonstop witticisms and Chico’s non sequitur-heavy dialogue comedy, and Harpo figured out early on that he could only hold his own against his chatty brothers by not saying anything at all. His uproarious pantomimes also gave the act an extra dimension — unlike most talkie comedy acts, they weren’t replacing silent comedy, but supplementing it.

The Three Stooges

When people “quote” the Stooges, they’re rarely quoting dialogue — aside from their occasional asides, like “Hey Moe!” and “Oh, a wise guy!” Slapstick was what made the Stooges who they were, and the nonstop parade of slaps, smacks, eye-pokes, and tumbles were the sound era’s most direct descendant of the Keystone studio, where the knockabout antics of Chaplin, Arbuckle, Normand, and the eponymous Kops were the order of the day. Sure, the hollow clangs, slapped skin, and other sound effects livened up the Stooges’ shorts, but they’re one of the few big acts of the talkie era that could’ve existed, fully intact, earlier in the century.

Jacques Tati

Tati never made a secret of his influences; his first film, the aforementioned Jour de Fête, finds him playing a hyperactively physical character clearly influenced by Chaplin (down to loose-limbed drunk act), while his most enduring character, the pipe-puffing M. Hulot, has an observational, contemplative quality that recalls Buster Keaton. He also shared Keaton’s predilection for bits based on physicality and mechanics (like the rowboat sequence in M. Hulot’s Holiday), while sharing Chaplin’s suspicion for technology, seen in Chaplin’s Modern Times and Tati’s Mon Oncle and Playtime.

Jerry Lewis

God, it’s so easy to hate Jerry Lewis. He doesn’t even make it difficult, between the insufferable personal appearances and those maudlin telethon gigs and the endless “women aren’t funny” bullshit. But credit where due: the man was an endlessly gifted physical comedian whose distinctive (some would say rage-inducing) speaking voice was but an arrow in his quiver, and one that he would dispense with altogether when the urge struck him. The most impressive example of this was his 1960 directorial debut The Bellboy (he also wrote and produced), in which his title character doesn’t speak for nearly the entire film. It ended up one of Lewis’ best pictures, and one of the funniest movies of the 1960s.

Peter Sellers

Sellers’ physical comedy credentials are impeccable, thanks primarily to the Pink Panther movies, which put his Inspector Clouseau through an obstacle course of brilliantly executed slapstick (highlights include the “parallel bars” bit in The Pink Panther Strikes Again and the fountain gags in A Shot in the Dark). But his best silent performance is in a lesser-known vehicle: Pink Panther director Blake Edwards’ 1966 treat The Party, which unleashes Sellers (as a likably clumsy actor) into a busy dinner party at an upscale Hollywood home.

Marty Feldman

Like Sellers, Feldman was a British comic with a surrealist bent who found his greatest success in American movies. His peculiar appearance would have made him a natural for silent comedy (just imagine him and Ben Turpin sharing the screen), but Feldman is one of the few comics on our list who got to make an out-and-out silent movie: Mel Brooks’ 1976 Silent Movie, where he continued to showcase the flair for physical comedy he’d exhibited in the director’s earlier classic Young Frankenstein.

Woody Allen

When we think of Allen, we tend to think of verbal humor and comic dialogue (or, y’know, other less enjoyable topics). But early on, Allen was equally adept at silent comedy, from his Keaton-esque encounters with a prison laundry-folding machine and a tiny apartment in Take the Money and Run to the knockabout war gags of Bananas to his robot act and encounter with an epic banana peel in Sleeper. And that film could’ve been even quieter: Allen and co-writer Marshall Brinkman originally envisioned it as a two-part movie (one half in the present, one in the future), with the second half’s dystopian future entirely free of dialogue. It was a bold and ambitious idea, and one he ultimately abandoned, he later reflected, out of sheer laziness.

Richard Pryor

Pryor, too, is an actor and comedian we associate much more with his words than his physicality — in his case, mostly because of the brilliant stand-up work that he never quite managed to match in narrative features. But that act was notable for its remarkable physical transformations (he didn’t just joke about wild animals, household pets, and neighborhood junkies — he became them). And he had occasional opportunities to showcase that skill onscreen: the wild slapstick of his and Bill Cosby’s portion of California Suite, the clever two-act of his one-blind-guy, one-deaf-guy pairing with Gene Wilder in See No Evil, Hear No Evil, and even his energetic slapstick flashes in the otherwise unexceptional The Toy.

Leslie Nielsen

Buster Keaton was nicknamed “The Great Stone Face” for his refusal to smile onscreen; his logic (honed after years on stage) went that if he took his situations and obstructions seriously, with nary a wink to his audience, they would find him that much funnier. Nielsen came from a very different background, his odd comic stardom following decades of Serious Acting in B-movies and forgotten television shows, but he came to the same conclusion — the moment he started trying to “be funny” was the moment he would stop just being funny. That’s a wise way to play spoof movies like The Naked Gun and Airplane!; it’s also the wise way to play silent comedy, and Nielsen was a natural.

Rowan Atkinson

First appearing on the ITV program that bore his name in 1990, Rowan Atkinson’s most identifiable character — Mr. Bean, of course — appeared on that show and in two feature films, all of them finding his accident-prone and mostly wordless character spinning simple situations into grand ramshackles. Many critics and fans compared him to Chaplin or Keaton, but Atkinson was a second-wave clown; he cited Tati as his chief influence, which brings us back around to where we started.