Hollywood Comedians, the Film Reader

By Butts, Heather | Film & History, January 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

Hollywood Comedians, the Film Reader


Butts, Heather, Film & History


Frank Krutnik, editor. Hollywood Comedians, The Film Reader. Routledge, 2003. $22.95; 224 pages.

Captivating and Enlightening

Proposing to fill a twenty-year void of books examining the comedian film, editor Frank Krutnik has amassed thirteen scholarly works for The Hollywood Comedians: The Film Reader. This compilation is both captivating and enlightening. The book is divided into five parts: Part One-Genre, Narrative and Performance; Part Two-Approaches to Silent Comedy; Part Three-Sound Comedy, The Vaudeville Aesthetic and Ethnicity; Part Four-Comedian Comedy and Gender; Part Five -Post Classical Comedian Comedy.

In the essay "Buster Keaton, or the work of Comedy in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" Tom Gunning focuses his discussion on the oft-made comparisons between Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. Gunning does a nice job of highlighting the differences between the two, making reference to the overt social commentary often seen in Chaplin's films (this is discussed in further detail in William Paul's "Charlie Chaplin and the Annals of Anality") and how this differed from the approach Keaton took in his work. Gunning also speaks to the way each performer used the camera to relate to their audience, stating "[wjhereas Chaplin used film to create a startling intimacy with his audience, allowing them insight into his most private moments of romantic longing and disappointment . . . Keaton's relation to the audience remained distanced" (74).

Joanna Rapf's fascinating piece entitled "Comic Theory from a Feminist Perspective-A Look at Jerry Lewis" begins with a look at femininity, as well as masculinity, in the comedie world: "If women are indeed primal earth mothers, sources of life and order, comfort and reassurance, apple pie, chicken soup, and everything that builds a foundation to give others the strength to grow, the comedy ... is anathema to the feminin" (146). Rapf then transitions to examining how Jerry Lewis, through his film work, interprets not only male patriarchy, but "idealized" masculinity in general. According to Rapf, "[Lewis'] flagrant rejection of conventional standards of realistic and narrative expectation, and his ambiguous approach to gender and sexuality all put him in what can only be called an unexpected and surprisingly revolutionary camp" (152).

Part Five of the book, entitled "Post-Classical Comedian Comedy" may have the most resonance for modern-day movie-goers. Bambi Haggins, in her piece "Laughing Mad-The black comedian's place in American comedy of the post-Civil Rights era" effectively traces the history of black comedians since the 1960s. Beginning with Dick Gregory, Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor, Haggins outlines the rise of each of these performers and the adaptations each made during their careers to either conform to the mainstream, or reject it. …

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