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In a bare quarter of a century, the silent cinema created a tradition of film comedy as distinctive and as self- contained as the commedia dell'arte -- from which, however remotely, it seemed to derive something of its character.
The cinema arrived at the end of a century that had witnessed a rich flowering of popular comedy. Early in the century, both in Paris and in London, archaic theatrical regulations had forbidden spoken drama in certain theatres, and thus provided unintended stimulus for the inspired mime of Baptiste Debureau at Les Funambules in Paris, and for the English burletta, with its special combination of music, song, and mime. Later, the new proletarian audiences of the great cities of Europe and America found their own theatre in music hall, variety, and vaudeville. With these popular audiences, comedy was in constant demand. When life was bad, laughter was a comfort; when it was good, they wanted to enjoy themselves just the same. Famous comedy mime troupes of the music halls, like the Martinettis, the Ravels, the Hanlon-Lees, and Fred Karno's Speechless Comedians, can be seen as direct forerunners of one-reel slapstick films. Karno, in fact, was to train two of the greatest film comedians, Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel.
The earliest comic films -- still only a minute or less in length -- were generally one-point jokes often inspired by newspaper cartoons, comic strips, comic postcards, stereograms, or magic lantern slides. The world's first film comedy, the Lumières' L'Arroseur arrosé (Watering the Gardener, 1895), was directly derived from a comic strip showing a naughty boy stepping on a garden hose and then releasing his foot as the unwitting gardener peers into the nozzle.
By the turn of the century, however, films were growing longer, and film-makers began to discover the specific qualities of the medium. Georges Méliès and his imitators used cinematic tricks, like stop action and accelerated movement, for comic effects. In the years 1905-7 the chase film -- which typically featured an ever-growing crowd of eccentrics in escalating pursuit of a thief or other malefactor -- became very popular with audiences. The bestknown exponents of the genre were the directors André Heuze in France and Alfred Collins in England.
The year 1907 brought a revolution, when the Pathé Company launched a series of comedies featuring the character Boireau played by the comedian André Deed ( André Chapuis, born 1884). Deed was the cinema's first true comic star, and achieved international popularity with his grotesque, infantile, comic character. From Méliès, with whom he probably worked as an actor, Deed learnt much about the craft of film-making, and particularly trick effects.
When in 1909 Deed was wooed away from Pathé by the Itala Company of Turin (he was to return to France two years later), Pathé already had an even greater comic star to take his place. This comedian, Max Linder, possessed an apparently inexhaustible comic invention, and was a performer of exquisite skill. The most durable and prolific of Pathé's stable of comic stars was Charles Prince (born Charles Petit-demange Seigneur), who made nearly 600 films in the course of ten years, in the character of Rigadin. Other Pathé comedians included Boucot ( Jean-Louis Boucot), the established variety star Dranem, Babylas, Little Moritz, the stout Rosalie ( Sarah Duhamel), Cazalis, and the comic detective Nick Winter ( Léon Durac).
The Boireau and Max series proved an incomparable draw at the box-office and Pathé's rivals strove to compete. Gaumont poached the comedian Romeo Bosetti from Pathé, and he directed a Romeo series and a Calino series (starring Clément Migé) before returning to head Pathé's new Comica and Nizza comedy studios on the Côte d'Azur. Bosetti's successor at Gaumont was Jean Durand, whose greatest innovation was to create a whole comic troupe, called Les Pouics, whose orgies of slapstick and destruction were particularly admired by the surrealists. Out of the group emerged Onésime ( Ernest Bourbon), who starred in at least eighty films which sometimes rose to