In case you’re wondering why I’m going to bother you with my book of the year 2007 (“Isn’t this supposed to be a film site?”), don’t worry: my book of the year is a book about film.
Silent comedies to be precise and the author is one Paul Merton. You may (read: should) know Merton as the deadpan comic genius on Have I Got News for You and you may also have seen some of his other comedy work. That is why, to some, it was a surprise that Merton was such a fan of silent comedies. (An opinion that I, personally, just can’t wrap my head around: why would that be special?)
The BBC commissioned Merton to make a four-part series on silent comedians and – in an attempt not to shock people who’d immediately reach for their remote if they saw a programme with black and white footage – broadcast it on BBC4. This didn’t stop Paul Merton from touring the country with his lecture on classic comedy and this was such a success the comedian penned down his thoughts. The result is this book.
A book on four silent comedy icons (Keaton, Chaplin, Laurel & Hardy and Lloyd) written by a contemporary comedian… don’t worry about high expectations, Paul Merton will not let you down.
Unlike the 2006 BBC4 tv series Silent Clowns (which got more viewers in 2007 thanks to the torrent sites and a long overdue repeat on BBC2 – it was finally shown in November 2007) which dedicated an episode to each comedian (let’s just make my life a bit easier and see Laurel and Hardy for the length of this review), Silent Comedy chooses to tell the story in a chronological order. This may seem odd, but one of the many things you’ll learn from this book is how those silent comedians ‘learned’ from each other and used it in their own movies.
Merton discusses every movie with great detail. He will tell the plot, give his own opinion of how good the film was and highlight the most memorable moments of the film. For this he uses his narrative charm (which you may remember from several bits of Paul Merton: The Series), which will enchant you so much you won’t be able to shake off the urge to go to your videostore or browse the internet (remember the Archive?) to find some of these movies and enjoy them thoroughly.
The Guardian’s critic Charlie Brooker never felt much for Buster Keaton and after 35 minutes of Merton’s tv show he eagerly wanted to see a Keaton movie. I myself could not be called a big Charlie Chaplin fan and, after reading Silent Comedy, felt I’d enjoyed last week’s screening of The Circus much more than I would’ve done otherwise.
Here’s something the book taught me: Buster Keaton was married against his own will, which is why he made several references to unhappy marriages in his movies. In one of his movies a car is willfully destroyed: quite an outlandish thing to do in an era when most of the audience wasn’t able to purchase something as luxurious as an automobile. However, the car was just like the wedding gift Keaton had received from his producer (and father-in-law).
If you want to know more about how Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd created their on-screen personae, which Chaplin jokes are nods to other comedians, how Keaton dared to ignore the ban on using comedian Roscoe Arbuckle or how long the road to success had been for Stan Laurel, then Silent Comedy is a must.
Heck, if you like movies, Silent Comedy is a must.