Friday, 23 May 2008

Another Fine Mess...

Of late, I have been reviving a mild interest in the golden age of silent comedy – you know, the sort of stuff your parents made you watch as a kid – Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon, the Keystone Kops and of course, the incomparable Laurel and Hardy. I think that one with them trying to hike a piano up an interminable staircase will haunt me to my grave.

Anyway, I picked up a couple of Laurel and Hardy DVDs (later 1930s ‘talkies’) very cheaply and spent an hour or so watching some of them with my 8 year old daughter and 4 year old son. It was then that the true realization dawned. The world of the 1920s and 1930s is so far removed from today that it is almost unrecognisable. I seemed to spend more time explaining things to my son than I did actually watching the film. Here’s a good example: In ‘Busy Bodies’, Olly and Stan are driving down the road to work when Stan pulls a string on the car dashboard and music starts up. It later transpires that the music emanates from a wind-up gramophone located under the car’s bonnet (hood, for you Yanks). To a 1930s audience this is both surprising and funny. To a contemporary child it is incomprehensible. After all, all cars have in-car tape/CD/iPod players and always have had. What’s more they do not rely on a needle scraping over a revolving shellac disk which to them is totally mystifying. Hence a long explanation of the history of technology ensues.

But it doesn’t stop there. What’s a chimney sweep? Why does a radio need a roof-top aerial? Why does Hardy say, ‘It’s great to have a job to go to!’? (Answer: it’s the great 1930s depression)

In essence, this is why comedy dates. It is because much of it relies on knowledge of the customs, technology and the politics of the day which to subsequent generations is quite baffling. This is also true of music. Albums from decades before we were born often sound disappointing and it is not until we understand the social and technological backdrop that our appreciation has a chance of being boosted.

But my children did laugh at the antics of L & H, but only when they became ‘universal’ and much of that translates to slapstick. We still laugh at the misfortunes of others. In this at least, human nature has not changed. Now, where did I put that banana skin?


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