For as long as there have been movies, there have been comedies. As early as 1895, the Lumiere brothers ventured into the genre with short films. As the medium grew in popularity and availability, filmmakers on both sides of the Atlantic began exploring the comedic possibilities of full-length features, creating works and building careers that would stand in perpetuity. Like much of the early cinema, film comedies began with roots in the popular stage theater of the day. Vaudeville and burlesque acts would bring their typically physical comedic routines to the silver screen, seeking the kind of widespread success that couldn’t be found touring the Orpheum circuit.
From the stage to the silent screen to the talkies, stars such as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and the Marx Brothers would become internationally acclaimed and beloved icons in the early days of cinema. Their greatest works would become the foundations upon which generations of comedic geniuses from Billy Wilder and Jacques Tati to Mel Brooks and Woody Allen would build arguably the most beloved film genre across the globe. Here are ten of the quintessential comedies of the early days of film. Please note that early day screwball comedies will have a standalone list in the future, so they are not included here.
1. The Kid (1921)
Billed as “6 Reels of Joy,” The Kid was Charles Chaplin’s first full-length film as a director, two years after his cofounding of United Artists with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D.W. Griffith. On top of his directorial duties, Chaplin wrote, produced, scored, edited, and starred alongside Edna Purviance and Vaudeville child actor Jackie Coogan (who would go on to play Uncle Fester decades later on “The Addams Family” TV series). This film blends the chase-centered escapades of Chaplin’s years with Max Sennett at Keystone, the gymnastic slapstick of Chaplin’s Vaudeville days, and the first fleshed-out exploration of his lovable and iconic Tramp screen persona.
As with many other Chaplin films, The Kid amalgamates universal comedy with contemporary social commentary to create, as the opening title card suggests, “a picture with a smile – and, perhaps, a tear.” A young unwed mother, hoping to give her newborn son a better life, leaves him in the back seat of an expensive car with a note imploring the owner to care for the child. When the car is stolen, the thieves abandon the infant on the street, where the Tramp finds the child and raises him as his own. Five years later, the titular boy has become the Tramp’s partner in petty crimes to eke out a meager but happy life together while the kid’s mother, now a successful star, seeks out her abandoned child.
The Kid is the quintessential Chaplin comedy, incorporating playfulness and musicality with genuine pathos and a critical but affectionate glimpse into the hardships of the urban poor, culminating in one of cinema’s earliest “tearjerker” scenes (the Tramp’s rooftop chase to reunite with his adopted son). Chosen for preservation by the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry in 2011, The Kid, while a uniquely American film, remains relatable to filmgoers of all ages and nationalities.
2. Safety Last! (1923)
If Chaplin’s Tramp was the human heart of the silent Hollywood comedies, Harold Lloyd was the American spirit; young, confident, determined, ambitious, and persevering. Lloyd had starred in romantic comedy shorts since the mid 1910’s and was already becoming a mainstay in successful comedic features. Like Chaplin, Lloyd took the opportunity to sculpt a more emotionally complex and three-dimensional character in the long form, but whereas the Tramp aroused sympathy and pathos in the audience, Harold (a.k.a. Glasses) inspired excitement and gave the audience a hero for whom to root. In Safety Last! Lloyd incorporates playful visual storytelling with breathtaking stunt work to create a comedic masterpiece that will hold up for audiences in generations to come.
The story is a timeless one; a young man leaves his small hometown to seek his fortune in the big city, promising to send for his sweetheart when he finds success so that they may be wed. “Making good” in the big city proves more difficult than the idealistic young man first thought, and his thankless job in a busy department store is an ample source of frenetic physical comedy, expertly timed and shot to produce hilarious sequences of brilliant rhythm and energy. Ashamed of his lack of success, Harold misleads his sweetheart, who believes him to have made good on his promise and comes to the city to join him. An added misunderstanding between Harold and a police officer compounds the film’s comedic tensions toward one of the cinema’s greatest climactic sequences as Harold tries to make good on his word.
The film stands out from Lloyd’s impressive portfolio particularly because of its opening and closing sequences. At the start, Harold waits behind bars, consoled by his mother and sweetheart as the priest arrives. In the background, a noose swings ominously. In a clever and ensnaring reveal, it becomes clear that the jail is actually a train station and his loved ones are saying goodbye to the ambitious young man. The film’s suspenseful final sequence, in which Harold attempts to fake (but ultimately succeeds in) climbing a 12-story department building, contains the iconic shots of Lloyd dangling from a clock face over a busy city street. Like many of Lloyd’s films, Safety Last! remains an influential and unforgettable piece of American comedy to which films throughout the years have owed a great debt.
3. The General (1927)
Unlike Chaplin and Lloyd, Buster Keaton’s first entry on this list is not marked by initial critical and commercial success. Keaton, considered by many to be the greatest of the silent comedic stars, lost much of the creative control over his career after this film – which is now considered by some critics to be the greatest film ever made – flopped with audiences and critics alike. With a massive budget for its time ($750,000, and earning back only $500,000 and about $1M worldwide), The General combined Buster Keaton’s “Stone-Face” deadpan delivery and massively elaborate and dangerous physical stunts to create arguably the greatest train film ever made.
Set in the American Civil War (like another infamous silent-era epic, D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation), The General tells the story of a young Confederate engineer and his two great loves – his Annabelle Lee and his locomotive, the General. Based loosely on a real Civil War train raid, the film follows Keaton’s Johnnie Gray as he seeks to aid the Southern cause while foiling the efforts of Union spies. Struggling against impossible odds and insurmountable numbers, Johnnie fights to earn the respect of his compatriots and the love of his sweetheart.
Best known for its impressive train sequences, on which Keaton performed all of his own stunts, The General has become a regular fixture at silent film revival festivals and an oft-analyzed piece of cinematic history. Selected for preservation by the National Film Registry in 1989, The General – Keaton’s favorite of all his films – was ultimately vindicated after a poor showing at the box office and remains an essential view for any serious film enthusiast.
4. Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)
Keaton’s last film for United Artists, and the last on which he worked with the independent creative team that created his earlier masterworks, Steamboat Bill, Jr. finds Stoneface once again matched with another great machine, this time the iconic paddle steamer. So much of Keaton’s comedy comes from the tension between the calling of the American tradesman and the desire to prove one’s manhood in deserving young love, set against great machines of the working class and cataclysms both natural and manmade.
In this film, Keaton plays the bookish son of a burly steamboat captain who hopes to strike a deal with a businessman for a new ship. When both men discover that Bill Jr. is in love with the businessman’s daughter, they set at keeping the pair apart. When disaster strikes, it’s up to the young man to fight the elements and save the day for all involved.
Best remembered today for perhaps one of cinema’s best visual jokes, in which the façade of a house blows down around Keaton, who stands unwittingly in place before an open window, Steamboat Bill, Jr. is another fine example of Keaton’s masterful storytelling and nearly peerless brand of physical comedy. Nearly lost to posterity for decades, two prints found in the 1960’s and 1990’s brought the world a fresh copy of this classic film.
5. Big Business (1929)
For many contemporary audiences, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy exist more as archetypes than memorable performers in and of themselves. The Laurel and Hardy comedies had an undeniable influence on mismatch comedy duos throughout the twentieth century, ranging from Abbott and Costello and the Warner Brothers cartoons to the Honeymooners and, derivatively, the Flintstones. Many of their catchphrases have been ingrained into popular culture so completely that they have been unknowingly attributed to later sources sources (most notably Homer Simpson’s iconic “D’oh”). Before succeeding in the sound era, however, Laurel and Hardy were masters of the silent slapstick comedy short as a team with director/producer Hal Roach.
Bad Business, a short silent released in what many consider to be the last real year of the silent era, showed how, unlike many of their silent film contemporaries, Laurel and Hardy were able to successfully make the transition to the sound era by relying heavily on primarily visual and physical comedy. The plot is the kind of simple material oft found in comedy shorts; Stan and Ollie are Christmas tree salesmen in California who enter into tit-for-tat rallies of escalating hijinks with a would-be customer.
The appeal to audiences of all ages is apparent in the cartoonish gags for which the pair are so well-known, due in no small part to Laurel’s lead creative role on the writing team, frequently challenging his cowriters to one-up one another to even more ridiculous and hysterical bits. The film was entered into the National Film Registry in 1992 and retains the goofball charm it held for audiences around the world.