Exploring the Speed of Silent Comedy Film – test #2

One of the gags I’ve seen in silent comedies many times that’s really something you’d typically see in an animated cartoon. The trick is in creating the illusion of someone weighing a fraction of what they actually do.

Usually one character is upset with another, grabs him or her, and then lifts and tosses them away as if they were a rag doll.

In watching this and slowing it down in silent comedy films I realized the slight-of-hand of the gag. First of all, it’s done without the use of a wire and harness. Secondly, it’s mostly done by the person being tossed out of the shot.

One of the things I’ve learned about physical comedy violence from working with the clowns and physical comedians I’ve gotten to know is that this kind of gag is “victim-led”. Meaning that the assaulter does not harm the assaultee in any way, and the victim of the physical act behaves as if they were harmed, and in an exaggerated way.

Clown A slaps Clown B, their flat hand stopping just before making contact, and Clown B snaps their head in the same direction as the slap. Often, they’ll also clap their hands for a sound effect. Either way, the viewer’s eye just sees the straight line and follow through. The whole thing is safe, and the illusion of a physical hit is created in the brain of the viewer.

The choreography of this is that Clown B jumps up and in the same direction they’re being “tossed” in synch with Clown A’s throwing them. The victim can also prepare for the leap in the moment when they’re grabbed, which is a cue. The speed-up of silent film erases the prepare – legs getting into position or the body going into a very slight crouch – and when run at projection speed the illusion is created.

The same idea applies to the yank-and-toss gag, seen in the video below.


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Michael Mooney

Reminds me of a clever move I’ve seen live on stage. An actor playing Ariel, for example, jumps into the air with his arms out. A perfectly timed blackout at his highest point creates the illusion that he flew into the air.

Eric Schultz

That is another nice mess- er, demonstration of the gag. Those guys do good work, and I always like your music.

A harder gag is when we see the comedian land on his rear end. I’ve seen a shot of Buster, slowed down, where you see him put both his hands flat on the ground a split second before he landed.