Laughter Behind the Screen

Sullivan's Travels

The second time the young English comedian Charlie Chaplin dressed as a tramp and walked in front of a movie camera, he actually walked in front of two. Mack Sennett’s 1914 Kid Auto Races at Venice, an improvised one-reeler shot at a real-life soapbox derby, begins as the Tramp ambles into view in front of the racetrack and makes a series of faces at us, the movie audience. After a minute or so, we cut to a new angle and see that Charlie is actually mugging at a newsreel camera. The remainder of the film intercuts these two angles as the cameraman attempts, unsuccessfully, to push Charlie away. History remembers this trifle for the Tramp’s debut (Mabel’s Strange Predicament was shot first but released later), but it was also a pioneering entry in a new category: film comedies about filmmaking.

By 1914, audiences who had fallen in love with the movies had also become fascinated by the way pictures were made and the people who made them. A growing number of movie fan magazines purported to go behind the scenes and show the stars’ real lives, on- and offscreen. It was inevitable that studios would turn their cameras on themselves, and comedians like Chaplin, along with their writers and directors, were quick to jump into the game, finding fertile ground in their own home turf.

For Chaplin, the raucous world of the movies was an excellent place for a Tramp to get in trouble. All told, he would make four shorts set in film studios between 1914 and 1916. Although the gags that fill these movies are not that different from the ones in Chaplin’s other work of the period, the particularities of this backstage world and the way the Tramp crashes through it give the shorts their own distinctive and amusing fish-out-of-water sensibility. Chaplin’s simple idea of the back lot as a comic’s playground would be picked up by future comedians such as Abbott and Costello and Jerry Lewis. But a brief moment in his 1916 short Behind the Screen (from which I’ve brazenly swiped part of the title of this piece) hints at a different path, one that would prove even longer-running and more adaptable.

Toward the end of Behind the Screen, which features the Tramp as a studio stagehand, a title card introduces us to “The Comedy Department rehearsing a new idea,” after which we see a director instructing an actor in the proper method of throwing a pie. Chaplin’s assumption that his audience would recognize pie throwing as a comedy cliché ushered a note of satire in to his backstage antics. Of course, once the Tramp enters the scene, the parody of a pie fight becomes an actual pie fight (Chaplin finds a way to have his pie and throw it too). While silent comedy genre parodies, like Stan Laurel’s spoof of Rudolph Valentino pictures Mud and Sand (1922), were not uncommon in this era, Chaplin’s notion of mocking Hollywood tropes from the studios’ own vantage point would take a while to catch on. Meanwhile, movie comedies about movies evolved as the industry itself evolved.

By the twenties, audiences had begun to think of Hollywood as a world and culture of its own—a magical place where a kid from nowhere could be turned into an international star. In fact, this was how the studios liked to present themselves to the public. And the “kid-from-nowhere” story would become a template for all kinds of movies for decades. In melodramas, the ascension to stardom led only to misery (the textbook examples are the multiple versions of A Star Is Born). But in comedies, becoming a star could ultimately lead to a happy ending—the dream come true.

King Vidor’s 1928 charming Show People, starring Marion Davies and made at MGM, is one of the best kid-from-nowhere comedies. Peggy Pepper wants to become a great dramatic star but gets her first break in slapstick comedy (as did Gloria Swanson), much to her disappointment. She believes comedy to be beneath her. When she does succeed as a dramatic actress, she loses touch with the regular people who were her friends. At film’s end, she learns to embrace the humanity of comedy. (Remember this theme—we’ll come back to it.)

Show People also gave audiences a view of studio life that perfectly matched their dreams: as a world of friendly, if occasionally frazzled, people, with a star around every corner (the film’s many cameos include Chaplin himself). Other comedies with similar premises include Free and Easy (1930) with Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd’s hilarious Movie Crazy (1932).

The sound era found studios discovering a new style of comedies about the movies. Perhaps inspired by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s Hollywood-as-madhouse play Once in a Lifetime (itself turned into a film in 1932), filmmakers took a sharper approach to fictionalizing their industry for laughs. Films like Stand-In (1937) and Boy Meets Girl (1938) put Hollywood executives, directors, writers, and agents at the center of their plots. Instead of the grounded professionals of Show People, we saw a succession of madcaps barely holding it together as they navigated the treacherous waters of studio politics.

And yet these films could hardly be said to provide scathing satire. What was really happening was that the backstage-Hollywood story was syncing up with the screwball comedies of the thirties. The characters of these films had more in common with the genially goofy, wisecracking eccentrics of Bringing up Baby and You Can’t Take It with You (both 1938) than they did with real-life studio folk. Certainly any film that cast James Cagney and Pat O’Brien as a screenwriting team, as Boy Meets Girl did, was not going to be confused with a daring exposé.

By focusing on the people who made the movies, these spoofs managed to avoid, intentionally or unintentionally, any real analysis of the films their characters made. No one was asking how or why Hollywood produced movies, or how filmmakers connected, or failed to connect, with their audiences. It took the great writer-director Preston Sturges to deal with that subject, and he did so in his 1941 classic Sullivan’s Travels.

The premise of the film is simple. John L. Sullivan, played by Joel McCrea, is a successful Hollywood comedy director—but he wants to create serious art, in the form of a movie called O Brother, Where Art Thou, and as research, he leaves all his money behind and, disguised as a hobo, goes out to live among “real people.” What Sullivan will come to believe by the film’s end is that there is nobility in taking people out of their daily troubles by making them laugh. But Sturges, who had a keen analytical eye for film structures and conventions, plays a trick on Sullivan and us. The fictional director is looking for truth, but his travels are not through America but through a succession of varied and seemingly incompatible traditional film genres.

At the start of his journeys, Sullivan is being followed by a group of Hollywood PR men in a caravan. This occasions a broad slapstick chase scene—in fact, the very type of “Keystone chase” that, minutes earlier, Sullivan argued was the outdated material the studio would make if they gave people only what they wanted.

Next, Sullivan meets the character billed simply and appropriately as “The Girl.” (“There’s always a girl in the picture,” says Sullivan. “Haven’t you ever been to the movies?”) The Girl, played by Veronica Lake, is genuinely down-and-out and, seeing Sullivan as a kindred spirit, joins him on his travels. We thus enter the world of the romantic road comedy (see also “On the Roads” by me, and no, I don’t get any extra money if you click on the link). Indeed, these two characters evoke the Depression-era classic It Happened One Night (1934), directed by Frank Capra—who is name-checked in Sullivan’s Travels’ opening scene. Is this the reality Sullivan has been seeking? Well, you might ask, if the Girl is so poor, where did she find the money for a hairdresser who could give her Veronica Lake’s trademark peekaboo hairstyle?

As we enter the last third of the film, we make the biggest transition of all. After an hour of brilliantly witty dialogue, Sturges removes all words for a long montage: Sullivan and the Girl (now more realistically coiffed) enter a darker, humor-and-romance free version of the world of the poor and hopeless. And then Sturges removes the Girl, the last prop of the romantic comedy, from the story. Sullivan is mistakenly arrested and sentenced to years on a chain gang. The final half hour of the film is grim and certainly appears more “realistic” than the rest Sturges is giving us the movie his executives have told us we don’t want to see. But this too is an established genre: the social melodrama. In the early thirties, with films like I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) and Wild Boys of the Road (1933), Warner Bros. had successfully specialized in the very kind of movie Sullivan dreams of making (while also putting out the giddily foolish musicals and comedies he disdains).

Sullivan’s epiphany comes with the laughter he and the other prison inmates share at a screening of a Disney cartoon (Playful Pluto, 1934). The rescued Sullivan’s final speech about the necessity of comedy is delivered almost directly to us. That it follows the bleakest scenes Sturges had ever filmed is completely appropriate for an artist who never met a paradox he didn’t love. Sullivan has traveled through a house of mirrors, where every search for truth has led back to the movies. If you can’t escape Hollywood, you might as well love it.

The mixed critical and commercial reaction to Sullivan’s Travels (now universally recognized as a masterpiece), and the fact that Sturges was always a tough act to follow, meant that the film would have few imitators in its own era. More straightforward comedies about filmmaking continued to be made, including a subgenre of nostalgic ones about the early days of the motion picture, like Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and Carl Reiner’s The Comic (1969).

To find Sullivan’s true successors, you have to look to some of Hollywood’s more idiosyncratic filmmakers. Richard Rush’s The Stunt Man (1980) is a gleefully surreal portrait of the director as God. If Sullivan wanted to step down from his lofty position to walk among the common people, The Stunt Man’s Eli Cross, unforgettably played by Peter O’Toole, revels in his power over all he surveys, making him, in a way, the anti-Sullivan. Robert Altman, a director who, like Sturges, seemed to be both a Hollywood outsider and insider at once, adapted Michael Tolkin’s Hollywood crime satire The Player in 1992—telling Tolkin’s story while using his camera and editing choices to comment on that story and on filmmaking itself.

If we are living in a more cynical era today (which is debatable), you could see that reality as being reflected in more recent movie (and television) comedies about movies. The kid from nowhere has morphed into the jackass from nowhere in TV series such as Entourage and Extras. The studio madcaps now seem borderline deranged in films like Adaptation (2002) and Tropic Thunder (2008). But one thing has remained consistent throughout the years of this genre: almost no one in these movies voluntarily walks away from the strange life they’ve chosen.

The last shot of Kid Auto Races at Venice is a tight one of Charlie. He looks directly into the newsreel camera and sticks out his tongue. And ever since, the best comedies about filmmaking have been created by those who, like the Tramp, cheerfully stick their tongues out at the camera while knowing in their hearts they can never tear themselves away from it.

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