Welcome to Cinephile Summer Camp, a new column dedicated to introducing children to classic movies as well as learning about film history and other subjects through cinema. This entry spotlights the three most accessible silent film comedians.
Children love slapstick. Pratfalls and other physical comedy, particularly any gags appearing to be painful, bring joy to young audiences. That’s part of why they love a lot of cartoons, and it’s why they should love a number of silent films. But just putting on any old classic starring Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd is not as easy as pushing play on Minions for the millionth time. And it’s not just because the silents are black and white, though my own eight-year-old son does love to protest against anything that’s not in color (what can I say but he must believe in the myth of total cinema?). I’m certain that most kids will appreciate the major silent film comedians if introduced early enough, but they may require a calculated approach.
If you fill a movie theater with little ones and give them popcorn and candy and put on, say, The General (1926), you’re going to entertain the lot of them. I’ve experienced that exact scenario pre-fatherhood back when I lived in New York City, where cinemas present that sort of programming (out in the suburbs, special series for kids stick with recent and popular animated features, like Minions). At home, starting from the beginning of most silent features is not ideal. Many of the comedies have a lengthy setup before there are any big gags. They did have more captive audiences back then, after all. Fortunately, all of the silent film comedians made shorts that get to the punch quicker, if you prefer to maintain the integrity of the films you’re showing to your kids.
I like to show excerpts and highlight reels of the good stuff, most of which comes from the features. Just as little kids learn American history in small bites by way of important people and the most significant events rather than chronologically, they can start their film appreciation and film history knowledge by way of monumental performers and landmark films and scenes. Charlie Chaplin is a little easier for them to meet in a chronological sense because his iconic Tramp character originated early (in 1914 with Kid Auto Races at Venice) — also his later and arguably greater films (such as the 1940 feature The Great Dictator and maybe even 1931’s City Lights) are more sophisticated and not necessarily as enjoyable for the younger crowd.
The performer/filmmakers below can be introduced in any order, and your chosen films to present can be different, but I hope I can be of some help with relaying my experience and some tips.
Because I personally favor Keaton among the main silent film comedians, my kids were exposed to his work before the others. I put Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) on one evening and my kids wound up watching a lot of it with me. I did fast forward to the hurricane sequence once they were showing less interest in the plot. They laughed at the wind gags and stunts and were amazed by the famous bit where Keaton stands in just the right spot as a house facade falls onto him. One great thing about silent films like these is that there’s more allowance for talking over them, through which to provide explanations and context; some moments in these films need to be taught as being important, as well as informed about how some feats and tricks are done. Otherwise, the action in movies like Steamboat Bill, Jr. can be a bit scary for how dangerous it looks, and was.
Much of Keaton will be more appreciated as they grow older and are more interested in action movies, though a fast-paced chase sequence appeals to all ages. Especially one with outrageous environmental obstacles, a la the downhill bit with the boulders in Seven Chances (1925), or the sort of hide-and-seek aspects found his short film Cops (1922). Of course, The General works for kids in being almost entirely made up of two chase sequences, which are particularly fun to point out as mirroring each other. There is the unfortunate fact that Keaton plays a Confederate protagonist, and that context with a whole lesson on the US Civil War did come up. So did Keaton’s influence on Jar-Jar Binks (whom my kids do enjoy) with a few specific bits from this film and others. The Star Wars versions of the gags are sillier, though, emphasizing them as slapstick.
The finesse and the illusion of painlessness in Keaton’s solo work can make it less laugh-out-loud funny for children. His stone face keeps emotion out of any injury, and he’s rarely a clownish character being set up for cheap amusement. If you want to show your kids Keaton being more of a goofball and falling down, there are the earlier short films in which he’s supporting headliner Fatty Arbuckle. The key is to find the ones with plots or settings the kids can relate to. I’ve shown the kids parts of Coney Island (1917) because they like theme parks — and I’ve always loved the bit with the strength-tester game where Keaton cracks up. I also recommend The Garage (1920), which is an easy one for kids who like cars and firefighters, which is most of them.
Relatability does come in handy with a lot of these old movies when attempting an introduction for children. Harold Lloyd is not the most youth-friendly of the group (though you’ll notice I didn’t even bother yet with Harry Langdon and his silent rom-coms). I love The Freshman (1925), but there’s not much there for the kids to identify with. And surprisingly they couldn’t really grasp much of the humor of Speedy (1928). But Safety Last! (1923) is an easy film for anyone to appreciate — or, at least the famous building-climbing and clock-hanging sequence is. But Lloyd hanging off a clock isn’t that fresh for them since they’ve already seen enough homages to the stunt at their young age, including those in Hugo and Back to the Future, that that shot alone wasn’t going to cut it.
One thing I’ve thought for a while that my son also observed is that the spectacled Lloyd is a lot like Clark Kent, particularly Christopher Reeve’s Clark Kent. I’m certain Reeve meant for his Clark to be like the silent film comedians in general, but even some of his gestures are near-identical to some of Lloyd’s in Safety Last!. So, if worse comes to worst, skip to the building stunt in the film and tell your kid that Lloyd is Superman but doesn’t want to expose himself so he’s doing the whole thing as Clark. Or just simply ask to watch it while trying to come up with how they filmed the stunt. Afterward, show them how the clock bit was done with a short making-of video from the film’s Criterion edition. I don’t know about all kids, but my son has now become a big fan of behind-the-scenes videos for all his favorite movies.
Charlie Chaplin would seem to be an easy sell to children, but while those early shorts are brief and funny enough to entertain, they’re like random average Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny cartoons on their own. The kids will laugh here or there but the film won’t resonate unless it’s something that either connects to another thing they already know (likely a modern thing paying homage to that classic film) or it’s something that wows them, unlike anything they’ve ever seen before. I thought the right introductory film was The Gold Rush (1925), but while the shoe-eating bit garnered a great deal of wonder, the film never grabbed my children as expected — not even with the 1942 version with the Chaplin-voiced narration. Surprisingly, the scenes from The Circus (1928) that I thought would be a hit didn’t hold their interest either. And we hardly even got anywhere with The Kid (1921), despite it featuring a kid.
Yet, after this whole lesson on the silent film comedians was over, Chaplin was the one that my son named as his favorite of the three. Why? Because he finally found himself lost in the one I expected to be a bit over their head: Modern Times (1936). The thing that I hadn’t realized in all this, as someone who still hasn’t come around on Chaplin as much as I should, is that while I kept trying to make the kids laugh with the Tramp, they were more drawn in by his extensively clever sequences that are amusing but less laugh-out-loud-funny. For instance, my son was glued to the television during the assembly line sequence, including when he gets pulled through the machine and when he’s testing the feeding machine. And he really liked the roller-skating stunt in the department store once I challenged him to figure out how it was done — and then, like with Safety Last!, I showed him. It’s like revealing how a magic trick was done.
At the end of the day, while I was feeling a bit of a loss at my son preferring Chaplin to my favorite, Keaton, I showed the kids whatever videos I could find showing the differences between the two silent comedy icons. I think one of the best comparisons — since they actually did few films that were alike in plot or with individual situations — is anything focused on their very dissimilar boxing scenes from City Lights (1931) and Battling Butler (1926), respectively. Chaplin’s is more of a dance, while Keaton’s is more of a showcase of slapstick where he’s pretty much a punching bag, though it’s also somewhat acrobatic, too. Both of them are brilliant in their mechanical and flexible athletic comedy in these sequences, however, and ultimately letting kids see the distinctions in their artfully hilarious talents is the best place to end on.