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Comedy Is a Man in Trouble

Slapstick in American Movies

2002
Author:

Alan Dale

Comedy Is a Man in Trouble

An enthusiast’s look at the art of physical comedy—now in paperback!

Comedy Is a Man in Trouble presents a lively, accessible, and lavishly illustrated look at a form of comedy that has been expanded and refashioned in film by everyone from W. C. Fields and Marion Davies to Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. Here is not only an amusing look at film comedy history, but an insight into the human condition and what causes us to laugh.

Comedy is famously difficult to analyze. But Alan Dale shows that you can talk about a joke without completely stepping on it. In Comedy Is a Man in Trouble, Dale seasons his weightier theories about slapstick in film with engaging opinions and witty asides. Dale tackles many of the great film comedians, from Charlie Chaplin to Jim Carrey. His seemingly encyclopedic knowledge, back to the most obscure silent films, produces admirable close readings.

Ted Loos, New York Times Book Review

Legendary screen comedian Jerry Lewis once said, "The premise of all comedy is a man in trouble." The films that endeared Lewis and others to us hinged on the physical assault of their hero, the pie in the face or slip on the banana peel that reduced the movie star to the level of the audience. Alan Dale presents a lively and accessible look at slapstick, a form of comedy with roots in the circus and vaudeville that has been refashioned by actors ranging from Buster Keaton to the Marx Brothers, from Katharine Hepburn to Jim Carrey.

Winner of the Theater Library Association’s Special Jury Prize for Distinguished Achievement

Comedy Is a Man in Trouble

Alan Dale worked at a Los Angeles talent agency before earning a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Princeton University. He is currently working toward a J.D. at Yale Law School.

Comedy Is a Man in Trouble

Comedy is famously difficult to analyze. But Alan Dale shows that you can talk about a joke without completely stepping on it. In Comedy Is a Man in Trouble, Dale seasons his weightier theories about slapstick in film with engaging opinions and witty asides. Dale tackles many of the great film comedians, from Charlie Chaplin to Jim Carrey. His seemingly encyclopedic knowledge, back to the most obscure silent films, produces admirable close readings.

Ted Loos, New York Times Book Review

Dale gives slapstick its due, treating this lowest form of physical humor as the highly demanding, delicately calibrated art that it is. Comedy Is a Man in Trouble is an enjoyable book, plainly written and unpretentious, enlightening even if you haven’t seen all the movies he cites—but especially if you have. His enthusiasm is infectious, and he makes you want to search out those classics you may have missed.

Times of Trenton

Swift and delightful. Dale as a critic is like Sturges as a moviemaker: his offhand comments have a simultaneous slap and tickle.

Michael Sragow, Baltimore Sun

More than an appreciation of a genre, this title makes a case for an approach that goes beyond historical encapsulating, beyond the greatest-hits-lists style characteristic of books on this topic.

Choice

A delightful study. Fun to read.

Bloomsbury Review

In Comedy Is a Man in Trouble, Dale gives slapstick its due, treating this lowest form of physical humor as the highly demanding, delicately calibrated art that it is. Comedy Is a Man in Trouble is an enjoyable book, plainly written and unpretentious, enlightening even if you haven’t seen all these films—and especially so when you have. There were 40,000 reels of comedy produced in the silent era alone, and Dale seems to have seen every one that has survived. His enthusiasm is infectious, and he makes you want to search out those classics you may have missed—The General, The Freshman, The Great Dictator. He even encourages you to take a second look at comedians like Lewis and Carrey, who, like all their brethren, persuade us only too well not to take them seriously.

Minneapolis Star Tribune

This is a selective, appreciative survey of the diverse masters of physical comedy, from Charlie Chaplin (with emphasis on his later Great Dictator), stone-faced Buster Keaton, all-American nice guy Harold Lloyd, the Marx Brothers, writer-director Preston Sturges, and French cult-favorite Jerry Lewis. Rejecting the notion that slapstick necessarily involves pathos, the author deftly combines criticism and biography, offering keen insight and lively prose. He notes that studio bosses believed that men rejected female clowns because they didn’t laugh at attractive women, yet Dale makes a compelling case for Katharine Hepburn as a breakthrough slapstick artist. This book deserves a place next to Walter Kerr’s The Silent Clowns and other classics on film comedy.

Library Journal

Dale's exemplary study of American movie slapstick, from Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd, through the Marxes and Jerry Lewis (and on to Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler), offers lots of new insight; it's really brilliant.

Hermenaut

A delicate balancing act between traditional cinematic criticism and pie-in-the-face pratfalls, and Dale manages to pull it off with the skill and aplomb of the silent slapstick clowns he so clearly idolizes. Rather than attempt of account for every low-comedy star and his/her entire repertoire, Dale focuses on a handful of key superstars—specifically Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, the Marx Brothers and Jerry Lewis—and combines biography with cinematic analysis to create a convincing timeline of the rise, fall, and rebirth of one of the movies’s most popular genres. He also takes time to examine the controversial role of women in Hollywood comedy, ultimately anointing Katherine Hepburn as the Queen of Slapstick. Comedy is a Man in Trouble hits the mark.

Fade In

It’s difficult to intellectually analyze a slapstick gag without killing a vital part of what made it funny in the first place. Yet, Alan Dale, in this brief analysis of the highest points of American slapstick cinema’s first 50 years, somehow manages to render in prose both what’s funny and what’s resonant about the best slapstick without coming off as too much of a stuffed shirt. Comedy is a Man in Trouble is peppered with bits that make you laugh out loud, either at some remembered gag, Dale’s terse summation of a gag you’ve never seen, or—rarest and most precious of all—the nugget of buried truth that makes the best gags timeless.

Austin Chronicle

An act of devotion from a dedicated slapstick fan. Dale’s unpretentious writing style and passion for slapstick make Comedy Is a Man in Trouble a delightful reading experience.

Film and History

Comedy Is a Man in Trouble

Contents

Preface

1. Comedy Is a Man in Trouble
2. Chaplin as Proteus, Low-Down and High Up
3. Junior: Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton
4. Girl Heroes
5. The Marx Brothers: The Buoyant Refuse of Our Teeming Shore
6. Preston Sturges: Girl in a Jam, Boy in a Jam
7. Jerry Lewis: The Once and Future King of Comedy

Coda
Notes
Works Cited

Index