The Greatest Silent Comedians of the Sound Era

Attention cinephiles: your new must-have Blu-ray box set is Criterion’s Jacques Tati Collection, which assembles the six features and seven shorts of the exquisite French comic writer/actor/director, offering an immediate refuge from the cruelties of this ugly world. The first of them, the disarmingly lovely Jour de Fête, was released in 1949, which also makes Tati a bit of an anomaly: a performer leaning far more on physical than verbal comedy, yet working well within the sound era. The introduction of sound in the late ‘20s was, among many other things, a demarcation line for screen comedy: most of the silent icons struggled to make the transition (or chose not to make it at all; Chaplin was still making mostly-silent movies like Modern Times in 1936), as studios rushed to fill their talking pictures with talking comedians from the Broadway and vaudeville stage. But a few comic actors through the years have managed to preserve the invaluable comic tool of silence, even as sound raged around them.

Harpo Marx

Harpo — the stage name for the Marx Brother first dubbed Adolph, then rechristened Arthur — initially appeared on screen during the silent era, in the long-lost Marx Brothers debut film Humor Risk and as a quickie supporting player in the Richard Dix effort Too Many Kisses. But he wouldn’t make an impression until their team’s first feature, 1929’s The Cocoanuts. The Marxes were a talky act, between Groucho’s nonstop witticisms and Chico’s non sequitur-heavy dialogue comedy, and Harpo figured out early on that he could only hold his own against his chatty brothers by not saying anything at all. His uproarious pantomimes also gave the act an extra dimension — unlike most talkie comedy acts, they weren’t replacing silent comedy, but supplementing it.