Rob King


On his book The Fun Factory: The Keystone Film Company and the Emergence of Mass Culture

Cover Interview of August 13, 2009

The wide angle

The French philosopher Henri Bergson famously described laughter as a “social gesture.”  It’s a quote that has been a watchword in my own thinking about comedy.  Why people laugh, who and what they laugh at – these are historical categories that change over time.  The history of comedy is in this sense nothing but the history of the changing social patterns that produce and permit laughter.

Comedy tends to cluster around points of tension within a given social order, where established patterns and relations are beginning to give way to new patterns, new relations.  Comedy translates those conflicts into jokes and provides an articulation of social contradiction at moments of historic change.  These are some of my basic methodological assumptions.

Now, if we can accept these points, it makes sense to foreground issues of culture and society in any understanding of film comedy. The question then becomes: how can we think of Keystone’s history in these terms?

One needs to begin here with the recognition that the decades surrounding the turn of the century represent a crucial watershed in the remaking of working-class culture. At every level, plebeian cultural forms were being gradually integrated into the branches of a newly centralized culture industry: in live entertainment, as vaudeville impresarios like B.  F.  Keith repackaged the boozy, licentious concert saloon as respectable variety theater; in sports, as baseball shed the disreputability of the “Beer and Whiskey League” and began its transformation into the “nation’s pastime”; and, of course, in film, as immigrant nickelodeon operators like Carl Laemmle and William Fox rose to become presidents of major film companies catering to nationwide “movie-mad” audiences.  In each case, important centers of plebeian recreation and sociability were either displaced or transfigured by new sites of mass or cross-class entertainment. Ford Sterling in Love and Dynamite (1914).

The development of slapstick comedy, which I trace through the history of the Keystone Film Company, follows a precisely similar profile, what can be described as a shift in slapstick’s status as a term of class culture to its centrality in an emergent mass culture.

Keystone brought together a group of filmmakers from immigrant, working-class backgrounds, most of whom came to the studio with experience in popular theater and burlesque.  During the studio’s early years, they fashioned a style of film comedy formed from the roughhouse traditions of working-class comic theater. The world of Keystone’s early films was thus far removed from the more genteel developments in dramatic filmmaking associated with pioneers like Cecil B.  DeMille or D.  W.  Griffith (it’s not well remembered, for instance, that the crazy chases for which Keystone is still so famous originated as explicit parodies of Griffithian race-to-the-rescue melodrama).  A history of Keystone’s early years can thus illuminate much about the place and role of working-class popular culture at the advent of the twentieth century.

At the same time, Keystone’s career also reveals how slapstick’s plebeian tones were softened and transformed by cinema’s participation in the emergent mass culture.  Beginning in 1915, significant changes began to occur in the studio’s comic style, when Keystone was swept up in the formation of new corporate organizations designed to market film to a broader, cross-class audience. Faced with the commercial imperative of having to reach out to a larger public – one that would include both men and women, blue-collar and white-collar viewers, the working and genteel classes – Keystone’s filmmakers innovated with new “mass” forms of comic representation.  What one sees in films of this later period is first, a growing reliance on genteel narratives and upper-class settings; second, an increased emphasis on the comic spectacle of out-of-control tin lizzies, airplanes, flivvers, and assorted “uproarious inventions”; and third, the titillating display of the famous “Bathing Beauties” who virtually defined the studio’s later history.

The thesis of The Fun Factory, in this sense, is simply this: that the history of Keystone traces the contours of, and sheds light upon, the development of early mass culture.  Such an approach, I believe, not only sheds light on Keystone’s broader historical significance, it also helps elucidate the book’s central assumption – namely, that understanding laughter is a way of understanding cultural change.