Rob King

 

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

Cover Interview of August 14, 2009

A close-up

It can admittedly be difficult to sense this kind of “sociology” of comedy – in large part because of our nostalgic fixation on images of custard pies and Keystone cops.  So a brief example might be helpful.

The film Dough and Dynamite provides an interesting test case.  First released in November 1914, Dough and Dynamite is one of the few “famous” Keystone comedies – that is, it’s one of the few films that might have been seen by non-specialists.  Notably, it was this film that set its star and director, a certain Charles Chaplin, on the course of bone fide film stardom. Even at the time, film critics and writers pointed to this movie as the one that set “everyone talking about the new funny man.”


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At face value, the movie is full bore, rough-and-tumble slapstick: Chaplin and his co-star, Chester Conklin, play waiters in a teashop who are put to work in the adjoining bakery when the bakers go on strike.  What unfolds is a series of chaotic scenes that, in the words of one noted Chaplin biographer, have seemed little more than “an excuse for … the fun to be had from sticky dough.”  Certainly, there’s a lot of fun to be had: bags of flour, exploding loaves of bread, doughnuts – all contribute to the film’s dough-drenched knockabout.

But is this all that the film is about? Is it adequate to describe the film as simply a comedy about “sticky dough”?

As soon as we pay attention to the broader context of working-class life, it becomes clear that the film was in fact profoundly engaged with recent events in the Los Angeles labor movement.  The contemporary point of reference for Dough and Dynamite was the hard-fought struggle of the city’s bakers’ unions for better working conditions, widely reported in the Los Angeles labor press.  In what had been the most conspicuous labor crusade in southern California in the early teens, the Jewish and general bakers’ unions had joined forces in an ambitious campaign of striking at open shop bakeries.

The bakery setting of Dough and Dynamite was, then, far more than the opportunity for fun with “sticky dough” that a more insulated appropriation of this film would suggest.  Rather, it was a point of engagement with current labor issues. But as soon as we realize this, then we have to ask a number of further questions about representations of labor within early cinematic mass culture.  Why was it a film about a local bakers’ strike, of all possible subjects, that made Chaplin a star?  How did audiences at the time respond to these images of striking workers and by what processes did those images function as comedy?

Now, admittedly, Dough and Dynamite is an exceptional case, and it’s certainly not my argument that Keystone’s early films are always about strikes, unions, and other class issues.  Still what Dough and Dynamite does show – and in an unusually literal way – are the ways these movies were involved in the broader plebeian culture of their time. What one finds in these films may not be “representations of workers” in the realist sense characteristic of, say, social problem films.  Even so, the films do present an array of comic characters and comic formulas that derived quite directly from the traditions and experiences of working-class life in turn-of-the-century America.

The Fun Factory devotes chapters to many of these – to the glamorous Bathing Beauties and new models of femininity, to ethnic stereotyping and the increased immigration of the period, and to the pace and style of Keystone comedy and the broader context of industrialization, among other areas.