Agee’s film criticism sounds like that too, a calculated yet self-exceeding improvisation. Its culmination is the twenty-five-page essay he wrote for Life in September 1949 titled “Comedy’s Greatest Era.” Agee’s premise was simple: “As soon as the screen began to talk, silent comedy was pretty well finished.” In a Bob Hope film, “the fun slackens between laughs like a weak clothesline.” What Agee loved in silent movies was the same thing that he loved in nineteenth-century daguerreotypes and New Orleans jazz, an unselfconscious authenticity of the kind Schiller called “naïve” rather than sentimental. Agee began his essay in a mock-analytic mode: “In the language of screen comedians four of the main grades of laugh are the titter, the yowl, the bellylaugh and the boffo. The titter is just a titter. The yowl is a runaway titter. Anyone who has ever had the pleasure knows all about a bellylaugh. The boffo is the laugh that kills.” Agee examined the smiles of the great comedians: Harold Lloyd’s “thesaurus of smiles” which “could at a moment’s notice blend prissiness, breeziness and asininity,” or Buster Keaton–the “most deeply ‘silent’ of the silent comedians”–whose smile “was as deafeningly out of key as a yell.” The twitchings of Harry Langdon’s clueless face “were signals of tiny discomforts too slowly registered by a tinier brain; quick, squirty little smiles showed his almost prehuman pleasures, his incurably premature trustfulness.” And then there was Chaplin, some kind of ultimate for Agee: “Of all comedians he worked most deeply and most shrewdly within a realization of what a human being is, and is up against.”
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