Endearing Underdogs of Early Film Comedy

Professor Kerry Soper highlights comedy’s earliest stars and how their on-screen personas became famous without even saying a word. 

Across a majority of genres, protagonists are most sympathetic when the audience identifies with them. As such, protagonists are often everymen who, with a certain amount of charm and wit, are able to overcome the obstacles before them. We like these characters because we can put ourselves in their place; for a moment our ordinary existence seems like it might be the perfect solution to an extraordinary or fantastic problem. It may not seem as though at first glance, but this trend is apparent throughout the history of slapstick comedy. In his recent lecture to BYU’s International Cinema, professor Kerry Soper described how three of early comedy’s biggest stars utilized the idea of the everyman and made themselves into the endearing underdogs that launched cinema to new heights.

Max Linder

Gabriel-Maximilien Leuvielle, also known by the character name of Max Linder, was one of film’s first international stars. As an actor, screenwriter, and director, Leuvielle’s silent films made heavy use of sight gags and slapstick that took advantage of an audience’s limited point of view. His work achieved some degree of fame, but it never quite caught on in Hollywood. Soper explained that this may have been the result of Linder’s comic persona. Max was a wealthy man of leisure; his slapstick often critiqued rigid social norms, but he was still too out of touch with the common man. This characterization may have led to a few laughs, but it also created a barrier between the character and American audiences, thus limiting Linder’s popularity.

Harold Lloyd

Alternatively, Harold Lloyd was a comedian who embraced the everyman persona while also incorporating zany, and often dangerous, stunts into his productions. (It should be noted that after Lloyd lost most of one of his hands to a stunt, he then incorporated his injury as a gag in subsequent productions.) Lloyd’s character, due to his small size and glasses, was forced to resort to more creative means to outsmart larger and stronger, alpha-male villains, making him into what Soper described as a “resourceful little man.” That may not be the description that one would immediately associate with a likable protagonist, but Soper argued that this scrappy underdog persona contributed greatly to the character’s popularity.

“The antagonist engages in a certain type of violence and their blows are really meant to do damage and they are always malicious and intentional,” explained Soper. “But then our protagonists, these underdogs, their blows are tentative or unintentional. Part of that has to do with keeping the audience on the side of the protagonist. If they are too malicious or aggressive, it’s alienating. But if they bumble through life and half the time they accidentally hurt people, we give them a break.”

Charlie Chaplin

Perhaps best exemplifying the everyman’s popularity is Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin’s character of the Tramp is one of cinema’s most recognizable and has solidified Chaplin’s place as one of the medium’s most famous stars. The Little Tramp, as his name suggests, was poor and typically down-on-his-luck, but through gags, luck, and charm, he always seemed to get by—and sometimes even bested authority figures like policeman through playful trickery. But, as Soper illustrated, even more than appearing sympathetic or likable, the Tramp was often used by Chaplin to help expose the plight of the impoverished and marginalized. As Chaplin’s career evolved from slapstick to melodrama to overt political satire, he was always able to incorporate characters that audiences understood and related to. When the Little Tramp and Chaplin’s other characters found themselves in a humorous situation, the joke became that much funnier to the audience, who were often in a similar economic situation.

Eric Baker (News Media, ’18)

Eric Baker covers events for BYU’s International Cinema. He is a senior pursuing a degree in news media with a minor in political science.