Silent Comedy, by Paul Merton

Back to the good old days of cinema when the silents were golden
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The Independent Culture

If you have only ever seen Paul Merton on Have I Got News For You, you could be forgiven for thinking he's only funny from the waist up. Yet Merton's long-running association with the leading improvisation troupe, the Comedy Store Players, has given him a solid grounding in physical comedy, and he brings an insider's insight to this heartfelt study. Merton has been a fan of silent comedy since he was a child, and his meticulous book is clearly a labour of love.

Silent Comedy dovetails the biographies of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. Sensibly, Merton avoids a facile argument about which of these mute artistes was the greatest, preferring to focus on what made each unique. He's full of admiration for Lloyd, and mounts a robust defence of Chaplin against unfair accusations of sentimentality. But he seems to have an especially soft spot for Keaton, whose deadpan demeanour isn't so unlike his own.

Particularly interesting is his portrait of Laurel & Hardy, established silent stars before they turned to talkies. Merton also includes studies of forgotten silent comics like Harry Langdon and Larry Semon, plus an intriguing portrait of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, whose career was wrecked by a rape and manslaughter trail, despite being acquitted of all charges.

Merton has a good sense of time and place, and the picture that emerges is of a frenetic art form that mirrors the frantic industry of early 20th-century America.

Where the book falls down is in its descriptions of the films themselves. Here, if anything, Merton is too thorough, outlining the plots in exhaustive (and exhausting) detail. He peppers these storylines with perceptive observations, but while such a comprehensive approach makes this a valuable work of reference, it doesn't always reward sustained reading. The book also lacks a concluding overview of what silent films did that talkies didn't.

Yet it's a good sign when such a substantial book leaves you wanting still more. It's beautifully illustrated, with period stills and playbills that match the text, and though most of Merton's sources are secondary, he decorates this conscientious survey with fascinating first-hand experience. In the live show, Silent Clowns, he introduces excerpts from silent movies, and has seen how a mass audience reacts to these comedies. It proves that these joyous films should only ever be seen on a big screen, in a crowded auditorium.

RH Books, £25, Order for £22.50 (free p&p) on 0870 079 8897