Dilution of Artistic Genius?

25Aug10

Thank God for YouTube.

Just this morning, a random event cause an old Jerry Lewis bit to pop into my head. From the movie Errand Boy, Lewis does a pantomime to Count Basie’s fabulous Blues In Hoss Flat. The bit, called Chairman of the Board, is an elegant example of comedic genius, without a single spoken word. I remember when I first saw it – I was sick with a flu, home from school, in the mid 1960’s (the movie released in 1961).

I located the clip on Youtube this morning and within minutes of posting it, one of my old high school classmates posted a comment with a link to yet another old bit – this one even more elaborate and utterly astonishing in its perfection. Sid Caesar and Nanette Fabray performed a pantomime of a marital spat to Beethoven’s 5th, LIVE on Sid and Imogene Coca’s spectacular comedy program, Your Show of Shows (the program was the debut for a fellow named Carl Reiner, who moved on to create the Dick Van Dyke Show). How often can a wordless skit grip your attention for six minutes?

These comic artists – and dozens more from well before – e.g., Charlie Chaplin,W.C. Fields, Groucho Marx, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, hell, even the Howard brothers – displayed an art that combined physical movement, timing, language (watch Sid Caesar’s work with foreign “languages”), and above all, intellect. They tower over the current comic stars of the day, I say.

Perhaps there is something in the old way that appeals to the senses in a way that current style does not. There is more physical movement, subtlety, understatement, maybe?

Are there similarities in the evolution of the fiction you read? How do your favorite contemporary writes compare to the predecessors of their genre?

As well, in music? Art?

Has it all really been done before? Or are there still real, genuine pioneers in their artistic fields? Who are they?

I know one thing – I’m going back to watch some Youtube clips, and none of them are newer than 1990.

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6 Responses to “Dilution of Artistic Genius?”

  1. I applaud this post, and would like to bring up the interaction between the Marx Bros, including the only female brother ever, Margaret Dumont.

    Groucho’s witticisms are great, but for someone like me, watching their movies in Finland with less-than-perfect translations of his jokes, I loved to watch the entire team in their treadmill physical gags, such as http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7YNiedDhsAs. No language skills needed to appreciate the timing.

  2. 3 Phillipa

    I think some of the old wordless Looney Tune cartoons are brilliant. I’m thinking of one inparticular where Bugs Bunny (or Porky Pig, not sure) trys to sleep while a tap drips. I’m sure there are other examples from these cartoons where they rely mainly on timing, facial expression and other visual gags.

    I’m going to think about your questions re art/music/books a litle longer

    • Yes, that one was great – but don’t forget, the MUSIC was an essential element to that, too. It was Bugs, I believe.

      And I’ve been thinking about the questions myself but haven’t had any earth shattering revelations.

  3. 5 Phillipa

    Had my coffee and a bit of a think…

    Books/music/film reflect the culture at the time of their creation, they are addressed to those who exist in that specific space and time. If they still speak to us many years after that culture has gone, if they say something about who we were then and who we are now and what we will become, if they have that resonance then they endure. The other stuff merely becomes quaint or vaguely interesting windows back onto a past way of thinking or being, curiosities in a junk shop to pick up and muse on for a second and then forget.

    I think there will be many more works of genius in centuries to come, as well as a vast, unbelievably huge amount of junk shop curios.

    This is what I thought, but not sure it answers those questions

  4. Why say anything when this says everything?

    “I think there will be many more works of genius in centuries to come, as well as a vast, unbelievably huge amount of junk shop curios.”

    Nicely summed up.

    I think before we can recognize something as great, we need time and space. Things may appeal to the current masses now and never have any staying power. Likewise, something thought dowdy and drab now may forever remain listless and fodder for the junk shop curios, or, it may end up being the best thing to come out of a century.

    Only time will tell.


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