I propose to examine the American stunt comedy films of the silent era – typified by the films of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd – under the hypothesis that their appeal is based in a unique dialectic between illusion and reality. This dialectic is made possible by the combination of comedy and real danger to the performers. Unlike in modern films, in the silent thrill pictures the star and the stuntman were one and the same, and limitations of special effects technology meant the dangers they subjected themselves to were very real. On the other hand, the comic tone of these pictures created an illusion of invincibility and unconcern. Audiences, both of the 1920s and today, are suspended between emotions of terror and hilarity, much like on a roller coaster – thus, the films’ appeal. Harold Lloyd called such films, of which his 1923 Safety Last is an archetypal example, the “thrill pictures” (84).
Although there has been moderate scholarly interest in silent comedy since the 1950s, the “thrill pictures” have received little attention in their own right. Trends in popular culture today, however, indicate a growing interest in and receptiveness to silent stunt comedy. Thus, a dedicated study of the craft behind and spectator response to thrill pictures is both relevant and timely. Both scholarly and popular audiences are ripe for the rediscovery of the thrill comics as part of our entertainment culture heritage.
Rebecca Hennesy, ’14
Majors: English – Film Concentration, Philosophy
Sponsor: Kirilka Stavreva