Sunday, April 22, 2012

Reason I Love Lucy: The Art of Mime

Mime, or pantomime, is the performing art of expressing scenarios or motive without the use of speech. Though to be distinguished from silent comedy, I find the both genres overlapping into a blend of grey area.

It's very sad that the traditional forms of comedy have all vanished, and in replacement are jokes consisting of sex, violence, drugs and swear words, otherwise known as blue comedy. These days, people cannot differentiate what's funny from what's not: they are conditioned to laugh for the sake of laughing, not because of the quality of the jokes.

It is not widely know, but the genres of comedy go far and beyond, back to the ancient times when the aristocratic or the bored needed to be entertained by gladiators or in amphitheaters, the 1800s where vaudevillian performances were popular, the early 1900s where silent comedy, slapstick comedy, prop comedy, physical comedy and pantomime were immensely well-received by people, and the late 1900s, where people had an appreciation for jokes with word-play and punch lines. Now, at least spoofs are still widely popular.  

I remember being vastly terrified by clowns and pantomimists who painted their faces white and their lips blood red when I was a little girl. However, as I got to sit through a particular performance, I was amazed by how these comedy actors could convey a message to the audience without uttering a single word! I gazed around, and realized that all the kids were roaring with laughter! Now, bear in mind that kids are taught what's funny and what's not by their caregivers and peers; how in the world did the comedy artists make them laugh without the kids having prior preconceptions to miming?

Having uncovered this fascinating fact, I became so in awe of these talented people that I was intimidated. Once, a pantomimist talked to me after he removed his makeup, and even then, I stuttered my way through the conversation. I was puzzled by his previous clowning around with his makeup and his total contrasting personality of being deadpanned serious without! Now that I've lived a ripe old age, I still don't think I'll muster enough nerve.

Now, this is why we have to differentiate between a comedy actor and a comic from a comedian. A comedy actor acts comedy out, a comedian creates a persona of comedy. As the famous Ed Wynn once said, "A comic says funny things, a comedian says things funny." That really offered explanations to me why the pantomimist had two split personalities.

If you don't comprehend the importance of the need for distinction of comedy actor/comic from a comedian, take Mr. Bean for example. I'm sure you've all rolled on the ground, overwhelmed by uncontrollable laughter due to the physical comedy showcased in the television series. Would you then believe that in real life, Rowan Atkinson is a dead serious man? He'll be your typical serious politician, stern principal, or reserved banker. Seeing a person with such contrasting personalities on and off screen can be a rather bemusing experience for a clueless stranger. However, we should never create an expectation of wanting them to make us laugh when they're not assuming a particular character. It's not only grossly unfair, it is terribly taxing for them too- imagine the diminishing of pride if they feel that they've let people down. Therefore, the need to distinguish the two genres of acting is critical!

There were other well-known comedy actors back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, where vaudeville was at its peak and then regressed. The unavailability of sound in films really helped to promote silent comedy! In the lasts years of the 19th century, Charles "Charlie" Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton were the three comedic giants. I'm thankful that many of their great films are still available today, though the picture quality sure is poor. When I'm feeling down, I'll just visit Charlie Chaplin and his silly antics have the power to cheer me up. Then, in the early and mid 20th century, Harpo Marx (of the Marx brothers), Red Skelton and Robert "Bob" Hope appeared in films and theaters. Their natural talents helped retain the connection to the old but much revered forms of comedy.

Are men naturally more talented in comedy? Are females more restrained and more afraid to lose their glamor if they get a pie thrown in their faces? For some reason, all the comedy actors are male, with one exception...


Before Lucille became known as the ditzy screwball redhead, she was a glamor queen in films. Her roles ranged from serious acting, to femme fatale or detective of film noirs, to the girl who always didn't get her man, to the brass-knuckled burlesque queen, to the bitch who learned her lesson but died. She was one of the most talented people who ever graced the earth. It's like a combination of Nicole Kidman, Angelina Jolie, Rachel McAdams, Sandra Bullock, Christina Aguilera, and Helena Bonham Carter! No Hollywood actors today has even one tenth of the talent that this wonderful lady possessed. No one can combine all these actresses' specialties together except Lucille.

The directors and presidents of film production companies like RKO, MGM, 20th Century Fox, Universal Studios, Paramount Pictures, Columbia Pictures and Warner Bros. Pictures were perplexed, they did not know where to place her: she fit in everywhere, she was a misfit everywhere. No one, not even Lucille herself, knew her great comedic talent. She only knew she was tired of being the gorgeous glamorous Hollywood actress dressed in mink coats, gowns and jewelry, and was itching to have a pie thrown in her face. Having no future prospects of becoming an A actor, she finally mustered the courage to step out of the movie industry and experiment with television. It was a blessing in disguise, because she was the best and only female comedy artist, ever!

Meet America's favorite redhead:

Lucille Ball was talented in all the forms of comedy. She was a vaudevillian, a physical comedy actor, an accomplished mummer and pantomimist, silent comedienne and a slapstick and prop comedy actor with no prior serious training. She observed, she asked, she learned, she rehearsed, and she became alive!

In my opinion, and with all due respect, no giant of physical comedy, except probably Charles Chaplin was on par with her. Additionally, she was so funny that people conveniently forgot that she was one of the most beautiful women on earth. Buster, Harold, Harpo and Red were all geniuses, but Lucille had something special: when others couldn't, she was the only one who could connect with the audience. They not only laughed at her, with her, they loved her. That's the X-factor that no other giant had.

It's impossible to go back in time, where there were great Hollywood actors who gave their very best in all performances, and who made great friendship and helped one another boost their careers.

It's another issue altogether today...

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