Cruel and Unusual Comedy: Astonishing Shorts from the Slapstick Era

From its first appearance in May 2009, MoMA’s Cruel and Unusual Comedy series has explored the vast subconscious that is American slapstick comedy of the early 20th century. These unruly, unpretentious short films were made to be instantly consumed and quickly forgotten, just one component of the many that once made up an evening at the movies. The filmmakers flung themselves heedlessly into a wide range of discomfiting social, cultural, political, and aesthetic topics, including ethnic stereotypes, domestic abuse, sexual identity, violence, and even the plague of Chaplin imitators. Like today’s stand-up comedians, the eccentric comics of the 1910s and 1920s found their material in the anxieties of the moment, and their work reveals, for better or worse, an America often hidden in the more polished feature films of the period.

Here in its fifth edition, Cruel and Unusual Comedy draws on the Museum’s extensive holdings of silent comedy, acquired largely in the 1970s and 1980s by Eileen Bowser during her tenure as the head of MoMA’s Department of Film. The majority of films to be screened are archival rarities, many preserved from the only known copies. Among the featured comics are both enduring favorites, like Harold Lloyd and Our Gang, and lesser-known figures such as Al St. John, Hank Mann, Alice Howell, Paul Parrott, and the robust comic trio A Ton of Fun.

Organized by Dave Kehr, Adjunct Curator, Department of Film, MoMA, and independent curators Steve Massa and Ben Model. Special thanks to Eileen Bowser, Ron Magliozzi, and the late Charles Silver.