The Gag Man review: a brutal insight into the silent comedy business

The consensus view on Clyde Bruckman was summed up by Tom Dardis, biographer of Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton: “he was not very funny, and he drank too much”. Matthew Dessem’s The Gag Man, an entertaining and revelatory study of the writer-director, does little to erase that image, but does examine how he came to “direct” some of silent cinema’s greatest comedies, and tells one heck of a Hollywood yarn.

Bruckman was a journalist who entered the film industry as an intertitle writer, before becoming a “gagster”. The “gag men” would conceive visual jokes for silent comedies, working in groups, throwing ideas around, so it’s tricky to say who did what. However, Bruckman is credited with the brilliant concept for  Buster Keaton’s The Playhouse (1921). The star had a broken ankle, which limited his usual acrobatic display. Bruckman sketched out an idea for creating laughs out of camera trickery instead of physical exertion. Thanks to deadly timing on behalf of cameraman and star, the multiple exposures work perfectly, including a triumphant sequence in which nine Keatons dance together.

Clyde Bruckman

Bruckman also worked with Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy, WC Fields, Abbott and Costello and the Three Stooges. Despite his reliance on the bottle, and having no great talent as either screenwriter or director, Bruckman has a stunning resumé. He “directed” Keaton’s classic The General (1926), and Laurel and Hardy’s two-reeler The Battle of the Century (1927). On The General, Bruckman’s co-director credit was explained away by Keaton as a “favour”, though he had relied on him to be his eyes behind the camera when he was in shot. In truth, Bruckman was the idea man once again, the writer who brought William Pittenger’s The Great Locomotive Chase, unlikely subject matter for a comedy, to Keaton in the first place. On Battle, Bruckman was working with Stan Laurel, precocious cinematographer George Stevens and Leo McCarey in a “supervisory” role, so it’s possible he had little to add.

Then again, WC Fields named Bruckman as one of the few directors he would be happy to work with again. Whether this was because Bruckman was supportive, or tolerant, of Fields’s drinking can only be speculated. While Bruckman is credited as director on The Fatal Glass of Beer, he had actually been hired by Mack Sennett simply to re-cut it.

The Battle of the Century (1927)
Stan and Ollie in The Battle of the Century (1927)

The Gag Man is a brutal insight into how early Hollywood operated, especially in the dysfunctional layer below the moguls and stars. Through the 1930s and 1940s, Bruckman was shunted back to the gag room and his drinking increased, along with his problems, which included plagiarism suits and counter-suits involving Harold Lloyd.

In 1955, Bruckman killed himself. He shot himself in the head in a restaurant bathroom, with a gun he had borrowed from Keaton. His death, like his films, has become part of Hollywood legend. This generous and always fascinating book gives some much needed background to the myth.

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