You pretty much have a film history’s worth of comedy in this short film here. I guess Keaton is where it all starts.
But you have to be careful about what you laugh about. Or rather, why you laugh at it.
To me, Chaplin’s weakness is his cheap sentimentality. It pretty much started a house tradition in the genre, still ongoing today, with Bill Murray bookending the whole thing. It’s accepted and celebrated, but when you have men like Keaton, who maintain a sharp focus on the visual comedy of the thing, then there’s reason to castigate.
And of course, many of the gags are about the dissonance between what’s seen and what’s not. Today, cinematic comedy relies entirely on that concept. I’m sure some of it came from the stage, but when it’s tinkered with in the language of dreams, the effect is amplified, we are accomplices to the facts.
One other thing: the framing. Not of the camera, but the bookends of the story. It starts with Keaton arriving at the end of the world, supposedly his home, down on his luck, and about to have the worst day of his life. That’s a gag in itself, one of the first I guess, about the funniness of a man caught in ‘unfunny’ situations. There is more of such assymetrical gags à la Lewis Caroll, even down to the fishing holes (Alice’s well?) on ice that make Keaton catch the same thing his partner behind has caught.
Pulling poles. North Pole. The dissonance of polar opposites. Guitars as snow rackets, snow rackets as tennis rackets, snowballs as tennis balls, mistaken identities, sleigh dogs as domestic breed dogs. And just the idea that this short was a ‘parody’ of a known melodrama of the time. It is clever stuff. Something to put on for your children.