Stereotypes and Humor in Historic Films from the Library of Congress

This is a guest post by Bernice Ramirez. Bernice is working with the education team at the Library of Congress as part of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU) Internship Program.

Think of the last video you watched that made you laugh. Does the video capture someone taking a fall, misspeaking or getting caught doing something they shouldn’t? Since camera phones are now widespread, more people are able to capture these blunders as they happen.

Comedy Cake Walk

But before YouTube videos and even before film was invented, Americans attended live shows with clowns, magicians, animal trainers and other performers for entertainment. These burlesque shows sometimes featured characters and themes that a contemporary audience would find offensive. When motion pictures came into being at the turn of the 20th century, the burlesque style carried over to movies, and sometimes brought offensive portrayals with it.

In the 1903 short film, “Comedy Cake Walk,” an African American actor performs silly dances around two couples. This movie is in contrast to another short film, “Cake Walk“, that also features African American dancers. Teachers can challenge students to identify the stereotypes on display in the Comedy Cake Walk movie. What differences do students observe between the two short films?

Happy Hooligan film poster

Sometimes, the characters in short films were adapted from comic strips and illustrated work. Such was the case with Frederick Burr Opper’s Happy Hooligan, a character who dressed in rags and was known for his comical antics, which often got him in trouble. (Many 21st-century viewers and readers have found troubling ethnic and class stereotypes in the portrayal of Happy Hooligan as well.)

In the early part of the 20th century, comedy on film might include characters struggling with inanimate objects, chasing each other, or escaping from danger at the last minute. The humor in these scenes sometimes centered on the absurdity of the situation and less on its role in the plot. Other times, the comedic element was found in misunderstandings and unintentional entanglements. For example, in this short film, Happy Hooligan accidentally causes a woman to throw a bucket of water on a police man. Teachers can ask students whether dialogue could help make the movie funnier. Invite students to write dialogue for this short film.

Teaching strategies:

  • Teachers can invite students to compare the style of dancing and the portrayal of women in the Comedy Cake Walk to that featured in the Cake Walk movie. In what ways does the humor in the Comedy Cake Walk video potentially rely on gender stereotypes?
  • Invite students to select another film from the collections of the Library of Congress and write dialogue for it. If time allows, students might record their own version.
  • Ask students to write a movie review of one of the short films, first from their own perspective, and then from the perspective of somebody seeing it when it was first released.

What other primary sources might help you guide students in exploring how humor changes over time?

2 Comments

  1. Lisa Johnson QME
    March 21, 2013 at 7:36 pm

    Excellent. This can be used in physical education.

  2. A.Prof.MOSSAYYEB SAMANIAN
    March 22, 2013 at 6:10 am

    my believe is the streotype and cinema,s films and tv are very good program that they can be help to people for free times spent and support eye memory and imagination them but i am very worried because i think the future,s peoplea cann,t writing and it will caused the humans forgot the one of the teaching skills that is nessary for history humans and stablishment thinks

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