Three chapters from Klavierzerstörungen
exlusively in English translation
(illustrations in the book are not reproduced on this

The Anarchy of Vaudeville
Destructivity in Slapstick

The book can be ordered from Reimer Verlag

Destructivity in Slapstick
Charlie Chaplin, Laurel & Hardy, Marx Brothers, Peter Sellers

In 1914 Chaplin made His Musical Career.[1] Lasting just 12 minutes, this short film can hardly be considered exemplary for the art of early cinema: its reduced plot is too unsophisticated, the comedy’s adherence to the rules of slapstick too clichéd. However, as a document of the history of piano destructions it boasts formative structural attributes.

A brief summary of the plot of His Musical Career will help to understand its relevance for This Time for Keeps and other films. Charlie the tramp finds work at a piano shop as a carrier. Together with his much taller and stronger colleague he is supposed to deliver an instrument and retrieve another from a customer who has fallen behind on payments. The two men mix up the addresses, which leads to a series of comic confrontations. The film ends with the collected piano running out of control down a sloping street and crashing into a pond. Charlie, who has been clasping onto the instrument for dear life, goes down with the piano, plunking the keys as he sinks. (Fig. 5)

The gag is the same as in the Durante sketch: however adverse the circumstances, the music can be stopped by nothing. But because the process of denial is made transparent in all its playacted blatancy, not only is it revealed to be ineffective, it also becomes the subject of derision. Laughing about the debasement of a piano and of moral sensibility can by all means be viewed as denial, as a shield against what is truly an insufferable situation. Yet with regard to the film’s diegesis, one first needs to look at its socio-psychological character: slapstick is employed as a means of highlighting the dichotomous relationship of, on the one hand, the proletarian habitus with its hallmarks of uncultivated boorishness and, on the other, the bourgeois behavioural norms of gentility. In a caricatured manner the film represents the zone of conflict from which Durante also derived his aggressive impulses. Following a binary, orientational scheme, from the very outset His Musical Career pits the two worlds against each other. The first scene is staged in the backroom of the piano shop where the tramp is hired as a piano carrier. This situation, spiced with a certain amount of banter and larks, is treated like an initiation in which the two unequal protagonists – the bearlike, slow-witted Mike (Mack Swain) and small-built, canny Charlie – first become acquainted. While the intro begins by airing clichés about the sub-bourgeois classes, imputing rough social intercourse and vulgar excess to their stock behaviour, we see written in large white letters on a door in the background décor “Shop Keep Out”. This prohibition announces that an entirely different sphere starts on the other side of the door, the empire of commerce and a culture of civilised comportment and genteel expression. The prohibited but unpreventable transgression from one sphere to the other represents the dramatic hub of this short film. The piano assumes the function of a boundary object that brings the two milieus into contact. However, the purpose of such activity is not to unify them. On the contrary, the way the two carriers treat the instrument betokens ingrained habits incompatible with the ideals held by users who appreciate art. The piano is shoved, whacked against walls; the carriers drop it down steps, let it tumble uncontrolled down stairs, ferry it unprotected through town on a ramshackle mule cart. Matching this lack of respect, the confrontation between upper and lower classes towards the end in the customer’s luxurious apartment degenerates into the beginnings of a brawl – with the subsequent sinking of the piano. The film’s title proves not only to ironically presage the final shot, it also mirrors the class divide with unequally distributed roles in the civilisation process – not even in America can a piano carrier make it to the top.

Let us add a brief comment on the element of social connotation: slapstick films targeted audiences drawn largely from those classes for which the tramp represented an idealised image.[2] Unlike his brutish colleague, Charlie is depicted as smart and altogether charming, as well as being gifted with strategic nous, which in adverse circumstances manifests his will for survival. As a symbol of the sated upper classes the piano in this film is the pars pro toto that lends shape to a class-struggle response that is both symbolic and palpably physical. Here, the pathos-charged term “class struggle” is not used to overload slapstick with political connotation and impute it with class-consciousness. Prone to violence, this comedy can nonetheless be read as symptomatic of an unburdening that affords compensation for a twofold imposition. In 1899, in his theory about the leisure class Thorstein Veblen wrote,

“These lower classes can in any case not avoid labour, and the imputation of labour is therefore not greatly derogatory to them, at least not within their class. Rather, since labour is their recognised and accepted mode of life, they take some emulative pride in a reputation for efficiency in their work, […].”[3]

Taking this quote as shorthand for a social situation typical of that period, in which conspicuous consumption became a measure of social distinction for the upper classes, whereas work functioned as a repressive means of forming a puritan proletariat, the destruction of the piano can be interpreted as a blow against both the consumerism of the upper classes and the pleasure-sapping ethos of work. For Sigmund Freud, humour acts as a medium of defiance: “Humour is not resigned; it is rebellious. It signifies not only the triumph of the ego but also of the pleasure principle, which is able here to assert itself against the unkindness of the real circumstances.”[4]

To ascertain the relation between the filmic symptom and social developments in the USA after 1900 one first needs to define the formula of a gesture of defiance as disseminated through the formats of the entertainment industry. The fact that, as a consequence, comedy is also used in an endeavour to install symbolic harmony does not fundamentally invalidate the significance of the scenes. Thus, for the time being, attention will address the level of filmic phenomena on which the motif of piano destruction is elaborated.

Film history research has repeatedly underscored the fact that His Musical Career was the inspirational precursor to The Music Box (1932). The film starring Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy is based in the same dramatic constellation: two piano carriers are charged with the delivery of an instrument entailing all manner of ineptitude, hindrances and attacks on the piano. But when it comes to storyline, slapstick gags and range of filmic expression, this film is incomparably more sophisticated than its precursor.[5] Concerning the motif of destruction, it is less the artistic enhancement that appears noteworthy than, above all, the distinct increase in detail and intensity invested in depicting the instrument’s torture. In this respect the film can be seen in conjunction with another Laurel and Hardy production, Big Business, from 1929.[6] A brief summary and comparison of both films will precede my analysis.

Half of the almost thirty-minute sound film The Music Box is taken up showing how the two small-time tradesmen buffoons try to haul a piano up a very long, steep set of steps to the top of a hill. Again and again, the cabinet slips out of their grasp and the instrument rolls downhill, accompanied by a great cacophony of clattering, clanging and booming strings. Once the piano has finally reached the top it continues to be treated outrageously, first by being allowed to crash down a set of stairs inside the house and then plunged into a pond. Installing it proves so complicated that almost all the furnishings in the bourgeois domicile are wrecked in the process. While the two men cheerfully set about clearing the debris they have created, the instrument, being a mechanical piano, incessantly churns out a ragtime-style medley of patriotic songs. Arriving in the midst of this fiasco and unable to grasp what is going on, the choleric house-owner explodes into shouting fits of exasperation. He barks out his utter hatred of all pianos and finally, in a peak of fury, fetches an axe and demolishes the instrument in a whirl of frenzy. (Fig. 6) He pauses just once for a brief moment when the piano resounds with the tune of the national anthem. Once the piano’s execution is complete the berserker’s wife appears and informs him that the instrument was intended as his birthday present – whereupon he embraces his wife and pretends to her that he adores pianos: “I’m nuts about them!” We will return to this aspect of hypocrisy later on. For the time being, it should be noted that this film pushes humour to the limits, shifting the motif of destruction so forcefully to the fore that it is somehow hard to manage a bout of liberating laughter. Characterising the man of the house as a violent lunatic seems incompatible with the comic genre, which is usually supposed to convey trouble-free cheer. The second film, Big Business, illustrates humour tipping into horror in an even more drastic fashion. Here, the viewer is confronted with a spiral of seemingly desperate violence.

Once again, we encounter two shabby businessmen grappling with the impossible venture of selling Christmas trees in mid-summer California. At the door of one house they are so insistent in their efforts to persuade the potential customer that, as in The Music Box, they drive the tormented man to a fit of rage. He puts an end to their discussion by chopping up the fir tree he never intended to buy. This act triggers a rolling dialogue of violence and counter-violence: in alternating sequence, damage is inflicted on something belonging to the opposite party. At the outset, these are things of relatively little value such as a shirt or a telephone, but the radius of activity quickly expands. While Laurel and Hardy get busy inside the man’s home and, for example, wrench off the front door or bring the chimney crashing down, the indignant customer in turn dismembers the salesmen’s car and, in a final act, blows it up. The conflict ends with Stan Laurel rolling a piano out the house and demolishing it with an axe. (Fig. 7)

The piano and the attendant destructive vehemence are, once again, emblematic. The setting around the piano with all the scattered debris, sad remnants of previously intact objects, resembles a battlefield. At the same time, in terms of narrative action this is performed as a theatre play: the director has placed bystanders alongside the raging berserkers, as if surrogates of the film’s viewers. One member of the on-screen audience is also a policeman who, like the others, is merely an onlooker passively following the conflict. Ultimately, he enforces his authority as an agent of executive power by requiring the main actors to regret their deeds. Nonetheless, as in The Music Box, the shared moment of shed tears ultimately proves no more than hypocritical posturing, for the moment the policeman leaves the scene Laurel and Hardy snigger furtively to one other behind raised handkerchiefs in celebration of their successful deception.

The crucial difference to the Chaplin film lies not only in the blatant and detailed depiction of acts of violence: in both Laurel and Hardy films the bourgeois protagonists also participate in the massacre of things. The fact that in both films the aspect of civilising restraint involving abbreviated patriotic rituals, wailing grief or declarations of love is conveyed as a form of vapidity, pretence and phoniness particularly deserves our closer examination.

The metaphor of war might at first seem exaggerated, but the “Theatre of Cruelty” (Antonin Artaud) performed here can no longer be characterised simply as funny slapstick. The attack against the piano metonymically constitutes an assault on civilised values per se. The demolition of the interior furnishings, if not indeed of the entire house, can be considered a reflection of a world where things have lost all reliable permanence and instead symbolise the deterioration of value(s). For this complex the detonation of the car assumes special significance: according to Marshall McLuhan, the car stands for common equality in American society.[7] Viewed in relation to this artistically extraneous aspect, the war in Big Business emerges as a relentless struggle against the symbols of the classes involved. This conclusion, which to begin with does nothing more than acknowledge the existence of social classes, needs to be specified with reference to the particular historical conditions around 1930. The world economic crisis took hold in 1929 and shaped the overall social climate during the 1930s – in the USA suitably termed the Great Depression. Lost savings, decimation of real income, extreme social disparity and staggering unemployment were all visible signs of the crisis. With their failing business, their inability to carry out a job, achieve success or complete even the slightest communicative task, Laurel and Hardy are emblematic of systematically engendered helplessness and regression. In social history these circumstances are described as a “demoralisation of the population”.[8] American values such as prosperity for all, social mobility and rewarding performance were eroded almost overnight. Big Business is the sarcastic expression for the moment of waking up from the American Dream. The axe slicing open the piano and the exploding car can be read as symptoms of the crisis, as the termination of the social contract. Conventions and the regimenting function of institutions broke down increasingly. Correspondingly, on an affective level both films radiate an intensity that casts aside all sentimentality. The lust for destruction is a reproduction of and compensatory expression for the real experience of devaluation – both economic and moral. Only by being swathed in slapstick humour is all this lent the hallmark of tolerability.

Containment of excessive violence can be witnessed in a later film, A Day at the Races (1937), by the Marx Brothers. Although the heat of anger is vehemently acted out in this film too, it stands in contrast to the Laurel and Hardy performance which constitutes the unadorned final chord of devastation; the Marx Brothers convert the brute music into shallow and calming reconciliation. In one scene, like Durante in This Time for Keeps, Chico and Harpo Marx play pieces on a grand piano as a parody of high culture. In the first number Chico Marx begins with Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. The earnest mood of the piece is quickly undermined by jaunty tunes. This technique of musical fragmentation and transformaton is subsequently continued and compounded by Harpo Marx, who takes over his brother’s chair, into a performance of actual piano dismantlement. He too begins with a well-known composition, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C sharp minor. He plays a pianist who exaggerates the clichéd dramatic poses of serious virtuosos to such a degree that his manner of playing the keys soon erupts into a veritable thrashing of the piano. His gestural frenzy does not fail to leave its mark on the instrument. The grand piano wobbles and shudders until, with a loud crack, the lid flies off. Like an unruly child Harpo pummels his enemy which discharges further sections of the casing and finally, almost as if exploding, disgorges the instrument’s keys and hammers, letting them shower down on the disconcerted pianist. (Fig. 8)

This gag, by the way, has a history of its own that runs through various genres. Not only was Blake Edwards to adopt it in 1976 in one of the Pink Panther films, it also cropped up as early as 1930 in an episode of the cartoon series Flip the Frog. Sixty years later, the artist Rebecca Horn suspended a grand piano upside down from the ceiling. After an initial period of quiet, the keyboard lid suddenly falls open as if directed by an invisible hand. In a violent cascading movement the keys are spewed out. This moment is filled with a rushing, droning sound belched forth from the black body. (Fig. 9) However far removed this installation might be from its entertaining precursors, it nonetheless remains invisibly linked to them. Horn had previously used the same instrument in her film Buster’s Bedroom, which (among other things) tells of the search for Buster Keaton, a prominent slapstick artist. So it is altogether likely that this comical shock effect of instrument profanation was also influenced by slapstick art.

Back to Harpo’s concert with piano attacks. He brutalises the piano until, finally, it breaks down entirely. No sooner done than he clambers inside the instrument and wrenches out its frame. He tips it upright and starts strumming it like a harp. Now, rather than continuing to mercilessly thrash the piano, he starts gently plucking the strings of his newfound “harp”. The booming chords of the Rachmaninoff piece and the dissonant clusters are already forgotten: quiet, dulcet tones ripple out of this female instrument. All anger has evaporated, harmony has been restored. Like Jimmy Durante twelve years later, Harpo lays bare something that was concealed deep within the instrument: a different music which in this case expresses a yearning for lost harmony.

Comparing this sequence with the more brutal antecedents – which would surely have been familiar to the makers of A Day at the Races – one must assume that it also constitutes an attempt to restore the kind of humour that appeared to have gone missing at the peak of the economic crisis. For all the idyllisation, the formula persists that the subject of destruction bears the traits of a figure outside bourgeois society. The clownesque attire in the Marx Brothers is oriented towards the conventions of their respective roles. But just as with Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy, they are equally hallmarks indicating their sub-bourgeois class origins. Their physical treatment of the piano, the suspension of seriousness and their sentimentalist tendencies derive from the repertoire of earlier underclass entertainment culture.

Summarising the various popular cultural phenomena, piano destructions are articulations of indiscipline and libidinously regressive rebellion. Yet in terms of aggression it also becomes clear that the shifting values in the performances involve varying degrees of readiness to compromise. The last example cited here, Harpo’s excavation of the harp, is as a filmic event immensely humorous – especially due to the incorporation of special effects based on elements from cartoon films. By contrast, the acts of demolition in Laurel and Hardy appear altogether realistic and, precisely because of this, barely sublimated. So in the Marx Brothers the path towards irreality also entailed infusing greater distance from the hardships of everyday life, which without any embellishment had been subsumed in the entertainment genre of slapstick.

With Jimmy Durante’s implied piano dismantlement in 1947 it would seem that the urge to destroy musical instruments in motion pictures had tapered out. It crops up one last time as a thematic echo in the context of comedy in the film mentioned above, The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976). Here, Peter Sellers plays Inspector Jacques Clouseau. The character of the simple-minded, maladroit and incompetent policeman resembles the two goons Laurel and Hardy. But what he lacks is a proletarian trait. The formula driving the film’s humour is that Clouseau as a representative of state power is portrayed as someone entirely devoid of authority. In one scene he conducts an interrogation in an English country home. While he is strutting to and fro in the living room, plying the assembled group of suspects with absurd, pointless questions, he becomes embroiled in a chain of minor acts of slapstick destruction. At one point he is pestered by an insect buzzing around him. Since he happens to be holding a medieval hand weapon he has just removed from an ornamental suit of armour, he launches an attack on the creature. Instead of swatting the insect he smashes the precious Steinway piano with all his force. The instrument collapses, the keys leap out of the piano’s frame accompanied by clouds of dust. (Fig. 10) The scandalised lady of the house tries to reprimand Clouseau. But without a trace of embarrassment or regret he dismisses her rebuke, accusing her of reacting with exaggerated hysteria to a “simple blemish on the furniture”.

Blake Edwards directed this episode like a citation of its precursors. We identify a quotation from the brief duration of the act of destruction, now reduced to just a fragment of previous, more extensively performed actions, yet without it ever departing from the tradition of impropriety. In this case, however, the true object of comic attack is not the upper class as such, but its predictable mannerism of maintaining a stiff upper lip. Clouseau, himself emotionally inhibited, succeeds in breaking the reserve of his dialogue partner for no more than an instant. Yet by 1976, the assault against the piano as a status symbol has no connotations of a deeper kind that might indicate a problematic social complex. The scene simply exploits an antiquated outlook to the best possible comical effect. The use of an archaic lethal weapon to whack an insect and a piano that in effect is no more than a piece of ornamental furniture is a grotesque moment in which the leading figure bears closer resemblance to a picaro without specific social physiognomy than to a member of the underclass.

Translation: Matthew Partridge

[1] Alternative titles: Musical Tramp, The Piano Movers, Charlie as a Piano Mover.

[2] See Rob King: The Fun Factory. The Keystone Film Company and the Emergence of Mass Culture, Berkeley, Los Angeles 2009.

[3] Thorstein Veblen: The Theory of the Leisure Class, New York 2007, p. 23.

[4] Sigmund Freud: Humor (1927), in: Standard Edition, Vol. 21, London 1961, p. 163.

[5] This explains why The Music Box received an Academy Award as best Live Action Short Film.

[6] Further Laurel and Hardy productions with piano destructions are Beau Hunks (1931) und Swiss Miss (1938).

[7] Marshall McLuhan: Motorcar. The Mechanical Bride, in: Understanding Media. The Extensions of Man, Cambridge/Mass., London, New York 1994, p. 217–225.

[8] Der Große Ploetz. Auszug aus der Geschichte, Freiburg 1981, p. 1185.