Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Maggie Hennefeld reviews Hokum!

Rob King. Hokum! The Early Sound Slapstick Short and Depression-Era Mass Culture. University of California Press, 2017. 272 pp.

Review by Maggie Hennefeld

Rob King’s groundbreaking new book, Hokum! The Early Sound Slapstick Short and Depression-Era Mass Culture, debunks the myth that sound cinema killed slapstick comedy. Never dead, King argues, slapstick comedy thrived in 1930s short films—an unjustly excluded terrain of slapstick film historiography, exemplified by forgotten works with titles such as Looser Than Loose (1930), Your Technocracy and Mine (1933), The Bohemian Girl (1936), and Healthy, Wealthy, and Dumb (1938). King argues that these short films reveal ongoing social transformations from the urban cosmopolitanism of the Jazz Age to New Deal-era populist ideals of civic inclusivity. In The Fun Factory: The Keystone Film Company and the Emergence of Mass Culture (2009), King focuses on slapstick’s class politics, approaching Keystone’s anarchic play as a vector for understanding its social antagonisms between the unruly crowd and the urban elite. In Hokum!, King moves chronologically to the “Cuckoo School” of the late 1920s and 1930s, tracing the shifting hierarchies in comedic value that accompanied the New Deal resurgence of agrarian populism.

What is “hokum?” An all too relevant signifier for the age of post-truth and fake news, hokum denotes both surefire gags and comedic nonsense (or “bunkum”). King locates the early slapstick talkie at the threshold of hokum’s split signification, when the dependable delights of comedic horseplay gave way to the genre’s debasement as “hooey, tripe, apple-sauce, blah and bologna” (p. 1). In other words, slapstick’s “banalization” as pure hokum provides a historical framework for understanding the aesthetic politics of how cultural tastes change in the wake of regional conflict and economic decline or Depression.

Methodologically, King draws on the sociological theories of Raymond Williams and Pierre Bourdieu, particularly Williams’s notion of residual cultural forms and Bourdieu’s analysis of contested fields of social power. Aesthetics never exist in a vacuum, but are profoundly shaped by the networks of social hierarchy and cultural taste that inscribe stylistic categories. To this point, King posits “three key ‘moments’ in slapstick’s passage to cultural residuality” (p. 11), including the reassessment of its stylistic value, its linkage to surrounding shifts in cultural taste, and the way that outmoded practices can create new forms of cultural capital through affective appeals to populist idealism and pastoral nostalgia. Hokum! thus extends Fun Factory’s critique of the hegemony of Frankfurt School critical theory, further emphasizing the importance of archival research and microhistorical contextualization for the analysis of mass culture aesthetics.

King further rejects models of historical explanation that rely on the singularity of exceptional individuals (for example, canonized clowns such as Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd) or on overly broad generalizations about cinema’s relationship to industrial modernity. The technodeterminist impulse—to attribute slapstick’s changing cultural sensibilities to the sound apparatus alone—is the bad object of Hokum’s historiographic methodology. To write this seminal new history of film slapstick’s oldest forms, King draws on a variety of archival and aesthetic texts, including contemporaneous cultural criticism, film industry publicity materials, and surviving 35mm footage. (Many frame enlargements in this book are helpfully captioned with QR codes for easy access to digitized clips, which are also embedded in the e-book version.)

The desire to recuperate a “banalized” aesthetic sensibility always involves at least a tinge of personal nostalgia, which King engages through a generous mix of critical theorization and autobiographical reflection. For example, King’s memory of watching the Three Stooges on television as a kid shadows his close readings of their 1930s slapstick short films, further energizing the book’s remarkable case studies of slapstick’s many forgotten clowns, including Robert Benchley, Bobby Clark and Paul McCullough, Andy Clyde and Harry Gribbon, and Joe Cook. At once comprehensively detailed and evocatively bold, Hokum! epitomizes the transformative powers of critical historiography to rethink the relationship between film aesthetics and social politics.