Old and New Masters – Part Two: Dance of the Bread Rolls

You can read “Old and New Masters – Part One” here.

Some of us are aware that the the old masters of American comedy – Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin and Roscoe Arbuckle – had some influence on 1980’s Hong Kong cinema.

Jackie Chan has of course discussed how the silent comedians are a source of inspiration for him, and kudos  to him for re-inventing, with his own unique energy and creativity, some of the best silent comedy stunts.  I’ll talk more about Jackie’s work  in Old and New Masters – Part Three.

This post is about a simple little gag that has been reworked several times:  people call it  the “Dance of the Bread Rolls”. The performer stabs two small rolls with a fork and makes the little “feet and legs” dance.  Depending on who does it, it can be charming…or it can be stale  (haha, bread, stale, haha get it? …erm).   Like any dance, its success relies on the ability of the performer.

Roscoe Arbuckle seems to have invented the Dance of the Bread Rolls of for his 1917 film “Rough House”.  I don’t find this hard to believe because he was a very prolific inventor of gags.

Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle in “Rough House” (1917)

 

Here is a short clip:

This is just a quick little throwaway thing for Arbuckle, who goes on to do a hundred other more entertaining things in “Rough House”.  But the gag was apparently good enough for Charlie Chaplin to  steal borrow and refine for his 1925 film “The Gold Rush”.

Charlie Chaplin in “The Gold Rush” (1925)

As much as I adore and favor Arbuckle, I think Chaplin’s bread roll dance is really artful and delightful.

You can see it here:

 

Many decades apparently passed before the gag was recycled.  In 1982, Big Brother Big Sammo Hung Kam Bo borrowed it for his slapstick kung fu comedy “Carry On Pickpocket”.

Thanks to Greg Freeman for the screen cap.

If you have a high tolerance for cheezy HK slapstick, here’s the clip:

I have tons of respect for Sammo but I think he is trying way too hard here.  The addition of a bowl of soup does not make it more amusing for me.  I guess I just don’t like this flavor of comedy.

To complete the list of bread roll dancers, Johnny Depp does it in the 1993 film “Benny and Joon”.

Benny-and-Joon-dance of the bread rolls - 1993
Image from www.fanpop.com

Since the film is about a modern young man (Depp) who wants to be Buster Keaton, I don’t think this is a bonafide contextual comedy gag but rather an homage to the silent gag masters.  Still, Depp had to practice it, and it does exist on film, and it is kind of cute.

 

Who is your favorite fork-and-roll performer?  And are there any more dances out there??

Even though I’m not delighted with Sammo’s version, I’m very glad to see that he and other 80’s Hong Kong film makers were watching American silent comedies and borrowing the stunts and gags.  It’s really not surprising since the two cinemas have a lot in common.  They are spontaneous, creative, energetic, fearless and exuberant.  They are unpretentious and unapologetic.  The film makers’ enjoyment of their process illuminates the screen, and it becomes magic.  Men like Roscoe Arbuckle and Sammo Hung were so busy cranking out pictures that they probably had very little awareness of the fact that they were actually inventing, and reinventing, cinema.  That is a glorious thing to behold.

 

 

 

 

I’m always interested in the origins of stunts and gags, and I would love to hear from anybody who knows more about the Dance of the Bread Rolls.

More like this:  Old and New Masters – Part One:  Wire Work

 

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