Walter Kerr's wonderful book, The Silent Clowns, is an overview of the great comic masters of the silent film era, from Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd to Harry Langdon and Laurel and Hardy. Their silent art did not die with the invention of sound, of course. Chaplin made two films well into the sound era, in 1931 and 1936, that kept themselves silent, even with recorded music and sound effects. The Frenchman, Jacques Tati created a character whom he named "Hulot" who appeared in four films, from 1953 to 1971. One of Hulot's distinguishing quirks was a tacit refusal to speak anything other than his name.
In 1989, the Englishman Rowan Atkinson introduced a character named Mr. Bean who has since become world famous, as popular in Beijing and Budapest as he is in Birmingham. Like Hulot, Bean says next to nothing in his films, except his name. Aside from his eighteen half-hour TV sketches, the last of which was made in 1995, Atkinson has played Bean in two feature films, Bean (1997) and Mr. Bean's Holiday (2007), and has added his voice to an even more popular Mr. Bean animated series (2002-03).
The difference with our latter day silent clowns is that their silence is not just a product of the medium, as it was for Chaplin and Keaton. They both spoke in their silent films, as much as anyone else. We simply could not hear their voices. Hulot and Bean live in a world of sounds and voices, but their comparative silence has become a defining feature of their comic personae. Their silence sets them apart, contributes to their eccentricity. But it also makes them sometimes seem odd, even a little creepy.
And where Chaplin and Keaton often made the worlds they inhabited obey their own rules, Hulot's and Bean's world is the same one we all live in, with its own absurd rules, but ones that they must obey - however inadequately - as much as we must. Often, Tati and Atkinson find their comic ideas in their characters' failure to belong in our world, however hard they may try. But watching them try, and try, and fail, and yet still abide in our world, makes it a somewhat more human and more beautiful place.