This short comedy from Edison relies on a predictable formula of repeated foiled attempts and physical violence to get laughs. It has similarities to other comedies of the period, and, yes, even a large-scale chase sequence as well.
The opening title tells us this will show “the trials and tribulations of a private detective.” The first shot shows a stage dressed to be a classic private eye’s office, right down to the door with “Hawkshaw Private Detective” printed on the glass. The detective reclines in a chair with a newspaper. A man comes into the office and paces about, agitated. He gives the detective an envelope, which the detective opens and reads, then the two sit at the desk while the detective gets the particulars. The man gives him money, then leaves.
The next scene takes place in front of a house. The detective “sneaks” quite openly into a hiding position behind a pole, then watches as a lady and a gentleman emerge from the house and get into a car. The detective jumps out to photograph the two of them driving off, but as he does so, a gardener comes up from behind him with a wheelbarrow and knocks him down, wheeling him off. Next we see the detective on a country road. He jumps out as the car approaches, attempting to take his picture, but the driver runs him over. He gets up and hobbles off. The next scene shows the man and the woman at an outdoor café at a club, being waited on by an African American waiter. The detective tries to take their picture again, but this time the man punches him and drives him off. The detective meets the waiter outside and pays him for his jacket, then smears dirt on his face to create blackface and puts on a shaggy wig. He serves the couple, but as he prepares to take the picture, the man grabs a seltzer bottle and sprays him in the face.
In the next scene, the couple is golfing, and the man hides in a sand trap. When he leaps up to take the picture, the woman drives the ball right at him, hitting him and knocking him down. The couple goes to see who’s been hurt, but when they find it is him, the man smashes his camera. Next we see the detective in a sailor suit, getting onto a gondola ahead of the couple. They board and he prepares to take his picture, but the man punches him and knocks him into the water. Then the couple are seen sitting on a hammock together in a park. The detective sets up a tripod to take their picture from behind, but when the flash goes off they are alerted and the man again smashes the camera. Finally, the couple stroll along the beach, followed by the detective in a white uniform. This time he is able to take their picture unobserved, they are so distracted by one another, but another bather rises the alarm and soon the whole beach is after him! He manages to stash the photograph by hiding out under a levee, but the crowd does find him, beat him, and smash his camera again.
Now we see the client and his wife together at home. He is obviously agitated and the wife denies doing anything wrong. The detective is shown in, with bandages and bruises from all of his fights, and triumphantly shows the man the photograph he took. It’s the wrong woman! The woman and the man in the photo are shown in (apparently it is the mother-in-law), and then the poor man is forcibly shown the door.
This movie has a lot in common with “Mr. Flip,” that came out a few years later. The comedy hinges on a man being a persistent pest, and not taking the hint when he is upbraided for his behavior. The seltzer spritz and wheelbarrow scene are also similar to some of the punishments Ben Turpin suffers in that film. Unlike Turpin, however, this comedian doesn’t really add much to his pratfalls, he just takes the abuse when it comes. He isn’t funny in himself, it’s just that some of the things that happen to him are funny. The car running over him is pretty convincing, although I think it was done with jump cuts and a dummy. I particularly laughed when the entire beach started chasing him after it looked like he would (finally!) get off all right. I mostly felt sorry for him, though. Given that the couple weren’t doing anything wrong, it seems that the violence they mete out in defense of their privacy is a bit extreme.
Camera: Unknown, possibly Edwin S. Porter and Wallace McCutcheon
Starring: Paul Panzer
Run Time: 14 Min
You can watch it for free: here (no music).