The Great Toe Mystery (1914)
This short comedy from Keystone Studios seems to play upon themes established 11 years earlier in “The Gay Shoe Clerk,” but with a touch of Mack Sennett’s chaotic style thrown in for flavor. It still looks a bit old-fashioned for 1914, possibly deliberately so.
The movie begins with an establishing shot outside of a shoe store. A young lady (Alice Howell) and a man with a silly mustache are standing in front, and he takes her by the arm and leads her inside. We now cut to the interior, where a thin, slightly foppish young man speaks to them. Evidently the first man is buying shoes for himself and his wife. The first shoe clerk summons another over to see to the gentleman, and he leads the lady to the other side of the store, where she sits while the salesman summons another clerk (Charley Chase), this one being flamboyant and feminine in his gestures. She offers him her foot to measure, but he reacts in melodramatic horror to see her toes peeking through the end of a torn stocking. He seems to be lecturing her on hygiene, and she reacts by looking away from him. The husband sees this, and comes over to glare at the clerk. He runs to the back, to get her shoes ready for sale, and decides to put a note in her shoes. He borrows a pen and paper from a female coworker, and then delivers the shoebox to the clearly annoyed lady customer. She and the husband exit the store, evidently arguing about the clerk’s unwanted attentions. They go in separate directions.
The wife returns home (“broken-hearted,” according to an intertitle) and commiserates with her maid (Dixie Chene). She takes a magazine outside to read, discarding the unlucky shoes unopened. Meanwhile, “Mr. Birdie” (the clerk) is now going to the park to for what he hopes to be a rendezvous with a married woman. Of course, he encounters Alice on a park bench, sobbing because of the fight with her husband, and sits next to her, oblivious to her feelings. Now the husband comes home and finds the discarded shoes with the note, vowing to murder the clerk (whom he de-genders as “it” in the intertitles) if he finds them together. The maid is meanwhile flirting with a rather dim-witted young man (possibly a delivery boy, from his attire, or else another servant like a gardener), to the husband’s decided disapproval. The husband rushes out to the park and finds the two of them together, making threatening gestures that the clerk laughs off until he produces a gun and starts shooting at the ground.
Now, a classic Keystone chase begins, and the wife and the maid rapidly enlist the aid of Keystone Kops. Of course, the clerk decides to hide in a chest that the dim-looking servant brings into the house, so now he has no possibility of escape. A comedy routine involves the many steps the servant has to go up (and frequently falls back down) while carrying the chest and tension is held as several people start to open the chest before being distracted by something else. Ultimately, the maid finds him and the chase begins anew, with Birdie hiding in the dumbwaiter, unable to find an unoccupied room to escape into. The Kops now arrive in force, and begin shooting at the servant, not evidently knowing who they are after or why. He hides under the sink, which the Kops promptly shoot full of holes. Finally, the clerk manages to fight everyone off with his handkerchief, knocking over the whole cast, and, snapping his fingers, leaves the house with a rude gesture.
Charley Chase’s performance really makes this movie something special, and it’s very hard for a modern audience not to read his gestures and body language as queer – something which quite possibly could have been intentional on his part, whether or not audiences of 1914 were sophisticated enough to get the joke. That makes it twice as funny that the title of the obvious inspiration of “The Gay Shoe Clerk” had a different meaning at the time. It also struck me with this viewing that the title’s similarity to the other 1903 hit “The Great Train Robbery” (itself basically a well-edited chase movie) might have been intentional as well, meaning that Sennett was lampooning Edison in more than one way here. The editing of this movie keeps it moving effectively, and all of the random elements work together well, with the absurdity of the situation constantly growing, but without giving the audience too much time to reflect on how silly it all is. This is one of the more fun Keystones I’ve seen, in fact and it holds up well enough today.
Director: Charles Avery
Starring: Charley Chase, Alice Howell, Dixie Chene, Chester Conklin, Harry McCoy, Rube Miller
Run Time: 11 Min, 8 secs
You can watch it for free: here.