Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Category: Reviews

Neigbors (1920)

This 2-reel comedy from Buster Keaton has a very simple storyline – a romance involving a boy and the girl next door – but manages to be nicely coherent and demonstrate production value above what he did with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle for Comique.

Buster Keaton and Virginia Fox play young lovers who live in tenements, the rear of which face each other, with backyards separated by a wooden fence and with their families constantly feuding over the lovers’ relationship. They pass love notes through a hole in the wood, only to be caught by her father (Joe Roberts) and his mother, each of whom successively gets in trouble with his/her own spouse for presumed cheating (Buster’s father is played by his real-life dad, Joe Keaton). Buster sneaks into Virginia’s bedroom window as the parents are arguing but he is caught by Virginia’s father who ties him to the washing lines and slowly sends him back over to his family’s house. Buster sets up a board on a pivot on the gate so that it spanks anyone who passes between the two yards, then uses this to chastise his pursuers as he athletically springs from one side to the other. Along the way, he accidentally hits a cop who wanders into the yard. As Keaton’s face is covered in oil at the time, the cop pursues him, but when he wipes off the oil, the cop is deceived and arrests a convenient African American instead. Later, Buster gets black paint on his face and the chase is on again. Eventually, he as well as both families end up in court. Buster demands the right to marry Virginia, and the judge insists that the two families not interfere in their plans.

On the day of the wedding, tensions remain high. Keaton is unable to get his suspenders on, and tries using clothes pins as a makeshift belt, but they keep falling down during the ceremony. He tries to remedy this by stealing the preacher’s belt, but this only delays the wedding further. When Roberts sees that the ring Buster intends to give to Virginia is a cheap 10-cent ring purchased from Woolworths, he angrily calls off the wedding and drags Virginia home. Buster now teams up with his friends, the Flying Escalantes, to rescue Virginia by running across the yard on their shoulders, retrieving her suitcase, and ultimately her as well, but they are pursued by Roberts, running down the street through scaffolding, and eventually dropping through a sidewalk cellar hatch into a boiler room where a preacher just happens to be stoking the fire. He pronounces them husband and wife.

This movie demonstrates Buster Keaton’s ability to get a lot out of a little, and reminds me in some ways of Chaplin’s “Easy Street,” in that so much of it is centered around a single set,, reproducing a location in a lower-class urban neighborhood. Not having full-scale riots or anarchist plots, it may seem less ambitious than that film, but the added element of a third dimension makes it physically quite impressive. Fox’s bedroom is on the third floor, and Keaton gets in there any way he can, except for the stairs. The most exciting part is when he rides the shoulders of the Flying Escalantes back and forth across that yard, with each of them entering the building on his floor, only to turn around and come out at the exact moment to catch each other (and Keaton, and eventually Fox) on his shoulders. These shots are done in long takes, so the timing had to be perfect for it to look right, though of course in a silent movie they could have been shouting instructions at each other as they went, making it a bit easier to know just when to step out of the window. It looks great, at any rate.

Joe abusing Buster – just like old times.

So far as I can recall, this is the biggest role Buster had yet given his father in a movie. Although Joe Roberts remains the main heavy, Joe Keaton gets a chance to reprise some of the work he and Buster did on the stage during their days in vaudeville. These usually involved Buster making dad angry, then getting used as a “human mop,” which resulted in some groups protesting the show on the grounds that Joe was abusing his child. Keaton was of course a trained physical comedian from a young age, and claimed he was never hurt by this, but at times you can see how people could get the wrong idea. By now, as an adult, his victimization is safe to laugh at. Unfortunately, there’s some rather unpleasant ethnic humor targeting African Americans that comes across as much less funny today – including Keaton’s blackface scrapes with the police and a scene in which he rises up from under a sheet, causing a black family to run away in superstitious terror. These bits of the film didn’t ruin it for me, but they certainly don’t add anything.

Director: Buster Keaton, Edward F. Cline

Camera: Elgin Lessley

Starring: Buster Keaton, Virginia Fox, Joe Roberts, Joe Keaton, Edward F. Cline, Jack Duffy

Run Time: 18 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Scarecrow (1920)

Another of Buster Keaton’s early solo shorts, this one has a lot in common with the work he was doing a year earlier with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, including a cameo from one of the more recognizable Comique players. It’s probably more famous, though, for establishing Keaton’s fascination with gadgets.

As the movie opens, Keaton is sharing a one-room house with frequent foil, Joe Roberts. Buster has a toothache, and Roberts tries to help by tying the tooth to the door with a piece of string, then suddenly opening it to yank out the tooth. It opens the wrong way, though, and all Roberts succeeds in doing is hitting Buster in the nose with the door. This causes the angry Keaton to slam it shut, inadvertently pulling the tooth. Keaton fixes breakfast for the pair, while Roberts “sets” the table by pulling a string that lowers what they need from the ceiling. After the meal, they carry the tabletop, with all of the plates affixed to it, to the wall and spray it down with a hose. They drop the table leavings into a trapdoor that leads to the pigs’ slop-trough. Keaton’s bed folds up, Murphy-style, to become a piano, and the tub, when emptied, dumps water through a hole in the wall to create a pond for ducks, itself folding into a little bench.

The second reel deals with the rivalry of the two men for the heart of Sybil Seely, the classic girl-next-door. As soon as she appears, the two start running and pushing each other, quickly getting into a fight. When Sybil tries out some dance moves from a magazine, Roberts joins her, resulting in Keaton thinking he has lost, but soon he is pursued by Luke the Dog, who has just eaten a cream pie, making it look like he is rabid. He does his old trick of climbing a ladder to chase Keaton around the roof of a crumbling abandoned farmhouse. Roberts, meanwhile, has bought various medical supplies in anticipation of Buster’s needs, but ends up getting run down by a car and using them n himself. Buster falls into a hay thresher, which rips off most of his clothes, effectively ending the chase. It also results in him “exposing” himself (well, his underthings) to Sybil, resulting in her father (Joe Keaton) chasing him and knocking over Roberts, who now tries to propose to Seely.

Good Dog!

Unbeknownst to them, Buster has “borrowed” the clothes of a scarecrow in the field and now, posing as the scarecrow manages to prevent the proposal and start a fight between Roberts and the farmer. Buster then trips into a kneeling position while tying his shoes, and Sybil believes he is proposing marriage to her. Next the couple speeds off on a motorcycle with Roberts and the farmer in hot pursuit. Scooping up a minister during the chase, they are married on the speeding motorcycle and splash into a stream at the climax of the ceremony and the film.

This movie seems like a throwback to the earlier Comique movies, helped by the presence of Luke the Dog. Joe Roberts seems, especially in the early part of the film, to be playing the Arbuckle role, although he develops into a more generic heavyset antagonist as the movie goes along. There’s nowhere near as much of a story as we got in “One Week” or “Convict 13,” in fact it’s so loose it feels more like “The Butcher Boy” than “The Garage.” It’s mostly a series of unconnected gags and chase sequences. The beginning, though, is built around the many bizarre labor-saving devices of Keaton’s and Robert’s home, which is a treat for Keaton fans. I’ll admit that I generally don’t find this all that funny, but it is interesting to see what Keaton comes up with. The best part is when Luke chases Keaton back to the house and he tries to evade the dog by using the various trapdoors and hidden exits. This is the biggest role I’ve yet seen Keaton give to his father, which also lends to the feeling that this is a smaller, more last-minute production than the others we’ve seen so far.

Director: Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton

Camera: Elgin Lessley

Starring: Buster Keaton, Joe Roberts, Sybil Seely, Luke the Dog, Joe Keaton, Edward F. Cline

Run Time: 19 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music).

Old Wives for New (1918)

This feature-length drama by Cecil B. DeMille shows his more sophisticated side, after opening his career with simple Westerns like “The Squaw Man” and “The Virginian,” and moving into racier material with “Carmen” and “The Cheat.” Considered scandalous at the time, and often censored for its frank dealing with questions of infidelity and divorce, it stands today as a kind of an unwitting critique of the gender order.

Disgusted by the unattractive, slovenly appearance of his wife Sophy (Sylvia Ashton), Charles Murdock (Elliott Dexter) goes on a long hunting trip. He meets Juliet Raeburn (Florence Vidor), falls in love with her, and while telling her of his love, he reveals that he is a married man. Upon his return, his secretary (Gustav von Seyffertitz) allows Murdock’s wife to learn of his dalliance, and she, imagining the worst, flies into a frenzy of jealousy. To forget, he goes out with his business partner Tom Berkeley (Theodore Roberts), meets Jessie (Julia Faye), who is being provided for by Berkeley, and Viola Hastings (Marcia Manning) who is looking for a rich boyfriend. Jess shoots Berkeley when she finds him in another woman’s bedroom and Juliet Raeburn’s name is connected to the scandal by a false report made by Mrs. Mudock at the secretary’s urging. Murdock, to protect Juliet, goes abroad with the gold digging Viola. After his wife obtains a divorce and marries the secretary, Juliet and Murdock meet in Venice, renew their friendship, and marry.

Essentially, this movie delivers what the title promises: a man throwing over an old-looking wife for a younger model. But, DeMille is at pains to make him seem to be a decent person, and to argue that the original wife, in ignoring her duties to the family and her man, is the one to blame for the situation. She wakes up late, runs water for a bath, then decides not to bother and lets it run down the drain, ordering breakfast in bed because she is “unwell.” Most of what we see her eat are chocolates or sweets of one kind or another. She is lazy, fat, and lets “the house run itself, for the most part,” resulting in badly cooked eggs that her husband refuses to touch. Her vindictive attacks on the innocent Juliet just strengthen the audience’s sense of her as the villain of the piece. But, despite himself, DeMille also makes her a victim of both the men in her life – her husband for abandoning her for a younger woman and the secretary, whose only interest seems to be the money she will win in her divorce, and who instigates most of her worse decisions.

DeMille also made the interesting decision of casting his mistress (Faye) as the mistress of the playboy millionaire (Roberts). Her character is shallow, flighty, greedy, and jealous, and ultimately commits murder and then agrees to keep quiet about it to protect the reputation of the man who wronged her. I don’t know what this says about their relationship; Faye remained with him (clandestinely) for many years and was in more than thirty of his pictures. It’s hard to imagine, then, that DeMille treated her as badly in person as he treated her character in the movie! Overall, however, the movie doesn’t seem to reflect a man who had a great deal of respect for women or understanding of their position within the world. Only Miss Raeburn, a virgin, is portrayed sympathetically as virtuous.

With all of that said, this is definitely a technically satisfying film. DeMille had only been making movies for four years since he got started with “The Squaw Man,” and he’s kept up admirably, and probably even pushed some innovations, as we saw with “The Cheat.” Here, he makes heavy use of close ups to create a more intimate connection with the characters for the audience, editing is zippy, and for the most part intertitles are used sparingly, just to give enough information to keep the audience engaged. The performances are good all around and especially those of Dexter and Vidor work to sell the story, however problematic it may be. The screenplay, by Jeanie MacPherson, is sprinkled with sophisticated humor, which probably could have been better handled by a Lubitsch, but it works fine in DeMille’s hands as well.

Director: Cecil B. DeMille

Camera: Alvin Wyckoff

Starring: Elliott Dexter, Florence Vidor, Sylvia Ashton, Theodore Roberts, Marcia Manon, Julia Faye, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Tully Marshall, Edythe Chapman, Raymond Hatton, Charles Ogle, Madame Sul-te-Wan

Run Time: 1 hr, 10 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music).

Convict 13 (1920)

Buster Keaton tries on a striped suit along with his stony expression in this early two-reeler from Metro. Dealing as it does with execution, prison riots, and police brutality, it is of course a gold mine for comic pratfalls.

The movie begins with Keaton on a golf course, in his typical get-up, trying to impress a girl and generally failing as a golfer. At one point, having knocked his ball into a water trap, it is swallowed by a fish, and Buster has to catch fish with his bare hands, inspect their insides, and find a way to retrieve his ball when he does find it. Meanwhile, a fellow about Keaton’s height escapes from a nearby prison. He find his way to the golf course and comes across Buster, lying unconscious as a result of beaning himself with his own ball. The escapee swaps clothing and walks away free. As Keaton wakes up and attempts to continue golfing, several prison guards surround him and he slowly becomes aware of his new uniform. He distracts them with his ball and takes off running, but pretty soon there are more guards and Keaton falls into line marching with them. For a moment it looks like he may escape when he tricks them into marching the other way, but it only gives him a brief reprieve – he winds up trying to hitch a ride from the warden before getting finally running ahead of the guards into the prison and locking himself in when he tries to lock them out.

The warden, it turns out, is the father of Buster’s girl (Sybil Seely). She tries to plead for him, knowing that he was free just a few hours ago, but his number (#13) is on the roster for a hanging today and daddy insists on carrying it out. Thinking quickly, Sybil grabs some elasticated rope from the gym, and replaces the noose with it. When the hangman puts it around Buster’s neck, he bounces up and down, but does not hang. The warden assures the disappointed audience of convicts that he’ll hang two next week to make up for it. Keaton is put on rock-breaking, which he does by tapping lightly on the smallest bits of rock he can find, resulting in an extended slapstick battle with one of the guards, who happens to be about Keaton’s height. When he is knocked out, Buster changes clothes with him.

Now in a position of authority, Buster finds himself confronted by a hammer-wielding crazed convict (Joe Roberts), who has already knocked out all his other guards. Buster tries to frighten him, but soon they are also in a running battle, which extends to a riot as the other convicts catch the fever. Buster puts attaches a basketball to the elasticated rope and swings it around his head, knocking out all of the other convicts, and finally managing to take down Roberts as well. Just as it seems he will be able to claim victory and get the girl, he accidentally knocks himself out, finding himself back on the golf course, being shaken back to awareness by Sybil. It was all a dream.

In this movie, Keaton takes the concept of “the clothes make the man” to an extreme. Once he’s in the uniform or prisoner #13, that’s his life. Only Sybil can see through the clothes to recognize him, even Keaton seems resigned to his fate as a convict. This is particularly evident as he resolutely goes up the gallows steps because his number is due for execution – his character doesn’t even know that Sybil has acted to save him. He barely even protests, and does nothing to stop the executioner. Once he’s changed clothes with the guard, now he’s a guard (and presumably the other fellow just accepts being a convict on death row). He acts in his own interest in fighting the rioters, but he also makes no attempt to escape the prison now that he’s presumably a free man. He does his duty, stands his ground, and manages to prevail. Of course, the ending calls all of it into question. In a dream, we often accept conditions that wouldn’t logically make sense in waking life. It’s somewhat more funny to think of this as the reality of Keaton’s world, rather than a dream, but the ending kind of undoes that conceit.

The basketball-swinging stunt harks back to a gag that Buster and Joe Keaton did on stage, as described in Keaton’s autobiography. His father would be shaving himself on one end of the stage with a straight razor while Buster swung a basketball on a rope, getting closer to his dad with each swing, and timing the hit precisely to avoid injury and maximize laughs. Then his father would chase him and use him as a “human mop.” According to Keaton, a real razor was used, and no one was ever hurt with it. Still it shows the lengths he and his family would go for a laugh.

Director: Buster Keaton and Edward F. Cline

Camera: Elgin Lessley

Starring: Buster Keaton, Sybil Seely, Joe Roberts, Edward F. Cline, Joe Keaton

Run Time: 24 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

One Week (1920)

Buster Keaton’s first movie released after he and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle ended their partnership and started to work independently is parody of a Ford Motor Company promotional movie for prefab housing. While our ability to appreciate the source of the satire is limited today, it holds up as a comedy for the ages.

The movie begins with a wedding between Buster and his new bride, Sybil Seely. For some reason, their “just married” car is being driven by the Buster’s former rival, “Handy Hank,” who is played by an otherwise unknown and unidentified actor. Buster and Sybil receive a plot of land and a build-it-yourself house that comes in numbered boxes, with IKEA-sized directions in an envelope. Keaton sets to work putting the house together, doing things like sitting on a plank a story up as he saws it in half, causing him to drop to the ground when it separates. Meanwhile, Hank takes some paint and renumbers two of the boxes, adding to the confusion Buster’s already serious incompetence was causing. The end result looks like a German Expressionist worked with a cartoonist to design a house.

Undaunted, Keaton and his wife move into the house. Their first major challenge is when the piano arrives. Keaton tries to attach a pulley to the ceiling to haul it in, but the ceiling droops down like a circus tent. So, Keaton props it up with a spare board. He brings the piano in, dangling from the ceiling, but it swings wildly and chases him around the room before crashing through the floor. His wife brings in a music score and he sets it on the piano. Buster also encounters problems when he nails down the carpet, forgetting that he left his jacket in the middle of the floor. The only way he can think of to get rid of the unsightly lump is to cut around it, remove the jacket, then put a small rug over the hole in the carpet. He uses the extra piece of carpet as a welcome mat. He tries to install the chimney, but winds up falling into the bathtub after his wife has just gotten out, then the door he chooses to leave the bathroom turns out to be a straight drop to the ground, due to the misnumbered boxes.

Buster and Sybil hold a housewarming party, trying to serve their guests despite an oddly-arranged kitchen, but when a storm kicks up outside, they discover that the house pivots in the wind, eventually spinning like a merry-go-round. All of the guests eventually are thrown clear by centripetal force, and Buster and Sibyl watch the house spin from their yard, in the rain. As if this were not enough, Keaton finds he has built his house on the wrong site and has to move it, attaching it to his car with ropes, and then simply nailing it to the back of the car. The movie reaches its climax when the house becomes stuck on railroad tracks. Keaton and Seely try to move it out the way of an oncoming train, which eventually passes on the neighboring track. As the couple look relieved, the house is immediately struck and demolished by another train coming the other way. Keaton stares at the scene, places a ‘For Sale’ sign with the heap (attaching the building instructions) and walks off with Seely.

Keaton showed considerable insight in choosing a simple subject that would make a coherent framework around which to build his many sight gags and pratfalls. The movie is essentially a series of vignettes, each prefaced by a shot of a calendar page being torn off to show us the passage of the week (a device borrowed from the Ford film). Setting it up that way actually makes it feel more coherent than, for example, “The Garage,” in which he and Arbuckle’s gags are tied together just by the sense that all of this could happen in an established workspace. Keaton did not hold back on his gags, using a full-sized house to great effect. One gag I didn’t mention above is an anticipation of one he used years later in “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” where a wall of a house falls toward him, with his character fortuitously missing getting crushed due to standing in the spot where the open window hits. The house really does spin, really is dragged onto a railroad track, and really is smashed by a locomotive. The gag at the end reminded me of a story Keaton tells in his autobiography about a practical joke played on Marcus Loew, where he pretended his car had died on a cable car track, carefully positioning it so that the trams would zip past, barely missing the front and rear bumpers.

Keaton shared writing and directing credits with Edward F. Cline, a man who would continue working on most of Keaton’s short movies for the next few years. It seems that Keaton, who was used to collaborating with Arbuckle, worked better at this time having someone to bounce ideas off of, or even to let him take over sometimes. This is very different from Charlie Chaplin, who started directing his own work while still in his first year at Keystone, and never let anyone else share credit for his creative work afterward. I suspect these differences in work styles partially explains the different flavors of their short movies – Chaplin’s are largely the work of a single genius, while Keaton’s are less personal, more inclusive creations. I don’t entirely know which I prefer – I think I laugh more at Chaplin movies from this period, but there’s something about Keaton that keeps me coming back, partly just to see how he did what he did.

Director: Buster Keaton, Edward F. Cline

Camera: Elgin Lessley

Starring: Buster Keaton, Sybil Seely, Joe Roberts

Run Time: 19 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music)

Way Down East (1920)

One of D.W. Griffith’s most enduring features, this movie comes from the period in which he was one of the leading lights of United Artists, and was quickly bankrupting himself trying to keep up a stream of hits for that ambitious studio project. While some of the movies he made then are dismissed today, this one endures as a critics’ darling – does it live up to its reputation?

Griffith’ usual flowery intertitles set up a situation he tries to present as “universal” although it is rather specific. Anna Moore (Lillian Gish) is a young woman living East of Boston with her widowed mother. As money is tight, Anna reluctantly agrees to go in to the city to visit wealthy relatives, and ask for help. The family is clearly put off by her appearance, and she is a little too shy (and a little too proud) to ask outright for money, so she awkwardly accepts a left-handed invitation to stay. The one person in “society” who pays her any attention is Lennox Sanderson (Lowell Sherman), a raconteur whose only interest is sex. He tricks her into a phony wedding in order to get her in bed, and convinces her to keep it a secret to avoid upsetting his father an losing his inheritance. Anna, thinking that her future fortune is now secure, returns home and begins seeing him secretly. She soon becomes pregnant, and tells Lennox that they must now reveal their marriage, causing him to reveal to her that it wasn’t legal. He promises her money and leaves.

Read the rest of this entry »

Forgiven in Death (1911)

This early western from G.M. Anderson depicts honor and male bonding in uncivilized conditions, a trope that the genre will frequently return to in future decades. It also uses Native Americans as generic un-motivated villains, another aspect that would persist.

The intertitles do much of the heavy lifting in the first act, as we learn that Ned (Brinsley Shaw) and Jack (Anderson) are in love with the daughter of their employer (Gladys Field) and that she has a hard time deciding between them. She chooses Jack, but they keep the wedding secret to avoid hurting Ned, and the two men go off together on a prospecting venture, living in a small shack on the plains. Ned insists on picking up their mail every day, and he stashes all of Gladys’s letters to Jack under the floorboards, resulting in Jack being mopey and depressed. One day, on the way to the post office, he encounters an Indian war party, who are hiding in the grasses and immediately pursue him when he turns his horse back. There’s a long chase back to the shack, and then Jack and Ned try to fight off the attackers with their pistols. There are no further intertitles at this point, with the drama now playing out entirely through the action on the screen.

There are far too many Indians (and they have rifles, so should be able to hit at a greater distance, but these Indians insist on getting as close as possible and standing up to shoot so they lose a lot of men), and Jack is hit. He tries to stand once or twice, then seems to collapse in pain and despair. Ned now runs to get all the letters and starts to read one to his friend, trying to raise his spirits, and learns as a result that Gladys and Jack are married. Jack raises his pistol, and Ned holds up his hands in fear, but at the last moment, Jack shoots an Indian who was pointing his gun through the window. The two men are reconciled, but moments later Ned is hit also, and they reach out to hold hands as they both expire. We see a final shot of the warriors celebrating their victory and breaking into the shack to see their dead enemies.

The key to this movie is the gun battle, which is adequately staged for its purpose, but lacks the dynamics of later films like “The Battle at Elderbush Gulch.” The chase is typical for the period, with the camera locked down in one position as the pursued, and then all of the pursuers, race towards it and right past, then cutting to the next shot of pretty much the same thing again. The camera moves very slightly to follow the action, probably panning less than ten degrees so that it could almost be accidental. The gunfight is intercut between shots outside and those inside, showing simultaneous action but never really connecting the two locations. The “outside” action is all but forgotten while Ned and Jack have their interior confrontation, with only the resolution bringing in the Indians at all during that scene. Later film makers would probably at least shown bullets zipping around the shack to remind us that the attackers are still there. But, this is a pretty early effort, and at least the tension of “will Jack shoot Ned?” is held effectively, though the title kind of gives away the ending.

Finally, I mentioned the use of Native Americans as generic bad guys in this film. We never get any sense of why they attack our heroes – presumably they are threatened by the proximity of prospectors in their territory, possibly Ned and Jack (and their employer) are in violation of treaty agreements. But, their side is not part of the drama, so they wind up as one-dimensional villains, with rather poor tactics as well.

Director: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson, Brinsley Shaw, Gladys Field, Arthur Mackley, Harry Todd

Run Time: 15 Min, 40 secs

I have been unable to find this film for free on the Internet. If you do, please comment.

Blue Blazes Rawden (1918)

William S. Hart stars in this somewhat somber morality tale set in the Pacific Northwest. With less action than his usual Westerns, this movie asks more of him as an actor and director in terms of emotion and conviction.

The movie begins, with rather flowery intertitles that have a distinctly Jack London influence, by introducing “Blue Blazes” Rawden – a hellraising timber man far from civilization (played by Hart), surrounded by his admirers on pay day. He leads them to the town of Timber Cove with the full intention of blowing all their pay in a wild debauch. They quickly locate the Far North Hotel, a place with a saloon suited to separate them from their money, and once there, Blazes is soon in a dispute with the owner, “Ladyfingers” Hilgard (Robert McKim), over his girl Babette du Fresne (Maude George). Blazes and Hilgard try to settle things with cards, but as Blazes winnings pile up and Hilgard is about to lose his hotel, he challenges Blazes to a gunfight, even going so far as to have one of his cronies sabotage Blazes’ ammunition, but Blazes is too tough for him, and ends up shooting Hilgard with his own gun.

Rawden has won the respect of the town, the hotel, and the woman in one fell swoop, but there’s a catch. As he’s dying, Hilgard gives Rawden the letter he just received from his aging mother (Gertrude Clair) – she’s coming out to visit, along with Eric, his innocent younger brother (Robert Gordon), and they expect to find a decent, respectable man, not a ruffian card sharp. When they arrive, apparently Rawden’s heart grows three sizes that day, because he can’t bring himself to tell the truth about Hilgard or himself. He admits that Hilgard is dead, but insists they were fast friends and that Hilgard was a pillar of the community. He threatens everyone at the bar not to contradict him or they’ll get what Ladyfingers got, and so they all go along with him as he puts up a gravestone that calls Hilgard  a good man and generally carries off a huge deception, reforming himself along the way. Eventually, Babette becomes annoyed by the “new” Blazes and tells the younger brother that Blazes killed Hilgard, which so enrages him that he shoots Blazes – who refuses to defend himself because that would mean killing two sons of the woman who he so respects. After saving Eric from a lynch mob, Blue Blazes makes him promise never to tell Mrs. Hilgard what he knows and leaves town a reformed man, though it seems likely he’ll die in the wilderness of his wounds.

Most of this movie hinges on Hart convincing his audience that he is so remorseful after meeting the mother of his victim that he completely changes from the brutal hell raiser into a man of decency. What’s remarkable is that he pulls it off quite well. The two sides of this character seem perfectly suited to Hart – he was equally capable of being the devil-may-care brawler and the man with a simple code of honor who never wavers, once decided on his path. It’s strange to see them both evoked in a single story like this, but somehow it works. It helps that Clair is so good as the refined but sweet old lady who could never think ill of her son or his surroundings. When Babette tries to tell her about Hilgard, she invites her to tea and remarks how surprised she is that the other ladies (all of them evidently prostitutes) of the town have never paid her a call. As a director, Hart deserves credit also for building a believable environment of savage lumber jacks, taking advantage of the redwoods in northern California to show a primeval forest that separates men from their upbringing and civilized training. Given this theme in the early intertitles, I was surprised when something as simple as a mother’s love was enough to shatter this premise and change the title character from hellion to angel.

Director: William S. Hart

Camera: Joseph H. August

Starring: William S. Hart, Maude George, Robert McKim, Gertrude Claire, Robert Gordon, Jack Hoxie

Run Time: 51 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Garage (1920)

This is the last short film from the Comique Studios starring Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Buster Keaton. after this, Keaton would strike out on his own and Arbuckle would make a brief stab at feature films before being embroiled in scandal, but for now, we get to enjoy the duo in action for one last time.

Arbuckle and Keaton play automobile mechanics and firemen at a garage in a fire station. They work for an old man who seems to have high blood pressure (Dan Crimmins). Molly Malone plays the boss’ daughter who is being courted by a man named Jim (Harry McCoy), though she turns him down after the flowers he brings her end up accidentally soaked in motor oil thanks to Fatty and Buster. Livid, Jim raises the alarm in the fire station to make Fatty and Buster think there is a fire and forcing them to rush across town. However, Jim accidentally starts a real fire while trying to exit the station and the firemen return to put out the fire and rescue Mollie who is trapped inside. When Fatty, Buster and several of the townspeople try to rescue Molly using a life net, she bounces up into the telephone wires. Fatty and Buster eventually get Molly down but become trapped themselves; luckily Mollie moves a car beneath them just before they fall and all three ride off together.

The summary above focuses on the “plot,” but really misses most of the film. Like most of the Keaton/Arbuckle shorts, the story is just a thin skeleton on which to hang a series of gags, which come fast and thick here. Right off the bat, we see Arbuckle washing down a car at the opening, and he seems to work extra hard on a window, before leaning through the window to clean the outside of the car, demonstrating that it was open the whole time! Keaton has some beer with his lunch, but decides it’s a bit thin and adds some wood alcohol to the mix. Keaton and Arbuckle get into a fight, throwing pies, soapy rags, oil and everything else they can find at one another, making a huge mess of themselves and the car Arbuckle just finished washing down. Then they put it on a giant spinning plate and spray it with a hose while the manager does pratfalls to distract the customer. And all this is just the first few minutes of the movie! Probably one of the best-loved sequences is where Keaton, having been chased by Luke the Dog and losing his pants as a result, pretends to be a Scotsman by cutting a kilt off a poster for Scotch whiskey and does a ridiculous jig in front of a policeman. Then he hides by walking behind Arbuckle, then switching to the front when the cop is behind them. None of this has anything to do with the garage (though it is loosely tied in to Jim’s attempts to date Mollie), but it works because it doesn’t need to make sense to be funny.

Unlike some of their earlier work, this one seems to flow naturally from one scene into the next, despite the madcap pacing. There is sort of a divide between reel one, which is mostly about fixing cars, and reel two, which is mostly about fighting fires, but there isn’t quite as much sense of the film being two movies stitched together as in “The Butcher Boy” for example. Arbuckle and Keaton are clearly having fun every minute, and although the movie ends with Keaton acting as chauffeur while Mollie and Fatty snuggle in the back seat, there is very little sense of Arbuckle being the “lead” and Keaton being a “sidekick.” The two of them are fully a team now. It’s sort of sad to think that they never worked together again, but in fact Keaton was headed for bigger things. We’ll be seeing some of that in months and years to come.

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: Elgin Lessley

Starring: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, Molly Malone, Harry McCoy, Daniel Crimmins, Luke the Dog

Run Time: 25 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music).

The Silent Man (1917)

William S. Hart one-ups John Wayne by being even quieter in this movie from Thomas Ince’s Artcraft Pictures. Is silence golden? We’ll take a look at it today.

Hart plays “Silent” Budd Marr, a prospector who, after three months in the desert, has finally struck a claim. He treats his horse and mule with characteristic affection, bringing them past rattlesnakes and to the front of the “Hello Thar” dance hall in “Bakeoven,” the small gold rush camp town that is the main setting of our tale. There he proceeds to order three tall glasses of water – a very wise idea given his parched condition – before heading over to the assessor’s office to file his claim. Because he pays in gold dust, he attracts the attention of the proprietors, Ames Mitchell (Milton Ross) and “Handsome” Jack Pressley (Robert McKim). Handsom Jack tries to get Silent drunk, but he sticks to water. He also meets “Grubstake” Higgins (J.P. Lockney), a more classically grizzled-looking resident of the town, who rides him for his choice of drink with a racist comment, but then is big-hearted enough to direct him to the assessor’s office. With his claim in hand, Silent now heads back to the bar for some “man-sized” drinks. This is a mistake, because in the meantime Mitchell and Pressley have devised a plan.

Handsome and Silent

Pressley sends one of his dance hall girls, a woman he had tricked into marrying him in order to lure her to the “Hello Thar,” to get Silent’s attention, and then starts a dispute, which can only be settled by a card game between the two of them. Of course, he’s cheating, using the girl to telegraph Silent’s hand from behind his back, but when Silent catches on he makes the situation worse by fighting and getting shot, spending two weeks in bed to recover, and giving the claim-jumpers a chance to secure a claim with the assessor, somehow moving Silent’s claim a few hundred yards from where it should be.

While Silent’s been out of action, Handsome Jack has been busy recruiting a new girl for his business. This is Betty Bryce (played by the equally alliterative Vola Vale), a young innocent orphan from the neighboring town of Chloride who takes care of her brother (Harold Goodwin), who’d rather she marry a cowboy so he could have a horse to ride. She falls for Pressley’s line, however, with the result that she and he are in the same coach where Ames is transporting his ill-gotten gold dust back to Bakeoven when Silent, now reduced to banditry, decides to raid it. He winds up taking  the girl captive, and has to hide out with her while the posse searches for him. She assumes him to be an evil desperado, but he treats her with gentlemanly consideration, and gradually she comes to see him as trustworthy. He tells her the story of how he came to desperado-hood and that he’s saved her from an evil fate, though at first she has doubts.

Silent brings Betty to the mountain home of “Preachin” Bill Hardy (George Nichols), a former prospector who’s found God and is now building a church in the wilderness to bring the Word to the forsaken people of Bakeoven (but still can’t remember not to cuss in front of young girls). Grubstake brings her brother out to join her, and the family is reunited. The happiness of the situation is temporary (of course), as Ames and Pressley eventually get wind of Silent’s whereabouts. Betty’s brother, eager to earn the reward for the bandit in order to give it to the preacher to help him finish the church, is injured in an attempt to take Silent single-handed, and he brings him back to the church, but meanwhile, the bad guys have set fire to the church to try to get the information from Hardy. Silent lets the boy bring him in so that the reward will go to Hardy, who has lost everything for his honor. At the trial, the truth comes out when Grubstake reveals his true identity as a Federal Marshall investigating Ames. Pressley and Ames try to get the crowd to lynch Silent anyway, but more lawmen show up and save the day. Bud and Betty are able to marry and live happily ever after.

Coming a year after “Hell’s Hinges,” and “The Return of Draw Egan” this movie seems comparably formulaic and unimaginative. I don’t know, maybe I’ve just seen too many of these William Hart movies to appreciate it, but it seems to me like pretty much everything in this has been done before. In fact, the subplot about capturing Betty and wooing her reminded me a lot of “Shark Monroe,” which was to come out the next year and did a much better job of dealing with the awkwardness and sexual tension of that situation. We do get the interesting situation of Hart as an anti-hero bandit with a pure heart and a desire for revenge, but this is mostly window-dressing for a pretty generic Western storyline. Finally, I’m not sure why his character (or the title)  is called “Silent,” unless it was just to call attention to the fact that this is a silent movie. He has as much dialogue as anyone, and actually the one person who keeps silence is the preacher, who refuses to divulge information under extreme duress.

Director: William S. Hart

Camera: Joseph H. August

Starring: William S. Hart, Vola Vale, Robert McKim, J.P. Lockney, George Nichols, Gertrude Clair, Milton Ross, Harold Goodwin

Run Time: 55 Min