Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Category: Reviews

The Goat (1921)

Buster Keaton stars in and co-directs this two-reel short from his second year as a starring comedian. A simple premise once again leads to a lot of gags, and Keaton continues to demonstrate his developing abilities as a film maker.

The movie begins with an out-of-work Keaton getting into a bread line, but without noticing he stands behind two mannequins in front of a clothing store. The line moves up and all the bread is gone, but the two guys in front of him never move. When it threatens to rain, the proprietor moves his dummies inside, but Buster is too late to get any bread. Forlornly walking the streets, he looks into a barred window of one building, which happens to be a jail. The room he looks in upon is a mug shot room where the police are photographing one Dead Shot Dan (Malcolm St. Clair), a murderer. Seeing that the photographer is looking away, Dan moves his head to the side and snaps a picture of Buster without anybody noticing. Thus, when Dan escapes, the wanted posters all show Buster with his hands on the bars.

Shortly, and before anyone knows that Dan has escaped, Keaton gets himself in trouble with a patrolling policeman by throwing a horseshoe over his shoulder for luck, accidentally hitting the man in the face. Each time it looks as if he will get away, something happens, usually resulting in an additional officer getting knocked down and joining the chase. There are several clever gags in which Keaton jumps onto a vehicle, anticipating that it will pull away and save him, only to discover that he is being left behind somehow. At one point, he tries hiding behind a traffic cop, simulating his arm gestures until he walks away and Buster is exposed trying to direct traffic himself. He gets a brief reprieve when he lures the officers into the back of a truck and locks the door.

During this interval, he meets Virginia Fox, who is being hassled by a man on the street. Keaton defends her, and throws the man to the ground in a rather clever backflip move. Before he can introduce himself to Virginia, the truck delivers the policemen to the corner they are at, and Buster runs away again. After a few more false starts, he escapes by hopping onto a train going to a nearby town. Unfortunately for Buster, the town has heard of Dan’s escape, and newspapers and wanted posters with Buster’s picture are everywhere. The townspeople run from him in terror wherever he goes. Soon, he encounters the local police chief (Joe Roberts), who is the one man not afraid to face down Dead Shot Dan. The real Dan makes an attempt on his life, but is able to plant the gun on Buster, increasing his suspicions. He is able to escape the chief only by dumping a load of coal on him.

After making that escape, Buster runs into Virginia, pretending to be a man of means by stepping out of a taxi as he sees her approach, then scaring away the irate taxi driver by showing him a newspaper with him on the front cover. Virginia invites him to dinner and he goes up to her apartment to meet the parents. Of course, her dad is Joe Roberts. A new chase begins, involving the elevator in their apartment building and several rather silly gags involving the floor indicator. Virginia sides with Buster and the two of them escape together. Buster observes a sign outside a furniture store that says “You furnish the Girl, we furnish the home!” He carries his date into the store.

For me, this movie is something of a turning point of Buster Keaton’s early movies. Something about the rhythm of the comedy speaks to later films and the undeniable genius of “The General” or “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” Not only does it not let up, it hits in just the right way each time. The theme of the poor slob who can’t seem to get a break has been a common one in Keaton’s movies up to this point, but there’s something wonderful in each revelation as we think for a moment that he’s gotten away, only to wind up on the run again. There is surprise after surprise as the movie progresses. Even the most illogical moments (like being able to eject an elevator through the roof of a building by moving the floor indicator) are funny because they are surprising, surreal, and internally consistent.

All of that said, it’s also really indicative of Keaton’s working method at the time. He had one good idea: his character would be mistaken for a killer because he looked in a jail window as he was photographed, and he started filming with nothing more than that as a script. In that sense, the plot is almost nonexistent (again), and the only thing holding the movie together is impromptu gags, many of which don’t even seem to belong in the same film together. Luckily he had a team of professionals who knew how to work with that, and they wound up putting together a really successful film. This is pretty much how he had learned to work at Comique with Roscoe Arbuckle, so it make sense, but it’s a very different approach to that developed by fellow clown-kings Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd at the time.

I’m always surprised when I see this movie that there’s no actual (animal) goat in it. Somehow I manage to forget that it isn’t about a lonely farm boy who takes his goat to the big city. That must be a story I made up myself.

This has been my contribution to the Buster Keaton Blogathon, hosted by Silentology. Don’t forget to head over and check out the other great blogs contributing this year! Many thanks to Lea for hosting, as always.

Director: Buster Keaton, Malcolm St. Clair

Camera: Elgin Lessley

Starring: Buster Keaton, Virginia Fox, Joe Roberts, Malcolm St. Clair, Edward F. Cline

Run Time: 27 Min

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

The Playhouse (1921)

Buster Keaton shows off technical wizardry in this two-reel short from First National, but also finds time for laughs in between the effects. Twins and doppelgangers abound as he make fun of his professional roots.

The movie begins by showing Buster looking at a sign for a variety show in front of a theater. He decides to pay and go in, pulling out a long accordion-style wallet and carefully choosing the right coin from its many folds. The clerk gives him a ticket and he enters. An edit shows him entering the inside of the theater – by way of the orchestra pit. It appears that he is the conductor, in spite of his unauspicious entrance, and he begins warming up the musicians. Edits show us several of the musicians, in a series of two-shots. Each of them is identical – they are all Buster! So are the audience (some in drag). One of the Busters looks at his program, finding that every role and crew position is held by “BUSTER KEATON.” He remarks to his mannish-looking wife, “this fellow Keaton seems to be the whole show.” The various Keatons interact and engage in minor gags for a while, including some unfortunate blackface humor.

This ends as Keaton is woken up in bed by Joe Roberts, in a small sparsely furnished room. It seems that the previous sequence was a dream, and Roberts brings some flunkies in to remove the furniture after briefly remonstrating with Keaton. The audience is set up to believe that Keaton is late with the rent and is being evicted, but after getting Keaton off  the bed and moving that, Roberts pushes the walls down, revealing that this too is a stage set. Keaton picks up a broom and gets down to his real job – sweeping up back stage. Soon, he meets some real twins, a pair of girls that will be performing in the variety show. There are various gags and situations based on his confusion over how many of them are and the fact that one likes him and the other does not.

Striking the set.

Meanwhile, the show starts to go on. Edward Cline instructs Keaton to dress the monkey for his act, but the little critter bolts, so Buster puts on his clothes and performs as a monkey himself. Although he’s probably funnier than the original, he keeps making mistakes, which makes the trainer increasingly angry. At another point, a group of “Zouaves” quits because Keaton has tricked Roberts into punching one of their members, so he goes out and hires a work crew to replace them and leads them through a series of silly stunts and military-style maneuvers. For the final act, one of the twins is put into a tank and holds her breath in a “mermaid” act, but she gets stuck and can’t get out. Buster shatters the glass, causing water to flood the theater and all of the audience is washed out with the tide. He grabs the girl, drags her to a Justice of the Peace before she hits him and he realizes he has the wrong one again. He goes back for the right girl, this time drawing an “x” on her back to avoid future errors before taking her in to get married.

Much has been made of Keaton’s use of a matte box to perform the twinning effect in the first part of the movie, but for the most part Georges Méliès had anticipated him in “The One-Man Band” (1900). At one point, Keaton does have more images on the screen than Méliès managed, but it doesn’t look very good. His best bits are when there are just two of him on the screen, in perfect focus and apparently responding to one another. The female twins are played by two different women, one of whom was Virginia Fox, but I couldn’t tell if she was the one who hit him or the one who married him.

As with most of Keaton’s movies at this time, a thin plot is the basis for a series of gags and routines that add up to a lot of laughs. There’s a bit of an inside joke in the multiple-Keatons sequence, since he got his start as part of a family act called “The Three Keatons.”It struck me as funny when “this fellow Keaton seems to be the whole show,” because in fact Keaton was more of a collaborator than the other famous silent clowns of the time, consistently working with a co-director instead of insisting on being in complete control of everything. He may have been the whole show by now so far as audiences were concerned, but he was only a part of it behind the camera.

Director: Buster Keaton, Edward F. Cline

Camera: Elgin Lessley

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

Run Time: 22 Min

You can watch it for free: Here (no music) or Here (with music).

Shoulder Arms (1918)

Charlie Chaplin is in the army for this World War One-era comedy short that became his most popular and well-loved film to that time. Can the Little Tramp be a war hero? Watch it and find out.

As the movie begins, Charlie is already in uniform and being drilled at boot camp. The men in his squad are of various heights and builds, but Charlie is the shortest and skinniest. The other men all move and turn with military precision, but Charlie is always a bit behind them. The sergeant tries to show him how to properly “volte face,” but Charlie turns it into a funny dance move. They march for a very long time and Charlie returns to his bunk. The scene fades out and when it begins again, he is in a trench, carrying a ridiculously overloaded pack. The camera dollies to follow him down the trench, then dollies back when he turns around and returns, finding the cubby in the wall that opens in to his new digs. Inside are his two roommates (one of them is Sydney Chaplin, Charlie’s brother). He moves in and secures his bunk, then we get a view of the enemy trench. The Germans are all large and rough-looking men, but their officer is a dwarf (Loyal Underwood). He is very strict with them, and they all appear to be terrified of him.

We see various day-to-day activities in the trenches, like eating lunch under shell fire and standing guard in the rain. When the mail call comes, everyone in the unit seems to get a care package except for Charlie. He refuses the offer to share food with one of his bunkmates, trying to make it seem as if he doesn’t care. He gets very involved in reading over the shoulder of one man who has a letter, desperate for any news from home. Finally, the postal carrier does find a package for him. It includes stale bread and limburger cheese. He tosses the cheese into the German trench, and they react as if it were a chemical weapons attack. When it is time for Charlie to go to bed, the rain has flooded his bunk, and he has to lie in the water. He uses the horn from a gramophone as a snorkel so he doesn’t drown. The next day, his unit is called to make an attack on the German trench. They capture it and Charlie brings in the entire enemy squad as prisoners. When asked how he did it, he says, “I surrounded them.” He gives the short German officer a spanking, which gets applause from his men.

We see a bombed-out French house with a dejected resident (Edna Purviance), who represents all the strife France is going through in the war. Charlie volunteers for duty behind the lines, and is camouflaged as a stump. He hides out as some Germans set up camp. One comes over with an axe, looking for firewood, but Charlie knocks him out by bonking him with a limb, then bonks each of the other Germans in turn. Sydney is captured doing similar behind-the-line spying, and is put before a firing squad, but Charlie saves him by bonking the Germans. A fat soldier chases him through the woods, but often mistakes real trees for Charlie. Charlie escapes into a pipe, and the soldier is too fat to follow.

Charlie finds his way to Edna’s house, and she finds him there and begins a flirtation before the Germans show up and capture them both, wrecking what’s left of the house in the process. Edna is taken to the German headquarters, where she meets a taller German officer who is enjoying local wine. Charlie manages to rescue her and dresses as the officer, just in time to meet the Kaiser and two of his generals (one is fat and looks like Hindenburg, the other is thin and looks nothing like Ludendorff). He knocks out their chauffeur and drives them into Allied territory, where they are taken into custody.

Then he wakes up again, still in hiss bivouac from the first scene, not yet deployed. The entire war sequence is shown to be a dream.

 

As I stated, this movie was wildly popular when released. It was also a critical success on a level far above what Chaplin usually managed. No one seems to have thought it “vulgar” (although there are some decidedly adult gags once he meets Edna). Reviewers for the next decade compared each new Chaplin release to it – often deciding that classics like “The Kid” or “The Gold Rush” were not quite so good as “Shoulder Arms.” It’s easy to see why it was popular in the United States as the country prepared to finally join the long slog of trench warfare, and it was also popular in Britain and elsewhere, where the fighting had been going for years. The movie identifies with the common soldier doing his bit in awful circumstances, not necessarily motivated by any great patriotism or ideology, just wanting to his best and help out the fellow next to him in the foxhole (Sydney). It suggests that even the lowliest soldier can become a hero, at least in his own mind, and it lets people laugh at their own worst fears. Chaplin’s famed pathos is also on display – the forlorn look on his face when he thinks he hasn’t received any mail must have inspired hundreds of letters from mothers and sweethearts.

 

Today the laughs are just as strong. The problem I have is mostly with the caricatured depiction of the Germans, who for the most part were just simple soldiers sitting through the same Hell as the Allies, whatever the mistakes of their leaders, and many of them would soon be joining revolts against those leaders. The one moment that humanizes them is when they applaud seeing their officer spanked. Particularly the final sequence in which Chaplin captures the Kaiser comes across as overwrought propaganda. Of course, all of Chaplin’s “bad guys” are caricatures, and there’s no reason to expect gallantry toward the enemy in a war comedy, and the gags and pratfalls are still brilliant. The Wikipedia article claims that, “[t]his is believed to be the first comedy film about war.” I find that hard to believe, although I haven’t thought of a definite counter-example (Chaplin was in uniform in “Burlesque on Carmen,” but there’s no war going on). Certainly it set the stage for others to come, being a huge success and critical darling.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Roland Totheroh

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Sydney Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Loyal Underwood, Albert Austin, Henry Bergman, Tom Wilson, John Rand

Run Time: 36 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music by Jon Mirsalis)

The Haunted House (1921)

Buster Keaton rolls out another two-reel comedy short with lots of running around and gadgets. This time, he’s a bank clerk who winds up in a house full of bandits and ham actors who mistake each other for ghosts!

The movie begins by introducing Keaton, the “wizard of finance” as he arrives for work at the bank. For some reason, he’s in a chauffeured limousine, although it quickly becomes clear that he’s just a clerk. He pries a bottle cap off the lock of the door before opening it up, and when a pretty young girl (Dorothy Cassil) asks to make a withdrawal before banking hours, he tricks the time lock by moving up the hands of the clock. An extended comic sequence occurs when he gets some glue on his hands before starting to count out some cash, and soon there are clumps of glued money sticking everywhere, to people’s hands, bottoms, shoes, etc. We learn that one of Buster’s co-workers (Joe Roberts) is involved in a counterfeiting scheme, and he sets up Keaton to look guilty. He and his criminal partners are hiding in an old house which they have rigged up with booby traps and effects to make it appear to be haunted, and of course this is where Buster runs when he is chased by the police.

Meanwhile, a troupe of actors has been putting on a performance of “Faust” and they are booed off the stage and chased through the woods to the same house, leading Keaton and the gang of robbers to believe the house actually is haunted. There is a lot of running around as each side is frightened by the other, and a gag about a staircase that turns into a ramp whenever someone ascends to the top is used six times. Finally, Keaton figures out the scam and is able to get the police to arrest the real criminals. As Roberts is about to be taken away, he hits Keaton over the head and knocks him out before escaping. Keaton is now confronted by a seemingly endless stairway leading into the clouds, and he ascends to meet Saint Peter, who takes one look at him and pulls the lever that turns the stairs into a ramp and dumps Keaton in Hell, where a devil pokes his behind with a fiery pitchfork. Keaton awakes, still in the house, to discover that his pants are on fire.

Hope you guess my name.

Of all the Keaton shorts I’ve watched so far, I think this one got the most laughs from me. You see the laughs coming most of the time – it’s pretty obvious how things are going to go, especially once we’re actually in the house – but there’s a sense of surprise at how far Keaton will push it and the timing is perfect. It’s very much Keaton’s film, and he takes full advantage of his screen time. The romantic subplot, involving Virginia Fox as the president’s daughter, is pushed to the background so she winds up having little to do, and few of the other actors have any standout moments. The camerawork and editing are also very simplistic and functional, but the movie works because Keaton keeps it moving so you don’t have time to think about whether it makes sense or is “art” or whatever.

Directed by: Buster Keaton, Edward F. Cline

Camera: Elgin Lessley

Starring: Buster Keaton, Joe Roberts, Virginia Fox, Dorothy Cassil, Edward F. Cline, Natalie Talmadge

Run Time: 21 Min

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

Gulliver’s Travels among the Lilliputians and the Giants (1902)

Another fantasy from Georges Méliès; this one draws from the work of English wit Jonathan Swift, although the emphasis is on whimsy and special effects rather than satire.

The movie begins with Lemuel Gulliver (evidently Méliès himself, for some reason made up as an old man) holding a lantern and carefully stepping through a set decorated with miniature houses. The buildings vary in architecture, and there seems to be a pagoda shoulder-to-shoulder with a minaret and Greek columns adorn another structure which is near what looks like a Medieval European house. Gulliver points and chuckles at some of the structures, then moves off-stage. The next thing we see is him asleep, evidently somewhere near the town center (based on the proliferation of taller buildings, now all thoroughly European) and a row of tiny people stand on a landing above him. He is draped with ropes, indicating that the Lilliputians have tied him up, and the mob wields weapons, eventually beginning to throw spears into his body, causing him to wake up. The next scene shows him seated at a normal-sized table, using cutlery and a cup all proportioned to his size, while miniature chefs bring up a ladder and climb up it to provide him with food. They pour jug after jug of wine in his cup, which he polishes off with one quaff. Now an entourage arrives, escorting the miniature queen in a palanquin. Gulliver lifts this onto the table and converses with her, then moves her back down to Earth so she doesn’t have to climb the ladder. Now smoke suddenly billows forth from a neighboring building, but Gulliver extinguishes the fire with a normal-sized spritzer he happens to have on hand.

The scene suddenly cuts to a tight three-shot of some people in Medieval dress playing cards around a table. One of these seems to be a dwarf. A young lady comes in bearing a wadded up handkerchief; when she opens it, out tumbles a tiny Gulliver! They stare at him in amazement and laugh, one of the men blows pipe smoke at him. The scene cuts to show Gulliver alone with the young lady giant, on his knee, perhaps making an outlandish proposal. She cups her hand to her ear, evidently unable to hear him and he produces a ladder and climbs up to get closer. She gestures, accidentally knocking him off the ladder and into a giant coffee cup.

The story of Gulliver has always had fairy tale elements that have appealed to children, but Swift’s original story included biting wit and satire of English and European politics. One part that usually makes it into screen adaptations is the war between the Lilliputians and a neighboring nation of tiny people (Blefuscu) over the question of which end of a boiled egg should be cracked open first. Swift intended this as a comment on wars between Catholics and Protestants over the question of transubstantiation, but it translates well to almost any era in which bloodshed occurs over the least little things. The actual method Gulliver used to put out the fire is usually cleaned up, as it is here, however it’s a bit hard to believe that a shipwrecked man managed to salvage his spritzer. Méliès dispenses with pretty much any kind of social commentary here, although it is interesting that in Republican France he retains the Lilliputian nobility and royalty. Of course, children understand kings and queens from a young age, and it fits with his fairy tale setting. The effect of differently-sized people is achieved throughout by the use of a split screen and two separate shots being taken of the actors at different distances from the camera to make them appear larger or smaller. This results in a very limited range of movement for most of them. The most impressive use of this effect is when Gulliver is on the table, surrounded by three giants to the right, left, and behind him. His “stage” is defined by the back of a chair (or probably a set painted to resemble a chair), but it does seem to put tiny him in the middle of giant action. Longer than many of his movies at about four and a half minutes, it’s not an epic like “A Trip to  the Moon,” but it is an interesting piece of work that took obvious time and care.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 4 Min, 13 secs

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

Broken Blossoms (1919)

The first major post-World War release from D.W. Griffith is this melodrama of a waif and an immigrant in London’s Limehouse District. This is one of the better-thought-of Griffith movies, even by those who criticize his earlier hits, but how does it look more than a century later?

The movie starts out in an unnamed part of China, where Cheng Huan (Richard Barthelmass in yellowface), a local resident, has a violent encounter with some white American sailors. He is a devotee of Buddhism, and refuses to respond in kind to their taunting and fisticuffs. He decides that the West could use some civilizing, and makes up his mind to bring the word of the Buddha to that part of the world. The film then cuts to several years later, when he runs a small but tidy shop in Limehouse. It seems his missionary zeal is largely forgotten as he deals with the poverty and greed of his neighbors and the struggle to survive in this strange land. Apparently, the only place he can go for company and a taste of the familiar is a local bar that caters to Asians of all stripes – we see men in turbans as well as caftans, almost everyone is smoking, some seem to be holding opium pipes, and there are “fallen” white women scattered about as well as gambling. Memories of his time in the temple in China are contrasted with these images to show how far he has drifted from his original intentions.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Boat (1921)

The title of this short by Buster Keaton says it all. This is a movie about a boat, and a man who brings his family to ruin because of his obsession with high seas living.

The movie begins with an effect – Keaton is inside of a boat that is rocking violently back and forth, apparently at sea. Much like the Méliès movie “Between Calais and Dover” what the audience sees is an apparently stable camera, with a set that is tilting along its axis. Unlike in that film, however, it does not appear that the camera is tilting; rather it seems that the set has been designed to genuinely rock back and forth in front of it. This allows objects to fall naturally in the right direction without help from the actors, and actors to be consistent in leaning the right way. We now see the outside of the boat, which is still in Keaton’s garage, but one of his small sons has jumped onto a rope that is holding it in place and is swinging on it, causing the rocking of the boat. Keaton emerges, removes the child from the rope, administers a quick spanking and goes on applying the finishing touches to his masterpiece. His wife (Sybil Seely) and other son join him and he has them get into the car outside, so that the family can go to the marina for the launching.

There is one small problem, however, as Keaton realizes that his garage door is too small for him to tow the boat out from it. He tries to fix this issue with a few strokes of his hammer, knocking some bricks out of the top to make room. He decides it’s close enough and starts up the car, but the boat is still too large and knocks out considerably more of the basement wall. This undermines the foundation and the entire front of the house collapses. Keaton inspects the damage, and finding that the life boat has been smashed, replaces it with a bathtub salvaged from the wreckage. He drives the family down to the dock.

At the dock, Keaton tries to have his wife christen the boat “Damfino” with a coke bottle. She can’t get it to break, so he uses a hammer. They begin to lower the boat into the water, using the car to tow it again, but Sybil sees the little boy playing on one of the planks supporting the boat that is about to be submerged, and calls out to Buster. He turns around and fails to notice the end of the dock, resulting in the loss of their car as it disappears into the drink. He and Sybil work valiantly to stop the descent of the boat, but eventually, he has to pull the child off the support and watch as the boat follows the car – it does not float, simply descends beneath the waves.

The boat is somehow recovered in time for the next scene, and seems to be floating ably with no leaks or difficulties, as Buster prepares for her maiden voyage. He places a smokestack in the middle of the deck, failing to notice that one of the children has been trapped under it. At first, he takes he child’s cries for help as a faulty ship’s whistle, but eventually he looks inside and sees him in there.  Now he lifts the smokestack again and drops the child overboard. he throws in a life saver, but this sinks. Before jumping in to save him, he drops a thermometer into the water to see how cold it is. Once he gets moving, though,  the smokestack seems to work very well. Buster has rigged it, and the ship’s mast, to lean backward as he goes under a low bridge. All he has to do is pull a handle. However, one such bridge comes along when his back is turned, and the chimney and mast crash down on him, knocking him once again off the boat, so that he must swim after it.

We see Buster and family having breakfast, down in the hull of the boat. At one point, the boat seems to go improbably up one side of a hill, then down the other – leaving open the question of who’s driving when Buster takes his meals. His wife cooks up pancakes and distributes them, but no one can bite into them, they are so hard. Buster hides his inside of his famous hat, and both boys follow suit with theirs. He gets the bright idea of hanging a picture on the wall, but the nail goes through and springs a leak. Buster covers it up with the pancake from his hat, which stops the leak.

After a long day at sea, the family is bedding down for the night when Buster’s bunk topples him onto the floor. He looks out and the sea is getting rough. He lights a candle and goes up on deck to see what there is to see, but mostly he just keeps getting toppled by waves. Eventually, he recognizes the danger and descends to the lower deck, putting his family into a closet for whatever safety that may provide while he uses the telegraph to call for help. A sailor receives his SOS and asks who’s calling. Buster identifies as “Damfino” and the sailor assumes it’s a joke, meaning “Damned if I know.” Now the boat is actually spinning in place, really putting his rigged set to the test, and Buster valiantly nails his shoes to the floor so he can keep signaling, but eventually the pancake comes loose and the leak begins to fill the room. Buster’s solution is to drill a hole in the floor so the water can get out, which of course results in an even bigger leak.

Now the boat is doomed, so he takes his family out to the deck and puts them into the bathtub he grabbed at the beginning for a lifeboat. He in unable to join them in time, and goes down with the ship, but as the family mourns his loss, his hat floats over to them and he turns out to be under it. He give one child a drink from his hat while another plays with the stopper, eventually loosing it and the bathtub sinks as the whole family desperately bails. Finally, Keaton kisses his wife and sons goodbye and prepares for the end, but the tub hits bottom and stops sinking. It turns out that they are only in a few feet of water! After a short walk through the water Buster and his family happen upon a deserted beach in dark of night. “Where are we?” asks his wife (via an intertitle), to which Buster replies, “Damn if I know” (mouthing the words to the camera, no intertitle is used).

Buster Keaton was undeniably a comedy genius, but not everything he made works for me today. Here, Keaton gives us a classic “little man” and his innocent family (his two small sons both wear pork pie hats) and instead of having them overcome insurmountable odds (as Harold Lloyd would have done) or at least poke fun at larger bullies (as Charlie Chaplin would have done), he proceeds to destroy all of their worldly possessions and put them in imminent danger of death for the sake of a few cheap gags. There is some impressive film-making here, including the eponymous vehicle, which is capable of spinning around so that Keaton can do some amazing pratfalls, but I find the movie frankly depressing. One can find similar dark currents in other Keaton movies, for example “One Week,” but there the obvious and at times enchanting affection of the two leads makes up for some of the difficulties they suffer. They may be starting out with nothing, but they still have one another. Here, Keaton’s family would frankly be better off without him.

Director: Buster Keaton, Edward F. Cline

Camera: Elgin Lessley

Cast: Buster Keaton, Sybil Seely, Edward F. Cline

Run Time: 24 Min

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

A Fishy Affair (1913)

Ford Sterling was the big star on the Keystone lot when this short was produced in April, 1913, and it exploits his famous expressive facial stylings to the fullest, while living up to the usual standard of low-production-values and quick action that is associated with the brand.

The movie takes place on locations that look suspiciously similar to those used in “A Muddy Romance.” Ford sits on the stoop of his house, fiddling with a fishing rod. His wife (Laura Oakley) is inside the house, stashing her savings inside of a stocking. A burglar (Bert Hunn) skulks outside of her window, watching where the loot is hidden. Ford comes in to ask his wife to borrow some money, and while her back is turned, the burglar sneaks in and takes the stocking. Unfortunately for him, a cop (Rube Miller) sees him come out of the window and pursues. Unfortunately for Ford, his wife has no intention of letting him have any of her hard-earned cash. He decides to go fishing.

The robber realizes that he may be hauled in, and tosses the stocking into a pond or puddle, no doubt hoping to collect it when the heat is off. Ford, of course, winds up at that very place with his rod and reel. After some interesting scenes of him catching “little” fishes intercut with underwater images of fish swimming around and occasionally biting the hook, he pulls out the stocking. He’s annoyed to be catching trash, doesn’t notice the money, and tosses it in his catch box. Finally, he catches a “big one,” but it turns out to be a baby alligator, and he runs away from it, into a nest of alligators, knocking down the cop along the way. The cop also winds up at the alligator nest, briefly. When Ford gets home, the whole house is in an uproar, looking for the stolen money. Of course, it doesn’t look good when they find the stocking in Ford’s box. But, just then, the cop rushes in with the burglar, caught, and everything is brought to an amicable conclusion.

I wonder how many takes before this fish hit its mark?

Whenever I watch Ford Sterling, I think about what Charlie Chaplin said about him in his autobiography. He made fun of Sterling for “keeping the crew in stitches” throughout production by talking in his funny German accent during shooting. It seemed like a waste to Charlie, because the audience would never hear it. It always seems to me that keeping laughter going on a comedy set is a pretty good idea, it helps set the tone and keep morale up. Also, I can see Sterling’s lips moving the whole time, and although I can’t hear the accent, I can see from his gestures and actions that he’s keeping up a silly line of discourse, establishing what a clown his character is. Sterling wasn’t in Chaplin’s league, really, but he was good for a few laughs. He has a distinct style and it’s easy to see why he was popular. This movie never really pays off with the kind of chaotic craziness we’d hope for in a Keystone, but it’s a half-reeler that was produced for very little, and it plays well enough, considering.

Director: Mack Sennett

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Ford Sterling, Laura Oakley, Bert Hunn, Rube Miller, William Hauber, Nick Cogley, Dot Farley

Run Time: 6 Min, 11 secs

I have not been able to find this movie available for free on the Internet. If you do, please comment.

His Trysting Places (1914)

This short movie comes late in Charlie Chaplin’s tenure at Keystone Studios and seems to represent a late attempt by Chaplin to accommodate himself to the limitations imposed on him there. Far from being his best work, it does represent an effort to add a bit of situational humor to the madcap slapstick the studio was known for.

The movie begins with Charlie and Mabel Normand in a small kitchen set, Mabel with a baby in her arms and Charlie sitting close behind her reading a paper. He is constantly placing his arms, feet, etc. on the hot stove, burning himself and disturbing the boiling kettle, and she is having difficulty juggling the baby and her cooking projects. Finally, she gives Charlie the baby, but he seems to have no idea how to hold it safely. He goes into the next room and sets up the baby’s crib, only to place the child on the floor and lean back in the crib himself. Meanwhile, we see a woman (Helen Carruthers) in the lobby of what seems to be a hotel, writing. An intertitle shows her note – an invitation to her lover to meet her in the park at “our little trysting place.” No name for the recipient is given, which is what leads to all of the problems later. Ambrose (Mack Swain) is going out for a walk and agrees to post the note for her, placing it in his long black coat. Mabel has finally lost her patience with Charlie as well, and sends him out with a long black coat. He promises to return with a gift for the child. He stops at a store and buys a baby bottle, much to the amusement of an African American boy sitting outside the shop, who apparently imagines Charlie plans to drink from it.

I have a feeling Charlie got this a lot when he went out in costume.

Both Ambrose and Charlie end up at the same diner, hanging their coats on the same coat rack. Charlie causes chaos with an old man sitting at the counter and soon with Ambrose as well,  who he sits next to at the lunch counter. What begins as a minor dispute over table manners escalates into full scale war. Charlie kicks pretty much everyone in the place, and Ambrose grabs a coat and runs out. Charlie takes his coat as well and gets into a fight with a passerby outside of the diner. Ambrose has found his wife (Phyllis Allen) on a park bench and she comforts him. Charlie returns to Mabel, who is struggling now to juggle the child and her ironing, with much the same results as before. She looks in Charlie’s coat to see what present he has brought the child and finds the note. She concludes that he has been cheating on her. She goes wild and breaks the ironing board over her head. Charlie, thinking she’s gone nuts, grabs the coat and runs out again.

Now Ambrose leaves his coat with his wife for a while and Charlie finds her there and tells her his woes. Mabel is on the hunt, and leaves the baby with a policeman while she goes over to confront Charlie and Phyllis, striking him and strangling her. She kicks Charlie into a garbage pail. Phyllis, now relieved of the assault, finds the bottle in Ambrose’s pocket, and concludes that he has had a baby with another woman (!). Ambrose sees Charlie being beaten by Mabel and comes to offer her his assistance. Once he realizes who Charlie is he becomes afraid, and he winds up getting knocked into the garbage pail. Now the policeman walks up and gives Mabel back the baby, and everyone tries to act natural while he’s there. Ambrose winds up with the baby and when Phyllis sees this, she faints. Mabel shows Charlie the note and Ambrose sees the bottle and he brings the baby and bottle back to Mabel, who now forgives Charlie. Charlie gives the note to Phyllis, who now is doubly angry to find that he is meeting a woman at a trysting place. Mabel and Charlie laugh as she beats him up.

A classic “comedy of errors,” this was cheap to make and less clichéd than the average “park comedy” which Charlie was making for Keystone. I think it’s the only time a baby was brought in, and the child actually manages to be funny even though he probably had no idea what was going on. Given all his clumsy foolishness, there is a sense in the opening that Charlie will burn the child on the stove, which adds to the comedic tension that is released every time he does something else. Of course, Chaplin is in perfect control all the time, and didn’t put the child at risk even though it seems at any moment that he might. Each piece of this movie could be from an earlier Keystone – it begins much like “Mabel’s Married Life,” moves through “His Favorite Pastime” and ends on “The Rounders.” But, Chaplin is building upon the material in each episode, looking for new gags and new situations to improve on what he’s done before. The end result is quite satisfying. There is good use of editing and multiple camera angles, with especial emphasis on two-shots, as when Chaplin and Swain are sitting at the lunch counter, or when Chaplin and Mabel are on the bench in the park. The one piece that doesn’t work for me, surprisingly, is Mabel Normand’s performance, which seems unusually hammy and over-acted to me. It’s surprising because I usually enjoy her work. They’d had problems working together in the past, and maybe this came out on the set in some way, and Chaplin just had to live with the results.

One odd discrepancy about this movie is the title. Every print I’ve seen says “His Trysting Places,” but Wikipedia, imdb, and The Silent Era (which is usually authoritative) all call it “His Trysting Place.” I’ve gone with what I’ve seen in the credits, but I’m not sure why this uncertainty exists.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand, Mack Swain, Phyllis Allen, Helen Carruthers, Glen Cavender, Nick Cogley, Ted Edwards, Vivian Edwards, Edwin Frazee, Billy Gilbert, Frank Hayes.

Run Time: 20 Min, 44 secs

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

His Musical Career (1914)

Fans of classic comedy will find something familiar in this early short from Keystone Studios starring Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin plays a worker in a piano shop who must make a difficult delivery, but gets the addresses confused…

The movie begins with Chaplin, in his “Little Tramp” getup, applying for a job from store manager Mack Swain. Swain seems a bit concerned at Chaplin’s slight build, but puts him to the test by having him hoist a growler of beer over his head. Charlie succeeds, but spits out the beer when Mack smacks him on the back. Then Charlie lines up the can of beer next to an identical can of varnish while Swain’s back is turned, and of course Mack takes a sip from the wrong one. Charlie helps relieve his distress by splashing the rest of the beer on him. Meanwhile, salesman Charley Chase is selling a piano in the front room to “Mr. Rich” (Fritz Schade) and informs “Mr. Poor” (Frank Hayes) who has fallen behind on his payments, that his piano will be repossessed. Hayes really hams things up as the music-loving Mr. Poor. Charlie tries to nap on a piano keyboard while Mack is out speaking with Chase. It turns out that the two customers have very similar addresses.

Mack and Charlie now go to work on trying to deliver the piano. Although it is on wheels, they try to attach a length of rope. Charlie hoists the piano briefly while Mack gets under it to tie the rope on, but then he just lowers it on top of Mack and takes his time in removing it. Eventually, they push it over to a rickety old cart attached to a mule, then hoist it aboard. Charlie gets into the driver’s seat and Mack climbs on next to him, cradling another beer growler. Swain naps during the drive and Charlie spoons out some beer with his pipe. When they stop for a moment so that Mack can check the piano, the weight of the piano lifts the mule’s feet off the ground. He has to put his weight back onto the front of the cart before the mule can proceed. They pull up to the address of Mr. Poor, thinking it is Mr. Rich. Of course, there is a long staircase they have to climb with the piano, Mack pulling in front, Charlie lifting and pushing from behind. Of course, the piano tumbles down on top of Charlie before they can reach the top. Finally, they bring it into the house, to the delight of Mr. Poor and his daughter, and Charlie has it strapped to his back, moving from one part of the small room to another while they make up their minds where it should go.  Once it has been placed, Charlie cannot straighten his back. Mack yanks him several times, but then fixes the problem by laying Charlie on the floor and pushing on his backside with his foot.

Now they head over to the other address, a beautiful California house, and spend a good deal of time rearranging the furniture in order to get the piano they find there out. Mrs. Rich (Cecile Arnold) comes out to find what they are doing. Charlie and Mack both vie for her attention, and she seems quite put out by them. She summons a liveried servant, whom Mack pushes to the ground before they remove the piano. Charlie does several pratfalls before Mr. Rich walks up, indignant, and accuses them of stealing it. He gives Mack a boot in the pants, which sends him, the piano, and Charlie rolling down the long hill in front of his house. All three land in the lake used in the finales of so many other Keystone shorts.

Laurel and Hardy fans are most likely familiar with a 1932 movie called “The Music Box,” in which Stan & Ollie have to deliver a piano to a house at the top of a long stairwell. In fact, variations on this theme have been made a number of times in cinema, but so far as I know this is the first. In comparison, Laurel and Hardy milked that situation for a lot more laughs than Charlie did, but in fairness they had many more years of experience with film comedy at that time, as well as the benefit of all the developments of film technique and technology that happened in between. It does seem that this movie demonstrates a bit more of Charlie realizing his own potential, and that of his character, here towards the end of his contract with Keystone. We also see evidence of his growing popularity. Quite a number of pedestrians are visible in a crowd, staring at Swain and Chaplin as they hoist the piano onto the cart, and even men from a passing streetcar turn to stare. Evidently it was getting harder to shoot a Chaplin film without drawing a crowd. Swain and Chaplin seem to have really found their groove working together as well, with the contrast between the big man and the little one emphasized to comedic effect. Chaplin makes good use of simple editing techniques to tell the story, such as cross-cutting from the salesroom to the shop, and editing together the precipitous fall down the hill at the end. There’s an interesting shot during the drive as well, where the camera has been placed on top of the mule’s back to give a two-shot of the stars, while we watch the street go by on the sides. This wouldn’t have been easy to set up at a time when the camera had to be hand-cranked, but cinematographer Frank D. Williams must have made it work somehow, possibly by dragging the cart behind a truck so that he had a platform to stand on.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Mack Swain, Fritz Schade, Charley Chase, Cecile Arnold, Frank Hayes, Helen Carruthers, Billy Gilbert

Run Time: 13 Min

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