Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Al St John

The Butcher Boy (1917)

The first movie to feature an appearance by Buster Keaton came out almost 101 years ago. It was also the first movie Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle made for his new Comique Film Corporation, with full creative control over his own productions, after many years working for Mack Sennett at Keystone.

The movie is a two-reel slapstick comedy, and like a lot of  those by this time, it essentially consists of two separate but equally important “parts.” The first part concerns Arbuckle (whose character is named “Fatty.” so that’s what I’m going to call him for the rest of this review) at his job as a butcher’s assistant in a general store. The structure of this section reminds me a lot of Charlie Chaplin’s “The Pawnshop.” Various characters come into the shop and ask for things, and comic misadventures ensue, often due to the obliviousness, or deliberate laziness, of Fatty. Arbuckle demonstrates his agility by tossing knives into the air, which consistently land point-downward, lodged in the countertop. Once or twice he does this with another actor standing on the other side of the counter, which struck me as a bit dangerous, but he’s so casual about it that you’d think anyone could do it. Keaton’s part comes in this section and he is undeniably the most memorable of the various “customers.” He wants to buy a pail of molasses, and some very sticky comedy ensues. Among others, Lea over at Silentology has carefully analyzed this scene, and I can’t hope to add to what she says about it, so I’ll just say that for a first film appearance, Keaton has remarkable poise and confidence before the camera.

Shortly after Keaton’s bit, the plot starts to move forward. Fatty and Al St. John are both in competition for the one young woman that works at the store, played by Josephine Stevens. She’s the daughter of the owner, and she’s sweeter on Fatty than on “Slim,” but Slim can’t let it go. The two of them play pranks on each other that escalate into a full-scale war, with exploding bags of flour and other random store implements used to cause mayhem. The owner decides to send his daughter to a boarding school, to prevent any further such nonsense (presumably after firing Fatty and Slim both).

Thus begins the second part of the film, in which Fatty and Al both dress up as girls to sneak into the boarding school and see Josephine. Buster appears again as one of Al’s accomplices, but he has relatively little to do here. Fatty gets in first, and is able to charm the rest of the girls into at least tolerating him, but once Al is on the inside things rapidly escalate to a running pillow fight. Al’s cohorts, for some reason, also sneak into the school to help abduct Josephine, and before long they are caught and held at gunpoint by the schoolmarm. Once again, the scene devolves in chaos and Josephine and Fatty are able to escape. Still in girl’s clothes, he proposes to her in front of a minister’s house, and they go in, presumably to be married.

I’d rate this as a good, but not great, Arbuckle movie, and pretty much “of historical interest” for Keaton fans. This movie has the feel of someone trying things out, but perhaps being afraid of going too far at first. I was surprised how much was shot in long-shot, as if Arbuckle was afraid to move his camera too close to all the flying bags of flour and thrown knives. However, choreographing some of that chaos in long shot is still a feat to be proud of. Arbuckle did plenty of drag, before and after this, as well as many roles where he had some kind of customer service job but mostly abused his customers. In fact, he had combined the two before (in “Waiters Ball”). My favorite Arbuckle movies play more on his “big kid” likeability, his boyish charm, and his being the good guy who is wronged by his opponent, but in this one he’s no better than Al St. John, the girl just happens to like him better. At least he’s not forcing himself on her.

It’s interesting that Buster does maintain his “stone face” in this film, given that in “Oh Doctor” he would be expressive to a fault – maybe that was an Arbuckle suggestions that didn’t work out. In his autobiography, Keaton would claim he’d been told his was the first debut in film that didn’t require any re-takes, but that’s dubious in the extreme, considering that nobody was doing re-takes a little more than a decade earlier, and that some people’s debut scenes were literally walk-bys. He does demonstrate comic timing and physical prowess in the stunts Arbuckle demands of him, and if it was done in a single take, it was a good day’s work for sure.

Director: Roscoe Arbuckle

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Cast: Roscoe Arbuckle, Al St. John, Josephine Stevens, Buster Keaton, Joe Bordeaux, Luke the Dog

Run Time: 24 Min

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

The Rough House (1917)

Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle directs and the new talent of Buster Keaton gets a shot at a bigger role in this 2-reel slapstick comedy from Comique. While it builds on older gags and situations, it shows a definite development in the comedy troupe’s abilities and cinematic imagination.

The movie begins with a typical Arbuckle situation. He plays “Mr. Rough” (hence the multi-tiered pun of the title), a married man whose mother in law (Agnes Neilson) has come to visit. He is hiding in the bedroom while wife (Alice Lake) and mother take their breakfast. He dozes off with a cigarette in his hand, starting a fire on the bed. When he comes to, he stares blankly at the fire for a while, then walks out to the kitchen to fill a teacup with some water, which he then leisurely brings back to the bedroom and tosses on the raging flames. He goes to repeat this, but is distracted by the pretty maid (I think it’s Josephine Stevens), who he tries to kiss, and then he ends up drinking the water! By this point, wife and mother have become alerted to the situation, and they raise the alarm, causing a nearby gardener (Buster Keaton in a beard) to supply Fatty with a hose. He sprays everyone but the fire, eventually drenching the bedroom so much that fire simply cannot continue.

While all of this has been going on, and inter-cut with it, the help have been engaged in slapstick shenanigans. Apparently the cook (Al St. John) also has an interest in the maid, but she isn’t interested in him, and kicks him into a pan of white goo, possibly a future cake that is now spoiled. At table, Fatty entertains the maid with a little bread roll fork-dance that Charlie Chaplin fans will find familiar. Then, her real love interest shows up in the form of Buster Keaton in his primary role as a delivery boy. He does several impressive pratfalls to introduce himself and starts throwing things at Al, resulting in more chaos in the house. This soon escalates to Buster chasing Al through the house with a knife, and Fatty become involved in throwing household objects at both of them. Mr. Rough eventually throws both of them out and they are arrested by a passing policeman when their fight spills into the yard.

Mr. Rough consoles the maid, tending to her injured ankle – until the wife and mother-in-law return. They immediately show their wrath, mother-in-law choking Fatty, and wife firing the maid. Now Fatty has to take on the domestic tasks of the household, preparing for dinner company – a pair of “Dukes” (who are actually robbers) are coming over. Meanwhile, Buster and Al are offered jobs on the police force because the cells are all full. Fatty now does several of the “funny cook” gags we’ve seen in “The Waiters Ball” and elsewhere. He chops bread with a fan, puts out the table settings by carrying it all in the tablecloth, and pours gasoline all over the steak. Soon, the dinner degenerates into chaos, which gives one of the thieves a chance to sneak into the bedroom and steal a string of beads. Unfortunately for him, he is observed in this act by a plainclothes detective who has been following the phony aristocrats. He calls the station and Buster and Al are (of course!) called in to apprehend the miscreants. They now do their best tribute to the Keystone Kops, especially Buster, whose oversize helmet keeps falling off as he tumbles over fences and down slopes to rush to the scene of the crime.

Meanwhile, the detective has recruited Fatty, and tries to hold the “Dukes” at gunpoint, but instead they make a break for it and he and Fatty shoot wildly at them (and at pretty much anything) while they run madly around the house. The thieves run out into the street with the detective and Fatty not far behind, and they hide in a cellar while Fatty shoots at the detective accidentally. After their journey to the house is delayed when the delivery boy gets stuck on a fence, the new police recruits eventually arrive at the house just in time to unintentionally stop the fleeing thieves by bumping into them. Mr. Rough takes back the necklace and the thieves are taken to jail.

Arbuckle often structured his 2-reelers as 2-part stories, as in this case, where the first part of the story is the fire and the fight among Fatty and his help and the second part is the dinner and the chase after the thieves. The two parts are only loosely connected: Having Al and Buster become cops in the middle defies logic, but it keeps the best clowns available for more gags in the second part. Other comedy directors of the time did similar things (think of Chaplin and “The Immigrant,” with part one on the boat and part two in the restaurant), but it seems to me as though Arbuckle was especially devoted to the structure, sometimes at the expense of coherent narrative. This was a fairly early entry in Arbuckle’s series of films with Comique, his own film company, with distribution through Paramount Pictures, and only the second time he had worked with Buster Keaton. Keaton, who had an extensive stage career as a slapstick clown from childhood, is clearly comfortable in front of the camera and working well with the team. His rivalry with Al St. John works especially well in the first half. Interestingly, unlike “Oh Doctor” and “Coney Island,” both of which came out later in 1917, he’s not particularly expressive here, even if he hasn’t quite become “Old Stone Face” yet.

Although the movie, and especially the final chase, is clearly built on older work from Keystone, it also shows cinematic advancement. The scene with the bed fire is pretty much lifted straight from “Fatty’s Plucky Pup,” but here the cross-cutting with another comic storyline makes it funnier and more effective. I’ve mentioned the parallel between the second part of the film and the Keystone Kops, but again there’s improvement, both in terms of the comic timing and the use of camera angles. We get close-ups on the ridiculous-looking station sergeant that Keystone would never have taken the time to do, and one sequence of pratfalls is shot in long shot, with the actors appearing as silhouettes, which is lovely. There’s also a contribution to future movies, in the form of the “bread roll dance” Fatty does for the maid. He’s not really as amusingly sympathetic as Chaplin will be eight years later, but it does show how all of the comedy masters freely borrowed from one another. I think this is the funniest of the Comiques I’ve reviewed so far, and the most readily re-watchable.

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, Al St. John, Alice Lake, Agnes Neilson, Glen Cavender, Josephine Stevens

Run Time: 22 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Coney Island (1917)

This movie was the fifth collaboration between Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Buster Keaton, coming out just a month after “Oh, Doctor!” To my mind, it makes better use of Keaton’s talents, although fans of the “Great Stone Face” may be surprised by his expressions at this time.

The movie starts with images of Luna Park at night that are reminiscent of earlier actualities. Images are run at high speed so that people move zip across the screen while our attention is focused on the beautiful lighting. We then see daylight shots at normal speed of the Mardi Gras parade. This serves to get the narrative started as Keaton and his girl (Alice Mann) appear as spectators. Buster does a minor (but impressive) stunt as he shimmies up a pole to get a better view, but comes crashing down on Alice when he gets excited and starts to applaud. We then cut to Fatty and his wife (Agnes Neilson) on the beach, in what seems to be an even less happy relationship. She reads from a magazine and scolds him while he scoops sand into a pail. He looks bored and tries to leave, but she grabs him back. Then his hat gets blown off by the wind, and he uses this as an excuse to move some distance from her, hitting upon the idea of “disappearing” by digging a hole in the sand and hiding in it. He uses a periscope to watch her leave when she misses him and begins to search for him. He now quickly scoots off to the amusement park. Meanwhile Agnes runs into her old friend Al St. John, who does a great tumble that knocks both of them over.

Arbuckle, Al, and Alice & Buster all arrive at the ticket counter. Buster is out of money, so Alice switches sides and goes in with Al. This produces a very demonstrative crying fit in Buster. Then he sneaks in by hiding in a barrel marked “rubbish” that is being brought into the park. Agnes refuses to pay when she gets there, clobbering the ticket-taker with her purse. Al and Alice get onto a go-cart at the “Witching Waves,” soon followed by Buster in another one (evidently you don’t need individual tickets for the rides, just one to get access to the park in general). Al crashes his car into an obstacle, and Alice starts to get seasick from the wave effect. An attendant gives them a push to get going again, and they soon crash into Buster. Al throttles Buster for a bit, then throws him aside, and Buster clings to a fake buoy for support. Alice is looking really ill now, and Al escorts her to a bench that is not rocking up and down. Al goes to get her some ice cream to settle her stomach, and that’s when Fatty moves in. She threatens to get sick in his hat, but manages to control herself, and then he happily accepts the ice cream cones from Al when he arrives, giving one to Alice and eating the other – until Al hits him for it and he spits it out on Al!

The fight now extends over to Keaton, who has been practicing pratfalls with a huge hammer at a “high striker.” Alice seems to enjoy having men fight over her, and cheers on the violence. Arbuckle manages to set up St. John by kicking a cop from behind and making it look like Al did it, so he winds up with Alice again. He and Buster exchange blows with the clown hammer and Fatty winds up winning a cigar. Then he and Alice go on the “Shoot the Chutes” ride. The ride proves to be rather unsafe, and both are dumped into the drink when it hits bottom. Buster sees this and dives in to save Alice. He tries to help Fatty out as well, but of course he winds up getting pulled back into the water. The Alice decides to go off with Fatty again, for reasons that escape Buster and bring on more tears.

Arbuckle and Alice now arrive at the bath house and decide to go for a swim while their clothes dry out. The bath house has no bathing suits in Fatty’s size, so he swipes one from a fat lady. In the changing room, Fatty breaks the “fourth wall” and instructs the camera to shoot above his chest while he’s changing. Meanwhile Keaton, who is also sopping wet, sees one of the workers put up a sign saying “Life Guard Wanted” at the bath house. Having just initiated himself into the profession, Buster decides to apply for the job. He gets it, and is given a suit with the words “Life Guard” emblazoned on it. He walks in on Fatty, and laughs to see him in the woman’s bathing suit, precipitating another slapstick fight. Alice, who looks quite fetching in her very tight bathing suit, manages to get a wig for Fatty to wear. Fatty goes into the men’s shower, which panics all of the men there. One of them directs him to the women’s room, which seems to be more of a powder room than a shower (the contrast is quite extreme). He hangs out there until Alice comes and drags him away.

Meanwhile, Agnes has gone to the police station in search of her miscreant husband, but instead finds that Al St. John is in a cell. She shows him a picture of Fatty, who Al recognizes as the chiseler who stole his girl (and his ice cream). They head back to the beach, which is where Alice and Fatty, each in their women’s bathing suits, have also headed. Alice plays with a dog, and Al spots Fatty, but apparently doesn’t recognize him, because he sits down and tries to flirt. Agnes sees the two of them together, but doesn’t recognize him either until Buster comes along and uses a hook on a long pole to remove Fatty’s hat and wig. Then the fight is back on, but Buster wisely gets out of sight, managing somehow to pick up Alice along the way. She seems happy that he has a job now, maybe he’ll be able to afford tickets in the future. Al and Fatty exchange slapstick kicks and shoves while Agnes nags at Fatty, seeming to scare him more than Al does.  Finally, Agnes calls the police, who act very much like Keystone Kops (but this is Comique, so I guess they’re Comique Cops), pratfalling and saluting and then rushing to the rescue. When they arrive on the scene, Arbuckle and St. John are fighting in the water, so they swim out to arrest them.

Whose kops are these? I think I know…

Back at the station, Fatty requests to be jailed in the same cell with Al, and the cops, who apparently realize he’s a man, comply. They carry on their fight until an officer is sent in to break it up. Al distracts him while Fatty clobbers him with his own nightstick. This bit is repeated four or five times (you’d think they’d catch on), and eventually St John makes a break for it and Arbuckle winds up back in the hands of his wife. He shoves her into the cell and locks it, skipping merrily out the door where he meets Al. They swear a pact to avoid women which lasts less than five seconds.

This movie definitely was good for some chuckles, but I wouldn’t rate it as the best work of any of the three male stars. Keaton is much better here than in “Oh, Doctor!” but he’s still emoting too much and isn’t as central to the action as he could be. If you look at it as a boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl-back narrative, he’s arguably the star, but Arbuckle is still giving himself more screen time as director. Arbuckle is good, but he chooses to cast himself as the “heavy,” when he’s really more appealing as the lovable-but-strong dope. Al St. John is the only one who seems really on his game, using his gangly frame to heighten the humor of the various stunts he pulls in the various fight scenes and arrests. He’s nowhere near as psycho as he was in “The Waiters Ball” or “Fatty and Mabel Adrift,” though.

Probably the big draw for viewers at the time was seeing Roscoe Arbuckle in drag, which he had done before, but this time some of the possibilities (like his being in the women’s dressing room) are explored more thoroughly. Apparently this led to some censorship in some areas, particularly a shot in which one of the women reveals a bit more of her stocking than was acceptable. There’s a number of points where the men’s reactions to women’s bodies are played up, including one part where Keaton faints after seeing Alice in her swimsuit. Gender rules are thus both broken and reinforced, with the audience titillated along the way, all in the name of “earthy” humor. No doubt this was very successful at the time, but modern viewers will probably find it more interesting than hilarious.

The other piece that’s worth noting is the extensive location shooting. This is handled much more professionally than in “Fatty and Mabel at the San Diego Exposition,” with effective crowd control and no looky-loos visible on camera. Nevertheless, we get to see a good portion of the park and also get a sense of what kinds of amusements people went in for at the time. The Shoot-the-Chute ride, with no safety bars or seat belts, really does look like a pretty dangerous ride, and the stuntwork involved in that spill was probably pretty risky. The “Witching Waves” is just a weird idea – bumper cars on an oscillating surface? Or were they really not meant to hit each other? And then the bath house, with its very different men’s and women’s rooms, is an interesting insight into gender norms of another age. The movie is definitely worth checking out for its historical interest, and it does pay off with some laughs although each of the principles has better work on offer.

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: George Peters

Starring: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Buster Keaton,, Al St. John, Alice Mann, Agnes Neilson, Joe Bordeaux

Run Time: 25 Min

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

Oh Doctor (1917)

This comedy directed by and starring Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle is also an early vehicle for Buster Keaton, who plays his spoiled and immature son. While a bit rough around the edges, there is some good physical and situational comedy here.

oh-doctorThe movie begins with Arbuckle and his family arriving at the racetrack in their car. Arbuckle puts down an anchor when he parks, and abuses Junior every time he tries to speak. Shortly thereafter, the Vamp (Alice Mann) drives up with her beau, Al St. John. Al gets his jacket caught in the door of the cab and is dragged through a mud puddle as a result. Meanwhile, Alice flirts with Arbuckle, who we now learn is a doctor who needs cash. He tricks his wife into letting him sit near the Vamp, and overhears Al getting a “hot tip” on a horse, so he bets all his money on it. Of course, the horse is a dud and runs the wrong way. His wife is very angry at him for losing their money, and they go home while Buster laughs about “the funny horse that ran the wrong way.”

oh-doctor2The Vamp and Al now formulate a plan to get the expensive necklace they saw Arbuckle’s wife wearing. She calls him and says she has swallowed  can of shoe polish, so Arbuckle agrees to make a house call. Along the way, he sees a man selling a “miracle soap” that will prevent all illness. Worried about losing business, Arbuckle sets his car on automatic and sends it plowing through the crowd, then hands out business cards to the injured spectators. He whistles and the car obediently returns like a dog. Then, he finally goes to the Vamp’s apartment, where he fixes martinis for both of them from the supplies in his doctor’s bag.

oh-doctor1Meanwhile, Al has appeared at Arbuckle’s house pretending to be a patient, and is able to steal the necklace from around the wife’s neck without her noticing. Buster sees him getting away, though, and follows him back to the Vamp’s apartment, calling his mother and letting her know what has happened. Now, Al and the Vamp have to get Arbuckle out of the house, so they send him to a bookie with another hot tip. He puts in the bet, but then goes back. There is a series of comedic close-encounters as Al avoids Arbuckle, Arbuckle avoids his wife, and the wife tries to get back her necklace. Then Arbuckle finds a police uniform in the kitchen and puts on a false mustache, using it to intimidate Al and retrieve the necklace. At this point, Buster shows up with several more policemen, and Arbuckle bluffs his way past them by pretending to arrest his wife. Then he tries to collect his winnings from the bookie, but they all run away at the sight of his uniform. He takes his money anyway, but his wife gets the last word.

oh-doctor4Contrary to his “Old Stoney Face” standard of later years, Keaton in this movie emotes with powerful facial expressions, laughing uproariously and bawling at the slightest provocation. The comedy is a bit more “situational” than most of what we associate with Keaton and Arbuckle, but they both get in plenty of pratfalls as well. Keaton, in particular, does an impressive tumble backwards over a table to land comfortably in a chair. I suspect that Arbuckle (who directed) had told him to cry so frequently, thinking that it would be good comedy, but I found that it made the relationship seem more abusive and less funny. Overall, I wouldn’t rate this as the best work either actor has done: I spent a lot of it waiting to see what Keaton or Al St. John would come up with next. The biggest laugh Arbuckle got from me was when he started handing out business cards to the people he had injured.

oh-doctor3This year marks the 100th anniversary of Buster Keaton’s entry into film comedy, and this blog post marks my entry into the “Buster Keaton Blogathon,” which has been running now for three years. For the next few years, we’ll be able to track Keaton’s development, as we have with Chaplin over the past few. He definitely showed physical ability and screen presence right from the moment he got started, even if he honed and refined his talent as he gained experience. I’m looking forward to getting to know Buster as this project develops.

Now go  check out the other entries in the Blogathon!

buster-blogathon-the-third-1-copyDirector: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: George Peters

Starring: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, Al St. John, Alice Mann

Run Time: 21 Min

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

1916 Century Award Nominations

12068530171690234341director chair.svg.medSo, once again the Academy Award nominations have been announced, so once again I announce the nominees for the Century Awards. This year, incidentally, I saw several Oscar nominees – all in categories like “production design” and “visual effects” and “makeup and hairstyling.” So yeah, whatever.

Some basic ground rules, once again: I do not have categories for animation or shorts. Those movies are treated like everything else, since they were on a more even playing field at the time. I didn’t actually watch any animation for 1916, so that’s moot anyway, but lots of shorts (mostly comedy) have been nominated in various categories. I only watched one documentary this year, so that category’s a gimme, but I have included it as a nominee in a number of other areas, including Best Picture (because it really is good enough to be considered for it). Oh, and I make no distinction between English and “foreign language” films, since with Intertitles it makes minimal difference.

I do reserve the right to make changes in the final weeks as there are still a few more 1916 films I hope to get around to watching. If you have any opinions on these nominations, or suggestions for things I should watch (especially if they can be seen for free on the Internet), please do write a comment.

Battle of the Somme-film

Best Documentary

  1. Battle of the Somme

Best Makeup/Hairstyling

  1. Intolerance
  2. Queen of Spades
  3. Waiters Ball
  4. The Danger Girl
  5. Snow White

Best Costume Design

  1. Intolerance
  2. The Curse of Quon Gwon
  3. Queen of Spades
  4. Snow White
  5. Joan the Woman

Intolerance BabylonBest Production Design

  1. Intolerance
  2. 20,000 Leagues under the Sea
  3. One A.M.
  4. Joan the Woman
  5. The Captive God

Best Stunts

  1. The Matrimaniac
  2. Flirting with Fate
  3. His Picture in the Papers
  4. Reggie Mixes In
  5. The Poison Man (Les Vampires)
  6. The Rink

Best Film Editing

  1. Intolerance
  2. East Is East
  3. His Picture in the Papers
  4. The Battle of the Somme
  5. The Bloody Wedding (Les Vampires)

Hells Hinges3Best Cinematography

  1. Eugene Gaudio, for “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”
  2. Elgin Lessley, for “He Did and He Didn’t”
  3. Billy Bitzer, for “Intolerance”
  4. Joseph H. August, for “Hell’s Hinges”
  5. Carl Hoffmann, for “Homunculus

Best Visual Effects (includes animation)

  1. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
  2. The Spectre (Les Vampires)
  3. The Devil’s Needle
  4. Homunculus
  5. The Mysterious Shadow (Judex)

Best Screenplay

  1. East Is East
  2. Hell’s Hinges
  3. The Curse of Quon Gwon
  4. A Life for A Life
  5. Joan the Woman

lord-of-thunderBest Supporting Actress

  1. Lidiia Koroneva, in “A Life for a Life”
  2. Louise Glaum, in “Return of Draw Egan
  3. Constance Talmadge, in “Intolerance”
  4. Marion E. Wong, in “The Curse of Quon Gwon”
  5. Musidora, in “The Lord of Thunder” (Les Vampires)

Best Supporting Actor

  1. Al St. John, in “Fatty and Mabel Adrift
  2. Robert McKim, in “The Return of Draw Egan”
  3. Eric Campbell, in “The Count
  4. Marcel Levésque, in “The Bloody Wedding”
  5. Ernest Maupain, in “Sherlock Holmes”

Best Leading Actor

  1. William Gillette, in “Sherlock Holmes”
  2. Charlie Chaplin, in “The Vagabond
  3. Olaf Fønss, in “Homonculus”
  4. Henry Edwards, in “East Is East”
  5. William S. Hart, in “Hell’s Hinges”

joan-the-woman1Best Leading Actress

  1. Vera Kholodnaia, in “A Life for a Life”
  2. Florence Turner, in “East Is East”
  3. Geraldine Farrar, in “Joan the Woman”
  4. Marguerite Clark, in “Snow White”
  5. Violet Wong, in “The Curse of Quon Gwon”

Best Director

  1. Evgeni Bauer, for “A Life for a Life”
  2. Yakov Protazonov, for “Queen of Spades”
  3. Marion E. Wong, for “The Curse of Quon Gwon”
  4. Cecil B. DeMille, for “Joan the Woman”
  5. Charles Swickard and William S. Hart, for “Hell’s Hinges”

Best Picture

  1. “Intolerance”
  2. “Hell’s Hinges”
  3. “The Curse of Quon Gwon”
  4. “East Is East”
  5. “A Life for a Life”
  6. “Joan the Woman”
  7. “Homunculus”
  8. “Sherlock Holmes”
  9. “The Battle of the Somme”
  10. “The Return of Draw Egan”

Waiters’ Ball (1916)

This short for TriangleKeystone stars Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and his real-life nephew Al St. John as rivals, in this case, not for a girl’s heart, but for a suit of clothes. The competition is no less riotous and ridiculous for the change of prize.

Waiters BallThe setting is a short-order eatery where Al is a waiter and Fatty is the cook. There are signs on the wall saying “Not responsible for chewing gum under the table” and “Take your own hat – the other fellow needs his.” The customers are regularly abused and ignored. Fatty pours soup and coffee from the same urn, and once again does his famous pancake flip – with his feet, with a broom, with anything at hand. Al is apparently sweet on the cashier (Corinne Parquet) and shows her an ad for “The Waiters’ Ball,” due to take place that evening. At first she is thrilled, but then she shows him the line stating “Full Dress Required.” Does he have a formal suit? Al’s face falls; no, he doesn’t. But, he promises to come up with something. There are several comic sequences that do nothing to further the plot, including an old man with a foot in a cast that keeps getting stepped on, a “broom war” between Fatty and Al that starts out with the dusting-into-the-next-room routine we saw Charlie Chaplin do in “The Bank,” a limburger cheese order that tries to crawl away on its own, and a very active leaping fish that Fatty needs to get into a pot of boiling water.

Waiters'_Ball_1916Finally, the dry cleaning man arrives, with Fatty’s suit and the owner’s (Kate Price) dress. Fatty shows how excited he is to be going to the ball, but this gives Al an idea. He starts a fight and chases Fatty with a knife. When he has Fatty cornered in a barrel, he sticks the knife in, finishing off his foe once and for all. “This act suits him,” the Intertitles tells us, and Al takes Fatty’s suit and leaves. Then Fatty climbs out of the barrel, holding a head of lettuce with a knife jammed into it. He used this to survive Al’s attack. When he discovers his suit missing, he decides to put on Kate’s dress and go after Al. The next scene shows Fatty in full drag, making quite a hit at the party. He seems at first to be enjoying herself so much, that he’s forgotten about finding her suit. But, then he sees Al, in ridiculously oversized clothes, drinking at the bar from a ridiculously oversized glass. Suddenly, it’s on! The two of them begin a twirling fight, Fatty hanging on to Al’s jacket while ill-fitting clothes fly off of each of them. It ends with the two of them in their underwear, a Keystone Cop taking them in with barrels covering their nudity.

Waiters Ball1The DVD commentary on my copy of this said that this is a “truncated version,” suggesting that we might be missing some of the more relevant material. As it is, most of the movie is just gags at the diner, and only about the last four minutes is at the eponymous ball. A lot of those gags have been used before: I spotted at least two other Chaplin bits besides the dueling sweeping routine, and the commentators kept referencing Arbuckle’s “The Cook,” which I haven’t seen. That’s not to say that it isn’t funny: the fish sequence is particularly good, and Alice Lake has a good part as a female customer who keeps sitting at the wrong table. The cinematography is by Elgin Lessley, who did some interesting work for Arbuckle in “He Did and He Didn’t,” but seems more pedestrian here. It’s also of note that Triangle had bought out Keystone at this point in time, and was putting out Keystone comedies with its own label. Mack Sennett would stay on for another year before starting “Mack Sennett Comedies Corporation” in 1917.

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: Elgin Lessley

Cast: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Al St. John, Corinne Parquet, Kate Price, Alice Lake, Joe Bordeaux

Run Time: 20 Min

You can watch it for free: here (Intertitles have been translated to Russian).

Mabel’s Wilful Way (1915)

This typical Keystone “park comedy” with Mabel Normand and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle adds to its visual interest by including a variety of amusement park attractions, and uses many of the best players in a cast that never lets up on zaniness.

Mabels Willful WayIt begins with Mabel out with her parents, obviously not having a good time. She sits at a table in a large dining hall with music that she mimes to us is too loud. Her father (Glen Cavender) seems to enjoy it, but her mother (Alice Davenport) is enjoying onions for lunch, making the other two hold their noses. Mabel runs away from the table at the first opportunity. Meanwhile, Fatty and his friend Edgar Kennedy have shown up and are following any unattatched young woman until Joe Bordeaux, the cop, takes an interest in them. Fatty relives some of his routine with a water fountain as seen in “Fatty’s Chance Acquaintance” and then sprays Joe in the face. After they get away, they see Mabel trying to scam some sweets off a ice cream man (Bobby Dunn), and fight over the opportunity to be her savior. Fatty wins, then steals a large coin from the cash register to pay. He and Mabel feed most of their ice cream cones to a bear in the zoo (very bad behavior, nowadays), and Fatty even manages to feed it some peanuts from his mouth! Meanwhile, Edgar Kennedy has stumbled across a baseball throwing game, with a man in very obvious (and offensive) blackface as the target. He starts throwing balls with all his might when Glen wanders up, now on the hunt for his daughter. This turns into a chase, then a battle between the two men with their canes. Edgar runs off to the merry-go-round and the chase escalates and Glen tries to catch up to his fast-moving horse, but winds up getting kicked in the pants every time Edgar comes around. Edgar makes his escape by leaping off and leaving the old man pursuing the empty horse.

Mabels Willful Way1Fatty and Mabel are now enjoying a giant slide with mats. They are knocked down by, or knock down, several other riders, including our old friend Joe the cop. This leads to a fight in which Mabel leaves Fatty and runs to Edgar, resting on a bench. They go off to play another amusement park game, while Alice takes a rest at another nearby bench, putting her umbrella up against the sun. Fatty picks some flowers, and mistakes her for Mabel (this would have made a lot more sense if they had been wearing the same dress, but oh well) and tries to kiss her. She, outraged, leaps up and starts flailing with her umbrella. Now Mabel sees her father and tries to introduce him to Edgar, which predictably does not go well, after their fight, which now breaks out anew. Fatty dusts the old man off and sympathizes with him, earning a new “introduction” to his daughter, and of course Mabel’s mom walks up and recognizes him, leading to more violence. After Fatty is chased off, he and Edgar swear off women before being chased by Joe the cop, and Mabel’s parents turn her over for a spanking.

Mabels Wilful WayThis is another movie whose direction seems to be attributed to either Mabel, Mack, or Roscoe, depending on who you ask. My go-to authority, “The Silent Era” weighs in on Arbuckle’s side, and it’s probably right, but I do have a theory that might explain the confusion. Unlike a lot of the other “park comedies” from Keystone I’ve reviewed, this one obviously took place in a location away from the Sennett studios, and it may have been a spontaneous decision to grab some actors and cameras and go there, without even a script. In that situation, and with different actors performing in groups in different parts of the park, the duties might have been split, depending on who was available at the moment. The ending strikes me as something that was dreamed up on the spot, not a planned resolution. About that ending: I suppose that the spanking of a grown woman (Mabel would have been 22 at the time) is another example of “vulgarity” in early slapstick – certainly it would have its titillating side for some members of the audience. It’s still surprising enough to get a laugh out of me, although really all Mabel did wrong was to get bored hanging out with her parents.

Director: Mabel Normand or Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle/Mack Sennett

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle”, Mabel Normand, Edgar Kennedy, Alice Davenport, Glen Cavender, Joe Bordeaux, Al St. John.

Run Time: 13 Min

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

 

Best Stunts 1915

I’ve gone ahead and broken the rules for this year, because after the initial nominations were in, I saw an excellent example of stuntwork from 1915. So, there are six nominees this year. Oh well, that’s what happens when you run a major awards event from your apartment.

Stunts don’t normally get the official recognition they deserve, and correcting that was one of the reasons for me starting the Century Awards in the first place. Now that all the performers involved are long dead, let’s acknowledge their physical prowess and risk-taking. The great thing about early film is that so many of the stunts were done by the stars themselves.

Again this year, we see a predominance of slapstick, in the form of Charlie Chaplin and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle on the slate of nominees. Chaplin’s “Work” includes some tricky business with a giant wheelbarrow and the gradual destruction of the home he’s supposed to be renovating. He shows us more fancy footwork in “The Champion,” in which several other actors (and a little dog) get into the boxing ring and show off their timing and agility. The Chaplin short “By the Sea” shows off comic timing in a tough situation when Chaplin and co-star Billy Armstrong get their hats tangled up in the wind. Arbuckle also had several good movies this year, but I thought the outstanding example was “Fatty’s Faithful Fido,” which also included the acrobatics of Al St. John and the ladder-climbing abilities of Luke the dog. Apart from those, we also had some action movies this year; as in “The Lamb” where Douglas Fairbanks gives us a taste of what would become his forte, while in “Regeneration” the villain manages some impressive hand-over-hand work on a clothesline.

The nominees for Best Stuntwork of 1915 are…

  1. Work
  2. The Lamb
  3. The Champion
  4. Regeneration
  5. By the Sea
  6. Fatty’s Faithful Fido

And the winner is…”Fatty’s Faithful Fido!”

Careful up there, Al!

Careful up there, Al!

Ultimately, I was most impressed by the sheer number of stunts pulled out for this movie, which came out only days before Chaplin’s “The Champion” and parallels it to some degree. They’re both good, and both involve dogs, which made it a tough call, but ultimately between Luke and Al St. John I felt that the shorter film was actually the more impressive.

He Did and He Didn’t (1916)

A lot has been made of this “dark” comedy by Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, which definitely has a more sophisticated tone than most of the work he did for Keystone Studios. However, it does manage to remain silly and even resort to slapstick for laughs, even as it plumbs the depths of spousal jealousy in a far more serious way than the usual “park comedy.”

He Did and He DidntIn this movie, Fatty and Mabel Normand are once again a couple, as they were often in the teens. This time, however, they are wealthy enough to have servants, and we are introduced to them as they struggle into their evening clothes. Fatty has a good deal of trouble with his collar and tie, and Mabel needs help with her zipper. Despite what has been written about the somber tone of the movie, this sequence establishes it as a comedy, with people confronted by day-to-day problems, but making it worse by getting more frustrated as they go. Next, we meet Jack (William Jefferson), who apparently grew up with Mabel. He produces a picture from “when they were sweethearts” – apparently when Mabel was in her tweens. Fatty is obviously uncomfortable with the newcomer, and he becomes so disturbed that he rips the photograph when Jack is not present. He then realizes what he’s done and apologizes to Mabel, but we know the issue is far from settled.

He Did and He Didnt1As it happens, a pair of burglars (Al St. John and Joe Bordeaux) are casing the place for potential robbery. Joe even comes in and goes through the motions of having a checkup, in order to get a chance to see where the safe is kept. Fatty catches him snooping and throws him out. Then it’s time for dinner. The dinner consists of lobster, and an Intertitle reminds us that eating bad lobster may have unfortunate effects, while the camera shows Fatty becoming increasingly concerned about Jack and Mabel. The thieves make a phone call to the house, calling Fatty across town for a housecall, believing that will leave the loot undefended. He is suspicious, and not at all eager to leave his wife alone with Jack, but nevertheless goes. Bordeaux and St. John enter the house unobserved. Now the action follows Jack, who is no dummy, and plans to stay away from Mabel while Fatty is away to keep the peace. To his surprise, Mabel comes to him in her nightclothes, and leans in close, seeming to intend to initiate romance. She whispers in his ear that there’s someone in her room, and he goes to investigate, finding a robber. Now the classic slapstick Keystone chase begins in earnest, with St. John showing off his athletic talents and his rubbery lanky body to the fullest as Jefferson chases him, firing a revolver wildly around the house. By the time Fatty returns, he has chased the robbers out, dropped his revolver, and tucked an unconscious Mabel in bed. Of course, that last is what Fatty finds on return from a phony address, and he shoots Jack and strangles his wife…

Or does he? We now see Jack and Fatty, waking up each alone in his room, suffering the effects of eating bad lobster.

He Did and He Didnt2There’s no denying that the subject matter here is not as light as most slapstick comedies, but I do think a bit too much is sometimes read into that. Possibly Arbuckle wanted to make a dark film, or at least a genuine melodrama, but his bosses at Keystone wouldn’t allow it. The ending obviously undermines the horror of seeing him kill innocent people, but more than that we have considerable high-energy slapstick and deliberate humor. The dinner is the sequence that is “darkest” to me, with the fewest interruptions for laughs, and it displays the competence of Elgin Lessley, who I believe was working with Arbuckle for the first time, in placing strategic shadows to enhance the mood. Another Lessley shot I appreciated was one in which the burglar comes into a dark room, with the only lighting source being the hallway behind him – usually Keystone houses are floodlit throughout. The DVD I watched had two versions, one with color tinting used to heighten the mood, based on the original release instructions. The color also added to the sense of artistry and deliberation of the film. We also see more close-ups in this movie, particularly of the brooding Fatty as he watches his wife with her old friend.

Elgin Lessley on set for "He Did and He Didn't"

Elgin Lessley on set for “He Did and He Didn’t”

This is interesting stuff, but it winds up being anomalous in a movie that can’t quite decide if it’s dark or light. “Silent Volume” has an interpretation of this film that suggests Fatty was demonstrating the horror of an abusive relationship, but this seems to me to be a very modern interpretation, not something that a comedian would have invented then. If anything, Fatty may be showing his real nature accidentally, not acting, in this movie. In previous cases, what he does here largely came off as cute, and his baby face still undermines the sense of him as a bad guy. It’s important to remember that spouses hitting one another and being controlling is a staple of slapstick, and we’ve seen it between this couple many times. Normally, this doesn’t extend to strangulation, but up to that point the movie only strays slightly off the established patterns of previous shorts. I’m inclined to read it as an experiment that failed, though perhaps your mileage will vary.

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: Elgin Lessley

Cast: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, William Jefferson, Joe Bordeaux, Al St. John

Run Time: 20 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music, b&w) or here (with music and tinting).

When Love Took Wings (1915)

This one-reel comedy from Keystone is basically a riff on the classic “elopement” plotline of “Leading Lizzie Astray” and especially “Fatty and Mabel’s Simple Life,” but with the addition of an escape by airplane to add to the excitement. Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle directed and stars in this tribute to chaos and high-speed vehicle chases.

WhenLoveTookWings1915-01The story begins in a kitchen, with Minta Durfee and Joe Bordeaux working together and Joe occasionally hitting her father (Frank Hayes) by accident. Minta has an odd Mary Pickford-like wig on that doesn’t quite seem to fit. Finally, Joe works up the courage to ask for her hand in marriage. Read the rest of this entry »