Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Al St John

That Little Band of Gold (1915)

This Keystone comedy goes in different directions to the more standard “park comedies” I’ve been reviewing recently, and is generally a stronger example of “situational” rather than “slapstick” comedy. This time, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle is married to Mabel Normand, but will his philandering and her demanding mother-in-law destroy the relationship?

That_Little_Band_of_Gold_1915Our story begins with Fatty and Mabel in the back seat of a large, well-appointed automobile (no lowly farm couple in this outing!). Fatty produces a ring and Mabel expresses joy: we see that they are happy together and on the road to marriage. We next see them entering the courthouse, and wedded inside, in front of witnesses. Soon, the scene shifts to their state of domestic bliss – sort of. Mabel sits in front of a mirror weeping as Fatty stumbles home drunk, and presumably late). Her mother (Alice Davenport) is there, and expresses her disapproval in the strongest possible terms (jabbing Fatty in the gut with his cane, for example). Fatty makes a pass at the maid in her view, which does nothing to improve her temper. Fatty reluctantly puts on evening clothes and joins the two of them to drive to the opera. In the car, mother-in-law objects to Fatty’s smoking a cigar, which only heightens tensions. Meanwhile, Ford Sterling arrives at the opera with his wife and “a friend,” a young woman whose dress shows a lot of her arms for 1915 (May Emory). As they settle into their box, she attracts a good deal of attention from the male members of the audience, and Ford keeps trying to look down her dress. When Fatty’s party arrives, he resists entering the opera, but finally concedes, and they take to booth opposite from Ford’s party.

That Little Band of GoldDuring the show, Fatty consistently displays his disinterest in the opera, and Ford continually displays his interest in the young woman. They notice each other not watching the opera and signal to each other, Ford trying to do so without his wife observing, and Fatty without alerting his mother in law. Finally, they arrange to meet in the lobby, Fatty leaving Mabel and Alice behind, and Ford bringing both of his women companions. Ford’s plan (we mostly figure this out from body language) had been for Fatty to entertain his wife so that he would have a chance to sneak off with the floozy, but it doesn’t quite work out that way. Ford and Fatty go through a show of recognizing one another, and making introductions, and instantly the floozy gravitates to him, the wife barely noticing. Fatty and May go out to a neighboring restaurant together, and Ford drags his wife along as well. He keeps trying to get back with the young woman, but both she and Fatty consistently prevent it. Finally, Ford loses patience and goes to use the telephone. He calls the opera and pages Fatty’s wife, telling her that he is at dinner with “a strange woman.” Mabel and her mother head over and catch Fatty, and Mabel bursts into tears. Fatty figures out what has happened and breaks a bottle over Ford’s head, resulting in everyone getting thrown out. The next scene shows Fatty and Mabel’s reluctant divorce, urged on by Alice and the judge. They meet again outside the courthouse, sweetly make up, and go back inside to get married.

That Little Band of Gold1While hardly devoid of violence, this is a less “slapstick” movie than we’re used to from Arbuckle, and it deals with somewhat more grown-up subject matter, including the concept of divorce. Divorce was already a part of the Hollywood tradition, but it was largely unspoken and not treated in screenplays except as a social evil. The happy ending here prevents it from being too serious, and in fact I hoped that Fatty and Mabel will end up all right – their chemistry always seems to suggest that they should be a couple, even in movies that separate them – but this movie does take us right up to the edge of the unthinkable. It’s interesting to note the implication that marital troubles can all be laid at the feet of the nagging mother in law, never mind the fact that Fatty definitely behaved inappropriately on several occasions here.

That Little Band of Gold2I quite enjoyed Ford Sterling’s performance as the hopeful masher. He was not known for his subtlety, but in the right role his over-the-top facial expressions and body language can be hilarious. There’s also some interesting parallels with Chaplin’s “A Night in the Show,” which also involves shenanigans in a public theater, although Chaplin brought his own unique style to that film. This movie avoids toppling over into the riotous mayhem we might expect, particularly from a Keystone production, whereas “A Night in the Show” pulls out all the stops. Arbuckle and company seem to have been out to prove they could be funny without doing a giant chase scene or fight at the end, and even sneak in some sympathy with the happy ending.

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, Ford Sterling, Alice Davenport, most of the Keystone company in audience.

Run Time: 25 Min

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

Fatty and Mabel’s Married Life (1915)

Keystone’s classic comedy couple star again in this one reel story of evil gypsies and mistaken identities. The Keystone Cops put in a good appearance and we also get some great street footage of old Los Angeles.

 Fatty and Mabels Married Life

The movie begins with an Intertitle that tells us “she reads exciting books,” which I think is meant to signal us that Mabel Normand’s character is given to fantasy and over-excitement. She and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle are sitting together in the park reading when an organ grinder’s monkey suddenly attacks her. Fatty fights it off, but this offends the organ grinder, who comes over to challenge him. Fatty easily overcomes him with superior strength, even going to far as to toss his organ after him, but the man vows revenge, leading Mabel to imagine that they are under a gypsy curse. Fatty walks Mabel home, where he meets a business associate (Charles Lakin) with whom he has an appointment. He sends Mabel into the house and starts to leave with Charles, but then realizes he has forgotten important papers. He brings Charles into the house to look for them, but Mabel is already upstairs reading in the newspaper about daylight robberies in the area. She gets out her gun when she hears someone going through the drawers and fires it through the door, hitting Fatty in the rear. Fatty runs and hides in a wardrobe, and his colleague runs back out to the car in a panic. Mabel finally discovers who she’s been shooting at and Fatty throws the gun away. Then he goes off with his associate to an office and leaves her alone. Mabel locks the door.

Fatty and Mabels Married Life1Now the organ grinder from before is outside with a friend of his. Mabel sees them from the upstairs window, but decides she is safe inside. Then the curtain in the room moves by itself. She tries to convince herself she’s imagining it, but the curtain keeps moving every minute or so. Finally, she grabs the phone and calls the police, reporting an intruder in her house. Fatty and the other fellow see the cops racing toward his house from downtown, in a classic Keystone crowded cop car. Meanwhile, the organ grinder has come up to the door and knocked. Mabel starts to open it, thinking it’s the police already, but when she sees his face, she tries to slam the door. The organ grinder forces his way in and she flees, throwing things at him as she retreats. Finally, she locks herself in the upper section of the house, but the curtain in the back room is still moving ominously. Now, the police arrive and a crowd of neighbors gathers to see what’s going on. The police work on crowd control and a few, led by Al St. John, enter the house to investigate. They find the organ grinder and hold him. Al assures Mabel everything is all right and she opens up to him, then leads him to the room with the moving curtain. Al tries to investigate, but every time the curtain moves, he jumps back. Finally, the organ grinder breaks free and rushes to the curtain, where the culprit is revealed: his little monkey, of course! Fatty comes home and is held back by the police as he tries to find out what’s going on. The police release the gypsy and Mabel and Fatty are reunited.

Fatty and Mabels Married Life2While it was pretty predictable, this movie was a good example of the work that Keystone was putting out after Charlie Chaplin left in 1914. I particularly enjoyed Al St. John’s cowardly cop act, his gangly legs shaking as he approaches the curtain, then jumping back a bit further each time it moves. Fatty does seem a bit more prone to violence than usual, taking out a good deal of wrath on the organ grinder, who is after all only concerned about his little monkey. But the chemistry between the leads is still strong, and we see all the established techniques of slapstick put to good use here, including a sequence of rooms that are integrated and yet cut off from one another to allow for greater confusion.

Fatty and Mabels Married Life3Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, Al St. John, Charles Lakin, Joe Bordeaux, Josef Swickard

Run Time: 12 Min

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

Fatty’s New Role (1915)

Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle seems to be imitating Charlie Chaplin’sLittle Tramp” character in this one reel comedy from Keystone about a homeless man’s efforts to patronize a bar. Arbuckle brings his own personal style, however, and a subplot about a mad bomber and a prank on the tavern owner makes this different from any obvious slapstick models.

Fattys New RoleFatty wakes up in a hayloft and combs his hair in front of a cracked mirror hanging on a fence. He is dressed in ill-fitting clothes and seems to have several days’ growth of beard. He smokes a cigar. He sees a dog and panics, perhaps expecting to be chased off the property, and finds himself in front of “Schnitz’s Bar.” He goes in and asks for a refill on his empty liquor bottle. The bartender (Slim Summerville) agrees, but then gets annoyed when he starts taking free samples of the food that is laid out for a breakfast buffet. The tavern owner (Mack Swain) comes out to moderate and takes the food back and also dumps out Fatty’s bottle. Then he forcefully ejects Fatty. Fatty breaks his bottle open and takes out the handkerchief inside, wrings it out into a glass and takes a drink.

Fattys New Role1Back at the tavern, some of the patrons have seen a newspaper article about a bomber that has destroyed three taverns after being ejected for stealing food. They decide to play “a prank” by writing a threatening note which seems to be from Fatty. Meanwhile, Fatty runs into a rich gentleman (Edgar Kennedy) who gives him some money. He uses it to buy a round block of smelly cheese. The patrons and staff are clearing out of the tavern as the appointed time draws near, but Mack is still hanging around nervously, jumping at the slightest sound, when Fatty wanders back in with his cheese tucked under his coat. Mack finally panics and runs away, tearing through the streets of the city and leaving Fatty alone in the bar. He eats his cheese and pours himself free drinks, getting bolder and thirstier as he goes. Finally, he heads down to the basement to investigate the barrels of booze on hand. Mack has found some Keystone Cops to come back to the bar with him, thinking it has already blown up When they get there, Fatty is standing on a whiskey barrel with a mallet in the basement and he hits it, causing an explosion that knocks him upstairs and into the cops’ arms. Fatty finally passes out from all the booze.

Fattys New Role2I was a tad hungover when I watched this, so not really in condition to appreciate all the drinking humor. I do think that Arbuckle manages to give the “tramp” character an original portrayal, somehow managing to keep his good-natured innocence even as he portrays an alcoholic bum. The disc I watched this on claimed the movie features “Mack Swain and Ford Sterling.” I spotted Swain well enough, and there’s a number of other recognizable Keystone players, but I never saw Sterling. I think it’s a mistake, because imdb, Wikipedia, and “The Silent Era” all give similar cast lists without Sterling’s name on them. Fatty does get a lot of screen time alone in this movie, despite the large cast, and some of the funniest bits are just him being drunk or doing bits of business by himself.

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Slim Summerville, Mack Swain, Edgar Kennedy, Joe Bordeaux, Glen Cavender, Luke the Dog, Al St. John, Fritz Schade, Frank Hayes

Run Time: 13 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Fatty’s Faithful Fido (1915)

This one-reel short from Keystone packs in a lot of action, some great stunts, and some unfortunate ethnic humor. Luke the Dog may be the real star this outing, although Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Al St. John also get in some great moments.

Fattys Faithful FidoFatty and Al are both members of the Swift Footers Athletic Club, located above One Lung’s Chinese Laundry (uh oh). Fatty is strong while Al is agile. Both of them like the same girl (Minta Durfee, Arbuckle’s wife of seven years at the time). She seems to favor Fatty, although she’s a bit fickle about it, seeming to encourage them to fight. Their fight spills into the street and soon bricks are flying – mostly through the windows of One Lung’s. One Lung (Frank Hayes) comes out to stop the fight, but winds up escalating it. Finally, Fatty’s dog takes a hand and chases Al up a ladder and onto the rooftops. He tears off Al’s jacket and hangs by his necktie, to Al’s obvious discomfort. Eventually, he chooses to chase a cat instead.

Fattys Faithful Fido1

Not, I repeat NOT an Asian American.

The night of the dance, Fatty arrives in all his splendor, and so does Al. Al tries to dance with Minta, but Fatty puts him in his place. Al draws a large cross in chalk on the back of Fatty’s coat, then goes to a hoodlum friend and tells him to get some men over to kill the man with a cross on his back. To demonstrate, he draws the cross on the wall, then, unthinkingly, leans back against it. Now both of them have a cross! Fatty and Minta go into the refreshment room, where she notices the chalk on his back and wipes it off. When the thugs arrive, they quickly find Al and attack him. Fatty breaks it up, and Al makes the mistake of giving away his ploy. Fatty chases him, he tries going up again with the flying rings, but ends up crashing through the floor and landing in One Lung’s laundry vat. Fatty and One Lung lose their balance and fall in, also, and Luke loyally dives in after.

Careful up there, Al!

Careful up there, Al!

This movie has some of the best stunts I’ve seen from Keystone. Al does backflips, climbs on a rickety-looking ladder over an alleyway, and has several timed falls. Fatty does a great fall onto a wheelbarrow. Luke the Dog does multiple stunts including climbing a ladder, falling back down it, then climbing up again and hanging on to Al by his necktie. However, it also has the unfortunate portrayal of the Chinese laundry man which has pretty much every offensive stereotype about the Chinese you can expect. Hayes squints his eyes and walks funny, he wears what looks like a gi and sandals, there’s even a “No Tickee No Shirtee” sign in the background! I had no idea that reference was so old. In all, it’s a thin plot, but packed full of action.

Note: I am considering nominating this movie for “best stunts” of 1915. If you have seen it and have any thoughts, say so in the comments.

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Fatty “Roscoe” Arbuckle, Al St. John, Minta Durfee, Frank Hayes, Joe Bordeaux.

Run Time: 14 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Fatty and Mabel’s Simple Life (1915)

This two-reel Keystone parody of a farmer’s daughter’s elopement has similarities to a number of comedies I’ve discussed before, including “Leading Lizzie Astray,” “Fatty and Mabel Adrift,” and “A Jitney Elopement.” Mabel Normand and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle demonstrate their considerable onscreen chemistry in the midst of slapstick mayhem.

FattyAndMabelsSimpl1915-01Mabel and Fatty live on neighboring farms and are shyly sweet on one another. The opening sequence involves a lot of cuteness with baby animals and Fatty tasting the animals’ food. Then Mabel settles down to milk a cow and the comedy ramps up. Fatty waves to her over a fence and peeks through a knothole, waving to her, and Mabel turns the cow’s udder to spray Fatty’s eye. After taking a couple of hits this way, Fatty goes to get the water hose. Unfortunately, Mabel’s dad (Josef Swickard) has seen what is going on and steps up to the knothole in the fence to see who his daughter is flirting with. Just as he puts his eye to the hole, Fatty lets loose and the dad gets drenched. Mabel and Fatty run away, and when the dad gets to the other side of the fence, a farmhand (Joe Bourdeaux) has picked up the hose to take a drink. The dad kicks him, and gets sprayed again when Joe turns around.

Fatty and Mabels Simple LifeThe plot thickens when the son of “the Squire” (Al St. John) shows up with a letter promising the old man free rent if his daughter marries the son. Of course, he goes for it, although Mabel is not at all happy about it. Dad calls the preacher to come over for a wedding. Fatty overhears the plan and springs into action, putting a ladder up to Mabel’s window and telling her to pack up so they can get married. She throws her heavy suitcase down, which breaks the ladder and pitches Fatty through the living room window and on top of her father. Now, Fatty resorts to force, kicking and pushing the dad and his rival into the kitchen and locking them in. He rushes upstairs and breaks down Mabel’s door, and the two of them run to an automobile and make a run for it. The dad and Al St. John pursue, stopping to pick up some rural Keystone Cops on bicycles. The car breaks down and goes in reverse, knocking over the pursuers and pursued in a sequence of silliness that ends with Mabel thrown by an engine explosion into a tree that happens to be perched on top of a well. The whole cast now tries to rescue her, Al St. John providing a rope (I want to point out that he was good for something), and in the process of getting her down several of the pursuers wind up in the well. Fatty tells the preacher to marry him and Mabel when he shows up, and presumably they live happily ever after.

Fatty and Mabels Simple Life1

What a knotty boy!

This is a pretty standard Keystone comedy with a chase, various gags, cops and a fight over a girl. Fatty is charming and sweet throughout, and one never gets the impression he means to initiate violence. Mabel demonstrates her ability to be the cute heroine and the physically active comedienne at the same time. The best sequence is that with the automobile running wild, which is what brings to mind comparisons with “A Jitney Elopement.” While the Chaplin film is better shot and edited, and the chase more thrilling, I found this sequence to be funnier. The car becomes a character, and a whimsically malicious one at that, as it alternately helps and hinders our heroes, sometimes running over their enemies, sometimes chasing them around a tree, sometimes exploding at the most inopportune moments. I quite enjoyed this movie, and it speaks well of the careers of all of its stars.

Man vs Machine

Man vs Machine

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: Unknown

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

Run Time: 24 Min

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

Fatty and Mabel Adrift (1916)

Fatty_and_Mabel_Adrift_1916We get a lot of recognizable farm humor and newlywed jokes as well as a typical jilted lover out for revenge in this Mack Sennett slapstick movie starring Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, and Al St. John.

Careful Mabel, don't cut yourself on that thing!

Careful Mabel, don’t cut yourself on that thing!

The simple love-triangle premise of this movie is established in a credits-sequence in which we see our principals outlined by jagged (and rather dangerous-looking) hearts. Fatty and Mabel move their hearts together and then join inside of one big heart. St. John watches this and then begins crying so hard his heart falls apart. This is then played out again as we watch Mabel and Fatty doing their chores together on Mabel’s father’s farm while St John shows up with a letter from his father (a neighboring farmer) suggesting that he turn over Mabel’s hand in marriage. When he’s refused, again he begins bawling so loud that they kick him into a haystack, from where he observes Mabel and Fatty together. Fatty shows off his great strength when he helps some city slickers fix their car and runs St. John off when he tries to put a move on Mabel in his absence.

Fatty and Mabel AdriftThose city slickers just happen to be renting beach cottages for vacations, and after the wedding, Fatty and Mabel head for one for their honeymoon. Mabel makes biscuits that come out like rocks and Fatty spends his days fishing with the dog – you should have seen the one that got away. Now St. John goes into full-on Ford Sterling mode and hatches an evil plan. After finding which cabin is theirs, he get into a fight with Fatty and runs into a gang of evil doers in a cave. Their boss eats dynamite and drinks gasoline. St. John hires a couple of the goons to help him undermine the posts holding up the cabin by during a storm, allowing it to slide down the beach at high tide and be swept off to sea. They wake up as their beds begin floating about the room. The house is far from land, and sinking! Meanwhile St. John and the goons get into a card game – they’ve seen how much money he’s got and plan to take him for all he’s worth. Fatty and Mabel send the dog to get help and climb to the top of the house. The dog goes to Mabel’s father and mother, who alert the coast guard that there’s a free-floating house, and there’s a multi-vehicle race to the rescue, including Mabel’s mom and dad diving into the drink on their bicycle before the coast guard speedboat finds them and pulls them in. The bad guys blow themselves up in the cave, and Fatty and Mabel kiss inside their jagged heart.

Fatty_and_Mabel_AdriftThis movie is directed by Arbuckle, and it’s one of the best things I’ve seen him in. It has a much more complex story than the simple Keystones of earlier years, and time is taken to set up each gag and play it out, while the story often sits on the back-burner for a while. The image of the floating house is wonderfully surreal, and it clearly required a decent budget to make this happen. There are also some interesting lighting effects, as when Fatty leans over Mabel in bed, so that his shadow kisses her on the lips – although he’s still in the next room. I laughed particularly at the scenes involving getting wet or falling into water, which there are plenty of. Al St John makes sort of an odd villain – he comes off mostly as spoiled and clueless, rather than evil, although he does conceive the idea of drowning Mabel and Fatty in this odd manner.

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: Unknown

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

Run Time: 34 Min

You can watch it for free: here

Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life (1913)

Barney Oldfields Race for Life3

One of the thinnest plotlines in history seems to have introduced one of the most lasting impressions about silent film. This Keystone short has been cited time and again to support a premise that drives silent movie fans up the wall.

Barney Oldfields Race for LifeThis movie begins with Mack Sennett in the same bumpkin costume that he later used in “Mabel’s Dramatic Career.” He gives Mabel Normand a flower and they shyly smooch under a tree. This all seems to make villainous Ford Sterling inexplicably mad, and as soon as he can get Mabel alone, he tries to steal a kiss, which is rebuffed. He only gets angrier, and calls in his two goons to grab Mabel and drag her off to the railroad tracks, where they find chain and fasten her to the tracks with a railroad spike. Then, they take the convenient handcar to the nearest station and commandeer an engine (apparently just waiting for a train to do the job for them wasn’t good enough).

Barney: No actor, but boy can he drive!

Barney: No actor, but boy can he drive!

Ford gets angry with one of his associates when he asks to be paid and knocks him out. When the goon wakes up, he tells the railroad workers what’s going on and they inform Mack. Then, world-renowned racecar driver Barney Oldfield drives up and Mack informs him of Mabel’s peril. And the race is on! The car and the train speed toward the same location, but Oldfield’s expert driving assures the Mack will be able to rescue the damsel just in time. Meanwhile, a group of five policemen have taken the handcar to try to apprehend Sterling. Sterling, foiled by his inability to kill Mabel, takes out his gun and shoots all five. He tries to kill himself, but he’s out of bullets, so resorts to strangling himself to death (!).

Barney Oldfields Race for Life1This movie is a patently thin veneer hung over a thrilling chase and a lot of silly satire. Ford Sterling takes his mustache-twirling villain role to unheard-of extremes, climaxing with his own bizarre suicide when thwarted. When he so easily kills the five policemen, the question is immediately raised why he didn’t just shoot Mabel in the first place when she refused him a kiss, but that wouldn’t make for a thrilling movie, just a psychotic act of violence. Trying to crush her with a steam engine is clearly more cinematic. The chase itself includes some impressive photography for 1913, including tracking shots from the hand car, the engine, and the car, as well as from other vehicles just in front of or beside them. The shot where Sennett pulls Mabel off the tracks just in the nick of time appears to have been a double-exposure, and on the print I’ve seen it looks very dark and high-contrast, suggesting that the cinematographers couldn’t manage it with the finesse of Georges Méliès. Oldfield seems to have no interest in even trying to act, his only job is to drive a fast car, and he does that fine, letting Sennett do all the emoting. I suppose the five guys who get shot are technically “Keystone Cops” (they’re men in police uniforms in a Keystone movie), but they don’t do any of the characteristic antics one associates with that name.

Barney Oldfields Race for Life2Although Fritzi at Movies Silently has already covered this in detail, I need to say a few words about the girl-tied-to-the-railroad-tracks thing. Yes, this is a silent movie in which it did happen. No, it wasn’t all that common of a theme. Apparently, it was a trope in Victorian Theater, because you could build suspense by having off-stage train whistles without having to actually show a train. Whatever the case, this example is clearly satire – the situation is outrageous on purpose and being played up as ridiculous, as Sterling’s performance emphasizes. It wasn’t something silent audiences wanted or thought of as serious drama. I found it sort of a disappointing role for Mabel Normand (after all I said about her NOT being a “damsel”), she sort of sits there and weeps instead of taking charge of the situation, but it was hardly representative of her career, either. I’d say this movie doesn’t hold up that well, and isn’t even of great historical interest, inasmuch as it seems to lead people to false conclusions.

Wikipedia calls this a "screen shot" from the movie. I think it's actually a publicity still, judging by the posed look of the actors.

Wikipedia calls this a “screen shot” from the movie. I think it’s actually a publicity still, judging by the posed look of the actors.

Director: Mack Sennett

Camera: Lee Bartholomew and Walter Wright

Cast: Mabel Normand, Mack Sennett, Ford Sterling, Barney Oldfield, Al St. John, Hank Mann

Run Time: 13 Min, 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Bangville Police (1913)

I hope Lea, over at Silentology, will forgive me from piggy-backing on her review, but she inspired me to watch the movie and now I have to write about it! You should all go check out her blog, either before or after you read my article tonight. Bangville Police

First, for those of you too lazy to read her summary, here’s the basics: Mabel Normand is a young girl living on a farm with her hayseed father and salt-of-the-earth mother. She longs for a newborn calf to make the place more homey. When she hears strange noises in the barn, she sees two men lurking in the shadows and panics. She runs back to the house and calls the sheriff, who’s sound asleep in bed. He fires off some rounds to attract the attention of the local volunteer deputies and sends them off to investigate. Meanwhile, Mabel’s mom has tried to enter the house, but Mabel thinks she’s a burglar and keeps her out. Mom thinks Mabel must be held hostage by burglars and goes off to get dad, all the while Mabel keeps screaming into the phone and the sheriff thinks it must be an Indian attack or a serial killer or something. So, he rounds up every able-bodied man and the police force’s one vehicle (an old roadster like something out of the “Wacky Races”) and rushes to the rescue. Sort of. Actually, the car is much slower than the men running and it ultimately breaks down in a cloud of smoke. Meanwhile, mom and pop have so terrified Mabel that she takes the phone and hides in a closet, after barricading the door. They manage to break through and find Mabel, apparently unharmed. The police show up and appear ready to arrest pop for open-carrying his pistol, but then everyone is charmed by the newborn calf in the barn. The end. All of this, by the way, is communicated in pantomime and just two short Intertitles.

Bangville Police2 Now, this movie gets a lot of attention because of its early use of the “Keystone Kops” (or “Cops”), but that’s only incidental. Only a couple of the volunteers and the sheriff himself have any traditional accoutrements of office, the rest are just yokels with shovels, pitchforks, and rifles. The more “traditional” Keystone Kops movies, like “Fatty Joins the Force,” always take place in urban environments, and they exploit the police-as-authority-figure trope to humorous effect. This one barely scratches that surface. Forgive me, but I think something else is at work here.

Look familiar?

Look familiar?

And, I think I know what it is. Longtime readers who were paying attention might have thought the plot outline sounded…familiar. To spell it out: It’s a very close parody of “The Unseen Enemy” by D.W. Griffith. Mabel Normand even mocks Dorothy Gish’s facial expressions in some shots, and camera set-ups are clear parallels. It should be noted that “The Unseen Enemy” triggered a series of imitations, some even by Griffith himself, including “Death’s Marathon.” Even audiences who hadn’t seen Griffith’s 1912 movie would be familiar by now with the story: a young girl, trapped alone in a house, uses the telephone to summon help, while a race to rescue her is intercut with her increasing peril. Director Henry Lehrman (mostly remembered today for not appreciating Charlie Chaplin’s talents) brilliantly turned that whole concept on its head, and used very different camera- and editing-styles from normal to make the satire work. The close-up was generally reserved for opening and closing shots at Keystone, but he needed it in the middle here. Cross-cutting rarely interrupted the story for more than a few seconds, but he needed to draw out the humorous tension of Mabel trapped by her parents while establishing the characters of the titular law enforcers. Even the car, which is now seen as the most traditionally “Keystone Kop” element in the picture, is there because it is part of the parody; unlike the original, it is slow and unreliable. Note that Lehrman, as well as Mack Sennett the producer, had gotten their start working as actors for Griffith at Biograph.

How about now?

How about now?

An_Unseen_Enemy

The one thing I can’t explain is the whole bit with the calf. Wouldn’t a farm girl know if her cow is pregnant? And who are those two guys in the barn? They didn’t look like vets to me, and I certainly didn’t see them deliver the calf. None of this seems to have anything to do with Griffith, I guess it’s just there because they needed an ending.

Director: Henry Lerhman

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Mabel Normand, Fred Mace, Raymond Hatton, Edgar Kennedy, Ford Sterling, Al St. John, Nick Cogley

Run Time: 8 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Mabel’s Married Life (1914)

Mabels Married Life

With this Keystone comedy, we get to see how Charlie Chaplin and Mabel Normand worked together under Charlie’s direction, so this may be a good movie to compare to “Caught in a Cabaret” and some of the other early Chaplins I’ve discussed this week. I’ll admit, the plot holds together better and both characters seem better defined, but this may not be a result of better direction, just the fact that Charlie had come to know “the Little Tramp” better by this point in the year. At any rate, there don’t seem to be “corrected” versions floating around, so the original edit must have satisfied Charlie, or whoever was responsible for the alternate “Caught in a Cabaret.”

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Here, Mabel and Charlie are a married couple, and his frequent film-rival Mack Swain is married to one Eva Nelson, who I don’t believe I’ve seen before. They meet in a park that is conveniently near to a saloon. Charlie goes into the saloon and tries to scam some drinks. Meanwhile Mack tries picking up on Mabel. When Charlie returns and sees this, he is unable to deter Mack, even with attempted physical force (Mack just shrugs it off). So, Charlie gets Eva, who has more influence. Mabel and Eva get into a fight, however, and Charlie takes the worst of it. She and Mack leave, Charlie returns to the bar, and Mabel goes shopping. She decides to buy a large mannequin (or punching bag) and dresses it like Mack Swain (OK, that’s weird. Maybe she is into him after all). Mack enters the bar where Charlie is and encourages the other patrons in mocking him. Charlie fights back, knocking pretty much everyone over. Then Charlie, doing his full-on “funny drunk” makes his way home to be confronted by the mannequin. Of course, he thinks it’s Swain and picks a fight. Of course, it’s weighted, so it just bounces back and hits him just as hard every time he hits it. Mabel watches him and laughs. Eventually she goes out and tries to show him he’s fighting a dummy, and winds up getting hit herself. She and Charlie end up on the floor together.

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This movie is paced better than a lot of the early Keystones I’ve been reviewing, and Charlie was smart to make use of Mabel’s reaction shots during the fight with the dummy; they often elevate the humor of his pratfalls. He also clearly respects her as a comedienne (whatever he later said of her as a director) because he gives her several scenes to do funny bits of her own, and plays off her well in their scenes together. Typically, a Keystone ends with a chase or just a degeneration into a scene of crowd-chaos, but here, the ending is actually somewhat understated. The biggest scenes of violence we get are those with Charlie and the patrons at the bar, but the dummy isn’t at all anticlimactic, because Charlie keeps upping the ante and getting hit back twice as hard each time. Still a very simple film, but it works.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand, Mack Swain, Eva Nelson, Harry McCoy, Al St. John

Run Time: 13 Min

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

Mabel’s Blunder (1914)

Mabels Blunder

This is the one Mabel Normand movie from 1914 I’ve seen which does not also star Charlie Chaplin. It’s not slapstick, but more of a situational comedy along the lines of “Troublesome Secretaries.” Mabel is in love with her co-worker, the son of the boss, but the boss is also sweet on her. When she thinks her beau is cheating on her, she switches clothes with her brother so she can spy on him. The boss sees her brother in her clothes, and mistakes him for her, asking her out to the same place the younger man has taken the mysterious other woman. Hilarity ensues when Mabel’s boy thinks she (as a man) is hitting on his sister, the girl who Mabel was jealous of, and when the boss’s wife catches him out with a boy dressed up as a girl. Overall, I don’t find the situational style of silent comedy holds up as well as the more physical approach, because there’s too much guessing what’s being said by whom, but this movie does invite some interesting speculations on the use of gender in comedy. As in Shakespeare’s time, the idea of men and women switching roles is an opportunity for confusion and laughter, which is resolved when everyone resumes his or her proper biological role. This sort of comedy still works today, suggesting that the gender order remains strong.

Director: Mabel Normand

Producer: Mack Sennett

Starring: Mabel Normand, Al St. John, Charles Bennett, Charley Chase

Run Time: 18 Min

You can watch it for free: here.