Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Bb

Broncho Billy’s Gratefulness (1913)

One of many Westerns made by Gibert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson during the Nickelodeon Era, this short shows him once again living by a personal code that is higher than any law.

Broncho Billys Gratefulness

As the movie begins, there is a series of edited shots of a Western family in a peaceful domestic setting and Broncho Billy, evidently suffering distress as he walks down the street and knocks on the door. The man (Brinsley Shaw) finds him at the doorstep and the wife (Evelyn Selbie) puts him in bed and gives him blankets. Brinsley goes to find a doctor (Victor Potel) and they nurse him back to health. Soon, he is back at the saloon with his compadres. When Brinsley goes off, leaving his wife alone, another man (Fred Church), dressed as a “city slicker” comes over and talks to her. She spurns him, but he hopes that his money will persuade her to change her attitude. She continues to resist, and he forces a kiss upon her. When she tells her husband, he rides out and finds the man, shooting him as he mounts his horse.

Broncho Billys Gratefulness1

The man is alive, however, with just a wound to the shoulder and soon is telling the sheriff (Harry Todd) who shot him. The sheriff soon arrives with a posse and arrests the husband, tearing him from the arms of his wife. The wife rushes to find Billy, who, unselfishly if foolishly, rides to the rescue and holds up the posse, freeing the husband to ride off. He joins the wife and the two ride away together into Mexico. Billy holds the posse in place at gunpoint, lighting up a cigarette and sharing it with the men. An intertitle tells us “Time has passed” and we see Billy approach the sheriff at his office and offer him his gun. The sheriff waves it off and the two start a conversation, although the outcome remains a bit unclear.

Broncho Billys Gratefulness2

This one feels a bit rushed, especially at the end. It’s important to realize that Essanay and Anderson were putting out dozens of these movies each year (something on the order of 300 in a six-year period), and the short format didn’t leave time for careful plot development in the best of cases. It’s possible that there’s missing footage or an intertitle that would explain the ending a bit better, but it’s also possible that an audience, knowing that the man Brinsley shot was a scalawag, would accept the simple logic that Billy should not be punished for his actions, which in the end harmed no one. Anderson’s acting at the beginning when he is sick is extremely exaggerated, the sort that makes sure no one can miss his distress, even without dialogue or intertitles to explain it. Similarly, Fred Church and Evelyn Selbie take their scene to rather melodramatic heights, considering that all that is at stake is a kiss. Brinsley is more stoic about his response, which may be better acting or it may be to show the unemotional way in which a Western male goes about “taking care of business” under the circumstances. The most exciting thing about the movie is the regular use of intercutting, right from the first moment, to establish simultaneous action and maintain suspense. For 1913, this is pretty standard, however.

Director: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson, Brinsley Shaw, Evelyn Selbie, Fred Church, Harry Todd, Victor Potel

Run Time: 14 Min, 20 secs

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

A Bird’s a Bird (1915)

Just in time for the holidays comes this Keystone comedy about two husbands trying to provide a turkey for their wives’ tables. Lacking in big names, this one gives a good example of the more “pedestrian” comic output of the studio.

Chester Conklin plays Mr. Walrus, who we meet at a raffle, where he is buying up tickets in hopes of winning the grand prize – a turkey to take home for dinner. Despite his multiple tickets, when the wheel is spun he is not the winner. Now Mr. Spegle (Harry D. Ward dressed to look sort of like Ford Sterling) comes along and buys one ticket, then tricks the “foreigner” (William Hauber) who legitimately won into giving him his ticket and he takes home the bird. Walrus goes home to wife Minta Durfee and explains that he wasn’t able to get a turkey, and she expresses anxiety as her parents are coming for dinner and expect meat. A close up on a parrot in a cage gives Walrus an idea and he makes an incompetent effort to catch it, but is caught in the act by Minta. He then wonders how cat meat would taste as he sits by the family pet. This time Minta takes his knife away. Luckily, however, the Spegles are just next door and Mr. Spegle puts the turkey in the window to cool, having just finished roasting it. Now the foreigner walks up and plants a bomb in the turkey. Walrus takes the rather more American-materialist form of revenge by taking the turkey. He presents it to Minta just as she is despairing of having a decent dinner for her parents. She is suspicious at first and checks to make sure the parrot is still alive, but overjoyed once she is convinced it’s a real turkey. She instructs him to set the table, and he does a quick pratfall where he tries to lean on one of the extended “arms” after opening it out and knocks all of their good china on the floor. He also “presses” his suit by laying it out on a window seat and sitting on it. Minta meets her parents at the door and invites the neighbors, Mr. & Mrs. Spegle over to meet them. Of course, they are asked to stay for dinner, and Mr. Spegle recognizes the bird. Just as he is announcing Walrus’s crime, the foreigner comes up to watch the results of his handywork, but a fight breaks out among the family and the bird gets tossed out the window, the explosion throws the foreigner far into the air and he lands on Minta’s dad, crashing through the ceiling. The final minutes of the film are just the foreigner, Walrus , and Spegle locked in silly combat and comeuppance.

I think this movie would have benefitted from the presence of a Fatty Arbuckle, Mable Normand, or even a (real) Ford Sterling. None of the players seems to be able to carry it as is. We don’t expect any kind of subtlety in a Keystone plot, but this one is very weak sauce indeed. As grim as the section is in which Conklin seems to be contemplating serving a household pet to his in-laws, this is the part with the greatest comedic potential, but it is left to sit – possibly because this isn’t a cartoon and chasing live animals around wasn’t going to be feasible in single takes (though Normand had handled the concept admirably in “A Little Hero”). The other piece of this movie is the various dinner-table arguments that take place while the bomb ticks away, reminding me of Hitchcock’s famous “bomb theory” of suspense, which should also translate to comedy: things are funnier if you know that all the tomfoolery is just a distraction from a ticking bomb, or so you might think. Here, it doesn’t seem to work, maybe because the audience doesn’t really trust the narrative to stick to any logical rhythm – the bomb’s going to go off when it feels like it, not when it is supposed to, so we lose that sense of urgency. At any rate, this movie isn’t a complete washout, but it’s not among the best works in Keystone’s canon.

Director: Unknown (possibly Walter Wright)

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Chester Conklin, Minta Durfee, Harry Ward, Willaim Hauber, Alice Davenport, Fred Hibbard

Run Time: 13 Min

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

 

Broncho Billy and the Sheriff’s Kid (1913)

This short from Essanay is a typical “Broncho Billy” entry in which Gilbert M. Anderson plays an outlaw with a heart of gold. The company was cranking out dozens of these movies per month from its base near Chicago at this time.

Broncho Billy and the Sheriffs Kid

The movie begins with a grim shot of Broncho Billy getting locked into a cell. He wears leather wrist cuffs, a bullet belt, and a holster (despite being in jail), so we know right away that he’s a cowboy, even without a horse or a pistol. He picks at a bowl of unappetizing food and calls the jailer over to remove it, then makes a grab at the jailer through the bars and manages to secure his gun. He forces the man to unlock the cell and makes his escape. The next scene shows the jailer riding up to the sheriff’s house, where he is asleep (presumably it’s night time, though it isn’t dark at all) in the same bedroom with the crib of his small daughter. The sheriff (Harry Todd) reluctantly crawls out of bed and gets dressed to join the search. Now we see the mother (Evelyn Selbie) and child, in their night clothes, fixing food in the kitchen for him to take on the trail. The sheriff tucks the bundle under his shirt and gives each of them a kiss before going out. He rides off and we see Billy stealing food from an outdoor cabinet hung on the side of a house (the same house? It’s hard to say).

Broncho Billy and the Sheriffs Kid1

An intertitle reads “Later” and we see children dispersing from the front of a schoolhouse. Each is kissed goodbye by the teacher, a woman in a dark dress. The last one out is the sheriff’s daughter. After leaving the school, she walks home through a wild area, straying just a little off the path, and suddenly tumbling down the side of a cliff! Billy, eating nearby, hears the commotion and draws his gun. He finds the child, crumpled on the rocks, and identifies her by her writing slate, which is labeled “MAY – the sheriff’s kid.” Billy starts to leave, but, struck by his conscience, turns back and picks the child up, carrying her offscreen. He takes her back to the mother, now in day clothes with her hair up (it scarcely looks like the same actress). He places the child gently in her bed and the mother weeps over her. Billy tries to comfort the woman and she says something, which makes him look resolved and then leave. The next shot is a door with the shingle of “Dr. Brush” hanging over it. Billy walks up and pounds on the door. When the doctor comes out, he tells him he’s needed, then sneaks off while the doctor gets his bag.

Broncho Billy and the Sheriffs Kid2

Meanwhile the searchers have taken a break to eat some lunch. Suddenly, they look up with interest at something offscreen, stow their sandwiches, and get up to proceed cautiously, guns drawn. They hunker down behind a bush and see Billy coming through the brush in another shot which may or may not be anywhere near them. The sheriff fires his rifle and Billy drops his gun, pantomiming that he has been hit in the hand. We cut to a scene of the doctor giving the mother some medicine, and she shakes his hand, relieved that the child will be OK. Now Billy staggers up to a door, his wrist crudely bandaged with a bandana, and knocks, staggering in pain when the mother answers. An intertitle says “I only ask help for help,” which seems an odd way of saying he wants her to return the favor for saving her child. She seems reluctant at first but eventually pulls him into the house. Billy stops and smiles when he sees the child’s improved condition. She takes him into a back room and removes the dressing, examining the wound. Now the sheriff and his companion break off the search, so the sheriff goes back to his house, surprising the mother. He is concerned when he sees the injured child, and he speaks briefly with her, looking surprised when she points toward the door. Billy tries to get some water, knocking a bowl on the floor, which causes the sheriff to realize there’s someone in the house, The mother tries to prevent him going to look, holding his gun hand as he draws his revolver and gesturing to show that she is pleading for the outlaw. Billy hears from the other room, but, having no gun and no way out, can only expect the worst. The mother suddenly kicks the door open, handing Billy the sheriff’s rifle while still holding his revolver-hand low. Billy now has the upper hand and holds the sheriff at bay while he goes over to give the little girl a kiss. The movie ends without any more resolution than that.

Broncho Billy and the Sheriffs Kid3

Please don’t shoot my daddy!

This whole story takes 15 minutes and only two intertitles to tell. The situation is familiar enough that audiences could guess at what the characters were saying to one another, and their motivations, without any more information than that. We know Billy is a good man, even if he has done something wrong or illegal, and we know that he will save the child even at the risk of his own freedom. We also pretty much know that he isn’t going to shoot the sheriff in front of his wife and daughter, but it is a little unclear what the narrative expects to happen next. Maybe that’s why the movie ends so abruptly. One of the most interesting pieces of the film for me is the sheriff’s shooting Billy in the hand. In later Hollywood and television, it would become a cliché that good guys shot pistols out of the hands of bad guys without really hurting them = a practical impossibility, but a convention that arose because of concerns that Westerns were “too violent.” Here, Anderson graphically shows the consequences of being shot in the hand, even using stage blood on the wound and bandages, something Westerns would scrupulously avoid until Sam Peckinpah started using squibs in the 1960s. Anderson’s movies are generally (and for the most part rightly, in my opinion) remembered as simplistic moral tales, compared to the brooding ambiguity of William S. Hart, but the rules of the Western hadn’t been fully defined in 1913, and Anderson did sometimes take an interesting chance in molding them.

Director: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson, Harry Todd, Eugenia Clinchard, Evelyn Selbie, Fred Church

Run Time: 15 Min, 20 secs

I have not found this movie available to watch for free on the Internet. If you do, please comment.

Broncho Billy’s Love Affair (1912)

G.M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson tries to mix Western with romantic themes in this short from Essanay. Given the limitations of the length and the film techniques, it doesn’t entirely work, but it’s another example of the once-popular series trying for a broad appeal.

Broncho Billys Love Affair

The movie begins in the local land office, where a man (Brinsley Shaw) in a bowtie and a white hat receives money from an older man (David Kirkland), indicating that he does not consider it adequate. He leaves, looking dissatisfied and the scene cuts to an image of Billy with his girl (Evelyn Selbie). He puts a ring on her finger, and an edit shows Brinsley looking on, obviously concerned about this development. He waits until Billy leaves, then goes over to speak with her, and she proudly shows off her ring, disturbing him still further. Now an Intertitle tells us that he “induces his father to discharge Broncho” – the first indication we’ve had to the relationship of anyone in this movie to anyone else. The father (the old man at the office) seems very reluctant to heed his son – evidently Billy is a good worker. But, he eventually caves and calls Billy in, counting out his final pay, much to Billy’s shock. We now see Brinsley sneaking around a nicely appointed home, searching for something (the ring). He eventually finds it and steals it. Then he writes a note ostensibly from the girl, breaking up with Billy because he was fired. He leaves it at Billy’s shack and Billy, heartbroken, saddles up and moves on.

Broncho Billys Love Affair1

The second half of the movie shows how all of this plays out, years later. Evelyn has a completely different hair style and wardrobe, indicating her transformation from virginal young girl to married woman, and Brinsley walks out of the house behind her while she sweeps the stoop. He is dressed less like a fop and more like a cowboy now, and he wears a gun. He takes money from her against her will, and goes to a building with a sign marked “Gambling.” Meanwhile, we see Billy snoozing with his feet propped up a desk, and an image of Evelyn as she used to be appears thanks to double-exposure, showing us his dream. Next, we see Brinsley backing out of the building with his gun drawn – evidently there has been a dispute of some kind. He jumps on a horse and rides off, and we see two men propping up another, apparently shot by Brinsley. One of the men goes to find Billy and tells him what has happened. Billy puts on his hat and joins the posse – we now see his badge and conclude he is the local law. They split up, and the other part of the posse finds Brinsley first, shooting at him from a distance and wounding him in the head. Brinsley escapes back to his house, where Evelyn takes him in, helping him to a bed where he collapses. Billy now wanders up and knocks on the door, and is stunned to find Evelyn there. She tells him she is now married and directs him to the wounded man, who confesses all before he dies.

Broncho Billys Love Affair2

With limited intertitles, at least on the print I saw, this movie is not easy to follow, and without closeups or sharp resolution, I wasn’t even sure Evelyn and Brinsley were the same people after their wardrobe change. It relies on the audience’s ability to follow the formulaic story of star-crossed love more or less by instinct. I used the actor’s names because, even though imdb supplies names for the characters, it gets their relationships wrong, suggesting that David is Evelyn’s father when that is contradicted by the intertitle. There are some interesting edits, as when intercutting is used to show us Brinsley’s reaction to the gift of the ring, and Billy’s dream being intercut with Brinsley at the gambling hall. Overall, though, this is a pretty bare bones film for 1912; even the use of double exposure to indicate a dream is pretty old hat by this time. The romance doesn’t really have time to develop, and the story just moves through the most basic plot points without much development. It’s interesting to note, once again, that although the Broncho Billy movies were a “series,” there is no logical way to make them work as connected narratives. Billy has a different girl in each movie, and a new timeline is set at the beginning of each one, with no connection to what came before or after. Audiences (presumably) accepted the character as iconic, and didn’t worry about trying to make the stories link up in any way.

Director: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson, Evelyn Selbie, Brinsley Shaw, David Kirkland

Run Time: 12 Min

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

Broncho Billy’s Narrow Escape (1912)

A straightforward Western of the Nickelodeon era, this short from Essanay stars Gilbert M. Broncho Billy” Anderson in the role that he was most identified with. Once again, Billy is wronged by bad intentions, but wins the day and the girl!

Broncho Billys Narrow Escape

The movie begins with three people seated around a table eating breakfast. Vedah Betram and Arthur Mackley play father and daughter, while Brinsley Shaw is there as a hired hand. Vedah offers Arthur more coffee and he refuses, saying it’s time to get to work. When she offers to Brinsley, he tries to become affectionate, which she politely refuses. They go off to continue looking for a vein of gold in the hills. Now, Broncho Billy rides up and politely inquires the girl about any work. She directs him to go find her father, giving him a lingering glance as he leaves. Arthur hires Billy and soon the three of them are swinging picks at a wall. That night, Billy takes out a banjo, and he and Vedah play and sing together, while the others watch. Brinsley is obviously becoming jealous, and Arthur wants to go to bed, so they move to the porch, where they are seen by a desperado (I believe this is Fred Church) who confronts Billy about we know not what, possibly the two are known to each other somehow.

Broncho Billys Narrow Escape1

The next day, the father finds that vein of gold and sends Billy into town on a white horse with the papers that will stake his claim. Brinsley tells locals that Billy has stolen the white horse and a posse is formed. The desperado encounters them and informs them where Billy is headed, then hightails it out of town. When the posse catches up with Billy, he surrenders peaceably, but he has been instructed to tell no one of his errand, so his story sounds fishy. Brinsley tells Vedah what he has done, and she jumps on another horse and speeds into town. Just as the posse are preparing to lynch Billy, she arrives and clears things up. The last shot in the film shows the two of them leaning into the camera, bent forward with heads close together in affection.

Broncho Billys Narrow Escape2

Although Anderson played the “Broncho Billy” character literally hundreds of times, this is not a series in the sense that we understand it today; you couldn’t possibly tie each of these short films together into a running narrative. In many of them, he winds up with a girl, always a different one, who he truly loves, and who he’s never met before. Sometimes he spends years in jail. Sometimes he’s actually not innocent. Each story is discrete, and if you tried to make all of them about the same person, he’d be schizophrenic in his behavior and near immortal in longevity (and the timeline wouldn’t work for the relatively brief period of the “Old West” anyway). Audiences at the time obviously accepted this, not expecting each story to be a continuation of the last, just looking for another rousing Western tale about a hero in a world ruled by guns and fists. This one includes a bit of cross-cutting at the climax, to heighten the tension as the girl rides to Billy’s rescue (a nice reversal of the usual expected situation), but is otherwise a pretty straightforward example of Nickelodeon-era film making. There’s no gunplay or other violence, Billy is remarkably easy-going and polite, and neither villain receives any comeuppance on screen. Broncho Billy gives audiences what they are looking for here, but not a lot else.

Director: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson, Vedah Bertram, Arthur Mackley, Brinsley Shaw, Fred Church, Harry Todd,

Run Time: 15 Min

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

Be My Wife (1921)

This rare feature-length comedy by Max Linder is part of his second round of Hollywood-produced films, but it didn’t catch on with audiences as he had hoped, and there was no major revival of his career. How does it hold up for us today?

Be My Wife

The movie begins with a visual pun, as we see Max in profile pouring water over the head of a girl. In reality, he is watering plants which are in a vase designed to show the silhouette of a girl in profile (something similar is being done with pottery urns today). He is visiting the love of his life, Mary (played by Alta Allen), and is helping with the chores. Unfortunately, Mary has a spinster aunt (Caroline Rankin) living with her, who sees the profile through a window and concludes that he is with her in the bath. She rushes in to catch them, and is baffled how Mary got her hair dry so fast. Archie is another suitor (played by Lincoln Stedman, who bears a certain resemblance to Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle), and he brings his dog over, charming the aunt (the dog bears only a slight resemblance to Arbuckle’s dog Luke). Max hides outside and meets Mary, but Archie and Aunt Agatha are still around, so he hides out by disguising himself as a scarecrow (as Buster Keaton had recently done as well). There’s a good deal of humor about the dog barking at the scarecrow, the scarecrow kicking Archie from behind, and the two lovers stealing moments when no one is looking. Eventually, the aunt comes to investigate, loosens the dog’s post, and the dog chases the scarecrow until it tries to climb a fence, then performs an impressive leap to latch its teeth into Max’s backside.

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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.

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By Right of Birth (1921)

Only a fragment of this feature survives today, and it isn’t much to judge the whole by. It was produced by the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, the first production company owned and operated by African Americans, which makes it an important piece of history nonetheless.

The footage consists of a few disconnected scenes, most of which are themselves incomplete. The first shows a young woman sitting on the steps, reading a letter from a boyfriend who is away at war – she suspects him of “flirting with some chili queen” according to the intertitles. Another snippet shows a man offering to do “detective work” for another man in an office (the second man is either white or quite pale-skinned, it’s hard to tell). We then see the first man on a country road with a false mustache and a telegram-delivery man’s hat on his head. He complains that his “dogs are sure hot,” and we see smoke rising from his feet in an insert shot. The next scene is somewhat more complete, and involves a young woman being thrown from a horse, which is then recovered by a nearby fisherman, who we learn is named Jones. They don’t speak much, but we get a sense of a spark of romance between the two, and of the class distance that separates them. Then we see a white man on the phone with a white woman (possibly his wife?). The intertitle tells us they are conspiring to get a lease from “a girl,” tricking her into giving her signature. Another scene shows us a note which proves that they have gotten the wrong girl’s signature later on. A mother and two daughters are shown reading an eviction note. The mother appears to be signing over her life insurance when the young girl from the riding scene comes into the office, and they obviously recognize one another, though they are surprised to meet. She introduces her as “Mother” Agnes to the attorney, her father, who thanks her for helping his daughter. A white man walks into the room, and that’s all the footage we have.

Watching this, it’s hard not to try to guess what the rest of the story looked like. Because it’s the longest piece, I kind of want the story between Jones and the riding girl to be at the center of the story, but it seems to involve some kind of real estate scam, possibly against the horseback rider, and Jones doesn’t seem to come back into it again. I’m also unclear about the “detective” – was he also out looking for the girl no one can find? Who for? Was he on the side of the scammers, or some kind of good guy? The title makes me suspect that this is one of those stories, common in the early twentieth century, in which a poor girl discovers that she is actually an heiress, who has been raised in secrecy and without any knowledge of her status and now must claim her title in order to get what she deserves. But that is no more than a guess.

With so little to judge from, it’s hard to make any clear statements about the value of the Lincoln Motion Pictue Company and its artists. Certainly everything here is in focus and logically edited. It’s framed reasonably well, not relying on stagey standards and proscenium sets, and the camera operator is comfortable using close-ups. It seems like every shot has an intertitle, which seems like a lot of titles for the time, but that may just be because the titles happen to be what survived. Having the titles does give us a bit more information about what’s going on than we would get without them. The detective serves as comedy relief, but avoids the more flagrant stereotypes of Black humor we saw in the works of the Ebony Film Company, at least in these scenes. In this movie, it seems as if African Americans move in all levels of society – from a poor old mother, to an attorney and his daughter, to whatever dubious status the detective may have (is he really a delivery boy or is that just a disguise?), to a man who fishes in a stream (is this his profession or just recreation for him?). They do not live in an all-Black world, and the whites we see seem to plot and scheme against them. It would be great if someday the rest of this film is recovered.

Director: Harry Gant

Camera: Harry Gant

Starring: Clarence Brooks, Anita Thompson, Lew Meehan

Run Time: About 4 Min (surviving)

You can watch it (what there is): here.

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 Busy Day (1914)

Although he had already started directing his own movies when this short was released, this is another example of Charlie Chaplin’s work with Mack Sennett as director, along with “Tillie’s Punctured Romance” and “The Fatal Mallet.” It repeats themes that Sennett and Chaplin had explored before, but with one big novelty thrown in.

The movie begins by showing us an audience gathered to see a parade. The background is filled with people who are probably genuine spectators, but there are four Keystone actors in front. These include Mack Swain and Phyllis Allen, and most importantly, Charlie himself, although he is dressed in drag and plays Mack’s wife. There’s a bit of roughhousing in the stands and some shots of a military parade going by, and then Mack sneaks off with Phyllis. A cameraman (Mack Sennet) sets up to shoot the parade in another shot and then we see Charlie realize she has been abandoned. She sees them running past the camera and sets off in hot pursuit, again ruining Sennett’s shot of soldiers marching by. She gets distracted by his efforts to remove her from the shot and begins posing for the camera, so Mack calls in a Keystone Kop (I think it’s Billy Gilbert). Soon Charlie is kicking and pushing both of them and they push her into another Kop (Ted Edwards), who shoves her back into camera view. This goes back and forth for a while, interrupted only by a shot of some naval boats in San Pedro Harbor.

Finally, Charlie remembers her true objective and goes after Mack and Phyllis, who are admiring the ships. She attacks them viciously with her umbrella. When the much larger Swain strikes back, she is once again shoved into a Keystone Kop and the slapstick violence starts to ramp up again. Swain is able to break away and find Phyllis near the launching of some motorboats while Charlie dances to a military band. She eventually find her husband and the “other woman” again, and they fight, this time with a large crowd gathered to watch in the background. The camera cuts to a new angle, showing that the fight has edge to the side of the dock, and soon Swain gives Charlie a shove and she does a double backflip into the harbor. The closing shot is of Charlie splashing around fruitlessly in the water.

About half of this movie is a straight remake of “Kid Auto Races,” except for the cross-dressing. It was common for Sennett to take advantage of a public spectacle by getting some actors quickly into costume and ad-libbing a slapstick comedy, although there’s more of a story here than in the earlier film. The spectators are pretty obviously not extras – a few stare at the camera, but most stare and laugh at the actors. Interestingly, I noticed that older women, far from seeming shocked, appeared to be the most entertained by Chaplin’s antics. This was the first time Chaplin had appeared in drag on film (though I assume he’d done it before on Vaudeville stages), and to the degree he had built up fans for his “Little Tramp” characterization, I have to assume his audience wouldn’t have recognized him at all like this (remember, it was only about four months earlier that the Tramp outfit was introduced). But his trademark physicality is fully on display here, something that was remarked on by a reviewer at the time. The final backflip has to be seen to be believed. This is also the first time he was teamed with Mack Swain, who would become a reliable foil in the years after Chaplin struck out on his own, perhaps most famously in “The Gold Rush.”

Director: Mack Sennett

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Mack Swain, Phyllis Allen, Mack Sennett, Billy Gilbert, Ted Edwards

Run Time: 5 Min, 37 secs

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