The Speed Kings (1913)
This comedy short from Keystone Studios stars Ford Sterling during the period when he was the hottest commodity on the lot – before the arrival of a certain gentleman with a small mustache – and shows Keystone’s dedication to fast action and taking advantage of real events to build audience interest in a slight story line.
The movie centers around a racetrack, and an ostensible rivalry over Mabel Normand by two real-life race car drivers: Earl Cooper and Teddy Tetzlaff. Sterling plays her father, who favors Cooper, while Mabel shows more interest in Tetzlaff. Neither racer makes any effort at acting or comedy, they are just there to drive and to look interested in Mabel. Ford decides that if he can prevent Teddy from winning the race, Mabel will change her mind, so he pumps air into Teddy’s engine using a device that looks like a pocket telescope. On the day of the race, we see Barney Oldfield and some of the Keystone gang at the fairgrounds, and various onlookers stare at the camera or the performers. The race roars into action and Mabel and Ford watch from the stands. Earl’s car mysteriously stops partway through the race and he and his pit crew have to fix it rapidly so he can get back in.
Soon, Cooper easily takes the lead and it is a duel between the two featured players until Teddy comes up with a burst of speed. Mabel runs out onto the track to cheer him on, much to the consternation of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, who is there with a flag, acting as an official of the race. He and Mabel get into a fight until Sterling shows up and jumps on the larger man, beginning a comic wrestling match between them. Sterling knocks Arbuckle down, then gives a frenetic performance, pretending to be narrowly missed by various cars. After they return to their seats, Teddy’s car also breaks down, but it makes no greater delay than the one Cooper earlier suffered. Still, Cooper wins the race and Mabel goes out to congratulate him. Sterling offers her to Earl Cooper, but Mabel runs over to find Teddy. For some reason, at this point Sterling tackles Arbuckle again, and the movie ends with them fighting while Mabel and Teddy point and laugh. Eventually, they drive off together.
This movie doesn’t make a lot of sense, and while it has a more complex plot than the later “Kid Auto Races,” with Charlie Chaplin, it isn’t as effectively funny as that film. Pretty much all of it comes down to cars and actors moving rapidly across the screen. Ford flails around and bumps into people to provide some humor as we prepare for the race, but much of the middle of the movie is just racing footage, and it’s hard to tell which car is which a lot of the time. Later, he has a dispute with a child who is holding a stick and whacks his hat from time to time, evidently with the encouragement of the other actors. Ford frequently cracks Cooper up with his antics, completely breaking any sense of his being a character in the movie. Arbuckle is mostly wasted, apart from some good pratfalls in the final fight scene. The first time I watched it, I thought I spotted his cousin Al St. John on the grounds, just before his first appearance, but I couldn’t find this again, so I may have just mistaken another skinny man in a hat for him.
Director: Wilfred Lucas
Starring: Ford Sterling, Mabel Normand, Earl Cooper, Teddy Tetzlaff, Barney Oldfield, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Billy Gilbert, Edgar Kennedy, Bert Hunn
Run Time: 8 Min
You can watch it for free: here.