Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Charles Avery

The Great Toe Mystery (1914)

This short comedy from Keystone Studios seems to play upon themes established 11 years earlier in “The Gay Shoe Clerk,” but with a touch of Mack Sennett’s chaotic style thrown in for flavor. It still looks a bit old-fashioned for 1914, possibly deliberately so.

The movie begins with an establishing shot outside of a shoe store. A young lady (Alice Howell) and a man with a silly mustache are standing in front, and he takes her by the arm and leads her inside. We now cut to the interior, where a thin, slightly foppish young man speaks to them. Evidently the first man is buying shoes for himself and his wife. The first shoe clerk summons another over to see to the gentleman, and he leads the lady to the other side of the store, where she sits while the salesman summons another clerk (Charley Chase), this one being flamboyant and feminine in his gestures. She offers him her foot to measure, but he reacts in melodramatic horror to see her toes peeking through the end of a torn stocking. He seems to be lecturing her on hygiene, and she reacts by looking away from him. The husband sees this, and comes over to glare at the clerk. He runs to the back, to get her shoes ready for sale, and decides to put a note in her shoes. He borrows a pen and paper from a female coworker, and then delivers the shoebox to the clearly annoyed lady customer. She and the husband exit the store, evidently arguing about the clerk’s unwanted attentions. They go in separate directions.

The wife returns home (“broken-hearted,” according to an intertitle) and commiserates with her maid (Dixie Chene). She takes a magazine outside to read, discarding the unlucky shoes unopened. Meanwhile, “Mr. Birdie” (the clerk) is now going to the park to for what he hopes to be a rendezvous with a married woman. Of course, he encounters Alice on a park bench, sobbing because of the fight with her husband, and sits next to her, oblivious to her feelings. Now the husband comes home and finds the discarded shoes with the note, vowing to murder the clerk (whom he de-genders as “it” in the intertitles) if he finds them together. The maid is meanwhile flirting with a rather dim-witted young man (possibly a delivery boy, from his attire, or else another servant like a gardener), to the husband’s decided disapproval. The husband rushes out to the park and finds the two of them together, making threatening gestures that the clerk laughs off until he produces a gun and starts shooting at the ground.

Now, a classic Keystone chase begins, and the wife and the maid rapidly enlist the aid of Keystone Kops. Of course, the clerk decides to hide in a chest that the dim-looking servant brings into the house, so now he has no possibility of escape. A comedy routine involves the many steps the servant has to go up (and frequently falls back down) while carrying the chest and tension is held as several people start to open the chest before being distracted by something else. Ultimately, the maid finds him and the chase begins anew, with Birdie hiding in the dumbwaiter, unable to find an unoccupied room to escape into. The Kops now arrive in force, and begin shooting at the servant, not evidently knowing who they are after or why. He hides under the sink, which the Kops promptly shoot full of holes. Finally, the clerk manages to fight everyone off with his handkerchief, knocking over the whole cast, and, snapping his fingers, leaves the house with a rude gesture.

Charley Chase’s performance really makes this movie something special, and it’s very hard for a modern audience not to read his gestures and body language as queer – something which quite possibly could have been intentional on his part, whether or not audiences of 1914 were sophisticated enough to get the joke. That makes it twice as funny that the title of the obvious inspiration of “The Gay Shoe Clerk” had a different meaning at the time. It also struck me with this viewing that the title’s similarity to the other 1903 hit “The Great Train Robbery” (itself basically a well-edited chase movie) might have been intentional as well, meaning that Sennett was lampooning Edison in more than one way here. The editing of this movie keeps it moving effectively, and all of the random elements work together well, with the absurdity of the situation constantly growing, but without giving the audience too much time to reflect on how silly it all is. This is one of the more fun Keystones I’ve seen, in fact and it holds up well enough today.

Director: Charles Avery

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Charley Chase, Alice Howell, Dixie Chene, Chester Conklin, Harry McCoy, Rube Miller

Run Time: 11 Min, 8 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

On His Wedding Day (1913)

Ford Sterling stars in this short comedy from Keystone before a certain gentleman with a cane and bowler hat showed up on the lot. It’s pretty typical of both Sterling and director Mack Sennett at the time.

Is everyone allergic to these flowers?

The movie begins by showing us the bride’s family at the church. The bride (Dot Farley) is cross-eyed and made up to look somewhat homely, foreshadowing what may come later. An intertitle tells us “Red Pepper” and we see a grocery clerk using said herb to make a friend sneeze. Now Sterling marches up in his wedding finery, carrying a bouquet of flowers, and the clerk sprinkles it with his pepper. Ford arrives at the church and unknowingly presents it to the bride and the minister (Hale Studebaker), who begin sneezing uncontrollably. The preacher, in search of fresh air, runs out of the church and into a park, and Sterling pursues, but is distracted when he comes across Mabel Normand and her boyfriend (Charles Avery). Ford quickly gets the idea of trading up, but before hitting on Mabel, he sends the parson back to the church. He easily shoves the smaller Avery out of the way and strikes up a conversation with Mabel. Avery locates a couple of local bums and pays them to beat up Sterling for him. While they are about it, he hastens back over to Mabel. Meanwhile, the wedding party is calling out for Sterling, but the thugs have stolen his clothes. Sterling is now running about in his long underwear, shocking Mabel and a passing woman. Mabel slugs Avery and goes her own way, but Sterling is now pursued by a police officer in a comic chase that soon draws in other cops and passersby. Trying to evade the police, Sterling climbs onto the roof of the church and drops through the chimney, now in no way presentable for his wedding. The movie devolves into a typical Keystone riot as the bride defends her groom by taking a cop’s billy club and bashing the whole crowd. They embrace at the end, so I guess it’s a happy ending, though they’re not married.

A sure way to impress a girl.

This was a cheaply done film with minimal plot and plenty of comic action, so quite what one expects from the Keystone studios at the time. Ford Sterling and Mabel Normand were two of the biggest stars at the lot, though this is pretty much Ford’s film. Given the persistent rumors that Mabel and Mack Sennett were dating at the time, I got a giggle out of the intertitle comparing her to “a goddess.” She does look decidedly better than cross-eyed Dot, and both girls get a chance to hit the men in the course of the slapstick silliness. There is a certain amount of inter-cutting between the wedding party and Ford’s attempted philandering, possibly Sennett showing off a technique he learned while working for D.W. Griffith, although it doesn’t really help the comedy much. A good example of Sennett’s pre-Chaplin work, there are no surprises or outstanding accomplishments here.

Director: Mack Sennett

Camera: unknown

Starring: Ford Sterling, Mabel Normand, Dot Farley, Charles Avery, Hale Studebaker, Nick Cogley, Helen Holmes

Run Time: 6 Min, 26 secs

You can watch part of it for free: here (no music). I have not found available complete for free streaming. If you do, please comment.

A Submarine Pirate (1915)

Submarine_Pirate_1915

This short comedy stars Charlie Chaplin’s brother, Sydney Chaplin, whom Charlie had managed to get a job at Keystone before he left for Essanay. Syd only worked for Mack Sennett for a short while before going on to become Charlie’s manager, so this movie is one of the few insights we have into his talents. Like Charlie, he had learned his stuff doing broad comedy on the British vaudeville circuit, and he seems comfortable with slapstick. He actually reminded me a little of John Cleese, but that may have to do with the beginning of the movie, which is sort of like “Fawlty Towers.”

Sydney_chaplin

Sydney Chaplin

As the movie opens, Syd is in a situation that Charlie’s “Little Tramp” would find familiar – working at a hotel with an abusive boss and customers. He has a brief flirtation with a “peach” of a hotel guest, but mostly he is chased with umbrellas, shoes, and bottles. In the midst of all this, an “inventor” comes down stairs, and Syd manages to escape all the slapstick violence long enough to serve as waiter to him and his guest. He serves them from his pockets, and my biggest laugh came when he pulled an enormous loaf of bread out and chopped off pieces for them. The cook in the kitchen is a young Harold Lloyd, but he doesn’t really show off his future talents in this piece. Syd realizes that the guests have something cooking with a submarine, and figures out how to eavesdrop on their discussion and steal the papers the “inventor” was giving the other man to make him commander of the submarine.

 Submarine_Pirate2

Now, at about half-way through, the title of the movie starts to make sense. Syd, using his information and purloined papers, masquerades as the commander and takes charge of the submarine, pursuing a “treasure ship” which mostly seems to be loaded with passengers. In the meantime, the rebellious first mate makes an abortive attempt to drown the new commander by submerging while he is on deck, leading Syd to hang on to the key necessary for descent. He demands the boat’s surrender and takes men aboard to plunder its safe, but the radio operator gets off an SOS, summoning a navy gunboat. Syd and his crew retreat to the submarine, and manage to fire off a torpedo, with Syd clinging on. He loses the key needed to submerge the sub, so they try to fight with a “submarine gun” that seems pretty pathetic against the gunboat’s cannon. The sub is sunk, and Syd sticks his head out a porthole, to be bitten by a large fish or shark.

At the time of release, submarine warfare was no joking matter in the US, as Germany had moved to “unrestricted warfare” in the Atlantic and sank the RMS Lusitania in May, 1915 (the movie came out in November), killing more than 100 American passengers. Syd’s character, therefore, is hardly sympathetic, and there may have been some satisfaction in seeing him get his comeuppance at the hands of a navy vessel. To be sure, all the violence in this movie is cartoonish slapstick, and no one is shown in danger of actually drowning or being blown up, but there may be an element of propaganda to it nonetheless. I wouldn’t rate it as highly as Charlie’s better work, but it is an interesting and relatively large budget Keystone comedy of the time.

Director: Charles Avery & Sydney Chaplin

Starring: Sydney Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Edgar Kennedy, Phyllis Allen

Run Time: 25 Min, 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.