Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Fred Hibbard

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).

 

A Movie Star (1916)

Movie Star3This Sennett-produced short is a rare starring vehicle for Mack Swain, who often played the “heavy” in films with Charlie Chaplin and other comedians. It also gives us a chance to see a more extended satire on movie-going than had been established in “Mabel’s Dramatic Career” and similar movies.

Movie StarMack Swain is “Handsome Jack,” whose movie is playing at the local Nickelodeon. There’s a good turnout, which is making the theater owner happy, but he gets even more excited when Jack himself walks up and stands next to the poster! Jack is enjoying himself, allowing female fans to “notice” him and swarms of children to run over to see him. The manager invites him in at no charge, and uses his presence to sell more tickets. In the theater, he sits near two couples, and annoys the males by accepting the attention of their dates. A famous Shakespearean actor comes in and snubs him, but most of the audience doesn’t notice, and he gets up to give a little speech before the movie begins. The movie is a simplified Western (from “Thrill’em Pictures”), in which he loses his girl to a slick city boy, only to have to save both of them from an Indian attack. At first, the audience seems to be laughing at Jack’s misfortune and acting, but they get increasingly caught up in the story as it proceeds, nearly everyone (except the Shakespearean) crying when he loses his girl. At the end, he is given an ovation and the girls follow him outside, much to the consternation of the boyfriend of one of them. As he stands over to one side, a matronly woman announces “There’s Your Father!” to the two moppets at her feet. It’s Jack’s wife! She hits him and the disloyal girlfriend, and chases Jack down the street, pausing to knock over a Keystone Cop who had been attracted by the commotion.

Movie Star1By 1916, the concept of the “movie star” was pretty well established (though still new), and this movie satirizes some of the irrational enthusiasms people had for their stars already at the time. I can’t help but think about how Sennett had lost many of his most lucrative players when they became famous and demanded more money (Chaplin, famously, but also a stream of later actors including Harold Lloyd, Fatty Arbuckle, and Harry Landon). This movie takes film divas down a notch, without actually parodying any of his actors specifically. “Thrill’em Pictures” seems to be a send-up of Kalem Studios, while Swain seems to be portraying the kind of Western star established by “Broncho” Billy Anderson at Essanay. Possibly the funniest part of this movie (to me, at least) was Harry McCoy as the “One-Man Orchestra,” providing piano as well as sound effects for the movie-within-a-movie. He is constantly pulling out bizarre props to make funny noises that go with the film, and also gives a frenetic performance as a musician forced to keep pace with the movie. During the Indian attack, he gets out drums and tomahawks and gives visible “whoops” and hollers.

Movie Star2The theater in this movie is still a small Nickelodeon and certainly not a movie palace by any standard, but it does seem rather upscale compared to what we’ve seen in earlier movies that show the inside of a theater. The seats are fixed in place and there is paneling on the walls. The projectionist seems to have a sizable room to himself, and there is a bit of room to move in the aisles. It’s still a bit difficult for audience members to see when a big fellow like Mack Swain sits in the front seat, however, and the framing of the screen during the movie matches “Those Awful Hats” almost perfectly.

Movie Star4

Director: Fred Hibbard

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Mack Swain, Harry McCoy, Phyllis Allen

Run Time: 24 Min

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