A Grocery Clerk’s Romance (1912)
This early short from Mack Sennett was shot in Fort Lee, New Jersey, before he moved his new Keystone Company out to California. Not surprisingly, it is a slapstick comedy, full of violence and illogic, but with only one Kop this outing.
The movie begins by establishing a simple love triangle. James C. Morton is the “lazy husband” of a plain-looking, middle-aged (uncredited) woman. Ford Sterling is the next-door neighbor (presumably a grocery clerk, though we never see him at his duties) who likes to come over and help with her chores. Oblivious to this domestic drama, Morton heads over to a local bar to get drunk, giving him and pal Gus Pixley the opportunity to do some pratfalls. Meanwhile, Sterling has put on an apron and is amusing the wife as he hangs the laundry, camping for her as he goes. The husband now stumbles home and gets into it with Ford, who drives him off easily. When he tries to return to the bar, he is denied admittance by the local sheriff (Lincoln Plumer), who indicates that he’s had enough, so he staggers into the woods, where, as it happens, a group of foreign-looking anarchists are meeting and showing off their new bomb to each other. They immediately forget about whatever plans they had for the bomb when they discover the “spy” in the woods, and tie up Morton, lighting the fuse.
At this moment, Morton’s child, whose job up to now has been to follow him around sniffling and occasionally tugging on his sleeve, finds her father in dire straits. He tells her to run and get help, meanwhile continuing to struggle with his bonds. She dutifully runs back to mama, who faints dead away at the news. A glint comes into Sterling’s eye as he calculates “in five minutes, she’ll be a widow!” He grabs the screaming child and stashes her in the cellar. He takes out his pocketwatch and counts off the precious seconds. When he feels enough time has passed, he releases the child and wakes the woman; now he starts running through the streets to gather a crowd to come and “help” too late. Unbeknownst to him, of course, the husband has already freed himself. So, when the mob hears an explosion in the trees, and then they run up and find the husband’s hat and coat at the bomb site, they assume the worst, and so does Sterling. He very quickly proposes to the “widow,” who gladly accepts and they prepare a wedding ceremony almost instantly, everyone turning out in their finery. Morton, of course, goes back to the bar where his surprised friend tells him his wife is being married at that very moment. They rush over to interrupt the ceremony and the child finally fingers Sterling as the reason the rescue party arrived late. Ford runs off in disgrace, and Morton takes his wife in an embrace. She doesn’t look entirely pleased.
It’s odd to see Sterling without his usual makeup in this film – I actually thought it was Sennett himself at first – but his trademark over-the-top facial expressions are very much on display. The movie didn’t make me laugh, though it did get a couple of guffaws from me near the end (about par for the course for a Mack Sennett, actually). Overall, the structure of the movie reminds me of “A Muddy Romance,” “The Gusher,” and other movies Sennett would later make with Chaplin and/or Sterling and Mabel Normand. This might be seen as the template for those later films, with Sennett always ready to improvise when something interesting happens like an oil fire or a drained lake. In that sense, it’s a rare historical relic, if not exactly classic slapstick.
Director: Mack Sennett
Starring: Ford Sterling, James C. Morton, Gus Pixley, Lincoln Plumer
Run Time: 7 Min
You can watch it for free: here.