Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Josef Swickard

Shot in the Excitement (1914)

This short comedy from Keystone stars Al St. John in an a-typical sympathetic role and uses a familiar story of two country bumpkins vying for the interests of one girl, but escalates to extreme speed and violence before the end. A rather unusual entry in Keystone’s catalog, this holds up in interesting ways today.

The film begins by introducing “the Daughter” (Alice Howell), who is busy whitewashing a fence with her father (Josef Swickard). We then see Al, introduced as “A Suitor” by the intertitles, and carrying a small gift. She eagerly abandons her work to rush over and see him, just as a second suitor (Rube Miller, who is also credited as director) walks up with a small bouquet of flowers for her. He is on the wrong side of the fence, however, and gets an eyeful of whitewash from the father when he tries peeking through a knothole. He then locates Alice and Al, and decides to frighten them by dangling a rubber spider overhead. They interrupt their smooching in shock, but then Al pokes his finger through another knothole, once again getting Rube in the eye. When he tries sticking his finger through, Alice grabs it and bites it, holding him in place long enough for Al to drop a rock on his head. Rube tries throwing a bigger rock over the fence, but winds up hitting Alice, of course. Rube now climbs over the fence and starts fighting with Al, in the process hitting both Alice and her father. The father chases Rube up a ladder and onto a rooftop, where he tries again to hit Al by throwing rainwater and other found objects, but never manages to hit his actual target. Al finds a shotgun and tries to shoot Rube, but only hits the father’s backside, knocking him off the roof. Dad now shoots Rube off the roof, throwing both boys off his property and telling them to keep away from his daughter.

Dejected, Al and Rube head to a nearby park. Al finds a park bench, where he could have a rendezvous with Alice, and Rube finds an old cannon, conveniently pointed at the park bench. He gets some gunpowder together and loads it up, then sets up an elaborate booby trap, placing a triggering device beneath the legs of the bench, so that the cannon will fire when Al sits down. He sends a confederate to give Al a note, ostensibly from Alice, telling him to meet her at the bench. There is a bit of comedic tension, as it looks like Al will sit several times while examining the note, but suddenly Alice walks up and distracts him. Now Rube, concerned that she will sit in the “hot” seat, intervenes, but Al quickly kicks him away. They fight while Alice cheers, until Al knocks Rube out with a rock, causing him to fall back on the bench. The cannonball flies over him and knocks over a couple of nearby Keystone Kops, then flies past Alice and starts chasing her father. Rube manages to launch a second cannonball, which now pursues Al and Alice. Now the Kops come over to arrest him and a wild three-way chase ensues, ending with Rube falling down a cliff, being arrested and everyone being knocked down when the cannonballs finally explode against the cliffside.

The most exciting part of this movie is the chase sequence at the end, which is worthy of a Road Runner cartoon for its silliness and implied violence. The editing between three simultaneous, inter-locked chases works perfectly to ramp of the crescendo of chaotic wildness. Everyone falls over several times. Cannonballs turn around and change direction in order to pursue their quarry. Alice and Al refuse to let go of one another. I would bet that in a theater, this last two and a half minutes would have people laughing so hard their sides hurt. The characterizations are interesting also. Rube’s character reminds me of Al in “Mabel and Fatty Adrift,” although he seems not to want to extend his revenge to killing Alice, she is just collateral damage in trying to take out Al. Al’s character is more like the sort of thing his cousin Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle would specialize in, except Al’s more frenetic in his amorous intentions. Alice Howell is the big success – a somewhat “funny-looking” girl, she is part of the joke as we wonder how desperate these two yokels must be to fight over her. And she is great with the falls, hits, and other physicality. While some people may be put off by the cartoon violence, for my money, this is one of the funnier Keystone comedies.

Director: Rube Miller

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Al St. John, Alice Howell, Rube Miller, Josef Swickard

Run Time: 12 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Twenty Minutes of Love (1914)

A classic example of Charlie Chaplin’s adage that comedy could be reduced to “a park, a policeman, and a pretty girl,” this early Keystone short really captures his development of the “Little Tramp” character in a way that will seem familiar to audiences that know only his later work. The Chaplin we know and love begins to shine through here.

When Charlie laughs, we all laugh with him.

As is often the case with early Keystones, there isn’t much of a plot, and it doesn’t make a lot of sense: Charlie is in a park and sees various couples necking (these include Minta Durfee, Edgar Kennedy, and Chester Conklin). He seems to want to “cut in” on some of the men, and the women are decidedly uninterested in him. One girl asks her boyfriend to bring her a gift, and he steals a pocket watch off a sleeping man, which Charlie subsequently steals from him and presents to the same girl as a present. A policeman gets involved and hijinks ensue, ending with nearly everyone getting booted into the lake.

What stands out for me in this movie is really Chaplin’s performance, which is no longer villainous or even cruelly mischievous, but surprisingly sympathetic. While there is something creepy about a man seeing a woman kissing another man and taking that as a cue that “perhaps she would kiss me too,” Chaplin makes it seem simply naïve, clueless, and even a little sad. This is the birth of the famous pathos he would bring to his character in later movies like “The Tramp” and “The Bank,” and which would define him in the more well-known features to come. Chaplin’s gestures and facial expressions are far less aggressive than we’ve seen in movies like “Making a Living” or “Mabel at the Wheel,” in which he seems to have been directed  to emulate Ford Sterling.

Keystone’s cinematic style is established by this time. Cameras do not move or change focal length, but are locked down in long shot to establish “stages” or “rooms” that the actors move about within and between. Sometimes a character in one “room” interacts with one in another “room” (for example by throwing rocks at them), but there is no sense of what is between these spaces or any established geography among them. Doing this, however, allows for stunts to be timed by editing rather than the performance – a rock can be thrown, a person can duck under that rock, and another be struck by it in perfect timing, even if it really uses three separate shots to make it happen, with each actor doing his bit in his own way.

Director: Uncertain, possibly Charlie Chaplin, possibly with Joseph Maddern

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Minta Durfee, Edgar Kennedy, Chester Conklin, Gordon Griffith, Josef Swickard, Hank Mann, Eva Nelson

Run Time: 10 Min, 37 secs

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

Mabel, Fatty and the Law (1915)

Alternate Titles: “Fatty’s Spooning Days,” “Fatty, Mable and the Law.”

This short from Keystone stars two of its biggest stars after (as well as before) the departure of Charlie Chaplin: Mabel Normand and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Both are at the top of their game, but the movie suffers from Keystone’s slap-dash approach to plot.

Fatty and Mabel are married at the beginning of the film, but Fatty is flirting with the maid, triggering a bout of violence from Mabel. Another couple is established in essentially the same situation: here the husband is played by Harry Gribbon and the wife by Minta Durfee (Arbuckle’s real-life spouse). Both couples decide to patch things up by a trip to the park. They each sit on benches beneath signs that say “No Spooning Allowed.” Minta goes for an ice cream, leaving Harry alone, and Fatty spots her and soon ditches Mabel. Mabel and Harry strike up a flirtation as do Minta and Fatty. Now, a Keystone Cop in a tree spots the couples through a telescope and summons cops to arrest them (one is Arbuckle’s cousin Al St. John). Mabel and Harry manage to evade them, but Minta and Fatty are nicked. After some shenanigans with the cops in a crowded holding cell, each calls their respective maids and leaves a message from jail. The spouses rush to spring them, also taking the opportunity to shame them for their bad behavior, but when they see one another, they behave so awkwardly as to give away their own indiscretions. The entire group squabbles until the cop from the tree comes out and glowers at them, causing them to run for cover, one at a time.

The plot centers around an understanding of the concept of “spooning,” which has I believe fallen out of fashion. Most people today think of it either as a sexual position, or as its equivalent in cuddling – most spooning is done naked, and wouldn’t have been appropriate in a commercially released film in 1915. However, what we see the couples arrested for here is just sitting side by side, snuggling a bit, or in the case of Harry and Mabel, walking alongside holding hands. I think there is a deliberate implication of “soliciting” here that adult audiences would recognize, but which is suppressed by the use of the more innocent-sounding word. That’s also part of the humor, if I’m following it right. At any rate, this is a fairly typical Keystone domestic/situational comedy, in which the spouses are equally guilty of philandering, and get caught and shamed for their actions. It never really descends into the kind of chaos we would expect in a full-on slapstick movie, but the cast, especially the cops, get bits of physical comedy. Mabel is especially funny when she beats up on Fatty in the beginning of the film.

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Mabel Normand, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Harry Gribbon, Minta Durfee, Al St. John, Joe Bordeaux, Glen Cavendar, Josef Swickard, Alice Davenport, Frank Hayes

Run Time: 12 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Fatty and Minnie-He-Haw (1914)

This two-reel comedy from Keystone shows Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle as he was still honing his craft, though he tries out some gags that would be put to better use in later movies. True to the Keystone spirit, it is fast-paced and incoherent.

 

The movie begins similarly to the later movie “Out West,” with Fatty riding the roof of a train, only to be abandoned in the middle of a Western desert with no apparent resources. In this case, Slim Summerville comes along to kick him off the train, and unfortunately that’s his only appearance. Fatty spots Minnie-He-Haw (played by Minnie Devereaux), a Native American woman of about Fatty’s own girth. He decides to pretend to be dying of thirst to get her help, and she calls over some braves from a nearby camp to drag him home. Of course, since she’s now “saved his life,” she expects him to show his appreciation by marrying her. She takes him into her teepee and there’s a bit of funny business about the challenge of kissing when both have such large bellies. Then Minnie goes out to announce her betrothal to the tribe, and Fatty spots Minta Durfee having trouble with her horse nearby. He sneaks over to help her out and when Minnie finds out, the “green-eyed monster” takes over and she drags him back to a feast in their honor. Fatty eats a little and then either becomes ill or fakes it and makes another attempt at a getaway.

Minta rides into town up to the saloon and tells her father (Josef Swickard) about her adventures. He defends her from a funny drunk played by Harry McCoy, who does some good stunts, getting tossed around a bit. She then goes over to the corner to prepare dinner on a convenient stove. Fatty now arrives and also heads to the saloon and pushes McCoy down before spotting Minta and eating most of her dinner. McCoy tries to start another fight and gets shoved again, but now Swickland sees what’s going on and gets out his gun. At the same time, Minnie, also armed, shows up in town looking for Fatty. Swickard tells Fatty to keep away from Minta and shoots at his feet to make him dance, which is so amusing all the local cowhands join in. When he runs outside, Minnie is shooting at him also, so he runs back inside to further gunfire. After this has gone on awhile he runs out of town, winding up back at the Indian camp, where the Indians tie him to a stake and start a fire to punish him for his betrayal of Minnie. Minnie has a change of heart and frees him, but again he uses the opportunity to escape, and now the whole tribe mounts horses to pursue him. He evades them by crossing a skinny rope bridge that won’t hold the horses, but now they fire arrows at him. Several hit him in the behind and he runs off into the distance as the image irises in to indicate the end.

As we might expect from Keystone, the movie is short on plot and big on excesses, and your capacity to enjoy it depends on your comfort with Native American stereotypes and jokes at the expense of fat people. At least Minnie-He-Haw is a person with her own motivations, which is more than some Western dramas were managing at the time. Devereaux definitely fits right in to the madcap atmosphere at Keystone, even if she isn’t wearing bizarre facial hair, and plays her role with gusto. Arbuckle is also committed, even if we don’t get many of his famous stunts, and his run across the rope bridge looks genuinely hazardous. It was fun spotting various Keystone regulars in their Western garb, given a break from always playing cops. I sort of wanted Fatty and Minnie to end up together, but I suppose a mixed-race marriage would have been controversial in a comedy at the time.

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Minnie Devereaux, Minta Durfee, Slim Summerville, Josef Swickard, Harry McCoy, Frank Hayes, Edward Dillon.

Run Time: 24 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Danger Girl (1916)

This short from Keystone is the first Gloria Swanson movie I’ve reviewed for this blog. It’s probably not the sort of thing most people think of when they think of Gloria, but it does demonstrate her versatility and comfort in front of the camera.

danger-girlThe movie begins with a quarrel between Myrtle Lind and Bobby Vernon. Myrtle’s in a rather unflattering Mary Pickford-style wig, which I guess signals us that she’s a “good” girl. Bobby quickly falls into the orbit of “bad” girl Helen Bray, who may be deliberately imitating (or parodying) Theda Bara’s performance in “A Fool There Was.” She’s going riding, and invites Bobby along after brushing off “Last Season’s Suitor” (A. Edward Sutherland).  Gloria shows up driving recklessly with her brother Reggie Morris (for some reason known throughout as “Honey Boy”). Reggie is hoping to hook up with the danger girl, and Gloria develops an interest in Bobby when he helps her change a tire. When all the men start gravitating to the danger girl at a party, Gloria decides to take matters into her own hands by dressing as a man and distracting her. Myrtle ends up with Reggie, once the danger girl is no longer in play, but Gloria has to avoid the attacks of Last Season’s Suitor until Bobby drives a bus through the plate-glass window of the café they’re at and rescues her. Finally, all the “good” people are happily paired up.

danger-girl1This movie is a bit hard to keep up with, in part because the prints I was able to find were of poor quality, so it’s hard to tell actors apart, but in part because the characters don’t have enough personality or back story to identify with. The danger girl is distinctive, and once Gloria’s in her masculine attire, she’s easy to track, but the others seem quite interchangeable. I’m still not 100% sure I kept the division between Myrtle and Gloria straight before the “drag” sequence, and I gave up even trying to tell Reggie from Last Year’s Suitor, although Bobby Vernon is generally recognizable.

danger-girl2For a Keystone comedy, I was a bit surprised at the “adult” approach to comedy for the first two-thirds of the movie, although once we get to the café the Mack Sennett chaos does kick into gear. The theme of women in “masculine” attire goes a bit beyond just the explicit drag sequence: the danger girl’s riding outfit includes pants and a blazer, giving her a “hard” look, and Gloria puts on overalls when she has to work on her car. I suspect this was titillating to a 1916 audience, who didn’t often see women in pants. Some of the most interesting scenes involve Gloria in the “male” domain of a saloon, where she has to figure out how to stand at the bar, and avoid being groped by a fat drunk.  We do get some basic camera movement and reasonably sophisticated editing, certainly if one compares this to the Keystone Chaplins of 1914, but it was hardly cutting-edge in production values.

Director: Clarence G. Badger

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Gloria Swanson, Bobby Vernon, Helen Bray, Myrtle Lind, A. Edward Sutherland, Reggie Morris, Josef Swickard

Run Time: 20 Min

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

Fatty and Mabel’s Married Life (1915)

Keystone’s classic comedy couple star again in this one reel story of evil gypsies and mistaken identities. The Keystone Cops put in a good appearance and we also get some great street footage of old Los Angeles.

 Fatty and Mabels Married Life

The movie begins with an Intertitle that tells us “she reads exciting books,” which I think is meant to signal us that Mabel Normand’s character is given to fantasy and over-excitement. She and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle are sitting together in the park reading when an organ grinder’s monkey suddenly attacks her. Fatty fights it off, but this offends the organ grinder, who comes over to challenge him. Fatty easily overcomes him with superior strength, even going to far as to toss his organ after him, but the man vows revenge, leading Mabel to imagine that they are under a gypsy curse. Fatty walks Mabel home, where he meets a business associate (Charles Lakin) with whom he has an appointment. He sends Mabel into the house and starts to leave with Charles, but then realizes he has forgotten important papers. He brings Charles into the house to look for them, but Mabel is already upstairs reading in the newspaper about daylight robberies in the area. She gets out her gun when she hears someone going through the drawers and fires it through the door, hitting Fatty in the rear. Fatty runs and hides in a wardrobe, and his colleague runs back out to the car in a panic. Mabel finally discovers who she’s been shooting at and Fatty throws the gun away. Then he goes off with his associate to an office and leaves her alone. Mabel locks the door.

Fatty and Mabels Married Life1Now the organ grinder from before is outside with a friend of his. Mabel sees them from the upstairs window, but decides she is safe inside. Then the curtain in the room moves by itself. She tries to convince herself she’s imagining it, but the curtain keeps moving every minute or so. Finally, she grabs the phone and calls the police, reporting an intruder in her house. Fatty and the other fellow see the cops racing toward his house from downtown, in a classic Keystone crowded cop car. Meanwhile, the organ grinder has come up to the door and knocked. Mabel starts to open it, thinking it’s the police already, but when she sees his face, she tries to slam the door. The organ grinder forces his way in and she flees, throwing things at him as she retreats. Finally, she locks herself in the upper section of the house, but the curtain in the back room is still moving ominously. Now, the police arrive and a crowd of neighbors gathers to see what’s going on. The police work on crowd control and a few, led by Al St. John, enter the house to investigate. They find the organ grinder and hold him. Al assures Mabel everything is all right and she opens up to him, then leads him to the room with the moving curtain. Al tries to investigate, but every time the curtain moves, he jumps back. Finally, the organ grinder breaks free and rushes to the curtain, where the culprit is revealed: his little monkey, of course! Fatty comes home and is held back by the police as he tries to find out what’s going on. The police release the gypsy and Mabel and Fatty are reunited.

Fatty and Mabels Married Life2While it was pretty predictable, this movie was a good example of the work that Keystone was putting out after Charlie Chaplin left in 1914. I particularly enjoyed Al St. John’s cowardly cop act, his gangly legs shaking as he approaches the curtain, then jumping back a bit further each time it moves. Fatty does seem a bit more prone to violence than usual, taking out a good deal of wrath on the organ grinder, who is after all only concerned about his little monkey. But the chemistry between the leads is still strong, and we see all the established techniques of slapstick put to good use here, including a sequence of rooms that are integrated and yet cut off from one another to allow for greater confusion.

Fatty and Mabels Married Life3Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, Al St. John, Charles Lakin, Joe Bordeaux, Josef Swickard

Run Time: 12 Min

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

Fatty and Mabel’s Simple Life (1915)

This two-reel Keystone parody of a farmer’s daughter’s elopement has similarities to a number of comedies I’ve discussed before, including “Leading Lizzie Astray,” “Fatty and Mabel Adrift,” and “A Jitney Elopement.” Mabel Normand and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle demonstrate their considerable onscreen chemistry in the midst of slapstick mayhem.

FattyAndMabelsSimpl1915-01Mabel and Fatty live on neighboring farms and are shyly sweet on one another. The opening sequence involves a lot of cuteness with baby animals and Fatty tasting the animals’ food. Then Mabel settles down to milk a cow and the comedy ramps up. Fatty waves to her over a fence and peeks through a knothole, waving to her, and Mabel turns the cow’s udder to spray Fatty’s eye. After taking a couple of hits this way, Fatty goes to get the water hose. Unfortunately, Mabel’s dad (Josef Swickard) has seen what is going on and steps up to the knothole in the fence to see who his daughter is flirting with. Just as he puts his eye to the hole, Fatty lets loose and the dad gets drenched. Mabel and Fatty run away, and when the dad gets to the other side of the fence, a farmhand (Joe Bourdeaux) has picked up the hose to take a drink. The dad kicks him, and gets sprayed again when Joe turns around.

Fatty and Mabels Simple LifeThe plot thickens when the son of “the Squire” (Al St. John) shows up with a letter promising the old man free rent if his daughter marries the son. Of course, he goes for it, although Mabel is not at all happy about it. Dad calls the preacher to come over for a wedding. Fatty overhears the plan and springs into action, putting a ladder up to Mabel’s window and telling her to pack up so they can get married. She throws her heavy suitcase down, which breaks the ladder and pitches Fatty through the living room window and on top of her father. Now, Fatty resorts to force, kicking and pushing the dad and his rival into the kitchen and locking them in. He rushes upstairs and breaks down Mabel’s door, and the two of them run to an automobile and make a run for it. The dad and Al St. John pursue, stopping to pick up some rural Keystone Cops on bicycles. The car breaks down and goes in reverse, knocking over the pursuers and pursued in a sequence of silliness that ends with Mabel thrown by an engine explosion into a tree that happens to be perched on top of a well. The whole cast now tries to rescue her, Al St. John providing a rope (I want to point out that he was good for something), and in the process of getting her down several of the pursuers wind up in the well. Fatty tells the preacher to marry him and Mabel when he shows up, and presumably they live happily ever after.

Fatty and Mabels Simple Life1

What a knotty boy!

This is a pretty standard Keystone comedy with a chase, various gags, cops and a fight over a girl. Fatty is charming and sweet throughout, and one never gets the impression he means to initiate violence. Mabel demonstrates her ability to be the cute heroine and the physically active comedienne at the same time. The best sequence is that with the automobile running wild, which is what brings to mind comparisons with “A Jitney Elopement.” While the Chaplin film is better shot and edited, and the chase more thrilling, I found this sequence to be funnier. The car becomes a character, and a whimsically malicious one at that, as it alternately helps and hinders our heroes, sometimes running over their enemies, sometimes chasing them around a tree, sometimes exploding at the most inopportune moments. I quite enjoyed this movie, and it speaks well of the careers of all of its stars.

Man vs Machine

Man vs Machine

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, Al St. John, Josef Swickard, Joe Bordeaux

Run Time: 24 Min

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