Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Keystone Cops

Fatty’s Suitless Day (1914)

Also released as: Fatty’s Magic Pants

This early work from Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle while he was working for Mack Sennett doesn’t have a lot of originality, but it provides plenty of chaotic Keystone anarchy, and puts its star to good use. Crude, but effective in its way.

Fatty is talking to co-star (and his real-life wife) Minta Durfee about an ad in the newspaper. A “Grand Benefit Dance” is to be held that evening, and Minta is eager to go. Minta gives a brief demonstration of her ability to tango, and Fatty does a sort of imitation of her moves. At this point a rival, played by Harry McCoy, walks up carrying fancy-dress evening clothes. He points out to Fatty that he won’t be able to get in, because the ad reads “Strictly Full Dress.” Fatty responds with violence, knocking Harry out, which results in Minta hitting Fatty. There’s a bit more slapstick violence until a Keystone Cop (Slim Summerville) walks up and chases Harry off, throwing his clothes after him. Fatty slinks home and asks his mom to loan him 50 cents so he can hire some clothes, but she responds by bopping him on the ear. Fortunately, Harry lives next door, so Fatty just steals his clothes off the clothes line after he washes them (presumably because of the beating they took during the fight). Of course, they don’t fit, but Fatty fakes things up by drawing buttons on a towel to make it look like the shirt goes all the way down.

Where’s My Pants?

Harry can’t figure out where his clothes went, but he goes down to the dance anyway while Fatty escorts Minta. They dance up a storm, although Fatty’s antics threaten to expose his last-minute alterations. The go into another room for punch, but Harry has sneaked in here, and he recognizes his own suit on Fatty. He sneaks up behind him with a pin and loosens an already-straining seam on Fatty’s pants, then attaches a string to make sure they rip when he gets up. Fatty and Minta have a brief chat with another guest (I think this might be Charley Chase), and suddenly Fatty is pants-less! He runs about in panic while Minta and Charley laugh. He tries hiding behind the punch table, but a waiter comes in and moves it, and soon he is exposed before the whole ball. Now Harry grabs his jacket as well, and Fatty realizes what’s up. He tries to fight Harry, but Harry has a gun. He chases Fatty about the dance hall, causing more chaos along the way. Finally, Fatty escapes out the window, into the clutches of Officer Slim, who puts a barrel on Fatty in the classic method of concealing indecency, then hits him repeatedly with his billy club.

It’s Arbuckle’s physicality that really makes this movie work, from his assaults on Harry, to his pratfalls, to his tango dancing, to his running around in a panic, the movie hinges on well-timed, fast movement from the big man, and he’s fully up to it. Apart from Harry falling down once or twice, and Minta hitting Fatty, none of the other actors really even get a chance to keep up. The filming is standard Keystone, with locked-down cameras at wide shot establishing stages for the actors to work on, and the only editing is occasionally between stages, to show clothes being thrown or stolen or ripped off Fatty’s body. Fatty’s trick with the towel is hard to describe, and doesn’t seem like it would work at all in reality, but it sort of looks OK on camera, given the quality of the print and the camera’s distance from the actor. Given the set-up, I was expecting to see Fatty in drag again, as in “The Waiter’s Ball,” but this was at least different from that movie.

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Minta Durfee, Harry McCoy, Slim Summerville, Charley Chase, Alice Davenport, Phyllis Allen

Run Time: 12 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

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.

Waiters’ Ball (1916)

This short for TriangleKeystone stars Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and his real-life nephew Al St. John as rivals, in this case, not for a girl’s heart, but for a suit of clothes. The competition is no less riotous and ridiculous for the change of prize.

Waiters BallThe setting is a short-order eatery where Al is a waiter and Fatty is the cook. There are signs on the wall saying “Not responsible for chewing gum under the table” and “Take your own hat – the other fellow needs his.” The customers are regularly abused and ignored. Fatty pours soup and coffee from the same urn, and once again does his famous pancake flip – with his feet, with a broom, with anything at hand. Al is apparently sweet on the cashier (Corinne Parquet) and shows her an ad for “The Waiters’ Ball,” due to take place that evening. At first she is thrilled, but then she shows him the line stating “Full Dress Required.” Does he have a formal suit? Al’s face falls; no, he doesn’t. But, he promises to come up with something. There are several comic sequences that do nothing to further the plot, including an old man with a foot in a cast that keeps getting stepped on, a “broom war” between Fatty and Al that starts out with the dusting-into-the-next-room routine we saw Charlie Chaplin do in “The Bank,” a limburger cheese order that tries to crawl away on its own, and a very active leaping fish that Fatty needs to get into a pot of boiling water.

Waiters'_Ball_1916Finally, the dry cleaning man arrives, with Fatty’s suit and the owner’s (Kate Price) dress. Fatty shows how excited he is to be going to the ball, but this gives Al an idea. He starts a fight and chases Fatty with a knife. When he has Fatty cornered in a barrel, he sticks the knife in, finishing off his foe once and for all. “This act suits him,” the Intertitles tells us, and Al takes Fatty’s suit and leaves. Then Fatty climbs out of the barrel, holding a head of lettuce with a knife jammed into it. He used this to survive Al’s attack. When he discovers his suit missing, he decides to put on Kate’s dress and go after Al. The next scene shows Fatty in full drag, making quite a hit at the party. He seems at first to be enjoying herself so much, that he’s forgotten about finding her suit. But, then he sees Al, in ridiculously oversized clothes, drinking at the bar from a ridiculously oversized glass. Suddenly, it’s on! The two of them begin a twirling fight, Fatty hanging on to Al’s jacket while ill-fitting clothes fly off of each of them. It ends with the two of them in their underwear, a Keystone Cop taking them in with barrels covering their nudity.

Waiters Ball1The DVD commentary on my copy of this said that this is a “truncated version,” suggesting that we might be missing some of the more relevant material. As it is, most of the movie is just gags at the diner, and only about the last four minutes is at the eponymous ball. A lot of those gags have been used before: I spotted at least two other Chaplin bits besides the dueling sweeping routine, and the commentators kept referencing Arbuckle’s “The Cook,” which I haven’t seen. That’s not to say that it isn’t funny: the fish sequence is particularly good, and Alice Lake has a good part as a female customer who keeps sitting at the wrong table. The cinematography is by Elgin Lessley, who did some interesting work for Arbuckle in “He Did and He Didn’t,” but seems more pedestrian here. It’s also of note that Triangle had bought out Keystone at this point in time, and was putting out Keystone comedies with its own label. Mack Sennett would stay on for another year before starting “Mack Sennett Comedies Corporation” in 1917.

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: Elgin Lessley

Cast: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Al St. John, Corinne Parquet, Kate Price, Alice Lake, Joe Bordeaux

Run Time: 20 Min

You can watch it for free: here (Intertitles have been translated to Russian).

When Love Took Wings (1915)

This one-reel comedy from Keystone is basically a riff on the classic “elopement” plotline of “Leading Lizzie Astray” and especially “Fatty and Mabel’s Simple Life,” but with the addition of an escape by airplane to add to the excitement. Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle directed and stars in this tribute to chaos and high-speed vehicle chases.

WhenLoveTookWings1915-01The story begins in a kitchen, with Minta Durfee and Joe Bordeaux working together and Joe occasionally hitting her father (Frank Hayes) by accident. Minta has an odd Mary Pickford-like wig on that doesn’t quite seem to fit. Finally, Joe works up the courage to ask for her hand in marriage. Read the rest of this entry »

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’s New Role (1915)

Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle seems to be imitating Charlie Chaplin’sLittle Tramp” character in this one reel comedy from Keystone about a homeless man’s efforts to patronize a bar. Arbuckle brings his own personal style, however, and a subplot about a mad bomber and a prank on the tavern owner makes this different from any obvious slapstick models.

Fattys New RoleFatty wakes up in a hayloft and combs his hair in front of a cracked mirror hanging on a fence. He is dressed in ill-fitting clothes and seems to have several days’ growth of beard. He smokes a cigar. He sees a dog and panics, perhaps expecting to be chased off the property, and finds himself in front of “Schnitz’s Bar.” He goes in and asks for a refill on his empty liquor bottle. The bartender (Slim Summerville) agrees, but then gets annoyed when he starts taking free samples of the food that is laid out for a breakfast buffet. The tavern owner (Mack Swain) comes out to moderate and takes the food back and also dumps out Fatty’s bottle. Then he forcefully ejects Fatty. Fatty breaks his bottle open and takes out the handkerchief inside, wrings it out into a glass and takes a drink.

Fattys New Role1Back at the tavern, some of the patrons have seen a newspaper article about a bomber that has destroyed three taverns after being ejected for stealing food. They decide to play “a prank” by writing a threatening note which seems to be from Fatty. Meanwhile, Fatty runs into a rich gentleman (Edgar Kennedy) who gives him some money. He uses it to buy a round block of smelly cheese. The patrons and staff are clearing out of the tavern as the appointed time draws near, but Mack is still hanging around nervously, jumping at the slightest sound, when Fatty wanders back in with his cheese tucked under his coat. Mack finally panics and runs away, tearing through the streets of the city and leaving Fatty alone in the bar. He eats his cheese and pours himself free drinks, getting bolder and thirstier as he goes. Finally, he heads down to the basement to investigate the barrels of booze on hand. Mack has found some Keystone Cops to come back to the bar with him, thinking it has already blown up When they get there, Fatty is standing on a whiskey barrel with a mallet in the basement and he hits it, causing an explosion that knocks him upstairs and into the cops’ arms. Fatty finally passes out from all the booze.

Fattys New Role2I was a tad hungover when I watched this, so not really in condition to appreciate all the drinking humor. I do think that Arbuckle manages to give the “tramp” character an original portrayal, somehow managing to keep his good-natured innocence even as he portrays an alcoholic bum. The disc I watched this on claimed the movie features “Mack Swain and Ford Sterling.” I spotted Swain well enough, and there’s a number of other recognizable Keystone players, but I never saw Sterling. I think it’s a mistake, because imdb, Wikipedia, and “The Silent Era” all give similar cast lists without Sterling’s name on them. Fatty does get a lot of screen time alone in this movie, despite the large cast, and some of the funniest bits are just him being drunk or doing bits of business by himself.

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Slim Summerville, Mack Swain, Edgar Kennedy, Joe Bordeaux, Glen Cavender, Luke the Dog, Al St. John, Fritz Schade, Frank Hayes

Run Time: 13 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Fatty’s Tintype Tangle (1915)

In this short from Keystone, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle demonstrates his physical talents as well as comedic timing, although he comes across as perhaps less sympathetic than in other of his early work. Situational aspects combine with slapstick to make this an interesting representative of his work.

Fattys Tintype TangleFatty is married to Norma Nichols in this movie, and is enduring a visit from her mother, Mai Wells. The mother-in-law nags at Fatty and makes him miserable, while he tries to make pancakes in the kitchen (at one point flipping one in the air and kicking it back into the frying pan mid-air with his foot. There’s a sequence in which he goes into the bathroom to get something for his wife, forgetting that the mother-in-law is in the bath. After taking quite a bit of abuse (and bringing it on himself), he decides to take a few nips from a jug in the kitchen, becoming confrontational as a result. He storms out of the house and goes off into the park. At this point, enter our other couple, Edgar Kennedy and Louise Fazenda, who, we are told, are Alaskan migrants, looking for a home. Kennedy is dressed as a kind of wild mountain man, while Fazenda is made up to look freckled and homely. While Edgar is gone, Fatty sits next to Louise on a park bench, on onto one of her knitting needles. She helps extract it, then sits on it herself. Fatty helps her and consoles her.

Fattys Tintype Tangle1Not far away, Glen Cavender, an itinerant photographer, spots the two of them and takes a snapshot, thinking it is a lovely romantic scene. He shows them the tintype he has made, and they react in fear for their reputations. Cavender seems to toy with the idea of blackmail until Fatty becomes violent and chases him off, Louise retaining the picture. Now Edgar returns and sees the photo, and he threatens Fatty, who is clearly frightened – Kennedy is bigger than him, looks crazy, and has guns to boot. Kennedy tells Fatty to leave town before sundown. Fatty hastens to comply. He rushes home and absently packs a bag, telling his wife that he’ll be gone on business for a month. Norma decides she won’t need the house to herself and moves in with her mother, looking in the paper for renters. She finds an ad and calls, getting Edgar Kennedy, who eagerly comes over to move in with Louise. Meanwhile, things have not gone well at the train station for Fatty, who missed his train and got in trouble with a station cop for drinking. He decides to go home to wait for the next train. Of course, he manages to walk in on Louise in the bathroom, and tries to hide from Edgar in the shower, getting sprayed when Edgar tries the tap. Edgar flies into a rage when he finds him there, and chases him all over the house with his guns blazing, frequently scoring hits on Fatty’s behind. At one point, Fatty feigns death, and Edgar seems to feel remorse, but he forgets this as soon as Fatty revives. Fatty winds up on the telephone wires above the house, with Kennedy still shooting from his never-emptying guns. Finally, they both fall into a rain barrel, with their wives pulling each of them out by the hair and giving them a consoling kiss.

Fattys Tintype Tangle2The climax of this movie is Fatty on the high wires, walking, running, jumping, and bouncing along for a minute or more. This is a darned impressive stunt, and apparently a famous one as well, although overall the movie doesn’t have as much stuntwork as we saw in “Fatty’s Faithful Fido.” There is one good bit with the Keystone Cops, who get called, pile into a car, and never actually arrive on the scene. Apart from that, it’s all Fatty in this one sequence, whereas the other included great work from Al St. John and Luke the Dog. A tintype, by the way, was a kind of “instant” photograph that was made by creating a direct positive on a thin piece of metal, which is why a photographer in the park could offer Fatty a picture right away, instead of having to go home and develop it from film. Unlike a film negative, you could only produce one copy of the image from the tintype, so it wasn’t a great mass medium for photography, but worked well for portrait photographers working on the spot, as in this case. Tintypes being made on metal, they preserved well and there are many still around today in archives and photography collections, although the heyday of the format was the 1860s and 70s. Most of the movie is really about the situation: Fatty quarreling with mother-in-law, and then the compromising photograph. But, the slapstick ramps up as soon as Kennedy sees Fatty with Louise, reaching typical Keystone extremes in the final minutes.

Fattys Tintype Tangle3Note: Despite my misgivings, I am considering this one for Best Stunts. If you have an opinion on this, please comment below.

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Norma Nichols, Mai Wells, Edgar Kennedy, Louise Fazenda, Glen Cavender

Run Time: 27 Min

I have been unable to find this for free on the Internet. If you can, please comment and say where.

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).

Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life (1913)

Barney Oldfields Race for Life3

One of the thinnest plotlines in history seems to have introduced one of the most lasting impressions about silent film. This Keystone short has been cited time and again to support a premise that drives silent movie fans up the wall.

Barney Oldfields Race for LifeThis movie begins with Mack Sennett in the same bumpkin costume that he later used in “Mabel’s Dramatic Career.” He gives Mabel Normand a flower and they shyly smooch under a tree. This all seems to make villainous Ford Sterling inexplicably mad, and as soon as he can get Mabel alone, he tries to steal a kiss, which is rebuffed. He only gets angrier, and calls in his two goons to grab Mabel and drag her off to the railroad tracks, where they find chain and fasten her to the tracks with a railroad spike. Then, they take the convenient handcar to the nearest station and commandeer an engine (apparently just waiting for a train to do the job for them wasn’t good enough).

Barney: No actor, but boy can he drive!

Barney: No actor, but boy can he drive!

Ford gets angry with one of his associates when he asks to be paid and knocks him out. When the goon wakes up, he tells the railroad workers what’s going on and they inform Mack. Then, world-renowned racecar driver Barney Oldfield drives up and Mack informs him of Mabel’s peril. And the race is on! The car and the train speed toward the same location, but Oldfield’s expert driving assures the Mack will be able to rescue the damsel just in time. Meanwhile, a group of five policemen have taken the handcar to try to apprehend Sterling. Sterling, foiled by his inability to kill Mabel, takes out his gun and shoots all five. He tries to kill himself, but he’s out of bullets, so resorts to strangling himself to death (!).

Barney Oldfields Race for Life1This movie is a patently thin veneer hung over a thrilling chase and a lot of silly satire. Ford Sterling takes his mustache-twirling villain role to unheard-of extremes, climaxing with his own bizarre suicide when thwarted. When he so easily kills the five policemen, the question is immediately raised why he didn’t just shoot Mabel in the first place when she refused him a kiss, but that wouldn’t make for a thrilling movie, just a psychotic act of violence. Trying to crush her with a steam engine is clearly more cinematic. The chase itself includes some impressive photography for 1913, including tracking shots from the hand car, the engine, and the car, as well as from other vehicles just in front of or beside them. The shot where Sennett pulls Mabel off the tracks just in the nick of time appears to have been a double-exposure, and on the print I’ve seen it looks very dark and high-contrast, suggesting that the cinematographers couldn’t manage it with the finesse of Georges Méliès. Oldfield seems to have no interest in even trying to act, his only job is to drive a fast car, and he does that fine, letting Sennett do all the emoting. I suppose the five guys who get shot are technically “Keystone Cops” (they’re men in police uniforms in a Keystone movie), but they don’t do any of the characteristic antics one associates with that name.

Barney Oldfields Race for Life2Although Fritzi at Movies Silently has already covered this in detail, I need to say a few words about the girl-tied-to-the-railroad-tracks thing. Yes, this is a silent movie in which it did happen. No, it wasn’t all that common of a theme. Apparently, it was a trope in Victorian Theater, because you could build suspense by having off-stage train whistles without having to actually show a train. Whatever the case, this example is clearly satire – the situation is outrageous on purpose and being played up as ridiculous, as Sterling’s performance emphasizes. It wasn’t something silent audiences wanted or thought of as serious drama. I found it sort of a disappointing role for Mabel Normand (after all I said about her NOT being a “damsel”), she sort of sits there and weeps instead of taking charge of the situation, but it was hardly representative of her career, either. I’d say this movie doesn’t hold up that well, and isn’t even of great historical interest, inasmuch as it seems to lead people to false conclusions.

Wikipedia calls this a "screen shot" from the movie. I think it's actually a publicity still, judging by the posed look of the actors.

Wikipedia calls this a “screen shot” from the movie. I think it’s actually a publicity still, judging by the posed look of the actors.

Director: Mack Sennett

Camera: Lee Bartholomew and Walter Wright

Cast: Mabel Normand, Mack Sennett, Ford Sterling, Barney Oldfield, Al St. John, Hank Mann

Run Time: 13 Min, 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Fatty and Mabel at the San Diego Exposition (1915)

Fatty and Mabel at San DiegoThis Keystone short came early in 1915, just after Charlie Chaplin left the company to join Essanay. Interestingly, it resembles a more ambitious version of “Kid Auto Races at Venice,” his first “Little Tramp” release, in that it is a slapstick comedy shot on location at a major public event, using the backdrop of crowds and spectacle to boost the apparent production costs. It is both more and less successful than its predecessor, inasmuch as the comedy storyline is much better developed, but it lacks the innate charm of Chaplin simply doing his routines in front of a camera and a crowd.

 Fatty and Mabel at San Diego1

Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Mabel Normand are visiting the Panama-California Exposition in Balboa Park, in San Diego, California. They are apparently a couple, and do not behave like celebrities in this movie. At the opening parade, they fail to keep behind the lines erected to keep spectators out of the street, resulting in a Keystone Cop’s chasing them and battling them, which only causes more chaos. Then, they go for a ride on what seems to be a self-driven roller-coaster car with no roller coaster. They stop at an exhibit that promises to show “how movies are made” and Mabel gets off to gawk at some footage of the Keystone Labs. Fatty, meanwhile runs into another young woman (Minta Durfee, his real-life wife), and pursues her with his kiddy-car, which leads to more pratfalls. Mabel is annoyed when she can’t find him and gives him what-for, when he tries to pretend he was innocently watching the Hula dancers at the Hawaiian exhibit. After that, Fatty decides that he will go see the Hula dancers, and we see him whooping it up in the audience. Mabel decides to sneak in the other way and “catch him in the act,” but winds up at the stage door. Then she gets the clever idea of wearing a veil and going out to do a truly hilarious dance looking sort of like a shapeless sack wearing a veil. Fatty is aroused and joins her on stage, but when he removes the veil, she knocks him over again. He runs out, finding Minta has brought her husband along to get back at him, and more chaos ensues. Ultimately, the Keystone Cops are called in and several people are knocked into a very showy fountain.

Mabel is shocked to find herself on a Keystone set.

Mabel is shocked to find herself on a Keystone set.

It should be obvious that this was a much less improvised movie than “Kid Auto Races” was, and in fact some parts (for example the whole sequence in the Hawaiian pavillion) were almost certainly shot at the studio and edited in. Nevertheless, it is an effective example of a Keystone comedy and it is more visually interesting by virtue of the location. When Fatty and Mabel are in front of crowds, those crowds are paying attention to them, and obviously enjoying themselves, although they don’t appear to look at the camera. For the fountain sequence, we can see large crowds that are being kept at a distance from the main action, showing that Keystone had the ability to shut down parts of the event for filming. No doubt this was very short and impromptu, not a question of getting a license and city police cooperation as is done today. Both Normand and Arbuckle are at the top of their game, and the other Keystone players also acquit themselves well. Towards the end, for no apparent reason, a fellow dressed as Chaplin suddenly shows up – probably because audiences were still clamoring for him even though he’d moved on.

Wait, who's this guy?

Wait, who’s this guy?

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, Minta Durfee, Edgar Kennedy, Joe Bordeaux

Run Time: 10 Min, 20 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.