Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Keystone Studios

His Prehistoric Past (1914)

This early Charlie Chaplin film came at the end of his short tenure at Keystone Studios, and may by the most “mature” of the movies he made for the company. This post is a part of the Time Travel Blogathon, hosted by Silver Screenings and Wide Screen World. Check out the other entries here. I hope everyone was able to safely “time travel” back from Daylight Saving Time!

We see Chaplin in his familiar “Little Tramp” getup, trying to get comfortable for a nap on a park bench. There’s a funny bit of business where he tries to straighten it our despite a broken board. Soon, he’s a asleep, and the real movie begins in the “prehistoric” era. A group of cavemen and -women surrounds the “Kink,” a chieftan-type played by Mack Swain. Another caveman does a rather swishy effeminate dance, which put an odd spin on the “Kink” intertitle for me, but probably wouldn’t have for most audiences in 1914.  We now see Chaplin in a funny variation of his outfit: he still has the hat and cane, but now his traditional too-tight jacket and baggy pants have been replaced by a frayed bearskin. He has a pipe, and fills it with tobacco, then tries striking several rocks against his leg, as if they were matches. One finally lights, and he smokes the pipe. He spots an attractive young cavewoman (I believe this is Gene Marsh), who is fetching water for the “Kink” and goes to speak with her. He does some funny business with the tail of his bearskin. The “Kink” gets tired of waiting and sends the swishy caveman off to find the water girl. He sees Chaplin and fires an arrow into his bottom. Once the cavegirl gets it out, Charlie throws a large rock at the attacker, which misses him and flies over to hit the “Kink.” The caveman chases Charlie around a boulder with a pointed stick, and the “Kink” comes over to investigate, and winds up getting stuck in the bottom by the other caveman, who is clubbed by Charlie in turn.

The “Kink” is now convinced that Charlie is his friend, and he takes him back to the tribe, where everyone bows down. Charlie keeps hitting the “Kink” accidentally (or not) with his club, but manages to smooth it over or blame someone else each time. Charlie is invited in to the “Kink’s cave for a drink, but winds up spilling a lot of it when he tries to shake it like a martini inside two hollow rocks. He throws the rest of it into the face of a servant (Al St. John). The he goes out to meet the girls of the tribe. Of course, the one he met first is the only one he really wants, but he seems to enjoy the attention. Another caveman walks up and distracts them for a while, but Charlie clubs him and takes his girl over to some rocks by the seaside. When the “Kink” comes out, he sees Charlie frolicking in the waves with the girl (who seems quite close to having a wardrobe malfunction in her furs). The “Kink” finally becomes possessive and pulls her away from Charlie. He smooths things over with the “Kink” again and they have more drinks. The whole tribe starts up a dance (several girls dancing with girls here), and Charlie asks his girl to dance. They do a rather wild jitterbug-style dance, while the others look on. The “Kink” catches sight of this and challenges Charlie to prove himself as a hunter. He gives Charlie a bow and arrows, and they go out to the forest. Charlie targets a bird in a tree, but ends up hitting the nest, raining eggs down on the  “Kink” and himself. Charlie finds the girl by a cliff’s edge an starts taking to her, and when the “Kink” comes to object, he trips him over the ledge. The “Kink” falls a long way but seems fine. Charlie returns to the tribe and announces that he is the new “Kink.” Everyone bows down, but the caveman from the first dance finally gets up and helps the “Kink” climb back up the cliff. The “Kink” picks up a large rock and sneaks up behind Charlie, breaking it into fragments over his head. Suddenly we cut back to Charlie on the park bench. A police officer is smacking him with his billy club, telling the Little Tramp that it’s time to move on. The movie seems to set up an opportunity for Charlie to get the upper hand, but on current prints it cuts off before the final gag.

1918 poster that used stills from the movie.

In terms of time travel, this falls very clearly into the “dream sequence” category: the dream is clearly set up by a framing story at the beginning and the end, and the audience is never asked to accept that Charlie has actually traveled back to the Pleistocene era. Still, the majority of the movie takes place in the imagined past, and makes fun of various caveman tropes that audiences today will still recognize. Especially when Charlie deliberately plays with anachronisms like the match-rock, it reminds me of the Flintstones. Charlie has packed an awful lot of gags into this one piece, as evidenced by the length of the summary, above. I think his ambitions were probably straining the budgets, production schedules, and abilities of Keystone to keep up with, at this point, but the result stands out as a pretty impressive comedy.

Apart from time, this movie made me think a lot about space, and how it was handled in the Keystone universe. There are a limited number of locations: the tribal campground, the cave, the forest, the watering hole, the cliff, and the seaside. Each of these is a discrete unit defined by a single camera frame. The camera can zoom in on people and objects within the set, but it never moves to show us different parts of the area, or how they are related to one another. We know that all of these “sets” are near each other, because sometimes someone in one set can see what is happening in another, or even throws a rock or arrow from one to the next (or through it into another one), but when characters exit one area, they are invisible until they enter the next. In this sense, it reminds me of a classic “Interactive Fiction” computer game, like Zork, that was made up of various “rooms” the player could visit that interlocked in sometimes illogical geographies. Younger readers who’ve never experienced this might get some insight from the “Digital Antiquarian” blog, although you really need to play one of these games for yourself to understand. Anyway, this model is descriptive of a lot of Keystone’s output, and even some of the work Chaplin did at Essanay. It’s a style of filmmaking that links the early theatrical “proscenium” frames to the freer, more mobile camera of the late silent period, and I haven’t seen a lot of discussion about it, but it fascinates me.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Mack Swain, Gene Marsh, Al St. John, Fritz Schade, Cecile Arnold, Sydney Chaplin, Helen Carruthers

Run Time: 21 Min

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

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His Bitter Pill (1916)

This Western spoof from Keystone has some funny parts, but much of it is played surprisingly straight, or at least low-key, by the standards of the studio. It stars Mack Swain, who had been, and would again be, a “heavy” in Charlie Chaplin comedies, but had a number of starring roles himself.

Swain plays “Big-Hearted Jim,” the sheriff of a Western county. He lives with his mother (Ella Haines), and hankers after Nell, the girl next door (Louella Maxam). While he tries to chat her up, a local ne’er-do-well called Diamond Dan (Edgar Kennedy) gets one of his cronies to “start some legal trouble” so he can horn in. The crony goes into the bar and starts shooting at the ceiling, which causes Big Jim to come crashing in and beat up everyone in the place. He makes no arrests, just leaving the unfortunate rowdies lying on the floor, then he returns to find Nell talking to Dan. He pulls her away, but soon he has to go see about a local widow being evicted from her place. He pays her rent for her, but once again Diamond Dan is on the spot. Jim walks Nell home, and goes back to his mother. She convinces him to ask Nell to marry him, giving him her ring for the proposal. But, by the time he gets there, Dan has already given her a bigger ring! Nell reluctantly tells him she’s always loved him…”as a brother.” He goes home and weeps piteously into his mother’s arms.

While he’s letting out his sorrow, Dan and his pals decide to hold up a stagecoach. As a result of unfortunate planning, they do so in full view of Jim’s house, and he pulls out a pocket telescope and figures out what’s going on. He leaps from his window onto a waiting horse, then charges into action. The bandits scatter, but Jim is able to shoot their moving horses at considerable distance. His mom meanwhile rouses a posse. He pursues Dan, after de-horsing him, back to Nell’s place. But, Dan tells Nell that Jim is just jealous, so she agrees to hide him in the chimney. There’s a funny sequence in which Jim suspects where Dan is, and he deliberately starts a fire in the fireplace to smoke him out, but Dan leaves his boots behind and climbs on the rooftop. Finally, Jim finds Dan and Nell pleads with him to spare his life. Jim gives Dan his horse, then goes to find the posse. Dan sneaks back to the house and “lures” Nell into running away with him to a “back room in a hell hole” which just looks like any saloon. He tries to get her to drink whiskey, but she refuses. Jim, who is having a drink in the outer bar, overhears the commotion and bursts in, once again fighting every ruffian in the place to save her. Jim pretty much trashes the place, but Dan is able to abduct Nell and ride off again, so there’s another chase. Finally, Dan is caught by the posse and Nell tells Jim she loves him, while we see the posse preparing to lynch Dan. The end.

This spoof probably held up better at a time when making fun of silent Westerns was a more original idea. Mack Swain is very hammy, and particularly when he’s grieving for Nell’s loss he goes way over the top, but to some degree that’s what a modern audience is expecting, so it can be hard to remember that it’s deliberate. Edgar Kennedy literally twirls his mustaches as the evil Diamond Dan, but again that’s pretty much par for the course. Sometimes it’s hard to make fun of something that’s already self-parodying. The physical comedy sections are played up in fast-motion, which does make them entertaining, but they don’t seem as extreme as other Keystones, and the whole thing lacks the refined chaos I expect from Mack Sennett (who produced, but didn’t direct in this case). It’s mostly Swain’s innocent sympathy that makes this movie work, and that at least is something.

Director: Fred Fishback

Camera: J.R. Lockwood

Cast: Mack Swain, Louella Maxam, Edgar Kennedy, Ella Haines

Run Time: 20 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Teddy at the Throttle (1917)

Gloria Swanson and Bobby Vernon are back in another slapstick romantic comedy from Keystone Studios. While it has the signature Keystone zaniness and even ends with an over-the-top chase-and-rescue sequence, this movie is longer and more complicated than the earlier films of that studio.

teddy_at_the_throttleAs the movie begins, Gloria and Bobby are sweetheart neighbors living in a high-class apartment building. Bobby’s money is being “managed” in trust by an older man (Wallace Beery), who actually squanders large sums on himself. Since Bobby is approaching the age of maturity, he’s worried that the shortfall will be noticed, but he comes up with a solution: If his sister (May Emory) can convince Bobby to marry her, they’ll go on controlling the money and Bobby will remain ignorant. Sis likes the idea of marrying an heir and goes to work on vamping Bobby immediately. Gloria doesn’t like this, of course, but Bobby seems to be excited about this sophisticated woman paying attention to him. Eventually, he’s ignoring Gloria and bringing flowers to May. Worse, when May tells him, “put a ring on it,” he immediately goes next door to Gloria, tells her that it’s over, and asks for the ring he gave her back! It doesn’t quite fit May, but she doesn’t complain.

teddy-at-the-throttleNow the plot thickens when Wallace receives a letter informing him that the will stipulates that Bobby loses his fortune if he marries anyone else but Gloria – the money all goes to Gloria in that case. Seems like it would have been easier for the departed to just make Gloria the heiress in the first place, but this is a Keystone comedy, so logic is not a strong point. Anyway, this gives Wallace an idea – he can marry Gloria and that will leave him in charge of the fortune while Bobby and his sister rot in poverty. The problem is that Gloria’s not interested in him, and he keeps dropping the letter in her presence and having to snatch it back before she figures out what’s going on.

teddy-at-the-throttle1The scene now shifts to a fancy nightclub where May and Bobby perform a humorous dance (she’s much taller than he is) and May keeps trying to get Bobby to elope with her. Gloria finally manages to read the letter while Wallace is off getting drinks, and she tries to tell Bobby while May drags him off to a preacher. Seems like if she just told May, it would solve the whole thing when May lost interest in being poor with Bobby, but, again, Keystone. May locks Gloria in the coat room and drags Bobby out to her car, where a storm is now raging, and of course the car has no roof. Undaunted, she speeds off on the muddy roads.

teddy-at-the-throttle2Gloria uses the coat room phone to call a lawyer and let him know what’s going on, and the lawyer climbs aboard the Limited train to intercept Bobby and May. When Gloria gets free, she also pursues, catching up to Bobby and May who have skidded off the road into a muddy ditch. Wallace now catches her, and realizing he can no longer count on Plan A, decides to try a better idea, he’ll chain Gloria to the train tracks and kill her, thus somehow finagling the books so that he keeps the money! Gloria foils this by using her dog whistle to summon Teddy, her large dog, and the title character finally shows up with about five minutes left to the film!

teddy-at-the-throttle3Teddy runs to Gloria, and she writes a note to Bobby, who steals a bicycle and follows Teddy to the train tracks. He is equally unable to free Gloria from the chains, but Teddy runs up to the engine, leaps aboard and shows the engineer the note. The engineer slams on the breaks, the train slowing down, but not quite enough to avoid Gloria. So she lies down on the tracks and lets the train roll overhead, the wheels severing the chains and freeing her to crawl out from beneath the now motionless engine. She and Bobby climb on board the cow catcher and ride happily to get married.

teddy-at-the-throttle4This is another comedy of the “girl tied up on the railroad tracks” variety from Mack Sennett, but it is a little more sophisticated piece of work than “Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life.” Fritzi Kramer, over at “Movies Silently,” has repeatedly taken on the old saw about silent movie women being tied frequently to the railroad tracks, and these two movies are the major “evidence” for the other side. The point is, however, that these were parodies of an earlier cliché, which apparently was used on stage in popular theater. Let’s let it die already. I actually think I’ve seen the ending shot – with the two leads riding away together on a cowcatcher – way more times in silent cinema, but somehow that hasn’t caught on as a cliche.

teddy-at-the-throttle5Vernon is a good looking young man, but short, and part of the joke is how he looks paired up against the taller woman (he and Gloria are about the same height). Much of the humor, up until the climactic multi-vehicle chase, anyway, comes from romantic mix-ups and money grubbing, making it a more “situational” comedy than is usually associated with Mack Sennett. The villain here is Wallace Beery, who puts a lot into the role, even if ultimately he’s just as mustache-twirling as Ford Sterling. In the end, “Teddy” the dog does more to rescue Gloria than the ostensible hero does.

Director: Clarence G. Badger

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Gloria Swanson, Bobby Vernon, Wallace Beery, May Emory

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

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).

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).

Fatty’s Plucky Pup (1915)

This movie is one of the more “typical” Keystones that Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle made for the studio. He’s far less likeable in this movie, although in the end, Luke the Dog does show up to save his girlfriend.

Fattys Plucky PupFatty lives with his hard-working mother (Phyllis Allen), who begins this movie by waking him, seemingly long after her working day has begun. Fatty grouses at her and stays in bed, lighting a cigarette and immediately dozing off, starting a fire on the bedsheets. Fatty does wake up and realize the situation, but his response is to leisurely walk into the kitchen and get a small cup of water. When this doesn’t work, he seems to lose interest, and moves on to other things, like combing his hair. Then, his mother comes in and sees the fire, she rushes out to get a bucket and winds up dumping it on him, because he’s too stupid to move aside. Then, once the fire is out, he tries to take the clean laundry out the yard to hang, but instead dumps it in the mud. He becomes a tad more likeable in saving Luke the Dog from Al St. John, the dogcatcher. It’s not clear to me whether Luke and Fatty are supposed to have a prior relationship, or if this is where they meet in this narrative. He also has a cute scene with the girl next door (Josephine Stevens as “Lizzie”) where they talk through a hole in the fence.

Fattys Plucky Pup1In the second reel, Fatty, Lizzie, mom and Luke go to the amusement park, and Fatty encounters Edgar Kennedy running a shell game, with Joe Bordeaux as a shill. Fatty, being an idiot, is taken in by the oldest con in the world, but then retrieves his losses by pointing a fake gun at them. To exact revenge, they kidnap Lizzie with the help of the embittered dog catchers, and take her to an abandoned shack, where they tie her to a post with a gun attached to a timer pointed at her head. Plucky pup Luke follows the crooks, chasing the dogcatchers onto the roof of a shack, and is able to warn Fatty in time to perform the last-minute rescue, with the help of the Keystone Cops. In the closing shot Fatty, Lizzie and Luke embrace in a joint kiss (and lick).

Fattys Plucky Pup2It’s probably obvious that I find Arbuckle pretty unsympathetic in this movie, and maybe it was partly because I was pretty burnt out on his Keystone comedies by the time I got to it. He’s kind to dogs, and at least makes some effort to save his girlfriend, but otherwise in this movie he’s a lazy burden on his poor mother, and even a hazard to have around. The other contrivance here is the contraption the crooks set up in order to have Lizzie shot at 3:00 PM, which is basically a variant on the girl tied to the sawmill conveyor or to the train tracks. As usual, it’s done here for exaggerated comic effect, but even in that context, it’s a cliché by 1915. This was a one-reel idea stretched out to two reels, in my opinion.

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Josephine Stevens, Phyllis Allen, Joe Bordeaux, Edgar Kennedy

Run Time: 27 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Mabel’s Wilful Way (1915)

This typical Keystone “park comedy” with Mabel Normand and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle adds to its visual interest by including a variety of amusement park attractions, and uses many of the best players in a cast that never lets up on zaniness.

Mabels Willful WayIt begins with Mabel out with her parents, obviously not having a good time. She sits at a table in a large dining hall with music that she mimes to us is too loud. Her father (Glen Cavender) seems to enjoy it, but her mother (Alice Davenport) is enjoying onions for lunch, making the other two hold their noses. Mabel runs away from the table at the first opportunity. Meanwhile, Fatty and his friend Edgar Kennedy have shown up and are following any unattatched young woman until Joe Bordeaux, the cop, takes an interest in them. Fatty relives some of his routine with a water fountain as seen in “Fatty’s Chance Acquaintance” and then sprays Joe in the face. After they get away, they see Mabel trying to scam some sweets off a ice cream man (Bobby Dunn), and fight over the opportunity to be her savior. Fatty wins, then steals a large coin from the cash register to pay. He and Mabel feed most of their ice cream cones to a bear in the zoo (very bad behavior, nowadays), and Fatty even manages to feed it some peanuts from his mouth! Meanwhile, Edgar Kennedy has stumbled across a baseball throwing game, with a man in very obvious (and offensive) blackface as the target. He starts throwing balls with all his might when Glen wanders up, now on the hunt for his daughter. This turns into a chase, then a battle between the two men with their canes. Edgar runs off to the merry-go-round and the chase escalates and Glen tries to catch up to his fast-moving horse, but winds up getting kicked in the pants every time Edgar comes around. Edgar makes his escape by leaping off and leaving the old man pursuing the empty horse.

Mabels Willful Way1Fatty and Mabel are now enjoying a giant slide with mats. They are knocked down by, or knock down, several other riders, including our old friend Joe the cop. This leads to a fight in which Mabel leaves Fatty and runs to Edgar, resting on a bench. They go off to play another amusement park game, while Alice takes a rest at another nearby bench, putting her umbrella up against the sun. Fatty picks some flowers, and mistakes her for Mabel (this would have made a lot more sense if they had been wearing the same dress, but oh well) and tries to kiss her. She, outraged, leaps up and starts flailing with her umbrella. Now Mabel sees her father and tries to introduce him to Edgar, which predictably does not go well, after their fight, which now breaks out anew. Fatty dusts the old man off and sympathizes with him, earning a new “introduction” to his daughter, and of course Mabel’s mom walks up and recognizes him, leading to more violence. After Fatty is chased off, he and Edgar swear off women before being chased by Joe the cop, and Mabel’s parents turn her over for a spanking.

Mabels Wilful WayThis is another movie whose direction seems to be attributed to either Mabel, Mack, or Roscoe, depending on who you ask. My go-to authority, “The Silent Era” weighs in on Arbuckle’s side, and it’s probably right, but I do have a theory that might explain the confusion. Unlike a lot of the other “park comedies” from Keystone I’ve reviewed, this one obviously took place in a location away from the Sennett studios, and it may have been a spontaneous decision to grab some actors and cameras and go there, without even a script. In that situation, and with different actors performing in groups in different parts of the park, the duties might have been split, depending on who was available at the moment. The ending strikes me as something that was dreamed up on the spot, not a planned resolution. About that ending: I suppose that the spanking of a grown woman (Mabel would have been 22 at the time) is another example of “vulgarity” in early slapstick – certainly it would have its titillating side for some members of the audience. It’s still surprising enough to get a laugh out of me, although really all Mabel did wrong was to get bored hanging out with her parents.

Director: Mabel Normand or Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle/Mack Sennett

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle”, Mabel Normand, Edgar Kennedy, Alice Davenport, Glen Cavender, Joe Bordeaux, Al St. John.

Run Time: 13 Min

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

 

He Did and He Didn’t (1916)

A lot has been made of this “dark” comedy by Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, which definitely has a more sophisticated tone than most of the work he did for Keystone Studios. However, it does manage to remain silly and even resort to slapstick for laughs, even as it plumbs the depths of spousal jealousy in a far more serious way than the usual “park comedy.”

He Did and He DidntIn this movie, Fatty and Mabel Normand are once again a couple, as they were often in the teens. This time, however, they are wealthy enough to have servants, and we are introduced to them as they struggle into their evening clothes. Fatty has a good deal of trouble with his collar and tie, and Mabel needs help with her zipper. Despite what has been written about the somber tone of the movie, this sequence establishes it as a comedy, with people confronted by day-to-day problems, but making it worse by getting more frustrated as they go. Next, we meet Jack (William Jefferson), who apparently grew up with Mabel. He produces a picture from “when they were sweethearts” – apparently when Mabel was in her tweens. Fatty is obviously uncomfortable with the newcomer, and he becomes so disturbed that he rips the photograph when Jack is not present. He then realizes what he’s done and apologizes to Mabel, but we know the issue is far from settled.

He Did and He Didnt1As it happens, a pair of burglars (Al St. John and Joe Bordeaux) are casing the place for potential robbery. Joe even comes in and goes through the motions of having a checkup, in order to get a chance to see where the safe is kept. Fatty catches him snooping and throws him out. Then it’s time for dinner. The dinner consists of lobster, and an Intertitle reminds us that eating bad lobster may have unfortunate effects, while the camera shows Fatty becoming increasingly concerned about Jack and Mabel. The thieves make a phone call to the house, calling Fatty across town for a housecall, believing that will leave the loot undefended. He is suspicious, and not at all eager to leave his wife alone with Jack, but nevertheless goes. Bordeaux and St. John enter the house unobserved. Now the action follows Jack, who is no dummy, and plans to stay away from Mabel while Fatty is away to keep the peace. To his surprise, Mabel comes to him in her nightclothes, and leans in close, seeming to intend to initiate romance. She whispers in his ear that there’s someone in her room, and he goes to investigate, finding a robber. Now the classic slapstick Keystone chase begins in earnest, with St. John showing off his athletic talents and his rubbery lanky body to the fullest as Jefferson chases him, firing a revolver wildly around the house. By the time Fatty returns, he has chased the robbers out, dropped his revolver, and tucked an unconscious Mabel in bed. Of course, that last is what Fatty finds on return from a phony address, and he shoots Jack and strangles his wife…

Or does he? We now see Jack and Fatty, waking up each alone in his room, suffering the effects of eating bad lobster.

He Did and He Didnt2There’s no denying that the subject matter here is not as light as most slapstick comedies, but I do think a bit too much is sometimes read into that. Possibly Arbuckle wanted to make a dark film, or at least a genuine melodrama, but his bosses at Keystone wouldn’t allow it. The ending obviously undermines the horror of seeing him kill innocent people, but more than that we have considerable high-energy slapstick and deliberate humor. The dinner is the sequence that is “darkest” to me, with the fewest interruptions for laughs, and it displays the competence of Elgin Lessley, who I believe was working with Arbuckle for the first time, in placing strategic shadows to enhance the mood. Another Lessley shot I appreciated was one in which the burglar comes into a dark room, with the only lighting source being the hallway behind him – usually Keystone houses are floodlit throughout. The DVD I watched had two versions, one with color tinting used to heighten the mood, based on the original release instructions. The color also added to the sense of artistry and deliberation of the film. We also see more close-ups in this movie, particularly of the brooding Fatty as he watches his wife with her old friend.

Elgin Lessley on set for "He Did and He Didn't"

Elgin Lessley on set for “He Did and He Didn’t”

This is interesting stuff, but it winds up being anomalous in a movie that can’t quite decide if it’s dark or light. “Silent Volume” has an interpretation of this film that suggests Fatty was demonstrating the horror of an abusive relationship, but this seems to me to be a very modern interpretation, not something that a comedian would have invented then. If anything, Fatty may be showing his real nature accidentally, not acting, in this movie. In previous cases, what he does here largely came off as cute, and his baby face still undermines the sense of him as a bad guy. It’s important to remember that spouses hitting one another and being controlling is a staple of slapstick, and we’ve seen it between this couple many times. Normally, this doesn’t extend to strangulation, but up to that point the movie only strays slightly off the established patterns of previous shorts. I’m inclined to read it as an experiment that failed, though perhaps your mileage will vary.

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: Elgin Lessley

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

Run Time: 20 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music, b&w) or here (with music and tinting).

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 »

Wished on Mabel (1915)

This Keystone comedy stars Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle along with frequent co-star Mabel Normand and returns to the typical theme of the “park” comedy the so frequently did. In this case, the movie is shot in San Francisco, seemingly in Golden Gate Park near the Conservatory of Flowers, and at least gives us some different backgrounds from the many comedies they performed in LA.

Wished On Mabel 1915As the movie opens, Mabel is in the park with her mother, Alice Davenport, and the two of them stop to look at a fountain. Mabel’s mother wants to read her magazine, and Mabel spots Fatty, her sweetheart, standing nearby. She invites him over to meet mother, who positions herself between them until Fatty uses his bulk to shove her over. They shyly attempt to kiss, but mother keeps looking at them and stopping them, and ultimately they decide to go for a walk while mother reads. The action switches to a man (Joe Bordeaux) sleeping on a park bench and a large cop (Edgar Kennedy) who walks up and rousts him. After the snoozer has departed, Kennedy lies down for a nap himself. Joe spots Alice alone and sits down next to her, pretending to have found something interesting in the paper. While she’s distracted by the paper, Joe snips the ribbon holding on to her watch, and steals it. He runs off and into a plainclothes policeman (Glen Cavender), who checks to see if his own watch has been stolen. Since it hasn’t, he lets Joe go.

Wished on MabelAlice now realizes that her watch is missing and hollers for a cop, waking Edgar from his nap. He runs over, gets all the information, and rushes off in search of Joe…until he gets back to his comfy bench, where he lies down for another forty winks. Alice goes off in search of her daughter. Mabel and Fatty have found a sylvan glen in which to frolic together, but suddenly a bee lands on her nose. Fatty laughs at how funny she looks as she crosses her eyes to try to see it, but then realizes she could be stung and tries to be a hero. He carefully positions himself and flicks it off her nose, and right onto the lip of another man (Ted Edwards) sitting on a nearby bench! Fatty also laughs at him for a while before flicking it off again. During his absence, Joe spots Mabel and tries to move in, losing the stolen watch through a hole in his pocket in the process. She resists his advances, and soon Fatty comes back over and chases him off. Joe crashes into the bench with Ted on it and they both go over. Now, Fatty spots the watch, and gives it to Mabel as a present. She’s thrilled, perhaps because it’s just like the one her mother wears. He goes to a nearby kiosk to buy some sweets for her. Joe dusts himself off and realizes he’s lost the watch, and backtracks to find it, running into Mabel again. He recognizes the watch he stole and takes it away from her. Now Fatty comes over and starts fighting with him. Alice sees them and she recognizes her watch, and the chaos escalates. Finally, Edgar, rousted from his snooze by his police chief, arrives on the scene and gives the watch to Alice and chases Joe. Joe tries to escape by climbing through a hole in a rock, but Edgar walks around to the other side and conks him with his Billy club.

Wished on Mabel1Although the plot here is simple and typical, a bit more went into this one-reeler than was usually the case. There’s obvious care in positioning the camera to take advantage of the setting – locations include the fountain, a building that I think is the Conservatory of Flowers, a tunnel, and the glen where Fatty and Mabel meet the bee. There are few, if any, “generic” shots as we see in many of the LA park comedies. There are also some good close-ups, including the theft of the watch and Mabel’s face with the bee on it. This is one of those movies where sources dispute the directorship – Wikipedia gives it to Mabel, while imdb and “The Silent Era” both claim Arbuckle. I’m inclined to believe it was him, but perhaps the duties were split because of the fast work needed for a location shoot. This movie included commentary on the “Forgotten Films of Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle” disc, and it’s an example of what I said about poor preparation for the commentary tracks. One of the commenters tries to lead the other into identifying the location by saying, “So, that’s some big park in San Francisco, eh?” and the other fails to pick it up. Those of the audience who have never been to Golden Gate are left in the dark, although the location is pretty obvious, even a hundred years later. A little rehearsal or pre-writing before recording the track could have fixed this problem.

Director: Mabel Normand or Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, Alice Davenport, Joe Bordeaux, Edgar Kennedy, Glen Cavender, Ted Edwards

Run Time: 13 Min

You can watch it for free: here (scroll to bottom of page)