Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Mack Sennett

On His Wedding Day (1913)

Ford Sterling stars in this short comedy from Keystone before a certain gentleman with a cane and bowler hat showed up on the lot. It’s pretty typical of both Sterling and director Mack Sennett at the time.

Is everyone allergic to these flowers?

The movie begins by showing us the bride’s family at the church. The bride (Dot Farley) is cross-eyed and made up to look somewhat homely, foreshadowing what may come later. An intertitle tells us “Red Pepper” and we see a grocery clerk using said herb to make a friend sneeze. Now Sterling marches up in his wedding finery, carrying a bouquet of flowers, and the clerk sprinkles it with his pepper. Ford arrives at the church and unknowingly presents it to the bride and the minister (Hale Studebaker), who begin sneezing uncontrollably. The preacher, in search of fresh air, runs out of the church and into a park, and Sterling pursues, but is distracted when he comes across Mabel Normand and her boyfriend (Charles Avery). Ford quickly gets the idea of trading up, but before hitting on Mabel, he sends the parson back to the church. He easily shoves the smaller Avery out of the way and strikes up a conversation with Mabel. Avery locates a couple of local bums and pays them to beat up Sterling for him. While they are about it, he hastens back over to Mabel. Meanwhile, the wedding party is calling out for Sterling, but the thugs have stolen his clothes. Sterling is now running about in his long underwear, shocking Mabel and a passing woman. Mabel slugs Avery and goes her own way, but Sterling is now pursued by a police officer in a comic chase that soon draws in other cops and passersby. Trying to evade the police, Sterling climbs onto the roof of the church and drops through the chimney, now in no way presentable for his wedding. The movie devolves into a typical Keystone riot as the bride defends her groom by taking a cop’s billy club and bashing the whole crowd. They embrace at the end, so I guess it’s a happy ending, though they’re not married.

A sure way to impress a girl.

This was a cheaply done film with minimal plot and plenty of comic action, so quite what one expects from the Keystone studios at the time. Ford Sterling and Mabel Normand were two of the biggest stars at the lot, though this is pretty much Ford’s film. Given the persistent rumors that Mabel and Mack Sennett were dating at the time, I got a giggle out of the intertitle comparing her to “a goddess.” She does look decidedly better than cross-eyed Dot, and both girls get a chance to hit the men in the course of the slapstick silliness. There is a certain amount of inter-cutting between the wedding party and Ford’s attempted philandering, possibly Sennett showing off a technique he learned while working for D.W. Griffith, although it doesn’t really help the comedy much. A good example of Sennett’s pre-Chaplin work, there are no surprises or outstanding accomplishments here.

Director: Mack Sennett

Camera: unknown

Starring: Ford Sterling, Mabel Normand, Dot Farley, Charles Avery, Hale Studebaker, Nick Cogley, Helen Holmes

Run Time: 6 Min, 26 secs

You can watch part of it for free: here (no music). I have not found available complete for free streaming. If you do, please comment.

The Property Man (1914)

This early Charlie Chaplin short has elements in common with later films, like “Back Stage” starring Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Buster Keaton, though all of them probably drew from Vaudeville routines as their sources. It shows both the roughness of Chaplin’s early work, and the rapidity with which he developed.

Charlie is a stage hand for a popular theater with a variety show. The opening shot shows him taking a break with an elderly co-worker (I think it’s Joe Bordeaux). Charlie is drinking out of a large pitcher, and when the old man reaches for it, Charlie twists his ear and spits out what is in his mouth at the man. We see the arrival of some stars (Phyllis Allen and Charles Bennett) who are angry to find that their act is not billed on the poster outside, although they insist on trying to take the “star’s” dressing room – which is reserved for the strong man (Jess Dandy), who is only too happy to show them the door when he gets there. Charlie sits under a “no smoking” sign, smoking a pipe, although  he eagerly points it out to the actors when thy light up. When the strong man lights a cigar, Charlie discreetly turns the sign toward the wall.  Naturally, the strong man has a lovely assistant (Helen Carruthers) and naturally, she and Charlie hit it off, enraging the strong man. Charlie does several pratfalls built around the supposed weight of the strong man’s luggage, bashing into the rest of the cast as he staggers around beneath the huge crates which the strong man lifts effortlessly. Later, Charlie takes a hatbox and straps the heavy stuff to his senior co-worker, who collapses under the weight. When “the Goo Goo Sisters” (another act, billed as “comediennes” on the billboard) show up, Charlie tries to flirt with them as well, but he hides the pitcher in his pants, resulting in an embarrassing leak.

Not helping, Charlie.

The strong man asks Charlie to sew up his tights, although Charlie winds up using them to mop the floor instead. Meanwhile, the matinee has started and Charlie and his coworker fight behind the scenes, causing a backdrop to hit an unpopular singer and knock him out. Charlie sweeps him off the stage, to the delight of the audience (which includes Mack Sennett and Chester Conklin). When the Goo Goo Sisters, in scanty costumes (for 1914 anyway) go on stage, Charlie first follows them out to stare, then blindfolds his partner to prevent him from staring. Their backstage fighting causes them to bump the sisters through the backdrop, again to the delight of the audience. Charlie throws the wet tights, which miss his target and hits a sister, who then throws them into the audience, thinking someone has thrown them instead of booing. There is a long gap between acts, because the strong man lacks tights and his assistant is busy flirting with Charlie, so when the old man raises the curtain, the audience finds the three of them arguing, with the strong man’s garters exposed. He gamely goes ahead with his act, but his assistant has been knocked out in the fighting, so Charlie tries to help, causing more chaos and riotous laughter from the audience. Charlie goes backstage to help the assistant, while the other actors harangue his partner. The old man lowers a backdrop on the strong man while he tries to balance over 1000 lbs of weight, ruining his act. Now the strong man goes back stage and finds Charlie fanning his unconscious assistant, and goes on a rampage, also ruining the dramatic act of the other performers. To defend himself, Charlie grabs a fire hose and sprays him and the other performers, also drenching the entire audience.

As I commented above, this movie has a lot in common with “Back Stage,” most obviously including the angry strong man and his lovely assistant, but I doubt if Arbuckle was actually being any less original than Chaplin – both would have been drawing from established Vaudeville routines which many in their audience were already familiar with. “Back Stage” is also a rather more polished movie in terms of camerawork, plot, and character, but it’s not entirely fair to compare 1914 with 1919, or Chaplin at this point in career with Arbuckle at that point in his. What I can say is that this is one of the funnier movies Chaplin directed himself in during the summer of 1914, and this is so despite the constraints of the Keystone formula and his own limitations due to lack of experience and knowledge of his character. Chaplin isn’t really the “nice” version of the Tramp here – his constant use of violence, especially against his older and demonstrably weaker colleague argues against that – but he manages to evoke a degree of sympathy or identification in the audience nonetheless, perhaps just by being the little fellow who gets the best of everyone around him. There’s a kind of metaphor at work when his various inopportune moments on the stage prove more popular with the in-movie audience than the planned performances; it seems to reflect how his growing fame took studio heads at Keystone by surprise.

Chaplin delights an audience.

There’s a question here, also: Is he playing the “Little Tramp” or not? His mustache is now established (he’d abandon it later in “Tillie’s Punctured Romance,” but not often after that). but the rest of his costume consists her of oversized overalls and a bowler hat with a rim that is nearly falling off. The strong man refers to him in an intertitle as “that bum,” which at least makes a bit of a connection. It seems likely that Chaplin himself didn’t know for sure whether the Little Tramp would take a job as strenuous as property man, and may have been ambivalent about the character here.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Jess Dandy, Helen Carruthers, Joe Bordeaux, Phyllis Allen, Charles Bennett, Mack Sennett, Chester Conklin, Alice Davenport, Harry McCoy, Norma Nichols, Cecile Arnold, Vivian Edwards

Run Time: 24 Min

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

A Dash through the Clouds (1912)

This early Biograph short by Mack Sennett stars Mabel Normand and seems to demonstrate the influence of mentor D.W. Griffith on Sennett’s work, although it could also be intended as satire of his style. Like many movies of the time, it relies on the speed of a modern vehicle to bring action and excitement to a fairly simple story line.

The movie wastes no time in introducing us to our love triangle – Arthur (Fred Mace) is married to Martha (Mabel Normand) and they meet dashing pilot Philip Parmalee (a real life pilot who worked for the Wright Brothers). Philip offers Martha a spin in his airplane, and she eagerly accepts, despite Arthur’s objections. Arthur tries to stop the flight by sitting on the lightweight plane, but an assistant pushes him off and helps Philip and Martha get under way. Arthur makes a futile attempt to pursue them across a field that is serving as a runway. As Martha and Philip soar overhead, Martha drops Arthur a note – “I’m in heaven.” Philip and Martha come in for their landing, and a very consternated Arthur remonstrates with her all the way home.

An intertitle now explains that Arthur is a “tutti frutti salesman” and that he is leaving on a business trip. He climbs on a horse and rides off, giving Martha another chance to visit with Philip in his absence. He goes to “the next town,” which is populated by vaguely ethnic types – possibly Gypsies or Mexicans. He hands out samples of tutti frutti, which seems to come in small cylinders, and attracts the attention of a large woman (Sylvia Ashton). They take an opportunity to sit on a bench together, something which infuriates her family and indeed most of the rest of the town. The movie cross-cuts between the two philandering couples, but soon two of the woman’s relatives come to protest. Arthur rebuffs them with some awkward slapstick fighting, but they run to get guns and arouse the rest of the town. Now desperate, Arthur bribes a boy with a stick of tutti frutti to jump on his horse and get help, giving him a note for Martha. Martha, of course, goes to Philip, who thinks to grab a couple of pistols before they take off together. Arthur is now hiding in a shack as the posse (or lynch mob) fights to get in, but the plane arrives just in time, with Philip and Martha firing off their guns to frighten them. Obviously, they lack the stomach for a two-sided gunfight, so they flee en masse. Arthur thanks Philip and all is forgiven – for a moment – until Martha decides she’d rather ride back to town with Philip, leaving Arthur stranded and forced to walk home alone.

Although there are some elements of Sennett’s later comedy (especially the ending), this movie can’t seem to make up its mind how serious it is. In structure, it resembles such films as “The Lonedale Operator” and other race-to-the-rescue stories that Griffith had pioneered, but it isn’t pulled off as effectively. The first half seems to be either a domestic drama or a situational comedy, depending how you look at it, and very little of what humor there is is physical, which was really Sennett’s strong suit. The shot of Fred Mace running across the field reminded me of a sort of reversal of “North by Northwest” – almost certainly fortuitous, though it’s remotely possible Alfred Hitchcock saw this movie in boyhood. When I hear “tutti frutti,” I think of ice cream, but that can’t be what Arthur is selling here, since he carries it in sticks in his pocket, so it must be some kind of candy or gum. The silliest part of the whole movie is Arthur giving the kid his horse, instead of just riding off to safety himself, although in context it could have been explained that the mob knew where he lived, so that would be no refuge and he would be endangering Martha. At any rate, while Fred does reasonably well, it is really Mabel’s commitment to her flirtatious character that carries the film. Philip Parmalee mostly looks like he wants to know what to do with his hands when he’s not manipulating the controls of his aircraft.

Director: Mack Sennett

Camera: Percy Higginson

Starring: Fred Mace, Mabel Normand, Philip Parmalee, Sylvia Ashton, Jack Pickford, Kate Bruce, Edward Dillon, Grace Henderson, Harry Hyde, Alfred Paget

Run Time: 10 Min, 11 secs

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

A Busy Day (1914)

Although he had already started directing his own movies when this short was released, this is another example of Charlie Chaplin’s work with Mack Sennett as director, along with “Tillie’s Punctured Romance” and “The Fatal Mallet.” It repeats themes that Sennett and Chaplin had explored before, but with one big novelty thrown in.

The movie begins by showing us an audience gathered to see a parade. The background is filled with people who are probably genuine spectators, but there are four Keystone actors in front. These include Mack Swain and Phyllis Allen, and most importantly, Charlie himself, although he is dressed in drag and plays Mack’s wife. There’s a bit of roughhousing in the stands and some shots of a military parade going by, and then Mack sneaks off with Phyllis. A cameraman (Mack Sennet) sets up to shoot the parade in another shot and then we see Charlie realize she has been abandoned. She sees them running past the camera and sets off in hot pursuit, again ruining Sennett’s shot of soldiers marching by. She gets distracted by his efforts to remove her from the shot and begins posing for the camera, so Mack calls in a Keystone Kop (I think it’s Billy Gilbert). Soon Charlie is kicking and pushing both of them and they push her into another Kop (Ted Edwards), who shoves her back into camera view. This goes back and forth for a while, interrupted only by a shot of some naval boats in San Pedro Harbor.

Finally, Charlie remembers her true objective and goes after Mack and Phyllis, who are admiring the ships. She attacks them viciously with her umbrella. When the much larger Swain strikes back, she is once again shoved into a Keystone Kop and the slapstick violence starts to ramp up again. Swain is able to break away and find Phyllis near the launching of some motorboats while Charlie dances to a military band. She eventually find her husband and the “other woman” again, and they fight, this time with a large crowd gathered to watch in the background. The camera cuts to a new angle, showing that the fight has edge to the side of the dock, and soon Swain gives Charlie a shove and she does a double backflip into the harbor. The closing shot is of Charlie splashing around fruitlessly in the water.

About half of this movie is a straight remake of “Kid Auto Races,” except for the cross-dressing. It was common for Sennett to take advantage of a public spectacle by getting some actors quickly into costume and ad-libbing a slapstick comedy, although there’s more of a story here than in the earlier film. The spectators are pretty obviously not extras – a few stare at the camera, but most stare and laugh at the actors. Interestingly, I noticed that older women, far from seeming shocked, appeared to be the most entertained by Chaplin’s antics. This was the first time Chaplin had appeared in drag on film (though I assume he’d done it before on Vaudeville stages), and to the degree he had built up fans for his “Little Tramp” characterization, I have to assume his audience wouldn’t have recognized him at all like this (remember, it was only about four months earlier that the Tramp outfit was introduced). But his trademark physicality is fully on display here, something that was remarked on by a reviewer at the time. The final backflip has to be seen to be believed. This is also the first time he was teamed with Mack Swain, who would become a reliable foil in the years after Chaplin struck out on his own, perhaps most famously in “The Gold Rush.”

Director: Mack Sennett

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Mack Swain, Phyllis Allen, Mack Sennett, Billy Gilbert, Ted Edwards

Run Time: 5 Min, 37 secs

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

A Grocery Clerk’s Romance (1912)

This early short from Mack Sennett was shot in Fort Lee, New Jersey, before he moved his new Keystone Company out to California. Not surprisingly, it is a slapstick comedy, full of violence and illogic, but with only one Kop this outing.

The movie begins by establishing a simple love triangle. James C. Morton is the “lazy husband” of a plain-looking, middle-aged (uncredited) woman. Ford Sterling is the next-door neighbor (presumably a grocery clerk, though we never see him at his duties) who likes to come over and help with her chores. Oblivious to this domestic drama, Morton heads over to a local bar to get drunk, giving him and pal Gus Pixley the opportunity to do some pratfalls. Meanwhile, Sterling has put on an apron and is amusing the wife as he hangs the laundry, camping for her as he goes. The husband now stumbles home and gets into it with Ford, who drives him off easily. When he tries to return to the bar, he is denied admittance by the local sheriff (Lincoln Plumer), who indicates that he’s had enough, so he staggers into the woods, where, as it happens, a group of foreign-looking anarchists are meeting and showing off their new bomb to each other. They immediately forget about whatever plans they had for the bomb when they discover the “spy” in the woods, and tie up Morton, lighting the fuse.

At this moment, Morton’s child, whose job up to now has been to follow him around sniffling and occasionally tugging on his sleeve, finds her father in dire straits. He tells her to run and get help, meanwhile continuing to struggle with his bonds. She dutifully runs back to mama, who faints dead away at the news. A glint comes into Sterling’s eye as he calculates “in five minutes, she’ll be a widow!” He grabs the screaming child and stashes her in the cellar. He takes out his pocketwatch and counts off the precious seconds. When he feels enough time has passed, he releases the child and wakes the woman; now he starts running through the streets to gather a crowd to come and “help” too late. Unbeknownst to him, of course, the husband has already freed himself. So, when the mob hears an explosion in the trees, and then they run up and find the husband’s hat and coat at the bomb site, they assume the worst, and so does Sterling. He very quickly proposes to the “widow,” who gladly accepts and they prepare a wedding ceremony almost instantly, everyone turning out in their finery. Morton, of course, goes back to the bar where his surprised friend tells him his wife is being married at that very moment. They rush over to interrupt the ceremony and the child finally fingers Sterling as the reason the rescue party arrived late. Ford runs off in disgrace, and Morton takes his wife in an embrace. She doesn’t look entirely pleased.

It’s odd to see Sterling without his usual makeup in this film – I actually thought it was Sennett himself at first – but his trademark over-the-top facial expressions are very much on display. The movie didn’t make me laugh, though it did get a couple of guffaws from me near the end (about par for the course for a Mack Sennett, actually). Overall, the structure of the movie reminds me of “A Muddy Romance,” “The Gusher,” and other movies Sennett would later make with Chaplin and/or Sterling and Mabel Normand. This might be seen as the template for those later films, with Sennett always ready to improvise when something interesting happens like an oil fire or a drained lake. In that sense, it’s a rare historical relic, if not exactly classic slapstick.

Director: Mack Sennett

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Ford Sterling, James C. Morton, Gus Pixley, Lincoln Plumer

Run Time: 7 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Manicure Lady (1911)

This short by Mack Sennett was produced for Biograph before he struck out on his own, and it seems he tried (or was told) to imitate D.W. Griffith, because there’s very little of the wacky chaos of a Keystone production here. We do get Griffithian conventions like contrasting scenes intercut to demonstrate opposites, and a race to the rescue at the end.

The movie begins by introducing the named character, a woman (Vivian Prescott) who works in a barber shop, as she prepares for work. The intertitles tell us, however, that this is a romance, which will prove “faint heart never won fair lady.” That situation becomes more clear, however, when we meet her coworker, the barber (Sennett). He immediately pulls out a ring and proposes to her, but she spurns him. As (male) customers come in for manicures and shaves, we see that the manicurist enjoys the intimacy of her work, and is flirtatious with the customers, which drives the barber to distraction, and makes him negligent of his own work (and a bit dangerous, with a razor in his hand). One customer in particular (Eddie Dillon) quickly shows interest in her and becomes a rival for her affections. When lunch break comes along, the barber and the manicurist prepare to go out together, but the rival shows up in a car and takes her off with him. The lunches are cut together – Vivian and Eddie are eating in refinement and luxury, while Mack is in a cheap diner, with a tough steak and a rude waitress. At the end of the day, the rival shows up in another car (possibly a taxi) but this time Mack, desperate, leaps onto the back of the vehicle. As they ride out into the country, Mack breaks through the rear window and beats up his rival, tossing him out of the car. He once again proposes, and the manicure lady, overcome by his passionate determination, finally consents.

Most of the humor of this film comes from Sennett’s distraction while the manicurist flirts. He tugs on beards, forgets to finish what he has started, and generally seems like a menace with his blade. One older customer is dragged off by the ear by his jealous wife (Kate Bruce) who refuses to pay for the shave Sennett forgot to give. Another grows tired of waiting and grabs the razor to shave himself (though he pays). The other laugh I got out of it was the final fight scene, mostly because it was so sudden and surprising. Mostly, though, this is a rather broadly-played romantic drama, and though we feel sorry for the barber, he never really comes across as the better or more deserving of love. Watching it made me think of the strange physical intimacy of this now largely lost form of grooming – few men today go to barbers for shaves and manicures. Almost the only time I am this close to a stranger is when I go to the dentist. For a society as repressed as (we think of) the early twentieth century, it’s interesting that this convention existed. It seems like early film makers, looking for places where romance could happen in nine or ten minutes, found it useful as well.

Director: Mack Sennett

Camera: Percy Higginson

Starring: Mack Sennett, Vivian Prescott, Eddie Dillon, Kate Bruce, Verner Clarges, Grace Henderson, Florence La Badie, Claire McDowell, Kate Toncray, Charles West

Run Time: 11 Min, 22 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

The Curtain Pole (1909)

This early collaboration between D.W. Griffith and Mack Sennett looks like a primitive version of the latter’s later riotous slapstick comedies. It uses themes (like the mass chase) that have shown up in earlier film comedies from both France and the USA.

The movie begins in a middle-class home, where a man (Henry Solter) is helping several women (one is Florence Lawrence, AKA “The Biograph Girl”) to install a new pole for the curtains. However, he is either not tall enough or otherwise unable to manage it. In walks Sennett, in a ridiculous mustache and tight-fitting clothes that emphasize his lanky frame. He makes an attempt, but slips and falls, bending the pole and then breaking it when he tries to straighten it out. Deeply apologetic, he goes out to procure another for them. Along the way, he encounters an acquaintance, who invites him into a bar for a drink. Thus fortified, he makes his way to a store and buys a very long curtain rod. Almost immediately, he starts knocking people over and whacking them with the pole. When he tries hiding out in the bar, he causes further chaos there, and soon a gang of different types of people, from little old ladies to street ruffians, is chasing him. He stops and gets a taxi, but the added speed only makes the pole more dangerous, and soon he is literally causing riots in the street with his passage. He does manage to elude the mob, in part because his horse starts running backward (!), and eventually makes it back to the home of his friends, who apparently were able to get another curtain rod during his long absence, and have started a dinner party. Driven mad by his experience and failure to help out, Sennett starts eating the curtain rod.

This sort of comes across as a “proof of concept” experiment, with Griffith trying to show what he can accomplish. One part I don’t entirely understand is where a fellow with a walking stick causes the horse to start running backward. The effect is achieve by reversing the film, and Griffith has the mob run up right afterward and fall down, but in fact what the actors did was get up and “run” backwards off the screen in order to get the effect, and it looks very unnatural. Sennett chews the scenery and hams constantly, but he’s having so much fun with it that it’s hard to mind. The riot scenes are remarkable, with baby carriages and innocent couples being knocked over, pushed, and trampled. I wouldn’t be surprised if a few actors were injured. The film was shot in Fort Lee, New Jersey, and takes advantage of the location to show quite a number of its streets.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: G.W. “Billy” Bitzer

Starring: Mack Sennett, Henry Solter, Florence Lawrence

Run Time: 10 Min

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

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.

Ramona (1910)

This early short by D.W. Griffith was shot in California and adapts a highly popular novel which had come to be associated with the myth of Californian conquest. Although this is one of the longest movies released that year, Griffith was clearly feeling the constraints of the short format in trying to tell such a large story.

The movie begins with a Biograph title card, which includes the subtitle “A Story of the White Man’s Injustice to the Indian.” The next card informs us about the source, the novel by Helen Hunt Jackson, and the fact that the movie was shot “on location” in Camulos, California, “the actual scenes” where the novel is set. The first shot shows Ramona (played by a very young Mary Pickford) and her meeting with Alessandro (Henry B. Walthall), one of the Indians who works at her stepmother’s estate. Ramona is sewing, and as the Indian workers file past, Alessandro notices her and is struck by her beauty. Ramona goes into the church to pray, and Alessandro follows her. An intertitle informs us that the next scene is “the meeting at the chapel,” in which we witness their “meet cute.” Ramona also seems fascinated, but demure, and her stepbrother Felipe (Francis J. Grandon) introduces them and then leads Alssandro away. The next scenes show their growing attraction, and we learn that Ramona has rejected an engagement with Felipe over Alessandro. But, when Ramona sees Alessandro playing guitar under a tree, she runs away in horror, running to the church to ask forgiveness. But, after praying, she returns to him and embraces him, only to be violently separated by her outraged stepmother (Kate Bruce).

A sane Alessandro.

A sudden shift in the plot takes place as the next intertitle informs us that “The Whites” devastate Alessandro’s village. We see this event at a great distance, with burning tents visible from a cliff. The main focus of action is on Alessandro in the foreground, who emotes his loss with gestures.  Now, Ramona’s stepmother tells her the truth: she is half-Indian herself. This makes her love for Alessandro a possibility, and she goes to him to tell him, after somehow “intuiting” the burning of the Indian village. Again, they embrace, and now Ramona chooses his life over her own, joining him in poverty and effective exile. At first, Ramona’s stepmother wants to send workers out to search for her, but Felipe calls it off, forcing the family to accept Ramona’s choice. We see a brief scene of domestic bliss for Ramona and Alessandro, and they have a baby, but soon the whites come back to inform them that they now own the land. Now, they are homeless with a tiny baby to care for. They wander out into the mountains, and soon the baby dies and Alessandro is driven mad. In this state, he runs into one of the whites, who shoots him down. Ramona is grieving over his body when Felipe arrives to take her home.

An insane Alessandro

The movie as shown is very hard to follow without some background information or familiarity with the novel. Felipe’s role is particularly obscure, but also the “intuition” that drives Ramona to Alessandro the second time and various other events are hard to deduce from the intertitles. Scenes like the eviction from their house seem to drag on, but there are big jumps in the plot as it proceeds. Still, the movie has some interest. I’ve always felt that Griffith worked better in a short format (in part because he refused to write scripts or storyboards in detail), and this movie shows some of his developing strengths as a director. There is good use of inter-cutting to set up simultaneous events, and suspense is effectively established, as when Ramona prepares to sneak out of her stepmother’s house and one wonders if she will make it. Pickford is quite early in her acting career, and while she doesn’t dominate the screen the way she will later, she manages some nice touches as Ramona, especially when she seems to be vacillating between guilt over her feelings for Alessandro and a desire to give in to them. Walthall, who would go on to become a very successful leading man, still seems a bit rough around the edges to me. There’s no denying his screen presence, but he seems to go in for gesticulating over facial expressions. A bit more subtlety on his part would go a long way toward making this more watchable.

Once again, we have one of those D.W. Griffith movies that “prove” he wasn’t racist, because the whites are bad guys and the Indians are held up as noble. The problem with this is the degree to which the myth of the “noble savage” is bound up in American colonialism and the fact that this movie makes no attempt to depict the reasons behind the white people’s actions and the degree to which they are motivated by American values into attacking and victimizing the indigenous people. Reviewers at the time noted that it failed to truly transmit the intended message of the novel, focusing only on the elements of tragic romance that transcend race and situation. Undeniably a movie of historical interest, it may not live up to its reputation as a classic.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Mary Pickford, Henry B. Walthall, Francis J. Grandon, Kate Bruce, Mack Sennett, Dell Henderson, W. Chrystie Miller, Dorothy Bernard, Gertrude Clair, Anthony O’ Sullivan

Run Time: 16 Min

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

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.