Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Mack Sennett

A Little Hero (1913)

Little HeroCould this Keystone short have been the inspiration for Sylvester and Tweety Bird cartoons? Mabel Normand is a young woman with lots of pets: a cat, a dog, and a bird in the cage. She’s very affectionate with her dog, and also pays a lot of attention to the bird, while the cat sits quietly on the couch, apparently happy to sleep undisturbed. Then she goes out, and the cat soon starts stalking the caged creature. The dog, seeing what’s coming, runs off to get some “friends” – a trio of much larger dogs – to chase the cat away from the bird’s cage. Mabel comes home to find the cage knocked over, the dog on the table, and the cat nowhere around. Somehow, she puts it together (I’d have scolded the dog for knocking over the birdcage, but never mind), and hugs her little hero.

I Tot I Taw a Puddy Tat!

I Tot I Taw a Puddy Tat!

What’s remarkable in this film is their ability to use the animal actors so effectively to tell a story, when it’s clear that none of them are the kind of trained “stage animal” we’re used to seeing on screen (Lassie, Rusty, Boomer, etc). The cat, in particular, is being completely natural in its behavior, and the bird is genuinely terrified. The dogs don’t have much to do but run around, but they stay in shot and look determined (probably to get a tasty treat offscreen!). Given Mack Sennett’s frugal shooting ratios, we have to assume that there weren’t many “bad takes” and that someone had simply figured out how best to use the resources at hand.

A natural star.

A natural star.

The Internet has some conflicting credits for this film, Some sources say Mack Sennett directed, some say George Nichols, who made some of Chaplin’s Keystone movies. The Silent Era splits the difference and says it could have been either. More perplexingly, some sources give additional human cast members, including Harold Lloyd. The only way this is possible is if there’s lost footage on the version I saw, because Mabel is definitely the only human I saw. It seems unlikely, because the story itself is complete, anything added would be superfluous. Still,I could imagine an opening scene where Harold gives Mabel the bird and tells her to take care of it for the weekend or something. Until I find another version, I’m sticking with the story that Mabel did a solo here.

Director: Mack Sennett or George Nichols (or both)

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Mabel Normand, Pepper the cat, Teddy the dog

Run Time: 4 Min, 30 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

Mabel’s Busy Day (1914)

This Charlie Chaplin film from Keystone studios works as a kind of sequel to “Kid Auto Races at Venice.” At least some of it seems to have been filmed on location at a live event, but this time Charlie’s acrobatics noticeably engage part of the crowd, and there is a much bigger cast for him to play off. It was directed by his co-star, Mabel Normand, about whom he would say mean things in his autobiography years later. In this, she keeps up with him in terms of physical comedy and audience sympathy.

 Mabels Busy Day

Mabel and Charlie both enter the grounds of the races under questionable pretenses. She wants to get in to sell her hot dogs, and bribes a cop (Chester Conklin, from “The Masquerader” and “Mabel at the Wheel“) with a free sample to get in a side door. He tries to bluff his way in the front, and winds up chased by several cops, and knocking them down several times in the process of getting away. She gets ripped off by a couple of customers (including Mack Sennett, studio owner and reputed boyfriend of Mabel), and Charlie gets into trouble while flirting and going through women’s purses. They meet up and he distracts her in order to steal her hot dogs, then becomes wildly successful at selling them, although he also fights with some of his customers. Mabel goes back to the cop and gets him to threaten Charlie, which can only lead to more chaos.

 Mabels Busy Day1

Altogether, it’s pretty primitive slapstick, and not up to the standards Charlie would later set but it’s better than some of the really early shorts he made, and is a chance to see quite a number of Keystone regulars all in one place. Certain edits suggest that parts were shot on location and part back at the studio, and they mesh pretty well if you’re not looking for it, showing that it was less spontaneous than it at times appears.

Director: Mabel Normand

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand, Mack Sennett, Chester Conklin, Edgar Kennedy, Slim Summerville

Run Time: 9 Min

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

Cruel Cruel Love (1914)

Cruel_Cruel_Love_1914

Here’s an early Charlie Chaplin movie from Keystone  in which he does not play his “Little Tramp” character, but is good nonetheless. Charlie is a well-to-do fellow (enough to have a car and servants in 1914) who wears a variation on his getup from “Making a Living” or “Mabel at the Wheel,” but with more understated facial hair. He’s in love with Minta Durfee (real life wife of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, who we saw with him in “The Rounders” and “Fatty Joins the Force”), but she catches him canoodling with the maid and calls off the engagement. Despondent, Charlie goes home and attempts suicide, but the butler replaces his poison with water. Charlie makes a show his imminent demise and Minta races to the rescue, having forgiven him. Some comic doctors show up, but Charlie’s strenuous acrobatics keep them from getting much done. Finally, having wrecked his room and given flying kicks to nearly everyone, Charlie is alone with Minta, apparently happy to be alive and in love.

 Cruel Cruel Love

This movie was quite early in Chaplin’s screen appearances, and it looks to me as though Mack Sennett used it as a means to display Charlie’s comedic physicality. The race to the rescue does include some interesting inter-cutting, showing that the techniques of editing had made their way to the smaller studios already, and for his fantasy of arriving in Hell as a suicide, we get some basic Méliès-style magical effects. Also, one shot of Charlie maddened face as he imagines the “poison” taking effect counts as a medium close-up, although he moves away from the camera afterward returning to “normal” distance from it.

Directors: Mack Sennett, George Nichols

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Minta Durfee, Edgar Kennedy

Run Time: 9 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

In the Border States (1910)

In the Border States

For my money, D.W. Griffith was always better at directing shorts than he was at working in the feature-length. One only has to compare this homely and touching Civil War story to the bloated and un-subtle “Birth of a Nation” for proof. Shot in Griffith’s second year working as a director at Biograph, it has all the humanity and innovation which his best work shows, even if it is at bottom a melodrama. A young father (Charles West, whose work I’ve discussed in “Enoch Arden” and “The Burglar’s Dilemma”) in a state on the border marches off to fight for the Union, leaving his family in peril as the war comes dangerously close. A band of disheveled Rebels “forages” near to the house, and is chased by Union soldiers. One of their number (Henry B. Walthall, who would later star in “Birth of a Nation” and “The Avenging Conscience”), staggers, desperate, into the family’s land just as the youngest daughter (Gladys Egan, who played the title role in “The Adventures of Dollie” and also appears in “His Trust Fulfilled”) goes out to fetch a pail of water from the well. The man begs for help, and she lets him drink and hide in the well, but refuses him a kiss in thanks. Later, the tables are turned when the father is being hunted, wounded, by this very same band of Confederates, and seeks shelter in his own home. The soldier is about to kill him when the little girl intervenes. He can’t kill the father of the child who saves him, and he convinces, or orders, the others to depart in peace (he’s the only one with Corporal’s stripes, so I guess he’s in charge). The girl and the soldier shake hands and salute one another, and she takes credit for driving the soldiers off single-handed.

 In the Border States1

For 1910, this is quite a sophisticated drama. Much of the movie is shot outside, which prevents the claustrophobia of having too many “square” compositions, as was often the case in studio productions. Billy Bitzer provides good camerawork, including a nice shot of the New Jersery Palisades that passes well for any vista in middle-southern America. Part of the pursuit of the Union soldier is shown as a night shot, by torchlight, apparently achieved by under-exposing the film, but it looks better than a lot of the “night” shots of the time. But the real key to the story is its editing. Griffith deftly cross-cuts between pursuers and pursued in both sequences to heighten tension. For the second sequence, there are two rooms in the house that each character must pass through to reach the ultimate hiding place, and Griffith keeps us aware of the situation in each as the danger develops. Each time we cut back to the wounded soldier, something in the former area has brought peril closer. Walthall’s performance is good, but Egan’s is the best in the movie. I also noticed that it was very easy to read Egan’s lips as she mouths the words “my father” to Walthall in the climactic moment. This was probably intentional, since silent filmmakers encouraged actors to enunciate lines for lip-readers, in lieu of a soundtrack.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Gladys Egan, Henry B. Walthall, Charles West, Frank Evans, Dell Henderson, Henry Lehrman, Owen Moore, Mack Sennett

Run Time: 16 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Studios in 1915

ESSANAY_studios

One of the great things about this project is how much I learn as I do it. The thing about learning so much is that I’m constantly discovering that I was wrong in my assumptions when I started. Towards the beginning of the blog, I wrote a piece on “Studios in 1914.” I didn’t really say anything that was inaccurate then, but I had based it on a somewhat inaccurate theory. My idea was that since moving pictures were so new, there would only be a fairly limited number of companies involved in making them. This idea was reinforced by familiarity with the later Studio System, in which a small group of big players dominated and made it hard for anyone start a new company, and by the knowledge that the Edison Trust was fighting hard to keep competition to a minimum.

Now, that all makes sense, but it’s just not how things were at all. Turns out that there were dozens of small-to-mid-sized operations at any given time, especially once the Nickelodeons got up and running. In fact, what really created the major studios of the future was the consolidation and selling of these little guys to one another. The studios we know about, like MGM, Paramount, and Universal, are actually conglomerates of several smaller businesses that unified in order to gain distribution opportunities. Keeping track of the buyouts and mergers gets dizzying, but also adds to our understanding of the history of the movies.

With all that in mind, this post makes no claim to give a complete picture of all the studios and production companies in operation in 1915. Instead, I’m going to give a partial snapshot of some of the companies I missed last year, along with an update on some of the more interesting ones I did cover.

Since I already mentioned them, let’s start with an update on the Edison Trust. We could see it as sort of a failed prototype for those mega-conglomerates I talked about above, because it’s not one company, but several, who up to now have claimed to “license” all legitimate motion pictures in America. Well, in the trust-busting environment of the time, it was fighting for its existence in court, and wound up losing in October, when a federal court ruled it an “illegal restraint of trade.” After that point, there was an appeal, but no one took the Trust seriously anymore, and it finally disbanded in 1918. This also led to the end of their distribution network, the General Film Company (which was not a producer, as I wrongly stated last year).

Things aren’t much better at the Biograph Company at this time. They were a part of the trust, so this litigation hurt them, too, but they were already crippled after the departure of D.W. Griffith and his stock company of actors and cameramen in 1913. By 1915, they were reduced to issuing reissues of classic Griffith shorts, along with longer pieces by him they had let sit on the shelf as punishment for trying to force them to release feature films. While these proved more popular than their dwindling new material, it wasn’t enough to keep the company alive, and it closed its doors before the year was out.

 Triangle_Film_Corporation_logo,_1915

You might think that Keystone Studios would have suffered as badly after letting Charlie Chaplin walk out at the end of 1914, but Mack Sennett continued to produce cheap, popular comedies with Fatty Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, and the Keystone Kops. also striking on the idea of the “Sennett Bathing Beauties” this year, who became a hit, even if not as big a hit as Chaplin was. Keystone joined Griffith and Thomas Ince in the new Triangle Film Corporation, which marketed itself as the “upscale” artistic movie distributor.

Meanwhile, Chaplin had moved over to Essanay Studios, who promised him $1000 a week. By the end of the year, this was not enough for the star and he moved again, but not before producing great films like “The Tramp” and “Burlesque on Carmen” which showed his improvement as a director and maturity as a comedian. Essanay’s name was a play on S&A, after its founders George K. Spoor and Gilbert M. Anderson. Anderson was also known as “Broncho Billy,” and was star of hundreds of Western shorts. During 1915, they also signed Francis X. Bushman, a talented actor on his way to stardom.

Jesse L. Lasky in 1915.

Jesse L. Lasky in 1915.

Cecil B. DeMille was making a name for himself over at Jesse L. Lasky’s Feature Play Company. This company is one of the (many) tributaries that eventually merged into Paramount Studios, but came from humble beginnings. In 1914, Lasky and DeMille had made “The Squaw Man” from a barn near Los Angeles – which neither had visited before they started working there. In 1915, they brought out great work like “The Cheat” and “The Golden Chance.”

The last American company I want to talk about is the Mutual Film Corporation, which brought out “The Birth of a Nation” in 1915 through one of its subsidiaries, Reliance-Majestic Studios. While “Birth” was a huge hit, Mutual had some problems, including litigation and censorship. Mutual’s name is on the landmark case “Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio,” in which the Supreme Court ruled that motion pictures were not subject to First Amendment protections. This, along with the defection of Reliance-Mutual to co-found Triangle later in the year, was a major setback, but they won a major coup in hiring Chaplin when he left Essanay, and today they are associated with most of his most popular shorts.

Again, this blog has a tendency to be more American-centric than I really want (that’s “where the light is better,” in film history, I’m afraid). But, let’s spend a little time catching up on some companies working in other countries.

In Russia we have Khanzhonkov Studios, which I’ve sung the praises of in connection with Evgeni Bauer and his fascinating films. Khanzhonkov also had animation pioneer Ladislav Starevich, who I hope to bring to this blog in coming months. Its owners were Aleksandr Khanzhonkov and Vasily Gonchorov, who had made the nationalist hit “Defense of Sevastopol” in 1911. They seem to have valued directors more than most American concerns, and made Bauer a partner in the concern, rather than argue with him over his pay.

In Germany there’s Messter Film, which later would be absorbed into the German film powerhouse UFA. Unlike France, which largely abandoned film production during the First World War, for Germany this was a time of increased production. At this time, Messter’s employees included Robert Wiene, future director of the “Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.”

In Japan, which is regrettably unrepresented on my blog so far, the company Nikkatsu has been in business since 1912, when it was formed from a merger of several smaller studios. I believe Shozo Makino was working there in 1915, although at this time he’s in between remakes of “The Loyal Forty-Seven Ronin,” probably Japan’s most frequently remade film story. Japan’s film industry had an interesting appendage at this time, the benshi, or narrator, who would appear at screenings to explain what was happening on the screen. These men were often bigger stars than the actors in the movies at the time.

Tourists (1912)

 TheTourists

This short “farce comedy” is interesting for a number of reasons. Although its depiction of Native Americans is likely to make modern audiences uncomfortable, it does display an aspect of Pueblo culture that is largely forgotten today. Having had their land stolen and their way of life destroyed, many Pueblos turned to the tourist industry to make a living, working in places like the “Harvey House” in Albuquerque and selling hand-crafted blankets and other items to white people on vacation. That is the setting for Mack Sennett, then employed at Biograph Studios, to make this vehicle for the teenaged Mabel Normand, later one of his big stars at Keystone. Mabel plays a ditzy and somewhat sexually transgressive young woman who misses her train and takes a up a flirtation with the local Pueblo chief. This angers her male companion, but also the local Pueblo women, who initiate a classic Sennett chase-sequence that ends with the white folks boarding the next train and leaving empty-handed. The whole story is interspersed with images of the Pueblo people doing their schtick for the camera, and several are used as extras, although the major roles went to Biograph players in dark-face. The enraged Pueblo women referred to in the intertitles as “suffragettes,” which is simply a bad joke at the expense of early-twentieth century feminism.

Director: Mack Sennett

Camera: Percy Higginson

Starring: Mabel Normand, Charles West, Frank Evans, Kate Toncray

Run Time: 6 Min, 10 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Gusher, The (1913)

Mabel Normand in 1915.

Mabel Normand in 1915.

This early Keystone short seems to have been built around some stock footage of a burning oil well. Mabel Normand is the classic girl next door, except that in this case she lives next door to an oil field. She is courted by both Charles Inslee (who had roles in “Making a Living” and “His New Job”) and Ford Sterling (Chaplin’s rival in “Between Showers” and “Tango Tangles”). I can certainly understand her distaste for Inslee, with his greasy charm and his penchant for twirling his enormous mustache, but her attraction to the oafish Sterling is a mystery. Anyway, Inslee sells Sterling some bad land in a con, but it suddenly starts gushing oil! So, Normand and Sterling have their wedding at last, but Inslee is not to be outdone. He strikes a match and – whoosh! – the oil goes up in flames. Tinting was used to give the effect of the red fireball against the black smoke and it is quite impressive, especially as Inslee stands in front of it twirling and rubbing his hand in glee. Someone calls in the Keystone Kops, including Mack Swain (later in “The Gold Rush” and “Pay Day” with Chaplin) and Edgar Kennedy, (from “A Flirt’s Mistake” and “Mabel at the Wheel”) but the real denouement is Sterling chasing off the baddy. The fire rages on in the closing shot.

Director: Mack Sennett

Starring: Mabel Normand, Ford Sterling, Charles Inslee, Mack Swain, Edgar Kennedy

Run Time: 14 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

His Favorite Pastime (1914)

His_Favourite_Pastime_1914

AKA: “His Favourite Pastime”

This will be the last Charlie Chaplin movie I review for the 2014 Century Awards season. I saw every movie he made in 1914, but there just wasn’t time to review them all. I think all the serious contenders for awards are covered now, at least. Of the really early Keystone movies, this is probably the most classic “Little Tramp” short. Charlie is doing his funny drunk bit at a bar, and engaging in slapstick with a variety of bar patrons including Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Outside the bar, he seems to be effectively charming a young lady (Peggy Pearce, also in “Tango Tangles” and “A Film Johnny”) with his silly antics, which include twirling his cane and manipulating his hat with it, until her father comes along and chases him off. Back inside the bar, he has a variety of pratfalls involving the swinging door to the bathroom, and then engages the entire clientele in a slapstick fight. He then follows the young woman home and drunkenly stumbles about the pace causing mayhem until he gets kicked out. Not really an admirable fellow, but definitely funny. The chemistry between Chaplin and Pearce was apparently real – she was the first of many leading ladies to be romantically involved with him for a time.

Director: George Nichols

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Roscoe Arbuckle, Peggy Pearce, Edgar Kennedy

Run Time: 13 Min 30 sec

You can watch it for free: here or here.

Tango Tangles (1914)

Tango_Tangles

AKA: “Charlie’s Recreation”

Charlie Chaplin heads up an impressive cast of Keystone stars (I’m not even going to try to list them all below) in a simple slapstick farce set in a dance hall. He has no mustache, his clothes seem to fit better than they usually would in “Little Tramp” getup, and he only seems a bit drunk at the beginning, when he falls down while dancing with a couple of girls waiting to get in to the hall before trying to give his hat and cane to dance hall patrons. He fights with Ford Sterling and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle over the hat check girl, Sadie Lampe. We’ve seen all of them in recent reviews. Here, Ford is the band leader and Fatty is the clarinetist, and apparently tremendously strong (at one point he threatens Ford by picking up a dancer and holding him over his head). Just about every other Keystone player shows up in the background, sometimes getting drawn into the fight. Several of the background dancers are in costume, and we see a Keystone Kop dancing with a man in prisoners’ garb. Were “masquerades” common in dance halls at the time, or was that meant to be strange? I don’t know, but two men dancing together surely would have raised eyebrows, outside of a comedy or one of “those” places, I think.

Director: Mack Sennett

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring (among others): Charlie Chaplin, Ford Sterling, Roscoe Arbuckle, Sadie Lampe, Minta Durfee, Chester Conklin

Run Time: 12 Min 30 sec

You can watch it for free: here or here.

Between Showers (1914)

Between_Showers_FilmPoster

It’s a new year, and now I “get” to start talking about movies from 1915, but I’m not even done with 1914 yet! The next few days will be catch-up, as I prepare to post the nominations for the Century Awards. Expect some other new features as we move into the New Year. This movie is a simple farce about a stolen umbrella, a girl, and a policeman, which shows the comic abilities of several of Keystone’s stars, but is today mostly known for Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin and Ford Sterling (also in “Mabel’s Dramatic Career” and “Tango Tangles”) are rival “Mashers” after the same girl, Emma Bell Clifton (who was in “Making a Living” and “A Robust Romeo”), who is more interested in Chester Conklin (from “Mabel at the Wheel” “Mabel’s Strange Predicament”), the policeman. Ford tries to wow her by offering her the umbrella he stole off Chester earlier in the film, then demands it back when his affections are not returned, leading to a slapstick fight that ultimately draws in the whole cast. Much of the action takes place in a park near to Keystone Studios, which we see in many of these pictures. Chaplin is in his “Little Tramp” getup, now firmly established, and Ford and Chester are also in goofy and memorable makeup that adds to the sense of being in a silly sort of world. There’s an interesting “mirror bit” in which Chaplin and another policeman face off and the policeman mimics Charlie’s odd appearance with his fingers and hands.

Director: Henry Lehrman

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Ford Sterling, Emma Bell Clifton, Chester Conklin, Sadie Lampe

Run Time: 12 Min

You can watch it for free: here or here.