Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Mack Swain

A Muddy Romance (1913)

Muddy Romance4

One off the most famous Keystone romps includes Mabel Normand and Ford Sterling, a whole bunch of Keystone Cops, and a curiously muddy dry lake. This may not be high art, but it brought butts into seats at the Nickelodeons, and remains a great example of the comedy factory’s style and initiative.

Muddy RomanceThe movie begins with Ford and Mabel as next door neighbors with a friendly flirtation going on. All seems well until rival Charles Inslee shows up and charms, first, Mabel’s mother (Minta Durfee) and then Mabel herself. Inslee gets the better of Sterling, first by pouring milk over him and then tricking him into hitting Mabel in the face with a pie. Now, the couple take up arms (er, bricks, anyway), and begin pelting Ford wildly. Sterling puts on a brave defense, but ultimately he’s overwhelmed by their superior numbers and runs back into his house. Mabel and Charles hijack a passing preacher so they can elope, but Sterling pursues them and fires a gun at the rowboat they take out onto the lake to escape him. Unable to hit at that range, Ford comes up with another plan – he’ll turn the convenient crank that drains the lake! He does, and suddenly the rowboat, plus a boat full of Keystone Cops who had heard the shooting and were coming to arrest him, are stuck in the mud. Now someone calls in a squad of “water police” (more Keystone Cops), who are able to drag the stranded unfortunates back to land by use of a javelin-throwing cannon. Sterling is discovered by the parks attendant and dragged away from the crank before he can cause any more mischief. That’s where the “Slapstick Encyclopedia” version ends, but rumor has it an alternate ending exists with Sterling committing comic suicide.

Muddy Romance1The “story” behind this production is that Mack Sennett found out that the lake in Echo Park was due to be drained, and piled a cast and crew into cars to run down there without any kind of script, but with plenty of cop costumes on hand. It’s used as an example both of the lack of planning and arbitrariness of filmmaking at Keystone Studios, but also of the genius Sennett had for improvising with whatever was at hand and saving money by shooting around real-world events. See “Kid Auto Races” and “The Gusher” for similar examples. However you see it, it is both fun and unpredictably goofy, but probably not to everyone’s taste.

Muddy Romance2The same can probably be said about the comedic star/villain, Ford Sterling. According to Charlie Chaplin, when he first arrived on the set at Keystone, he was struck by the fact that all through shooting, Ford Sterling would keep the cast and crew in stitches with a running dialogue in his fake Dutch accent. What was the point, when the audience would never hear it? This is a movie where you can sort of see that happening. Sterling’s lips are in constant motion, and he seems to be rolling his r’s and otherwise being funny with his speech, although I’m no lip reader, so I won’t claim to know for sure. He doesn’t forget the movie audience, though. When he needs to communicate what he’s saying, he pantomimes with his hands or makes appropriate facial expressions so that you can follow his meaning. I suspect that he kept his line of jokes going because he felt it lightened the atmosphere on set (making a movie can be a lot of hard work, especially when so little is planned in advance) and in the hopes of inspiring his fellow comedians to “think funny.” It’s shame we can’t hear them, though, because I bet he’s as funny with his voice as without it.

Muddy Romance3Director: Mack Sennett

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Mabel Normand, Ford Sterling, Charles Inslee, Minta Durfee, Mack Swain

Run Time: 11 Min

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

Mabel’s Married Life (1914)

Mabels Married Life

With this Keystone comedy, we get to see how Charlie Chaplin and Mabel Normand worked together under Charlie’s direction, so this may be a good movie to compare to “Caught in a Cabaret” and some of the other early Chaplins I’ve discussed this week. I’ll admit, the plot holds together better and both characters seem better defined, but this may not be a result of better direction, just the fact that Charlie had come to know “the Little Tramp” better by this point in the year. At any rate, there don’t seem to be “corrected” versions floating around, so the original edit must have satisfied Charlie, or whoever was responsible for the alternate “Caught in a Cabaret.”

 Mabel's_Married_Life_(1914)

Here, Mabel and Charlie are a married couple, and his frequent film-rival Mack Swain is married to one Eva Nelson, who I don’t believe I’ve seen before. They meet in a park that is conveniently near to a saloon. Charlie goes into the saloon and tries to scam some drinks. Meanwhile Mack tries picking up on Mabel. When Charlie returns and sees this, he is unable to deter Mack, even with attempted physical force (Mack just shrugs it off). So, Charlie gets Eva, who has more influence. Mabel and Eva get into a fight, however, and Charlie takes the worst of it. She and Mack leave, Charlie returns to the bar, and Mabel goes shopping. She decides to buy a large mannequin (or punching bag) and dresses it like Mack Swain (OK, that’s weird. Maybe she is into him after all). Mack enters the bar where Charlie is and encourages the other patrons in mocking him. Charlie fights back, knocking pretty much everyone over. Then Charlie, doing his full-on “funny drunk” makes his way home to be confronted by the mannequin. Of course, he thinks it’s Swain and picks a fight. Of course, it’s weighted, so it just bounces back and hits him just as hard every time he hits it. Mabel watches him and laughs. Eventually she goes out and tries to show him he’s fighting a dummy, and winds up getting hit herself. She and Charlie end up on the floor together.

 Mabel's_Married_Life_(1914)1

This movie is paced better than a lot of the early Keystones I’ve been reviewing, and Charlie was smart to make use of Mabel’s reaction shots during the fight with the dummy; they often elevate the humor of his pratfalls. He also clearly respects her as a comedienne (whatever he later said of her as a director) because he gives her several scenes to do funny bits of her own, and plays off her well in their scenes together. Typically, a Keystone ends with a chase or just a degeneration into a scene of crowd-chaos, but here, the ending is actually somewhat understated. The biggest scenes of violence we get are those with Charlie and the patrons at the bar, but the dummy isn’t at all anticlimactic, because Charlie keeps upping the ante and getting hit back twice as hard each time. Still a very simple film, but it works.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand, Mack Swain, Eva Nelson, Harry McCoy, Al St. John

Run Time: 13 Min

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

Laughing Gas (1914)

Laughing Gas

This is another of Charlie Chaplin’s Keystone comedies, which he directed in the Summer of 1914. The premise is that he is a dentist’s assistant and causes all kinds of mayhem with the patients, the dentist himself (Fritz Schade, also in “His Musical Career” and “Dough and Dynamite”), and the dentist’s wife (Alice Howell, from “Caught in the Rain” and “The Knockout”). The ubiquitous Mack Swain (who was also in “Caught in the Rain” and would co-star in “The Gold Rush”) turns up as one of the patients. Charlie’s character is, if anything, less likeable here than in movies such as “Mabel at the Wheel” and “Tillie’s Punctured Romance” where he played an explicit villain. His objective most of the time seems to be to cause pain and start fights, when he isn’t masquerading as a dentist in order to hit on a pretty girl. He also appears to take pleasure in dosing people heavily with the titular gas. Most of the movie is nonstop chaos, though, and it can’t be denied that it keeps up its frenetic pace and provides laughs with its cartoon-violence.

Alternate Titles: “Busy Little Dentist,” “Down an Out,” “Laffing Gas,” “The Dentist,” and “Turning His Ivories.”

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Fritz Schade, Alice Howell, Mack Swain

Run Time: 13 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Caught in the Rain (1914)

Caught_in_the_Rain

Charlie Chaplin teamed up with the Keystone Kops for this simple Keystone comedy in May of 1914, assuring that it would have the key elements of “a girl, a park and a policeman.” In this case, it also has two of Chaplin’s better foils, Mack Swain (most famously co-starring in “The Gold Rush” and also in “Tillie’s Punctured Romance”) and Alice Davenport (also in “The Star Boarder” and “The Property Man” in 1914). Here, they are a married couple who Chaplin meets in the park, attempting in his drunkenly naïve way to flirt with the wife before being driven off by the husband. In a typically Keystone coincidence, Charlie winds up in the same hotel, and the wife’s problem of sleepwalking leads to further problems before Charlie finds himself soaked in his pajamas during a rainstorm. His drunk act is the real hit of the show, particularly his difficulty ascending the stairs to his hotel room. This was actually the first movie in which Chaplin directed himself, reputedly because Mabel Normand now refused to work with him while Mack Sennett couldn’t afford to fire him. There’s nothing outstanding in the direction here, but clearly in the roughly four months that he’d worked at Keystone, Chaplin picked up the essentials of running a taut comedy with multiple screens interacting to heighten mayhem.

Caught_in_the_Rain1

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Mack Swain, Alice Davenport, Alice Howell

Run Time: 16 Min

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.

Leading Lizzie Astray (1914)

Leading Lizzie Astray

This comedy short stars and was directed by Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle during his tenure at Keystone Studios (we’ve seen Fatty already in “The Rounders” and “Fatty Joins the Force”). The premise is deceptively simple: Fatty is a powerfully strong “Country Boy” whose girl (Minta Durfee, who was married to Fatty in real life) is tempted away to the city by a slick character (Ed Brady, who was in “Sulivan’s Travels” and “The Man from Texas”) up to no good. Fatty pursues, and finding his girl being abused, takes revenge on the City Slicker and pretty much anyone else in range of his fists. But, as simple as this sounds, it involves a surprising number of set ups, a huge cast of Keystone regulars (including Mack Swain and Edgar Kennedy, both in “The Knockout” as well), multiple intertitles, and complex inter-cut editing. The whole thing is of course a satire on the “Lost Girl” melodrama which was popular grist for more serious filmmakers’ mills, but Fatty gives the audience the chance to identify with his sensitive and naïve portrayal of a middle-American man in love. The chaos he wreaks on the flashy city café and its clientele has to be seen to be believed: at one point he throws an assailant through a wall and for good measure throws a piano after him!

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Starring: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Minta Durfee, Ed Brady, Edgar Kennedy, Mack Swain.

Run Time 12 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Knockout, The (1914)

Knockout_(poster)

A boxing ring is a natural site for slapstick, and Keystone brought together nearly all of its star power for this boxing-slapstick comedy. Fatty Arbuckle (from “Fatty Joins the Force” and “The Rounders”) stars as “Pug,” a large, innocent fellow with a yen for Minta Durfee (his real-life wife, also in “A Flirt’s Mistake” and “Fatty Joins the Force”). After several escapades with local tramps, he gets fast-talked into ten rounds against “Cyclone Flynn” (Edgar Kennedy, who was in “A Flirt’s Mistake” and “A Star is Born”). Charlie Chaplin (who also co-starred with Fatty in “The Rounders”) shows up about halfway through as the referee, Mack Swain (from “The Gold Rush” and “Tillie’s Punctured Romance“) is there as the gambler who threatens Fatty if he doesn’t win, and the Keystone Cops show up at the end, when everything has gone completely out of control. It’s a much larger cast and more elaborate scenario than usual in the shorts of the period, with substantially more intertitles, and the editing is tight and the camerawork imaginative as well. The funniest sequence by far is the actual match, in which Kennedy is just “straight” fighting, Fatty is clearly outclassed, but scared to lose, and Chaplin is desperately dodging the blows of the two other men, while trying to trip Fatty up in order to get the ordeal over with sooner.

Director: Mack Sennett

Starring: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Minta Durfee, Edgar Kennedy, Mack Sennett, Charlie Chaplin

Run Time: 27 Min

You can watch it for free: here.