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.
The 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.
The “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.
The 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.
Cast: Mabel Normand, Ford Sterling, Charles Inslee, Minta Durfee, Mack Swain
Run Time: 11 Min