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).