Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Phyllis Allen

Dough and Dynamite (1914)

For this two-reel comedy from Keystone, Charlie Chaplin threw in a whole lot of ideas and gags he’d developed partially in other movies, apparently trying for more of an opus, showing off everything he could do at once. It may have been more ambitious than successful, but it was a precursor of later things.

Charlie is a waiter at a bakery with a small café. We see him dropping food on the floor, only to pick it up and serve it, spilling things on customers, and generally being completely obnoxious. When a young female customer stands in front of a counter advertising “Assorted French Tarts,” however, Charlie snaps into action to help her, forgetting all about the trail of spoilt meals behind him. In the process of flirting ineffectually with her, he tosses the display tarts across the room, causing several customers to leave in a huff. He now heads into the kitchen, where he begins a slapstick fight with Chester Conklin and the cook, coming out very much on top, despite a clumsy beginning. Now Charlie opens the trapdoor that leads to the basement, which is where the bakers are working hard at making bread and pastries. Chester gives Charlie a kick down the ladder, causing a baker to drop several loaves of bread, and soon he is caught up in surprisingly sticky dough, which he wipes off on a hanging jacket. Now he goes over to look at the ovens, providing the first of many opportunities to burn his hand. The bakers watch his antics and laugh for a while, then suggest that he head back up to safer ground, where the new paucity of customers gives him a chance to flirt with the waitresses (Peggy Page and Cecile Arnold). Soon, he’s back in the kitchen, where he breaks several dishes in the process of making things up with Conklin.

An intertitle now introduces a new subplot, telling us that, “the bakers want less work and more pay.” Their negotiations with the owner quickly stall and they stage a walkout (causing one to discover all the dough on his jacket), and so the owner hands over their aprons to Charlie and Chester, who have now been promoted to scab bakers. One of the bakers threatens Charlie with a knife, but Charlie gets the better of him and stalks off, and the bakers all walk off the floor after getting paid out by the owner. Chester seems reluctant at first, but finally consents to go down into the basement, and then Charlie is sent down with a truly massive sack of flour on his back. After several comic mis-steps, Charlie finally drops it down the ladder onto Chester. In the basement, Charlie continues to fight with Chester, burn his hands, get stuck in dough, and drop food on the floor before putting it out to be served. Meanwhile, the strikers meet in a barn and take out a large box of dynamite, which they plan to use on the bakery. Charlie’s flirtations and incompetence continue apace, and soon he has managed to get flour onto the behinds of all of the waitresses, something the owner notes with concern. When his wife is briefly down in the basement and also innocently gets flour on herself, he goes ballistic. Meanwhile, the strikers carry out their plot and manage to infiltrate a dynamite-loaded loaf of bread into the ovens, which soon explode. The cast find themselves amidst the rubble of the ruined shop and the movie ends.

This movie apparently was conceived by Chaplin and Conklin while they were on a break from “Those Love Pangs,” having lunch at a café-bakery not unlike the one in the movie. It is certainly much more well-developed than that movie, and it’s been suggested that one of the reasons for the weakness of that movie is that they decided to move their better gags over to the new project. Whatever the case, this movie reminded me of later work that Keaton and Arbuckle would do together, such as “The Butcher Boy,” which takes advantage of a customer service setting to provide an opportunity for brief comic vignettes and a variety of characters to interact. In that sense, it’s also like “The Floorwalker” and “The Pawnshop,” by Chaplin as well, though the freneticism and randomness matches a Comique more than a Mutual. Still, this has most of the roughness of Charlie’s Keystone period, and only the glee which he and Conklin bring to their comedy fighting makes it stand out from the “park comedies” at times. Charlie does bring some of his dance-like moves to bear; I was particularly entertained by a sequence in which he prepares donuts by twisting dough around his wrists in a series of rhythmic moves.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Chester Conklin, Fritz Schade, Norma Nichols, Glen Cavender, Cecile Arnold, Peggy Page, Vivian Edwards, Phyllis Allen, Edgar Kennedy, Slim Summerville, Charley Chase, Jess Dandy, Ted Edwards

Run Time: 24 Min

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

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 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)

The Star Boarder (1914)

Way back in 2014, I watched every movie Charlie Chaplin made at Keystone Studios, but there were so many (and so many other things I wanted to cover), that I never finished reviewing them all. Now I’m taking the time to fill some of those gaps, starting with this early film about Charlie getting in trouble in a boarding house.

The movie begins with a wide shot in a kitchen, establishing the household staff. Minta Durfee is the landlady, and she supervises a man in an apron (Edgar Kennedy) and another woman as they do the cooking. A boy (Gordon Griffith) has a small camera box, but Minta shoes him away. Minta goes into the dining room and sets up the dinner, then rings a bell to summon the guests. A large group of them appears, but we cut back and forth to Charlie’s room, where he is lounging and smoking a cigarette. He slowly gets up and dresses for dinner, while Minta continues ringing away. He flirts a bit with Minta on his way into the dining room, and Edgar glares at him as he serves the food. After dinner, another man seems to want to talk to Minta, but Charlie throws his napkin at him. He and Minta flirt a bit more until Edgar interrupts them.

 

Later, Minta and Charlie are play tennis together, though Charlie’s occasional pratfalls suggest he may have had a few drinks in his room first.  He knocks a tennis ball well out of court, and they go to look for it together. The child spots them and begins snapping photos, all the while laughing uproariously. Edgar again finds them and intervenes, finding the ball before either of them, since they seem more interested in one another. Minta now goes over to a rosebush, climbing up on a ladder, but falls off when Charlie comes over to her, and again the child is snapping photos and laughing. They go back to the house together, and Edgar escorts an older lady boarder. Left alone briefly in the kitchen, Charlie raids the liquor cabinet and there are several more pratfalls as he drunkenly attempts to sneak up to his room with two bottles and a pie.

 

 

The child now approaches another boarder (Harry McCoy), and shows him the slides he has prepared and he agrees to set up a projector so the whole house can enjoy his slideshow. When the audience is assembled, the child, laughing hard again, starts to show them shots of Charlie and Minta together, though he also shows Edgar with his companion, and soon the audience devolves into chaos as Edgar and Charlie fight and bump into the others, causing a general rout. Charlie manages to escape the room, stumbling through the screen, and Minta spanks the naughty child.

 

There are no surviving intertitles on the print I’ve been able to see, so a certain amount has to be inferred. Evidently, Minta and Edgar are married, although the cliché is for the landlady of a boarding house to be widowed or a spinster. Also, evidently Gordon is their son. Minta really does seem quite receptive to Charlie’s advances, and (surprisingly for the time), we see Charlie quite openly admiring her backside. No doubt this contributed to the idea that his movies were “vulgar.” Charlie is in full “Little Tramp” getup at this stage, even his mustache is down to the familiar width, and some of his signature gestures (such as his “what, me?” shrug) are clearly established. He’s still building a lot of his act around “funny drunk” bits, and he’s less inclined towards violence in this picture than in others around the same time. That doesn’t stop the movie from ending in a classic Keystone riot, however.

Director: George Nichols

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Minta Durfee, Edgar Kennedy, Gordon Griffith, Harry McCoy, Alice Davenport, Phyllis Allen, William Nigh, Al St. John

Run Time: 11 Min, 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

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.

Fatty’s Plucky Pup (1915)

This movie is one of the more “typical” Keystones that Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle made for the studio. He’s far less likeable in this movie, although in the end, Luke the Dog does show up to save his girlfriend.

Fattys Plucky PupFatty lives with his hard-working mother (Phyllis Allen), who begins this movie by waking him, seemingly long after her working day has begun. Fatty grouses at her and stays in bed, lighting a cigarette and immediately dozing off, starting a fire on the bedsheets. Fatty does wake up and realize the situation, but his response is to leisurely walk into the kitchen and get a small cup of water. When this doesn’t work, he seems to lose interest, and moves on to other things, like combing his hair. Then, his mother comes in and sees the fire, she rushes out to get a bucket and winds up dumping it on him, because he’s too stupid to move aside. Then, once the fire is out, he tries to take the clean laundry out the yard to hang, but instead dumps it in the mud. He becomes a tad more likeable in saving Luke the Dog from Al St. John, the dogcatcher. It’s not clear to me whether Luke and Fatty are supposed to have a prior relationship, or if this is where they meet in this narrative. He also has a cute scene with the girl next door (Josephine Stevens as “Lizzie”) where they talk through a hole in the fence.

Fattys Plucky Pup1In the second reel, Fatty, Lizzie, mom and Luke go to the amusement park, and Fatty encounters Edgar Kennedy running a shell game, with Joe Bordeaux as a shill. Fatty, being an idiot, is taken in by the oldest con in the world, but then retrieves his losses by pointing a fake gun at them. To exact revenge, they kidnap Lizzie with the help of the embittered dog catchers, and take her to an abandoned shack, where they tie her to a post with a gun attached to a timer pointed at her head. Plucky pup Luke follows the crooks, chasing the dogcatchers onto the roof of a shack, and is able to warn Fatty in time to perform the last-minute rescue, with the help of the Keystone Cops. In the closing shot Fatty, Lizzie and Luke embrace in a joint kiss (and lick).

Fattys Plucky Pup2It’s probably obvious that I find Arbuckle pretty unsympathetic in this movie, and maybe it was partly because I was pretty burnt out on his Keystone comedies by the time I got to it. He’s kind to dogs, and at least makes some effort to save his girlfriend, but otherwise in this movie he’s a lazy burden on his poor mother, and even a hazard to have around. The other contrivance here is the contraption the crooks set up in order to have Lizzie shot at 3:00 PM, which is basically a variant on the girl tied to the sawmill conveyor or to the train tracks. As usual, it’s done here for exaggerated comic effect, but even in that context, it’s a cliché by 1915. This was a one-reel idea stretched out to two reels, in my opinion.

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Josephine Stevens, Phyllis Allen, Joe Bordeaux, Edgar Kennedy

Run Time: 27 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

A Movie Star (1916)

Movie Star3This Sennett-produced short is a rare starring vehicle for Mack Swain, who often played the “heavy” in films with Charlie Chaplin and other comedians. It also gives us a chance to see a more extended satire on movie-going than had been established in “Mabel’s Dramatic Career” and similar movies.

Movie StarMack Swain is “Handsome Jack,” whose movie is playing at the local Nickelodeon. There’s a good turnout, which is making the theater owner happy, but he gets even more excited when Jack himself walks up and stands next to the poster! Jack is enjoying himself, allowing female fans to “notice” him and swarms of children to run over to see him. The manager invites him in at no charge, and uses his presence to sell more tickets. In the theater, he sits near two couples, and annoys the males by accepting the attention of their dates. A famous Shakespearean actor comes in and snubs him, but most of the audience doesn’t notice, and he gets up to give a little speech before the movie begins. The movie is a simplified Western (from “Thrill’em Pictures”), in which he loses his girl to a slick city boy, only to have to save both of them from an Indian attack. At first, the audience seems to be laughing at Jack’s misfortune and acting, but they get increasingly caught up in the story as it proceeds, nearly everyone (except the Shakespearean) crying when he loses his girl. At the end, he is given an ovation and the girls follow him outside, much to the consternation of the boyfriend of one of them. As he stands over to one side, a matronly woman announces “There’s Your Father!” to the two moppets at her feet. It’s Jack’s wife! She hits him and the disloyal girlfriend, and chases Jack down the street, pausing to knock over a Keystone Cop who had been attracted by the commotion.

Movie Star1By 1916, the concept of the “movie star” was pretty well established (though still new), and this movie satirizes some of the irrational enthusiasms people had for their stars already at the time. I can’t help but think about how Sennett had lost many of his most lucrative players when they became famous and demanded more money (Chaplin, famously, but also a stream of later actors including Harold Lloyd, Fatty Arbuckle, and Harry Landon). This movie takes film divas down a notch, without actually parodying any of his actors specifically. “Thrill’em Pictures” seems to be a send-up of Kalem Studios, while Swain seems to be portraying the kind of Western star established by “Broncho” Billy Anderson at Essanay. Possibly the funniest part of this movie (to me, at least) was Harry McCoy as the “One-Man Orchestra,” providing piano as well as sound effects for the movie-within-a-movie. He is constantly pulling out bizarre props to make funny noises that go with the film, and also gives a frenetic performance as a musician forced to keep pace with the movie. During the Indian attack, he gets out drums and tomahawks and gives visible “whoops” and hollers.

Movie Star2The theater in this movie is still a small Nickelodeon and certainly not a movie palace by any standard, but it does seem rather upscale compared to what we’ve seen in earlier movies that show the inside of a theater. The seats are fixed in place and there is paneling on the walls. The projectionist seems to have a sizable room to himself, and there is a bit of room to move in the aisles. It’s still a bit difficult for audience members to see when a big fellow like Mack Swain sits in the front seat, however, and the framing of the screen during the movie matches “Those Awful Hats” almost perfectly.

Movie Star4

Director: Fred Hibbard

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Mack Swain, Harry McCoy, Phyllis Allen

Run Time: 24 Min

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

A Submarine Pirate (1915)

Submarine_Pirate_1915

This short comedy stars Charlie Chaplin’s brother, Sydney Chaplin, whom Charlie had managed to get a job at Keystone before he left for Essanay. Syd only worked for Mack Sennett for a short while before going on to become Charlie’s manager, so this movie is one of the few insights we have into his talents. Like Charlie, he had learned his stuff doing broad comedy on the British vaudeville circuit, and he seems comfortable with slapstick. He actually reminded me a little of John Cleese, but that may have to do with the beginning of the movie, which is sort of like “Fawlty Towers.”

Sydney_chaplin

Sydney Chaplin

As the movie opens, Syd is in a situation that Charlie’s “Little Tramp” would find familiar – working at a hotel with an abusive boss and customers. He has a brief flirtation with a “peach” of a hotel guest, but mostly he is chased with umbrellas, shoes, and bottles. In the midst of all this, an “inventor” comes down stairs, and Syd manages to escape all the slapstick violence long enough to serve as waiter to him and his guest. He serves them from his pockets, and my biggest laugh came when he pulled an enormous loaf of bread out and chopped off pieces for them. The cook in the kitchen is a young Harold Lloyd, but he doesn’t really show off his future talents in this piece. Syd realizes that the guests have something cooking with a submarine, and figures out how to eavesdrop on their discussion and steal the papers the “inventor” was giving the other man to make him commander of the submarine.

 Submarine_Pirate2

Now, at about half-way through, the title of the movie starts to make sense. Syd, using his information and purloined papers, masquerades as the commander and takes charge of the submarine, pursuing a “treasure ship” which mostly seems to be loaded with passengers. In the meantime, the rebellious first mate makes an abortive attempt to drown the new commander by submerging while he is on deck, leading Syd to hang on to the key necessary for descent. He demands the boat’s surrender and takes men aboard to plunder its safe, but the radio operator gets off an SOS, summoning a navy gunboat. Syd and his crew retreat to the submarine, and manage to fire off a torpedo, with Syd clinging on. He loses the key needed to submerge the sub, so they try to fight with a “submarine gun” that seems pretty pathetic against the gunboat’s cannon. The sub is sunk, and Syd sticks his head out a porthole, to be bitten by a large fish or shark.

At the time of release, submarine warfare was no joking matter in the US, as Germany had moved to “unrestricted warfare” in the Atlantic and sank the RMS Lusitania in May, 1915 (the movie came out in November), killing more than 100 American passengers. Syd’s character, therefore, is hardly sympathetic, and there may have been some satisfaction in seeing him get his comeuppance at the hands of a navy vessel. To be sure, all the violence in this movie is cartoonish slapstick, and no one is shown in danger of actually drowning or being blown up, but there may be an element of propaganda to it nonetheless. I wouldn’t rate it as highly as Charlie’s better work, but it is an interesting and relatively large budget Keystone comedy of the time.

Director: Charles Avery & Sydney Chaplin

Starring: Sydney Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Edgar Kennedy, Phyllis Allen

Run Time: 25 Min, 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.