Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Satire

Out West (1918)

This two-reel comedy from Comique is another collaboration between Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Buster Keaton, and this time the two of them really work well together. As you might guess from the title, it’s a Western spoof, and the level of chaos easily rivals anything the Keystone Studios ever put out.

As the movie begins, Arbuckle is riding the rails, bumming a ride on a freight train. He’s chosen an unusual way to do this, however, he’s in a tanker car three-quarters full of water. Roscoe takes a moment to peek out the hatch, but when he does so, the train comes to a stop and a railroad worker comes across the top of the car, so he ducks back down. The worker now opens the hatch and connects it to the pipe from a water tower, filling the car the rest of the way while Arbuckle sputters and nearly drowns. Once the worker’s gone, he climbs out and looks for somewhere better to ride. He finds the caboose, where the workers are having a breakfast of coffee, ham, and bread. He waits until they’re distracted from reading the paper, then uses a hook to grab their breakfast and haul it up to where he’s sitting, on top of the car. The workers first accuse one another of stealing the food, but then discover Roscoe, since his bottom is still hanging over the windowsill. The chase is on! Arbuckle and the railroad men run across the roof of the moving train, and the silliness escalates until Arbuckle has disengaged several cars in order to escape. The train backs up to reconnect, but he’s able to slip away in the confusion.

We are now introduced to the town of Mad Dog Gulch, which is clearly a wretched hive of scum and villainy. As the owner of the saloon and local sheriff, Buster Keaton keeps order with his sixguns. Spotting a man cheating at cards, Keaton watches from the bar until the confrontation reaches a climax, then cuts it short by gunning the cheater down from behind. He picks up the dead man’s hand and tells his opponent, “you would have lost, anyway.” Then he kicks the corpse into a handy trapdoor to the basement, after briefly removing his hat in respect. We also meet “Wild Bill Hiccup” (Al St. John) who apparently lives in Mad Dog Gulch and is even a meaner hombre than the rest of the town. He plans to rob the saloon with a bunch of his buddies, all of them wearing masks so as not to be recognized by the sheriff.

Meanwhile, Arbuckle is wandering the desert, and winds up being chased by a group of cannibalistic Indians who have decided to eat him. He runs for the nearest sign of civilization, which, for better or worse, is Mad Dog Gulch and the Last Chance Saloon. He runs in just as the robbery is taking place, and just after the bartender has been shot (Keaton rapidly deploys a “bartender wanted” sign, even while the robbery is in progress), and knocks Al over with the saloon doors. He grabs the dropped guns and amazes everyone with trick shooting, managing to roust the robbers, shoot the Indians at an enormous distance, and shoot Buster’s hat off his head several times in a row. Once the smoke has cleared, Keaton dumps the body of the bartender through the trap door as well, and offers Arbuckle the job. He accepts, but Keaton won’t let him permanently remove the “bartender wanted” sign – he knows how long his bartenders usually last.

The next scene of the film is a pretty ugly racist bullying sequence in which a group of men with guns terrorize an African American man  and make him “dance” by shooting at his feet. Arbuckle joins in, and the man is even briefly dumped into the basement with the bodies before “Salvation Sue” (Alice Lake) comes in and puts everyone to shame for the goings-on. She now becomes Arbuckle’s love interest, as the two shyly introduce themselves. Al St John and his gang return, this time without masks, just looking to raise a little Hell instead of robbing the joint. He takes an interest in Sue, despite her lack of reciprocation, and Buster tries to throw him out, getting thrown clear across the room for his efforts. Arbuckle tries to put an end to the “mashing” by breaking a bottle over Al’s head, but he doesn’t seem to notice, so Arbuckle tries another. And another. Soon both Al and Alice are drenched in spirits from all the broken bottles, but Al is in no way slowing down, so Arbuckle tries his gun, also without effect. Finally, it dawns on Arbuckle to try tickling Al with a feather, and this proves to be the one thing Al can’t resist. He’s reduced to helpless laughter and Alice is able to get away. Buster joins in the tickle-fest and they kick Wild Bill Hiccup out, but Buster falls into his own trap door in the process.

Humiliated, Hiccup attempts to gain his revenge by kidnapping Sue and riding out of the town with her as his gang keep the bartender and the sheriff at bay. Arbuckle eventually breaks free and chases Hiccup back to his shack as Keaton holds off Hiccup’s men. After once again subduing Hiccup by tickling him, Arbuckle and Sue push his shack off a hill with him still inside, which is presumed to be enough to kill or at least subdue him. The end.

This movie is completely over the top, which is what it would take to effectively lampoon a Western at a time when so many of them were already silly to begin with. The structure of this film, at least from the time Arbuckle enters the bar, closely follows that of a William S. Hart movie. The stranger from out of town proves himself to be tougher than the tough guys, he gets hired (in a twist, he’s hired as the bartender by the sheriff, rather than the other way around), he meets the girl who makes him want to reform, and then the tough guys abuse her and he has to use his skills to rescue her. But, in this case, the story takes place amid a nonstop barrage of ridiculous gags. I only described maybe 25-30% of them in my rather lengthy synopsis above. The first part of the movie, aboard the train, includes some of the most death-defying stunts I’ve seen done on a train, and I kept thinking about the incredible risks Arbuckle and the other actors were taking. A train is hard to stop, once someone falls between two cars!

I can’t ignore the racist depictions of the Indians or the African American character, which does rather taint this movie for the modern viewer. It’s not a defense, but it is important to understand in the context of the “over the top” comedy that Arbuckle is here lampooning racist depictions that were presented seriously at the time, and he’s deliberately pushing them to an extreme. The idea that Indians would try to hunt down a “big fat paleface” for food was supposed to be ridiculous, and also a mockery of the generic “savage” presented in other films of the day. It can’t be seen as any kind of anti-racist critique, however, and watching it is a bit difficult, to say nothing of the use of the black man’s fear for his life to generate laughs. On the other hand, that man happens to be Ernie Morrison, Sr., a great comedian and the father of “Sunshine Sammy” Morrison, a personal favorite of mine. This was the kind of work he had to take to show off his skills, and we should not underestimate the hard work and talent he put into his “dancing” and pratfalls.

With all of this in mind, however, there are other things at work which save the film if you can get past those parts. Buster and Roscoe are clearly collaborators in this movie: their roles are nearly equal. Arbuckle is definitely still the star, but Keaton is less of a minor character or inferior and more of a sidekick. He also does some great stunts, including hanging from a chandelier and various pratfalls, and it’s clear Arbuckle thought his work was part of the draw, although I don’t find his name on any contemporary posters, so I guess he wasn’t a star yet. I found watching the two of them work together very enjoyable in this movie.

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: George Peters

Starring: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, Al St. John, Alice Lake, Ernie Morrison Sr

Run Time: 21 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

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His Bitter Pill (1916)

This Western spoof from Keystone has some funny parts, but much of it is played surprisingly straight, or at least low-key, by the standards of the studio. It stars Mack Swain, who had been, and would again be, a “heavy” in Charlie Chaplin comedies, but had a number of starring roles himself.

Swain plays “Big-Hearted Jim,” the sheriff of a Western county. He lives with his mother (Ella Haines), and hankers after Nell, the girl next door (Louella Maxam). While he tries to chat her up, a local ne’er-do-well called Diamond Dan (Edgar Kennedy) gets one of his cronies to “start some legal trouble” so he can horn in. The crony goes into the bar and starts shooting at the ceiling, which causes Big Jim to come crashing in and beat up everyone in the place. He makes no arrests, just leaving the unfortunate rowdies lying on the floor, then he returns to find Nell talking to Dan. He pulls her away, but soon he has to go see about a local widow being evicted from her place. He pays her rent for her, but once again Diamond Dan is on the spot. Jim walks Nell home, and goes back to his mother. She convinces him to ask Nell to marry him, giving him her ring for the proposal. But, by the time he gets there, Dan has already given her a bigger ring! Nell reluctantly tells him she’s always loved him…”as a brother.” He goes home and weeps piteously into his mother’s arms.

While he’s letting out his sorrow, Dan and his pals decide to hold up a stagecoach. As a result of unfortunate planning, they do so in full view of Jim’s house, and he pulls out a pocket telescope and figures out what’s going on. He leaps from his window onto a waiting horse, then charges into action. The bandits scatter, but Jim is able to shoot their moving horses at considerable distance. His mom meanwhile rouses a posse. He pursues Dan, after de-horsing him, back to Nell’s place. But, Dan tells Nell that Jim is just jealous, so she agrees to hide him in the chimney. There’s a funny sequence in which Jim suspects where Dan is, and he deliberately starts a fire in the fireplace to smoke him out, but Dan leaves his boots behind and climbs on the rooftop. Finally, Jim finds Dan and Nell pleads with him to spare his life. Jim gives Dan his horse, then goes to find the posse. Dan sneaks back to the house and “lures” Nell into running away with him to a “back room in a hell hole” which just looks like any saloon. He tries to get her to drink whiskey, but she refuses. Jim, who is having a drink in the outer bar, overhears the commotion and bursts in, once again fighting every ruffian in the place to save her. Jim pretty much trashes the place, but Dan is able to abduct Nell and ride off again, so there’s another chase. Finally, Dan is caught by the posse and Nell tells Jim she loves him, while we see the posse preparing to lynch Dan. The end.

This spoof probably held up better at a time when making fun of silent Westerns was a more original idea. Mack Swain is very hammy, and particularly when he’s grieving for Nell’s loss he goes way over the top, but to some degree that’s what a modern audience is expecting, so it can be hard to remember that it’s deliberate. Edgar Kennedy literally twirls his mustaches as the evil Diamond Dan, but again that’s pretty much par for the course. Sometimes it’s hard to make fun of something that’s already self-parodying. The physical comedy sections are played up in fast-motion, which does make them entertaining, but they don’t seem as extreme as other Keystones, and the whole thing lacks the refined chaos I expect from Mack Sennett (who produced, but didn’t direct in this case). It’s mostly Swain’s innocent sympathy that makes this movie work, and that at least is something.

Director: Fred Fishback

Camera: J.R. Lockwood

Cast: Mack Swain, Louella Maxam, Edgar Kennedy, Ella Haines

Run Time: 20 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Wild and Woolly (1917)

Douglas Fairbanks is back with a parody of the Western genre that takes full advantage of his good-natured American good looks and propensity for athleticism. By this point, the Fairbanks comedy “brand” was clearly established and he was milking it for all it was worth.

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Doug stars as Jeff Hillington, the spoiled son of a railroad magnate with an obsession for the Old West. We first meet Jeff having a breakfast of beans at a campfire in front of a tent, decked out in complete “Western”-style clothing, reading an Old West adventure novel. As the camera pulls back, we realize that this cozy scene takes place in his Manhattan apartment: He has set up the campfire and tent in his bedroom. He also does some target practice in his room, which prompts his father to send the butler up to remind him to get ready for the office. Doug is really rough on the old guy, roping him with a lasso, making him watch his trick shots from dangerously close to the line of fire, and finally jumping on his back and “busting” him like a bronco.

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Doug goes in to work for his father, but doesn’t get much done because he’s too busy fantasizing about the West. He goes to a Nickelodeon to watch the latest Western movie, and tells a passing woman that “his mate” will have to be just like the girl in the poster. Meanwhile, dad is meeting with a delegation from the town of Bitter Spurs, Arizona, where a prosperous mining facility needs a new spur line added to facilitate transportation of the ore. Hillington Senior likes the idea in theory, but decides to send Jeff to look at the situation at first-hand. He also hopes that a trip to the real West will cure him of his obsession. Jeff thinks this is the most exciting idea he’s heard, and insists on calling all the delegates “pard” and commiserating with them that they have to wear “store clothes” when they visit New York.

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This gives the city fathers of Bitter Creek an idea: They’ll impress this young fool by putting on a Wild West show just for him and pretending that nothing has changed since the 1870s. They cover up all their nicely-printed signs with handwritten boards (the “S” is always backwards) and turn the city assessor’s office into a Western Saloon. They get everyone to dress up like cowboys and plan out a dance, some rowdies for Jeff to confront, and a holdup for the climax. Meanwhile, the local Indian Agent (Sam De Grasse) has been skimming off the government assistance intended for a nearby reservation, and he learns that he will soon be exposed. So, along with his sidekick, he plans a real train robbery, using the Wild West show as a distraction, and plans for some of “his” Indians come into town to simulate an “uprising.”

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Jeff rides into town decked out like a true Urban Cowboy and immediately confronts a man harassing the one available single girl in town (Eileen Percy). The mining men realize that they need to get his guns away from him and put fake bullets in them, because he’s too eager to use them. They manage to do this while he’s washing his face in a basin in the hotel. Everything goes well, with Jeff consistently acting out the clichés of his fantasy, and the townsfolk laughing their heads off behind his back. They convince him that they need the spur in order to put Wild Bill and his Dirty Ditch outfit out of business. Jeff insists on walking the girl everywhere she goes for her own safety.

Alley-oop!

Alley-oop!

Then, the robbery takes place. Sam De Grasse shoots the conductor after he has indicated which strongbox has the real money in it, and takes it. The Indians pour into town and take over the bar, drinking excessively and demonstrating that their guns, at least, have real bullets. Much of the town’s leading citizens are held at bay, and in a nearby room is a collection of infants, brought in by the wives because they had to attend the dance. Jeff discovers that his bullets have been replaced when he tries to save the day, and the city fathers come clean. He leaps up to the ceiling, kicks a hole through so he can climb into his own room, and secures the boxes of ammunition he had packed for his vacation. Now armed, he and the townsmen are able to re-take the bar. Meanwhile, the Indian Agent’s henchman had kidnapped Eileen and taken her out to the range. Jeff jumps on a horse from behind and rushes off to save her. The townsmen also get on horses and herd the Indians like cattle. Jeff saves the girl, and sheepishly admits that all the trouble was his fault for being such a goof about the West. Then he rides off on the next train while Eileen sheds a tear.

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Then an Intertitle tells us that a Western must end with a wedding, so of course the two principles are married. But where should they live? Eileen wants to live n New York and Jeff in Arizona. The final shot is a sort of reversal of our introduction to Jeff: we see the finely-appointed foyer of a mansion, with liveried servants waiting to serve. Jeff and Eileen come down the stairs together and kiss, then they open the doors onto the rough desert terrain, and a group of rowdies on horseback greets them as Jeff mounts his horse to ride the range.

Ouch.

Ouch.

This movie captures a lot of the fun of Douglas Fairbanks in a simple package. It also reminds me of the kind of thing Harold Lloyd would later do: the good-natured nebbish who doesn’t quite live in reality, but makes good and gets the girl in the end. I think it’s actually a bit funnier when skinny Lloyd does this than buff Fairbanks, but Fairbanks did it first. This movie definitely has its funny moments. I particularly enjoy the early sequences in New York with the butler, but Jeff’s efforts to “fit in” to the Western town are also quite good. That said, I wouldn’t call it perfect. In terms of comedy, a lot of the humor is dependent upon funny Intertitles, which I find distracts from the visual action. Most silent movies tried to minimize the use of titles and show as much as possible visually, but, perhaps because they wanted to preserve the witty writing of Anita Loos, they overdid it a bit here. The other “not funny” part of this movie is the stereotypical portrayal of Native Americans. This is mostly a problem in about the last ten minutes of the movie, but it gets really bad when they take over the bar and drink heavily, threatening the white citizenry and their babies. According to Wikipedia, these scenes were frequently censored even at the time.

Welcome to New J-I mean Arizona!

Welcome to New J-I mean Arizona!

It’s interesting to note that this movie was actually shot in Fort Lee, New Jersey, which was still a major filmmaking center in 1917. This would have made the New York scenes easier. In fact, there’s one scene of Jeff riding his horse in Central Park South that couldn’t have been shot anywhere else. But, it must have made the Western town and countryside a bit of a challenge. We don’t get any sweeping panoramas of the desert, but those weren’t common at the time even in Hollywood films, partly because of the limitations of cameras and film stock. The town itself is quite good, and we do get some impressive long shots to establish it that work well.

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The real point of the movie is that it parodies the clichés of an established genre, especially the style of Western favored by Broncho Billy Anderson and other kid-friendly fare. Loos and Fairbanks obviously saw that these tropes were ripe for satire, and they went at it with both barrels. This movie is important historically for what it tells us about the development of that genre.

Director: John Emerson

Camera: Victor Fleming

Writer: Anita Loos

Starring: Douglas Fairbanks, Eileen Percy, Sam De Grasse, Joseph Singleton, Charles Stevens, Tom Wilson

Run Time: 1 hr, 12 min

You can watch it (no music) for free: here. It can also be rented for download (with music) from Flicker Alley on Vimeo.

The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916)

Douglas Fairbanks seems to be channeling his inner Ford Sterling in this unusually broad comedy of drug abuse and seaside hijinks. He plays the detective Coke Ennyday, an obvious parody of Sherlock Holmes, who must investigate an opium-smuggling ring – rather like calling in a cat to investigate a tuna fish theft!

Mystery_of_the_Leaping_FishThe movie begins with Coke Ennyday at home, in his dressing-gown. His clock says “Dope, Drinks, Sleep, Eats” on it. Coke goes ahead and shoots up, and his servant prepares an elaborate drink in the chemical laboratory. Before he can continue with this elaborate schedule, however, a man from the secret service arrives with a job. They’ve discovered a man “rolling in wealth, without any visible means of support” living in “Short Beach” and they want Ennyday to investigate. He needs to take another injection and blow cocaine all over the place before agreeing to the job. After the police constable leaves, he gets up to prepare for going out, removing his dressing gown and revealing the bandolier of syringes beneath. He dressed in matching checkered pants, deerstalker cap, and overcoat and goes out to a checkered car to drive to Short Beach.

Mystery of the Leaping FishThe man “rolling in wealth” meanwhile gets out of bed with some difficulty – he’s buried in dollar notes, and his house is cluttered with the stuff. He tells his servant to “press out a bundle of money” and also gets ready for his day of work. He runs a seaside bath house that rents swimsuits and “leaping fish” (actually inflatable fish that can be used as flotation devices). One of his employees is Bessie Love, known for some reason (ahem!) as the fish-blower. His other employees are swarthy men in yellowface, one of whom demands the fish-blower as payment for his ongoing silence about the real source of the wealthy man’s income. Shortly after he arrives, Ennyday sees the fish-blower in peril in the water, and dives in to save her, winding up face down in the muck. She manages to rescue him with an injection and he finds out about the leaping fish. He rents one to pursue some men (called “Japs” in the intertitles) he saw bringing something in from a boat out at sea. Smugglers!

Mystery of the Leaping Fish1Ennyday’s fish isn’t fast enough, so he injects it with coke and catches up to the smugglers. When they bring in their leaping fish to the bath house, he watches from the rafters (after a typically acrobatic leap) as they pull opium out of the fish. Now he’s onto them! They wrap up the opium and the fish-blower in blankets and head out to a laundry, but Ennyday manages to secure one of their cans of opium and takes it orally, which has the effect of hopping him up even more than all his cocaine. Now he runs out after them and finds the gang in a Chinese laundromat. He fights the gang, bouncing around in his drugged-out state and injecting them one at a time so that they are unable to resist. The fish-blower has managed to beat up her assailant and just needs Ennyday to open the door and let her out the room they locked her in. The police arrive with a Black Maria and take the gang in. Ennyday has saved the day! The movie ends with a brief epilogue showing the script being rejected by the scenario editor.

Mystery of the Leaping Fish2This is easily the wackiest comedy I’ve seen from Douglas Fairbanks. It’s almost a Keystone in its anarchic wildness and satire, and it uses Fairbanks’s acrobatics and physique only slightly. It also has some pretty unfortunate portrayals of Asians, pretty clearly played by white men. The part that will really stand out to modern viewers is its comedic use of drugs, something we associate with much later comedy (think of Cheech and Chong, Richard Pryor, etc.). Drug prohibition was still a fairly new concept and of course there was no Hays Code prohibiting the depiction of drug use at the time, but this is still a very unusual approach to a 1916 comedy. Even Griffith’s depiction of “Dopacoke” wasn’t used for “vulgar” comedic purposes! Apparently Fairbanks himself later regretted making  the movie, and it later became a kind of cult hit. Personally, I didn’t think Fairbanks was all that good in the movie, which really needed someone of the caliber of Sterling or Chaplin to pull off the bizarre material. Fairbanks is a bit too much the all-American nice guy for this kind of satire.

The other reason this movie is notable is that it was apparently written or re-written by Tod Browning, who later went on to direct some of Lon Chaney’s best-known movies, as well as the sound pictures “Dracula” and “Freaks.” Christy Cabanne (who would also work with Bela Lugosi during the sound period) was the original director, but was apparently fired during production and replaced with John Emerson, who brought Browning aboard.

Director: John Emerson

Camera: John W. Leezer

Starring: Douglas Fairbanks, Bessie Love, Alma Rubens, Allan Sears, Tom Wilson, William Lowery

Run Time: 26 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music), or you can rent it online from Flicker Alley at Vimeo: here.

Midwife to the Upper Class (1902)

Alice Guy finally moves into the twentieth century with a narrative short with editing and identifiable characters. It’s sort of a sequel to “The Cabbage Fairy,” or maybe it’s a satire.

Midwife to the Upper ClassThe movie opens on a small stage which is dressed in vines and flora, with a door in the back. One woman stands behind what looks like a flower stand, and a couple (man and woman) approach from stage right. All of them are in what seems to be antiquated clothing, making me think of a fairy tale. The couple discuss their finances, and the man takes out a purse and shows the woman how many coins he has. She looks happy, and approaches the saleslady. The lady at the stall now produces a series of baby dolls, each of which is examined by the customers carefully and discarded. Finally, she leads the pair to the door in the back of the stage.

Then there is an edit! And we find ourselves in the space behind the door, which seems to be a large cabbage patch. She now leads them between the rows, and starts pulling out live babies for them to consider. As they discard each one, she places them on a blanket near the front of the screen. Soon, there are five or six screaming babies. Occasionally, she shows them another baby doll (including one with black skin), but these are quickly discarded as the lady customer clearly wants a live child. Finally, she finds one that is to her liking and the man pays the baby-dealer.

Midwife to the Upper Class1I was so surprised to see an edit in an Alice Guy film that I almost fell off the couch. Remember, by 1902, Georges Méliès was putting out “A Trip to the Moon” and Edwin S. Porter made “Jack and the Beanstalk,” both movies that relied on multiple edits to tell complex stories. But Guy seemed to stay in that early “Age of Attractions” mode that just involved pointing a camera at a one- or two-minute subject and letting it run right into the twentieth century. Finally, she took a chance and expanded her storytelling technique, and it’s interesting to see where she goes with it. The movie appears to be intended as a mild comment on the fickleness and arrogance of the rich, although with its fantasy setting it can’t be seen as a serious social critique. In “the Cabbage Fairy,” we get the sense that the fairy is bringing welcome new life to the world as a gift, as the spring sun makes the flowers bloom without expecting recompense. In this film, she has been transformed into a merchant, trying to please snobbish clients. I see this as satire, but I’m not certain how far I can run with that. Although the title suggests that only the wealthy are the subjects, I wonder if it isn’t a comment on commercialism more generally, and its dehumanizing effects.

Director: Alice Guy

Camera: Unknown (possibly Alice Guy)

Starring: Germaine Serand, Yvonne Serand

Run Time: 4 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.

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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).

Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life (1913)

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One of the thinnest plotlines in history seems to have introduced one of the most lasting impressions about silent film. This Keystone short has been cited time and again to support a premise that drives silent movie fans up the wall.

Barney Oldfields Race for LifeThis movie begins with Mack Sennett in the same bumpkin costume that he later used in “Mabel’s Dramatic Career.” He gives Mabel Normand a flower and they shyly smooch under a tree. This all seems to make villainous Ford Sterling inexplicably mad, and as soon as he can get Mabel alone, he tries to steal a kiss, which is rebuffed. He only gets angrier, and calls in his two goons to grab Mabel and drag her off to the railroad tracks, where they find chain and fasten her to the tracks with a railroad spike. Then, they take the convenient handcar to the nearest station and commandeer an engine (apparently just waiting for a train to do the job for them wasn’t good enough).

Barney: No actor, but boy can he drive!

Barney: No actor, but boy can he drive!

Ford gets angry with one of his associates when he asks to be paid and knocks him out. When the goon wakes up, he tells the railroad workers what’s going on and they inform Mack. Then, world-renowned racecar driver Barney Oldfield drives up and Mack informs him of Mabel’s peril. And the race is on! The car and the train speed toward the same location, but Oldfield’s expert driving assures the Mack will be able to rescue the damsel just in time. Meanwhile, a group of five policemen have taken the handcar to try to apprehend Sterling. Sterling, foiled by his inability to kill Mabel, takes out his gun and shoots all five. He tries to kill himself, but he’s out of bullets, so resorts to strangling himself to death (!).

Barney Oldfields Race for Life1This movie is a patently thin veneer hung over a thrilling chase and a lot of silly satire. Ford Sterling takes his mustache-twirling villain role to unheard-of extremes, climaxing with his own bizarre suicide when thwarted. When he so easily kills the five policemen, the question is immediately raised why he didn’t just shoot Mabel in the first place when she refused him a kiss, but that wouldn’t make for a thrilling movie, just a psychotic act of violence. Trying to crush her with a steam engine is clearly more cinematic. The chase itself includes some impressive photography for 1913, including tracking shots from the hand car, the engine, and the car, as well as from other vehicles just in front of or beside them. The shot where Sennett pulls Mabel off the tracks just in the nick of time appears to have been a double-exposure, and on the print I’ve seen it looks very dark and high-contrast, suggesting that the cinematographers couldn’t manage it with the finesse of Georges Méliès. Oldfield seems to have no interest in even trying to act, his only job is to drive a fast car, and he does that fine, letting Sennett do all the emoting. I suppose the five guys who get shot are technically “Keystone Cops” (they’re men in police uniforms in a Keystone movie), but they don’t do any of the characteristic antics one associates with that name.

Barney Oldfields Race for Life2Although Fritzi at Movies Silently has already covered this in detail, I need to say a few words about the girl-tied-to-the-railroad-tracks thing. Yes, this is a silent movie in which it did happen. No, it wasn’t all that common of a theme. Apparently, it was a trope in Victorian Theater, because you could build suspense by having off-stage train whistles without having to actually show a train. Whatever the case, this example is clearly satire – the situation is outrageous on purpose and being played up as ridiculous, as Sterling’s performance emphasizes. It wasn’t something silent audiences wanted or thought of as serious drama. I found it sort of a disappointing role for Mabel Normand (after all I said about her NOT being a “damsel”), she sort of sits there and weeps instead of taking charge of the situation, but it was hardly representative of her career, either. I’d say this movie doesn’t hold up that well, and isn’t even of great historical interest, inasmuch as it seems to lead people to false conclusions.

Wikipedia calls this a "screen shot" from the movie. I think it's actually a publicity still, judging by the posed look of the actors.

Wikipedia calls this a “screen shot” from the movie. I think it’s actually a publicity still, judging by the posed look of the actors.

Director: Mack Sennett

Camera: Lee Bartholomew and Walter Wright

Cast: Mabel Normand, Mack Sennett, Ford Sterling, Barney Oldfield, Al St. John, Hank Mann

Run Time: 13 Min, 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Bangville Police (1913)

I hope Lea, over at Silentology, will forgive me from piggy-backing on her review, but she inspired me to watch the movie and now I have to write about it! You should all go check out her blog, either before or after you read my article tonight. Bangville Police

First, for those of you too lazy to read her summary, here’s the basics: Mabel Normand is a young girl living on a farm with her hayseed father and salt-of-the-earth mother. She longs for a newborn calf to make the place more homey. When she hears strange noises in the barn, she sees two men lurking in the shadows and panics. She runs back to the house and calls the sheriff, who’s sound asleep in bed. He fires off some rounds to attract the attention of the local volunteer deputies and sends them off to investigate. Meanwhile, Mabel’s mom has tried to enter the house, but Mabel thinks she’s a burglar and keeps her out. Mom thinks Mabel must be held hostage by burglars and goes off to get dad, all the while Mabel keeps screaming into the phone and the sheriff thinks it must be an Indian attack or a serial killer or something. So, he rounds up every able-bodied man and the police force’s one vehicle (an old roadster like something out of the “Wacky Races”) and rushes to the rescue. Sort of. Actually, the car is much slower than the men running and it ultimately breaks down in a cloud of smoke. Meanwhile, mom and pop have so terrified Mabel that she takes the phone and hides in a closet, after barricading the door. They manage to break through and find Mabel, apparently unharmed. The police show up and appear ready to arrest pop for open-carrying his pistol, but then everyone is charmed by the newborn calf in the barn. The end. All of this, by the way, is communicated in pantomime and just two short Intertitles.

Bangville Police2 Now, this movie gets a lot of attention because of its early use of the “Keystone Kops” (or “Cops”), but that’s only incidental. Only a couple of the volunteers and the sheriff himself have any traditional accoutrements of office, the rest are just yokels with shovels, pitchforks, and rifles. The more “traditional” Keystone Kops movies, like “Fatty Joins the Force,” always take place in urban environments, and they exploit the police-as-authority-figure trope to humorous effect. This one barely scratches that surface. Forgive me, but I think something else is at work here.

Look familiar?

Look familiar?

And, I think I know what it is. Longtime readers who were paying attention might have thought the plot outline sounded…familiar. To spell it out: It’s a very close parody of “The Unseen Enemy” by D.W. Griffith. Mabel Normand even mocks Dorothy Gish’s facial expressions in some shots, and camera set-ups are clear parallels. It should be noted that “The Unseen Enemy” triggered a series of imitations, some even by Griffith himself, including “Death’s Marathon.” Even audiences who hadn’t seen Griffith’s 1912 movie would be familiar by now with the story: a young girl, trapped alone in a house, uses the telephone to summon help, while a race to rescue her is intercut with her increasing peril. Director Henry Lehrman (mostly remembered today for not appreciating Charlie Chaplin’s talents) brilliantly turned that whole concept on its head, and used very different camera- and editing-styles from normal to make the satire work. The close-up was generally reserved for opening and closing shots at Keystone, but he needed it in the middle here. Cross-cutting rarely interrupted the story for more than a few seconds, but he needed to draw out the humorous tension of Mabel trapped by her parents while establishing the characters of the titular law enforcers. Even the car, which is now seen as the most traditionally “Keystone Kop” element in the picture, is there because it is part of the parody; unlike the original, it is slow and unreliable. Note that Lehrman, as well as Mack Sennett the producer, had gotten their start working as actors for Griffith at Biograph.

How about now?

How about now?

An_Unseen_Enemy

The one thing I can’t explain is the whole bit with the calf. Wouldn’t a farm girl know if her cow is pregnant? And who are those two guys in the barn? They didn’t look like vets to me, and I certainly didn’t see them deliver the calf. None of this seems to have anything to do with Griffith, I guess it’s just there because they needed an ending.

Director: Henry Lerhman

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Mabel Normand, Fred Mace, Raymond Hatton, Edgar Kennedy, Ford Sterling, Al St. John, Nick Cogley

Run Time: 8 Min

You can watch it for free: here.