Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Silent Classical Period

My Wife’s Relations (1922)

Buster Keaton winds up married by accident and has to navigate a family of in-laws from Hell in this short comedy from 1922. Will he survive this bizarre situation?

My Wifes Relations

The movie begins with Buster pulling taffy for a living at a candy store in a large urban area. An intertitle emphasizes the many languages spoken in such places (relevant to the plot) and tells us he is a young artist (completely irrelevant). The scene cuts to a young Polish couple, calling a Justice of the Peace to request a wedding ceremony, to be performed in their native language. He concurs, saying, “I speak no other language.” Buster gets into a confrontation with a postman, accidentally hitting him with the taffy pull and provoking him to throw a bottle at him, which smashes a window. Buster runs away, but trips over a large woman (Kate Price). Kate grabs him and sees the window, and the Justice of the Peace inspecting it (turns out it was his window) and draws the conclusion that Buster is responsible, so hauls him back over to the scene of the crime. The Justice of the Peace assumes they are the couple who called and begins the wedding ceremony. Since neither side knows what the other is saying, soon Kate and Buster are hitched. Read the rest of this entry »

Cops (1922)

This simple two-reel short confirms Buster Keaton’s genius before he had moved on to the production of comedy features later in the twenties. While limited in terms of plot and character, it takes the basic concept of the chase, a staple of film since the beginning, and “runs with it” (pun intended) for all it’s worth.

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The movie begins by establishing its simple premise – Keaton speaks to a girl (Virginia Fox) through bars, as if in prison. Then, she turns and walks away from him, and the new angle shows that he is standing at the gate to her home, and that she is on the grounds of a large estate. She tells him in an intertitle that in order to marry her, he will need to be successful in business. And thus, Buster is set into motion. A short distance away, he sees a man (Joe Roberts) hailing a taxi. He accidentally drops a large wad of money. Buster retrieves it and, rather than steal it, offers it back to the man, expecting a reward. The man ignores him and seems annoyed. He then tries to help the man to the taxi, still hoping for a tip, but each effort he makes backfires and the man is tripped and becomes increasingly angry. When the taxi pulls away, Keaton starts counting the money he has lifted during the scuffle. The man, however, realizes the money is gone and has the taxi return, grabbing it from Keaton’s hand in motion. He gets only the wallet, so the taxi turns around again and this time he gets out, ready to confront Buster, but Buster just gets into the cab from the other side and drives off. Only now do we see the man’s badge, indicating that Buster has just had his first run-in with the law.

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The Blacksmith (1922)

Another two-reel short from Buster Keaton that emphasizes his ability to come up with a seemingly endless string of gags around a given them, this movie is surprisingly plotless, even compared to his early work with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Enjoy the laughs, but don’t look for a lot of coherence, from this one.

The opening introduces Buster, a blacksmith’s assistant, in poetic intertitles that contrast with the images shown. We are told that the “village smithy” stands under a “spreading chestnut tree,” to see Buster posing beneath a remarkably tall palm tree – essentially a pole with a tuft on top. A line about “the muscles of his brawny arms” is followed by Keaton flexing, then popping the balloon that swells beneath his sleeve. When children look in at him doing his work, the boss (Joe Roberts) comes along and chases them off. He then finds Buster is using the smithy flame to heat up his breakfast. Using tongs to hold the plate, Buster tries to pretend to be working by hammering at the anvil, but shatters the plate and ruins his meal. Then, Buster does several pratfalls involving a hot horseshoe, fresh out of the forge. He burns each of his feet in turn and then his behind, putting each into the bucket of water to cool them and, of course, producing steam. Soon, his boss tells him to bring a large hammer out to the front, where he is working on a wagon wheel. He brings two, but they disappear, sucked up to the huge horseshoe that serves as their shop’s sign – in fact a huge horseshoe magnet. When the wagon wheel disappears the same way, the larger man begins to abuse him, which attracts the attention of the local sheriff, who loses his star and gun in the same way. Now the sheriff calls over his four deputies and they take the blacksmith into custody, with considerable difficulty as the huge man fights back. Buster inadvertently helps them when he sees where ll of the missing bits of metal have gone and climbs up to the magnet, bring it and all of its gains down upon his boss and stunning him.

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Gussle’s Day of Rest (1915)

This Mack Sennett “park comedy” stars Charlie Chaplin’s brother Sydney in a role about as close to the “Little Tramp” as possible. Although by 1915, Charlie had begun making more sympathetic movies about his character, Syd is still definitely in the earlier mode of funny-because-he’s-so-bad.

Gussles Day of Rest

The movie begins with Gussle (Syd) and his wife (Phyllis Allen) at the boardwalk, looking out into the ocean. A boy approaches Gussle and offers to sell him a newspaper. Gussle agrees, but has no money on him, so he cadges some from his wife. He sees that she keeps her change in a stocking, and sticks the end of it (the part with the coins) into his pocket, then uses a pair of scissors to snip off the part that is in her hand. When Nancy sees this, he tries to accuse the salesboy, but she is onto him. They then pass by a bar, and Gussle tries to go in, but wifey stops him. The go into a park, standing on the road, and squabble for a while until Gussle is suddenly hit from behind by a car and knocked over. The driver of that car (Slim Summerville) was distracted by his passenger (Cecile Arnold), and soon Gussle is, too. Now, Gussle and his wife squabble with Slim and Gussle pushes the car back with his foot a couple of times, causing it to careen wildly in reverse, but Slim drives back to the scene each time. Phyliis faints from all the exertion, but somehow manages to wake up to hit Gussle each time he shows too much interest in Cecile or takes a swig of the whiskey offered to help wake her up.

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Gussle and Phyllis continue their day in the park, eventually snoozing under a tree together. Gussle wakes up first and blows cigar smoke into her open mouth, then puts a balloon in it. He distracts her when she awakes, annoyed, by calling her attention to the birds singing, then takes out a slingshot and starts trying to shoot them down. His aim is apparently poor, however; both he and his wife wind up getting a round in the eye when they return to earth. Slim and Cecile, meanwhile, have set up a picnic, which Gussle crashes, evidently with Cecile’s approval. Gussle somehow gets a fork stuck in his behind, which takes a good deal of effort on the part of Slim and Cecile to withdraw.

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Annoyed by Gussle’s interloping, Slim tries to enlist the aid of Gussle’s wife, but she thinks he’s a masher when he wakes her up, and she knocks him down. Soon, Gussle and Slim are fighting, and Cecile takes a powder. Then Phyllis joins in and soon is fighting Cecile as well. Phyllis chases Gussle, who knocks a zookeeper into the pen with a leopard. This gives Gussle the good idea of doing the same thing with his wife, then going back to collect Cecile. A cop (Edward F. Cline) takes an interest, and Gussle sends Cecile away, then distracts him by sashaying around the well until he can hit him with his own billy club. With Phyllis and Slim in pursuit, Gussle puts Cecile in the car, but he can’t get it to start. Finally, it starts just in time to run over the cop, who hits Slim when he gets up again. The end is a high-speed chase with Gussle and Cecile in the car and the others on foot. Cecile’s gestures show us the car is out of control and Gussle swerves all over the road. They crash into a construction site where dynamite is being used, and an explosion dumps dirt all over the car. Gussle pokes his head out of the dirt, but there’s no sign of Cecile. He digs down until he finds her hair, then tugs at it and it comes off – revealing itself as a wig and the top of her head as bald. Gussle puts the wig back and pushes the dirt over it. The end.

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It’s typical enough of the genre, but without whatever the magic was that made Charlie transcend it. Certain scenes, such as the cigar-smoke sequence and the fork in the behind, have the feeling of being ad-libbed comedy of the sort Charlie excelled at, but which just falls flat in Syd’s hands. There are more close-ups than you might expect for a 1915 movie, but the quality of the existing prints makes it hard to appreciate. Syd seems to play “innocent” a lot, fluttering his eyelashes and tilting his head to the side, but his cuteness doesn’t make up for the unlikability of his character. It was funny to spot Buster Keaton‘s future co-director, Edward Cline, in the role of the cop. Here, he’s a typical hot-headed Keystone Kop, which is kind of needed to distract us from Syd’s performance. Like a lot of two-reelers, the movie is divided into a “part one” and “part two,” but without any clear division between them. On the whole, it seems to me that cutting it down to a single reel would have been the best way to make it funnier.

Director: F. Richard Jones

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Sydney Chaplin, Phyllis Allen, Slim Summerville, Cecile Arnold, Edward F. Cline

Run Time: 20 Min, 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here (complete, with a terrible soundtrack), or here (incomplete, worse quality print, but better music).

The Electric House (1922)

Another Buster Keaton short from one hundred years ago, this movie gave him an opportunity to show off his love of gadgets and labor-saving devices.

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The movie begins by showing a graduation ceremony from a college. In the front row are Buster, a girl, and a fellow with a pugilist’s face (Steve Murphy), who is really an electrical engineer. A mishap causes them to exchange diplomas accidentally, so when the President of the college (Joe Roberts) announces his need for an electrician to wire his house, the engineer hands him a degree in cosmetics and hairdressing. He is rejected, and Buster, whose degree was supposed to be in Botany, gets the job instead. Seeing the President’s attractive young daughter (Virginia Fox), Buster takes the job and departs with them before the engineer can figure out the mistake. The family quickly departs on vacation and leaves Buster to study a manual on electrical engineering and take care of the job.

Electric House

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The Pest (1922)

A young Stanley Laurel (sans Hardy) stars in this two-reel comedy directed by G.M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson. Not as far out as a Mack Sennett, nor as refined as the work of Keaton or other recognized geniuses, it still has a few laughs and some interest for us today.

Pest

Laurel plays a “book agent” according to the credits, which seems to mean a man who goes door-to-door selling biographies of Napoleon. As the movie opens, he is going on at some length about the merits of reading up on the great man to a potential customer who has little to say in response. A man comes out from behind the gate they are standing in front of and moves his hands about oddly, then leads the “customer” inside, revealing to the audience (and Laurel) the fact that this is an institution for the “deaf and dumb.” An older woman (Joy Winthrop) comes out and Laurel makes rather more convincing sign language at her as she stares uncomprehendingly, then she starts talking a mile a minute, making it impossible for Stanley to get a word in edgewise. He tries to get away from this pest, but she follows, running surprisingly fast for a woman in a dress that doesn’t allow for much leg movement (a dolly shot follows them from the back of a car or truck, to allow the chase to go as far as possible in the street).

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Day Dreams (1922)

Buster Keaton had been producing his own short comedies for a few years by 1922, when he brought out this ambitious, large-scale project. It ties in with themes he had used before, including youthful ambition, attaining love, and a little man on the run from cops.

Day Dreams

The movie begins by introducing “the Girl” (Renée Adorée), who is changing the flowers in a vase. After a quick cut to Keaton, who we see is picking flowers outside, we see her toss out the old flowers, which are deftly caught by Keaton and added to his bouquet, which he presents her as he walks up to her door. Soon, we learn the real reason for his visit, as he approaches her father (Buster’s real-life dad, Joe Keaton), reclining in his easy chair, and proclaims his love for her daughter. The father questions Buster’s ability to support his daughter, and Buster pledges to find good-paying work, or kill himself if he fails. Dad seems amenable to this arrangement, and Buster heads out to seek his fortune, backing out the doorway and nearly being hit by cars as he walks backward into the street.

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When the Clouds Roll By (1919)

This comedy feature from Douglas Fairbanks lampoons superstition and psychiatry in equal measure, also dealing (as did “Flirting with Fate”) with the dark topic of suicide in a comedic fashion. As always, Doug gets through the shaky premise with athletics, optimism, and “pep.”

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Doug plays “Daniel Boone Brown,” a poor sap who has been chosen by Dr. Metz (Herbert Grimwood), an unscrupulous scientist, as the subject of an experiment to see whether a human being can be killed by his mind alone. For months he has been encouraging all doubts and fears in him, and now he announces his experiment to an academic conference, urging his listeners to keep it a secret. We now see poor Doug, who is being served an onion, a lobster, Welsh rarebit, and a slice of mince pie at midnight to give him indigestion and bad dreams by his servant, who is in on the scheme. As he eats each of these ill-advised foods, we see a depiction of his stomach, with the foods dancing about inside. Of course, he has a terrible night and wakes up late for work. In his dreams he is pursued by a ghostly man with huge forearms, he passes through a room full of women in his nightclothes, and he runs around the walls of a room, as Fred Astaire would do in “Royal Wedding” many years later.

When the Clouds Roll By

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Reaching for the Moon (1917)

Douglas Fairbanks dips a toe into swashbuckling and costume drama in this early farce, but the overall message doesn’t really seem to agree with his real-life attitudes. What kind of fun does he have in store for us here?

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The movie begins with a metaphorical image of Doug, on top of a tall ladder, reaching for an illuminated crescent moon, clearly out of reach. Assuming that there are no tricks here, his precarious balance on the top step may be one of the most dangerous stunts of the movie. We learn from intertitles that his character has the outlandish name of Alexis Caesar Napoleon Brown, but I’ll probably keep calling him “Doug” because that’s how I always think of him, whatever role he plays. He believes in a system of wish-fulfillment based on visualization, and he aspires to rub shoulders with nobility and have the ears of Kings. In reality, however, he is a minor clerk at a firm that makes buttons. Apparently his mother was a refugee from the kingdom of Vulgaria, and he suspects that he may be part of the royal lineage. He goes to see his girl (Eileen Percy), and enthuses at her about how his visualizations will make their dreams come true, though she advises him to start small and work his way up to the bigger dreams. It is fairly clear that her dream is simply to be with Doug, and that she understands the book he recommends to her better than he does.

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Doug focuses his efforts on a meeting with the Prince of Contraria, who is conveniently in town at the time. He manages to insinuate himself into a table at a posh restaurant close to the Prince, but is unable to afford any of the high-priced items on the menu. His constant staring and attempts to get himself noticed make the Prince’s companions suspect he may be a spy. Meanwhile, they ignore the real spies at a further table. He continues to daydream and see if he can find a way to meet the Prince, but without success. Soon, his distraction leads to his losing his job, since he doesn’t put enough time into his regular duties any more. He goes home and throws himself on his bed in despair.

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Shortly after, one of the dignitaries from Contraria shows up at his door, pursued by the spies. He knocks and Doug wakes up to let him in. The man demands to know his name and appears astounded when he hears it and that his mother was Vulgarian. The man compares a photo in his pocket to the picture of Doug’s mother and states that he is the only living heir to the throne of Vulgaria. He promises to take Doug to his kingdom, despite the efforts of assassins employed by Black Boris (Frank Campeau) to stop him. Doug momentarily thinks about his girl, but decides he can catch up with her later, after he has been installed. The assassins see him and follow the car to the dock, where Doug and his entourage board a vessel to Vulgaria. Doug looks forward to the good life, rich food, and sea air, but it turns out he has to stay in hiding from the assassins and can only eat tinned food to avoid being poisoned. He can’t even talk, because the assassins have bugged his stateroom, and to remove the bug would alert them that they have been detected.

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In Vulgaria, things only get worse, as his parade is interrupted by several assassination attempts. It is here that Doug is finally able to put his physical skills to use, as he leaps from horses and canal boats, climbs sheer walls and runs along rooftops while dodging bullets. He also fights some assassins hand to hand, putting in a good show for himself. Finally, he drops from a ceiling trapdoor into the midst of his cabinet, who are relieved to find him alive. He learns that he is betrothed to the Princess Valentina, and aging dowager from Contraria. But he agrees to remain for the good of his people, and eventually Black Boris challenges him to a duel. In this movie, Doug seems to be untrained in swordsmanship, and despite a few good moves, he is quickly forced to back down. Soon, he is sent flying down a steep precipice. It becomes steeper and steeper until Alexis falls out of his bed at home, discovering that the whole sequence has been a dream.

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Doug rushes over to his girl, only to see her with another man. It turns out that the man is a realtor, who is selling her a small suburban home in New Jersey, which she hopes to share with Doug – her dream come true. He gets his job back by promising to apply himself diligently to the job and not aspire for unrealistic things. We see Doug and the girl happy at home with a small child.

Reaching for the Moon

The moral to this story appears to be that one should learn to be happy with one’s lot in life, which is about the most un-Fairbanksian idea I can think of. If he felt that way, he should have stayed in Denver, stayed with his first wife and not married Mary Pickford, and never become one of the world’s first movie star personalities. Since that’s not what he did (indeed, it’s almost impossible to imagine), this movie comes off like him telling his fans, “Do as I say, not as I do.” But maybe the bigger disappointment is the use of the “it was all a dream” ending, which was already a cliché in literature and theater long before the movies used it as a cop out. The relatively short run time of features at this time may have precluded a truly clever resolution to the situation, but it seems like Doug could have learned what was really important in his life (the love of the girl, in this instance), without having to negate the most interesting part of the story. On a level of wish-fulfillment, it’s also dissatisfying not to see Doug beat the villain, when we know that he was perfectly capable of putting on a good show as a fencer.

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Whatever we may say about the narrative, however, this movie is pretty well in line with the better-quality work Fairbanks was putting out in 1917. Although Wikipedia calls it an “adventure film,” it is really a light comedy whose adventure-spoofing sequences give Doug ample opportunity to show off his athleticism. The camerawork and editing are of very high quality for the time, but nothing really exciting of innovative is attempted. Fairbanks didn’t really re-invent himself as an action star until the 1920s, but certainly movies like this and “A Modern Musketeer” gave him a chance to sample what that would be like and get in some early practice. The movie is set in New York and “Vulgaria,” though imdb claims it was shot in Venice, California. The exteriors are convincing, although it is certainly true that we don’t see any recognizable New York locations. The scene at the canal really does mimic the other Venice pretty convincingly, and I wonder if this is the only sequence that was actually shot in Venice, with the more urban landscapes taken from deeper in Los Angeles.

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For fans of Fairbanks, this movie is a fine example of his early work, but the ending is bound to be a downer.

Director: John Emerson

Camera: Victor Fleming, Sam Landers

Starring: Douglas Fairbanks, Eileen Percy, Frank Campeau, Eugene Ormonde, Bull Montana, Charles Stevens, Erich von Strohheim

Run Time: 1 Hr, 9 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

A Bird’s a Bird (1915)

Just in time for the holidays comes this Keystone comedy about two husbands trying to provide a turkey for their wives’ tables. Lacking in big names, this one gives a good example of the more “pedestrian” comic output of the studio.

Chester Conklin plays Mr. Walrus, who we meet at a raffle, where he is buying up tickets in hopes of winning the grand prize – a turkey to take home for dinner. Despite his multiple tickets, when the wheel is spun he is not the winner. Now Mr. Spegle (Harry D. Ward dressed to look sort of like Ford Sterling) comes along and buys one ticket, then tricks the “foreigner” (William Hauber) who legitimately won into giving him his ticket and he takes home the bird. Walrus goes home to wife Minta Durfee and explains that he wasn’t able to get a turkey, and she expresses anxiety as her parents are coming for dinner and expect meat. A close up on a parrot in a cage gives Walrus an idea and he makes an incompetent effort to catch it, but is caught in the act by Minta. He then wonders how cat meat would taste as he sits by the family pet. This time Minta takes his knife away. Luckily, however, the Spegles are just next door and Mr. Spegle puts the turkey in the window to cool, having just finished roasting it. Now the foreigner walks up and plants a bomb in the turkey. Walrus takes the rather more American-materialist form of revenge by taking the turkey. He presents it to Minta just as she is despairing of having a decent dinner for her parents. She is suspicious at first and checks to make sure the parrot is still alive, but overjoyed once she is convinced it’s a real turkey. She instructs him to set the table, and he does a quick pratfall where he tries to lean on one of the extended “arms” after opening it out and knocks all of their good china on the floor. He also “presses” his suit by laying it out on a window seat and sitting on it. Minta meets her parents at the door and invites the neighbors, Mr. & Mrs. Spegle over to meet them. Of course, they are asked to stay for dinner, and Mr. Spegle recognizes the bird. Just as he is announcing Walrus’s crime, the foreigner comes up to watch the results of his handywork, but a fight breaks out among the family and the bird gets tossed out the window, the explosion throws the foreigner far into the air and he lands on Minta’s dad, crashing through the ceiling. The final minutes of the film are just the foreigner, Walrus , and Spegle locked in silly combat and comeuppance.

I think this movie would have benefitted from the presence of a Fatty Arbuckle, Mable Normand, or even a (real) Ford Sterling. None of the players seems to be able to carry it as is. We don’t expect any kind of subtlety in a Keystone plot, but this one is very weak sauce indeed. As grim as the section is in which Conklin seems to be contemplating serving a household pet to his in-laws, this is the part with the greatest comedic potential, but it is left to sit – possibly because this isn’t a cartoon and chasing live animals around wasn’t going to be feasible in single takes (though Normand had handled the concept admirably in “A Little Hero”). The other piece of this movie is the various dinner-table arguments that take place while the bomb ticks away, reminding me of Hitchcock’s famous “bomb theory” of suspense, which should also translate to comedy: things are funnier if you know that all the tomfoolery is just a distraction from a ticking bomb, or so you might think. Here, it doesn’t seem to work, maybe because the audience doesn’t really trust the narrative to stick to any logical rhythm – the bomb’s going to go off when it feels like it, not when it is supposed to, so we lose that sense of urgency. At any rate, this movie isn’t a complete washout, but it’s not among the best works in Keystone’s canon.

Director: Unknown (possibly Walter Wright)

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Chester Conklin, Minta Durfee, Harry Ward, Willaim Hauber, Alice Davenport, Fred Hibbard

Run Time: 13 Min

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