Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Silent Classical Period

A Reckless Rover (1918)

Another short slapstick comedy distributed by Ebony Studios, this movie once again points up the troubled history of race relations in America. Although the studio was managed and operated by African Americans, it was owned by whites, and as this movie illustrates, it often represented their ideas of what Black entertainment could or should be.

Uh oh.

Our movie begins with a title card and an intertitle, each of which is illustrated with large-lipped caricatures of a Black man. We are told that our hero Rastus (Sam Robinson) makes a sloth look like “a human dynamo of energy,” and we first see him lying in bed as his landlady bangs on the door to get her back rent. She finds a policeman, kitted out in Keystone Kop regalia, to assist her in getting into the room. She doesn’t want her property damaged by breaking in the door, however, so she gets a chair so that the policeman can get in via the window above the door. Rastus pushes the window up so that the cop is stuck, and he kicks and makes faces as the landlady struggles to pull him back through. Rastus goes back to bed and stuffs a pillow in the cop’s face to keep him quiet before he falls back down on the landlady. Now the cop is determined to break in the door and he is soon leaping across the bed while Rastus darts underneath from one side to the other to evade him. Rastus grabs his hat and coat and leaps out the window into the back alley. The landlady, meanwhile, has gotten a shotgun and shoots the cop in the backside, propelling him out the window as well.

The chase proceeds through unpaved alleys and muddy streets, though Rastus soon evades the cop by hiding inside a wooden box as the officer runs around the corner. To be safe, however, he decides to go into a Laundromat run by “Charley Moy” a Black man in yellowface, and steal some new clothes. Moy catches him, however, and threatens him with his iron. Rastus claims that the wind blew the clothes on the ground and Charlie decides to hire him to work at the laundry. Now Rastus has his pick of the clothing, and he chooses a new striped shirt and a tie with spots on it. Now an attractive young woman comes into the shop with the ticket for the very order he has been pillaging. He gives it to her and steals a kiss before she slaps him and leaves. Now Moy uses his iron on Rastus’s backside to encourage him to work harder and Rastus replies by whacking him with a wet garment, even as another customer enters the shop. When Charlie throws the rag back at Rastus, he misses, and of course hits the customer. Soon he is throwing everything in the place at Rastus, and Moy applauds as he catches each parcel without dropping them, but then expresses dismay when Rastus drops the lot into the washer to catch one last item. The customer grabs his bundle and goes, while Rastus runs all of the remaining ones through the wringer (without opening them first).

The management would like to apologize for this image.

Now the lady customer arrives at home and inspects her laundry. She discovers a missing stocking (it’s the “tie” Rastus is wearing), and goes back to the shop. Meanwhile, Rastus has found the boss’s opium pipe and tries a few drags from it. At first, he looks like it is making him nauseous, but soon he starts spinning in place with a blissful look on his face. He prances about until he burns himself on the stove, then gets into the washer to cool off. Steam comes out of his ears. Charlie finds him and surmises what has happened, warning him against smoking from the tin marked in Chinese letters – a fade shows us that they translate to “Rat Poison.” The lady customer returns, and Rastus locks Moy in the back room so he can have her to himself. She recognizes the stocking around his neck this time, and he steals another kiss, trying to placate her by giving her other customer’s parcels. She throws these back at him and at that moment Moy breaks in and knocks a shelf on top of Rastus, pinning him to the counter.

They really don’t get better, do they?

The lady customer finds the cop from before and reports what has happened, so he goes to the store to investigate. Charlie comes out to try to smooth things over, but Rastus hides with the iron and hits he cop whenever his back is turned, making him think it is Charlie doing it. The cop hits  Charlie and Rastus hits the cop and they both fly backward – Charlie to the back room and the cop into the street. The cop beats the ground with his nightstick, summoning a variety of other African American policemen in Keystone garb, most of whom appear to be napping on their beats. The four cops go into the store, but Rastus sets up the unconscious Moy to be their target, backside first. The cops fire their soda powder guns into the room, and Rastus calls out advice so that they will hit Moy. Rastus sneaks out the back, and the cops rush in and start trashing the place. The last shot shows Rastus running down an alleyway.

Not the best print, though that can be merciful.

The movie itself is pretty primitive for 1918 – it looks like something Keystone could have put out five years earlier – and this isn’t helped by a print that is damaged in multiple places. The comic timing and acrobatics of some of the players (particularly Robinson and the main featured cop) is at least at the level of an “average” Keystone movie, but there are no budding Chaplins here. The use of Chicago city streets, apparently on the poorer side of town, is interesting to see. Who would have thought that there would be muddy, unpaved areas in Chicago 100 years ago?

I’ve been soft-balling criticism of these Ebony films because I want to find something good in movies that at least put Black actors and crews to work at this early time, but this one is outright offensive on multiple levels. If it’s not the Chinese caricature, it’s the horrible cartoons on the intertitles, and the depiction of African Americans as lazy, shiftless, unreliable, thieving, and generally stupid throughout. I’ve read that Ebony took some heat at the time for continuing to show movies they made before 1917, when the management was all white, but this movie is clearly from a later time, evidenced by a poster for “Hearts of the World” that Rastus runs past near the end. So, the Black management somehow thought this was OK, apparently. It is the case that the movie borrows its style heavily from Keystone comedies, and it is possible to imagine Ford Sterling or Al St. John playing a character like Rastus, but in context, it’s pretty easy to see why the NAACP would have objected to this studio’s output. The only thing one can say for it, in light of recent research affirming the importance for young people to see images of people like themselves for their healthy development, is that at least the children who watched this were seeing actual Black people on screen, not white men in blackface. It’s a pretty poor compensation, in light of the messages they received about themselves and others.

Director: C.N. David

Camera: C.C. Fetty

Starring: Sam Robinson

Run Time: 14 Min

You can watch it for free: here (do so at your own risk).

Mercy the Mummy Mumbled (1918)

We’re back with another short comedy from the Ebony Film Company, a white-owned Chicago-based company that made movies with Black performers intended for African American audiences. As with “Two Knights of Vaudeville,” the result is a somewhat problematic piece of the legacy of race in America.

The movie opens with a professor placing a classified ad for a genuine mummy to use for experimentation. The professor’s daughter is dating a young man, Bill, and the professor comes home to find them snuggling on the couch, but ignores them in order to test out his new formula in the kitchen. He takes a mounted stuffed duck from the wall and injects the formula, causing an explosion that frightens a small boy peeping in the window. The duck comes to life! It also runs all over the place, wreaking havoc on the kitchen. When Bill comes in to investigate, the professor hits him with the broom intended for the duck. Bill takes his chance to ask the professor for his daughter’s hand in marriage, and the professor agrees on the condition that his formula prove successful with a mummy. This gives Bill an idea.

The next day, Bill goes to a costume shop and picks up a phony sarcophagus. He offers a shoe shine boy ten dollars to play a mummy. Meanwhile, we learn that emissaries from Egypt are in town looking for a stolen mummy, and they spot the professor’s ad. Bill takes the boy back to his place and dresses him up as the mummy and puts him in the sarcophagus. He calls the professor and tells him to come down and pick up his mummy. While waiting, he runs into a friend and brings him in on the scam. The friend sells the “mummy” for a thousand dollars, which he and Bill fight over while the shoeshine boy pockets a goodly portion of it unnoticed. Bill gets some porters to cart the sarcophagus over to the professor’s house. The porters are insufficiently cautious, and the sarcophagus drops out the back, being dragged behind the cart by the rope they used to partially tie it down. The “mummy” yells and gets them to stop and put it back on the cart more securely. The two Egyptian agent observe the mummy’s arrival, since they are now watching the professor’s house. They request admittance of the daughter and ask for the professor to hand it over, so he throws them out.

Now the professor is ready to perform his test, injecting his formula into a genuine mummy. When he does inject it into the shoeshine boy, he screams and starts flailing and running all around the room (much like the duck did, actually). The professor manages to seal it back inside the sarcophagus, but he is hurt in the process and his daughter ministers to his aid. The two Egyptians take advantage of the distraction to sneak into the house and steal the now-unconscious mummy from the sarcophagus. Bill and Lulu head out to find a parson. The professor nails up the sarcophagus to prevent further mummy attacks. The Egyptians are genuflecting before their prize when the shoeshine boy wakes up and terrifies them. He manages to free himself from the bandages and finds all of the professor’s money in the wraps.

There’s a lot of familiar caricatures of Black life here, not least including the many scare-takes the mummy makes possible, as well as the greed and laziness evinced by Bill and his allies. Still, we do get an African American professor, who has authority over his daughter’s future, placing him as an equal to white patriarchs in this regard. He may be a bit nutty (typical of professors in comedies), but he is able to bring a duck back to life. Certainly this movie is less offensive than something like “Watermelon Patch” and it is something of a relief to see actual Black actors as opposed to white actors in blackface in movies of this time, perhaps that would have appealed to the intended audience as well. The young NAACP did denounce Ebony for this sort of movie, however, and even went so far as to suggest that comedies in general were inappropriate material for Black productions. They weren’t alone – a lot of progressive-minded people regarded the slapstick of the era as “vulgar” and degrading. It would be a long time before African American comics like Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy came along to challenge stereotypes rather than reinforce them.

Director: R.W. Phillips

Camera: C.C. Fetty

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 14 Min

I have not been able to find this available for free on the Internet. If you do, please comment.

Tarzan of the Apes (1918)

The first attempt to bring the Edgar Rice Burroughs jungle hero to the screen was this early silent feature from First National. It spawned three sequels, and is remembered today as being the most faithful to the book of all of the Tarzan movies since, but how does it hold up as entertainment?

The movie begins in England, where Lord and Lady Greystoke (True Boardman and Kathleen Kirkham) are planning a trip to Africa. An older gentleman advises Alice, Lady Greystoke, to stay home – Africa is no place for a lady and besides, she won’t even be able to take her maid. Lady Greystoke, a modern woman, is disdainful and off they go. While they are on the high seas, a band of mutineers takes the ship and begins murdering the passengers. One sailor, Binns (George B. French), is sympathetic and risks his own life to save them, but he is captured by Arabs and becomes their slave while the couple are marooned on an unknown coast, nowhere near civilization. Alice dies giving birth to their son, and Lord Greystoke is at a loss as to how to nourish him without her milk. Nearby, the ape Kala has lost her baby and mourns deeply. Her tribe of apes kills Lord Greystoke and brings her the human infant.

The boy, now known as Tarzan (Gordon Griffith), is raised by Kala as her own. It never occurs to him that he isn’t an ape until one day when he sees his reflection in a pool (apparently he never noticed his hairless arms before). This sets him to thinking about his identity. He discovers the shack where his parents skeletons still lie, He finds a picture book with alphabet images and teaches himself to speak. He also steals clothing from some natives because apparently wearing clothes is a natural urge.

Meanwhile, Binns finally escapes from the Arabs after ten years and discovers the ape-boy and instructs him, but is unable to rescue him when the Arabs again intervene. He returns to England and convinces some scientists to begin an expedition to find the young Lord Greystoke. Jane Porter (Enid Markey) is the daughter of the lead scientist, and for some reason she is allowed to bring along a maid (Madame Sul-Te-Wan). Kala is killed by a native hunter, who is in turn killed by the now-adult Tarzan (Elmo Lincoln). Tarzan is smitten when he spies Jane and her father poking around the old shack, but is too shy to reveal himself. The scientists conclude that the child was killed when the apes attacked, but Binns still knows better. Some villagers kidnap Jane and Tarzan rescues her, and the two of them fall in love.

True to the book or not, this movie has a lot of problems. The main one is that it is almost completely lacking a plot. That’s probably because instead of trying to tell the full story, they only used the first half of the book, saving the second half for the sequel (“The Romance of Tarzan”). The quality of Burroughs’s work as literature can be debated, but cutting a story in half almost never improves the narrative structure. I kept waiting for the story to get started, and then suddenly it was over. This is more like an “origin story” without any payoff. It needed a clearer conflict to resolve, one that would carry over from the beginning to the end, possibly even some way to have Tarzan avenge himself on the mutineers who are ultimately responsible for his and his parents’ fate.

Another problem, which probably only bothered some audiences at the time, is the explicit and implicit racism of so much of the movie. Madame Sul-Te-Wan was one of the great pioneers of African American film acting, but in this movie she portrays a caricature of a superstitious black maid. The natives who capture Jane are every bit as subhuman and rapacious as Gus from “The Birth of a Nation.” And, of course, Tarzan is superior to them in every way, although in theory this is because he has been raised by apes, and thus is more in touch with nature, not because he is white. I haven’t even mentioned the greedy slaving Arabs, who represent both another stereotype and an alibi for the history of European enslavement of Africans.

Despite these flaws, the movie was an undisputed success in its day, grossing over 1.5 million dollars at a time when movies rarely broke one million. This is probably not least due to the convincing use of Louisiana swamps as a location for African jungles, and the thrills of Tarzan’s adventures. I also rather suspect that the thrill of seeing a half-naked (sometimes fully naked) boy and man on the screen was an appeal to audiences in those days, when there was so little nudity in cinema. I didn’t think much of Lincoln’s or Griffith’s acting, but their physiques are fully on display, and the former was definitely a muscular specimen. There are also very brief glimpses of “native” women’s breasts, but these were censored in many locales. The fights are well-edited and exciting as well, even if they lack a coherent narrative to tie them together, and there are glimpses of exotic animals that were rarely seen at the time, surely an appeal for children who lacked access to zoos. This movie may not seem like much today, but it should also be seen for what it was at the time –a spectacle that brought in the audiences and gave them their money’s worth.

Director: Scott Sidney

Camera: Enrique Juan Vallejo

Starring: Elmo Lincoln, Enid Markey, Gordon Griffith, George B. French, Madame Sul-Te-Wan, True Boardman, Kathleen Kirkham, Eugene Pallette

Run Time: 1 hr

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

The Outlaw and His Wife (1918)

Despite the title, this is no Western starring William S. Hart, rather this Swedish feature was directed by Victor Sjöström, so far the only Swedish director to be covered in this blog. Like the others, which include “Ingeborg Holm” and “A Man There Was,” this film has a brooding power that draws on Scandinavian narrative style and the vast open spaces of the countryside.

As the opening intertitle informs us, the movie is set in a community in 18th Century Iceland, although it was filmed at home due to the difficulty of travel during the First World War. Sjöström plays Kári, a man who wanders into an established village looking for work. Although the first locals he meets are suspicious, they nevertheless direct him to the farm of Halla (Edith Erastoff), a recently-widowed woman who is managing a farm on her own. Kári proves to be a hard worker and likeable, and he is taken in.

Matters develop when the local bailiff (played by Nils Ahren), hears a rumor that  Kári was run out of another town for being a thief. The bailiff is the brother of Halla’s deceased husband, and he has designs on her land, hoping to marry her in order to integrate her farm and his own. Halla, meanwhile, has made it very clear she has no respect for the bailiff, and she seems to be falling for Kári. When the bailiff makes his accusation, Halla challenges him to wrestle Kári and he loses. Nevertheless, Kári confesses to Halla – it is true, he stole in order to feed his family, ran away, and now he will be put to death if caught. He decides to leave civilization, to go and hide out in the mountains, and Halla asks to come with him, abandoning everything she has just to be with him.

Living alone in their hideout shack, far up on the mountainside, the two lovers seem to have an idyllic situation. They are able to catch fish and grow a little food, get clean water from a spring, and they live in love with themselves and with nature. They are joined by Arnes (John Ekman), another laborer from Halla’s farm who has gotten into trouble with the law, and by a baby girl after Halla gives birth. But, a problem is brewing beneath the surface, because Arnes, isolated from the company of other women, is beginning to obsess over Halla. One day, when the two of them are hunting together along a ridge, Kári slips and falls, grabbing on to a branch to avoid plummeting to his doom. Arnes gets a rope and throws it to him, then gets out his knife and, for a moment, begins to saw at the rope, then Kári calls to him and brings him to his senses, and he rescues Kári after all.

Accepting that he can never have Halla, Arnes decides to leave the area. As he is walking away, he sees a patrol of men coming up the mountainside in search of the fugitives. He runs back to warn Kári and Halla, but he is too late and the men arrive at just the same moment and a fight ensues. In fear of capture, Halla throws her child off the cliff into the river below. Arnes and Kári are able to beat off the men after all, but now the couple must endure their grief and guilt at the death of the child. Their internal devastation is mirrored by nature, which now throws a hellish snowstorm at them, and they are trapped in their little shack with no food and limited fuel for the fire. They begin snapping at each other, and even seem to be contemplating murder and cannibalism as they go mad with hunger. When Kári goes for firewood, Halla wanders out of the cabin and freezes in the snow. Kári finds her and holds her until he has died frozen by her side.

Being somewhat familiar with Icelandic mythic history in the form of the Sagas, I can confirm that this movie has most of the narrative elements one would expect from such a source. It is set more recently than the traditional Sagas, but the living culture of oral history there would result in newer stories. Among the aspects that struck me as in line with the mythic cycles of Scandinavia were the wrestling match to decide a point of honor, the harsh punishment for criminals, and the inevitable punishment of people who transgress or try to live outside the support of society.

Meanwhile, the film also has a lot in common with other work by Sjöström, especially visually and in terms of the bleakness and moral stringency of its philosophical outlook. I’ve compared Sjöström with Ingmar Bergman more than once as I discuss his work, and I’ve learned since that Sjöström was one of Bergman’s mentors in film making, so the connection is more definite than I had realized. Folks who find Bergman dull will probably feel about the same way about Sjöström, but it’s fair to say that he deals with somewhat simpler moral issues than Bergman takes on. This movie is more rapidly edited than earlier Sjöström work, and also makes good use of close-ups to build sympathy with its characters. Finally, it’s interesting to note that Erastoff is not a traditional youthful beauty, but a solid middle-aged woman who exudes strength and confidence more than sex appeal. This can hardly be because Sweden was lacking in beautiful women (see: Greta Garbo), and was surely a conscious casting decision. It makes the film feel decidedly more realistic – a Hollywood star just doesn’t look like someone who can survive the privations that Halla takes on.

Director: Victor Sjöström

Camera: Julius Jaenzon

Starring: Victor Sjöström, Edith Erastoff, Nils Ahren, John  Ekman

Run Time: 1 hr, 10 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Whispering Chorus (1918)

This feature by Cecil B. DeMille shows the development of plot and acting as it was taking place in a young Hollywood. Its star, Raymond Hatton, demonstrates that silent movie performance need not be hackneyed or overstated.

The conceit of this film is a simple one – that each person carries around with them a Greek “chorus” of voices that constantly advise on every decision made or action taken. These voices may be those of someone we know – our mother’s voice, for example, might be quite influential – or just represent our idea of “society” or some part of it. Together, these voices make up a “Whispering Chorus” that echoes through our minds with good and bad advice alike, often contradicting one another as they compete for our attention. Hatton plays John Tremble, a low-ranking white collar worker for a large contracting firm. His “chorus” includes Gustav von Seyffertitz and Edna Mae Cooper, and they appear as disembodied heads behind his shoulder through the magic of double-exposure when DeMille wants us to realize that Hatton is under their sway. When he considers knocking off work early, von Seffertitz encourages him with communistic logic about the theft of his time for the profit of the company, but Cooper changes his mind, promising him that his work will ultimately be appreciated.

After finishing his tasks, Tremble goes home, where h lives with his wife Jane (Kathlyn Williams) and mother (Edythe Chapman). They are busy decorating for Christmas, but John is upset because there are bills waiting to be paid, his clothes are worn and threadbare, and his wife wants to spend money on a new dress. After being a bit of a jerk about it, he talks to his mother, who convinces him to spend the last of his money on the new dress, to make up to her. He goes out again, but before making the purchase, he runs into a friend from the office, who invites him to a poker game. At first he refuses, but his whispering chorus convinces him that he can make enough from gambling to buy the dress and a new coat for himself, so he goes along after all. Predictably, he loses all of his money, then stays out late to avoid having to admit his mistake to his family. His whispering chorus convinces him to steal money from the till at work to make up for it, and he falsifies an entry in the ledger. Then an investigation into graft arrives, in the form of George Coggeswell (Elliott Dexter), and Tremble panics, knowing his theft will be detected. He begs off a theater engagement, claiming he needs to go back to the office to lock his desk, but instead he runs out of the state and goes into hiding in an abandoned shed near a river.

One day, a body washes up on shore, and Tremble uses it to fake his own death, leaving a cryptic note about a man called “Edgar Smith” who was supposedly trying to strong-arm him into falsifying the books. Tremble now shaves off his beard with a piece of glass, giving himself a nasty scar in the process, but also altering his appearance enough to throw off any pursuer. Meanwhile, Mrs. Tremble has been comforted by Coggeswell as his investigation now focuses on “Edgar Smith” rather than her blameless husband. She falls in love with him, and he with her, but she is reluctant to re-marry, since Tremble’s mother still insists that her son is alive. John drifts aimlessly through life, taking up dock work despite being rather too small and skinny for hard labor, and he is injured in an accident, giving him a limp that also distinguishes him from his former self. On Chinese New Year, Jane finally relents and agrees to marry Coggeswell, now  a successful politician and candidate for the governorship, while at the same time John dallies with a prostitute in Shanghai.

Eventually, John goes back to see his mother, finding her alone and dying. This leads to his being caught and accused of being “Edgar Smith.” When the trial comes, his own wife does not recognize him, and he fails to put up a good defense, believing that it is impossible for a man to be convicted of killing himself. He is, however, and now the “good” side of his Whispering Chorus comes to his aid. He decides that rather than proving Jane a bigamist and showing the world his own cowardice, he will go to the electric chair as “Edgar Smith,” redeeming himself for all of his mistakes in this way. The movie concludes by showing us that John Tremble has now become a part of Jane’s Whispering Chorus, the noble version of him guides her conscience through life.

On the whole, I enjoyed this movie more than “Old Wives for New,” also made by DeMille in the same year. While both were written by a woman (Jeannie MacPherson) and intended to appeal to a female audience, this movie does rather a better job of sympathizing with the wife’s point of view. At the beginning of the movie, I was a little worried that her desire for a new dress, and apparent neglect of her husband’s appearance would be blamed for all of the hardship that followed, but the script makes it clear that it is John’s bad decisions that are blame. Jane is portrayed throughout as decent and kind. John, on the other hand, is callous regarding her to the point of psychosis. His Whispering Chorus may be giving him bad advice, but he’s the one who never considers the effect of his actions on the people who love him, almost right up to the final scenes of the movie. It seemed to me that he had the perfect “out” when he made the excuse about going back to the office – he could have replaced the money then and the whole thing would have been cleared up. If there had been a scene showing him at the office, but seeing a cop on guard or something like that, it would have made more sense for him to run away.

John Tremble may be a heel, but Raymond Hatton is outstanding. He gives Lon Chaney a run for his money in changing his face several times in the course of this movie, also developing different body language as he goes from clerical worker to fugitive to deadbeat to convict. The wife who doesn’t recognize her own husband when he shaves (or grows) a beard may be a cliché in silent movie plots, but in this case, the transformation he undergoes makes it believable. The story also gives them several years of distance to help the memory fade. It’s sort of a reversal of “The Return of Martin Guerre,” and it works, but mainly because Hatton is so convincing. This is up there with the best work I’ve seen from DeMille as well, he keeps the story moving through editing and good use of multiple angles to show scenes and simultaneous action. The one weird choice was having the wedding inter-cut with John’s infidelity, though I suppose this was to insure that the audience would sympathize with Jane, even though she was technically violating one of American cinema’s cardinal rules by re-marrying while her husband was still alive.

Director: Cecil B. DeMIlle

Camera: Alvin Wyckoff

Starring: Raymond Hatton, Kathlyn Williams, Elliott Dexter, Edythe Chapman, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Edna Mae Cooper, Julia Faye, Noah Beery, Tully Marshall, Charles Ogle

Run Time: 1 hr, 25 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Neigbors (1920)

This 2-reel comedy from Buster Keaton has a very simple storyline – a romance involving a boy and the girl next door – but manages to be nicely coherent and demonstrate production value above what he did with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle for Comique.

Buster Keaton and Virginia Fox play young lovers who live in tenements, the rear of which face each other, with backyards separated by a wooden fence and with their families constantly feuding over the lovers’ relationship. They pass love notes through a hole in the wood, only to be caught by her father (Joe Roberts) and his mother, each of whom successively gets in trouble with his/her own spouse for presumed cheating (Buster’s father is played by his real-life dad, Joe Keaton). Buster sneaks into Virginia’s bedroom window as the parents are arguing but he is caught by Virginia’s father who ties him to the washing lines and slowly sends him back over to his family’s house. Buster sets up a board on a pivot on the gate so that it spanks anyone who passes between the two yards, then uses this to chastise his pursuers as he athletically springs from one side to the other. Along the way, he accidentally hits a cop who wanders into the yard. As Keaton’s face is covered in oil at the time, the cop pursues him, but when he wipes off the oil, the cop is deceived and arrests a convenient African American instead. Later, Buster gets black paint on his face and the chase is on again. Eventually, he as well as both families end up in court. Buster demands the right to marry Virginia, and the judge insists that the two families not interfere in their plans.

On the day of the wedding, tensions remain high. Keaton is unable to get his suspenders on, and tries using clothes pins as a makeshift belt, but they keep falling down during the ceremony. He tries to remedy this by stealing the preacher’s belt, but this only delays the wedding further. When Roberts sees that the ring Buster intends to give to Virginia is a cheap 10-cent ring purchased from Woolworths, he angrily calls off the wedding and drags Virginia home. Buster now teams up with his friends, the Flying Escalantes, to rescue Virginia by running across the yard on their shoulders, retrieving her suitcase, and ultimately her as well, but they are pursued by Roberts, running down the street through scaffolding, and eventually dropping through a sidewalk cellar hatch into a boiler room where a preacher just happens to be stoking the fire. He pronounces them husband and wife.

This movie demonstrates Buster Keaton’s ability to get a lot out of a little, and reminds me in some ways of Chaplin’s “Easy Street,” in that so much of it is centered around a single set,, reproducing a location in a lower-class urban neighborhood. Not having full-scale riots or anarchist plots, it may seem less ambitious than that film, but the added element of a third dimension makes it physically quite impressive. Fox’s bedroom is on the third floor, and Keaton gets in there any way he can, except for the stairs. The most exciting part is when he rides the shoulders of the Flying Escalantes back and forth across that yard, with each of them entering the building on his floor, only to turn around and come out at the exact moment to catch each other (and Keaton, and eventually Fox) on his shoulders. These shots are done in long takes, so the timing had to be perfect for it to look right, though of course in a silent movie they could have been shouting instructions at each other as they went, making it a bit easier to know just when to step out of the window. It looks great, at any rate.

Joe abusing Buster – just like old times.

So far as I can recall, this is the biggest role Buster had yet given his father in a movie. Although Joe Roberts remains the main heavy, Joe Keaton gets a chance to reprise some of the work he and Buster did on the stage during their days in vaudeville. These usually involved Buster making dad angry, then getting used as a “human mop,” which resulted in some groups protesting the show on the grounds that Joe was abusing his child. Keaton was of course a trained physical comedian from a young age, and claimed he was never hurt by this, but at times you can see how people could get the wrong idea. By now, as an adult, his victimization is safe to laugh at. Unfortunately, there’s some rather unpleasant ethnic humor targeting African Americans that comes across as much less funny today – including Keaton’s blackface scrapes with the police and a scene in which he rises up from under a sheet, causing a black family to run away in superstitious terror. These bits of the film didn’t ruin it for me, but they certainly don’t add anything.

Director: Buster Keaton, Edward F. Cline

Camera: Elgin Lessley

Starring: Buster Keaton, Virginia Fox, Joe Roberts, Joe Keaton, Edward F. Cline, Jack Duffy

Run Time: 18 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Scarecrow (1920)

Another of Buster Keaton’s early solo shorts, this one has a lot in common with the work he was doing a year earlier with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, including a cameo from one of the more recognizable Comique players. It’s probably more famous, though, for establishing Keaton’s fascination with gadgets.

As the movie opens, Keaton is sharing a one-room house with frequent foil, Joe Roberts. Buster has a toothache, and Roberts tries to help by tying the tooth to the door with a piece of string, then suddenly opening it to yank out the tooth. It opens the wrong way, though, and all Roberts succeeds in doing is hitting Buster in the nose with the door. This causes the angry Keaton to slam it shut, inadvertently pulling the tooth. Keaton fixes breakfast for the pair, while Roberts “sets” the table by pulling a string that lowers what they need from the ceiling. After the meal, they carry the tabletop, with all of the plates affixed to it, to the wall and spray it down with a hose. They drop the table leavings into a trapdoor that leads to the pigs’ slop-trough. Keaton’s bed folds up, Murphy-style, to become a piano, and the tub, when emptied, dumps water through a hole in the wall to create a pond for ducks, itself folding into a little bench.

The second reel deals with the rivalry of the two men for the heart of Sybil Seely, the classic girl-next-door. As soon as she appears, the two start running and pushing each other, quickly getting into a fight. When Sybil tries out some dance moves from a magazine, Roberts joins her, resulting in Keaton thinking he has lost, but soon he is pursued by Luke the Dog, who has just eaten a cream pie, making it look like he is rabid. He does his old trick of climbing a ladder to chase Keaton around the roof of a crumbling abandoned farmhouse. Roberts, meanwhile, has bought various medical supplies in anticipation of Buster’s needs, but ends up getting run down by a car and using them n himself. Buster falls into a hay thresher, which rips off most of his clothes, effectively ending the chase. It also results in him “exposing” himself (well, his underthings) to Sybil, resulting in her father (Joe Keaton) chasing him and knocking over Roberts, who now tries to propose to Seely.

Good Dog!

Unbeknownst to them, Buster has “borrowed” the clothes of a scarecrow in the field and now, posing as the scarecrow manages to prevent the proposal and start a fight between Roberts and the farmer. Buster then trips into a kneeling position while tying his shoes, and Sybil believes he is proposing marriage to her. Next the couple speeds off on a motorcycle with Roberts and the farmer in hot pursuit. Scooping up a minister during the chase, they are married on the speeding motorcycle and splash into a stream at the climax of the ceremony and the film.

This movie seems like a throwback to the earlier Comique movies, helped by the presence of Luke the Dog. Joe Roberts seems, especially in the early part of the film, to be playing the Arbuckle role, although he develops into a more generic heavyset antagonist as the movie goes along. There’s nowhere near as much of a story as we got in “One Week” or “Convict 13,” in fact it’s so loose it feels more like “The Butcher Boy” than “The Garage.” It’s mostly a series of unconnected gags and chase sequences. The beginning, though, is built around the many bizarre labor-saving devices of Keaton’s and Robert’s home, which is a treat for Keaton fans. I’ll admit that I generally don’t find this all that funny, but it is interesting to see what Keaton comes up with. The best part is when Luke chases Keaton back to the house and he tries to evade the dog by using the various trapdoors and hidden exits. This is the biggest role I’ve yet seen Keaton give to his father, which also lends to the feeling that this is a smaller, more last-minute production than the others we’ve seen so far.

Director: Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton

Camera: Elgin Lessley

Starring: Buster Keaton, Joe Roberts, Sybil Seely, Luke the Dog, Joe Keaton, Edward F. Cline

Run Time: 19 Min

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

Convict 13 (1920)

Buster Keaton tries on a striped suit along with his stony expression in this early two-reeler from Metro. Dealing as it does with execution, prison riots, and police brutality, it is of course a gold mine for comic pratfalls.

The movie begins with Keaton on a golf course, in his typical get-up, trying to impress a girl and generally failing as a golfer. At one point, having knocked his ball into a water trap, it is swallowed by a fish, and Buster has to catch fish with his bare hands, inspect their insides, and find a way to retrieve his ball when he does find it. Meanwhile, a fellow about Keaton’s height escapes from a nearby prison. He find his way to the golf course and comes across Buster, lying unconscious as a result of beaning himself with his own ball. The escapee swaps clothing and walks away free. As Keaton wakes up and attempts to continue golfing, several prison guards surround him and he slowly becomes aware of his new uniform. He distracts them with his ball and takes off running, but pretty soon there are more guards and Keaton falls into line marching with them. For a moment it looks like he may escape when he tricks them into marching the other way, but it only gives him a brief reprieve – he winds up trying to hitch a ride from the warden before getting finally running ahead of the guards into the prison and locking himself in when he tries to lock them out.

The warden, it turns out, is the father of Buster’s girl (Sybil Seely). She tries to plead for him, knowing that he was free just a few hours ago, but his number (#13) is on the roster for a hanging today and daddy insists on carrying it out. Thinking quickly, Sybil grabs some elasticated rope from the gym, and replaces the noose with it. When the hangman puts it around Buster’s neck, he bounces up and down, but does not hang. The warden assures the disappointed audience of convicts that he’ll hang two next week to make up for it. Keaton is put on rock-breaking, which he does by tapping lightly on the smallest bits of rock he can find, resulting in an extended slapstick battle with one of the guards, who happens to be about Keaton’s height. When he is knocked out, Buster changes clothes with him.

Now in a position of authority, Buster finds himself confronted by a hammer-wielding crazed convict (Joe Roberts), who has already knocked out all his other guards. Buster tries to frighten him, but soon they are also in a running battle, which extends to a riot as the other convicts catch the fever. Buster puts attaches a basketball to the elasticated rope and swings it around his head, knocking out all of the other convicts, and finally managing to take down Roberts as well. Just as it seems he will be able to claim victory and get the girl, he accidentally knocks himself out, finding himself back on the golf course, being shaken back to awareness by Sybil. It was all a dream.

In this movie, Keaton takes the concept of “the clothes make the man” to an extreme. Once he’s in the uniform or prisoner #13, that’s his life. Only Sybil can see through the clothes to recognize him, even Keaton seems resigned to his fate as a convict. This is particularly evident as he resolutely goes up the gallows steps because his number is due for execution – his character doesn’t even know that Sybil has acted to save him. He barely even protests, and does nothing to stop the executioner. Once he’s changed clothes with the guard, now he’s a guard (and presumably the other fellow just accepts being a convict on death row). He acts in his own interest in fighting the rioters, but he also makes no attempt to escape the prison now that he’s presumably a free man. He does his duty, stands his ground, and manages to prevail. Of course, the ending calls all of it into question. In a dream, we often accept conditions that wouldn’t logically make sense in waking life. It’s somewhat more funny to think of this as the reality of Keaton’s world, rather than a dream, but the ending kind of undoes that conceit.

The basketball-swinging stunt harks back to a gag that Buster and Joe Keaton did on stage, as described in Keaton’s autobiography. His father would be shaving himself on one end of the stage with a straight razor while Buster swung a basketball on a rope, getting closer to his dad with each swing, and timing the hit precisely to avoid injury and maximize laughs. Then his father would chase him and use him as a “human mop.” According to Keaton, a real razor was used, and no one was ever hurt with it. Still it shows the lengths he and his family would go for a laugh.

Director: Buster Keaton and Edward F. Cline

Camera: Elgin Lessley

Starring: Buster Keaton, Sybil Seely, Joe Roberts, Edward F. Cline, Joe Keaton

Run Time: 24 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

One Week (1920)

Buster Keaton’s first movie released after he and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle ended their partnership and started to work independently is parody of a Ford Motor Company promotional movie for prefab housing. While our ability to appreciate the source of the satire is limited today, it holds up as a comedy for the ages.

The movie begins with a wedding between Buster and his new bride, Sybil Seely. For some reason, their “just married” car is being driven by the Buster’s former rival, “Handy Hank,” who is played by an otherwise unknown and unidentified actor. Buster and Sybil receive a plot of land and a build-it-yourself house that comes in numbered boxes, with IKEA-sized directions in an envelope. Keaton sets to work putting the house together, doing things like sitting on a plank a story up as he saws it in half, causing him to drop to the ground when it separates. Meanwhile, Hank takes some paint and renumbers two of the boxes, adding to the confusion Buster’s already serious incompetence was causing. The end result looks like a German Expressionist worked with a cartoonist to design a house.

Undaunted, Keaton and his wife move into the house. Their first major challenge is when the piano arrives. Keaton tries to attach a pulley to the ceiling to haul it in, but the ceiling droops down like a circus tent. So, Keaton props it up with a spare board. He brings the piano in, dangling from the ceiling, but it swings wildly and chases him around the room before crashing through the floor. His wife brings in a music score and he sets it on the piano. Buster also encounters problems when he nails down the carpet, forgetting that he left his jacket in the middle of the floor. The only way he can think of to get rid of the unsightly lump is to cut around it, remove the jacket, then put a small rug over the hole in the carpet. He uses the extra piece of carpet as a welcome mat. He tries to install the chimney, but winds up falling into the bathtub after his wife has just gotten out, then the door he chooses to leave the bathroom turns out to be a straight drop to the ground, due to the misnumbered boxes.

Buster and Sybil hold a housewarming party, trying to serve their guests despite an oddly-arranged kitchen, but when a storm kicks up outside, they discover that the house pivots in the wind, eventually spinning like a merry-go-round. All of the guests eventually are thrown clear by centripetal force, and Buster and Sibyl watch the house spin from their yard, in the rain. As if this were not enough, Keaton finds he has built his house on the wrong site and has to move it, attaching it to his car with ropes, and then simply nailing it to the back of the car. The movie reaches its climax when the house becomes stuck on railroad tracks. Keaton and Seely try to move it out the way of an oncoming train, which eventually passes on the neighboring track. As the couple look relieved, the house is immediately struck and demolished by another train coming the other way. Keaton stares at the scene, places a ‘For Sale’ sign with the heap (attaching the building instructions) and walks off with Seely.

Keaton showed considerable insight in choosing a simple subject that would make a coherent framework around which to build his many sight gags and pratfalls. The movie is essentially a series of vignettes, each prefaced by a shot of a calendar page being torn off to show us the passage of the week (a device borrowed from the Ford film). Setting it up that way actually makes it feel more coherent than, for example, “The Garage,” in which he and Arbuckle’s gags are tied together just by the sense that all of this could happen in an established workspace. Keaton did not hold back on his gags, using a full-sized house to great effect. One gag I didn’t mention above is an anticipation of one he used years later in “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” where a wall of a house falls toward him, with his character fortuitously missing getting crushed due to standing in the spot where the open window hits. The house really does spin, really is dragged onto a railroad track, and really is smashed by a locomotive. The gag at the end reminded me of a story Keaton tells in his autobiography about a practical joke played on Marcus Loew, where he pretended his car had died on a cable car track, carefully positioning it so that the trams would zip past, barely missing the front and rear bumpers.

Keaton shared writing and directing credits with Edward F. Cline, a man who would continue working on most of Keaton’s short movies for the next few years. It seems that Keaton, who was used to collaborating with Arbuckle, worked better at this time having someone to bounce ideas off of, or even to let him take over sometimes. This is very different from Charlie Chaplin, who started directing his own work while still in his first year at Keystone, and never let anyone else share credit for his creative work afterward. I suspect these differences in work styles partially explains the different flavors of their short movies – Chaplin’s are largely the work of a single genius, while Keaton’s are less personal, more inclusive creations. I don’t entirely know which I prefer – I think I laugh more at Chaplin movies from this period, but there’s something about Keaton that keeps me coming back, partly just to see how he did what he did.

Director: Buster Keaton, Edward F. Cline

Camera: Elgin Lessley

Starring: Buster Keaton, Sybil Seely, Joe Roberts

Run Time: 19 Min

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

Way Down East (1920)

One of D.W. Griffith’s most enduring features, this movie comes from the period in which he was one of the leading lights of United Artists, and was quickly bankrupting himself trying to keep up a stream of hits for that ambitious studio project. While some of the movies he made then are dismissed today, this one endures as a critics’ darling – does it live up to its reputation?

Griffith’ usual flowery intertitles set up a situation he tries to present as “universal” although it is rather specific. Anna Moore (Lillian Gish) is a young woman living East of Boston with her widowed mother. As money is tight, Anna reluctantly agrees to go in to the city to visit wealthy relatives, and ask for help. The family is clearly put off by her appearance, and she is a little too shy (and a little too proud) to ask outright for money, so she awkwardly accepts a left-handed invitation to stay. The one person in “society” who pays her any attention is Lennox Sanderson (Lowell Sherman), a raconteur whose only interest is sex. He tricks her into a phony wedding in order to get her in bed, and convinces her to keep it a secret to avoid upsetting his father an losing his inheritance. Anna, thinking that her future fortune is now secure, returns home and begins seeing him secretly. She soon becomes pregnant, and tells Lennox that they must now reveal their marriage, causing him to reveal to her that it wasn’t legal. He promises her money and leaves.

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