Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: slapstick

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.

Cops_1922_poster

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.

Cops Read the rest of this entry »

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.

Gussles Day of Rest1

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.

Gussles Day of Rest2

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.

Gussles Day of Rest3

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.

Electric_House_1921

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).

Pest03

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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.

Day Dreams1

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Misfortune Never Comes Alone (1903)

This simple short by Georges Méliès eschews trick photography and emphasizes slapstick humor, to the point of degenerating into a riot by the end. As with “The Colonel’s Shower Bath,” the butt of the humor is the military, especially the officer class.

Misfortune Never Comes Alone

The movie takes place on a set designed to look like an urban European street corner. A sign behind a character dressed in uniform reads “Corps de Garde,” indicating that the building is a barracks. The soldier character marches back and forth while a man has his shoes shined by another. The civilians leave and the soldier stretches out to rest. Propping himself on his rifle, he begins to snooze. A glazier walks by with glass frames balanced on his back and then a man pulls a hose across the set, apparently preparing to spray the sidewalk. Another man with a ladder props it up over the soldier and climbs up to a high gas lamp with a rag. A man dressed a bit like a modern jester runs up and looks impish as he assesses the scene of the ladder, the hose, and the sleeping soldier. He gently removes the man’s rifle and replaces it with the hose. Then he sneaks offscreen until an officer walks by. When the officer upbraids the guard for sleeping, he turns on the hose, which sprays the man working over his head. The officer winds up getting the lamp cage dropped on his head and soon the worker is tussling with the soldier, grabbing his rifle and smashing in one of the windows. When the occupants protest, the worker picks up the still-spraying hose and douses them in water. Soon police officers run up to gain control of the situation, but the result is more mayhem and water spraying everywhere. The soldier ducks into the barracks and the worker climbs up to the second floor and enters via a window. The police attempt to follow, but the worker and the prankster drag out an advertising column and topple it, blocking the entrance to the barracks. All of the characters crowd on stage and wave their arms about in distress, the social order completely upended.

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Méliès prefigures Mack Sennett by almost a decade here with physical humor that targets soldiers and police, and reduces a city street to complete anarchy in the name of a few chuckles. The use of the hose may have been the most challenging aspect of the production – the sets are pretty obviously painted cardboard with flimsy wood frames and the actors have to avoid pointing it at walls for fear the water will cut right through them. Even so, the upper window frame does get wet and an apparently “stone wall” sags as the worker climbs in to the upper story. A quick edit gave Méliès a chance to repair the damage before things went too far, but otherwise this movie is made in single takes, as is typical of his work. Sharp-eyed viewer will notice that several of the ads on the column are for Méliès films and the Theatre Houdin -an early form of product placement. Another area in which Méliès was an innovator, one can also see ads for Pleyel Pianos and Menier Chocolate who presumably paid for the advertising.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès, unknown.

Run Time: 3 Min

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

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).

 

Artheme Swallows His Clarinet (1912)

This very French farce comes from a time when national cinematic styles were still being determined and when France’s film product was just starting to be challenged economically by the output of the United States. This movie may have been seen around the world at the time, but it was nearly lost at the time of its restoration, with only two known prints to work from.

Artheme Swallows His Clarinet

Our lead character is a short man in a hat and baggy jacket. He is seen strolling along a path in a park, playing his clarinet as he walks. A policeman comes up to him and interrupts, showing us with gestures as he asks Artheme to stop playing. Artheme agrees and walks off. The next scene shows him as he walks up to a streetcar. A crowd is clamoring to get on board, and he begins to play again. The film speeds up and everyone is able to board quickly with the help of his music. He tips his hat to the streetcar as it pulls away. Now he comes to a group of workmen, who are pulling a heavy cabinet on a rope up the side of the building. When he starts to play, they forget their labors and start to dance, but unfortunately, Artheme was standing beneath the cabinet and when they let go the rope it crashes down on him! When they recover and pull him out from under, we see that his clarinet was pushed back into his mouth and it now penetrates his head – the mouthpiece jutting out from the back and the horn sticking out of his mouth. He seems not to be in much pain, however, and rather than horror, the workmen respond with mirth at his plight.

Artheme Swallows His Clarinet1

Artheme leaves and walks on, looking for someone to help him pull it out again. He first finds a policeman, but despite his best efforts, the instrument will not budge. He approaches another man in the park, who recruits more help to get more force on the clarinet, and soon there is a line of people tugging on a rope attached to it. When they slip and lose their grip, however, the whole crowd falls backward into a lake. Artheme sits on a bench at the seashore and a man with a top hat and funny beard walks up, reading from a musical score. He comes behind Artheme and plays the clarinet through his head, making Artheme hold up the music for him. Annoyed at being reduced to a music stand, Artheme hits him and pushes him away. He now comes to a blacksmith’s shop, where men are working with hammers at an anvil. He pleads with them to help him and places his head upon the anvil. A man with a large hammer strikes the mouthpiece until the instrument has been forced out of his mouth. He stands up again, apparently no worse for the experience (and happily without a big hole in the back of his head). Nevertheless, they pick him up and dunk his head into a bucket of water several times, giving us one final laugh as the film ends.

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It’s easy to imagine the early Surrealists seeing this movie in youth or even childhood and loving it. It has all of the elements – including violence and bodily disfigurement – that would fascinate them later. The star and director was Ernest Servaès, who did a series of “Artheme” films for the next few years, although I believe the company he worked for, Eclipse, folded during the First World War and there isn’t much trace of him after that. According to imdb, he lived long enough to make two movies named “Mirelle,” one in 1922 and one in 1934, with that last version being the only feature length film of his career. He has a delightful personality as a French comedian, although he lacks the physicality of a Keaton or a Chaplin and probably would never have made a big hit in the USA. The effect of the clarinet is uneven, Ernest has to keep his head ducked low in order for it to look straight, and much of the time it is obvious that it is constructed of two separate pieces attached to the back of his head and stuck in his mouth. This movie has a light touch that is appealing today. I liked the images of the French coast (the water is rough and full of large, fast-moving waves) and the location shots on the streets, which give a definite sense of place; most of the park looks just like the parks we’ve seen in Keystone comedies, which is itself interesting – I guess even a hundred years ago, a park was a park.

Director: Ernest Servaès

Camera: Émile Pierre

Starring: Ernest Servaès

Run Time: 4 min, 12 secs

You can watch it for free: here.