Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: slapstick

The Noise of Bombs (1914)

This short comedy from Keystone Studios displays both the studio’s embrace of anarchic fun and its rejection of political anarchism in a single blow. It uses violence and the Keystone Kops to deliver the mayhem audiences were looking for.

The movie begins by introducing the Chief of Police (Edgar Kennedy) and his family – an unusually intimate portrayal for a Keystone Kop. He has a wife and small baby, as well as young uniformed maid (Dixie Chene), living with him in a small but comfortable home. The maid, laughing and smiling, takes the baby outside. He kisses his wife goodbye  and goes off to work. We cut to a more familiar Keystone tableaux, as a cop (Charles Murray) with a rounded helmet yawns and stretches out for a nap on a park bench. At an undetermined location elsewhere in the park, we see four shady-looking characters with mustaches (who include Harry McCoy and Charley Chase) crouched down, participating in a dice game or some similar activity. Suddenly, Kennedy comes across them and chases them into the bushes. They all tumble across the bench where Murray is napping, knocking him down. Murray jumps up and gets his billy club ready to hit anyone else that comes through the bushes and of course Kennedy does and Murray clocks him before realizing he’s the boss.

Murray and Kennedy sort things out, but the criminals get away. Kennedy finds the maid on her walk and says hi to his baby, unaware that they are watching him. Now Murray finds the maid in the park and gives her a kiss, showing that they know one another. She lets him hold the baby and goes shopping, and when Kennedy finds him slacking off again, he removes his stripes and badge. After he leaves, the bad guys swarm in and take the cop and baby hostage. They take him back to their hideout which is full of dynamite and explosives, and they prepare a note threatening to blow up Kennedy’s house. Then they give Murray the note and a classic round black bomb to deliver. They don’t trust him, so they go with him, leaving the baby in a pile of dynamite.

Murray breaks in to the house and places the note, but gets his foot stuck hiding the bomb, so has to climb into the settee with it. When the family finds the note, they panic, but instead of evacuating, they start tearing the house apart looking for it, looking everywhere but the settee. Eventually, Murray makes his presence obvious, after the wife engages with a comedic battle to keep the rebellious settee closed. The bomb is smoking now, and everyone runs out, Kennedy eventually throws it into Murray’s hands and fires his gun to make him run. He crashes into the anarchists, and a running shootout begins as more cops arrive. Murray runs back to the hideout, with the gangsters and the police close behind, and finds the baby. As he gets ready to rush out, the bad guys get to the front door and Kennedy hurls the bomb into the shack. Murray climbs up onto the roof while the bad guys try to shoot the door open. They get in, he seals the trap door and the cops are at the front, with the anarchists trapped inside with their own bomb. Murray grabs a telephone wire and hand-over-hands himself to safety, the baby’s swaddling clothes held in his teeth. All of the good guys rush over to congratulate him and the bomb finally goes off, destroying the shack, all the explosives, and presumably the villains.

The trope of the bomb-throwing anarchist, while based to some degree on radical direct action of the time, had by 1914 become a trope of political cartoons and other media, and was often associated with racism against immigrants, especially those from Southern Europe. We’ve seen it used before, including in Charlie Chaplin’s “Easy Street,” but it is taken to a clumsy extreme in this movie to create anti-cop bad guys that will be instantly recognizable and not require any back story, which a single-reel film like this one has no time for. It stands out because Keystone Kops humor often mocks the police, and much of the more well-remembered slapstick of the time glamorized the little man (or tramp) who managed to get the better of them. There is some of that mockery here, in Murray’s incompetence and Kennedy’s bullying, but ultimately we see the police in this movie as on the side of right. Still, it’s all really just a set up for manic running around and the tension of wondering when the bomb will go off.

For us today, it’s a rarity to get to see a Keystone Kops movie that actually stars…the cops, and not someone like Chaplin, Ford Sterling, or Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. This is probably more representative of the vast majority of Keystone output that didn’t trade on any star power of big personalities, but just worked to a comedy formula that was known to work. The standard of film making is pretty typical as well. We get an insert shot of the note, a couple of brief close-ups, and a few two-shots, but most of the movie is played at proscenium distance with characters moving about little stages, linked together through editing. The editing is fast, as you would expect in a comedy, and uses cross-cutting to heighten the tension of the bomb and the rescue. The result is cheap, effective, funny at times, and recognizably Keystone.

Director: Mack Sennett

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Charles Murray, Edgar Kennedy, Dixie Chene, Harry McCoy, Charley Chase, Lucille Ward, Josef Swickard, Edward F. Cline

Run Time: 11 Min

I have not found this available to watch complete on the internet. If you do, please comment. You can see a brief sample: here.

 

The Kid (1921)

Charlie Chaplin’s first feature film release is a powerful concoction of slapstick, pathos, comedy, and tear-jerker, remembered to this day as a breakthrough in comedy film making. How does it stand up to a modern viewing? Let’s take a look.

Kid_1921

The movie begins with an unwed mother (Charlie’s leading lady of many years, Edna Purviance) emerging from a “Charity Hospital” with babe in arms. She wanders into a park alone, abandoned by the ne-er-do-well father, who off-handedly tosses her photograph into the fire. Unable to care for the baby, Edna places it into a limousine parked in front of a large house, hoping to give it a good home with a wealthy family. Unbeknownst to her, however, the car is stolen seconds later by a pair of hoodlums who ditch the child in an alley when they discover it. Fortunately, he is found moments later by Charlie’s “Little Tramp” character, wandering the alleyways in search of sustenance, and after some comic attempts to pawn it off on another mother, he eventually takes it back to the dingy attic where he dwells.

Kid

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Monkey Race (1909)

This Italian short comedy reminds me of the work of Alice Guy and other Europeans at the time it came out. It’s very basic, a bit transgressive, and centers around an extended chase sequence.

Monkey Race

The movie begins as a pair of workmen, accompanied by household servants, bring a crate into the kitchen of a middle class home. A particularly tall woman in a long dress, apparently the mistress of the house, presides excitedly over the proceedings. The crate is open and out springs an ape – or, anyway, a man in an unconvincing orangutan suit. He jumps up and down, eventually climbing onto the counter and removing Madame’s hair – which is now revealed as a wig on her bald head! The monkey runs into the bed room and hides under the covers. When the people come in to find it, they ignore the large bump in the bed and look up into the curtains to see if it has climbed up there, but when it springs out of its hiding place, everyone is knocked down. It leaps out of the window. We now cut to the street, where a photographer is setting up to get a picture of a man and his son in front of a shop window. The gorilla runs past, spoiling the shot, and then all of the humans in pursuit knock over the camera and the subjects, causing a fight to break out. Next, the monkey leaps on top of a hansom cab, knocking over the driver, who is trampled by the crowd of pursuers. Then, the monkey runs into a wooded area (perhaps a park) and climbs a tree. Again his pursuers follow, he monkey performs some swinging stunts and for some reason this sequence is under-cranked to make the motion look faster. Eventually, the monkey returns to the ground and the chase continues.

Monkey Race1

The monkey knocks down some soldiers and some lounging fire men, who pick up ladders to bring with them in the chase. This is fortunate, because now the monkey climbs up the side of a building, and the ladders ease their pursuit. They ascend the wall, and despite occasional tumbles, are able to reach the roof, where the monkey climbs down the chimney. The humans follow, one at a time, and there is an odd shot showing the interior of the chimney as each person (and the animal) falls down toward the bottom. The monkey tumbles out through the furnace door into a basement where two men are washing something in a large tub, and soon afterward the whole crowd bursts through the wall and knocks the men over, grabbing the monkey as it splashes happily in the tub.

Monkey Race2

Parts of this film rely upon special effects, though most of it is just driven by the madcap chase. The monkey first leaps onto the wall by jumping up to a high window with bars to climb from, and this is achieved by means of reversing the film of a shot in which the man-in-the-suit had leaped down from that perch. The shot of monkey and people climbing the all was done as in “Kiriki Japanese Acrobats,” with the camera placed above the floor, shooting down, to give the illusion that the “top” of the screen was actually the higher point on the wall, and then the people pretend to be climbing when they are actually crawling. I believe the chimney-interior was handled the same way, but with the odd choice of showing a cut-out chimney, as if the camera has x-ray vision through the bricks. The bald woman appears to be played by a man, and is itself a little risqué in terms of making fun of the middle-class owner of a monkey. At any rate, this all seems about three years behind for 1909, by which time Biograph is already showing movies with cross-cut editing and more complex narratives, but it is an enjoyable example of early film comedy.

Director: Unkown

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 4 Min, 25 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Look Pleasant, Please (1918)

This comedy short stars Harold Lloyd in an early version of his “glasses” character and pulls together many jokes that had been around at least as long as the movies, but manages a pacing and zaniness that shows how Lloyd rose to become one of the major comedy stars of the next decade.

The movie starts out in a (still) photographer’s studio, where Bebe Daniels is annoyed by the off-hand sexual harassment of the proprietor (William Gillespie). She runs to the phone to call her large and jealous husband, who tells Gillespie that he’s coming after him, firing off his gun a couple of times to make the point. Meanwhile, Lloyd works at a nearby vegetable stand, where he presses down the scales to rip off customers and charges a “war tax” of $1 for each item. A group of policemen come up and accuse him; he tries to buy them off with produce, but winds up running into the photographer’s to hide. The photographer mistakes Harold for the husband at first, but when Harold tries to hide instead of killing him, he gets an idea. He puts Harold in charge of the shop and goes to hide in the dark room.

Faith, hope, and charity

The next sequence of the film is a parade of silly customers to the studio, and Harold’s silly attempts to photograph them. One is an old maid (Dorothea Wolbert) who won’t stop talking, so Harold puts her face into a stand so she can’t speak, then poses her with a jug which winds up spilling all over her. He gives her a life preserver. Then a group of drunken swells come in (one of them is James Parrott). Lloyd has a hard time getting them to sit without falling over, but eventually poses them as “faith, hope and charity.” A country couple comes in, but their scene evidently was cut, as we cut back to Bebe and her husband, before seeing the “burles-queen,” who shocks Lloyd with her revealing outfit and briefly fights with janitor Snub Pollard when he tries to look up her skirt (with binoculars, no less). Snub is locked the dark room with the real photographer, but sticks Harold with a pin to escape, just as the husband charges in.  He fires his gun and now Lloyd also hides in the dark room, shoving first Pollard, then Gillespie out to confront the enraged man. A couple of fortuitous bits of crockery are hurled, forcing the husband into the dark room when a police inspector finally comes in to break it all up. Lloyd lets the husband out at the critical moment to punch the inspector, who arrests him, then embraces a quite-willing Bebe for the camera. The End.

A lot of the photography jokes go right back to early Edison, Gaumont, or Lumière films, but where they would have been entire films unto themselves in those days, here they are all thrown together and run at a furious pace, keeping the laughs coming non-stop. There’s little concern in this Hal Roach picture for narrative logic, and a lot more for comedy chaos, but it has a more deliberate feeling than comparable Keystones, as if Lloyd and director Alfred J. Goulding had thought through the chaos carefully before starting. The editing is spot-on and we get multiple camera-angles within scenes as well as cross-cutting to suggest simultaneous action. In other words, state of the art for 1918, but with a devil-may-care attitude to plotting that ties it back to an earlier style of comedy as well. A great example of Lloyd’s developing comedy style, before he started hanging of the edges of buildings to get laughs.

Director: Alfred J. Goulding

Camera: Walter Lundin

Starring: Harold Lloyd, Bebe Daniels, Snub Pollard, William Gillespie, James Parrott, Dorothea Wolbert

Run Time: 10 Min, 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Be My Wife (1921)

This rare feature-length comedy by Max Linder is part of his second round of Hollywood-produced films, but it didn’t catch on with audiences as he had hoped, and there was no major revival of his career. How does it hold up for us today?

Be My Wife

The movie begins with a visual pun, as we see Max in profile pouring water over the head of a girl. In reality, he is watering plants which are in a vase designed to show the silhouette of a girl in profile (something similar is being done with pottery urns today). He is visiting the love of his life, Mary (played by Alta Allen), and is helping with the chores. Unfortunately, Mary has a spinster aunt (Caroline Rankin) living with her, who sees the profile through a window and concludes that he is with her in the bath. She rushes in to catch them, and is baffled how Mary got her hair dry so fast. Archie is another suitor (played by Lincoln Stedman, who bears a certain resemblance to Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle), and he brings his dog over, charming the aunt (the dog bears only a slight resemblance to Arbuckle’s dog Luke). Max hides outside and meets Mary, but Archie and Aunt Agatha are still around, so he hides out by disguising himself as a scarecrow (as Buster Keaton had recently done as well). There’s a good deal of humor about the dog barking at the scarecrow, the scarecrow kicking Archie from behind, and the two lovers stealing moments when no one is looking. Eventually, the aunt comes to investigate, loosens the dog’s post, and the dog chases the scarecrow until it tries to climb a fence, then performs an impressive leap to latch its teeth into Max’s backside.

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The High Sign (1921)

Buster Keaton’s first starring short languished for over a year before being released – at his request. He later said he was embarrassed by it, but is it as bad as Keaton thought?

High_Sign_(1921)

The first reel of the film follows Keaton’s everyman as he tries to secure work at a shooting gallery. First, we see him clip an ad out of a ridiculously over-sized newspaper, then he gets himself a pistol by stealing one off a cop and replacing it with a banana. He takes that pistol to the beach and tries shooting some bottles, under the supervision of Al St. John, who is shot in the behind before the practice session is over. Soon it is apparent that his aim is never going to improve – when he aims left, shots go right, and when he aims straight ahead, he shoots a bird out of the sky. At the shooting gallery, he contrives to fool the manager (Ingram B. Pickett) by rigging up a system that will cause the bell to ring every time he takes a shot. Since he uses a little dog to pull the string, however, things get out of hand when the dog tries to chase a cat.

High Sign

Meanwhile, the audience learns that his boss is a member of “The Blinking Buzzards,” a secret order that meets in the back room of the shooting gallery. They use a hand sign that involves sticking both thumbs into the nose and holding the hands to look like a bird’s wings (“the high sign”). They are trying to extort money from one August Nickelnurser, but he has so far resisted paying off, and today is the day they will make good on their threat to kill him. August has filled his house with secret doors so that he can get out of any room in a hurry, but his lovely daughter (Bartine Burkett) doesn’t think that’s enough; he needs to hire a bodyguard. Both she and the manager are convinced that Buster is a dead shot, so they each hire him – one to kill August, the other to protect him.

High Sign1

After a few more superfluous gags at the shooting gallery, Buster heads over to Nickelnurser’s home, where we spend most of the second reel. It turns out that the butler is a plant of the Blinking Buzzards, who also lurk outside a window, so Buster is under constant pressure to kill August, even as he tries to woo his daughter and prove himself a brave bodyguard. He tries getting August to fake his death, but the Buzzards get wise. Pretty soon, August and Buster are running around the house, using the trapdoors to evade the Buzzards and leap from one room to another. At one point, Keaton uses a gag from Charlie Chaplin’s “The Adventurer” and traps a Buzzard’s head in a door. At another, he kicks Nickelnurser, thinking it’s a Buzzard hiding behind a curtain. Eventually, he is able to trap or knock out all of the Buzzards, and the girl embraces him as he gives the high sign one last time.

High Sign2

I’d agree with Keaton that this wasn’t the best or most original of his films, but it doesn’t seem to me he had anything to be deeply embarrassed about. Still, he led off his releases with the decidedly better “One Week,” and that probably was better for his reputation. By the time this came out, audiences were used to seeing Keaton as a starring player, and so the more middling material would have gone down easier, as it does for us today. I wonder also if his distaste for the movie has to do with the fact that his character isn’t above stealing the cop’s gun. Later he would claim in his autobiography that what differed him from Chaplin was that his character was always an honest working man, who would find a way to earn what he needed without stealing, and that’s demonstrably not the case here.

Director: Buster Keaton, Edward F. Cline

Camera: Elgin Lessley

Starring: Buster Keaton, Bartine Burkett, Ingram B. Pickett, Al St. John, Joe Roberts, Charles Dorety

Run Time: 20 Min

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

Photograph (1896?)

This very brief comedy from Auguste and Louis Lumière establishes some of the visual language that would be used by slapstick comedians until the development of sound. The movie confirms that even very early in the history of cinema, movie makers were thinking of ways to create short scenarios, not simply photographing commonplace reality and reproducing it for audiences.

Photograph

The frame is set up so that we can see two men clearly, from head to foot. They appear to be in a garden or yard behind a private dwelling. One man (Auguste Lumière) sits in a chair, wearing fine clothing. His hat lies on the ground. The other (who I’m pretty sure is not Louis) stands behind a large camera, preparing to take his portrait. The seated man fusses with his hair and the other man poses him and runs back to his camera. As he tries to take the picture, the other man continues to fuss and squirm, preventing him from getting a good shot. Finally, when the seated man takes out a handkerchief and blows his nose, the photographer runs over in frustration, seeking to pose him again, but as he does, he accidentally knocks over a leg of his camera tripod, causing the camera to crash on the ground. The photographer gestures in despair as the seated man gets up to retrieve the camera, which is now wrecked.

Like “The Sprinkler Sprinkled,” this movie takes advantage of its short running time to depict a simple mishap and give the audience a quick laugh. No doubt it would have been shown with live narration, the speaker playing up the situation and incident so that the audience was ready for the big crash. Even without this embellishment, it is easy enough for a modern audience to follow and get the joke – so long as they can recognize the large box-shaped thing for a still camera! I’ve had to include a “?” in the date, because Kino’s “The Movies Begin” collection does not indicate its release information, aside from telling us that it is “Lumière #118.” To make matters worse, on Youtube a different movie claims to be “Lumière #118” and says it was released in 1895, which seems too early for such a high number – only ten of their movies were included in the famous screening at the end of that year. It probably is a remake of this movie, using different actors. The Lumières often remade their more successful pictures (I believe there are three distinct version of “Workers Leaving the Factory,” for example), and the Youtube video is longer and does not star either of the Lumières. 1896 seems like a reasonable guess for this version, but it is still speculation.

Director: Unknown, possibly Louis Lumière

Camera: Unknown, possibly Louis Lumière

Starring: Auguste Lumière

Run Time: 35 secs

You can watch it for free here.

The Goat (1921)

Buster Keaton stars in and co-directs this two-reel short from his second year as a starring comedian. A simple premise once again leads to a lot of gags, and Keaton continues to demonstrate his developing abilities as a film maker.

The movie begins with an out-of-work Keaton getting into a bread line, but without noticing he stands behind two mannequins in front of a clothing store. The line moves up and all the bread is gone, but the two guys in front of him never move. When it threatens to rain, the proprietor moves his dummies inside, but Buster is too late to get any bread. Forlornly walking the streets, he looks into a barred window of one building, which happens to be a jail. The room he looks in upon is a mug shot room where the police are photographing one Dead Shot Dan (Malcolm St. Clair), a murderer. Seeing that the photographer is looking away, Dan moves his head to the side and snaps a picture of Buster without anybody noticing. Thus, when Dan escapes, the wanted posters all show Buster with his hands on the bars.

Shortly, and before anyone knows that Dan has escaped, Keaton gets himself in trouble with a patrolling policeman by throwing a horseshoe over his shoulder for luck, accidentally hitting the man in the face. Each time it looks as if he will get away, something happens, usually resulting in an additional officer getting knocked down and joining the chase. There are several clever gags in which Keaton jumps onto a vehicle, anticipating that it will pull away and save him, only to discover that he is being left behind somehow. At one point, he tries hiding behind a traffic cop, simulating his arm gestures until he walks away and Buster is exposed trying to direct traffic himself. He gets a brief reprieve when he lures the officers into the back of a truck and locks the door.

During this interval, he meets Virginia Fox, who is being hassled by a man on the street. Keaton defends her, and throws the man to the ground in a rather clever backflip move. Before he can introduce himself to Virginia, the truck delivers the policemen to the corner they are at, and Buster runs away again. After a few more false starts, he escapes by hopping onto a train going to a nearby town. Unfortunately for Buster, the town has heard of Dan’s escape, and newspapers and wanted posters with Buster’s picture are everywhere. The townspeople run from him in terror wherever he goes. Soon, he encounters the local police chief (Joe Roberts), who is the one man not afraid to face down Dead Shot Dan. The real Dan makes an attempt on his life, but is able to plant the gun on Buster, increasing his suspicions. He is able to escape the chief only by dumping a load of coal on him.

After making that escape, Buster runs into Virginia, pretending to be a man of means by stepping out of a taxi as he sees her approach, then scaring away the irate taxi driver by showing him a newspaper with him on the front cover. Virginia invites him to dinner and he goes up to her apartment to meet the parents. Of course, her dad is Joe Roberts. A new chase begins, involving the elevator in their apartment building and several rather silly gags involving the floor indicator. Virginia sides with Buster and the two of them escape together. Buster observes a sign outside a furniture store that says “You furnish the Girl, we furnish the home!” He carries his date into the store.

For me, this movie is something of a turning point of Buster Keaton’s early movies. Something about the rhythm of the comedy speaks to later films and the undeniable genius of “The General” or “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” Not only does it not let up, it hits in just the right way each time. The theme of the poor slob who can’t seem to get a break has been a common one in Keaton’s movies up to this point, but there’s something wonderful in each revelation as we think for a moment that he’s gotten away, only to wind up on the run again. There is surprise after surprise as the movie progresses. Even the most illogical moments (like being able to eject an elevator through the roof of a building by moving the floor indicator) are funny because they are surprising, surreal, and internally consistent.

All of that said, it’s also really indicative of Keaton’s working method at the time. He had one good idea: his character would be mistaken for a killer because he looked in a jail window as he was photographed, and he started filming with nothing more than that as a script. In that sense, the plot is almost nonexistent (again), and the only thing holding the movie together is impromptu gags, many of which don’t even seem to belong in the same film together. Luckily he had a team of professionals who knew how to work with that, and they wound up putting together a really successful film. This is pretty much how he had learned to work at Comique with Roscoe Arbuckle, so it make sense, but it’s a very different approach to that developed by fellow clown-kings Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd at the time.

I’m always surprised when I see this movie that there’s no actual (animal) goat in it. Somehow I manage to forget that it isn’t about a lonely farm boy who takes his goat to the big city. That must be a story I made up myself.

This has been my contribution to the Buster Keaton Blogathon, hosted by Silentology. Don’t forget to head over and check out the other great blogs contributing this year! Many thanks to Lea for hosting, as always.

Director: Buster Keaton, Malcolm St. Clair

Camera: Elgin Lessley

Starring: Buster Keaton, Virginia Fox, Joe Roberts, Malcolm St. Clair, Edward F. Cline

Run Time: 27 Min

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

The Playhouse (1921)

Buster Keaton shows off technical wizardry in this two-reel short from First National, but also finds time for laughs in between the effects. Twins and doppelgangers abound as he make fun of his professional roots.

The movie begins by showing Buster looking at a sign for a variety show in front of a theater. He decides to pay and go in, pulling out a long accordion-style wallet and carefully choosing the right coin from its many folds. The clerk gives him a ticket and he enters. An edit shows him entering the inside of the theater – by way of the orchestra pit. It appears that he is the conductor, in spite of his unauspicious entrance, and he begins warming up the musicians. Edits show us several of the musicians, in a series of two-shots. Each of them is identical – they are all Buster! So are the audience (some in drag). One of the Busters looks at his program, finding that every role and crew position is held by “BUSTER KEATON.” He remarks to his mannish-looking wife, “this fellow Keaton seems to be the whole show.” The various Keatons interact and engage in minor gags for a while, including some unfortunate blackface humor.

This ends as Keaton is woken up in bed by Joe Roberts, in a small sparsely furnished room. It seems that the previous sequence was a dream, and Roberts brings some flunkies in to remove the furniture after briefly remonstrating with Keaton. The audience is set up to believe that Keaton is late with the rent and is being evicted, but after getting Keaton off  the bed and moving that, Roberts pushes the walls down, revealing that this too is a stage set. Keaton picks up a broom and gets down to his real job – sweeping up back stage. Soon, he meets some real twins, a pair of girls that will be performing in the variety show. There are various gags and situations based on his confusion over how many of them are and the fact that one likes him and the other does not.

Striking the set.

Meanwhile, the show starts to go on. Edward Cline instructs Keaton to dress the monkey for his act, but the little critter bolts, so Buster puts on his clothes and performs as a monkey himself. Although he’s probably funnier than the original, he keeps making mistakes, which makes the trainer increasingly angry. At another point, a group of “Zouaves” quits because Keaton has tricked Roberts into punching one of their members, so he goes out and hires a work crew to replace them and leads them through a series of silly stunts and military-style maneuvers. For the final act, one of the twins is put into a tank and holds her breath in a “mermaid” act, but she gets stuck and can’t get out. Buster shatters the glass, causing water to flood the theater and all of the audience is washed out with the tide. He grabs the girl, drags her to a Justice of the Peace before she hits him and he realizes he has the wrong one again. He goes back for the right girl, this time drawing an “x” on her back to avoid future errors before taking her in to get married.

Much has been made of Keaton’s use of a matte box to perform the twinning effect in the first part of the movie, but for the most part Georges Méliès had anticipated him in “The One-Man Band” (1900). At one point, Keaton does have more images on the screen than Méliès managed, but it doesn’t look very good. His best bits are when there are just two of him on the screen, in perfect focus and apparently responding to one another. The female twins are played by two different women, one of whom was Virginia Fox, but I couldn’t tell if she was the one who hit him or the one who married him.

As with most of Keaton’s movies at this time, a thin plot is the basis for a series of gags and routines that add up to a lot of laughs. There’s a bit of an inside joke in the multiple-Keatons sequence, since he got his start as part of a family act called “The Three Keatons.”It struck me as funny when “this fellow Keaton seems to be the whole show,” because in fact Keaton was more of a collaborator than the other famous silent clowns of the time, consistently working with a co-director instead of insisting on being in complete control of everything. He may have been the whole show by now so far as audiences were concerned, but he was only a part of it behind the camera.

Director: Buster Keaton, Edward F. Cline

Camera: Elgin Lessley

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

Run Time: 22 Min

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

Shoulder Arms (1918)

Charlie Chaplin is in the army for this World War One-era comedy short that became his most popular and well-loved film to that time. Can the Little Tramp be a war hero? Watch it and find out.

As the movie begins, Charlie is already in uniform and being drilled at boot camp. The men in his squad are of various heights and builds, but Charlie is the shortest and skinniest. The other men all move and turn with military precision, but Charlie is always a bit behind them. The sergeant tries to show him how to properly “volte face,” but Charlie turns it into a funny dance move. They march for a very long time and Charlie returns to his bunk. The scene fades out and when it begins again, he is in a trench, carrying a ridiculously overloaded pack. The camera dollies to follow him down the trench, then dollies back when he turns around and returns, finding the cubby in the wall that opens in to his new digs. Inside are his two roommates (one of them is Sydney Chaplin, Charlie’s brother). He moves in and secures his bunk, then we get a view of the enemy trench. The Germans are all large and rough-looking men, but their officer is a dwarf (Loyal Underwood). He is very strict with them, and they all appear to be terrified of him.

We see various day-to-day activities in the trenches, like eating lunch under shell fire and standing guard in the rain. When the mail call comes, everyone in the unit seems to get a care package except for Charlie. He refuses the offer to share food with one of his bunkmates, trying to make it seem as if he doesn’t care. He gets very involved in reading over the shoulder of one man who has a letter, desperate for any news from home. Finally, the postal carrier does find a package for him. It includes stale bread and limburger cheese. He tosses the cheese into the German trench, and they react as if it were a chemical weapons attack. When it is time for Charlie to go to bed, the rain has flooded his bunk, and he has to lie in the water. He uses the horn from a gramophone as a snorkel so he doesn’t drown. The next day, his unit is called to make an attack on the German trench. They capture it and Charlie brings in the entire enemy squad as prisoners. When asked how he did it, he says, “I surrounded them.” He gives the short German officer a spanking, which gets applause from his men.

We see a bombed-out French house with a dejected resident (Edna Purviance), who represents all the strife France is going through in the war. Charlie volunteers for duty behind the lines, and is camouflaged as a stump. He hides out as some Germans set up camp. One comes over with an axe, looking for firewood, but Charlie knocks him out by bonking him with a limb, then bonks each of the other Germans in turn. Sydney is captured doing similar behind-the-line spying, and is put before a firing squad, but Charlie saves him by bonking the Germans. A fat soldier chases him through the woods, but often mistakes real trees for Charlie. Charlie escapes into a pipe, and the soldier is too fat to follow.

Charlie finds his way to Edna’s house, and she finds him there and begins a flirtation before the Germans show up and capture them both, wrecking what’s left of the house in the process. Edna is taken to the German headquarters, where she meets a taller German officer who is enjoying local wine. Charlie manages to rescue her and dresses as the officer, just in time to meet the Kaiser and two of his generals (one is fat and looks like Hindenburg, the other is thin and looks nothing like Ludendorff). He knocks out their chauffeur and drives them into Allied territory, where they are taken into custody.

Then he wakes up again, still in hiss bivouac from the first scene, not yet deployed. The entire war sequence is shown to be a dream.

 

As I stated, this movie was wildly popular when released. It was also a critical success on a level far above what Chaplin usually managed. No one seems to have thought it “vulgar” (although there are some decidedly adult gags once he meets Edna). Reviewers for the next decade compared each new Chaplin release to it – often deciding that classics like “The Kid” or “The Gold Rush” were not quite so good as “Shoulder Arms.” It’s easy to see why it was popular in the United States as the country prepared to finally join the long slog of trench warfare, and it was also popular in Britain and elsewhere, where the fighting had been going for years. The movie identifies with the common soldier doing his bit in awful circumstances, not necessarily motivated by any great patriotism or ideology, just wanting to his best and help out the fellow next to him in the foxhole (Sydney). It suggests that even the lowliest soldier can become a hero, at least in his own mind, and it lets people laugh at their own worst fears. Chaplin’s famed pathos is also on display – the forlorn look on his face when he thinks he hasn’t received any mail must have inspired hundreds of letters from mothers and sweethearts.

 

Today the laughs are just as strong. The problem I have is mostly with the caricatured depiction of the Germans, who for the most part were just simple soldiers sitting through the same Hell as the Allies, whatever the mistakes of their leaders, and many of them would soon be joining revolts against those leaders. The one moment that humanizes them is when they applaud seeing their officer spanked. Particularly the final sequence in which Chaplin captures the Kaiser comes across as overwrought propaganda. Of course, all of Chaplin’s “bad guys” are caricatures, and there’s no reason to expect gallantry toward the enemy in a war comedy, and the gags and pratfalls are still brilliant. The Wikipedia article claims that, “[t]his is believed to be the first comedy film about war.” I find that hard to believe, although I haven’t thought of a definite counter-example (Chaplin was in uniform in “Burlesque on Carmen,” but there’s no war going on). Certainly it set the stage for others to come, being a huge success and critical darling.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Roland Totheroh

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Sydney Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Loyal Underwood, Albert Austin, Henry Bergman, Tom Wilson, John Rand

Run Time: 36 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music by Jon Mirsalis)