Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: slapstick

Max Learns to Skate (1907)

One of the earliest surviving films of one of the earliest film comedians, this is a fairly simple short about a man’s efforts to learn a simple physical skill – but which takes considerable athletic ability to pull off in a comedic manner. Max Linder succeeds with flying colors in this early outing.

Excited Anticipation

Taken mostly in long shot, this movie consists of just a few sequential scenes, each shot from a stationary camera and lasting several seconds to a minute or more. It begins by establishing a snowy path in a forest, with several people walking along, almost looking like an actuality of France in winter until the star finally approaches close enough to the camera to be recognizable. He stands out from the rest of the characters in the movie by his dandy-ish dress. Most of the men are wearing caps that indicate they are from the working class, while Max sports a shiny top hat. He’s also carrying a pair of skates, designed to be affixed to the bottom of his shoes when he finds a frozen lake. He stops a passerby and asks directions, is pointed the right way and exits, screen left. The next shot shows a table where skaters may check their overcoats and other unneeded items (Max checks his cane, but not his hat). He approaches enthusiastically, and pantomimes his excitement at the opportunity to glide across the ice. The next shot shows wooden chairs where people don their skates, and Max gets one of the local fellows to help him on with his. Next is a shot taken of the shore of the frozen lake, showing Max descending a short plank onto the lake. He is awkward, but stays upright until actually on the ice, where he quickly enters a kind of rapid dance before toppling (and losing his hat). Another local fellow eventually takes pity on him and rights him, giving him his hat back and holding him up as they skate offscreen.

The harsh reality.

The next scene shows Max and his tutor, still arm-in-arm, moving slowly. This shot is taken from the shore and we can now see all the other skaters, out having a grand time. One fellow is on a bicycle. Max eventually feels secure enough to try on his own again and the other fellow skates off. This time, Max is a bit more secure at first, but still wobbles more than he glides, eventually losing his hat again. His effort to recover it results in another pratfall, with him landing on it and crushing it. Another scene of the ice shows Max moving along cautiously, still with the crooked hat, when he is run into by a large child. He runs this kid off angrily, but his buddies show up with snowballs, pelting Max mercilessly. In trying to get away from this assault, Max crashes into another skater who is pushing a lady in a kind of sled-wheelchair. Everyone lands on the ground, and Max, in a fury, is trying to fight with all of them. A skating policeman skates up and removes him from the lake. Max is taken back to the table, where his skates are removed and he retrieves his goods. A final close-up shows Max in tears, his dream of a winter wonderland shattered.

Aftermath

This is a pretty basic film, not especially innovative for 1907, but not bad either. What makes it work is Linder’s screen presence, which keeps the attention and interest of the audience despite the very limited plot and film technique. Max is adorable in the early scenes in which he shows the audience how excited he is to go skating, which makes it all the more effective when he discovers that the sport isn’t as easy as he’d imagined. He only takes four falls, but each is a payoff of some kind of setup, and although we know they’re coming, we don’t know just when. The most surprising is the one where he’s hit from the side, the boy coming in from off camera to crash into him, and this escalates the situation to include others. I wondered, up to that point, if any of the other characters in the movie were “acting,” or whether they were just random people found at the location, behaving naturally. Once Max starts fighting them, we know it’s been set up, but the movie overall feels decidedly natural and unrehearsed. It’s worth noting that what I’ve called a “close-up” at the end of the film is more of a medium-shot, much further back than the camera got to the bandit at the end of “The Great Train Robbery.” It’s possible that the cameraman at Pathé was a bit skeptical of this new-fangled idea, and not willing to take it so far. We can still see enough of Max’s tears that it works, though.

Director: Louis J. Gasnier

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Max Linder

Run Time: 5 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

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The Hayseed (1919)

This small-town comedy from Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s Comique Film Company once again takes various elements from earlier Arbuckle movies, and puts them in a blender with a whole bunch of new and improved gags from him and Buster Keaton, now a fully-fledged sidekick in the company.

The movie starts off by showing us the town general store (which has a large sign: “Why Go to the City to Be Ripped Off? Buy Here Instead”). Keaton is the store’s clerk and Arbuckle is the postman, who also operates out of the store. In an opening gag, Arbuckle is carrying a huge stack of mail and packages out to the buggy he uses for delivery, and he and Keaton collide, sending parcels everywhere. Then they start hitting each other with the discarded mail, until the store owner runs out and breaks it up. Arbuckle jumps in his jalopy and takes off, but most of the mail has been left behind. On his run, Arbuckle throws letters into boxes from a moving cart with remarkable accuracy, but when one is too big to go in the slot, he has to stop. He tries folding it, but it’s still too big so he rips it into small pieces to get it into the box. Read the rest of this entry »

Good Night Nurse (1918)

This short comedy from Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s Comique Film Company was released in July, 1918 and co-stars Buster Keaton. Arbuckle is at the center of action, but as usual his collaborators get good opportunities to shine as well.

The movie begins on a rainy street corner, in front of a pharmacy. Arbuckle is standing in the downpour, futilely trying to light a cigarette, and occasionally getting chased off the stoop by the pharmacist. A woman with an umbrella (supposedly Keaton, but we never see her face) is blown down the street and Arbuckle attempts to help her against the storm. In the process, hr umbrella is destroyed and she does several pratfalls. Soon, she returns in the direction she originally came from. Now a drunk (Snitz Edwards) joins Arbuckle on the corner, sitting in the gutter. A policeman walks up, and Arbuckle realizes he should stand up and be nonchalant, trying to signal the drunk to do the same as he again tries to light a match to smoke a cigarette. The policeman sees this and laughs at his attempts. Now a gypsy organ grinder and his assistant walk up, and Fatty gives them a coin and asks for the national anthem. This makes the police officer take off his rain hat and stand at attention, and Arbuckle is able to use its protection to finally light up a cigarette.

Arbuckle takes the gypsies back to his house, where his wife has just read about a new surgical cure for alcoholism, at some place called “No Hope Sanitarium.” When the gypsies’ monkey sneaks into her room, she concludes that Fatty needs to take the cure. The rest of the movie takes place at the Sanitarium, at which point the film’s title finally begins to make sense. As Arbuckle is being taken in, he sees a man covered in bandages (apparently this is Joe Keaton, Buster’s dad) leaving on crutches. Arbuckle stops to sympathize with the man, who assures him he’s fine, now he’s been “cured.” This does little to build Arbuckle’s confidence, but his wife insists on bringing him in. Soon, he meets the doctor in charge of the place (Buster Keaton), who arrives in a smock covered in blood. He also meets the “crazy” girl (Alice Lake) who will serve as his illicit love interest, even while wifey is still around watching. When she jumps into his arms and kisses him, what can he do? After all, she’s crazy.

Arbuckle and Lake soon devise plans to escape, using a massive pillow fight amongst the patients as cover, but as soon as she’s outside, she wants to go back in. Arbuckle hides by jumping into a pond, then sets up a hose to blow air so that it looks like he’s still under when the orderlies come to “rescue” him. Then he spots a large nurse (Kate Bruce) going on her lunch break and decides to swipe her uniform to make an escape. He runs into Keaton in the hallway and the two of them flirt, Keaton obviously convinced that he is a large nurse. Then the real nurse returns and blows his cover. Arbuckle runs out into the countryside, winding up in the midst of a cross-country race, which he inadvertently wins. As he is accepting the prize money, the doctors and orderlies surround him, wrestling him down. Suddenly he wakes up back in the Sanitarium, where he has been given ether; all of his escapes are now revealed to be a dream.

This is yet another movie in which Arbuckle and/or Keaton dress in drag for laughs – both of them in this case, if online sources are right and Keaton is the woman with the umbrella. This scenario somewhat resembles their earlier collaboration, “The Butcher Boy,” where Arbuckle tried to rescue Lake from a boarding school by dressing in drag, but with a much heavier emphasis on Keaton’s character and abilities. The pillow fight sequence reminded me of earlier Edison comedies that relied on this gag for humor and titillation, but note that there was also one in “The Butcher Boy” as well. Keaton’s awkward “flirting” with Fatty has to be seen to be believed, it’s one of the funniest on-screen crushes this side of Elmer Fudd. An odd detail stuck out to me in this movie. In most of the silent comedies, especially the “Keystone Kops” movies, the policemen are funny-looking. The policeman in this film is quite handsome, at least pretty normal by comparison. I think he was probably cast for his height rather than his look. He needed to be tall enough that when he held his hat at his breast, Arbuckle could conveniently get under it to light a cigarette. It’s still remarkable that they didn’t give him a false mustache or bushy eyebrows or something. Maybe they would have fallen off in the rain.

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: George Peters

Cast: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Alice Lake, Buster Keaton, Al St. John, Joe Bordeaux, Joe Keaton, Snitz Edwards, Kate Bruce

Run Time: 22 Min

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

What Is Home without the Boarder? (1901)

Alternate Title: La Maison tranquille, The Quiet House

A typical short comedy from Georges Méliès, but without any camera trickery in this case. The gleeful anarchy of this piece pre-sages later developments in silent slapstick comedy.

A proscenium-style set has been divided horizontally between two stages. In the lower one, a couple in dark clothes has dinner in an orderly bourgeois dining room. In the upper stage, three men in their bedclothes dance and play musical instruments. The men upstairs kick a hole in the floor/ceiling and steal wine from the table of the couple, who run out in fear. Then, one of the trouble-makers (Méliès) jumps down into the room and sends the turkey up to his flat-mates to eat. He covers himself in a sheet and simulates an elephant, terrifying the landlady when she comes back to investigate. He returns to the upstairs space in time to help his comrades defend their territory when a policeman is summoned. The policeman is pelted, first with powder and wine, then with a mattress and other pieces of furniture the men have to hand. When he, the landlord, and landlady finally retreat, the men jump downstairs and dance around, piling furniture against the door to stop any further intrusions of their chaotic fun. The movie ends with them victorious.

In this movie, Méliès utilizes several comedy tropes that would later be exploited by Charlie Chaplin and other famous silent comedians: celebrating confrontation with authority (the landlord and police), emphasis on fast action, escalation of violence and absurdity in rejection of social rules. All of these elements make for a very funny film, and the comedians who would later embrace them understood, as Méliès did the way this kind of chaos allows a release for people living in a highly structured modern society. On another level, this kind of comedy reflects the hidden fear of moderns that the veneer of social behavior can be dismissed as soon as one (or in this case three) member rejects it and that society will be helpless to contain them without their voluntary surrender. The ironic title in both languages suggests a degree of identification with the landlords, who have taken in boarders to benefit themselves economically, only to find that their comforts are threatened by this very arrangement. At any rate, the whole piece is great fun, and a measure of what Méliès could achieve without any magical effects.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès, unknown

Run Time: 1 Min, 20 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Out West (1918)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: George Peters

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

Run Time: 21 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

His Wedding Night (1917)

Another early collaboration between Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Buster Keaton, this once again puts Arbuckle and Al St. John into roles as customer service flunkies competing for the same girl. This time, though, Keaton gets drunk and dresses as a girl. Fun times!

In this movie, “Fatty” (identified as such in the intertitles) runs a soda fountain. He arrives at work to find two nurses collecting for the Red Cross, and cleverly transfers a dollar from one’s plate to the other’s, making it look like he’s made a donation. Then, he goes in and uses Al St. John and his boss as coat racks while he gets ready for his shift. He starts cleaning up his station and serving out soda, using the same implements for both tasks. Then, a young lady comes into the shop to sample some perfume, doling out generous portions on herself. Fatty runs over with a sign reading, “$4 an oz,” and she goes away angry. Meanwhile, a large black woman has come in behind Fatty and she drinks some of the over-priced sample, as well as putting it on her neck. Fatty turns back around and hugs her, thinking that it’s still the other young woman. When she turns around we see that the paint has come off and she has “$4 an oz” on her behind (a troubling joke within living memory of slavery).

The intertitles now introduce the pharmacist’s daughter, played by Alice Mann. She is of course the love interest. Fatty coaxes her into some shy kisses, then gives her a ring. They share a soda together. Fatty has to go out to run the gas pumps, which leaves Alice alone with Al, who now shares some watermelon with her. Fatty charges 26 cents for gas to a poor man, then when a rich limousine pulls up, he switches the sign to say $1.00. Al asks for Alice’s hand, but she tells him she’s already engaged. Al starts crying and Alice hits him with the watermelon. Soon Al is choking Alice and they both have watermelon parts all over them. Fatty clocks Al on the head to break it up, then throws Al across the room onto a table of customers. The fight escalates and ice cream is thrown all around the store until the pharmacist comes in and gets hit in the face. He asks what it is all about and seems pleased with Alice’s choice. When Al tries to protest, he is booted in the pants and sent packing.

Now, Buster shows up as the man delivering the dress for the wedding. He arrives on a bike and does a classic pratfall for his entrance. Having poked his eye, he now has an uncontrollable wink. Fatty sees this and interprets it as a request for alcohol, so he clandestinely serves Buster a beer, also providing him with a bar for his foot a spittoon and sawdust, all of which Buster, apparently unknowingly, makes use of. Once he’s done with his beer he brings Alice her dress, and she brings the apparently still drunk young man up to her room. Once she sees the dress, she insists that she see it worn, and Buster starts to undress. She’s shocked and motions him to leave, but he goes behind a screen and changes into the dress! She appears thrilled, as crazy as the situation is, and has him model it, still winking, around the room.

Meanwhile, Fatty’s been getting up to no good himself downstairs. Having grown tired of people “sampling” the expensive perfume (the latest customer is a man, who acts flamboyantly effeminate), he now replaces it with chloroform. When a young woman knocks herself out by trying it, he decides to steal a kiss. Unfortunately, the pharmacist is nearby watching, so he sprays him as well so that he won’t see Fatty cheating on his daughter. Eventually, he gives her a sniff of some smelling salts to wake her up and send her on her way. When the next woman comes in, however, Fatty’s evil plans are thwarted. She apparently thrives on chloroform, applying it liberally to her neck, spraying it around herself, even drinking from the bottle! When she leaves, Fatty can’t resist trying some, and he quickly falls over.

Meanwhile, Al’s even more evil plans are now afoot. He and his cohorts plan to abduct Alice and force her into marriage. They arrive and are able to make off with a woman in a dress and a veil – which of course is Buster! When Fatty and the pharmacist hear about the raid, however, they assume Alice is taken and mount a rescue effort. This involves Fatty in one of the funniest sequences involving a determined man and a stubborn mule, which climaxes with the mule sitting right on Fatty! Eventually, Fatty shows up and uses his great strength to capture the captive, only to realize the mistaken identity and hurl Buster back into the den of thieves bodily. He and Alice of course end up together, and the minister apparently won’t marry Al and Buster, so all is well.

I feel like this takes a lot of the themes we saw in “The Butcher Boy” and improves on them, although there is some problematic (by today’s standards) humor – especially the racial humor involving the black woman and the joking about date rape drugs. This latter probably didn’t do Arbuckle any favors when the press was smearing his name after the death of Virginia Rappe, and it wouldn’t go over well with the #metoo movement either. Still, there are so many gags here, and so many of them are indisputably great gags, that nearly everyone will find a laugh somewhere. I was particularly impressed with Buster’s drunk drag sequence and with Arbuckle and the mule. The bit where Arbuckle essentially “builds a bar” around Keaton was also a charming bit, especially for someone who appreciates old-time bars. I saw the sawdust coming even before he pulled it out! This is just a few years before Prohibition was passed in the United States, and there were some areas where the sale of alcohol was already illegal or highly restricted, so the gag would make sense to most audiences of the day.

Director: Roscoe Arbuckle

Camera: George Peters

Cast: Roscoe Arbuckle, Alice Mann, Buster Keaton, Al St. John, Josephine Stevens, Natalie Talmadge, Alice Lake

Run Time: 21 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

His Prehistoric Past (1914)

This early Charlie Chaplin film came at the end of his short tenure at Keystone Studios, and may by the most “mature” of the movies he made for the company. This post is a part of the Time Travel Blogathon, hosted by Silver Screenings and Wide Screen World. Check out the other entries here. I hope everyone was able to safely “time travel” back from Daylight Saving Time!

We see Chaplin in his familiar “Little Tramp” getup, trying to get comfortable for a nap on a park bench. There’s a funny bit of business where he tries to straighten it our despite a broken board. Soon, he’s a asleep, and the real movie begins in the “prehistoric” era. A group of cavemen and -women surrounds the “Kink,” a chieftan-type played by Mack Swain. Another caveman does a rather swishy effeminate dance, which put an odd spin on the “Kink” intertitle for me, but probably wouldn’t have for most audiences in 1914.  We now see Chaplin in a funny variation of his outfit: he still has the hat and cane, but now his traditional too-tight jacket and baggy pants have been replaced by a frayed bearskin. He has a pipe, and fills it with tobacco, then tries striking several rocks against his leg, as if they were matches. One finally lights, and he smokes the pipe. He spots an attractive young cavewoman (I believe this is Gene Marsh), who is fetching water for the “Kink” and goes to speak with her. He does some funny business with the tail of his bearskin. The “Kink” gets tired of waiting and sends the swishy caveman off to find the water girl. He sees Chaplin and fires an arrow into his bottom. Once the cavegirl gets it out, Charlie throws a large rock at the attacker, which misses him and flies over to hit the “Kink.” The caveman chases Charlie around a boulder with a pointed stick, and the “Kink” comes over to investigate, and winds up getting stuck in the bottom by the other caveman, who is clubbed by Charlie in turn.

The “Kink” is now convinced that Charlie is his friend, and he takes him back to the tribe, where everyone bows down. Charlie keeps hitting the “Kink” accidentally (or not) with his club, but manages to smooth it over or blame someone else each time. Charlie is invited in to the “Kink’s cave for a drink, but winds up spilling a lot of it when he tries to shake it like a martini inside two hollow rocks. He throws the rest of it into the face of a servant (Al St. John). The he goes out to meet the girls of the tribe. Of course, the one he met first is the only one he really wants, but he seems to enjoy the attention. Another caveman walks up and distracts them for a while, but Charlie clubs him and takes his girl over to some rocks by the seaside. When the “Kink” comes out, he sees Charlie frolicking in the waves with the girl (who seems quite close to having a wardrobe malfunction in her furs). The “Kink” finally becomes possessive and pulls her away from Charlie. He smooths things over with the “Kink” again and they have more drinks. The whole tribe starts up a dance (several girls dancing with girls here), and Charlie asks his girl to dance. They do a rather wild jitterbug-style dance, while the others look on. The “Kink” catches sight of this and challenges Charlie to prove himself as a hunter. He gives Charlie a bow and arrows, and they go out to the forest. Charlie targets a bird in a tree, but ends up hitting the nest, raining eggs down on the  “Kink” and himself. Charlie finds the girl by a cliff’s edge an starts taking to her, and when the “Kink” comes to object, he trips him over the ledge. The “Kink” falls a long way but seems fine. Charlie returns to the tribe and announces that he is the new “Kink.” Everyone bows down, but the caveman from the first dance finally gets up and helps the “Kink” climb back up the cliff. The “Kink” picks up a large rock and sneaks up behind Charlie, breaking it into fragments over his head. Suddenly we cut back to Charlie on the park bench. A police officer is smacking him with his billy club, telling the Little Tramp that it’s time to move on. The movie seems to set up an opportunity for Charlie to get the upper hand, but on current prints it cuts off before the final gag.

1918 poster that used stills from the movie.

In terms of time travel, this falls very clearly into the “dream sequence” category: the dream is clearly set up by a framing story at the beginning and the end, and the audience is never asked to accept that Charlie has actually traveled back to the Pleistocene era. Still, the majority of the movie takes place in the imagined past, and makes fun of various caveman tropes that audiences today will still recognize. Especially when Charlie deliberately plays with anachronisms like the match-rock, it reminds me of the Flintstones. Charlie has packed an awful lot of gags into this one piece, as evidenced by the length of the summary, above. I think his ambitions were probably straining the budgets, production schedules, and abilities of Keystone to keep up with, at this point, but the result stands out as a pretty impressive comedy.

Apart from time, this movie made me think a lot about space, and how it was handled in the Keystone universe. There are a limited number of locations: the tribal campground, the cave, the forest, the watering hole, the cliff, and the seaside. Each of these is a discrete unit defined by a single camera frame. The camera can zoom in on people and objects within the set, but it never moves to show us different parts of the area, or how they are related to one another. We know that all of these “sets” are near each other, because sometimes someone in one set can see what is happening in another, or even throws a rock or arrow from one to the next (or through it into another one), but when characters exit one area, they are invisible until they enter the next. In this sense, it reminds me of a classic “Interactive Fiction” computer game, like Zork, that was made up of various “rooms” the player could visit that interlocked in sometimes illogical geographies. Younger readers who’ve never experienced this might get some insight from the “Digital Antiquarian” blog, although you really need to play one of these games for yourself to understand. Anyway, this model is descriptive of a lot of Keystone’s output, and even some of the work Chaplin did at Essanay. It’s a style of filmmaking that links the early theatrical “proscenium” frames to the freer, more mobile camera of the late silent period, and I haven’t seen a lot of discussion about it, but it fascinates me.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Mack Swain, Gene Marsh, Al St. John, Fritz Schade, Cecile Arnold, Sydney Chaplin, Helen Carruthers

Run Time: 21 Min

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

The Butcher Boy (1917)

The first movie to feature an appearance by Buster Keaton came out almost 101 years ago. It was also the first movie Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle made for his new Comique Film Corporation, with full creative control over his own productions, after many years working for Mack Sennett at Keystone.

The movie is a two-reel slapstick comedy, and like a lot of  those by this time, it essentially consists of two separate but equally important “parts.” The first part concerns Arbuckle (whose character is named “Fatty.” so that’s what I’m going to call him for the rest of this review) at his job as a butcher’s assistant in a general store. The structure of this section reminds me a lot of Charlie Chaplin’s “The Pawnshop.” Various characters come into the shop and ask for things, and comic misadventures ensue, often due to the obliviousness, or deliberate laziness, of Fatty. Arbuckle demonstrates his agility by tossing knives into the air, which consistently land point-downward, lodged in the countertop. Once or twice he does this with another actor standing on the other side of the counter, which struck me as a bit dangerous, but he’s so casual about it that you’d think anyone could do it. Keaton’s part comes in this section and he is undeniably the most memorable of the various “customers.” He wants to buy a pail of molasses, and some very sticky comedy ensues. Among others, Lea over at Silentology has carefully analyzed this scene, and I can’t hope to add to what she says about it, so I’ll just say that for a first film appearance, Keaton has remarkable poise and confidence before the camera.

Shortly after Keaton’s bit, the plot starts to move forward. Fatty and Al St. John are both in competition for the one young woman that works at the store, played by Josephine Stevens. She’s the daughter of the owner, and she’s sweeter on Fatty than on “Slim,” but Slim can’t let it go. The two of them play pranks on each other that escalate into a full-scale war, with exploding bags of flour and other random store implements used to cause mayhem. The owner decides to send his daughter to a boarding school, to prevent any further such nonsense (presumably after firing Fatty and Slim both).

Thus begins the second part of the film, in which Fatty and Al both dress up as girls to sneak into the boarding school and see Josephine. Buster appears again as one of Al’s accomplices, but he has relatively little to do here. Fatty gets in first, and is able to charm the rest of the girls into at least tolerating him, but once Al is on the inside things rapidly escalate to a running pillow fight. Al’s cohorts, for some reason, also sneak into the school to help abduct Josephine, and before long they are caught and held at gunpoint by the schoolmarm. Once again, the scene devolves in chaos and Josephine and Fatty are able to escape. Still in girl’s clothes, he proposes to her in front of a minister’s house, and they go in, presumably to be married.

I’d rate this as a good, but not great, Arbuckle movie, and pretty much “of historical interest” for Keaton fans. This movie has the feel of someone trying things out, but perhaps being afraid of going too far at first. I was surprised how much was shot in long-shot, as if Arbuckle was afraid to move his camera too close to all the flying bags of flour and thrown knives. However, choreographing some of that chaos in long shot is still a feat to be proud of. Arbuckle did plenty of drag, before and after this, as well as many roles where he had some kind of customer service job but mostly abused his customers. In fact, he had combined the two before (in “Waiters Ball”). My favorite Arbuckle movies play more on his “big kid” likeability, his boyish charm, and his being the good guy who is wronged by his opponent, but in this one he’s no better than Al St. John, the girl just happens to like him better. At least he’s not forcing himself on her.

It’s interesting that Buster does maintain his “stone face” in this film, given that in “Oh Doctor” he would be expressive to a fault – maybe that was an Arbuckle suggestions that didn’t work out. In his autobiography, Keaton would claim he’d been told his was the first debut in film that didn’t require any re-takes, but that’s dubious in the extreme, considering that nobody was doing re-takes a little more than a decade earlier, and that some people’s debut scenes were literally walk-bys. He does demonstrate comic timing and physical prowess in the stunts Arbuckle demands of him, and if it was done in a single take, it was a good day’s work for sure.

Director: Roscoe Arbuckle

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Cast: Roscoe Arbuckle, Al St. John, Josephine Stevens, Buster Keaton, Joe Bordeaux, Luke the Dog

Run Time: 24 Min

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

His Bitter Pill (1916)

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

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

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

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

Director: Fred Fishback

Camera: J.R. Lockwood

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

Run Time: 20 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Fat and Lean Wrestling Match (1900)

Alternate Title: Nouvelles Luttes Extravagantes

A fairly typical example of Georges Méliès-style slapstick with special effects, this short film has rather gruesome comedy. No doubt in the years before cartoons, it would have been very popular with children.

The movie begins with a kind of tease, as we see two women in leotards on the proscenium-style set right after the title. It’s a bit confusing, however, because neither woman is noticeably fatter than the other. They take a bow and suddenly their clothes have become traditional 19th-century female garb. Then they walk off-stage and grab sheets, which they wrap around themselves. When they pull off the sheets, they have transformed into two men in leotards. These two men, who also seem about equal in weight, now begin to fight. One grabs the other, who turns into a doll, and thrashes him about, throwing him to the ground. He transforms back into a man while his opponent takes a bow and proceeds to pull off the other man’s head, arms and legs (now he’s a doll). The victor takes his bow and puts the first man back together again, allowing him to come back to life. Then each man pulls his female counterpart onto the stage from behind the back of the other. The men toss the ladies into the air, causing them to disappear, and then dance off the stage together.

Now is when the title finally makes sense, because two men in particularly comical wrestling get-up appear to fight, and one is fat, the other thin. The thin man tries to grapple his opponent, but he cannot budge the fat man due to his great bulk. The fat man lies on top of the thin man, flattening him out completely. He turns his back on his defeated opponent, who suddenly comes back to life and kicks him in the rear, causing the fat man to fly into the air. When he comes back down, both men are knocked to the floor, but the thin man leaps on the fat man’s belly, causing him to explode into various dismembered parts, similar to the man in the first fight. The thin man takes his bow and departs, but the fat man’s pieces slowly reassemble themselves. The fat man stands up and gestures angrily in the direction of his departed vanquisher.

Interestingly, the write up in the Star Films catalog describes only the second part of the film, suggesting that the distributor didn’t know what to make of the title either. Apparently something like “Burlesque Wrestling Matches” didn’t occur to anyone as an alternative. The French title means something closer to “New Wrestling Extravagances” or “New Extravagant Wrestling.” The other thing that’s interesting about this film is that I don’t think we see Méliès himself as any of these characters – although he’s not in every one of his early movies, he’s in an awful lot of them. By the standards of some of these movies, the special effects are fairly minimal. It’s the madcap pacing that makes this one work, more than mystery of his visual fantasy.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 2 Min

You can watch it for free: here.