Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: slapstick

The Boat (1921)

The title of this short by Buster Keaton says it all. This is a movie about a boat, and a man who brings his family to ruin because of his obsession with high seas living.

The movie begins with an effect – Keaton is inside of a boat that is rocking violently back and forth, apparently at sea. Much like the Méliès movie “Between Calais and Dover” what the audience sees is an apparently stable camera, with a set that is tilting along its axis. Unlike in that film, however, it does not appear that the camera is tilting; rather it seems that the set has been designed to genuinely rock back and forth in front of it. This allows objects to fall naturally in the right direction without help from the actors, and actors to be consistent in leaning the right way. We now see the outside of the boat, which is still in Keaton’s garage, but one of his small sons has jumped onto a rope that is holding it in place and is swinging on it, causing the rocking of the boat. Keaton emerges, removes the child from the rope, administers a quick spanking and goes on applying the finishing touches to his masterpiece. His wife (Sybil Seely) and other son join him and he has them get into the car outside, so that the family can go to the marina for the launching.

There is one small problem, however, as Keaton realizes that his garage door is too small for him to tow the boat out from it. He tries to fix this issue with a few strokes of his hammer, knocking some bricks out of the top to make room. He decides it’s close enough and starts up the car, but the boat is still too large and knocks out considerably more of the basement wall. This undermines the foundation and the entire front of the house collapses. Keaton inspects the damage, and finding that the life boat has been smashed, replaces it with a bathtub salvaged from the wreckage. He drives the family down to the dock.

At the dock, Keaton tries to have his wife christen the boat “Damfino” with a coke bottle. She can’t get it to break, so he uses a hammer. They begin to lower the boat into the water, using the car to tow it again, but Sybil sees the little boy playing on one of the planks supporting the boat that is about to be submerged, and calls out to Buster. He turns around and fails to notice the end of the dock, resulting in the loss of their car as it disappears into the drink. He and Sybil work valiantly to stop the descent of the boat, but eventually, he has to pull the child off the support and watch as the boat follows the car – it does not float, simply descends beneath the waves.

The boat is somehow recovered in time for the next scene, and seems to be floating ably with no leaks or difficulties, as Buster prepares for her maiden voyage. He places a smokestack in the middle of the deck, failing to notice that one of the children has been trapped under it. At first, he takes he child’s cries for help as a faulty ship’s whistle, but eventually he looks inside and sees him in there.  Now he lifts the smokestack again and drops the child overboard. he throws in a life saver, but this sinks. Before jumping in to save him, he drops a thermometer into the water to see how cold it is. Once he gets moving, though,  the smokestack seems to work very well. Buster has rigged it, and the ship’s mast, to lean backward as he goes under a low bridge. All he has to do is pull a handle. However, one such bridge comes along when his back is turned, and the chimney and mast crash down on him, knocking him once again off the boat, so that he must swim after it.

We see Buster and family having breakfast, down in the hull of the boat. At one point, the boat seems to go improbably up one side of a hill, then down the other – leaving open the question of who’s driving when Buster takes his meals. His wife cooks up pancakes and distributes them, but no one can bite into them, they are so hard. Buster hides his inside of his famous hat, and both boys follow suit with theirs. He gets the bright idea of hanging a picture on the wall, but the nail goes through and springs a leak. Buster covers it up with the pancake from his hat, which stops the leak.

After a long day at sea, the family is bedding down for the night when Buster’s bunk topples him onto the floor. He looks out and the sea is getting rough. He lights a candle and goes up on deck to see what there is to see, but mostly he just keeps getting toppled by waves. Eventually, he recognizes the danger and descends to the lower deck, putting his family into a closet for whatever safety that may provide while he uses the telegraph to call for help. A sailor receives his SOS and asks who’s calling. Buster identifies as “Damfino” and the sailor assumes it’s a joke, meaning “Damned if I know.” Now the boat is actually spinning in place, really putting his rigged set to the test, and Buster valiantly nails his shoes to the floor so he can keep signaling, but eventually the pancake comes loose and the leak begins to fill the room. Buster’s solution is to drill a hole in the floor so the water can get out, which of course results in an even bigger leak.

Now the boat is doomed, so he takes his family out to the deck and puts them into the bathtub he grabbed at the beginning for a lifeboat. He in unable to join them in time, and goes down with the ship, but as the family mourns his loss, his hat floats over to them and he turns out to be under it. He give one child a drink from his hat while another plays with the stopper, eventually loosing it and the bathtub sinks as the whole family desperately bails. Finally, Keaton kisses his wife and sons goodbye and prepares for the end, but the tub hits bottom and stops sinking. It turns out that they are only in a few feet of water! After a short walk through the water Buster and his family happen upon a deserted beach in dark of night. “Where are we?” asks his wife (via an intertitle), to which Buster replies, “Damn if I know” (mouthing the words to the camera, no intertitle is used).

Buster Keaton was undeniably a comedy genius, but not everything he made works for me today. Here, Keaton gives us a classic “little man” and his innocent family (his two small sons both wear pork pie hats) and instead of having them overcome insurmountable odds (as Harold Lloyd would have done) or at least poke fun at larger bullies (as Charlie Chaplin would have done), he proceeds to destroy all of their worldly possessions and put them in imminent danger of death for the sake of a few cheap gags. There is some impressive film-making here, including the eponymous vehicle, which is capable of spinning around so that Keaton can do some amazing pratfalls, but I find the movie frankly depressing. One can find similar dark currents in other Keaton movies, for example “One Week,” but there the obvious and at times enchanting affection of the two leads makes up for some of the difficulties they suffer. They may be starting out with nothing, but they still have one another. Here, Keaton’s family would frankly be better off without him.

Director: Buster Keaton, Edward F. Cline

Camera: Elgin Lessley

Cast: Buster Keaton, Sybil Seely, Edward F. Cline

Run Time: 24 Min

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

Shot in the Excitement (1914)

This short comedy from Keystone stars Al St. John in an a-typical sympathetic role and uses a familiar story of two country bumpkins vying for the interests of one girl, but escalates to extreme speed and violence before the end. A rather unusual entry in Keystone’s catalog, this holds up in interesting ways today.

The film begins by introducing “the Daughter” (Alice Howell), who is busy whitewashing a fence with her father (Josef Swickard). We then see Al, introduced as “A Suitor” by the intertitles, and carrying a small gift. She eagerly abandons her work to rush over and see him, just as a second suitor (Rube Miller, who is also credited as director) walks up with a small bouquet of flowers for her. He is on the wrong side of the fence, however, and gets an eyeful of whitewash from the father when he tries peeking through a knothole. He then locates Alice and Al, and decides to frighten them by dangling a rubber spider overhead. They interrupt their smooching in shock, but then Al pokes his finger through another knothole, once again getting Rube in the eye. When he tries sticking his finger through, Alice grabs it and bites it, holding him in place long enough for Al to drop a rock on his head. Rube tries throwing a bigger rock over the fence, but winds up hitting Alice, of course. Rube now climbs over the fence and starts fighting with Al, in the process hitting both Alice and her father. The father chases Rube up a ladder and onto a rooftop, where he tries again to hit Al by throwing rainwater and other found objects, but never manages to hit his actual target. Al finds a shotgun and tries to shoot Rube, but only hits the father’s backside, knocking him off the roof. Dad now shoots Rube off the roof, throwing both boys off his property and telling them to keep away from his daughter.

Dejected, Al and Rube head to a nearby park. Al finds a park bench, where he could have a rendezvous with Alice, and Rube finds an old cannon, conveniently pointed at the park bench. He gets some gunpowder together and loads it up, then sets up an elaborate booby trap, placing a triggering device beneath the legs of the bench, so that the cannon will fire when Al sits down. He sends a confederate to give Al a note, ostensibly from Alice, telling him to meet her at the bench. There is a bit of comedic tension, as it looks like Al will sit several times while examining the note, but suddenly Alice walks up and distracts him. Now Rube, concerned that she will sit in the “hot” seat, intervenes, but Al quickly kicks him away. They fight while Alice cheers, until Al knocks Rube out with a rock, causing him to fall back on the bench. The cannonball flies over him and knocks over a couple of nearby Keystone Kops, then flies past Alice and starts chasing her father. Rube manages to launch a second cannonball, which now pursues Al and Alice. Now the Kops come over to arrest him and a wild three-way chase ensues, ending with Rube falling down a cliff, being arrested and everyone being knocked down when the cannonballs finally explode against the cliffside.

The most exciting part of this movie is the chase sequence at the end, which is worthy of a Road Runner cartoon for its silliness and implied violence. The editing between three simultaneous, inter-locked chases works perfectly to ramp of the crescendo of chaotic wildness. Everyone falls over several times. Cannonballs turn around and change direction in order to pursue their quarry. Alice and Al refuse to let go of one another. I would bet that in a theater, this last two and a half minutes would have people laughing so hard their sides hurt. The characterizations are interesting also. Rube’s character reminds me of Al in “Mabel and Fatty Adrift,” although he seems not to want to extend his revenge to killing Alice, she is just collateral damage in trying to take out Al. Al’s character is more like the sort of thing his cousin Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle would specialize in, except Al’s more frenetic in his amorous intentions. Alice Howell is the big success – a somewhat “funny-looking” girl, she is part of the joke as we wonder how desperate these two yokels must be to fight over her. And she is great with the falls, hits, and other physicality. While some people may be put off by the cartoon violence, for my money, this is one of the funnier Keystone comedies.

Director: Rube Miller

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Al St. John, Alice Howell, Rube Miller, Josef Swickard

Run Time: 12 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Great Toe Mystery (1914)

This short comedy from Keystone Studios seems to play upon themes established 11 years earlier in “The Gay Shoe Clerk,” but with a touch of Mack Sennett’s chaotic style thrown in for flavor. It still looks a bit old-fashioned for 1914, possibly deliberately so.

The movie begins with an establishing shot outside of a shoe store. A young lady (Alice Howell) and a man with a silly mustache are standing in front, and he takes her by the arm and leads her inside. We now cut to the interior, where a thin, slightly foppish young man speaks to them. Evidently the first man is buying shoes for himself and his wife. The first shoe clerk summons another over to see to the gentleman, and he leads the lady to the other side of the store, where she sits while the salesman summons another clerk (Charley Chase), this one being flamboyant and feminine in his gestures. She offers him her foot to measure, but he reacts in melodramatic horror to see her toes peeking through the end of a torn stocking. He seems to be lecturing her on hygiene, and she reacts by looking away from him. The husband sees this, and comes over to glare at the clerk. He runs to the back, to get her shoes ready for sale, and decides to put a note in her shoes. He borrows a pen and paper from a female coworker, and then delivers the shoebox to the clearly annoyed lady customer. She and the husband exit the store, evidently arguing about the clerk’s unwanted attentions. They go in separate directions.

The wife returns home (“broken-hearted,” according to an intertitle) and commiserates with her maid (Dixie Chene). She takes a magazine outside to read, discarding the unlucky shoes unopened. Meanwhile, “Mr. Birdie” (the clerk) is now going to the park to for what he hopes to be a rendezvous with a married woman. Of course, he encounters Alice on a park bench, sobbing because of the fight with her husband, and sits next to her, oblivious to her feelings. Now the husband comes home and finds the discarded shoes with the note, vowing to murder the clerk (whom he de-genders as “it” in the intertitles) if he finds them together. The maid is meanwhile flirting with a rather dim-witted young man (possibly a delivery boy, from his attire, or else another servant like a gardener), to the husband’s decided disapproval. The husband rushes out to the park and finds the two of them together, making threatening gestures that the clerk laughs off until he produces a gun and starts shooting at the ground.

Now, a classic Keystone chase begins, and the wife and the maid rapidly enlist the aid of Keystone Kops. Of course, the clerk decides to hide in a chest that the dim-looking servant brings into the house, so now he has no possibility of escape. A comedy routine involves the many steps the servant has to go up (and frequently falls back down) while carrying the chest and tension is held as several people start to open the chest before being distracted by something else. Ultimately, the maid finds him and the chase begins anew, with Birdie hiding in the dumbwaiter, unable to find an unoccupied room to escape into. The Kops now arrive in force, and begin shooting at the servant, not evidently knowing who they are after or why. He hides under the sink, which the Kops promptly shoot full of holes. Finally, the clerk manages to fight everyone off with his handkerchief, knocking over the whole cast, and, snapping his fingers, leaves the house with a rude gesture.

Charley Chase’s performance really makes this movie something special, and it’s very hard for a modern audience not to read his gestures and body language as queer – something which quite possibly could have been intentional on his part, whether or not audiences of 1914 were sophisticated enough to get the joke. That makes it twice as funny that the title of the obvious inspiration of “The Gay Shoe Clerk” had a different meaning at the time. It also struck me with this viewing that the title’s similarity to the other 1903 hit “The Great Train Robbery” (itself basically a well-edited chase movie) might have been intentional as well, meaning that Sennett was lampooning Edison in more than one way here. The editing of this movie keeps it moving effectively, and all of the random elements work together well, with the absurdity of the situation constantly growing, but without giving the audience too much time to reflect on how silly it all is. This is one of the more fun Keystones I’ve seen, in fact and it holds up well enough today.

Director: Charles Avery

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Charley Chase, Alice Howell, Dixie Chene, Chester Conklin, Harry McCoy, Rube Miller

Run Time: 11 Min, 8 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

A Thief Catcher (1914)

This slapstick short from Keystone Studios stars Ford Sterling once again, but this time a bit part is played by newcomer Charlie Chaplin. The complete film has not been preserved, unfortunately, but there’s enough here to get the idea.

The footage begins in a Keystone Kop hq set, with various officers running around and arguing with the desk man. An intertitle precedes the scene with the single word “Yeggmen,” which is odd because usually this would describe criminals and not police. However, shortly afterward we do see three hoodlums, dressed roughly like burglars, having a scrape in a field (one of them is Mack Swain). Swain and his ally push the third man to the ground and take some articles from him. Ford Sterling now walks up to a tree carrying a small dog and a large box that might be a camera. From his reactions, we discern that he is close by and seeing the holdup in the field, although his background looks totally different. The camera cuts to show us the fight is taking place at the edge of a steep cliff – eventually the two ruffians toss the other fellow off from this precipice. Sterling seems to be taking pictures. He puts his hand over the dog’s mouth, giving the impression that it has just barked and given him away, and, sure enough, we see Swain look up and see someone snooping. He and his compatriot come over and Sterling makes a run for it, beginning the chase that defines the rest of the footage.

Sterling’s all wet.

The hoods now produce a gun and Sterling runs through back alleys trying to evade them. In one comic sequence, the hoods grab a large woman behind a sheet, thinking it is Sterling, and in another, a man opens his gate, not realizing that Sterling is hiding on the other side, and throws a bucket of water on him. Eventually, he drops the dog and the camera, but finds himself what looks like a good place to hide, in a shack that unfortunately for him is “the Yegg’s Hangout” according to an intertitle. At this point we get out first glimpses of a star on his chest, which has been hidden beneath his coat all along, suggesting that he was not just an innocent observer, but possibly a cop on the trail of these criminals from the beginning. Having hidden out long enough, he thinks, he tries to leave quietly, only to find the crooks standing right by the front door. He runs around the hideout, looking for a place to hide, and we get a close-up of his face peering from one room into the next after the crooks enter. Eventually, he tries hiding behind one of their jackets, which does not conceal him at all. The chase begins again, confined to the two rooms of the shack, and both bad guys now have guns. It looks like Sterling is through. They toss a coin to decide who will do the honors of killing him.

Chaplin looks like he just ate something nasty throughout the film.

One goes into the room with the gun, while Swain steps out the front door. Now the little dog runs up, seeming completely unafraid when Swain pulls out his gun and shoots at it. Now two cops come up to investigate, and one of them is Chaplin, complete with his tiny mustache. They hassle the hoods and push them around outside the shack while Sterling stays mum, for some reason, still inside. The little dog decides to dig a hole, tunneling into the back of the shack. The hole isn’t big enough for Sterling to get out, but he puts a note on the dog and sends it running. Now the cops and the robbers both come into the shack, and Chaplin is about to open the door to the room where Sterling is hiding, but he whacks him with a broom to prevent anyone coming in. For some reason, this convinces Chaplin and his comrade to leave, rather than breaking the door down to find the violent fugitive. Another mad comic chase ensues in the two rooms of the shack, with Sterling now wrestling the two ruffians to keep from getting shot. The dog gets to the police station and the cops there read the note, piling into a car to race to the rescue. Sterling resorts to biting the leg of the man who is trying to shoot him, then manages to rush out of the shack just before the cops arrive, scaring Swain back inside. Now he and his companion are scampering for a place to hide as the cops rush in. Sterling runs back with a club and hits a cop as he peeks out the front door, knocking all of them down in a heap. Chaplin walks up from behind and apprehends Sterling, and for some reason both of them faint to the ground.

Perhaps the classic Keystone Kops image – right before everyone falls over when the car starts moving.

I think a lot of the mystery of what’s missing can be explained by Sterling’s badge – he’s an undercover cop, possibly known by Chaplin and the others, and that’s why it’s important that they never see him during the various chases, and he always winds up hitting them just as he could be rescued. This device stretches out the comic tension, which on the whole works pretty well. I have a feeling that the “thief catcher” of the title is actually the little dog. Anyway, looked at as a Ford Sterling movie, this is a pretty satisfying one with a lot of action and plenty of opportunities for him to do his famous funny faces and physical reactions. It also stands up as a strong entry in the Keystone Kops series, maybe not quite as good as “Fatty Joins the Force,” but pretty much what we’re looking for in terms of frenetic action and cops getting hit. For Chaplin, it’s a less auspicious appearance, which may explain why it hasn’t been preserved or promoted by his estate. He looks rather angry throughout the movie, and somehow in that uniform he looked more like Hitler than usual to me (audiences at the time would not have made the connection – Adolf Hitler was an obscure man with a larger mustache, based on the few photos that exist). His timing for the pratfalls is excellent, of course, but not better than anyone else in the film. Watch it for Ford Sterling and the Kops, not for Charlie Chaplin.

Director: Ford Sterling

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Ford Sterling, Mack Swain, Charlie Chaplin, Edgar Kennedy, William Hauber, Rube Miller, Phyllis Allen

Run Time: 8 Min, 30 secs (surviving footage)

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

The Speed Kings (1913)

This comedy short from Keystone Studios stars Ford Sterling during the period when he was the hottest commodity on the lot – before the arrival of a certain gentleman with a small mustache – and shows Keystone’s dedication to fast action and taking advantage of real events to build audience interest in a slight story line.

The movie centers around a racetrack, and an ostensible rivalry over Mabel Normand by two real-life race car drivers: Earl Cooper and Teddy Tetzlaff. Sterling plays her father, who favors Cooper, while Mabel shows more interest in Tetzlaff. Neither racer makes any effort at acting or comedy, they are just there to drive and to look interested in Mabel. Ford decides that if he can prevent Teddy from winning the race, Mabel will change her mind, so he pumps air into Teddy’s engine using a device that looks like a pocket telescope. On the day of the race, we see Barney Oldfield and some of the Keystone gang at the fairgrounds, and various onlookers stare at the camera or the performers. The race roars into action and Mabel and Ford watch from the stands. Earl’s car mysteriously stops partway through the race and he and his pit crew have to fix it rapidly so he can get back in.

Soon, Cooper easily takes the lead and it is a duel between the two featured players until Teddy comes up with a burst of speed. Mabel runs out onto the track to cheer him on, much to the consternation of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, who is there with a flag, acting as an official of the race. He and Mabel get into a fight until Sterling shows up and jumps on the larger man, beginning a comic wrestling match between them. Sterling knocks Arbuckle down, then gives a frenetic performance, pretending to be narrowly missed by various cars. After they return to their seats, Teddy’s car also breaks down, but it makes no greater delay than the one Cooper earlier suffered. Still, Cooper wins the race and Mabel goes out to congratulate him. Sterling offers her to Earl Cooper, but Mabel runs over to find Teddy. For some reason, at this point Sterling tackles Arbuckle again, and the movie ends with them fighting while Mabel and Teddy point and laugh. Eventually, they drive off together.

This movie doesn’t make a lot of sense, and while it has a more complex plot than the later “Kid Auto Races,” with Charlie Chaplin, it isn’t as effectively funny as that film. Pretty much all of it comes down to cars and actors moving rapidly across the screen. Ford flails around and bumps into people to provide some humor as we prepare for the race, but much of the middle of the movie is just racing footage, and it’s hard to tell which car is which a lot of the time. Later, he has a dispute with a child who is holding a stick and whacks his hat from time to time, evidently with the encouragement of the other actors. Ford frequently cracks Cooper up with his antics, completely breaking any sense of his being a character in the movie. Arbuckle is mostly wasted, apart from some good pratfalls in the final fight scene. The first time I watched it, I thought I spotted his cousin Al St. John on the grounds, just before his first appearance, but I couldn’t find this again, so I may have just mistaken another skinny man in a hat for him.

Director: Wilfred Lucas

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Ford Sterling, Mabel Normand, Earl Cooper, Teddy Tetzlaff, Barney Oldfield, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Billy Gilbert, Edgar Kennedy, Bert Hunn

Run Time: 8 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Why WIld Men Go Wild (1920)

This somewhat primitive (ahem) comedy short stars Bobby Vernon, looking a bit like Harold Lloyd, and plays on gender norms as perceived in the early Jazz Age. It may have received a limited release at the time as no contemporary reviews of it are known to exist.

The movie begins by showing two men passed out with a hangover, an intertitle quickly interjecting a wry comment on Prohibition. One of the men is Vernon, the other is Jimmie Harrison; the two play characters named Bobby and Jimmy, respectively. A servant comes in and gives Jimmy a pitcher of cold water, then places it on Bobby’s forehead to wake him as well. He also gives Jimmy a note from his father, which disparages his “wild” lifestyle and invites him to bring his roommate for a visit, so that he can assess whether he is a negative influence. Jimmy has the idea that he can dress Bobby up like a nerd in order to reassure his father that he’s on the right track. Vernon doesn’t like the idea, but agrees. The movie then introduces us to Vera Steadman in a bathing suit, she plays Jimmy’s (nameless) sister, and she has fantasies of meeting a “real” man – which to her, means somebody “wild” like her brother. Obviously Bobby, in his uptight outfit (he dresses like a “minister’s son” according to a later intertitle) is not going to make the cut. Of course, he falls for her as soon as he meets her.

Wild, man.

What is Bobby to do? Well, the situation becomes sillier but clearer when sis reads a newspaper story about a local “wild man” who has been terrorizing the neighborhood. This brute, she thinks, would meet her requirements for “caveman love.” Accordingly, Jimmy and Bobby develop a plan: Bobby will dress as the wild man and win her heart. Meanwhile, of course, the real wild man (who looks for all the world like a cartoon cave man) is sneaking around the property, stealing chickens and being chased by a hillbilly with a rifle. Jimmy “warns” sis to keep away and of course she runs straight toward the “wild man,” not even recognizing that it is Bobby. Bobby orders her to build a fire and start cooking dinner; she seems a bit disappointed that this is all the cave man love she is offered. Bobby sneaks off to find Jimmy and they trade outfits – now Bobby can defeat the “wild man” and come to the rescue. They do a bit of a wrestling act and Jimmy’s sister hits him with the club. He and Bobby  run off again and leave her alone, but she sees Jimmy take off his beard as the two laugh about their exploits, and she stalks off in a huff.

Now, of course the real wild man jumps out of the trees at her. She tugs on his beard, expecting to find Jimmy (or Bobby) underneath. this enrages the wild man who grabs her and drags her away. Now the local yokels get an eyeful of Jimmy in his getup and start taking potshots, which in true slapstick fashion always hit in his backside. Bobby sees the wild man and jumps in and fights him. Now Jimmy runs up to his sister, who defends him from the posse, showing them that the wild man they are chasing is just her brother. They ignore the ongoing struggle between Bobby and the wild man right next to them until he comes out on top and presents the wild man for capture. Bobby now reveals his true self to the sister and they embrace.

This film is really not at the level of the brilliant work being done by Keaton, Chaplin, or Lloyd at the time – it’s not even as funny or gag-filled as an early Arbuckle or Max Linder movie. Still, it displays competent story telling with a very simple theme, and is made by William Beaudine, who would go on to better stuff. The sister is probably the most interesting character, since she’s so much a product of 1920s femininity, not at all the kind of girl we saw in earlier comedies. She almost seems like a prototype of a later Clara Bow or Colleen Moore character, but without the pep or any of “It.” Vernon’s best moments come when he’s miming the “minister’s son” for the father, giving a rather femmy performance, complete with limp-wristed hand movements. This represents for the audience his being “tame” while the beard, animal skin and club demonstrate “wildness.” There doesn’t seem to be much in between. It’s interesting that the comedy begins by being about drinking during Prohibition, because no one actually takes a drink for the entire run time.

Director: William Beaudine

Camera: F.G. Ullman

Starring: Bobby Vernon, Jimmie Harrison, Vera Steadman

Run Time: 12 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

A Fishy Affair (1913)

Ford Sterling was the big star on the Keystone lot when this short was produced in April, 1913, and it exploits his famous expressive facial stylings to the fullest, while living up to the usual standard of low-production-values and quick action that is associated with the brand.

The movie takes place on locations that look suspiciously similar to those used in “A Muddy Romance.” Ford sits on the stoop of his house, fiddling with a fishing rod. His wife (Laura Oakley) is inside the house, stashing her savings inside of a stocking. A burglar (Bert Hunn) skulks outside of her window, watching where the loot is hidden. Ford comes in to ask his wife to borrow some money, and while her back is turned, the burglar sneaks in and takes the stocking. Unfortunately for him, a cop (Rube Miller) sees him come out of the window and pursues. Unfortunately for Ford, his wife has no intention of letting him have any of her hard-earned cash. He decides to go fishing.

The robber realizes that he may be hauled in, and tosses the stocking into a pond or puddle, no doubt hoping to collect it when the heat is off. Ford, of course, winds up at that very place with his rod and reel. After some interesting scenes of him catching “little” fishes intercut with underwater images of fish swimming around and occasionally biting the hook, he pulls out the stocking. He’s annoyed to be catching trash, doesn’t notice the money, and tosses it in his catch box. Finally, he catches a “big one,” but it turns out to be a baby alligator, and he runs away from it, into a nest of alligators, knocking down the cop along the way. The cop also winds up at the alligator nest, briefly. When Ford gets home, the whole house is in an uproar, looking for the stolen money. Of course, it doesn’t look good when they find the stocking in Ford’s box. But, just then, the cop rushes in with the burglar, caught, and everything is brought to an amicable conclusion.

I wonder how many takes before this fish hit its mark?

Whenever I watch Ford Sterling, I think about what Charlie Chaplin said about him in his autobiography. He made fun of Sterling for “keeping the crew in stitches” throughout production by talking in his funny German accent during shooting. It seemed like a waste to Charlie, because the audience would never hear it. It always seems to me that keeping laughter going on a comedy set is a pretty good idea, it helps set the tone and keep morale up. Also, I can see Sterling’s lips moving the whole time, and although I can’t hear the accent, I can see from his gestures and actions that he’s keeping up a silly line of discourse, establishing what a clown his character is. Sterling wasn’t in Chaplin’s league, really, but he was good for a few laughs. He has a distinct style and it’s easy to see why he was popular. This movie never really pays off with the kind of chaotic craziness we’d hope for in a Keystone, but it’s a half-reeler that was produced for very little, and it plays well enough, considering.

Director: Mack Sennett

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Ford Sterling, Laura Oakley, Bert Hunn, Rube Miller, William Hauber, Nick Cogley, Dot Farley

Run Time: 6 Min, 11 secs

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

His Trysting Places (1914)

This short movie comes late in Charlie Chaplin’s tenure at Keystone Studios and seems to represent a late attempt by Chaplin to accommodate himself to the limitations imposed on him there. Far from being his best work, it does represent an effort to add a bit of situational humor to the madcap slapstick the studio was known for.

The movie begins with Charlie and Mabel Normand in a small kitchen set, Mabel with a baby in her arms and Charlie sitting close behind her reading a paper. He is constantly placing his arms, feet, etc. on the hot stove, burning himself and disturbing the boiling kettle, and she is having difficulty juggling the baby and her cooking projects. Finally, she gives Charlie the baby, but he seems to have no idea how to hold it safely. He goes into the next room and sets up the baby’s crib, only to place the child on the floor and lean back in the crib himself. Meanwhile, we see a woman (Helen Carruthers) in the lobby of what seems to be a hotel, writing. An intertitle shows her note – an invitation to her lover to meet her in the park at “our little trysting place.” No name for the recipient is given, which is what leads to all of the problems later. Ambrose (Mack Swain) is going out for a walk and agrees to post the note for her, placing it in his long black coat. Mabel has finally lost her patience with Charlie as well, and sends him out with a long black coat. He promises to return with a gift for the child. He stops at a store and buys a baby bottle, much to the amusement of an African American boy sitting outside the shop, who apparently imagines Charlie plans to drink from it.

I have a feeling Charlie got this a lot when he went out in costume.

Both Ambrose and Charlie end up at the same diner, hanging their coats on the same coat rack. Charlie causes chaos with an old man sitting at the counter and soon with Ambrose as well,  who he sits next to at the lunch counter. What begins as a minor dispute over table manners escalates into full scale war. Charlie kicks pretty much everyone in the place, and Ambrose grabs a coat and runs out. Charlie takes his coat as well and gets into a fight with a passerby outside of the diner. Ambrose has found his wife (Phyllis Allen) on a park bench and she comforts him. Charlie returns to Mabel, who is struggling now to juggle the child and her ironing, with much the same results as before. She looks in Charlie’s coat to see what present he has brought the child and finds the note. She concludes that he has been cheating on her. She goes wild and breaks the ironing board over her head. Charlie, thinking she’s gone nuts, grabs the coat and runs out again.

Now Ambrose leaves his coat with his wife for a while and Charlie finds her there and tells her his woes. Mabel is on the hunt, and leaves the baby with a policeman while she goes over to confront Charlie and Phyllis, striking him and strangling her. She kicks Charlie into a garbage pail. Phyllis, now relieved of the assault, finds the bottle in Ambrose’s pocket, and concludes that he has had a baby with another woman (!). Ambrose sees Charlie being beaten by Mabel and comes to offer her his assistance. Once he realizes who Charlie is he becomes afraid, and he winds up getting knocked into the garbage pail. Now the policeman walks up and gives Mabel back the baby, and everyone tries to act natural while he’s there. Ambrose winds up with the baby and when Phyllis sees this, she faints. Mabel shows Charlie the note and Ambrose sees the bottle and he brings the baby and bottle back to Mabel, who now forgives Charlie. Charlie gives the note to Phyllis, who now is doubly angry to find that he is meeting a woman at a trysting place. Mabel and Charlie laugh as she beats him up.

A classic “comedy of errors,” this was cheap to make and less clichéd than the average “park comedy” which Charlie was making for Keystone. I think it’s the only time a baby was brought in, and the child actually manages to be funny even though he probably had no idea what was going on. Given all his clumsy foolishness, there is a sense in the opening that Charlie will burn the child on the stove, which adds to the comedic tension that is released every time he does something else. Of course, Chaplin is in perfect control all the time, and didn’t put the child at risk even though it seems at any moment that he might. Each piece of this movie could be from an earlier Keystone – it begins much like “Mabel’s Married Life,” moves through “His Favorite Pastime” and ends on “The Rounders.” But, Chaplin is building upon the material in each episode, looking for new gags and new situations to improve on what he’s done before. The end result is quite satisfying. There is good use of editing and multiple camera angles, with especial emphasis on two-shots, as when Chaplin and Swain are sitting at the lunch counter, or when Chaplin and Mabel are on the bench in the park. The one piece that doesn’t work for me, surprisingly, is Mabel Normand’s performance, which seems unusually hammy and over-acted to me. It’s surprising because I usually enjoy her work. They’d had problems working together in the past, and maybe this came out on the set in some way, and Chaplin just had to live with the results.

One odd discrepancy about this movie is the title. Every print I’ve seen says “His Trysting Places,” but Wikipedia, imdb, and The Silent Era (which is usually authoritative) all call it “His Trysting Place.” I’ve gone with what I’ve seen in the credits, but I’m not sure why this uncertainty exists.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand, Mack Swain, Phyllis Allen, Helen Carruthers, Glen Cavender, Nick Cogley, Ted Edwards, Vivian Edwards, Edwin Frazee, Billy Gilbert, Frank Hayes.

Run Time: 20 Min, 44 secs

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

His Musical Career (1914)

Fans of classic comedy will find something familiar in this early short from Keystone Studios starring Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin plays a worker in a piano shop who must make a difficult delivery, but gets the addresses confused…

The movie begins with Chaplin, in his “Little Tramp” getup, applying for a job from store manager Mack Swain. Swain seems a bit concerned at Chaplin’s slight build, but puts him to the test by having him hoist a growler of beer over his head. Charlie succeeds, but spits out the beer when Mack smacks him on the back. Then Charlie lines up the can of beer next to an identical can of varnish while Swain’s back is turned, and of course Mack takes a sip from the wrong one. Charlie helps relieve his distress by splashing the rest of the beer on him. Meanwhile, salesman Charley Chase is selling a piano in the front room to “Mr. Rich” (Fritz Schade) and informs “Mr. Poor” (Frank Hayes) who has fallen behind on his payments, that his piano will be repossessed. Hayes really hams things up as the music-loving Mr. Poor. Charlie tries to nap on a piano keyboard while Mack is out speaking with Chase. It turns out that the two customers have very similar addresses.

Mack and Charlie now go to work on trying to deliver the piano. Although it is on wheels, they try to attach a length of rope. Charlie hoists the piano briefly while Mack gets under it to tie the rope on, but then he just lowers it on top of Mack and takes his time in removing it. Eventually, they push it over to a rickety old cart attached to a mule, then hoist it aboard. Charlie gets into the driver’s seat and Mack climbs on next to him, cradling another beer growler. Swain naps during the drive and Charlie spoons out some beer with his pipe. When they stop for a moment so that Mack can check the piano, the weight of the piano lifts the mule’s feet off the ground. He has to put his weight back onto the front of the cart before the mule can proceed. They pull up to the address of Mr. Poor, thinking it is Mr. Rich. Of course, there is a long staircase they have to climb with the piano, Mack pulling in front, Charlie lifting and pushing from behind. Of course, the piano tumbles down on top of Charlie before they can reach the top. Finally, they bring it into the house, to the delight of Mr. Poor and his daughter, and Charlie has it strapped to his back, moving from one part of the small room to another while they make up their minds where it should go.  Once it has been placed, Charlie cannot straighten his back. Mack yanks him several times, but then fixes the problem by laying Charlie on the floor and pushing on his backside with his foot.

Now they head over to the other address, a beautiful California house, and spend a good deal of time rearranging the furniture in order to get the piano they find there out. Mrs. Rich (Cecile Arnold) comes out to find what they are doing. Charlie and Mack both vie for her attention, and she seems quite put out by them. She summons a liveried servant, whom Mack pushes to the ground before they remove the piano. Charlie does several pratfalls before Mr. Rich walks up, indignant, and accuses them of stealing it. He gives Mack a boot in the pants, which sends him, the piano, and Charlie rolling down the long hill in front of his house. All three land in the lake used in the finales of so many other Keystone shorts.

Laurel and Hardy fans are most likely familiar with a 1932 movie called “The Music Box,” in which Stan & Ollie have to deliver a piano to a house at the top of a long stairwell. In fact, variations on this theme have been made a number of times in cinema, but so far as I know this is the first. In comparison, Laurel and Hardy milked that situation for a lot more laughs than Charlie did, but in fairness they had many more years of experience with film comedy at that time, as well as the benefit of all the developments of film technique and technology that happened in between. It does seem that this movie demonstrates a bit more of Charlie realizing his own potential, and that of his character, here towards the end of his contract with Keystone. We also see evidence of his growing popularity. Quite a number of pedestrians are visible in a crowd, staring at Swain and Chaplin as they hoist the piano onto the cart, and even men from a passing streetcar turn to stare. Evidently it was getting harder to shoot a Chaplin film without drawing a crowd. Swain and Chaplin seem to have really found their groove working together as well, with the contrast between the big man and the little one emphasized to comedic effect. Chaplin makes good use of simple editing techniques to tell the story, such as cross-cutting from the salesroom to the shop, and editing together the precipitous fall down the hill at the end. There’s an interesting shot during the drive as well, where the camera has been placed on top of the mule’s back to give a two-shot of the stars, while we watch the street go by on the sides. This wouldn’t have been easy to set up at a time when the camera had to be hand-cranked, but cinematographer Frank D. Williams must have made it work somehow, possibly by dragging the cart behind a truck so that he had a platform to stand on.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Mack Swain, Fritz Schade, Charley Chase, Cecile Arnold, Frank Hayes, Helen Carruthers, Billy Gilbert

Run Time: 13 Min

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

Gentlemen of Nerve (1914)

This short from Keystone seems to be yet another remake of Charlie Chaplin’s first appearance as the Little Tramp, but also demonstrates how far he had come as a director in a few months. He and the Keystone gang are once again at a racetrack, causing a ruckus.

The movie begins with Chester Conklin and Mabel Normand showing up together at the gate, while Mack Swain and Charlie both try to sneak past the guards to get in. Chester seems very jealous to protect Mabel from harassment by Mack, but has a decidedly roving eye once he sits down next to Phyllis Allen. Early in the picture, we get some actuality footage of drivers competitively changing tires as a part of the races. Meanwhile, after a brief confrontation, Charlie and Mack have teamed up t find a way into the races without paying. They find a loose board in the fence and try to slip through, but Mack is of course much too large and quickly gets stuck. Charlie tires pushing him through from behind, then crawls in through his legs and tries pulling from the other side. A group of revelers is on this side, watching their struggles with amusement. Charlie helps one of them fix a drink, then uses the spritzer to prevent a cop (Edgar Kennedy) from arresting Mack, who finally breaks through. He also sprays Mack in the process. They go their separate ways, and soon Charlie runs into Chester and Mabel.

Just don’t fart, Mack!

Mabel has gotten Chester away from Phyllis, but now she shows an interest in Charlie. They fight in front of a big crowd, most of whom seem to be more interested in Charlie than the races. Chester and Mabel go back to their seats near Phyllis, and get into a fight as well. Charlie finds a seat near Alice Davenport, who seems interested in him until he steals her soda, then starts offering it to other women. Soon Mabel trips over Charlie’s feet, and he seems uncertain which woman to focus on, especially after Mabel ruins his hat. Mabel and Charlie go to look at a race car with a propeller, and soon Charlie is running around the track to avoid getting hit. Chester now insults Phyllis by whispering something in her ear, and she hits him and he runs away, now discovering Mabel and Charlie together. He threatens violence against Mabel, and Charlie takes a long time removing his coat before hitting him. The cop finds Mack and arrests him just as Chester blunders into him from Charlie’s blow and both are taken in while Mabel and Charlie laugh in a close two-shot.

While this movie takes some advantage of the crowds and location of the race track, a lot of it is shot under much more controlled circumstances than “Kid Auto Races at Venice” and it more closely resembles “Mabel’s Busy Day,” except that Mabel and Charlie end up together, rather than as rivals. It’s very easy to see from the scenes with Chaplin in them that he was now a recognizable figure in public, and that the public was eager to watch him. I always remember when I watch these early Chaplins that many critics called him “vulgar” and I certainly thought about this during the scenes in which Charlie tries to push Mack through the fence, often by shoving on his buttocks or pushing them with a stick. There’s even some talk that the women in these movies could have been portraying sex workers, given their ready willingness to flit from one stranger to another, although Phyllis obviously wasn’t willing to go as far as Chester wanted on a first meeting. It seems as if Charlie had figured out by now that his Little Tramp character was the sympathetic one for audiences – he almost always comes out ahead in every situation here, while Mack and Chester are foils for his gags.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand, Chester Conklin, Mack Swain, Alice Davenport, Edgar Kennedy

Run Time: 15 Min

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