Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: USA

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.

Wanted: A Nurse (1915)

This short comedy from the team of Mr. & Mrs. Sidney Drew plays on stereotypes about nurses – but also pokes fun at the men who promote those stereotypes. While it’s not an especially sophisticated example of situational comedy, it does once again demonstrate that slapstick wasn’t the only option available to the silent comedian.

Sidney plays J. Robert Orr, a seemingly idle rich “club man” who spends his evenings in card games. One day, while walking down the street, he witnesses man having a medical emergency, which is attended to by a pretty young nurse, Helen Worth (Mrs. Drew). They exchange glances, but soon the ambulance arrives and she is whisked away. Orr is so obsessed with her that the four queens in his hand turn into images of the nurse. He fixes himself a drink and comes up with a plan, suddenly throwing himself across the table, convincing his friends that he needs medical attention. He is taken to the hospital, but when the doctor comes in to examine him, he cries, “I don’t want a doctor, I want a NURSE!” However, Helen is out of the hospital right now, attending a serious case. So, several other nurses are sent in, one at a time. Each of them is ugly, fat, old, or mannish, and he is increasingly agitated. Finally, he dresses as  a nurse to escape via the fire escape, and returns to the club. His friends now think he has gone nuts, so they take him to another doctor, who pronounces that he has “nurse-itis.” He goes to get Helen to help attend the case, and Orr hides beneath the covers, terrified of what he may see. When he sees it is her, he softens and smiles. A quick edit covers his recuperation, and he proposes to the girl, who gladly accepts. The end.

The fact that the stars really were married may have helped soften the blow of this premise of this movie, which essentially involves a man stalking a girl he saw once and ignoring the professional qualifications of her and her colleagues, seeing them only as “ugly” or “pretty.” For modern viewers, however, it doesn’t help that Sidney is a good 20 years older than his wife (whose name I always think of as “Nancy,” for obvious reasons, but it was really “Lucille”). He does a pretty good freak out over the disappointment, and one does laugh a bit at his antics, but as I said, it’s not terribly witty. The movie also cross-cuts between his torment and Helen’s actual work, but this serves no obvious purpose, except to remind the audience of the real object of his quest. Certainly not the worst movie of 1915, but not the best, either.

Director: Sidney Drew

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Sidney Drew, Lucille Drew, Ethel Lee, Mary Maurice

Run Time: 12 Min

I have not found the whole move for free on the Internet. You can watch a short clip of it: here.

Where Are My Children (1916)

Crusading filmmaker Lois Weber presents a movie dealing with very modern “women’s issues” – birth control and abortion – but with a sensibility that will strike most as decidedly un-modern and possibly anti-feminist. The movie was censored and criticized at the time, but nevertheless made over 3 million dollars at the box office (a tidy sum at the time), probably in part due to the controversy it stirred.

The movie begins with a somewhat contradictory disclaimer from Universal, the studio that produced it. The studio “believes that children should not be admitted to see this picture…but if you bring them it will do an immeasurable amount of good.” Then, Weber launches into one of her over-strained metaphors, ala the “naked truth” from “Hypocrites.” Here, we see the gates of Heaven open to where little souls of unborn children eagerly await to come down to earth and take on human form. Well, we sort of see it. Actually on the print I saw it was mostly a blurry brown field.  Anyway, apparently these souls are divided among “chance” children, “unwanted” children, and “those who were sent forth only on prayer.” Apparently, only this third kind are “fine and strong,” while the others could be defective or even “marked with the sign of the Serpent.”

With this confusing lesson firmly in mind, we now meet the hero of our story, Richard Walton (Tyrone Power), who is a District Attorney and “a great believer in eugenics.” He is a firm and upright-looking man, who looks in on a courtroom processing minor cases and scoffs that only the “ill-born” wind up in such places. Meanwhile, his wife (Helen Riaume, Power’s wife in real life as well) lies on a divan in the sunshine, eating chocolates and snuggling with lap dogs. We learn that she is childless, a source of great sorrow to Walton, who spends his time playing with his sister’s “eugenically born” baby and watching the neighbor children playing on the lawn. Walton prosecutes a case against a doctor (C. Norman Hammond) who works in the slums and has been caught distributing literature in favor of birth control. He strikes an obvious chord with Walton when he claims that unwanted children are the cause of misery and crime.

This world of serious concerns and solutions to the world’s problems is contrasted with the frivolous existence of his wife, who now goes to visit a friend (Marie Walcamp) who seems to be ill. She confides in Mrs. Walton that she is expecting, and Mrs. Walton tells her that she knows how she can get rid of the child, in order to go back to the world of garden parties and socializing. She brings her friend to the seedy office of one “Dr. Malfit” (Juan de la Cruz). Here, the “unwanted” child is sent back up to its heavenly source. Mrs. Walton goes home and blithely ignores her husband’s obvious pining after the neighbor children.

Now, Mrs. Walton’s brother Roger (A.D. Blake) comes to visit, coincidentally on the same day that the housekeeper’s daughter Lillian (Rena Rogers) returns from school. Roger takes an immediate and unsavory interest in Lillian, who shyly looks away from his lascivious glances. But, as they are staying under one roof, Roger gradually wears her down and soon the two are meeting clandestinely in the garden to kiss. Eventually, Roger comes to his sister with a problem – he needs to help Lillian out or he might have to marry her. Sis knows what’s up and sends him, and Lillian, to Dr. Malfit. Unfortunately, Dr. Malfit seems to do less well with young, innocent, lower-class girls than he did with the frivolous social butterflies, and he “bungles” the operation. Lillian makes it home in a cab, only to die a short while later in the Waltons’ home.

Mr. Walton, outraged at the circumstances, throws Roger out of his house and pursues an aggressive prosecution of Dr. Malfit, who tries to save his skin by threatening Mrs. Walton, but the judge refuses to have the names of his clients paraded in the court room. Mr. Walton does get a look at the book where Malfit has been recording his clients, however, and gets an eye-opener. He returns home, where the ladies are holding another house party, and announces that now he knows why so many of them lack children. He should, he says, prosecute them for manslaughter, but he contents himself with throwing them out of the house. When one tries to protest, he points out her name in Dr. Malfit’s register. Then he turns to his wife and asks the titular question. She slumps in disgrace. There is then a brief chilling epilogue where we see them aging in front of a fireplace, embittered and alone, while ghostly specters of their unborn children come out to them and show what could have been.

The interlacing of eugenics, abortion, and birth control might give modern viewers pause, but it was a fairly typical approach at the time. Margaret Sanger had recently made headlines across the country when arrested for distributing “indecent literature” similar to Dr. Homer in this movie, and her arguments were based not only on women’s rights but also on race improvement and the prevention of immoral abortion to get rid of unwanted children. Lois Weber wields this argument with the subtlety of a sledge hammer, and even goes further to suggest that “fit” rich white women are abusing abortion to prevent healthy children from coming into the world. Since Mr. Walton is the righteous victim, it even appears that she is arguing that a man knows best what is good for his wife and the world, and that women should not be included in the decisions that directly affect their own bodies.

That said, I think I see another argument being made here, one which seems less out of place for a crusading female director. The real problem in this movie is in the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Walton, in what was known at the time as the “separation of the spheres.” Neither one has a clue what is important to the other, nor do they work to understand. Mr. Walton lives in his male sphere of work and law and “big ideas” while Mrs. Walton lives in a world of dogs, chocolate, and house parties. If they would at least talk to one another, they might be able to figure out how to create a partnership that would satisfy each of them. Instead, Mrs. Walton surreptitiously aborts her pregnancies and Mr. Walton ignorantly condemns her for it. The real tragedy is that any sense of love or even friendship seems missing in them from the very beginning of the film. It is this separation that leads to their ultimate fate of sitting, glaring at one another for the rest of their lives, unable even to speak the words of accusation each deserves to hear.

Beyond its didactic aspects, the movie is fairly dull by 1916 standards. The only character who really develops at all is Lillian, who goes from being completely innocent to naively in love to dying and then dead. Everyone else remains exactly the same as they are from beginning to end, except that Mr. Walton is a lot angrier by the end (he’s still the same man, though). Lillian is also the only character who gets much of my sympathy, either. Mr. Walton is too caught up in his beliefs to notice that his wife doesn’t share them and Mrs. Walton isn’t even interested enough to notice that he wants a child until it is too late. I’ve already observed that the opening “effects” sequence is unimpressive and while the double exposures at the end work well enough, they’re pretty much old hat by 1916. The editing is just passable, and there are no very interesting lighting effects or camera movements. The movie is of historical interest, not least because of the controversy it generated at the time (and probably does today), but it has little to offer in the way of entertainment.

Director: Lois Weber

Camera: Allen G. Siegler and Stephen S. Norton

Starring: Tyrone Power, Helen Riaume, A.D. Blake, Marie Walcamp, Juan de la Cruz, Rena Rogers, Cora Drew, C. Norman Hammond.

Run Time: 1 Hr, 5 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Max Wants a Divorce (1917)

One of three movies Max Linder made at Essanay before that studio’s final demise, this movie shows his talents and charm effectively, but apparently was not a hit with audiences of the time. Possibly its “European” themes of divorce, infidelity and jealousy did not sit well with Americans, but I found it a lot of fun.

As the movie begins, Max is cuddling with a girl (Martha Mansfield) still in a bridal veil from their recent marriage. The honeymoon comes to a rapid end, however, when a maid comes in to deliver Max a letter from a lawyer telling him that he stands to inherit three million dollars if he is single on his upcoming birthday. He quickly realizes that it will be in both his and his bride’s interest if they can get a divorce, but her response is to smash various vases and other breakable objects when he proposes it, most of them by throwing them at Max himself. He calms her down by promising to buy a string of pearls and to re-marry her as soon as the money is secured. Then they have to work out a plan to establish “grounds” for the divorce. He tells her that he will seduce a woman of her choosing, and she can send in a detective to catch them in the act.

Max and his wife go out to a very stylish dance and she proposes a large, older woman as his target, but Max vetoes this and chooses a young blonde (Francine Larrimore) instead. His efforts to woo her are interrupted by bursts of his wife’s jealousy, including her throwing a pastry in his face. He manages to get rid of her long enough to at least get the young lady’s phone number. He and his wife secure an apartment for the rendezvous, and she hires a detective over the phone, confusing him slightly when she checks with Max to confirm the time of the affair. He calls from home, once again incurring the jealousy of his wife who interrupts the phone call as well, but she agrees to meet him there. Meanwhile, an “experimental psychologist (Ernest Maupain), driven from his residence by noise complaints from the neighbors, takes on the apartment across the hall. He arranges to have various lunatics come and meet him there, including a man who thinks he’s a car, a butterfly catcher, and a “ballet master” (the last is played by Leo White).

On the night of the date, Max’s wife decides she can’t bear to let this happen outside of her sight, so she puts on a silly disguise and pretends to be a maid. Each time Max and the girl start canoodling, she comes into the room and asks if they need anything. The girl gets more and more uncomfortable, but Max insists she stay until five. The detective goes into the wrong apartment and is put in the room with the “loonies.” Finally, Max, the mistress, and the wife get into a roaring argument, which gets the psychiatrist’s attendants to investigate, and they wind up getting thrown into the loony bin as well. Finally, Max winds up with a large “diva” (Mathilde Comont) and the detective takes notes for his wife. Exhausted, Max and wife return home, where they are greeted by the maid with a new letter. The lawyer apologizes for his mistake, the terms of the will state that he must be married, not single, in order to inherit. Oops!

This movie is a very good example of Linder’s more sophisticated, situational comedy style, and confirms once again that slapstick was not the only form of humor known to the early silent screen. While not as urbane and witty as an Ernst Lubitsch film, it reminded me a bit of his style. I was surprised at the quality of the cinematography, including silhouettes, clever lighting, and many close-ups. This is unusually sophisticated filmmaking for a 2-reel comedy of the time. In terms of acting, the wife’s jealousy was very over-the-top, however. I think a Lubitsch character would have chosen to get even by finding a lover of her own, rather than constantly undermining her own interests by making it harder for Max to come up with grounds for the divorce. I was also surprised when the detective pulled out a notepad rather than a camera to “catch” Max in the act – technological assumptions were different in those days, obviously! The highpoint of the humor, though, is all of the chaos the various “crazy” characters create. The fellow pretending to be a car was a riot, and the “ballet master” managed to be wonderfully incompetent in his constant pirouettes and leaps. Not especially sensitive (or realistic) in terms of its handling of mental illness, this movie manages to be quite funny as a result.

Director: Max Linder

Camera: Arthur Reeves

Starring: Max Linder, Martha Mansfield, Francine Larrimore, Ernest Maupain, Leo White, Helen Ferguson, Mathilde Comont

Run Time: 27 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Courage of the Commonplace (1913)

This short, thoughtful film from Vitagraph busts many of our ideas about the Nickelodeon era by proving that it was possible to treat movies as serious “art” before sound, outside of the feature-length format, and even if your name wasn’t D.W. Griffith. While it’s not exactly a happy story, it has an uplifting message about the values of simple people.

The film takes place almost entirely on the confines of a small dirt farm that reeks of poverty and hard work. The star of the film (Mary Charleson), called Mary, seems to have endless chores and tasks to perform. As soon as she finishes one grueling activity, another one rises up in its place. We first see her moving a heavy tub of water when her two younger brothers run up, apparently having hurt themselves. She tends their wounds and we see that they are barefoot. She hauls off the bucket, and the next we see of her, she is hanging laundry to dry, presumably after washing it by hand. She comes into the house to find that her old, tired mother (Loyola O’Connor) needs help setting out the dinner for an entire brood of kids and the aging, wiry father (Charles Bennett). Then Mary’s “frivolous sister” (Myrtle Gonzalez) comes bouncing in. She is, really, the one ray of light in the film, wearing a smile more often than any other character, and also light-colored (if still very simple) dresses.

The next day, several important plot elements are added rapid-fire. First, we see Mary collecting eggs for sale at the market – her source of personal income. We also see the father driving his old horses to plow a field. One of them, “faithful old Dobbin,” has become ill. Finally, we see what Mary is saving up for, she receives a letter informing her of her acceptance to the “Household and Fine Arts School” at a reduced tuition. All of this comes quite rapidly within the first five minutes of the movie, and the rest plays out as you might expect. The “frivolous” sister goes on dates with a boy and goes to the movies, while Mary continues her life of drudgery, now interspersed with daydreams of a relatively idle academic life where she sits on well-trimmed lawns discussing Big Ideas with well-dressed people and plays tennis with boys. Then, on the day she is to leave, the horse dies, which will leave the family ruined. Of course, Mary swallows her dreams and gives the money to her father to buy a new horse.

That simple summary does not transmit the poignancy or effectiveness of this movie. Its emotional pull didn’t diminish for me on repeat viewings – I started tearing up as soon as Mary’s letter arrived the third time through. It isn’t through any kind of fancy editing or camerawork that this movie becomes powerful, it’s just through its ability to tell a simple story that shows the viewer something old in a new way. That’s not to say that the technical side is a failure, there are adequate edits and occasional close-ups to emphasize the emotional state of the actors, but these work subtly, without being obvious or obtrusive. When they happen, it just “feels right” as if the director knew what would work without having to experiment heavily.

Of course, something like this wouldn’t work without high quality acting, and Mary Charleson provides most of the emotional work the viewer sees. She constantly looks as if she struggles to finish the current task, only to look up immediately to see what else needs to be done. This is in counterpoint to her wistful looks of anticipation regarding her school plans, her plan of escape. The other actors each have a simple archetype to play out – the spoiled sister, the weary mother, the worried yet oblivious father, and all the hungry mouths to feed of the many siblings. But they take their roles seriously, and put real feeling into them. Particularly Gonzalez, whose smile almost lights up the bleakness of the farm, even though we know she doesn’t deserve happiness as much as Mary does. Vitagraph almost seems to scold its audience when the frivolous sister attends a Nickelodeon screening one of their movies, yet who would choose to be Mary rather than the sister?

Director: Rollin S. Sturgeon

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Mary Charleson, Charles Bennett, Loyola O’Connor, Myrtle Gonzalez, Edwin August

Run Time: 13 Min

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

The Hazards of Helen, episode 13 (1915)

Alternate (episode) Title: Escape on the Fast Freight

This episode of what the long-running movie serial displays Helen Holmes at the height of her powers as “Helen,” a plucky telegrapher who winds up saving the day – again. If reports are accurate, she was also an uncredited director, making this an even more important piece of the history of women in film.

This movie begins with Helen at work. She receives and decodes a message, then gets up and pulls a switch that brings a locomotive to a halt in the station outside. As she accepts a large strongbox of money from the conductor, two shifty-looking tramps look on. They are thrown off the train by a man with a badge, who then comes over and assists Helen with the cart carrying the money box. They get it into her office, but neglect to bring the receipt, which the tramps find, learning that there’s $1500 in the office. Helen and the sheriff are unable to get the large box into her safe, so they leave it on the floor. As soon as the sheriff leaves, the tramps rush in with a gun. A rather complex cross-cut sequence begins with the sheriff outside, the tramps in the office, and Helen inside of a closet, where the tramps have shoved her after securing the room. They find the key and open the box, but Helen starts shouting for help. The sheriff doesn’t hear, but he does hear the gunshot that the tramps respond with. Helen, we see, has ducked just in time. Whew!

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