Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: USA

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.

Charlie on the Farm (1919)

This very slight early cartoon uses Charlie Chaplin’s image and a familiar setting to evoke movies like “The Tramp” without actually involving Chaplin or using any of his gags. It is similar to some others we’ve seen, like “Charlie on the Windmill” and “Charlie and the Indians.”

A lightly-sketched background shows a train pulling out of a tunnel into a rural landscape. The train pulls into a station and one of the boxcars opens up, ejecting Charlie, who is being booted unceremoniously off by a railroad worker. He dusts himself off and walks away. He comes to a fence, from which he watches the courtship of a chicken. She is attracted to the rooster, who asks to marry her, but refuses to give up his other girlfriends, so she tries to get the duck to move in. He agrees, and says he would be happy to help raise a family, until she calls in her many children. He flies out of the window and into the distance. Now Charlie sees a man hanging a sign announcing a need for farm hands. Charlie applies for the job. The farmer tells him to milk the cows. Charlie doesn’t know how it’s done, so he takes off his coat and hat and turns the cows’ tails like they are cranks. He sees a milkmaid milking nearby, and watches as the cow’s stomach goes from full to empty, but fails to learn anything; he just goes on cranking. He then tries turning the tail of a bull, which of course chases him until he gets stuck in a knothole in the fence, then butts him so he flies through the air. He bounces off the backside of a caricatured African American laundress and flies back to the other side of the fence, where he sees a pig’s tail, and above it the head of a woman. He’s confused until he looks over the fence to see that the girl is in a hammock above the pig.

Charlie reports back to the farmer who tells him to dress some poultry for dinner, so he puts fancy clothes on them and brings them to the house, where they all eat at the table. The caricatured maid takes advantage of their presence to get some eggs for her cake. Now Charlie gets ready for bed after a hard day’s work, but the night sounds of the countryside keep him awake. He looks out his window to cats howling on the fence and frogs croaking out, “work! Work! Work!” in the pond. Before he can even get in bed, the farmer knocks on his door to get him started on the morning chores. Charlie leaps out his window, retrieves his hat and coat from where he left them outside and runs off. Seeing a sign that promises easy work on another farm, he runs away again, not willing to be bitten twice.

These cartoons were produced by Universal without Chaplin’s approval, but unlike some of the live “imitators,” he couldn’t get court approval to shut them down under copyright law at the time. The bare-bones images and unimaginative gags probably didn’t do much for his brand, but they did keep his image in the public view at a time when he wasn’t producing much. It’s odd that the writers spent so much time on the chickens, ducks, and other farm animals, rather than Charlie’s antics. Possibly they couldn’t come up with enough ideas, not having seen “The Tramp” for several years themselves. It seems to me as if animation still had a long way to go before Walt Disney and other animators caught it up to live-action cinema as a form of entertainment.

Director: Pat Sullivan

Run Time: 10 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).

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)

October’s over, but wait! We still have one more centennial to add to our history of horror. This is my contribution to the “Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon,” hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Please check back there in the coming week for more of the entries.

This version of the classic Robert Louis Stevenson tale stars John Barrymore, whose reputation as an actor was already well-established, both on the stage and screen at this point, though some of his greatest triumphs in cinema were yet to come. This movie begins by introducing Dr. Henry Jekyll hard at work over his microscope, boasting to a skeptical colleague (Charles Lane as Dr. Lanyon) that science can conquer any mystery. The insert shots of micro-organisms may have been the first that many 1920s audiences had seen. Dr. Lanyon accuses him of meddling with the supernatural, and his butler Poole (George Stevens) comes in to remind him of his shift at the clinic and a later dinner date. We see the “human repair shop” which the charitable Jekyll runs to treat the poor of London. Interestingly, his home and the clinic appear to be on the same crowded London street, suggesting that a sumptuous home could be shouldered up against poverty in that time and place (the movie appears to be set, as the story is, in the late 19th Century).

Read the rest of this entry »

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).

The Penalty (1920)

Lon Chaney established himself as the master of makeup and evil characters with this crime-horror feature after years in cinema, developing his range and honing his abilities. His character’s complexities lead to a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of a man driven by revenge and evil.

The movie begins with a classic supervillain-origin-story: a child who has been in an accident is under the care of a young, freshly-minted doctor (Charles Clary), who amputates both his legs beneath the knees. When the doctor’s mentor arrives on the scene, he pronounces the amputations unnecessary, and the child learns of his disfigurement by overhearing them, then witnesses both doctors lying to his parents to cover up the mistake. Thus are the seeds of insanity sown. The boy grows up to become known as “Blizzard,” the chief of the criminal underworld in San Francisco. We first see him in his new role after a goon named Frisco Pete (Jim Mason) kills a streetwalker called Barbary Nell (Doris Pawn) in a dance hall. Pete runs back to Blizzard’s hideout and beat cops wisely choose to look the other way when they realize who is behind it. We learn that Nell has “wandered” from Blizzard’s gang, perhaps because for some strange reason he has put all of his girls to work in a sweatshop making hats. Read the rest of this entry »