Reviews of ALL 50 FILMS on the Mack Sennett Collection
The following are reviews of all 50 films on The Mack Sennett Collection. A review of the three-disc blu ray itself is also on this web page. The films are listed in the order as they appear in the collection, which is also chronological. These movies are very important to cinema's history and development.
“The Curtain Pole”
(Released February 15, 1909)
Directed by D.W. Griffith. Written by Mack Sennett.
Cast: Mack Sennett, Harry Solter, and Florence Lawrence
Running Time: 10:02
The first film on the new Mack Sennett Collection from CineMuseum is a fascinating portent to what Sennett would later make his comic framework. It was made at the Biograph studio, where Sennett worked as an actor, a writer, and later a director. It was at Biograph where Sennett learned the rudiments of the filmmaking process, and was inspired to create visual comedy. “The Curtain Pole” is clearly inspired by the French farce that represented screen comedy at the turn of the century, but Sennett’s ideas for frantic action bring the visual humor to a new level.
Sennett plays DuPont, a Frenchman who is visiting friends that are putting up curtains. A curtain rod breaks, so DuPont insists on going to the store and buying a new one. The gist of the subsequent film concentrates on DuPont’s attempt to get the bulky, cumbersome curtain rod back to the house. It is not heavy, but does not bend, and DuPont has a great deal of trouble manipulating the item without banging into something or someone.
“The Curtain Pole” is important because it is a very early example of Sennett taking a comic premise and building upon it with layers of humorous events, concluding with a chase scene. DuPont at first is merely a mild intrusion as he makes his way down the street with the pole. But soon he is accosting enough people along the way that they start to chase him. The crowd chasing him slowly builds with each person he hits, so DuPont hops into a horse drawn carriage in an attempt to hurry to his destination. As the carriage gallops along the street, DuPont sits with the pole extended sideways across his lap, sticking out on either side. The ends of the pole, rushing past, manage to topple a vegetable cart, a man on a ladder, and others, each of these people joining the ever-growing crowd that is still chasing after DuPont, and the carriage, on foot. When he finally loses the crowd and reaches his destination, DuPont discovers that the original curtain pole has been repaired, the drapes are up, and he went through all of that for nothing.
“The Curtain Pole” introduces its premise immediately, builds upon it creatively, accelerates its pace, and ends with a frustratingly funny conclusion. These are the basics of many Keystone subjects. Director D.W. Griffith was much more attracted to melodrama than comedy, but this was shot during a time when he was realizing how much more one could do with the camera. Griffith’s vision throughout this comedy, especially the chase sequence, is fascinating. There is usually some level of movement in the background, while the foreground is the main focus. He frames shots of a barren street, holding the shot for just enough seconds, before the carriage comes galloping into the frame, sometimes from around the corner, followed by the crowd giving chase. Griffith would experiment with ideas like the close-up, etc, to further enhance character development in movies like “Musketeers of Pig Alley” (1911) and would reach the level of epic cinema with “Birth of a Nation “ (1915) and “Intolerance” (1916). Here he is responding more specifically to Sennett’s comic perspective, using his directorial prowess to spotlight the gag sequences most effectively.
“The Curtain Pole” still holds up over 100 years later. It is still funny and exciting. One can only imagine how thrilling it must have been for audiences of 1909. It is the perfect film to open the three-disc Mack Sennett blu ray collection.
“The Manicure Lady”
Released May 18, 1911. Directed by Mack Sennett. Written by Edwin August.
Cast: Mack Sennett, Vivian Prescott, Eddie Dillon, and Kate Bruce.
Running time: 11 minutes.
The second film on CineMuseum’s Mack Sennett Collection is another Biograph release made before Mack Sennett formed his own Keystone company. Sennett’s films for Biograph were, for the most part, much more restrained than those he would make at Keystone. His wild slapstick ideas would be more evident when he was able to assume full creative control.
“The Manicure Lady” features Sennett as a barber with some interest in one of the girls doing manicures at his shop (Vivian Prescott). She flirts with male customers, who become so distracted by her, they will often get out of the barber chair and decide upon a manicure over a haircut. Sometimes, the men’s wives will take them out by the ear, abruptly ending the flirtation. The manicurist is really only having a bit of innocent fun while drawing decent tips from her smitten customers, until a rich cad comes in and convinces her to go to lunch. She has a nice time, so he comes to pick her up again after work. The barber is upset by this rival, and hops on the back of the rich man’s chauffeur driven car. When he sees the man try to make a move on the manicurist, the barber climbs into the back window, beats the man up, throws him out the same back window, and slips a ring on the manicurist’s finger.
While the film itself is rather ordinary, there are still some early cinematic ideas that are impressive. Sennett was very interested in movement on screen, so he effectively utilizes what the French call mise-en-scène, which translates roughly to “placing on stage.” In cinematic terms, mise-en-scène refers to how people and objects are placed in the frame. Sennett has the manicurist seated at the left, while the barber works at his chair on the right. On one side we see the manicure and flirtation, on the other we see a haircut and a shave. His girl giving attention to her customers distracts the barber. Sennett frames the shot with each person on either side of the frame. The casual flirtation at left is a distraction that is hampering the barber’s effectiveness on the right side of the screen. There is movement on both sides, and it conflicts within the frame, displaying the tension from the barber on the right and the carefree manicurist on the left. Cinematically, it exhibits Sennett’s having learned from his mentor at Biograph, D.W. Griffith, who framed his scenes in a similar manner.
Sennett’s use of movement is also effective when he has the barber stand rigid, stiff with anger and jealousy, as his girl gleefully waves to the rich cad outside and prepares to leave with him. The fluttery movement of the happy manicurist offsets the seething tension of the barber.
The comparison-contrast aspect of the film is most effective during the lunch sequence. The barber and manicurist prepare to leave together, but the rich customer, who has a chauffeur driven limo that plans to take her to a fancy restaurant, sidetracks the woman. She goes, quite willingly, while the dejected barber is forced to eat alone. Sennett cross-cuts between the manicurist and the rich customer dining el fresco in a ritzy place surrounded by attentive waiters, and the barber eating alone in a seedy diner with a grouchy waitress. It should be noted that the beautifully restored print on CineMuseum’s three-disc Mack Sennett Collection blu ray is so clear, it allows us to see the nuanced acting by Sennett and Ms. Prescott so we can more accurately assess the effectiveness of the film.
Although “The Manicure Lady” is nowhere near the level of Sennett’s later Keystone work, it is a good example of his Biograph films, and shows a solid understanding of the cinematic process and the impact of how things are placed on screen. This knowledge and understanding will become most effective when Sennett begins supervising his own comedy productions.
“A Dash Through The Clouds”
Released June 24, 1912. Directed by Mack Sennett. Written by Dell Henderson
Cast: Fred Mace, Mabel Normand, Phil Parmalee, and Sylvia Ashton
Released June 24, 1912. Running time 10:16
There is a great scene in “A Dash Through The Clouds,” the third film on the Mack Sennett Collection. It is a long shot of an airplane coming in for a landing, flying toward the screen. The pilot, Phil Parmalee, and actress Mabel Normand leave the plane and walk into the foreground toward the camera. It is all done in a single shot, with no edits. The positioning of the camera, and the movement of the actors, not only make this a really impressive visual for a 1912 movie, but it shows that Mabel was indeed on that plane for the scene. Let’s remember that aviation was less than ten years old by this time, and the plane in the movie looks more like a kite. The Wright Brothers themselves had trained Parmalee, an actual pilot.
This one-reel Biograph comedy opens with Mabel (called Martha in this movie) and her boyfriend Arthur (Fred Mace) approaching aviator Slim (Parmalee) who offers them a ride on his airplane. Arthur flatly refuses, but Martha is excited to go. She is thrilled with the flight, while Arthur quite visibly worries about her on the ground. After the plane lands, Arthur, a gum salesman, goes off to a nearby Mexican quarter to sell his wares. He flirts with a local girl, upsetting the villagers to the point where they band together and chase him. Slim and Martha board the plane and rescue Arthur. He is relieved and thanks Slim, but is upset when Martha walks away from him and gets back on the plane. Arthur has been replaced.
Fred Mace does a beautiful comic turn as the chubby schnook with the rumpled suit and crooked tie. His misgivings about air travel are understandable in that aviation was so much in its infancy, and quite dangerous (pilot Phil Parmalee was actually killed in a plane crash shortly after appearing in this movie). But Mace's reaction has all the comic gusto of a Mack Sennett comedian. He holds up his hands, shakes his head, puts his hand on his heart, and offers other, similar responses to the trepidation he has over going up in the air. He comes off as old fashioned, critical of advancing technology. When he later goes to the village to sell his wares, he travels by horse, further demonstrating his backward thinking.
Where Mace exudes intimidation, Mabel exhibits validation. She is very much a modern girl, excited about new things. The 20th century was only a dozen years old, and the ways and mores were often more staid, especially with women. Mabel Normand represents the free-spirited thinking of courageous youth. She is excited to engage with this edgy new invention. Parmalee, who is not an actor, anchors the proceedings by displaying a solid confidence, which is said to simply have been his real life manner.
The structure of this Biograph film shows Sennett venturing further into the comic territory he would explore upon setting up his own Keystone studio. Fred Mace is quite obviously dressed to appear as the outsider who bulges his eyes, flails his arms, and shakes his fist in a comic manner. Mabel comes off as attractive, energetic, and fearless. The villagers are comic villains with blatant gestures. There is a conflict, a chase, and a rescue. The film closes on a gag.
However, along with being a portent to Sennett’s Keystone work, “A Dash Through The Clouds” has it s own merit. Its presentation of early aviation makes it something of a cultural artifact. It has a breezy quality that maintains interest in the situations and the characters. Mace’s physical comedy is nearly always in reaction to something within the situation, and he plays it effectively. All the laughs are due to him. As early cinema’s history goes, “A Dash Through The Clouds” contains several significant elements to help us understand and appreciate that history.
“The Water Nymph”
Directed by Mack Sennett
Cast: Mabel Normand, Mack Sennett, and Ford Sterling
Released September 23, 1912. Running Time: 8:20
Mack Sennett’s very first Keystone releases were two split-reel comedies. This is one of them. Sennett knew early on that putting a pretty girl in a bathing suit would increase interest in his films, and he also realized the comic talent he was working with at Biograph. So when he started producing films for his own studio, two of the talents he brought with him were actress Mabel Normand and actor Ford Sterling. Each is shown to good advantage in this very early Keystone release, which is the fourth film on the new Mack Sennett Collection on blu ray.
Mack and Mabel are a couple. Mabel has not yet met Mack’s parents. His father (Sterling) has a roving eye. So Mack decides to have some fun. He points out his father to Mabel and asks her to flirt with him. The idea works. Just some minor notice from Mabel, and Mack’s father is completely smitten. He finds excuses to leave his wife so he can sneak off to the beach and meet Mabel, who never rebuffs him, but also doesn’t show more than casual interest. But that marginal attention is all that is needed to keep the old guy coming around. Finally, the dad takes Mabel to a café, on her suggestion, where Mack and his mother show up. Mack happily introduces Mabel as his girl, delighting the mother, who remains none the wiser. Dad, however, reacts big, as Mack laughs heartily at the success of his practical joke.
“The Water Nymph” is a great start for Keystone productions. It has cute, vivacious Mabel Normand exhibiting the sort of charisma that would continue to define her on-screen personality. It has the bombastic comedy of Ford Sterling, who carefully choreographed each of his mannerisms to fit within his comic profile. And Mack Sennett himself, in a straight role as the boyfriend, is the anchor.
Breaking way from Biograph allowed Sennett’s vision to flourish more freely. He understood the necessity for establishing a situation as per the Biograph method for narrative film, but also wanted movement to be constant. As the central comic character, Ford Sterling responds perfectly to Sennett’s direction. When suggesting going to the beach, he makes swimming motions with his arms. He shakes his fist when angry. He shoves other men who also exhibit an interest in pretty Mabel. He is a comic powerhouse busting through each scene with gusto, while at the same time allowing some nuance in his facial expressions to convey expression. It is all quite primitive now, but in context, Sterling’s performance contains the rudiments of physical comedy’s raw basics. It is a fascinating thing to see, especially as done by such a talented pioneer.
In the realm of Sterling’s broader slapstick approach, it is the subtler moments that captivate. When Ford first sees Mabel he is with his wife. He points something out to his wife, who turns her head, allowing Ford to flirt with Mabel. When she turns back, Ford’s expression changes, all of this done in a consistent comic manner. Often the earlier Keystone comedies of Ford Sterling that do survive are not clear enough to allow our noticing the subtler nuance he incorporated into his more bombastic approach. CineMuseum’s restoration on the Mack Sennett Collection allows us to appreciate another level of his talent.
Mabel Normand’s charisma is captivating. In the more staid post-Victorian era, Mabel represented the dynamic, fun-loving youthful type of woman who dared to engage in activities with a playful, edgy nature that easily enticed men of that period. As her Keystone work continued, Mabel Normand displayed greater talent as an actress, with more layered characters and an understanding of the filmmaking process as one of cinema’s earliest female directors. In “The Water Nymph,” she engages in a series of trick dives into the water, from backwards somersaults off the diving board, to jumping up and bouncing off the board with her rear end! This is in comic contrast to Ford Sterling climbing onto the board and, with jittery trepidation, holding his nose and plunging into the water feet first.
Although playing essentially a straight role here, “The Water Nymph” is Mack Sennett’s vision as director (and possibly writer, as there are no existing records confirming this). The film established the studio’s style, and was quite popular with audiences. Sennett would continue to expound on his slapstick ideas, as his performers continued to investigate ways to best convey them.
“A Grocery Clerk’s Romance”
Directed by Mack Sennett
Cast: Ford Sterling, James C. Morton
Released October 28, 1912. Running Time: 7:38
CineMuseum’s restorations on the Mack Sennett Collection allow for us to better appreciate a lot of character nuance that was lost when viewing the unrestored prints of these same movies. This is especially evident with comedian Ford Sterling, whose bombastic approach became somewhat out of vogue when Chaplin came along and redefined how screen comedy was presented. But Sterling’s performances had their own areas of subtlety, and his performance in “A Grocery Clerk’s Romance” is a good example.
The plot has a lazy husband (Morton) sitting around while his wife slaves over a washboard. Ford comes along and argues with the husband, who leaves the premises. Ford, who is smitten with the wife, has arranged for thugs to kidnap the husband, tie him up, and blow him up with bombs. Meanwhile, Ford endears himself to the wife by helping her with the chores. One of the children sees his father tied up with a bomb about to go off, so he runs for help. Ford feigns concern and gathers some neighbors to rescue the husband, timing it right so that the explosion will have gone off by the time they get there. The bomb does go off, but the husband manages to escape ahead of time. He runs back just in time to interrupt the quickie marriage ceremony of his wife and Ford.
As the Keystone films continue, greater experiments with the comedy would be made, as Sennett pursued wilder and more frantic presentation. Sterling appears here without the garish makeup he would wear in later films. Thus, his performance is not enhanced by an immediately comical looking appearance. He makes the best with the materials and situation, tying a makeshift apron well above his waist, and waving with his fingers at the wife as he puts the laundry on a clothesline. When the townspeople are gathered and run to rescue the husband, Sterling continually checks his pocket watch, and occasionally stalls the chase, in order to time things out right for the execution he has arranged. The situation is amusing and Sterling really carries the entire proceedings. He is the film’s comic center, while the others are connected tangentially.
One of the many strong points about the Mack Sennett Collection is that the restorations and the blu ray clarity allows for reassessments of actors like Ford Sterling and his own development as a pre-Chaplin pioneer in physical comedy. He would quickly become the studio’s biggest star, but would be eclipsed by Chaplin, and move to another studio. Chaplin would leave Sennett after a year, and Sterling would return. The Sennett collection offers work from Sterling during this early period, and from his later return.
Cinema had already established melodrama pretty well as early as 1912 when this movie was made, and Sennett was no stranger to this genre. A film like “A Grocery Clerk’s Romance” was a comic variation on melodrama, with a man as the victim, with no hero to save him (he had to save himself). Sennett would explore comic variations on melodrama often as he continued to produce films.
“On His Wedding Day”
Directed by Mack Sennett.
Cast: Ford Sterling, Dot Farley, Mabel Normand, Charles Avery, Hale Studebaker, Nick Cogley, Helen Holmes, Carmen Phillips, Chester Franklin, Bert Hunn, Arthur Travers.
Released March 31, 1913. Running time: 6 minutes
The sixth film on the Mack Sennett Collection blu ray shows a further move toward the more frantic slapstick that Keystone would quickly become known for producing.
Ford Sterling plays a man on his way to his wedding. Some friends sprinkle pepper onto his bouquet, so when he gets there, everyone who sniffs the flowers starts sneezing uncontrollably. The minister runs off, and Ford goes after him. While trying to locate the minister, Ford happens upon a couple in the park (Mabel Normand and Charles Avery), and is completely smitten by the woman. Forgetting his own plans, Ford pushes her much smaller boyfriend away and starts moving in on Mabel, who appears to be pleased with the attention. The boyfriend challenges Ford to a fight, but pays two big thugs ten dollars to beat up his rival. The boyfriend returns to Mabel, bragging about how he won the fight. A beaten Ford comes running out in his underwear, and causes both Mabel and another woman to faint. He trips and falls onto someone’s picnic blanket, so that party starts chasing him. He comes upon a cop and punches him out of the way, causing that lawman and some other police officers join the chase. A desperate Ford then attempts to elude his pursuers by jumping down a chimney, followed by the cops. The chimney leads to a fireplace in the room where Ford’s bride-to-be continues to wait for him. He comes out of the fireplace followed by the cops in pursuit. The bride-to-be starts beating on the cops with their own billy club. Ford and his fiancé embrace as the film concludes.
“On His Wedding Day” has a comic situation rather than one that is inspired by melodrama, and each of the gags build upon each other. The sneezing from the bouquet starts with the bride and soon extends to the entire wedding party. This leads to the minister leaving, Ford following, and the distraction of pretty Mabel in the park. The dynamic between Ford, Mabel, and Charles Avery offers a nice visual. Ford is a much bigger man than the diminutive Avery, who is easily nudged out of the way. Sterling’s nuanced manner is evident as he provides one facial expression when responding to Mabel, and another when he turns and reacts to Avery.
While he never calls attention to himself beyond what he does for the character, Ford Sterling the actor is always very aware of the camera. Now wearing the makeup that would define his performances at Keystone, Ford carefully chooses the right mannerisms to convey what the narrative wants to viewer to understand. When he sees, Mabel, he puts his hands on his heart to express affection, and also tightens his fist to show off his biceps. This is is way of showing how he is a much bigger man than Avery, and therefore an upgrade of a replacement. He eagerly accepts Avery’s challenge to fight, but when confronted by the two thugs Avery has hired, he holds his hand up to his chest to ask, “where’s the little guy?” During cinemas infancy, broad gestures were the norm. The visuals of cinema would become much subtler as stage-trained actors learned to respond better to the intimacy of the movie camera. However, Ford Sterling uses these more blatant gestures to the camera in order to convey ideas and maintain the narrative, showing a keen awareness of how visual comedy would best be presented. Sterling’s work would remain the Keystone studio’s foundation for some time.
It is amusing how nearly the entire situation in this short is merely a distraction from the wedding. Ford leaves the ceremony and returns shortly thereafter, his disheveled, partly-clothed appearance the result of said distraction. It all happens very quickly, but Ford’s exploits come full circle within the course of the short’s running time. The park setting would quickly become another Keystone staple, as the chase was already.
Mabel Normand is given less to do in “On His Wedding Day,” other than to bat her eyes in response to Ford’s flirtations. Her prowess as both a comedian and filmmaker would grow rapidly, however, with each subsequent appearance.
“On His Wedding Day” moves us further toward Mack Sennett’s comic vision, which continues to be borne out with subsequent comedies on the Mack Sennett blu ray collection. Sennett's method as director shows him moving away from the melodramatic narrative structure, but his Biograph apprenticeship is borne out in the shots he chooses. Usually remaining on medium shots to offer a lot of action within the frame, Sennett does exhibit some of D.W. Griffith's influence in at least one setup. As Ford runs from his captors, we see him entering the frame in the background with a policeman in the foreground. Not wanting to be stopped, Ford punches the policeman as he enters the foreground, while the cop joins his pursuers. It is the same structure Griffith used in the Sennett-penned Biograph short The Curtain Pole" which appears earlier in the Mack Sennett Collection. In that film, Sennett plays the character being pursued.
The Keystone comedies were slowly becoming more defined as they also grew in popularity.
Directed by Henry Lehrman.
Cast: Mabel Normand, Fred Mace, Nick Cogley, Dot Farley, Charles Avery, Edgar Kennedy, Rube Miller, Jack Leonard, Fred Happ, Raymond Hatton
Released April 24, 1913. Running time: 6 minutes.
“Bangville Police” is another of the more important films on the Mack Sennett Collection’s first blu ray disc (of three). The Keystone product is further defined by this wild comedy in which a series of compounding misunderstandings result in summoning the local police, who arrive amidst a series of slapstick mishaps on the way. This film, then, is part of the evolution of the noted Keystone Cops, for which many identify Sennett’s entire career. The Keystone Cops were not a set unit that had a series of films. They were really a collection of available Sennett comedians who put on uniforms to do a slapstick chase at the end of some of the movies. While this approach would be refined and explored in subsequent films, “Bangville Police” offers one of the earlier examples in the process.
Mabel Normand is a farm girl who longs for her pet cow to give birth to a calf. However when two of the farm’s hands sneak into the hay loft for a rest from work, Mabel overhears them talking about the impeding birth of a calf, but mistakes the conversation and believes it is two burglars hiding out in the barn. She quickly summons the police, who rush to the scene, but after a great deal of frantic hurrying and violent setbacks, the police are chagrined to find nothing more than a newborn calf in the barn, while Mabel herself is delighted.
There are several elements regarding “Bangville Police” that cause it to stand out, not the least of which is its early example of using an inept police force in its slapstick climax. First, it further showcases the talents of Mabel Normand, whose commitment to character is evident in each scene. When she discovers what she believes are burglars, she responds by scurrying into the house, calling the police, and throwing a bunch of furniture against the locked door. Her mannerisms are quick and expressive, and her facial expressions are subtle and nuanced. The gamut of emotions she conveys within the context of her character maintains the brisk pace of the comedy.
Fred Mace plays the police chief (a part usually played by Ford Sterling, but not here). He expresses both determination and ineptitude as he is awakened by Mabel’s phone call, fires some shots in the air to summon his chief deputy (Charles Avery) who rounds up a few more cops. As this is a rural setting, the weapons the others are carrying include a pitchfork and a shovel. Mace and Avery travel by auto, the others by foot. And while the ones running to the scene are stumbling about with wild pratfalls, Mace and Avery in the car are beset by continual mishaps on the dirt road. The visual of the car has its own level of brilliance, complete with a large dangling bell, a crank for a steering wheel, the word “Police” painted across the hood, and an oil can seated between Mace and Avery. It is prone to exploding backfires and difficulty in maintaining a straight balance as it twists and turns down the road. When the car stalls, Mace hits it with a wrench until the engine explodes, forcing the sheriff and deputy to continue on foot.
“Bangville Police” is also the first example on the Mack Sennett collection of a film directed by Henry Lehrman, an important Keystone filmmaker. Lehrman took Sennett’s basic structure of a conflict, a chase, and a happy conclusion and expanded upon it with his own sense of comic rhythm. The edits in “Bangville Police” are much quicker. We see a frantic Mabel placing furniture in front of a locked door, then cut to the cops running on foot to the scene, and then Mace and Avery headed there in the car. Each of these sequences has its own framework and its own series of gags. Lehrman edits between each scene, offering enough time for something funny to happen, and then cutting away, increasing both the pace and the excitement. Lehrman times out the laughs so that the viewer has little time to rest before something else funny occurs. It is really quite brilliant.
Lehrman’s structure goes beyond his penchant for quick edits. He builds the six-minute film while providing this vast array of detail. The opening scenes show the tranquility of farm life, with Mabel tending to her cow, and playfully tickling her adoring father’s face with a handful of hay. Once the discovery of the alleged burglars takes place, the pace quickly picks up, but it is not sudden. Lehrman builds on each situation until he reaches the point where the chase is on and the gags are presented with an increasingly rapid comic rhythm. Along with the broader slapstick, there are several subtler comic visuals, such as the small Avery hopping the fence once they reach the farm, while the chubby Mace, slowly climbs through it.
Finally, Lehrman does not rely chiefly on medium shots, merely allowing the situations to tell the story. He instead frames his action with a number of close-ups and long shots with a keen awareness of which angle would be most effective.
“A Fishy Affair”
Directed by Mack Sennett
Cast: Ford Sterling, Laura Oakley, Bert Hunn, Bill Hauber, Nick Cogley, and Dot Farley.
Released April 24, 1913. Running time: 7 minutes
The Keystone style continues to develop with this short film that is another showcase for Ford Sterling, who was quickly becoming the biggest star at the studio. CineMuseum’s outstanding restoration of this film for the Mack Sennett Collection on blu ray allows us to clearly see and appreciate each nuanced expression.
Ford is prepared to go fishing, and asks his wife for some money. The wife had just put a sock full of cash under the mattress and she refuses to give Ford a penny. Disgruntled, he goes off to fish. Meanwhile, a burglar sneaks in the bedroom window and steals the money. A nearby cop sees him and gives chase. As the crook passes the lake, he throws the money in and keeps running. Naturally Ford fishes right at that spot, hooks the money, and when he returns home he’s accused of stealing it. The cop catches the burglar and returns to the house where the crook confesses. Ford is angry with his apologetic wife, but they make up as the film ends.
The Keystone films had, by now, clearly established their structure for having a simple premise, which was filled with gags. However, “A Fishy Affair” follows that premise, but stands out as one of the more important Keystones from this period for several reasons.
Ford Sterling is far less manic and overplayed here. There is a great deal of subtlety to his performance. He does not completely eschew his noted bombast, but instead layers it with subtler reactions. As he heads down the road to the fishing spot, he comes upon a small hill. He tries to walk up the hill, but stumbles back down; he angrily kicks the hill, but hurts his foot. He then uses the fishing rod as a pole vault and makes it to the top. It is a delightfully funny bit of business that appears as an organic portion of the character’s trajectory and is one of this short film’s comic highlights. Once he gets to his fishing spot, Sterling uses all that is at hand to create comedy. He baits his hook with a worm, and then blows on it for luck as if it were dice. Sitting nearby a weeping willow, he angrily slaps and yells at the tree each time the wind causes its leaning branches to hit the side of his face. He catches useless things (a sock, a minnow), but although he reacts with disappointment, he keeps everything he catches, putting it into a bucket. It is these elements of character that are both charming and funny.
Mack Sennett’s direction is so impressive, one wonders if perhaps he learned a bit from watching Henry Lehrman’s footage. Sennett often relied on medium shots and let the action work within the frame. Lehrman used different angles to enhance the visual effect. With “A Fishy Affair,” Sennett not only provides several close-ups of Sterling so we can enjoy his subtler reactions, but also cross-cuts between the tranquil fisherman, his frantic wife searching the house for the money, and the cop pursuing the crook. These scenes each have a distinct, separate rhythm of their own, but Sennett’s cuts maintain a steady pace. Lehrman has set that foundation in his own Keystone work. This is Sennett’s response. The cuts are not equal in time, though. Most of the footage relaxes with Ford Sterling, who is once again the central figure in this comedy. Another impressive bit of directorial technique is an underwater shot that shows a school of fish swimming past Ford’s baited hook as if they were ignoring it. For a film shot in 1913, this visual is quite impressive. Sennett liked to bring his crew to a location and work within its elements to create comedy. This time it was a nearby alligator farm. Ford hooks a baby alligator, drops his pole and goes running home, naturally running right through a group of gators.
“A Fishy Affair” is well directed, well played, and filled with very funny moments. The Keystone product continued to increase in popularity as well as cinematic vision. While one can acknowledge Sennett's better direction, "A Fishy Affair" really belongs to Ford Sterling. There is a great deal of substance to this husband who just wants a bit of solitude engaging in an activity he enjoys. The inconveniences are minor, but he responds to each one comically and effectively. It is one of the finest performances Ford Sterling would offer at Keystone
“The Speed Kings”
Directed by Wilfred Lucas.
Cast: Mabel Normand, Ford Sterling, Roscoe Arbuckle, Earl Cooper, Teddy Tetzlaff, Barney Oldfield, Edgar Kennedy, Paul Jacobs, Bert Hunn.
Released October 30, 1913. Running time 9 minutes.
By the Fall of 1913, the Keystone product was established and increasing in popularity. Distributors were asking for more of the comedies that had their audiences laughing and cheering. The Mack Sennett Collection, new on blu ray, allows us to see the continual progression of these comedies.
“The Speed Kings” features Mabel Normand smitten by racecar driver Teddy Tetzlaff (misspelled Tetzlaft in the credits) and her father Ford Sterling championing Earl Cooper. This sets up a conflict between the father and the daughter that is stronger than the rivalry between the two drivers. The film then effectively uses the race as a backdrop for broad Keystone comedy, and while there is not much to the film, it is carried by the performances as it features some of the strongest players at the studio.
Mabel Normand’s commitment to character is always impressive, and she seems quite aware of her natural charisma by this time. Ford Sterling continues to be hilarious with his overstated gestures and understated facial expressions combining to define his screen character. And while Sterling is usually the central force in any comedy, Mabel is this time his clear co-star rather than support. Much of the body of the film concentrates on the two of them watching the race. When Ford cheerfully reacts to his man being ahead, Mabel is crying. When Mabel’s favorite pulls ahead, her tears change to cheers while Ford reacts angrily to the race, and begins admonishing his daughter. These amusing responses are crosscut with the excitement of the race itself.
Director Wilfred Lucas was a longtime stage actor, who later started acting in movies and kept doing so right up until his death in 1940. He is probably best known for his appearance in two Laurel and Hardy features – “Pardon Us” (1931) and “A Chump at Oxford” (1940). It is easy to see that Lucas the director was a protégé of D.W. Griffith at Biograph. His crosscutting between the action and the reactions effectively builds suspense in the same manner Griffith would do in his melodramatic short films. The humor is supplied by the performances, as Lucas is not essentially a comedy director (he would go on to helm dramas and adventure films, including an early Tarzan effort with Elmo Lincoln, the screen’s first Tarzan).
An early appearance by Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle adds to the laughs in this short. When Mabel runs toward the racetrack, Fatty stops her, and the struggle. Ford runs to protect his daughter by jumping on Fatty and biting at his ear. Later in the film, the two get into another comic skirmish, where biting, slapping, tickling, and (literal) butt kicking are all part of the melee. Arbuckle had a discernible charisma of his own, which would already be evident here, and would present itself even more effectively when he began teaming frequently with Mabel Normand in some of the studio's best productions.
For “The Speed Kings,” the art is in its artlessness. What seems basic and primitive is actually quite carefully choreographed and executed. Its wonderful simplicity results in a wildly funny Keystone one-reeler and continued to increase the films’ popularity. Our ability to trace this development is made possible by the wonderful Mack Sennett Collection, new on blu ray.
“A Thief Catcher”
Directed by Ford Sterling
Cast: Ford Sterling, Mack Swain, Bill Hauber, Edgar Kennedy, Charlie Chaplin, Rube Miller, George Jeske.
Released February 19, 1914. Running time: 8 minutes
Sometimes the story about a film is as interesting as the film itself.
There had been accounts that while at Keystone, Chaplin took his turn playing one of the Keystone Cops. However, there was no filmed evidence of his doing so. In 2010, CineMuseum founder Paul Gierucki ran across a 16mm film at a garage sale that was marked “Keystone” so he bought it. When he finally screened what he’d bought, it turned out to be this presumably lost Ford Sterling comedy, and it was discovered that the film featured Chaplin indeed playing one of the Keystone Cops. It is incredible to see such a film, and the print on The Mack Sennett Collection, considering the circumstances, is in remarkably good condition.
Charles Chaplin was a game changer. Not content with settling into the Keystone style, Chaplin was interested in exploring beyond the parameters, adding depth to his character, and investigating the filmmaking process. He would eventually earn such opportunities. But in “A Thief Catcher,” he just has a small role and fits into the proceedings nicely.
Ford is taking photographs and manages to snap a picture of some crooks. They go after him to destroy the evidence and he evades them for a while, but when he happens to hide in their hideout, he is held hostage. His dog summons the police and Ford is rescued.
“A Thief Catcher” goes beyond being a recently discovered example of Chaplin at Keystone. Ford Sterling’s direction concentrates on a series of slapstick gags stemming from the film’s premise, with no subtle nuance or melodramatic satire. The film is a strong example of some of the better Keystone players being as outrageously funny as their abilities allow. Sterling is all flailing arms and blatant grimacing as he hides from the crooks behind a fence, and ends up getting doused with a bucket of water. Big Mack Swain is all comic menace as one of the thugs. Chaplin is poised with comic confidence as he helps to apprehend the criminals. The slapstick is strong, but never seems forced. The performances are exaggerated, but for potent comic effect.
Because of it having been lost for decades, and its historical significance as being an early Chaplin appearance, the other benefits “A Thief Catcher” offers might be unfairly overlooked. It is also one of the silliest, most gag-filled Keystones of its period, and is a good example of Ford Sterling’s style of direction, as well as yet another example of his performance skills. It is one of the funnier selections on the first disc of the Mack Sennett three-disc blu ray collection.
“The Great Toe Mystery”
Cast: Charles Parrott (Charley Chase), Alice Howell, Rube Miller, and Harry McCoy
Released July 25, 1914. Running Time 10:51
The most interesting thing about this comedy on the new Mack Sennett Collection on blu ray is its appearance by Charles Parrott (Charley Chase) in a leading role. Parrott had joined Keystone fairly recently, but would not establish his Charley Chase character for about another ten years. In the interim he would act, write, and direct at several studios.
The story deals with a shoe clerk (Charley) who waits on a pretty female customer (Alice Howell) who has a hole in her sock, causing her big toe to protrude. The clerk teases her about it, and flirts. The woman’s husband confronts him and they prepare to leave, but not before the clerk puts a note in her shoe. They get home, and the woman goes off to the park, which is where the clerk had planned to meet with her. She never read the note, so her showing up in the park is pure chance, but the clerk sees it as a positive response. The husband finds the note, goes to the park, and starts shooting at the clerk. He runs away, hides in a trunk, but the trunk is delivered to the woman’s house. This causes more confusion, chases, even an appearance by the Keystone Cops.
This early Charley Chase appearance, when he was still billed as Charles Parrott, is interesting as being perhaps the earliest film in which he has as big of a role. He plays the shoe clerk as fluttery and effeminate, with gestures that will later be recalled to enhance what he called his “nance”character in his early talkies. “The Great Toe Mystery” is such of an early film in his career; it is interesting to see mannerisms that would show up decades later (e.g. when he looks at the note in this film, he uses the same gesture and stance as he would in a similar scene in the 1932 talkie “Girl Grief.”).
Alice Howell is a great comedienne in her own right, but here she is just the pretty girl, and plays it essentially straight. Because it is unknown who the director is, it is difficult to zero in on a particular style, but gags with the clerk being stuck in a trunk, or going up and down a dumb waiter in an attempt to avoid the trouble occurring on each floor, are typical period Keystone.
“The Great Toe Mystery” was made shortly after director Henry Lehrman left Keystone to form his own comedy company, and he took top Keystone comedian Ford Sterling with him. This left a real gap. Of course Charlie Chaplin’s presence in Keystone films at this time helped fill the gap, but the studio had several projects going on at once, so capable directors and actors were needed. A lot of performers got their chance to direct, but unfortunately existing records do not always reveal whom.
Written and directed by Charlie Chaplin
Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Charles Bennett, Edwin Frazee, Eddie Nolan, and Peggy Page
Released August 13, 1914. Running time: 5:24
While the Mack Sennett Collection focuses on Sennett, it features all of the top stars with whom he’d worked during his tenure as producer. Charlie Chaplin is one of those stars. Already represented in the long lost “A Thief Catcher,” the collection also offers this quick production Chaplin did as something of an extra between two other films.
Charlie Chaplin's Keystone films are often dismissed as mere stepping stones to better productions. However, his Keystone period offers a lot of brilliant comedy. Only months after joining Keystone, Charlie Chaplin’s first films were an immediate sensation. Theater owners kept asking for more, so Sennett tried to keep up with the demand. Chaplin had ideas that extended beyond the studio’s creative parameters and eventually his success, and his ambition, had him also writing and directing his own subjects.
“Recreation” is an interesting one because it was shot very quickly just to appease the demand for more Chaplin product. Thus, due to Chaplin not taking a lot of time with it, "Recreation" has often been considered something of a throwaway. As a Keystone comedy, it is typical. Set in a park, featuring a situation where Charlie and a sailor are fighting over a girl, extending this battle to include flying bricks, “Recreation” is amusing, but unremarkable. However, the necessity of its having to be produced is an indicator of Chaplin’s immense popularity so early in his career.
The timing of the performers, the execution of the gags, the cheerfully violent slapstick, and the rapid pace all combine to provide some basic amusement. But while Chaplin’s direction by this time was usually more careful and studied (e.g. his careful composition of shots for “The Face on the Barroom Floor,” which preceded this movie), it appears that his only direction for “Recreation” is telling the cinematographer to keep the action in the frame.
While it might not be the most essential Chaplin film, it is a good solid Keystone comedy, and that is merit in and of itself. Keystone’s methods were pretty well established by now, and were also quite popular with moviegoers. Critics of the time appreciated “Recreation” as per an issue of “The Cinema” which stated: “Charlie has a peculiar manner entirely his own, and the way he tries to extricate himself from an awkward position is very whimsical.”
Recreation” has a good, rowdy manner as per the usual Keystone production; while Chaplin’s popular method added another element. That it also has some historical significance makes it important beyond any aesthetic limitations when compared to other efforts.
CineMuseum’s restoration of “Recreation” on the Mack Sennett Collection on blu ray is the best this film has been seen since perhaps its initial release 100 years ago. Obtaining footage from a variety of sources, some of the scenes in this movie look positively stunning.
“Shot in the Excitement”
Cast: Al St John, Alice Howell, Rube Miller, and Joseph Swickard
Released October 26, 1914. Running time:
Often the consistent, frantic slapstick of Keystone comedies will confuse the modern day viewer whose frame of reference for film history is limited to “Gone With The Wind” and “The Wizard of Oz” (no, not the silent one). A film like “Shot in the Excitement,” beautifully restored by CineMuseum on the Mack Sennett blu ray collection, shows how carefully timed and expertly choreographed each slapstick endeavor is, and it stands out as one of the funniest and most brilliantly presented of all the Keystone comedies.
The premise is simple, and there is no real narrative. Just a series of gags surrounding the rivalry between Al St. John and Rube Miller over the affections of farm girl Alice Howell. Joseph Swickard plays her harried father.
The slapstick is relentless here. Rube looks through a hole in a fence and sees Al and Alice sharing candy. He drops a spider down to break it up. Rube looks through the fence hole again and Al pokes his eye. Rube tries to poke back, but Alice bites his finger. Al drops a rock on Rube over the fence. Rube tries to reciprocate, but the rock falls on Alice’s head. Rube hops the fence, Al swings to hit him, but Rube ducks and Alice gets punched.The timing and execution of the above series of slapstick encounters during the film’s opening scenes is the key to this movie’s brilliance. It is quintessential Keystone clowning at its funniest. There is a discernible comic rhythm to each gag, as they all carefully flow into one another. Far better seen than described, the above sequence is a real masterpiece of its kind.
After a series of similar situations, the film dabbles in a bit of surrealism when a dejected Rube discovers he is leaning against a cannon with some cannon balls nearby. He decides to load it up and shoot cannon balls at his rival, the girl who spurned him, and her irate father (who has found himself brought into the slapstick action at regular intervals). Rube shoots the cannon and his victims run, fleeing the cannon ball that chases them. Whatever technological abilities cinema had as early as 1914, the effect is as visually striking as it is wildly funny. Of course all ends well. Rube is hauled away by the cops, and the disgruntled father shoves Alice into Al’s arms as the movie fades after a very full 12 minutes of relentlessly brilliant slapstick. Because there is no director credited, a specific individual cannot be praised for the wonderful blocking of the actors, camera shots, and quick edits that maintain this movie's rhythm.
“Shot in the Excitement” especially shows Al St. John and Alice Howell to great advantage. St. John’s star would continue to rise, and his talents would eventually extend to directing. Howell would continue to present herself as one of the most courageous and talented female comedians of the silent era. (For more on Alice Howell, check out this book). Musician Donald Sosin’s work accompanying “Shot in the Excitement,” is one of the key ingredients for helping this restoration reach its greatest entertainment potential. It is one of the top entries on the Mack Sennett Collection.
“The Noise of Bombs”
Cast: Charlie Murray, Edgar Kennedy, Lucille Ward, Dixie Chene, Josef Swickard, Harry McCoy, Eddie Cline, Charles Parrott (Charley Chase).
Released November 19, 1914. Running time: 11:33
By the time this film was released in late 1914, Keystone had firmly established its style of frantic, hilarious comedy. CineMuseum’s restoration of this short on the Mack Sennett blu ray collection is especially impressive, offering a sharpness to the picture that allows us to see everything from the broadest gestures to the slightest facial nuance.
“The Noise of Bombs” is another one of the best paced, fullest, and funniest Keystone comedies of this period. A policeman (Charlie Murray) is tussling with some thugs, when he accidentally smacks his chief (Edgar Kennedy) with a billy club, bloodying his face. The thugs decide plant a bomb in the chief’s house. The cop, who has been fired for hitting the chief, is captured and forced to plant the explosive with a note that states it will go off in ten minutes. When the chief and his family arrive home, the cop hides inside the foldout couch where the bomb has been stashed. The chief and his family frantically try to find the bomb upon seeing the note, but don’t notice the explosive until it is smoking and about to go off. Charlie retreats back to the thugs’ hideout, puts the explosive there, and leads the police out of the way as the bomb explodes.
Along with the building of gags, “The Noise of Bombs” contains other elements that cause it to stand out. First, Charlie is not fired immediately for hitting the chief. His superior returns to the police station and simmers for a while before returning to the park and stripping Charlie of his badge. By that time, Charlie is entrusted with a nursemaid’s baby, which is another interesting element added to the proceedings. Thus, when Charlie is grabbed by thugs and forced to plant the bomb, the baby is put in the hideout. When Charlie returns to the hideout with the bomb, he also rescues the baby.
By the time this film was produced, Charlie Chaplin had nearly finished his run at the studio. Sennett’s full-length comedy feature “Tillie’s Punctured Romance” was set for release the following month. Keystone had positioned itself in the hearts of moviegoers as a studio that offered the wildest, funniest, and most outrageous comedy.
Once again there is no director credited and research has not revealed his identity. Along with the editing and the precise choreography, the director of this short uses some long shots with deep focus revealing both background and foreground as Charlie is chased holding the smoking bomb. The action and violence is blocked perfectly, each performer used in a manner that works to best advantage for each scene. There is a certain cinematic beauty to the entire enterprise.
“The Noise of Bombs” has an uncomplicated storyline, steady action, hilarious gags that are beautifully executed by a brilliant cast, and a happy conclusion. Within these parameters is one of the highlight films on the first disc of the Mack Sennett blu ray collection.
“Ambrose’s First Falsehood”
Directed by F. Richard Jones.
Cast: Mack Swain, Minta Durfee, Charles Parrott (Charley Chase), Edgar Kennedy, Billie Brockwell, Cecile Arnold, Slim Summerville, Dixie Chene.
Released December 12, 1914. Running time: 11 minutes
One of the best films on The Mack Sennett blu ray collection, as well as one of the finest Keystones overall, “Ambrose’s First Falsehood” is subtler, more layered, and so well directed and performed that is stands out as a minor classic in silent comedy.
Mack Swain plays the title role, a blissfully married man who is lured by a friend (Charles Parrott/Charley Chase) into going to a nightclub with a couple of women. He sends a note to his wife indicating he has been called away on business and is taking a train out of town. However, once at the club, Ambrose’s reluctance causes the girls to go off with two other men. Ambrose is then vamped by a dancer at the club, who gets ahold of a business card from his shirt pocket, and places her purse in his jacket pocket. When the proprietor starts a fight, Ambrose runs off, but not before getting his eye blackened. Meanwhile, the train he was said to be on is reported in the newspaper as having crashed. He returns home to his wife, who is by now in mourning, and hastily concocts a story about how he got the black eye saving people from the train wreckage. Soon the proprietor and the dancer arrive at the home to claim the woman’s purse, and Ambrose’s wife responds violently to having been duped.
There is a great deal to be said about “Ambrose’s First Falsehood,” a consistently brilliant Keystone production. First, there is Mack Swain’s presence as a performer. Chaplin used him quite frequently due to Swain’s mammoth size, which contrasted nicely with Charlie’s diminutive frame. Because of his imposing presence, Swain would usually be cast as the heavy, the overbearing adversary to the smaller central figure. His career is probably best defined by his later appearance in Chaplin’s classic feature “The Gold Rush” (1925). In “Ambrose’s First Falsehood,” Swain brilliantly plays against type, offsetting his imposing size by portraying a meek, hapless soul whose blissfully staid existence is thwarted by the disruption of Charles Parrott’s bad influence. Ambrose does not want to get in the car, but the girls shove him in. He tries to leave the club while still in the lobby, but is goaded into coming in and sitting down. When his reluctance causes the girls to move on, Charles is angry and insists that Ambrose drink more.
Swain plays within these situations perfectly. Perhaps his size is part of why he commands the most attention, but it is also the subtle genius of his reactions. Swain’s face continues to convey how uncomfortable he is with the situation, but at the same time he has some underlying interest in this wild lifestyle that is so unlike his own. When he arrives home and explains his black eye, responding to the news story and his wife’s having believed he was killed, Swain brilliantly conveys everything without the need for dialog.
Charles Parrott is also worth noting. While Swain’s presence is the focal point, Parrott’s contribution helps enhance it. His quick talk, sharp mannerisms, and strong influence over his hapless friend all combine to make this one of Parrott’s best Keystone performances. All swagger and confidence at the outset, Charles cowardly, and quite hastily, runs out of the club once Mack gets into a fight with the proprietor.
The film’s director, F. Richard Jones, had a short life, dying in 1930 at the age of 37 after having successfully transitioned to directing sound movies. Jones had a keen eye, and framed the shots so that Ambrose was always the focal point. The subtle framework of the narrative, and the lack of frantic action, are other factors that cause “Ambrose’s First Falsehood” to stand out.
The film is also very influential. The same general premise would be used by Harry Langdon for “Saturday Afternoon” (1926), while the idea for sneaking off from the wives, who believe involvement in a reported tragedy, can be found in two Laurel and Hardy films – the silent short “We Faw Down” (1928) and their feature length masterpiece “Sons of the Desert” (1934).
One of the finest silent comedies of the teens, “Ambrose’s First Falsehood” is a definite highlight of the Mack Sennett Collection. Their restored print is sharp enough to clearly show Swain’s subtle facial reactions to his situation, allowing us to witness one of the finest comics of the silent era at his very best.
“A Bird’s a Bird”
Cast: Chester Conklin, Minta Durfee, Dutch Ward, Bill Hauber, Alice Davenport, and Grover Ligon.
Released February 8, 1915. Running Time: 12:40
A pretty standard Keystone comedy with a basic situation, a free-for-all climax, and dash of surrealism, “A Bird’s a Bird” is another showcase for some of the finest Keystone players. The restoration on the Mack Sennett blu ray collection is, again, uniformly excellent.
Walrus (Chester Conklin), his neighbor Mr. Spegle (Dutch Ward), and an Italian man (Bill Hauber), are at a turkey raffle trying to win some dinner. Walrus comes up empty handed after spending all of his money, and throws his raffle paddles onto the floor. He returns home to be told his wife (Minta Durfee) is having a dinner party including her parents and some friends. Meanwhile, Spegle wins a turkey by picking up one of Walrus’s discarded paddles, thus cheating the Italian man, and merrily goes home with his prize. Desperate, Walrus considers to using the pet parrot, then the cat, as the family’s dinner, being stopped both times by his wife. Walrus then sees the turkey cooling on Mr. Spegle’s windowsill, so he steals it and brings it home. What Walrus does not realize is that the vengeful Italian man came by earlier and stuck a bomb in the pot containing the turkey. Furthermore, Spegle and his wife are among those invited to that night’s dinner party. When Spegle notices the raffle sticker on one of the turkey leg bones, he realized it is his stolen turkey, and a brawl commences, with Walrus and Spegle throwing the turkey at each other. It gets thrown out the window where the Italian is standing, just as the bomb goes off, blowing him, literally, sky high.
Again there is no credited director, so we can’t compliment whoever set up the wonderful shot of the dinner guests, surrounding the table, all within the frame, so we can see what each individual is doing. It is one of the random highlights in “A Bird’s a Bird.” The edginess of Walrus giving the parrot the evil eye while holding a knife, and later movie on to the family cat, never seems creepy or off-putting. Within the context of the comedy, it is outrageous in a most delightful manner. It also sets up one of Minta Durfee’s best reaction shots. When Walrus does bring home a turkey, which he procured from the neighbors, Minta reacts with delight then her expression abruptly changes. She looks to make sure the parrot and cat are safe, then returns to being pleased.
One of the strongest effects in this 1915 film is when the bomb flies out the window and blows up the Italian. He is shown soaring into the sky, then he crashed down Walrus’s chimney and finds himself in the middle of the fight between Walrus and Spegle.
By 1915, Keystone had developed a firm and established style of filmmaking. From this point it is interesting to note the various ways that style was being used. “A Bird’s a Bird” is a good example, and its availability on The Mack Sennett collection makes it accessible.
“Gussle’s Day of Rest”
Directed by F. Richard Jones.
Cast: Syd Chaplin, Cecile Arnold, Phyllis Allen, Slim Summerville, and Eddie Cline.
Released March 29, 1915. Running time: 21:47
Gussle (Syd Chaplin) and his wife (Phyllis Allen) are at the park when Syd is distracted by a pretty girl (Cecile Arnold). When his wife falls asleep, he goes over to the girl and distracts her from her date (Slim Summerville). The date then wakes Syd’s wife, causing a violent altercation involving all parties, and leading to a chase that concludes the film.
There is no real narrative structure to this comedy as there is no plot. It is just a series of rowdy slapstick events concluding in a wild chase. As a result, “Gussle’s Day of Rest” is another one of the delightfully typical Keystone productions found on the Mack Sennett blu ray collection. It is its lack of narrative that makes this two-reeler so enjoyable, with great directorial choices by F. Richard Jones, and wild performances by the cast.
Syd Chaplin is Charlie’s half-brother, and it stands to reason that part of his stock mannerisms would be comparable to his influential sibling. However, Syd was a fine comedian in his own right, and while this is essentially an ensemble piece, it is his performance that stands out. His pantomime as he and his wife approach the baboon cage, laughing and proclaiming the ape resembles her, is one of the outrageous highlights of this comedy.
Keystone films were frequently set in parks and usually relied on straight rowdy action such as to be found in “Gussle’s Day of Rest.” Some may find that limiting, but in fact it is a method unto itself and some level of honing to perfection occurred each time the setting was used. Syd is very funny as he invites himself over to Cecile and Slim’s picnic lunch, and starts juggling the food and catching it on a fork. This delights Cecile, much to Slim’s chagrin. When Slim awakens the imposing Phyllis Allen, the scene erupts into punching, kicking, ducking, and connecting. As with any Keystone brawl, the method to the madness is evident in the precise timing and expert blocking. The chase at the end, involving Syd and Cecile swerving about the road in a jitney while the others pursue on foot, is fast and funny, nicely culminating the proceedings.
Director Jones had a sharp sense of visual presentation. There is a funny scene where Phyllis falls asleep in the park, and Syd amuses himself by holding a lit match up to her nostrils, blowing in her face, and sticking a balloon in her mouth then popping it with his cigar after her breathing has blown it up. The noise awakens her, she looks around, and Syd feigns being asleep, confusing her all the more. Throughout this scene, Jones keeps the camera fixed on the couple in a tight shot with no negative space to distract from the immediate action. This makes the scene that much more effective. Jones also uses establishing shots to identify the character, such as showing a close-up of pretty Cecile Arnold, with softer focus and a darker bracket around her image. His decisions behind the camera help bolster the film in a manner that goes beyond the standard point-and-shoot method sometimes employed. Jones makes choices that are intrinsic to the cinematic process.
Some of the comic ideas here are purely outrageous. At one point, Gussle locks his wife into a cage with a live leopard. Earlier in the film, Gussle is struck by a car, Phyllis runs over, faints, and lands on top of him. Finally, for the film’s closing gag, Gussle and Cecile drive too close to an explosion, and end up piled in dirt. Gussle pokes his head through and feels around for Cecile. When he finds her, he pulls up to reveal a wig, with the top of a bald head sticking through the dirt. He buries her back again.
“Gussle’s Day of Rest” is another of many highlights on the Mack Sennett Collection, as it is filled with the sort of rowdy slapstick that the Keystone brand represents. It is quintessential Keystone, and funny throughout its two reels.
Do Re Mi Boom
Directed by Walter Wright
Chester Conklin, Charles Arling, Harry Booker
Released April 15, 1915
Another of Chester Conklin’s Walrus comedies again directed by Walter Wright, this one has him hearing a girl playing piano and singing so he stands near her home by an open window and listens. When he starts singing along, she goes to the window and he falls in love. Her music teacher boyfriend then arrives, and Walrus is shooed away. He steals an organ grinder’s instrument and monkey and attempts to serenade the woman, but this type of music only annoys her. He later goes to the music teacher’s house and plants a bomb in his piano. Meanwhile, the gun-toting organ grinder is after Walrus. When the girl arrives a the apartment and the monkey hits the key that ignites the explosive, Walrus pushes the piano out the window and rolls down the street clinging to the top of the instrument with the organ grinder chasing after him on foot and shooting at him. When the piano finally stops, it explodes as Walrus and the organ grinder struggle. The film ends with a shot of the music teacher winking and pulling down the window shade to kiss his girl.
Sometimes the beauty of the Keystone films lies in their simplicity. The studio had created a world of bomb-wielding anarchists, incompetent authority figures, shrewish wives, pretty girls, and comical madmen. When they gather several of these disparate elements and make a simple, rowdy slapstick one-reeler, the results are always entertaining.
“Do-Re-Mi-Boom!” is one of those simple, typical Keystone one-reelers. Conklin is the central figure here, and his comic mannerisms and consistent character are a delight to behold. His emotions evolve from curious, to smitten, to determined, to desperate, and he builds upon them with each sequence. The basic Keystone structure of a conflict, a chase, and a resolution is the canvas on which Conklin displays his comical trajectory.
Conklin responds to the audience. His reactions are often directed to the camera, as if he realizes we are watching and assumes we are on his side. The fascinating thing about this perspective is that the film ends with him not winning – in fact, although it takes place off camera, we are to assume he and the organ grinder have been killed. The woman with whom he is smitten, and for him he makes this ultimate sacrifice, is completely dismissive. There was never any conflict for her. She never considered Walrus over her music teacher beau.
Director Walter Wright helmed many Keystones, including the previous Walrus comedy on the Mack Sennett Collection, “A Bird’s a Bird.” He did not have the insight of someone like Henry Lehrman or Sennett himself, and was nowhere near the level of Charlie Chaplin, Roscoe Arbuckle, F. Richard Jones, or Del Lord. But Wright was a competent director in that he understood the concept of the Keystone comedies and knew how to frame the scenes effectively. The chase at the end switches from long shots to medium shots, and cuts to the frantic organ grinder chasing and shooting. Wright then switches to a two-shot keeping the chaser and the chased in the frame, despite the largeness of the piano prop. It is nicely done and gives the conclusion more humorous impact.
“Do-Re-Mi-Boom!” is another amusing, typical Keystone one-reeler that shows how a particular idea and framework had been firmly established by this time. Some films would extend beyond these parameters, but some of the most interesting efforts worked cheerfully within them.
“A Lover’s Lost Control”
Directed by Syd Chaplin and Charles Avery
Cast: Syd Chaplin, Phyllis Allen, Frank Alexander, Joy Lewis, Wayland Trask, Jay Belasco, Minnie Chaplin.
The Mack Sennett blu ray collection, with the 50 films they’ve chosen to restore for the three-disc, allows for a real appreciation for the Keystone method of presentation, which was often a series of gags and situational conflicts, including a free for all and concluding with a chase. “A Lover’s Lost Control” is another good example of that method done perfectly.
It is the second Syd Chaplin film on this set, and, like the previous one, “Gussle’s Day of Rest,” it is filled with good, rowdy humor. There is nothing sophisticated, the filmmaking remains quite primitive, but “A Lover’s Lost Control” never really stops being funny.
Syd and his wife (once again the wonderfully shrewish Phyllis Allen) go shopping at a department store where Syd is distracted by the pretty daughter of a portly customer in the shoe department. For the next two reels, there are several situations and slapstick sequences that are clever and funny, making this quintessential Keystone production another delightful entry on the Sennett Collection.
Syd Chaplin does have some similarities to brother Charlie’s presentation, but with a bit less finesse and a bit more bombast. His films often deal with his being distracted by a pretty girl, and sneaking away from his stern, hatchet-faced wife to pursue the young lady. In this film, the wife character is missing for a good portion, as she busily shops with no attention paid to her errant husband who flirts with the girl in the shoe department. Her heavy set father sits between them, casually trying on shoes, as Syd tries to look over the large obstruction and maintain the daughter’s attention.
It is the gags and situations that sustain this comedy, as there is no real narrative. Much of the action takes place in the shoe department where Syd gives attention to his pretty female distraction. Pouring talcum powder in front of a blowing fan, which causes the powder to fly about the room, and puckishly pinning a lace fabric to the back of an unwitting woman’s skirt are among Syd’s mischievous ideas. Syd’s pursuit of the girl is a valiant but bumbling effort and it causes enough disruptive commotion to evolve into a free-for-all where boxes of shoes are flung about, and the dishes and vases come into play. This battle is not just a sudden, blatant resolution to the proceedings, but a pointed farcical step toward the actual conclusion, which is the chase climax. The battle in the store is beautifully choreographed, with quick edits and a consistent series of medium shots. One person ducks, another is hit. The boxes fly into other areas of the store and accost people not associated with the melee. Syd and another man stumble onto the floor with their legs connected and take turns hitting one another, with a rhythmic precision that defies truly accurate description. It is all very fast, and very funny.
The slapstick brawl leads to a chase sequence. Syd and the girl scurry to his car and drive off. Store management, Syd’s wife, and a gaggle of cops fill a car and chase behind him. It is a Keystone cops setup, with too many people in a too small car that speeds after. When the car crashes, they all continue to chase on foot. Syd, meanwhile, goes driving into a beach area and the film concludes with him and the girl in the lake trying to make their way out.
While Charlie Chaplin always fought for greater creative control at Keystone, Syd Chaplin is more interested in exploring the intricacies of comedy. Even within the parameters of the Keystone formula, Syd’s gags are more complicated and require greater attention from the viewer. Director Charles Avery allowed the comedian’s contribution to the directorial process, so the entire film is essentially Syd’s vision. There are some elements to this film that could possibly have inspired Charlie's "The Floorwalker" which he would produce a year earlier.
“A Lover’s Lost Control” seems somewhat out of control in its relentless series of wild slapstick gags. But, in fact, it is all precisely timed and shot in a manner to seem improvisational. Each gag sequence is as funny as the previous one, from Syd’s imposing wife spinning him around on a stool the second he looks at another woman, to his suddenly breaking into a dance with another man each jockeys for position in pursuit of the other. Everything is tightly controlled, expertly constructed, and while there is no narrative element, the comedy is vintage Keystone, and quite brilliant in its basic manner.
"A Submarine Pirate" (1915)
Directed by Syd Chaplin, Charles Avery, Charles Parrott (Charley Chase)
Cast: Syd Chaplin, Phyllis Allen, Glen Cavender, Wesley Ruggles, Cecile Arnold, and Harold J. Binney
Released December 26, 1915. Running Time: 24:23
Running a few minutes longer than his other subjects on the Mack Sennett blu ray collection, this Syd Chaplin effort is often singled out as one of his better films. Perhaps this is because it is among those with which film historians have had the longest familiarity, clips of it appearing in compilations and anthologies. “A Submarine Pirate” is certainly a more ambitious film, and something of a tour-de-force for the comedian.
Syd is a waiter who overhears two men plotting to board a submarine and destroy a battleship. He steals their plans, buys an admiral’s uniform, and commandeers the ship. There really isn’t much more to the narrative structure of “A Submarine Pirate,” but then Syd Chaplin never needed a great deal of narrative. His keen visual sense allowed for some truly brilliant gag ideas, sometimes so complex, they were expensive to produce, much to the budget-minded Sennett’s chagrin. “A Submarine Pirate” is a most interesting for its ambitious production and how it exhibits the comedian’s sometimes layered comic ideas.
Some of the best footage takes place during the first half of the film, showing Syd in a restaurant juggling the crockery and improvising with the props and the extras. Although not playing the henpecked Gussle here, Syd still found room in the cast for Phyllis Allen, who usually plays his shrewish wife. This time she is a difficult hotel customer who evokes much of her wrath on the hapless waiter.
Syd investigated some ideas he has with the production side of the film, especially in a scene where his frantic character is chased in the waters by a shark. His ideas were intrinsic to the cinematic process, not merely stage gags worked out in front of a camera, and would rely on whatever level of visual effects were available during this primitive era of cinema’s development. It is all nicely timed, beautifully performed, cleverly conceived, and handsomely produced. When “A Submarine Pirate” was released, it was an enormous hit with audiences, and representatives of the Navy found it especially amusing. In his autobiography, Charlie Chaplin acknowledged his brother’s success with this film.
However, it was to be the last film Syd Chaplin made for Sennett. Newspapers reporting on Syd leaving Sennett were bemused at why the comedian’s contract would not be renewed after the massive success of “A Submarine Pirate.” Syd went to work for brother Charlie at Mutual, negotiated a fat contract, and eventually returned to films as an actor. But he never worked for Mack Sennett again.
“Fatty and Mabel Adrift”
Directed by Roscoe Arbuckle
Cast: Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, Al St. John, Frank Hayes, May Wells, Wayland Trask, Luke The Dog. Released January 9, 1916 Running time: 31 minutes
CineMuseum has other plans for Mr. Roscoe Arbuckle’s films, thus only one of Fatty’s comedies appears on the Mack Sennett blu ray collection. “Fatty and Mabel Adrift” is a bonafide classic that is also a great example of the Keystone structure used most effectively. This three-reeler has a situation, a conflict, a series of gags, and ends with slapstick action featuring the Keystone Kops. It is also one of the most cleverly directed films in the entire Keystone oeuvre.
Fatty and Mabel are married. Al loves Mabel and considers himself Fatty’s rival. While the couple is asleep in their honeymoon cottage, Al and some fellow thugs dislodge the structure of the cottage and cause it to go out to sea with the tide. When the couple awakens, they discover they are at sea. Water fills the cottage and they are in grave danger, but are eventually rescued with the help of their dog, Mabel's parents, and the Keystone Kops.
"Fatty and Mabel Adrift" stands out as one of the truly great silent comedies of its time, and for several reasons. Arbuckle is all boyish charm, subtle gestures, wild pratfalls, and remarkable agility. Mabel Normand has the sweetness of an ingénue and the comic prowess of a master. Al St. John is at his wicked, wily best, as he grimaces through his role with scenery-chewing gusto. They all play off of the Keystone structure with heartfelt abandon.
Along with some standard Keystone bombast, there is a great deal of subtlety to the performances of both Arbuckle and Normand. Fatty attempting to eat Mabel's cooking (the rolls she baked are so hard, they break the plates when placed on them) is one of the film's subtle comic highlights. Fatty tries in vain to cut a roll with a knife, breaks it with his hands using all his might, starts to eat it in order to please Mabel, and spits it out as she glances away. It is all performed quite deftly, mostly in a two-shot closeup with Fatty conveying his feelings with the subtlest of expression.
This is one of many films that show how brilliant Mabel Normand was as an actress. She exhibits all manner of playfulness, coyness, puzzlement, and apprehension throughout the proceedings. Her love for Fatty is genuine, as the two playfully romp on the farm before getting married and settling into their honeymoon cottage. The love is increased once in the cottage, with her soft expressions and fluttering eyelashes. Finally, when the water starts filling their cottage, Mabel jitters and jumps to avoid trouble, splashing into the water, and climbing onto the large, strong Fatty's frame. Normand was the darling of the Keystone studios, and one of cinema's earliest female directors. She had a thorough sense of comedy as well as a creative understanding of the filmmaking process, making her work especially important to the studio's history and development.
Al St. John is the anchor to the narrative. It is he who creates the conflict. He is the villain who rubs his hands together and concocts nefarious schemes in response to losing the woman with whom he is smitten. His comic performance enhances each scene in which he appears.
Arbuckle's direction shows that his vision extended far beyond the usual parameters for a Keystone comedy. While the narrative structure is typical for the studio, Arbuckle's presentation offers the sort of visual beauty found in only the most ambitious projects. Medium shots, long shots, and close-ups are used with creative understanding as Arbuckle searches for the most effective way to frame each scene. Crosscutting from indoor to outdoor shots gives more scope to the proceedings. Arbuckle makes careful use of lighting, shadows, and camera angles to further enhance the visual presentation. Some night scenes are initially bathed in darkness, illuminated only by candlelight. His establishing shots of everything from a sunrise to a backlit visual of a shadow-like Fatty out fishing, with Luke the dog perched on a nearby rock, show a remarkable understanding of what the French call mise-en-scene. Perhaps the most iconic shot is the one of the next morning, after the storm, with the cottage out to see. After the sunrise is shown, the next frame shows Mabel and Fatty floating in their beds in a room of waist-deep water. The opening and closing of the film should also be mentioned, Arbuckle showing close-ups of him and Mabel each framed by a white heart shape. A cupid shoots an arrow and their hearts intertwine. When they are shown occupying one heart, Al is shown in another, crying, as the heart around him shatters. There is a discernible artistry to Arbuckle's choices as a director, and it is no surprise that he moved on to bigger budgets and greater creative control at another studio before this year was up.
“His Bitter Pill”
Directed by Fred Fishback.
Cast: Mack Swain, Louella Maxam, Edgar Kennedy, Ella Haines
Released April 30, 1916. Running time: 19:35
In 1916 the Broncho Billy Anderson series had just wrapped up, and a new western series featuring Tom Mix was enjoying great popularity. It was the perfect time for Keystone to produce a western movie parody, replete with all the pretensions and clichés of the genre. “His Bitter Pill,” from The Mack Sennett blu ray collection, is fascinating in its attention to detail and its getting laughs from the very methods that westerns asked us to take seriously.
“His Bitter Pill” features sheriff Big Jim (Mack Swain) as a complex lawman who is a childlike mama’s boy, a bashful suitor, a kind benefactor, and a fearsome fighter. His rival for pretty Nell is the dapper city-bred Dan (Edgar Kennedy). He tries to be a man about it, but when Dan robs a stagecoach, Jim must do his duty as a sheriff.
Unlike a lot of the Keystone product, “His Bitter Pill” eschews the usual slapstick bombast for a very straight parody of western clichés. Mack Swain being cast as the good natured hero is immediately amusing as his imposing presence and wild eyes make him more suitable for the role of a villain. His size allows him to clear a barroom in a fight, but he exhibits little boy innocence in front of his mother and fluttery shyness in the presence of Nell. In every case, Swain is working against type, making his characterization that much more amusing. Edgar Kennedy’s city slicker is all dash and swagger, able to attract the shallow Nell who is blind to the fact that he lives outside the law.
The film rests completely on its satire, with a few outrageous scenes. One of the funniest has Big Jim taking solace from his doting mother when Nell chooses Dan, showing the strength of a stereotypical western movie hero. Once mom leaves the room, Jim collapses onto the couch and starts crying while flailing his arms and kicking his legs. The tantrum stops abruptly upon mother’s return.
The approach of “His Bitter Pill” is far subtler than the usual Keystone production, and a real departure for its stars. Its placement as the 22nd film on the 50-movie Sennett Collection also shows that amidst the flinging bricks, bulging eyes, wild pratfalls, and acrobatic stunts, an art form was quietly and steadily developing.
Directed by Fred Fishback.
Cast: Mack Swain, Polly Moran, May Wells, Edgar Kennedy, Frank Hayes, May Emory, Louis Morrison.
Released July 16, 1916. Running time: 21:44
CineMuseum’s restoration of several Mack Sennett-produced films on The Mack Sennett Collection has given us a greater understanding of how comedy is central to the development of the cinematic process. In the five years that the first disc (of three) covers, the Sennett collection allows us to more clearly understand the development of comedy’s basics, offering knockabout slapstick, overplayed reactions, clever satire, and a myriad of visual effects that are intrinsic to cinematic presentation.
As per the usual Keystone structure, “Madcap Ambrose” has a basic plot, offers several situations filled with slapstick gags, and ends with a chase. It is also another one of the funniest examples of quintessential Keystone comedy.
Ambrose (Mack Swain) takes care of the family farm while his mother (May Wells) runs a boarding house. The servant girl (Polly Moran) is smitten with Ambrose, but he is not allowed to give her any attention, as his pretentious mother forbids him from courting “beneath his station.” An artist lady (May Emory) pulls up, and, impressed with Ambrose’s massive appearance and remarkable strength, asks him to pose for her while she paints him. Ambrose falls for the artist as she paints, and starts to kiss her hand just when her husband (Louis Morrison) arrives to chase him away. Returning home, he finds out one of the shifty boarders (Edgar Kennedy) has discovered the maid is about to inherit a large sum of money, and has talked her into marrying him. Ambrose rushes in just in time, there is a chase sequence, and it is ultimately Ambrose who is happily wed to the maid as the movie concludes.
Fred Fishback directed many films featuring Mack Swain, and had a real understanding how to best present him. Swain is usually shown in medium shots or close-ups, as the director emphasizes different aspects of the Ambrose persona. His super strength is the focus of some visuals here. The initial establishing scenes feature Ambrose chopping up firewood by breaking trees over his knee. When the artist rolls into the area with car trouble, Ambrose lifts the car, holds it up with one hand, and removes a weed stuck in the gears with his other hand. When running away from the artist’s jealous husband, Ambrose runs right through a large log being carried by two men, breaking it in half. Fishback shoots these scenes so there is little negative space. Ambrose is central to the frame.
Some of the gags are more mechanical (e.g. a hot plate passed around quickly among several characters as it burns their hands, eventually crashing over a diner’s head), others are more quaint (a kitten finding its way into a covered serving bowel, then popping out once it is placed on the table for the diners). Interestingly, one sequence responds to sound. The servant girl is shown playing a squeezebox while the diners slurp their soup in time to the music. Fishback cuts from servant to diners in the same basic rhythm, so the scene plays well as a visual. But we must give another nod to CineMuseum and accompanist Donald Sosin whose original soundtrack for this film features a squeezebox sound playing “She’ll Be Comin’ Around the Mountain” during this sequence, timed precisely to what’s on screen.
“Madcap Ambrose” is steadily amusing, and much of the praise goes to Mack Swain in the title role. Swain’s best-known work is opposite Chaplin, as even some film buffs have little or no understanding of the comedian’s own films. With the Ambrose character, Swain establishes a comic trajectory not unlike the recent Shrek features, playing a large, hideous looking figure of top strength being essentially a gentle soul.
“Teddy at the Throttle”
Directed by Clarence Badger.
Cast: Bobby Vernon, Gloria Swanson, Wallace Beery, May Emory, Blanche Phillips, Charles Bennett, Teddy.
Released April 15, 1917. Running time: 26:36
This is one of the more famous titles on the Mack Sennett blu ray collection from CineMuseum, mostly due to its inclusion in the Robert Youngson anthology “When Comedy Was King” (1960). “Teddy at the Throttle” is a very direct parody of silent screen melodrama, perhaps most especially inspired by the massively popular 1914 movie serial “The Perils of Pauline” featuring actress Pearl White in the title role. Each week a different chapter would play at the theater, and end with Ms. White in some terrible danger. The idea was to get moviegoers to attend weekly to find out how Pearl escaped certain death. This production set the foundation for many serials to come, well into the 1950s.
“Teddy at the Throttle” takes similar situations and transfers them to a three-reel Keystone comedy. Bobby Vernon is all youthful exuberance as the beau of Gloria (Gloria Swanson), whose evil guardian (Wallace Beery) is attempting to swindle money from him. Bobby has inherited a large sum, but Beery is keeping him from knowing until he can figure out a way to get his own hands on that fortune. He arranges for his vampish sister (May Emory) to seduce him and wrest is affections from Gloria. After introducing these situations and playing them for comedy, the film concludes with Beery tying Gloria to the railroad tracks in the same sort of dangerous situation as would be found in “The Perils of Pauline.” Bobby rescues her with help from her heroic dog Teddy.
While slapstick is still a part of “Teddy at the Throttle,” it is far more situational in its presentation than the usual Keystone comedies of this period. A great deal of time is spent developing the character relationships as the guardian’s sister makes a play for Bobby to assist in distracting him while her brother creates a way to most effectively get his hands on the inheritance. Bobby foolishly falls for the ruse and agrees to marry the sister, asking a weeping Gloria to return his engagement ring. Not only does this give the guardian a chance at the money, he also makes a play for Gloria’s affections, which she rebuffs.
Much of the humor can be found during a wedding party sequence where Vernon and Emory dance. While some of the dancing relies on effects (Bobby gliding across the dance floor with his feet above ground), the dynamics of the very tall May and the very short Bobby create an immediately amusing visual that further enhances the scene.
The cliffhanger parody gets going during the wedding party sequence when Gloria discovers the executor’s note about Bobby’s inheritance and figures out the scheme. She summons an attorney, and then proceeds to reach Bobby and let him know what she knows. The guardian tries to stop her, all the way to tying her to the railroad tracks as a train approaches.
Adding yet another visceral element to the proceedings is that the conclusion is filmed during a massive storm with blowing winds, pouring rain, and muddy roads. Director Clarence Badger paces the film at a relaxed tempo for all of the initial expository scenes, then relies on a faster pace and quicker edits once the storm sequence begins. Building up the same tension as one would a cliffhanger serial, we see the train carrying the lawyer approaching as Gloria is chained helplessly to the tracks. Blowing a whistle alerts Teddy, her dog, who jumps out of an upstairs window and hurries to her aid, through rivers and over hills. Unable to break the chains with his teeth, he barks for help and then runs to deliver a note Gloria has written to Bobby, who hurries to her on a bicycle, holding the dog’s tail as he runs. The editing and the cinematography (including some remarkable long shots of the dog running down a mountain and Bobby’s bicycle riding across a bridge) help maintain the suspense and excitement of the scene. Teddy drags the evil Beery to the tracks where the train has stopped just in time and Gloria has been freed.. The sheriff takes the evildoer away, while Bobby and Gloria (and Teddy) ride the train to happiness.
While not a typical Keystone comedy, “Teddy at the Throttle” is one of the most brilliant short films of its time, and its restoration is one of the real highlights of the Mack Sennett blu ray collection.
“Her Torpedoed Love”
Directed by Frank C. Griffin.
Cast: Louise Fazenda, Ford Sterling, Wayland Trask, Harry Booker, Glen Cavendar, Tom Kennedy, Frank Hayes, Harry McCoy, Al Kaufman, Wesley Ruggles, Grover Ligon, Edith Valk.
Released May 13, 1917. Running time: 21:08
One of the most fascinating two-reelers on the Mack Sennett blu ray collection is this brilliantly constructed gem that has several points of interest.
“Her Torpedoed Love” features an old wealthy man’s plans to leave his entire fortune to his maid (Louise Fazenda) and nothing to his butler (Ford Sterling). Ford arranges to have the man (Harry Booker) and Louise’s husband (Wayland Trask) on board a ship that has been targeted by German submarines, so he can marry the rich widow.
By the time this plot is established, there are already several factors worth discussing. First, Sennett’s former comedy star, Ford Sterling, is back at the studio after an absence of a few years. Next, the comic talents of Louise Fazenda are presented while Wayland Trask shows an ability beyond simply being a replacement for rotund comedian Mack Swain. Finally, director Frank C. Griffin’s choice of presentation is to structure the film’s narrative at a very relaxed pace, and punctuating it with slapstick gags, rather than engage in non-stop rowdiness. While the rowdy approach has its own substantial merit, this method also proves to be effective. The film carefully builds to the inevitable chase climax.
Wayland and the rich man do end up on the ship, it is torpedoed, but they somehow survive the shipwreck and make their way to an island. Wayland later makes it back home and discovers his wife is planning to marry Ford. This results in a slapstick brawl and a chase that involves the Keystone Kops. But the wild slapstick fighting and the ultimate chase scene come after the story is established and each character is examined. Wayland is considered something of a jobless goldbricker at first and, despite his imposing size, is introduced as rather delicate. However, after the harrowing experience of being torpedoed and shipwrecked, he returns home a frazzled, bearded fighter. The young Trask, who was adept at playing the overweight pansy or the imposing heavy, did not live long enough to develop his craft further, being a sad victim of the 1918 influenza pandemic. Griffin’s approach to the comedy being subtler allows for Trask to offer a more sensitive and layered portrayal of the comic heavy in this film.
Ford Sterling shows that he had not really adapted his style since 1914. But he is, as usual, quite brilliant at making his more blatant method fit director Griffin’s subtler approach. As the villain of the story, Ford’s blinking grimaces, darting glances, and broad gestures add a certain parody of melodrama that blends nicely within the proceedings. His return is welcome as he helps carry this film with his performance.
Louise Fazenda is a strong comic presence whose prowess in this area would continue to develop over her next several films for Sennett. She conveys here love for Wayland, her disdain for Ford, her naivety in being easily duped and her ability to engage in the knockabout slapstick with commendable skill.
As Griffin starts his film slowly and gradually builds the narrative, there are some punctuating slapstick sequences throughout: Ford sits on the rich man’s gout ridden foot, Wayland slips and breaks several dishes on the freshly scrubbed kitchen floor, etc. Griffin punctuates the narrative with these gags, which help build the film to its riotous conclusion.
The chase scene is very detailed and outrageous, Griffin taking advantage of as many cinematic effect as he cared to explore. A lot of long shots are used to show the narrow misses and crashing hits of the cars as they speed along. An explosion sends Ford flying into the air on a detached car hood, which glides through the sky while being shot at by the Keystone Kops. Finally, when the rich man returns in the midst of the melee and expects his inheritance be returned (seeing as how he is not dead), Wayland picks him up and spins him around. When the Kops see this, they haul the rich man, Wayland, and Louise into the car and speed away to sort it all out at the station.
“Her Torpedoed Love” opens disc 2 of the Mack Sennett Collection with proof that Sennett’s original Keystone structure was versatile enough to accommodate a director that had a far more subtle approach. The result is one of the best silent comedies of its time.
“A Clever Dummy”
Directed by Herman C. Raymaker, Ferris Hartman, Robert Kerr
Cast: Ben Turpin, Chester Conklin, Wallace Beery, Juanita Hansen, Claire Anderson, James DeLano, James Donnelly
Released July 15, 1917. Running Time: 19:23
Cross-eyed Ben Turpin has one of the classic faces of silent comedy. There are people who recognize Turpin’s face without having seen any of his work. He is well represented on the Mack Sennett blu ray collection.
In this one, Ben is the model for a dummy being created. This dummy is to be used in a stage act, but not as a lifeless form. Its creator hooks it up with electricity so it moves by remote control. The control center is specific to moving the dummy’s arms, legs, head, etc. Because of the resemblance, Ben trades places with the dummy to get closer to a woman in the show with whom he is smitten.
There are the usual complications and situations with this sort of premise. There are several comic highlights, but one of the cleverest has Ben, as the dummy, sitting in a dressing room and having to remain expressionless while the actress disrobes. Believing him to be a dummy, she still feels unsettled with him looking at her so she turns him away. But he’s looking directly into her full sized mirror, so he still manages to see everything.
Stage hand Chester Conklin puts the dummy in a variety of different poses, fascinated by the response; not realizing it is Ben, an actual person. When Ben, as the dummy, is hooked up to the control, Chester presses the button for the legs, the arms, etc., and Ben must guess which body part to move while on stage. He takes the opportunity to start hitting and kicking the actor who is dating the woman he likes, acting as though it is a short circuit causing his “dummy” to act this way.
What is most impressive is Turpin’s performance. Already nearing age 50, Turpin had been in movies since the turn of the century and was already something of a veteran by the time he made this Keystone comedy. He takes some impressive comic falls down the stairs, and his control of his body as he plays the dummy is remarkable.
The inevitable chase conclusion ends with the acting troupe, and the actual dummy, leaving Ben standing alone on a bridge. It is one of most oddly moving conclusions for a Keystone production.
“Hearts and Flowers”
Directed by Eddie Cline
Cast: Louise Fazenda, Ford Sterling, Phyllis Haver, Jack Ackroyd, Edgar Kennedy, Kalla Pasha, Bert Roach, Heinie Conklin, Billy Armstrong
Released June 22, 1919. Released June 22, 1919
As we continue to explore the films on the three-disc Mack Sennett Collection, we discover further advancement in filmmaking, performance, and presentation.
“Hearts and Flowers” was produced after the Keystone Company began calling itself Mack Sennett productions and was releasing through the prestigious Paramount Pictures. The films not only became subtler (a trend that was noticed by more than one movie critic at the time), but they also became a bit more courageous in their approach to some subjects. Knockabout slapstick was not jettisoned completely, but it wasn’t responsible for the films’ edginess. Sennett now spent more time with cross-dressing and sexuality. During this period, the Keystone Kops were less evident and the Mack Sennett Bathing Beauties appeared more frequently.
Ford Sterling plays a stuffy orchestra conductor, Louise Fazenda a starry eyed fan. Sterling is completely dismissive of her until he discovers she has inherited a fortune. He then plays up to her, with the intention of securing the fortune and then returning to his actual girlfriend (Phyllis Haver). Meanwhile, he does not realize that the idea of Fazenda’s inheritance is merely a ruse concocted by her short punk boyfriend (Jack Ackroyd).
Perhaps a bit disjointed in all it wants to display, “Hearts and Flowers” is still brilliant enough to offer many layers beyond the superficial. There is a crossdressing scene where Phyllis disguises herself as a man, dances with Louise, and kisses her, repeatedly, full on the lips. Interestingly, Louise, believing this to be a man, wonders why these kisses are superior to that which she’s experienced before. The Mack Sennett bathing beauties frolic in the sand playing beach football. These scenes have a tangential connection to the core narrative, but are mostly included to explore cinema’s edge through sex.
Ford Sterling is without the garish makeup and florid gestures of his earlier Keystone work, expertly playing the foppish conductor with a minimal of amount of broad, sweeping movements and bug-eyed facial ticks. His acting is strong and grounded, while his physical comic skills remain intact. He remains one of the finest comedians to ever work in the Sennett productions. Louise Fazenda and Phyllis Haver both also exhibit real skill as physical comics.
While there is no chase sequence, the conclusion is still rowdy slapstick with Ford, before the justice of the peace, realizing Louise has no money and trying to get out of the marriage. Her three burly brothers (Edgar Kennedy, Bert Roach, Kalla Pasha) engage in a slapstick free-for-all with Ford, at one point throwing him from room to room. While all this is going on, Phyllis marries actual boyfriend Jack. The brothers protest, and her little husband knocks them all out.
The altering of the Keystone structure, the addition of sexual undertones, and the continued great performances of the best comedians from this time, all add up to a new and exciting period in Mack Sennett’s career. The Mack Sennett Collection continues to give examples as to how cinema was developing during what was still its infancy.
“Down on the Farm”
Directed by Ray Grey, F. Richard Jones, Erle C. Kenton
Written by Ray Grey, Raymond Griffith, Mack Sennett
Cast: Louise Fazenda, James Finlayson, Harry Gribbon, Bert Roach, Ben Turpin, Marie Prevost, John Henry Jr., Teddy the Dog, Pepper the Cat.
Released April 25, 1920. Running time: 52:02
One of the few feature-length movies on the Mack Sennett Collection Volume One blu ray set,, “Down on the Farm” is a brilliant compendium of the Sennett studio’s specialties. By 1920, old-fashioned melodrama was fading out, culminating with films like D.W. Griffith’s “Way Down East.” This film takes the rudiments of a basic melodramatic plot (the evil landlord who exchanges sexual favors from the farm women for mortgage payments) and uses it as a springboard for a lot of solid comedy and exciting thrills.
James Finlayson hams it up with gusto as the landlord, whose designs on pretty Marie Prevost are thwarted by her heroic husband Ben Turpin. However when Fin happens upon the farm of Bert Roach and daughter Louise Fazenda, he falls for Louise. She cuts out a picture from an ad, says it is an old romance, and throws Finlayson off the track. However, her phony ruse also causes trouble with the man she does love, ranch hand Harry Gribbon. Her father disapproves of Harry, believing him to be beneath their station.
Being that this is a feature rather than a short, “Down on the Farm” has more plot than usual and the situations are more layered with conflict. It also starts out slowly, offering slapstick to punctuate the amusing, gentle scenes on the farm, such as when Louise is planting while a group of geese follow her and eat the seeds. Animals are noteworthy here. Teddy the dog does chores, including carrying a bucket of food into the pigpen. He also rescues little John Henry jr. when he gets a bit too close to the river’s violent current.
As with most Sennett-produced films, this feature has its wild slapstick scenes, such as when Harry Gribbon and Finlayson chase each other while wielding an axe. And the chase scenes (on foot or on wheels) are nicely filmed, with some long shots that show the precisions of the driver and the stunts of the actor (a jump from the top floor of a barn that Louise Fazenda does is especially impressive). The ending has Bert and Harry discovering that Louise has inherited a fortune making the landlord is no longer a threat. So they beat up troublesome landlord Finlayson and leave him buried in the dirt with only his head sticking up.
“Down on the Farm” surges from gently humorous to wildly funny. It has action, thrills, laughs, and some quaint, pleasant scenes featuring the exploits of the trained animals. And somehow with three screenwriters and as many directors, these disparate elements manage to blend cohesively, offering one of the most enjoyable of Sennett’s few feature-length movies. It is another of the highlights on volume one of Mack Sennett collection.
The source material for this restoration is from the Library of Congress
Directed by Mal St. Clair
Cast: Charlie Murray, Ford Sterling Harriet Hammond, James Finlayson, Baldy Belmont, and Fanny Kelly
Released September 5, 1920. Running Time: 21:27
As cinema entered the 1920s, comedy was becoming a bit less knockabout and a bit more situational, even at the Sennett studios. As the Mack Sennett Collection on blu ray demonstrates with its selection of films, there is a discernible evolution of comedy as well as in the filmmaking process.
Along with satirizing the hamminess of melodrama and the seriousness of unsmiling authority figures, the Sennett productions also attacked pretention. “Don’t Weaken” features Ford Sterling and James Finlayson as dancers who think a great deal of themselves and their abilities. They are rivals, they have a dance off, and Ford’s exuberance causes him to sail out a second floor window and splatter into a vat of whitewash on the street. This scene is a good example of how the largely situational comedy is punctuated by the broad slapstick that had become Sennett’s trademark.
Ford gives a bit too much attention to Charlie Murray’s wife and daughter (he spirits the daughter away from Finlayson’s dancing school and offers her private lessons). So Charlie challenges Ford to a boxing match.
The structural context of the film builds nicely and evenly, and while the situations are played, the performances are varied. James Finlayson is notable for chewing the scenery, even in films 20 years after this, while Ford Sterling established himself several years earlier with the bulging eyes and florid gestures. In this film, both actors incorporate elements of their more blatant methods but just enough to fit into this subtler context. Sterling is especially amusing as he glides and cavorts across the dance floor, and employs similar gestures in his attempt to box opponent Murray.
Sterling makes the most of every appearance. He will have his back to the camera and turn toward it with a special grimace on his face. He’ll break into a few steps of dance as he meets someone for the first time. His pretentions are enormous, and his way of playing them hilarious. Even in the boxing ring, just prior to his fight with Charlie, Ford sits loftily in his corner, fully confident, and saying to the daughter “oh I won’t hurt your father.” It is his dancing away from Charlie’s wild swings that keep him on his feet. Before returning to his corner between rounds, Ford takes a bow. Things extend to slapstick when butt kicking and stepping on toes become part of the bout. Ford is so in control with his graceful dance moves, he actually smokes a cigarette between rounds. Charlie finally emerges victorious by knocking out Ford while the pretty legs of Charlie’s daughter who is seated at ringside distract him.
Directed by Roy Del Ruth
Cast: Billy Bevan, Mildred June, Kewpie Morgan, and Marvin Loback
Released May 9, 1922. Running time: 19:19
The 30th film on the 50-film Mack Sennett blu ray collection, “Gymnasium Jim” is a bit more episodic and a bit more surreal than what Sennett was usually producing around this time.
Billy Bevan stars as a garage mechanic who is awarded $10,000 for his latest invention: a noiseless auto horn! Kewpie dupes Jim into boxing against champion Kid Ryan in what he promises will be a fixed fight, allowing Jim to increase his money. Of course Kewpie and Kid are in on this together, and plan to profit from Jim.
“Gymnasium Jim” has all the elements of the old Keystone structure; with a series of unrelated gag vignettes (including some water-logged plumbing work at Mildred’s home as well as Jim’s unorthodox workout prior to the fight), a slapstick highlight midway through (the fight itself) and a chase to conclude (this one especially dazzling, with autos and trains). But there are two factors that help this comedy stand out. First is Bevan’s performance. He doesn’t merely respond to the situations or gags, he leads them. He is always moving, always reacting. When he disembarks from his car at the start of the film, he shakes off both feet (director Del Ruth using a long shot to surround this movement with negative space). When he sees Kid Ryan lift a truck to retrieve his hat, he worriedly pantomimes to Kewpie what he just saw (pointing to the window, making a lifting motion, then to himself, then holds up is fists). Bevan conveys all communication with his physical comedy style, and is perfectly delightful throughout.
Then next aspect of this film is the surrealism that is allowed by the cinematic process that has advanced since Sennett worked at Biograph some ten years earlier. Bevan peels a banana and the peel jumps back up. He runs into a narrow structure marked “garage” and drives out with a large vehicle. A head on collision causes an explosion, the editing making this piece of action extremely effective.
“Gymnasium Jim” is another two-reel classic on the Mack Sennett Collection that shows comedy’s development, cinema’s evolution, and is funny throughout. For more on the Sennett films, check out this book.
"The Extra Girl"
Directed by F. Richard Jones. Story by Mack Sennett
Cast: Mabel Normand, Ralph Graves, George Nicholls, Anna Hernandez, Vernon Dent, Ramsey Wallace, Charlotte Mineau, Harry Gribbon, Billy Bevan, Max Davidson, Louise Carver, William Desmond, Teddy the Dog, Duke and Numa the lions.
Released October 28, 1923. Running Time: 73 minutes
"The Extra Girl" is another one of the few feature-length movies on the Mack Sennett Collection. It showcases one of the finest actresses of the silent screen.
Mabel Normand was one of the first big stars at Mack Sennett’s Keystone studios, and one of the cleverest and most brilliant female comedians of cinema's early years. Cute, funny, and fearless, Normand would engage in knockabout slapstick with engaging, expressive performances. She would act as her own director, and would help guide newcomer comics through the process, including Roscoe Arbuckle and Charlie Chaplin. Unfortunately, in the ten years since her early days with Keystone to the making of this feature, life had not been good to Mabel Normand. Heartbreak, scandal, and substance abuse had disrupted her life enormously.
"The Extra Girl" was made during a time when Ms. Normand was seeking some level of redemption, after being implicated in the murder of director William Desmond Taylor in 1922. Mabel had been making films for Samuel Goldwyn productions, but a serious problem with drug addiction deemed her unreliable. Soon, neither Goldwyn nor other producers were interested in using her.
Mack Sennett bought Mabel’s contract from Goldwyn, and it is he who produced "The Extra Girl." The film features Mabel as Sue Graham, a character trying to make it in movies, but only able to find work as an extra. It was Sennett’s concept, and his attempt to put his beloved Mabel back in the spotlight in a vehicle tailored to her talents. Her old friend F. Richard Jones is directing. The cast is rounded out with old Sennett veterans like Billy Bevan and Vernon Dent. It couldn't have been a more perfect setup for Mabel Normand.
"The Extra Girl" is, as a result, an effective experience for Mabel and for the viewer. A pleasant and amusing feature length movie, "The Extra Girl" does a good job of showcasing Normand's abilities, allowing her to prove that she could still be as charming and funny as she had been in her Keystone comedies with Arbuckle or Chaplin a decade earlier. On volume on of the Mack Sennett Keystone Collection, "The Extra Girl" has been carefully restored by CineMuseum from the finest existing pre-print elements.
However, despite her charm coming through, it is sometimes a bit unsettling to compare Mabel in this film to the spunky performances in her earlier Keystone comedies. Even as she remains engaging and effective, her weariness at this point in her life is sometimes evident. Still, Mabel Normand's innate talents are certainly on display. Normand remains completely adept at performing physical comedy, and also is able to project the homespun appeal necessary for the character she is playing. Mabel Normand is delightful in scenes in the studio’s wardrobe department, and a wild sequence where she unwittingly unleashes a lion on the studio backlot.
"The Extra Girl" should have been a triumphant comeback for Mabel Normand, but, sadly the following year she made headlines again when her chauffeur shot millionaire Courland Dines with her pistol. The scandal was a bigger setback than "The Extra Girl" had been a triumph. It would be another three years before Mabel Normand would make another film when she starred in a handful of two-reelers for Hal Roach in the later 1920s, some co-written by Stan Laurel. Mabel Normand died in 1930.
Directed by Del Lord
Cast: Ben Turpin, Harry Gribbon, Kewpie Morgan, John J. Richardson, Madeline Hurlock, Gordon Lewis, Irene Lentz, Arthur Rowlands, Andy Clyde.
Released November 25, 1923. Running time: 19:56
As we continue to examine each of the 50 films on the three-disc Mack Sennett Collection on blu ray, we see further development at both the comedic and cinematic levels.
“The Dare-devil” is one of the comedy classics of the silent screen, a consistently funny slapstick parody on moviemaking. While the plot about a pampered star insisting a stunt man do all the difficult scenes might seem a bit cliché but the 21st century, it was a newer concept in this film made over 90 years ago.
There are several levels to explore here. First, the premise of moviemaking’s fakery, exposing the galloping across the plains to be no more than the actor sitting on a manually operated device in front of a revolving piece of scenery. Cross-eyed Ben Turpin is a meek little man who longs to be an actual cowboy, practicing bronco riding by sitting on the hood of a bouncy old car. When he falls onto a wild horse that had sticky glue on its saddle, no amount of bucking can throw Ben off. The movie crew sees this, and Ben is hired as the unlikely double for the star.
The visuals are impressively funny at the very outset. Director Del Lord uses establishing shots offering a close-up of the rider, and cuts back to a medium shot that reveals the trickery. It is a jarring, funny series of images that is further enhanced by the utter seriousness of director Harry Gribbon and his crew. The other striking visual is Ben emerging from the barn atop a rickety car that bounces across the land with him straddling the hood. This rehearsal for hopeful rodeo success is clever and creative, while the visual imagery is hilarious.
After a series of mishaps where Ben tries and fails at creating action scenes in place of the leading man, the crew finally gives up and hopes to simply film the poor stunt man’s demise, as Ben gets trapped in a rubbish barrel and wanders around in traffic trying to extricate himself. Gribbon is at his scowling best as he directs his crew to hurriedly follow Ben in the hope that his death is exciting enough to use in a film. When Ben manages to escape injury, Gribbon instructs one of his underlings to shoot at him in order to “keep him going.”
Ben is once again used for a scene, this time tied up as water fills the room. The crew suddenly and abruptly leaves the premises to chase after an actual fire and get some shots (driving along the fire en