Tonight on TCM: Silent Comedy Classics
Tonight on TCM: a menu of lesser-known but (for the most part) important silent comedy classics:
8:oopm (EST): The Golden Age of Comedy (1957)
The first of Robert Youngson’s numerous anthology films encapsulating silent comedy’s funniest moments and its greatest stars. The films were highly influential and paved the way for the revival for these films that continues apace today. For many people, these compilation films were their first exposure to silent comedy. That said, you’ll notice that some of the biggest names (Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Arbuckle and Normand) are missing. But we do get Laurel and Hardy, the Keystone Kops, Harry Langdon, Charley Chase, Ben Turpin, Billy Bevan and many others.
9:30pm (EST): Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914)
This seminal all-star Mack Sennett comedy feature stars Marie Dressler, Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand, and Mack Swain. Scattered throughout the rest of the cast is nearly everyone else then employed on the Sennett lot.
Dressler, a fellow Canadian, had been instrumental in getting Mack Sennett onto the stage at the beginning of his career. Now that he was a Hollywood mogul, Sennett saw it as the ultimate coup to star her in one of his films. T.P.R. is an adaptation of Dressler’s own Broadway stage hit of 1910-12, Tillie’s Nightmare. The story plays upon her image as an ugly duckling. Dressler plays a blushing milkmaid of 50 who is swept off her feet by a conniving con man and gigolo (Chaplin) who has fallen in love with the large pile of cash her father (Mack Swain) has saved up. Normand plays Chaplin’s comely confederate. The narrative is quite sturdy, marred only perhaps by Sennett’s penchant for directing all of his actors to hit each other or fall on the ground every five seconds.
Tillie was the first comedy feature to be released in America, and was a smash hit. In fact, Dressler went on to make several sequels for other studios, Tillie’s Tomato Surprise (1915, for Lubin) Tillie Wakes Up (1917, shot at Coney Island), and The Scrub Lady (1917, Goldwyn). Shortly afterward, she left the movies to concentrate on the stage again, returning a decade later to become one of the hugest movie stars (indeed at one point, the biggest box office draw) of the early talkie era.
As for Chaplin, believe it or not, this was the last he would appear in a film he did not script and direct himself. It’s still so early — just a few months into a screen career that was last another half-century! It’s also interesting to watch him play a character quite different from his usual screen persona. It would have been interesting to have seen a lot more of this from him. And as for Normand, she would begin starring in features herself in a few years, starting with 1918’s Mickey.
11:06pm (EST): A Flirt’s Mistake (1914)
Mack Sennett’s Keystone released this hilarious comedy, directed by George Nichols. The titular “flirt” is of course, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, who compulsively annoys every woman he sees, much to the ire of his wife (Minta Durfee). His “mistake” is thinking a mysterious Eastern “rajah” (Edgar Kennedy) is a woman, due to his beautiful hat and robes, disposing Fatty to come on to him. Violence results, some of it from the rajah, some of it from the Mrs.
11:15pm (EST): Mabel’s Willful Way (1915)
Why, it’s chock full of incident: daughter Mabel Normand is eating with her parents in a fancy outdoor café. Fatty and Arbuckle and another guy are hanging around causing mischief. A cop tries to chase them off. Mabel goes to a candy vendor, steals candy while ordering ice cream, but has no money. She spits candy out of her mouth and gives it back to the guy. Fatty goes up and steals money from register, then uses it to pay for ice cream. Then they taunt a bear in the cage at the zoo and give him some ice cream. Then her parents go looking for her. They split up to look. The father has a tussle with Fatty’s friend. Someone kicks Fatty all the way up the playground slide. A cop beats Fatty. Fatty touches Mabel’s mother—he thought it was the girl. Outrage! The daughter introduces her father to the guy who beat him up. They resume fighting. Now she introduces Fatty to her mother: the same degree of consternation. Fatty and his friend swear off women.
11:30pm (EST): Mickey (1918)
Mickey was the perfect Mabel Normand picture, building on her image as a feisty, independent, somewhat untameable young woman, and adding a new dimension of seriousness not present in any of her previous work with Mack Sennett. The film was a Cinderella story about a girl growing up wild and uneducated with her gold mining father in the wilderness of California, then being sent to live with family back East for lessons in refinement. While Normand had already proven herself a fine actress at Biograph (where she’d played in some dramas) and even with Sennett, Mickey showcased this talent at a whole new level. And it still had plenty of comedy. Legal snarls kept it on the shelf for two years, but when it was finally released in 1918, it was one of the smash hits of the year.
1:03am (EST): Spring Fever (1919)
1:15am (EST): Seven Years Bad Luck (1921)
Max Linder’s feature film is much praised and famous for being that source of the “mirror routine” imitated by many later comedians. When he realizes he has broken a mirror, he expects bad luck and gets it. His girlfriend misunderstands something and dumps him. Blue, he goes west. A kid steals his wallet as he is about to depart so he resorts to all sorts of tricks to sneak on the train and stay there. He gets all the way west, masquerades as a station master etc. An interlude at a zoo as he flees from cops. He returns home and makes up with his girl. They get married and have seven little Maxes all dressed in little top hats!
2:30am (EST): Coney Island (1917)
In this classic comedy short, Fatty Arbuckle, Buster Keaton and Al St. John take turns dating the same girl (Alice Mann) at Coney Island (despite the fact that Arbuckle’s character is married). Inevitably Arbuckle winds up going in drag in a woman’s bathing suit. In addition to priceless period footage of Coney’s Luna Park in its heyday, this film offers the sight of Keaton doing an impressive blackflip, and — even more exotic — crying!
1:15am (EST): Yankee Doodle in Berlin (1919)
This WWI-era patriotic comedy is doubly interesting to us: 1) because it stars so many greats from the Sennett stock company: Ford Sterling (as the Kaiser!), Ben Turpin, Mal St. Clair, Marie Prevost, Charlie Murray, both Chester and Heinie Conklin, and the Bathing Beauties; and 2) the star of the picture is Bothwell Browne, a vaudeville drag performer whose only starring film this is. (For more on Browne go here). This was Sennett’s most ambitious film up to that time, and only his third feature. Unfortunately he gambled on the war lasting longer than it did; it was already over by the time the film was in theatres.
The plot is just what you think it would be. Browne is an army captain who goes undercover in the Kaiser’s Germany, disguised as a woman. As long as Sterling or Turpin makes a pass at him, that’s all I ask!
4:15am (EST) The Champeen (1923) and Our Gang (1922)
Two of the earliest Our Gang shorts, with the original silent cast.
4:44am (EST) Harold Lloyd (1962)
A clip from the documentary Harold Lloyd’s World of Comedy
For more on silent comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc