Tonight starting at midnight, Turner Classic Movies will be screening several classic silent movie shorts, some of which are downright pivotal in American comedy history. Just click on links below for more info on each comedian mentioned. Note: they don’t give specific times for each film; shorts are all strange, unpredictable lengths so they just give them all in a block. When I DVR them, I find that the only way is “all or nothing”. But according to TCM, they will be presented in the order below. It’s nice little program, suggesting something about the evolution of the comedy short under Sennett’s watch, and the passing of the torch between comedy stars.
The Curtain Pole (1909)
The film that started it all. It may be too much to say The Curtain Pole is America’s first film comedy, but it is Mack Sennett’s first film comedy and since he’s the guy who laid the foundation for most of what came later, this is the one that counts. The Curtain Pole was made while Sennett was still at Biograph; Sennett wrote the script and stars in the film and D.W. Griffith directed. At the time, the top comedy films in the U.S. were all coming from France, most of them starring the immortal Max Linder. Here Sennett apes the style of those imported French farces so much as to make it seem a parody. Sennett’s character, M. Dupont (complete with top hat and some very clownish make-up) is helping a woman (Florence Lawrence) hang a curtain when he accidentally breaks the rod. Not to worry, he declares! He goes to town, buys a new one, stops off at the bar and gets wasted, and then rides back in a hansom cab, destroying everything he encounters along the way with his swinging, bad-ass curtain pole. The phallicism of this comic concept is positively Roman. Or maybe we should say Gallicism? This was perhaps the most extreme example of Sennett’s Francophilia in action. It is a similar phenomenon to the Roman comedies of Plautus and Terence having been set in Athens – living in the shadow of the older, better established culture. Later homages would make a more sensible effort to borrow situations and plots from French farces without feeling the need to make the characters actual Frenchmen. But to make sure no one was confused, he would still label most of his films “Farce-Comedies” right in the opening credits both at Biograph and at Keystone.
On His Wedding Day (1913)
An early one from Sennett’s own comedy shop, Keystone. A cross-eyed bride (Dot Farley) and her family are waiting for a wedding to start. Ford Sterling shows up as the groom. His flowers make everyone sneeze. The girl runs away in consternation. Everyone goes to look for her. The Ford sees a good looking babe with another guy and tries to horn in on the action. Another guy hires bums to beat Ford up and they do. Ford managaes to knock the other guy and a cop down. Everyone chases him. More cops come and chase him. He climbs onto a roof, goes down a chimney — back into the parlor, where the waiting family is ready to start the wedding. The cops follow him into the room, but the bride beats them off.
Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life (1913)
A real classic of the genre — it’s what a lot of people think of when they think of silent comedy. A melodrama parody, it features Ford Sterling in top form as a mustache-twirling villain who vies for Mabel Normand’s affections. When she won’t give in, he and his two henchmen tie her to the railroad tracks. Meanwhile her boyfriend the hero, played by Mack Sennett, enlists the help of real life race car driver Barney Oldfield, who races him to the rescue.
The Speed Kings (1914)
This one reel short stars Ford Sterling, Fatty Arbuckle, Mabel Normand and Barney Oldfield again — as himself. Shot against the backdrop of an actual auto race (a frequent gambit of producer Mack Sennett’s) it tells the tale of Papa Ford Sterling trying to curb Mabel’s infatuation with driver Teddy Tetzlaff. Arbuckle plays a masher.
The Knockout (1914)
The Knockout is one of the premiere boxing comedies. Today it is usually marketed as a Chaplin film, although it really stars Fatty Arbuckle. Chaplin has a small (but funny) turn as a referee. Fatty is drawn into the boxing world by a bunch of street toughs led by Al St. John who try to humiliate him in front of his girl (Minta Durfee). They haven’t counted on the fact that bricks bounce off of Fatty’s bean, or that he can lift 500 lb weights. He dispatches the punks in short order at the neighborhood gym. (Minta dons male drag so she can enter the gym to watch). Then gangster Mack Swain books Fatty to fight the champ (Edgar Kennedy, who’d actually been a boxer in real life) leading to our main comic set piece. The bout spurs Fatty into a violent rampage. The Keystone Kops are called, leading to a rooftop chase and a fall through a skylight onto a fancy party in the loft below. The Kops throw a rope around Fatty as though he were an elephant they were trying to bring down. He drags them all down to the pier and chucks them in the drink.
Though amusing in spots, it’s one of Charlie Chaplin‘s less distinctive efforts, being one of several in which he and his cast improvise their comedy in the park. And this is sort of a third string cast, containing none of the other well known Keystone stars we usually delight to see interact with Chaplin: instead of Arbuckle, Normand, Sterling, Kennedy, Conklin, Swain and company….we get Charles Bennett, Edwin Frazee, Edward Nolan and Helen Carruthers. The plot: a tramp, a girl, a sailor, some cops, some fisticuffs — and then everyone falls in the pond. (This happens in about 50% of early Keysone Comedy).
The Rounders (1914)
The Rounders is significant for being the only honest-to-God co-starring vehicle of Charlie Chaplin and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, and handily one of Chaplin’s best comedies at Keystone.
The Rounders casts Chaplin and Arbuckle as a couple of drunken lodge brothers out for a night on the town, always one step ahead of their exasperated wives (Phyllis Allen and Minta Durfee). The physical rapport of the two comedians is brilliant – the sight of Arbuckle and Chaplin in evening clothes, arms locked together, stumbling down the street in total synchronization is indelible, as is the image of the enormous Arbuckle dragging the passed-out Chaplin down the sidewalk like a ragdoll. In the end, the two fall asleep in a sinking rowboat. Now that’s drunk. If one didn’t know Chaplin was such an abstemious chap, one might suspect that he are Arbuckle had enjoyed many such sprees together. It’s such a shame they weren’t able to team up like this again.
Leading Lizzie Astray (1914)
Minta Durfee plays the titular Lizzie, a farmer’s daughter. Roscoe “Fatty Arbuckle” (her real life husband, who also directed) is her sweetheart, a hand on her father’s farm. Into their life rides trouble in the form of a rich city slicker (Ed Brady). He and his chauffeur (Edgar Kennedy) are driving past the farm when they get a flat tire. As Kennedy changes it, the city slicker flirts with the girl. Fatty too becomes occupied with the car, bringing his superhuman strength to bear, lifting the car so the chauffeur can take off the old tire, and blowing up the tire with his own breath. (Fatty exhibited this comical trait in several films. He should have done a lot more of it, it would have helped define his screen character),
Later, Lizzie sneaks away with city the slicker. He brings her to a café, where everything is fast and little bit scary. (Among the patrons at this unruly establishment are Mack Swain,Phyllis Allen, Al St. John, and Charles Parrott, i.e. Charley Chase as a cowboy). Lizzie doesn’t like it here and wants to leave bar, but the guy wont let her. Meanwhile Fatty, much saddened by Lizzie’s departure has been in pursuit. Recognizing the car parked out front, he enters, beats everyone up, throws several of them through a wayy, and then throws the piano, just for good measure. He is reunited with Lizzie. They kiss.
Hash House Mashers (1915)
One of the earliest comedies to star Charley Chase (here still billed as Charles Parrott). Here he plays the young lover of Virginia Chester. The pair live in a boarding house, and he’s the only one of the crazy creeps in the house with beau potential. Yet, in order to convince her parents he’s worthy, he must put on a beard for a disguise. And it actually works! Mack Sennett directed this at a time, when his early career as a comedy director was winding down. Withing a few months the demands of running a studio were earing too much of his time to direct many films personally (although he would continue directing as late as 1935).
Ambrose’s First Falsehood (1914)
Most folks who know Mack Swain at all nowadays know him as Charlie Chaplin’s prospecting partner in The Gold Rush (1925). Fewer know that ten years earlier he’d been a comedy star in his own right, appearing in a series of comedies for Mack Sennett in which he played a character known as “Ambrose”, helping to fill the void left by Chaplin’s recent departure with such frequent co-stars as Chester Conklin. In Ambrose’s First Falsehood , he tells his wife (Minta Durfee) that he is off to San Francisco on business. Cavorting at a bar with pal Charles Parrott (a.k.a. Charley Chase) and his girl (the vivacious Cecile Arnold), he gets into a brouhaha and never makes the train. That’s good news and bad news. The train gets into a wreck and, hearing the news, Mrs. Ambrose is worried sick. Edgar Kennedy plays the barkeep.
For more on silent comedy film history see 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
For more on show biz history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.