Sunday, September 8, 2013

Mill Creek comedy classics #55: " Keystone Cops Festival" (1913-1915)

A Super 8 edition of The Bangville Police is available, in case you ever need such a thing.

Keystone Studios as it appeared in the 1910s.
NOTE: This program consists of four short films churned out by Mack Sennett's Keystone Film Company between 1913 and 1915. Keystone was the first-ever enclosed motion picture production facility, and many early film stars began their screen careers with Sennett, including Fatty Arbuckle and Charlie Chaplin. 
Considered one of the founding fathers of motion picture comedy, Sennett thrived in the 1910s and 1920s but went bust in the 1930s during the Great Depression and never really recovered. The four films in this collection were made when Sennett was at the height of his powers. The first two films are considered part of the original Keystone Cops series. The prehistoric ancestors of Police Academy and Reno 911, the Keystone Cops (often spelled "Keystone Kops") were a troop of bungling lawmen who appeared in twelve films between 1912 and 1915. A thirteenth film was discovered in 2010 at an antiques sale in Michigan. 
The original lineup of the Cops included Edgar Kennedy and Slim Summerville, plus five others. Fatty Arbuckle, Charlie Chaplin, and Mabel Normand all made repeated appearances in the series, though only Normand is represented in this compilation. Sennett occasionally resurrected the Cops during the 1920s, and other directors at other studios did likewise, most prominently Ralph Staub, who directed Keystone Hotel (Warner Brothers, 1935) and Charles Lamont, who made Abbott & Costello Meet the Keystone Kops (Universal, 1955). 
While their actual films have largely been forgotten, the Keystone Cops have remained a popular symbol for laughable incompetence in any organization, particularly law enforcement or government. The back half of this compilation consists of two more Sennett-produced comedies of the mid-1910s. While not official entries in the Keystone Cops franchise, they contain similar slapstick humor and feature some of the same actors.

The first flick: The Bangville Police (Keystone Film Company, 1913) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 5.3

Director: Henry Lehrman (Kid Auto Races at Venice; prolific actor-director-producer-writer of the 1910s and 1920s; worked almost exclusively in comedy, first for D.W Griffith, then Mack Sennett, then Fox Studios; dated and was obsessed with actress Virginia Rappe, the woman at the center of the Fatty Arbuckle scandal)

Actors of note: Mabel Normand (The Speed Kings, Fatty's Spooning Days), Dot Farley (Fatty Joins the Force) Fred Mace (Mabel at the Wheel), Edgar Kennedy (Money Means Nothing, Peck's Bad Boy with the Circus, Fatty Joins the Force), Nick Cogley (Tillie's Punctured Romance)

The gist of it: Near the rural community of Bangville, hyperactive, paranoid Della (Normand) is convinced that her family's farm is about to be robbed, so she barricades herself in one room, reluctant even to let her parents (Farley and Cogley) enter, and calls the police in a panic. The stumbling, bumbling cops (including Mace and Kennedy) come to the rescue, and all the characters spend a few minutes running around frantically. Nothing much comes of this, and the story ends suddenly with the welcome discovery of a newborn calf.

Remember Keystone Kapers? Sure you do.
My take: This is either the first or second movie of the Keystone Cops series, and it's not much like what I was expecting. When I think of this team, I picture a bunch of billy-club-wielding officers wearing identical uniforms that include blue tunics with gold buttons down the front and rather silly-looking, high-domed hats on their heads. I also think of them working in an urban setting, not out in the country. I suppose a lot of this has to do with the fondly-remembered 1980s video game, Keystone Kapers, plus the latter-day Keystone tributes and innumerable political cartoons that use the infamous Cops as their central metaphor.

Had I not seen the opening credits with the Keystone logo, I would not have identified this as being part of the Keystone Cops franchise. All that happens in this movie is that Mabel Normand freaks out when she sees a couple of men talking in a barn, so she calls the sheriff, and a bunch of goofy-looking guys -- some apparently cops, some just neighbors -- come running. None appear to be in uniform, and while they are a bit klutzy and ungainly, they're no more so than anybody else in this reality. Even though this particular film has perhaps the greatest title in movie history, I would not have seen the potential for an ongoing series here.

Technically, this thing is rather impressive. There's a lot of cross-cutting to indicate action occurring simultaneously in different places. We take that for granted today, but audiences a hundred years ago might not have.

Is it funny: Not really. By my reckoning, viewers back then must have been so taken away by the sheer novelty of these films that they overlooked the fact that there aren't really any jokes here. The humor more or less boils down to people running around in a dither, occasionally falling down, and making funny faces. The frantic pace means that director Lehrman can't really build up any sustained comedic sequences or even establish the personalities of any of his characters.

My grade: C

P.S.-  No racial stereotypes here. We're one for one.

Chester Conklin and Mack Swain had an ongoing series together in the 1910s.

The second flick: Love, Speed and Thrills (Keystone, 1915) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 5.1

Director: Walter Wright (Dizzy Heights and Daring Hearts; directed short comedies for about five years, mostly in 1914-1915)

Actors of note: Mack Swain (Chaplin's The Gold Rush and The Pilgrim; played "Ambrose" character in a popular series), Chester Conklin (The Perils of Pauline; played "Mr. Walrus" in several short films, often against Swain), Minta Durfee (Fatty's Spooning Days, Fatty's Suitless Day), Josef Swickard (Fatty's Spooning Days), Edwin Frazee (Tillie's Punctured Romance); uncredited cops supposedly include Billy Gilbert and Charley Chase,

Chester Conklin is the Walrus,
goo goo g'joob.
The gist of it: A rascally hunter called Mr. Walrus (Conklin) shoots at a black cat, accidentally hitting plump passerby Ambrose (Swain) in the behind. Ambrose retaliates by throwing a rock (I think) at Walrus, knocking him over a cliff. A remorseful Ambrose pulls Walrus back up, takes him home, and tells his wife (Durfee) to attend to the injured guest's every desire. Once Ambrose leaves, however, it becomes clear that what Walrus desires is the wife. He attempts to molest her, and she resists violently. When Ambrose returns home, he and Walrus get into a fight, during which Walrus knocks Ambrose out. Walrus takes the wife hostage and zooms away with her on a motorcycle stolen from a mailman (Frazee) who had previously tried to intervene. Ambrose calls the police, and a wild chase ensues.

My take: Well, at least the Keystone Cops are in uniform here. No sign of their signature funny hats, though. This is the last of the twelve movies featuring the original group, but they are merely supporting players in what is clearly a vehicle for Swain and Conklin's antagonistic characters. The modern viewer will likely see Love, Speed and Thrills as a disturbing story of attempted rape and kidnapping rather than a lighthearted slapstick farce. As with The Bangville Police, this is a non-stop barrage of chaotic action, but there is more of a linear story here, and the characters are just slightly better established.

As a very, very early example of an action comedy, Love, Speed and Thrills (another great title, by the way) is quite an accomplishment. The film's big chase scene is exciting and fast-paced with editing once again playing a major role, and the film has several notable stunt sequences that must have required both agility and bravery on the part of the cast.

Is it funny: A bit, I'd say, but no more than that. Chester Conklin's manhandling of Minta Durfee comes across as creepy and upsetting now, but some of the film's big slapstick gags still work, as when Durfee throws an object at Conklin's head but misses and manages to knock out the mailman instead. The joke plays out nicely, with Edwin Frazee taking a moment to register that he's been hit before falling to the floor.

For me, the movie's one big laugh arrives fairly early when the villainous Conklin goes falling over a cliff. We get to see him (or a dummy representing him, I guess) tumble down the side of the canyon before landing on a branch. My thoughts were of Homer Simpson falling into Springfield Gorge. There's an attempt at a running gag with a black cat who keeps knocking people over, but it didn't do much for me.

My grade: B-

P.S.- Two for two, baby.

Polly Moran is simply mad about Hale Hamilton in Her Painted Hero.

A souvenir of Harry Booker's
vaudeville career
The third flick: Her Painted Hero (Keystone, 1915) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 5.0

Director: F. Richard Jones (Bulldog Drummond, The Extra Girl, Mickey; one of Sennett's top directors; was branching out from comedy into other genres when he died of tuberculosis in 1930)

Actors of note: Hale Hamilton (Meet the Mayor), Charles Murray (title character in the 1925 version of The Wizard of Oz), Polly Moran (The Stolen Jools), Slim Summerville (I'm from Arkansas, Niagara Falls, Fatty's Suitless Day) Harry Booker (half of the vaudeville comedy team of Canfield & Booker; appeared in many Sennett comedies of the late 1910s-early 1920s), Harold Lloyd (would be one of Hollywood's top-grossing silent comedy stars within a few years of making this movie; sound-era career includes The Milky Way)

The gist of it: A young female theater groupie (Moran) hangs around the stage door, hoping to meet her idol, a handsome actor (Hamilton). Two theater employees (Murray and Summerville) mock her, but they change their tune when she and her father (Booker) inherit a fortune from an uncle. The two lowlifes arrive at her house and compete for the chance to court her. But she has her heart set on the handsome matinee idol she has always loved, and she agrees to finance his next production if she can be the leading lady. To say the least, the resulting play (a Civil War drama) is an incredible catastrophe, thanks to the utter incompetence of the aforementioned theater employees. After the show, which nearly destroys the theater, the famous actor catches the first train out of town, and the young lady's father gives her an overdue spanking.

My take: Unhealthy celebrity worship is nothing new, and here's a century-old film to prove it. Her Painted Hero (the title refers to the makeup the actor wears onstage) also gives an example of a delusional would-be star using her family's money to finance her own entertainment career. And as viewers of reality TV know, there's still plenty of that going around, too.

This film is pretty slow-going and borderline incomprehensible until it finally arrives at the sequence in which our misguided heroine stars in a show called The Great War Drama, or: What Sherman Said. I expected it to go badly, since this is a short in a Keystone Cops anthology, but I didn't expect the sets to go up in flame. I liked the audience's delighted reaction to the show and its many, many mishaps. They're getting a great deal more than their money's worth. I would have largely dropped all the introductory material and started the film with Polly Moran inheriting her uncle's money and financing a play starring herself.

It might also have been funny to have the audience misidentify the terrible drama they're seeing as being a brilliant comedy and having the show, thus, be an accidental hit. But, alas, I am without a time machine.

Is it funny: Not until the actual play, which is fairly late in the running time. Before that, there's a long and rather elaborate party scene at the mansion where nouveau riche Polly Moran lives, but nothing that happens there particularly amused me. Nor was I moved to laughter by the sleazy antics of the two stagehands who want to marry Moran's character for her money. The only chuckle I got out of the movie's first half, in fact, was a shot of a newspaper with the headline: "Sewer Contractor Leaves Vast Fortune to Niece." It was somehow fitting that the niece was taking money from one shitty business and putting it into another.

My grade: C+

P.S.- No video available for this one. Sorry. Nary a stereotype in sight, though. Three for three.

William Collier suffers marital and mechanical discord in the efficiently-named Wife and Auto Trouble.

The fourth flick: Wife and Auto Trouble (Keystone, 1915) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 5.5

Director*: Dell Henderson (The Rambling Ranger, The Pay-Off, many short films from the 1910s; acting career lasted forty years and included The Awful Truth, Ruggles of Red Gap, The Crowd, much more)
*The IMDb lists Mack Sennett himself as a co-director. The film's credited assistant director was our good buddy Edward F. Cline.
Actors of note: William Collier, Sr. (Up the River, Cain and Mabel), Blanche Payson (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, You Can't Take It With You, The Women), Joseph Belmont (the 1925 Lon Chaney version of The Phantom of the Opera; also appeared in The King of Kings and W.C. Fields' The Dentist), Alice Davenport (Fatty's Suitless Day), Mae Busch (nicknamed "the Versatile Vamp"; Doctor X, The Unholy Three, The Blue Dahlia, often played Ollie's wife in Laurel & Hardy films, including Sons of the Desert)

Home-wrecking typist Mae Busch
The gist of it: Willie (Collier) lives with a gigantic, domineering wife (Payson), a ferocious mother-in-law (Davenport), and a pompous brother-in-law (Belmont). At home, he can't even get a decent breakfast or read the newspaper in peace. But at work, Willie and his "speedy typist" (Busch) have quite a cozy relationship. He's even bought a car for her. Unfortunately, Willie's meddling brother-in-law works at the same office and snoops on our beleaguered hero, even leaving the phone off the hook so that Willie's awful wife can listen in on his conversations.

Once wifey has heard enough, she and her mother show up at the office and start shooting up the place. She manages to accidentally hit her brother in the rear end, but her husband is unscathed. The typist leaps up on a transom for safety. Outside, the typist's new car arrives, and Willie has to lie and say he purchased the car for his wife. This smooths things over considerably, and Willie takes his wife and mother-in-law home in the new vehicle. But the typist calls and demands her car be returned, so Willie sneaks out and drives back to the office. He and the typist head for lunch at the Royal Cafe but are followed by the brother-law, wife, and mother-in-law who recognize "their" new car parked outside.

Willie and his mistress craftily evade the terrible wife, who is accused of auto theft by the police when she gets into what she thinks is her car. While the wife is being interrogated by the police, Willie and his girlfriend take off in the car. A wild chase ensues in which our hero manages both to lose the typist and crash the car. Willie's wife arrives with the cops and starts yelling and hitting her husband, so he happily goes away in police custody.

A typical moment from the  game show 3's a Crowd.
My take: Phew! That's a lot of plot for a two-reel comedy, but Wife and Auto Troubles has a lot of ground to cover, literally and figuratively. This is from the old, chauvinist school of domestic comedy, wherein wives are fearsome creatures who bully their husbands into submission while secretaries are sexual playthings.

I couldn't help but think of Chuck Barris' infamous 1979-1980 game show, 3's a Crowd, which asked the immortal question: "Who knows the husband best, his wife or his secretary?" The show, whose soundtrack featured old-timey music that would not have been out of place in a Keystone short, was so hostilely received (we were well into the era of Women's Liberation by then) that it brought down Barris' TV empire and sent him into retirement and seclusion. But Gloria Steinem and Ms. magazine were decades away when this 1915 comedy was made.

Actually, this is quite an ambitious little production with several locations, a complicated chase scene, and lots of action and stunts. I'm not sure how common "in-jokes" were in the movies back then, but viewers will clearly note that the aforementioned chase goes right by the Keystone Studios building with Mack Sennett's name in giant letters on the roof. (Typically, the scaffolding comes loose at the studio when the cars zoom by, sending some workers tumbling to the ground.)

For some reason, this film is not considered part of the Keystone Cops franchise, even though it's from Keystone and has cops in it. It's actually closer to what I associate with the series than either of the first two films in this compilation. Still, the famous hats never make an appearance.

Is it funny: Yes, especially by the standards of this compilation. Wife and Auto Trouble is the only film in this collection that I'd say is consistently funny (or at least funny-ish) from beginning to end. It took me a couple of viewings, though, to sort out who all the characters were and how they were related to one another. This is the one movie out of the four that actually does take the time to establish its main character, and the script is slightly less frantic and allows for some longer, more complex comedy routines -- as when Willie craftily uses a lazy Susan to sneak food and coffee away from his pampered, spoiled brother-in-law.

I think the movie's single best joke occurs when the mother-in-law pours the coffee. She fills her son's oversized mug to the brim, then gives the few remaining drops to Willie and waters it down considerably to fill the cup. And this film also made somewhat better use of intertitle cards than the other three, particularly when Willie tells the typist about his marriage, unaware that his wife is listening in via telephone. "I'm married to a dreadnought," he says, comparing his enormous spouse to a battleship. "She would have made a good freak in a side-show!"

My grade: B+


P.S.- We made it, folks! Four consecutive films without embarrassing racial or ethnic stereotypes. And nary a character in blackface! But Wife and Auto Trouble is pretty heavy on sexist stereotypes. Sorry, gals.