In the Beginning: Film Comedy Pioneers
Volume 1 of the "Slapstick Encyclopedia" concentrates on the very first American silent comedians, many of whom had only recently drifted from the vaudeville stage to the movie studio lots. The comedies on this volume date all the way back to 1909, when Ben Turpin starred in "Mr. Flip" as a love hungry man-on-the-make. Looking much like Groucho Marx, with his painted-on mustache and a wandering eye, Turpin tries to kiss and hug every woman he meets. But the women consistently get the best of him, especially in the scene where a telephone operator turns a little crank that shocks Turpin as he uses a pay telephone.
Other early comedies include "Alkali Ike's Auto" (1911) with Augustus Carney and "A Cure for Pokeritis" (1912) with John Bunny. One of the best scenes in "Alkali Ike's Auto" comes in the first few minutes, when Ike and Mustang Pete vie for the affections of a woman. While she's washing dishes, they fight over who'll do the drying. She ends up holding out each plate while Alkali Ike dries one side and Mustang Pete dries the other.
Unlike many of the shameless muggers on this video, John Bunny strove for a more refined brand of acting. We wanted "to feel the part." He said, "If you can manage to be the character you're impersonating, feel it so thoroughly that you transform yourself for the moment, your actions will tell more than you realize." Bunny was a bulldog of a man, with jowls, a wide nose, and a shape like a walrus. In "A Cure for Pokeritis" he wants to sneak off to a poker game, but his wife catches on to his plans and puts a Bible class onto his trail.
Long before he met Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy was already making comedies. In "One Too Many" (1916), he stars as a devil-may-care cad who must quickly find a wife and a child. His friend roams the streets and parks offering to rent babies, and he finds a surprisingly large number of mothers willing to hand over their young 'uns for just a few cents. "The Wrong Mr. Fox" (1917) stars Victor Moore in a classic tale of mistaken identities. Moore plays a streetwise hustler who is mistaken for a priest. He even steps behind the pulpit to deliver a Sunday sermon. When he senses he's losing the crowd, he changes into his leotards and shows the congregation a few bicycle tricks! "Fox Trot Finesse" (1915), starring Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew, takes a more refined approach. It tells the story of a family where the wife has "fox trot itis." During a night out dancing together, the husband gets tired of dancing and tells his wife he has "busted the pectoral fin" in his right ankle. But it's not long before she sees through the ruse. "A Natural Born Gambler" (1916) stars Bert Williams, one of the very few black comedians who starred in his own comedies. He plays a Southern gentleman of questionable virtue who tends to spend all his time hanging around a tavern.
Of all the comedies in this volume, Max Linder's "Be My Wife" (1921) is the best. Charlie Chaplin considered Linder to be one of the greatest film comedians. He even borrowed many of his best routines from Linder. And you can see why: Linder understood how to use the camera to help create comedy. Most of the other comedians on this volume hadn't yet fully utilized the camera. It would typically be nailed in place while all the action whirled around it. But Linder used inventive camera placements, such as in the opening scene from "Be My Wife": the camera shows us the shadow on a window shade as a man appears to kiss a woman--and then pour water on her head! Or at least that's what the woman's mother thinks she sees. But then the camera brings us inside the house, and we see Linder was actually watering a plant. The vase just happened to cast a shadow that looked like a woman's profile. The short concludes with a scene where Linder fights himself. The onlookers can only see his feet because he's hidden behind a curtain, so Linder plays both sides of the duel by placing shoes on his hands. This scene would be imitated by many comedians; look no farther than Charley Chase's "Mighty Like a Moose" on Volume 6. (My only regret about Volume 1 is "Be My Wife" is an all-too-brief condensed version of a feature-length comedy.)
Keystone Tonight! Mack Sennett Comedies
Volume 2 of the "Slapstick Encyclopedia" is devoted exclusively to the earliest Mack Sennett comedies. These are some of the craziest, most manic comedies ever made. The story behind "A Muddy Romance" is told often: when Sennett learned Echo Lake was being drained, he packed up the gag writers and actors and took off--"We made up the gags and the story as we went along"--in order to take advantage of a setting that he could never afford to create under usual circumstances. It's a classic tale of Keystone Studios resourcefulness.
Both "A Muddy Romance" and "Barney Oldfield" feature Ford Sterling as the villain. Sterling's villain would growl and grimace, kicking his knees up to his chest as he pranced mischievously after the heroine. In "Barney Oldfield" he kidnaps poor Mabel Normand and ties her to the railroad tracks. Her boyfriend, played by Sennett himself, enlists the help of world famous auto racer Barney Oldfield so that he can ride to the rescue.
"A Movie Star" features another of Keystone Studios' famous actors, Max Swain--a huge man, with mournful eyes, and a painted-on mustache that wrapped around his nose and halfway up his cheeks. He plays a blustery but uncertain actor who shows up at a movie theater for a screening of one of his own movies; Swain suffers the indignities of an all-too-enthusiastic audience.
"Mabel's Dramatic Career" (1913) is one of the earliest Mack Sennett comedies. It even features Sennett himself in a starring role as a goofish son who has eyes for the maid. But the real star of this short is Mabel Normand. In one of the best scenes, she goes crazy after the mother of her boyfriend says they can't be married. Mabel grabs a stick and commences to thrash the mother! After she's fired from her job, she goes to the big city and finds work as an actress, which then gives us the comedy's big scene: Sennett follows Mabel to the big city and watches in bug-eyed amazement as his old girlfriend appears on the movie screen.
"Teddy at the Throttle" (1916) stars a young Gloria Swanson and a devilish Wallace Beery. She ends up tied to the railroad tracks, thanks to Beery, while her boyfriend rides to the rescue. But will he reach her in time? This comedy features a famous stunt where the train can't stop in time and it rolls over Swanson--who ducks under the cattle guard in the nick of time.
Like many other silent era comedians, Charlie Chaplin's film career started at Keystone. And the same holds true for Fatty Arbuckle. In 1914, Sennett paired them together in a comedy called "The Rounders," in which they played drunks who stumble home to their less-than-thrilled wives, who promptly kick them out--leaving Arbuckle and Chaplin to team up and invade a restaurant.