Welcome to this week’s installment of TMP’s Slapstick Encyclopedia series! This time around we’re taking a look at Volume 2: “Keystone Tonight! Mack Sennett Comedies.” Just as in the previous post, I’ll be providing a brief review of each film showcased in this volume of the set.
Before I get going on the mini-reviews, here are some fun facts about Mack Sennett provided in the textual portions of this volume:
- Sennett was inspired by D.W. Griffith’s method of letting the story evolve as he directed it and decided to adapt Griffith’s methods of story construction to comedy. Sennett’s Keystone studio was born from this idea of improvisational, comedic films.
- In shorts like Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life, Sennett makes use of “the same elements of Victorian melodrama” that D.W. Griffith made use of in his epic dramas, such as the classic “damsel in distress.”
- The textual introduction to A Muddy Romance emphasizes the chaos of Keystone’s production process, stating that Sennett sent his cast and “Keystone Kops” down to a lake that was being drained, having them go nuts on camera in the water/mud before he’d even come up with a story for the film.
- As time passed, Sennett’s studio transitioned from largely improvisational productions to a more organized style of filmmaking. This was largely due to the cost of shooting improvisationally; Sennett found that putting more focus on pre-production led to efficiency. He still allowed for improvisation from his casts, but came to believe that the film’s scenario needed to be set up prior to filming.
- Sennett turned the chase scene into a staple of American film. It had previously been a trademark of French comedies.
Mabel’s Dramatic Career (1913)
Directed by: Mack Sennett
Starring: Mabel Normand, Mack Sennett and Fatty Arbuckle
Run time: 14 minutes
I discovered a treasure trove of new-to-me performers and filmmakers in Volume 1. Volume 2 was off to a more familiar but very good start with this short, a somewhat simple tale of a maid who finds fame on the big screen (in Keystone productions, of course) after being dumped by her boyfriend. What strikes me most about this in comparison with the previous films in the set is its break-neck pace. Sennett doesn’t waste a single second! This makes for an exciting short despite the simplicity of the story.
Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life (1913)
Directed by: Mack Sennett
Starring: Mabel Normand and Mack Sennett
Run time: 13 minutes
The more I watch her films, the more I become a fan of Mabel Normand. She’s absolutely wonderful in this short, and in pretty much everything else I’ve seen her in. It’s also great fun to watch real-life auto racer Barney Oldfield in action. For a bit more on this film I’m going to direct you to Movies Silently’s post on the good ol’ myth of silent films being full of women tied to railroad tracks!
The Rounders (1914)
Directed by: Charlie Chaplin
Starring: Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle
Run time: 16 minutes
Produced by Keystone but written, directed by and starring Chaplin, The Rounders is a unique one-take, “semi-improvised” film (according to the commentary). In essence, this short contains 16 minutes of Chaplin and Arbuckle competing for the biggest laugh, trying to outdo each other one hilarious, booze-influenced gag at a time. Both play drunk men who have tumultuous marriages, and beyond that there isn’t a whole lot of a story… but it sure is fun to watch these two masters of silent comedy sharing the screen! Very funny supporting performance by Al St. John as a bellboy.
A Muddy Romance (1913)
Directed by: Mack Sennett
Starring: Mabel Normand and Ford Sterling
Run time: 11 minutes
The chaos of Sennett’s production process comes through here not in sloppy filmmaking, but in the chaotic action and fast pace of this film. The story is surprisingly coherent for being improvised; I never would have guessed, had I not read the introductory notes on the film! Hilarious, exaggerated performances are given all around. This one’s full of wacky, super-slapsticky comedy, which makes it one of the most fun so far in the set.
A Movie Star (1916)
Directed by: Fred Hibbard
Starring: Mack Swain and Louella Maxam
Run time: 24 minutes
It’s only 1916 and already films are exploring the egos of actors and the nature of movie stardom! This one follows a screen star who heads to a small theater to see his own film, hoping to find praise and admiration from the audience. This is the second film in Volume 2 to poke fun at the movie-making industry. Mack Swain is absolutely perfect as the self-obsessed “movie star,” and there’s a wonderful twist at the end!
Teddy at the Throttle (1917)
Directed by: Clarence G. Badger
Starring: Bobby Vernon, Gloria Swanson and Wallace Beery
Run time: 18 minutes
For the second time in the Slapstick Encyclopedia, bonus points must be given for an adorable puppy! The “puppy” in this film is a large dog that actually likes to slow dance, sings along to a song with Gloria Swanson and generally acts like a charming human. Teddy at the Throttle is a film that packs in just about every comedic device possible. “Zany” is the perfect word to describe this one. It’s a fun ride and Gloria Swanson is magnetic in this early role.