Monday, March 19, 2018

A Muddy Romance (USA, 1913)

In the first few years of Keystone studios (founded in 1912), many of their films were one-reelers with quite simple storylines. Other studios produced similar comedies, both in the USA and abroad. Short films were still the most common length of films, as feature-length films were still at the very beginning. Films like Cabiria (Italy, 1914) and The Birth of a Nation (USA, 1915) –some of the films that would help to consolidate feature length films as more popular – were yet to be produced. 
In a landscape that looked remarkably rural, Ford Sterling –with his typically exaggerated gestures and mannerisms - was by a window, flirting with Mabel Normand, who was in another window. However, there was another man interested in Mabel (“a persistent suitor”) and he came to her house to visit her. Sterling did not really seem pleased when he realized there was a competitor for Mabel`s affection. 
Sterling also came to visit Mabel, but the other suitor was still there and both men clashed. Sterling tried to attack the other guy, but ended up hitting Mabel with dirt instead. At this point, both men fought and Mabel tried to intervene and therefore she fell out of the window. The three of them threw things at each other. 
A clergyman arrived at Mabel`s house in the middle of all chaos. It seems to have come to marry Mabel and the other suitor. Then, Mabel, the other suitor and the clergyman leave in a boat while Sterling tries to shoot them as he saw the boat departing. 
The Keystone cops were called to try to settle the mess. The cops started shooting too and embarked on another boat and one of cops fell on the river and a short time later they got stuck in the mud. Sterling attempted to stop the boat from leaving by throwing mud on the river. 
More cops came to the scene with hoses and even a cannon. The hoses were useful to take their colleagues out of mud. Unfortunately Mabel fell in the mud right afterwards, but immediately the clergyman and her other suitor helped her out of the mud. And the three of them were eventually taken out of the muddy river. Meanwhile, Sterling was into trouble, as he was caught throwing dirt on the river. 
Such simple one-reelers were very popular in the era and working-class audiences could easily relate to situations being shown. Keystone films were a hit since the beginning and its actors became successful comedians. As time passed, the studio produced feature-length films (the first one being Tillie`s Punctured Romance in 1914, with Mabel Normand, Marie Dressler and newcomer Charlie Chaplin in the cast).  And Keystone studios became famous for discovering young comedians who would undeniably leave their mark in cinema history. For instance, young Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle and Charlie Chaplin worked there in the 1910s. The studio was closed in 1933, already at the era of talkies. 

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

His Wedding Night (USA,1917)

This film (together with Coney Island, released in that same year) can show to modern audiences how daily life was like back to the 1910s, which sort of items could be sold in a drugstore, for instance (Including beverages), purchasing habits of people, etc.
It has two stars, Keaton was in the beginning of his career at the time and had immediately shown his competence, but he was not yet a star on his own right. He had not yet consolidated his world-famous stone face character. However, it would not take long until Keaton achieved prominence. Roscoe `Fatty’ Arbuckle was a mega star at the time and his comedies were full of physical gags.
In this film, Arbuckle worked as a clerk in a drugstore. Both he and St. John loved the same girl (Alice). Alice`s father ended up giving her hand to Arbuckle. St John got angry and planned a revenge. Meanwhile, Keaton showed up to deliver a wedding dress to Alice and ended up dressing it to show her how it looked like. St John and his accomplices ended up kidnapping Keaton by mistake, there was a huge mess but the expected happy end came.
Although still playing the role of a grown up baby, sometimes with silly facial expressions, we can see the evolution of acting of Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle compared with his films at Keystone studios only some years before. His gestures were more self-contained, gags more elaborate and scenery was modern. Furthermore, there was a troupe of comedians who worked with him and they formed a rather uniform and experienced team.
Of course, that there was still lots of physical humor, especially when his real-life nephew, Al St. John, came to the scene. Nevertheless, it is actually an accomplishment, considering the good physical abilities, not only of Arbuckle himself (who was reportedly even very flexible and an excellent dancer in real life), but also of St. John and Buster Keaton. All those actors excelled in physical humor and that is one of things that made them so popular among audiences back then.
Some stereotypes of slapstick comedies are present here, like rather unromantic arguments among couples, ethnically insensitive jokes, food being thrown, people being thrown as well, etc. However, situations themselves were a bit closer to reality than typically slapstick comedies. 
In the end of film, the actors could show his skills to physically demanding scenes even better. Unfortunately Arbuckle`s career would be virtually over four years later due to a huge scandal. Buster Keaton would enjoy lots of fame in the 1920s and his output stands out to this day. Unfortunately Keaton`s career would fall into obscurity for some decades as of 1930s, but he lived long enough to regain his popularity and further recognition to his work. Al St John would find steady work in westerns for some decades and made a smooth transition to talkies. Even though he was not immensely popular, he got to reinvent himself and remained in films for a very long time. 

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Mabel's Dramatic Career (USA,1913)

Mack fell for the kitchen maid. They were a happy couple, but Mack’s mother (played by actress Alice Davenport in a rather stagy acting) was against the romance and her opposition caused lots of conflict between Mabel and her.
After a while, it came a woman from the city and Mack’s mother thought she was a better partner to her son. Understandably, Mabel got jealous of the newcomer. After a while, Mack started to get along very well with this new girl and Mabel became outraged. Therefore, a fight was inevitable, and Mabel was forced to leave the house, heartbroken.
Mack proposed to the other girl, but he ended up being rejected as the woman seemed to be tired of Mack after a short time and they both ended up fighting in the most typically slapstick way possible, including things being thrown against each other (an element that was relatively common when romantic arguments were portrayed in films by Keystone studios).
Mack regretted having let Mabel go. Meanwhile, she arrived at the city and looked for a job in a cinema studio full of actors with fake facial hair and portraying exaggerated characters (which turned out to be the own Keystone studios and actors in real life). Mabel showed the actors that she could act, was hired by the studio and had steady work there for the next few years.
One day, Mack saw Mabel’s picture in the publicity poster of a film and recognized her immediately. Mack entered the cinema and watched a film by Keystone studios (Yes, the studio was not really shy of doing some self-propaganda) and was really overexcited by seeing Mabel on screen. His excitement was so over the top that he disturbed other audience members to watch the film quietly. At this point, it must be highlighted that one of audience members is played by actor Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle, who had started working at Keystone studios in that same year.
Chaos broke out when Mack Started shooting at the screen and scared everyone around him, including the projectionist. Despite all problems he caused, Mack did not give up as he was determined to kill the onscreen villain (played by actor Ford Sterling, who was very popular at the time). Mack got to find the villain and soon discovered that the actor who played the villain was married to Mabel in real life and they had two children together.
As always, Mabel Normand acts in a very natural, vibrant way. There is a rumor that Mack Sennett was mocked by the own employees of Keystone studios for not exactly being the best actor in the world. That is an exaggeration, Sennett’s humor was simple but very much in line with the typical acting of 1910s comedians, especially when he played hobos and not particularly smart characters on screen. I personally think Mabel is even more beautiful than usual in this film and it is a joy merely to look at her facial expressions and the joy she conveyed on screen.
Mack Sennett was very active as an actor in the first years of Keystone studios, but after a while he left acting to focus on management and directorial tasks at the studio, until it closed its doors in 1933.
This simple one-reeler can still be very easily understood and the occasional overacting does not make it any less funny. It is a relaxing and entertaining slapstick comedy short up to this day. This film also has great historic value because it provides modern-day audiences with a rare glimpse of how it was like to go to the cinema back to the 1910s. 

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Tomboy Bessie (USA,1912)

Although Mabel Normand was really young when she made this film (circa 20 years old), we can observe that she played a character much younger than herself. This is particularly noticeable by the way she hopped, the big ribbon on her head and some slight overacting. But it does not compromise the quality of her performance anyway.
Mabel plays here a rather different role from the determined, strong-willed and independent women that she portrayed on screen so often in her films at Keystone studio. Still, the vibrant comedic style of Mabel was already visible. The characters of this film were also more human-like, realistic and without that frantic pace that would be so famous in films by Keystone studios, which would be open only some months after this film was released.
This film was made by Biograph studios, the same famous studio where D.W. Griffith started his career in films. As Griffith was more focused on dramas, Mack Sennett ended up being responsible for the comedies of the studio. Both men had started in Biograph as actors before 1910. That was something natural, as it was an era when film crew could have different roles in the studio, sometimes even in totally different areas, like direction, acting, wardrobe, etc. This multitasking gave a chance to actors be involved in all aspects of film production and realize what would be most comfortable for them to work with.
Mabel was a very mischievous and active kid, always full of energy to play. It was tiresome for adults around her to handle such energetic little one. She was also a headache to the love life of her aunt.
The suitor of Aunt Cissie (Andrew) was supposed to amuse the kid in order to be authorized to marry his sweetheart (he was “pleading for the hand of fair Cissie”, as it was said in one of intertitles). However, Mabel proved to be a hard task.
Another noteworthy thing is the nearly Victorian courtship shown in this film, where the man had to prove himself worthy of his sweetheart by doing something rather impressive. That was part of the plot of countless other silent films throughout the world. The simple outdoors landscape, with animals and without cars or crowded places shows to modern audiences a lifestyle that has been away for a very long time. 

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The Furs (USA,1912)

This film is a rare surviving silent short made by Mabel Normand and Mack Sennett at Biograph studios, which was released in 1912, only some months before Keystone studios was founded by Sennett in California.
Despite being at the height of her youth and vitality, Mabel`s acting is more restrained here than it would be in her subsequent Keystone slapstick comedies, which is adequate to the slower pace of this film. Still, we can see here some trademarks of future output of Keystone studios, especially by portraying Mabel as an intelligent woman, with some independence and strength of character, which is a contrast with Victorian women, damsels in distress who were totally dependent of their male guardians.
Mabel is a spendthrift and her mother-in-law does not agree with her extravagance, while her husband tries to please both Mabel and his mother. It is clear that both women do not really get along, but they have to live very close (or perhaps even in the same house) and it causes conflicts on a daily basis.  Mabel shows that she is not the type of wife who would tolerate a bossy mother-in-law without fighting back.
Mabel is not satisfied with the interference of her mother-in-law and goes shopping anyway. Upon her return, Mabel clashes with her mother-in-law again.  Meanwhile, her husband is running out of patience with all this conflict at home.
On the following day, Mabel gets some money out of her husband`s pocket without his knowledge. He realizes the money is missing, but does not attribute it to Mabel and thinks he lost it somewhere else. He stands up to have breakfast, only to see Mabel and his mother arguing again. Therefore, he says that “one must leave”.
Mabel sees some beautiful furs in a shop window and finds them simply gorgeous. Then she had the idea of pawning her furs, but unfortunately her plan would not have the result she expected, as the furs she wanted so much ended up going to her mother-in-law. And Mabel does not disguise how furious she really is.
This cute little film shows two legends of cinema (Sennett and Mabel) in the beginning of their careers in films and their unique comedic style could already be observed. It is also interesting that Biograph`s films by the duo tended to focus more in the lives of wealthier citizens (even Mabel`s clothing and hat were more elaborate than those she usually wore in her subsequent characters in Keystone films). Such paradigm would be deeply changed at Keystone studios, famous for showing the lives of working-class citizens.

Monday, February 19, 2018

A Film Johnnie (USA, 1914)

Even for those who are not fond of silents, this film is full of historic value. By showing a sort of “film inside the film”, we can have a rare insight about what it was like to go to the cinema in the 1910s. We can also have an insight on the backstage of Keystone studios, as well as its working practices. 
Furthermore, Chaplin was at the very beginning of his career in films. We can see the evolution of the Little Tramp, who was originally a rough, impolite troublemaker, at first without the pathos that would soon make Chaplin famous worldwide. 
It is also possible to make comparisons between the plot of his film and the very beginning of Chaplin cinematic career, with him trying to be accepted in his new work and having a difficult attitude with his peers at the same time. There are stories of Chaplin having refused to be directed by Mabel Normand and clashed with other directors of Keystone studios. 
The Little Tramp goes to the cinema and falls in love with the girl in the picture of the publicity material outside the cinema. Of course that the girl turned out to be Mabel Normand and the film was produced by the Keystone studios. A noteworthy observation is that, even though it was Mabel Normand`s picture outside the cinema, the character turned out being played by another actress Peggy Pearce. 
There`s a rumor that Mabel Normand did not act in this comedy because Chaplin had previously clashed with Normand while making another film and she simply refused to work with him again. And that made the studio replace Normand by Pearce. 
Chaplin enters the cinema and ends up causing chaos with other moviegoers. He was not only impolite with other people, but also very naïve in taking what he saw on screen as if it was real. His love for the Keystone Girl only grows bigger. 
After a fight at the cinema and being kicked out by the audience, the Little Tramp ends up on the doorstep of Keystone studios. The reasons for it aren`t clear. Was he looking for his sweetheart? Looking for a job? Begging for money/food? We cannot say for sure. When the “Keystone players arrive at the studio”, as one of intertitles says, modern-day audiences can see some of the biggest stars of the studio of the day, including Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, who in real life played an influence on how the Little Tramp character would be built up and was already an established comedy actor when Chaplin started working at Keystone studios in 1914. 
The Little Tramp finally got to enter the studio, but he created a huge chaos. Then, there was a fire and the actors and studio crew ran to the scenery in order to get some “atmosphere” for the film. In the first years of Keystone studios (which had been founded in 1912), it was a usual that films were made on the spot of real-life events.
This short film does provide a rare and accurate insight about entertainment early XX century, both under the perspective of young Hollywood industry and of audience and how they related to films. Highly recommended for those interested to know about the evolution of cinema in a fast and practical way.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Frauds and Frenzies (USA,1918)

The theme of convicts trying to escape prison was relatively common in silent comedies. And comedies –specially slapstick ones - portraying policemen and authorities (who were usually incompetent, slow and lazy) were also abundant both in the USA and Europe. The laughter such films provided was also a relief to audiences, considering that a plenty of cinema goers belonged to working classes, who could laugh at those who had a more prominent position in society. 
Although not particularly innovative, this film had some funny physical gags, which can still be universally understood by modern audiences, regardless of culture. This is particularly true in the beginning of the film, when the convicts were shown performing forced labor. Stan Laurel, despite having engaged in such gags, also subtly showed to have a more self-contained type of humor, which he would also have during his pairing with Oliver Hardy. Speaking of Hardy, Semon would also work with him prior to his pairing with Stan Laurel. 
One day both Semon and Laurel got to escape and they suddenly became rivals for the love of a beautiful girl (with curly hair and a big umbrella, very much according to 1910s fashion standards). Such love interest is prone to make the former convicts having problems with the police again because the girl turned out being the daughter of one of policemen. At this point we can observe an ethnically insensitive gag, when they tried to kiss the girl, but it was actually a black woman below the umbrella, which makes both Semon and Laurel run away in disgust. Such gags were also common in silent comedies and not considered by some people as gross as it is considered nowadays. 
As usual, Semon happily engages in his cartoon-like special effects and gags of big proportions. There is even a chase (which is a type of gag considered by some laymen audience members as the symbol of silent films in general). It is also noteworthy that Stan Laurel gets less screen time in the second half of the film. Laurel had claimed that Semon reduced his time in the film in fear of being upstaged after a comment that Laurel was funnier than himself. 
Although not well-remembered nowadays, Larry Semon was a famous comedian in his day. He would pass away around one decade after this film, while in poor financial and health situation, but a plenty of his films are preserved nowadays and his distinctive cinematic style still stands out.