The Sunday Intertitle: Tickling the Ostrich

I know. Absolute filth. I’m shocked, you’re shocked. Not the kind of thing one expects in a Keystone comedy.

The movie is THE SURF GIRL, another attempt to shoehorn gratuitous bathing beauties into a slapstick two-reeler. The nominal star is Raymond “Ray” Griffith, a figure I’m quite interested in — he’s unusual in being of normal build and with a normal-sized human moustache, distinguishing him from the run-of-the-mill Keystone freaks and grotesques. Somebody like that would need to have some genuine comic chops to compensate for his lack of visual zaniness, and he does. Of course, in the chaotic flurry of a Sennett short, he doesn’t get many chances to shine, but he seizes them.

Uncredited director Harry Edwards, a prolific Canadian, was a specialist in this kind of thing, chalking up 157 shorts by the IMDb’s count. The titles are the usual array of puns and catchphrases, some of them now rendered surreally incomprehensibly by the passage of time and evolution of language. They may make you punchy if you read too many: THE SEA SQUAWK, THE LION AND THE SOUSE, FATHER WAS NEUTRAL, UNIVERSAL IKE GETS A GOAT, LADIES MUST EAT. TRAMP, TRAMP, TRAMP (that’s one title, not a film and its two remakes) starring Harry Langdon, is his most famous work. And indeed he keeps the action semi-coherent here, even though the plot seems to introduce a new supernumerary comic every thirty seconds. Edwards knows when to get the most out of a close-up, and when to hold a long shot so we can enjoy the sight of lots of frantic characters running in and out of doorways. The simple knockabout aspires here to the heights of farce.

What’s most enjoyable is the sight of long-ago Amurricans at play, in some seaside paradise of days gone by. Strolling punters can rodeo-ride wild birds in the zoological garden, get boozed up in a bar, then stagger next door to drown in the swimming baths, and there’s also a shooting gallery which duplicates a whole skid row street, and the paying customers can hurl wooden balls at effigies of what appears to be Abraham Lincoln and some of his homies.

Here’s where Raymond Griffith scores his best moment. Fleeing from an angry man in a long beard, he disguises himself, perhaps foolishly, as one of these moving targets, and finds himself transported via clockwork mechanism through a gauntlet of ball-hurling yahoos. His only hope of avoiding detection is to maintain the imposture that he’s a lifeless automaton. Here, most actors would adopt a glassy stare, face forward, in mimicry of the mannequins around him, but Griffith is a more resourceful player: hilariously, he turns his face up and to the side, as if in aloof distraction, aspiring to the attitude rather than the appearance of a storefront dummy — a frozen image of aristocratic indifference, with just a soupcon of blind terror trickling underneath.

More study of this fine thespian is now urgently required.

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6 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Tickling the Ostrich”

  1. Christopher Says:

    “Ladies must eat” fits the pattern of so many silent comedy and drama film titles….Are Parents People?..Are Parents Pickles?..Our Hospitality,Our Dancing Daughters,Our Modern Maidens,Do Detectives Think?…

  2. Their Purple Moment is a favourite. I think Laurel & Hardy had great titles. That one may have meant something at the time, but I think that makes it actually less impressive.

  3. Christopher Says:

    I was reading something about the title of their film,”They Go Boom”,the other day and its origin with the saying “I faw down and go boom”,an expression I’ve heard many times in films before the 40s…from the mouths of children..come immortal movie titles..

  4. Am just working on a Chaplin piece where the relationship between childhood and comedy plays a part, or hopefully will, anyway…

  5. If you are a big Raymond Griffith fan, I have many photos from his films at http://www.silentfilmstillarchive.com/raymond.htm .

  6. Thanks, I was reading about him on your site as prep for this. I’m a newly-converted fan, I’d say, as I’ve only seen this one minor short. But I’m taking steps to see more, and you’ll be able to read the results of my viewing soon, I hope. He seems a great candidate for my MUBI column, The Forgotten.

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