The Sunday Intertitle: The Slapstika


In A FILM JOHNNIE, Mr. Chas Chaplin falls in love at the movies and, in the best celebrity stalker tradition, traces the starlet of his dreams (Peggy Pierce) to her studio, Keystone. Studio boss Mack Sennett being notoriously the cheapest man in Hollywood, the notion of shooting a film against the backdrop of his own studio must have been irresistible. Save money on locations and sets and petrol, and have a film that doubles as a commercial for the company.

The movie offers glimpses of many of Sennett’s roster of clowns, but what grabbed my eye like Dr. Ludovici’s lid-locks from CLOCKWORK ORANGE was the slate. Clapperboards are still called slates, a term which also applies to each set-up on a movie shoot, hence the cry, “Slate 1, Take 1.” In the silent era, there was no need for a clap, which is used to synch the sound afterwards, so the slate was just a little chalkboard upon which the slate and take number could be scrawled. Stick it in front of the lens, turn over for a second, and you had an ID tag for the bit of film you were about to shoot.


The Keystone slate is… distinctive.

Yeah, it’s decorated with swastikas. I really have no idea why. But I’m always fascinated by Hollywood swastikas — Clara Bow wore one on her hat, and Marshall Neilan used one for his production company logo. At least this time, Hitlerian implications can be ruled out, since it’s 1914 and Hitler is busy getting an Iron Cross in WWI.

Since Sennett and Neilan were both of Irish descent, and Dublin had a Swastika Laundry until comparatively recently, I wonder if there’s some connection to the Emerald Isle. It appears that at this time the Sanskrit symbol had been adopted in the west as a good luck sign — so it does make sense to stick one or two on your slate to augur well for the coming scene.

It still makes for a weird moment though.

6 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: The Slapstika”

  1. La Faustin Says:

    I was just watching Tallulah Bankhead in FAITHLESS (1932), and she plays roulette with swastika chips. But she loses and ends up living in sin with Hugh Herbert. Food for thought!

  2. As far as my research, Neilan’s swastika was trademark for his production company which I spotted earliest in a 1921 yearbook.

  3. Well, 1921 is early enough, I guess. It took him a bit too long to get rid of it. But at least his was a flowery, decorative one.

    Evidently swastika roulette chips are the first step on the road to ruin. Or the road to woo-wooin’. Or something.

  4. …& Clouzot’s Les Espions; Cold War rather than hot, but assorted spies hiding in a run-down mental hospital are an appropriate image.

  5. I guess you meant to post this on the following piece. Yes, I like Les Espions, it has an almost Beckettian sense of gloom, and an existential take on espionage as part of the human condition.

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