The Sunday Intertitle: Hot Air


Roy Del Ruth was one of very few Keystone directors to graduate to anything resembling the big time — Capra was the exception, attaining far loftier status. While many small-time silent boys fell by the wayside when sound came in, RDR surprisingly was at the forefront of the talker boom at Warners, where his old dark house spookshow THE TERROR was apparently quite innovative, and he churned a host of fast-talking comedies with the likes of James Cagney.

SKYLARKING (1923) is one of those early slapstick shorts, starring a fellow called Harry Gribbon who has a funny name and lots of technique but just isn’t very funny. The movi also features Billy Armstrong as a recklessly destructive blind man who anticipates W.C. Fields’ sightless nemesis Mr. Muckle, and cameos by Scotsman Andy Clyde and Teddy the Dog. None of these made me laugh, but my eyebrows levitated as if painted with Cavorite at the sight of the sightless proto-Muckle. Had Fields already used a version of this character on stage?

I like the special effects, as Gribbon takes to the air, which benefit from incorporating camera movement along with double exposure for a dynamic and halfway convincing effect. And I like this intertitle, which could easily have been converted into dialogue for one of the peppy pre-codes RDR made later. Sennett films frequently recycled catchphrases and gags heard in bars in just the way Warner scenarists would do in the thirties.


Oddly, the visual gags of the Sennett era didn’t generally make it into those films, even the comedies, apart from that riotous sequence with monkeys and custard pies in LADY KILLER — for zany imagery, you really have to look to Del Ruth’s later HORROR MOVIES (here and here).

4 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Hot Air”

  1. My paternal grandfather was a “doctor to the stars” in 1930’s-50’s Hollywood, so my dad grew up around The Industry. He talks of how he befriended Edward Sedgwick and Mr. Sedgwick became a surrogate father to him. Unfortunately, Sedgwick was one of those silent era people that didn’t really survive the transition to sound.

    I’ve seen a few of Sedgwick’s film and I think this is a terrific silent:

    Mmmmmm…..William Haines……mmmmmmm.

  2. Well, he LASTED a long time, but was clearly no longer as prominent in the business, and there are odd gaps in his career. It would be interesting to see him away from Keaton, as those are the only of his films I’ve seen. Still, The Cameraman and Spite Marriage are lovely items to grace any filmography.

  3. Poked around but couldn’t find a remembered article by Fields talking about comedy. He muses on funny names, offers some stage anecdotes, and so on. Pretty sure it was written when he was still primarily a stage star.

    At one point he says you can’t really joke about blindness, then describes a film scene that in his view pulled it off: The owner of a shiny new car watching silently and helplessly as a passing blind man unwittingly wreaks havoc with his cane.

    Was he recalling this film and already improving it in his mind; or was there another film that, before or after, did a fuller version of the gag? The version is “Skylarking” is a quick, odd throwaway; it feels like something yanked from a stockpile of recalled gags.

    When Fields gets around to using it, the fellow is a complete grouch who COULD destroy the store out of malice, but doesn’t — it’s purely a side effect. Shades of the early, unsoftened Mr. Magoo, unknowingly throwing himself and others in harm’s way while being either loudly disgruntled or obnoxiously convivial.

    The other comic blind men who come to mind are in line with the later Magoo; pleasant souls who think they’re doing good things. Gene Hackman’s hermit in “Young Frankenstein” is eagerly being a perfect host to the monster, who finally flees for his own safety. Ted Cassidy in “The Last Remake of Beau Geste” is a happy camper in the Foreign Legion, cheerfully serving stew in the mess hall as the men frantically try to get their bowls under the moving ladle. Later we see him carefully shaving and regarding the results with satisfaction — while facing the wall where the mirror isn’t.

  4. Fascinating! Hard to know definitively if this is the source unless someone stumbles across a closer match.

    I guess Mr. Muckle is a curmudgeon to forestall sympathy which might choke the laughs, and because Fields is already playing mild-mannered so that’s taken.

    The name may derive from Fields visit to Scotland, where I believe he discovered the pleasures of whisky. “Muckle” is a lovely Scots word meaning “big,” very satusfying to use in conversation. Try it.

    If I’m right, then there could also be a direct lineal connection between Fields’ Great McGonnigle and Scotland’s greatest bad poet, William Topaz McGonagle.

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