The Sunday Intertitle: Meat Cute

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In the Doug Fairbanks vehicle HIS PICTURE IN THE PAPERS, directed by John Emerson and co-written with Mrs. Emerson — Anita Loos, the more talented half of the team — Fairbanks plays the heir to a vegetarian health food empire who prefers martinis, pugilism and roast beef to his fathers diet of “perforated peas” and “toasted tootsies.”

To effect the traditional meet cute, the plot has Doug sneak off to a restaurant to enjoy a steak, where he will encounter the leading lady, also a supposed veggie, also moonlighting as a meat-eater.

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Oddly, though the film is shameless propaganda for the carnivorous cause, depicting herbivores as timid and bloodless creatures, effete and un-American, photographically speaking it makes the greens look more appealing, even though they’re robbed of greenness in the b&w image. Doug’s dish, on the other hand, looks pretty disgusting onscreen, its natural colour leeched away. in his enthusiasm, Doug contrives to exacerbate the problem — in a typical bit of silent-movie actorly business, he tries to gesture excitedly at the meat in the insert shot, his fingers protruding into frame and seemingly giving the slab of flesh an affectionate pat.

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Who does that?

A lot of Doug’s eating-acting is similarly overdone, with facial expressions more appropriate to a soul in torment than a man enjoying a slap-up beanfeast. This may be why his reputation has survived more as a performer of impressive stunts than as a performative gourmand.

Also featuring Erich Von Stroheim as “One of the Weazels.”

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5 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Meat Cute”

  1. Was inspired to revisit this in the “Modern Musketeer” set. It felt like a comedy short with the giddily energetic Doug instead of a clearly signified Comedian … and last-reel heroics with a body count.

    What arrested my attention were the various sightings of Pringle’s Pre-Digested Prunes. Could there be anything more unpleasant to contemplate?

    A major pleasure of Fairbanks is how he keeps the playful Doug persona even when awash in historical spectacle. It’s like a kid’s fantasy of being an adult hero: Beating evil grownups by playing. “Picture in the Papers” goes so far as to make Doug a spoiled idiot, albeit not a malicious one. When Keaton or Lloyd played spoiled idiots, the story usually centered on a learning curve. Here, Doug is bursting with stupid ideas — shown to BE stupid ideas — up to the end. Ripping up the roof of a boxcar and finding bottles he can weaponize has to count as dumb luck.

  2. The movie I wish was in that set is The Matrimaniac, a really witty Loos-Emerson-Fairbanks piece that’s better than several of the included films. Still, it’s a dleightful set. It’s possible to prefer Doug’s contemporaneous shenanigans to his period romps.

  3. Watched “Flirting With Fate” and realized both films are now one century old. It does put Doug’s more stagebound pantomime in a different light. Also the rigorously polite society: In both films, Doug has to know the girl through proper channels in order to speak to her (FWF has a convenient mutual friend); and in both he has to have money to displace a parentally-approved rival.

    FWF is at once a bit more ambitious and bit more of a mess than HPITP. It starts out with a focus on Doug as starving artist in love with the unknown girl whose portrait he painted (today that plays as creepy rather than romantic). Then it’s pushed into the background as we shift to a generic romance with a stock misunderstanding and a disapproving aunt. Finally we reach a clever, almost free-standing comedy plot: Doug hires a hitman to end his misery, then in short order he gets a deliberately ridiculous parade of good news that solves all his problems. Now he wants to live, and imagines everything and everybody is a trap by Automatic Joe — who we know has found God and renounced his trade. The first comedy of paranoia?

    Nice that Automatic Joe and the two dogs are included in the closing celebratory meal. The dogs especially, since early on impoverished Doug lets them lick a painting of food instead of feeding them (the kind of gag you barely get away with in a surreal one or two reeler). But I waited in vain for the portrait to figure more in the plot, perhaps as the work that makes him a successful artist or what proves his devotion to the girl.

    But again, it’s one hundred years old and the rules were still being discovered. And I’m guessing they didn’t have the freedom to slowly trial-and-error each feature the way Chaplin did his shorts at Mutual.

  4. The excellent hitman plot is stolen from Jules Verne’s The Chinese Man from China. The Beatles were going to use it for Help! until they discovered Jean-Paul Belmondo was doing the same story. Novelist Marc Behm, who was based in France, is the cheeky chap who sold them the second-hand plot, and got a credit on the film (I guess he came up with the replacement, somewhat influenced by both Fu Manchu and Wilkie Collins; The Moonstone).

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