The Sunday Intertitle: Ambrose

As a kid, I adored Mack Swain in THE GOLD RUSH (as a kid, I also liked Chaplin’s narrated version, but it was the only one I’d seen). And it was a source of frustration to me that I couldn’t seem to see any other Swain movies. Then I saw pictures of him in his Keystone heyday and he gave me the creeps. His “look” certainly illustrates Chaplin’s wisdom in choosing a SMALL mustache for himself — adds age and character, but doesn’t conceal facial expressions.

Swain’s smear of black is, I guess, what Groucho would end up if he didn’t keep his greasepaint neatly trimmed. It makes Swain look like a human being who has been bitten by a minstrel and is slowly turning into one.

Swain is also in HANDS UP!, the excellent, cartoony Civil War comedy that was a smash hit the year THE GENERAL flopped. He’s more like his GOLD RUSH self in that, though his character lacks the Gloomy Gus attitude that makes Big Jim so enjoyable. Star Raymond Griffith took one look at Swain and wanted him fired. “Too funny!” he rasped. Eventually, Swain was allowed to stay on condition he wore a smaller hat. Griffith didn’t want anyone poaching his laughs.

So, now I delve back into Swain’s history — it seems at Keystone he had a CHARACTER, Ambrose, recurring from film to film. But, and this is typical of Keystone, Ambrose doesn’t really have a consistent character apart from his scenic face-fungus. In one film he’s a murderous disgruntled employee, in another an oppressive king of a mythical (and fashion-confused) kingdom. Sennett seems to have not quite grasped the difference between “actor” Swain (plays many roles) and “character” Ambrose (IS supposed to BE a role). One of Ambrose’s more regular comedy job descriptions, however, is hen-pecked husband.

In WILLFUL AMBROSE (1915), Louise Fazenda does the pecking, and her domestic dominance is expressed in the way she drives her spouse outdoors by repeatedly stabbing him in the buttocks with a knife, when its time for him to play with their young daughter, Pansy (Vivian Edwards, 19). Once outside, Pansy throws solid objects at her dear papa, who briefly considers killing her with his pistol, then settles for a bit of target practice, until he destroys a beer stein and his wife concusses him with a bat. It’s kind of RANDOM, don’t you think?

When Chaplin said all he needed was a park, a pretty girl and a policeman, he might have been implying that if you threw more content at him than that and didn’t give him any time to organize it all, it might actually mess things up.

Ambrose attempts to buy a replacement stein from a weird stall that seems to be growing from the side of somebody’s house. “O. Schmidt, Dealer in Steins and Crockery.” But, having read all the German jokes on the vessel, he sees no point in purchasing it. Mr. Schmidt angrily hurls the flagon at the departing Swain, hits a young woman (Dixie Chene) on the coccyx, and provokes a fight between Swain and her boyfriend (Joe Bordeaux), a smaller man with a smaller mustache. Where is this GOING? I haven’t seen a film begin so uncertainly since William Friedkin’s SORCERER.

The abortive fight is notably violent and unhumorous, with Swain’s blows repeatedly landing on the young woman by accident, so she gets smacked in the face, kicked in the arse &c. Ambrose smashes up Schmidt’s stall, then goes for a drink. Pansy seems to have vanished from the film. But wait! Here she is, and the small-mustache Bordeaux, having misplaced his injured girlfriend, is trying to pick her up in the park, by the time-honoured method of throwing rocks and sticks at her. This seems to be the only mode of communication available to the Los Angelinos of 1915, before they discovered speech. Have things really changed so much?

Anyway, Pansy is not altogether averse to this savage wooing, and faints repeatedly, and progressively less genuinely, into her suitor’s short arms. Here, director David Kirkland attempts an actual shot ~

And now Ambrose can illustrate Chekhov’s dictum at the revolver and start blasting away at this unwelcome (to him) suitor. Then he runs into the guy’s much-abused girlfriend and immediately gets horny. I’m sensing that the title WILLFUL AMBROSE was chosen in desperation to try and contain this mess within some sort of comprehensible parameters. Anyway, this is really horrible. Dixie, perhaps the film’s best actor, looks really distressed, as anyone would be upon being snogged by Mack Swain, the Al Franken of the galloping tintypes.

In the midst of this mess, a concept does start to emerge — Swain drives away the diminutive Bordeaux with a display of toughness, biting a piece off the barrel of his pistol (!), a precursor to his shoe-eating in THE GOLD RUSH. Then his Mrs. appears to prove that even big men have their Achilles heels, and even big heels have their little women. Hideously prolonged limbering-up from Fazenda with the bat as Ambrose cringes in his park bench (the only other bit of good construction to be seen) and everyone gathers to watch the fatal blow with gruesome pleasure. A flurry of last-minute business, followed by a happy ending for everyone except Ambrose. Good.

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10 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Ambrose”

  1. Love The Gold Rush!

  2. Chaplin did actually cast Swain previously in The Pilgrim, it turns out. Saved his career.

  3. bensondonald Says:

    Swain also appeared in “The Idle Class”. “Chaplin’s Goliath” speculated that Chaplin really missed having a heavy with comedy chops.

    Performers’ choice or director’s: Chene responds to Swain with fear and weakness, while he plays the lechery like Bluto. This is very unusual in this kind of film, unless they’re setting up heroine and villain awaiting Bobby Vernon or some such. Every now and then you spot this tone-deafness is a comedy; usually the earliest ones but it would still crop up (Famous / Paramount cartoons had a knack for making violence unfunny and creepy. Bluto half-conscious and registering pain is not funny. Nor is Katnip being strangled).

    Sexual relations in knockabout silent shorts were primitive but generally consistent. Husbands and wives were big on extramarital flirting and even making dates. A standard plot or closing gag was a jealous spouse (usually but not always the wife) catching on and administering retribution.

    The general tone was more naughty children than sexual transgressors — although laughs are wrung from incorrect assumptions of transgression. Fatty Arbuckle was constantly sneaking away from the wife and getting clobbered at fadout.In “We Faw Down”, Laurel and Hardy’s boyish gallantry leads to their being caught pantless with two floozies. In “Sunday Afternoon” a buddy lures married Harry Langdon into a double date; to the end, Harry’s wife sees no sexual threat in his hesitant actions. Charley Chase was often a victim of misunderstanding (often involving half-clad strangers or neighbors), but in “Mighty Like a Moose” Charley and his wife both attempt to stray — unwittingly making a date with each other after cosmetic transformation.

    Single girls in park comedies would casually desert broke dates for strangers who’d spring for sodas; this never devolved into Mr. Goodbar territory. They feared married men’s wives more than they feared married men. And like proper slapstick wives, their response to bad behavior was usually outrage and violence rather than fear or emotional betrayal.

  4. Absolutely. All this adds to the weird discomfort in this film, which seems to be breaking clearly understood rules. Also, would the plot have been altered at all if Ambrose didn’t have a daughter?

    Now I have to experience — for the first time! — Ambrose and the Walrus (AKA Chester Conklin).

  5. Cool! I love to hear about these actors. Love all of Chaplin’s movies!

  6. bensondonald Says:

    Another example of off-key I’m sure I mentioned before: A Benny Hill piece where he does many signature gags, but there’s a mean-spiritedness to his performance and the story itself. Was he trying to be “modern”? Cringe comedy works for a select few, but not for naughty Benny.

  7. Don’t have time to watch this morning, but I immediately note that it has the cinematographer of Straw Dogs and Witchfinder General. Maybe that’s it.

  8. A lovely book on the lesser silent comedians: Clown Princes & Court Jesters, which has a chapter devoted to Swain.

  9. Mark Fuller Says:

    Mack caused a bit of a shock in Pordenone a few years ago….we were watching Yasujiro Shimazu’s epic Ai Yo Jinrui To Tomo Ni Are……a cross between King Lear and Dallas, set in the Japanese timber industry, all sorts of shenanigans involving family banishment and interrupted suicides…..when out of nowhere the setting shifted to somewhere like Kentucky, and over the hill driving a buckboard is….Mack Swain. Almost without exception we thought there had been a reel mix-up, but no, here was the Japanese family , led by Sojin, awaiting Doc. Swain in their shack. You will have to take my word for Mack Swain appearing in an epic Japanese silent drama as Imdb seem to have rejected his presence in the cast list on grounds of implausibility, but there he was….

  10. For realz? This I have to see!

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