The Sunday Intertitle: Oil Swindlers

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A passel of oil swindlers, each clutching his own tiny derrick in readiness.

This is IT’S A GIFT, not the WC Fields classic but the 1923 demi-classic starring Snub Pollard. After he stopped being a pint-sized antagonist to Harold Lloyd the Australian knockabout specialist made a string of his own shorts, the couple I’ve seen are quite odd.

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Pollard plays a madcap inventor hired to help the struggling oil tycoons of America — where is he now, in their hour of need? Underground, same place as the oil. A fat lot of use.

IT’S A GIFT is moderately well-known for this image ~

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Snub’s absolutely non-explosive gasoline alternative. But since he’s a mini-Edison of the slapstick kind, he lives in a Rube Goldberg contraption — if houses are machines for living in, he has taken the idea to its limit. If Caractacus Potts and Doc Brown invented a means to reproduce, their offspring would live in this concatenation of contrived conveniences.

His automated pull-cord-for-service breakfast routine allows Snub to make it halfway through the film without getting out of bed. But you can’t call him lazy. He manages to drop a cop down a manhole and, in loaning his walk-on-water shoes to another, to help save a drowning man, he is apparently responsible for two fatalities before getting to the oil company to render his services.

I’m always interested in these moments of black comic discomfort when they don’t work — this one is pretty ghastly. They don’t make me like the films more, rather the opposite, but I’m interested in the sensibility that produces them. The director here is Hugh Fay, who had his own series of shorts as star, playing a character called Percy. I will check him out, if possible.

In the seriously decayed closing images, Pollard goes full Chitty Chitty Bang Bang as his magnetic motor sprouts wings and takes off — on invisible wires, all in one shot. You wouldn’t get me in that thing.

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7 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Oil Swindlers”

  1. ehrenstein47 Says:

    “My oil is so pure you can drink it. Babies fight for it.” Very Donald Trump.

  2. Trump Walk-On-Water-Shoes can’t be far in the future, is there is one.

  3. kevin mummery Says:

    “My oil is so pure you can drink it. Babies fight for it.”

    Little did they know, but the babies that fought successfully were later corralled and made into Baby Oil.

  4. dbenson Says:

    This was part of “When Comedy Was King”, Robert Youngson’s 1960 compilation. For 60s kids it and the other Youngson films were a rare chance to see silent comedy on TV. The bullet car was burned into our minds — of COURSE it would work! We could see it!

    “It’s a Gift” combines two popular comic ideas. Not just the almost-almost-practical devices and furniture (see also Keaton’s “The Scarecrow” and the cartoon “Mickey’s Trailer”), but the transforming room. Snub’s coat somewhat needlessly masquerades as a coat of arms, while the murphy bed not only folds into the wall but converts the room to a den with a roaring fireplace. And the labeled garbage can becomes a garage when one letter is covered.

    I think Melies had a short film where a gaming room is hastily converted into a more innocent venue. Appearing/disappearing casinos, bars and dens of vice have been a staple of comedies and even dramas ever since. Another Snub Pollard film showcased by Youngson (can’t remember which film) had a den of anarchists turning their lair into an innocent schoolroom. “Stingray” gave its Lorre-esque spy a room full of vliewscreens and computers that that slid in and out of place, and I recall an ancient Looney Tune in which a mouse, pretending poverty, had a luxury apartment that turned into a miserable hovel on command.

    A popular variant is the hidden entrance. “Thunderbirds” loaded puppets into vehicles from the living room. “Man From UNCLE” accessed headquarters through the changing room of a tailor shop. “Some Like It Hot” hid a nightclub behind a funeral parlor. My favorite was the original Batman serial, when the Japanese villain’s headquarters was hidden behind a “ghost train” ride offering tableau of war atrocities … located in an largely abandoned neighborhood rather than at a pier or park … with a barker on duty at all times. Henchmen in fedoras was somberly climb into the little two-seat carts and ride in, confident that there was nothing suspicious here at all. A nominally more serious crime film had the villains meet in a room behind a cheap bar, accessed through a phone booth. Three or four would file in or out of the phone booth at the same time.

  5. The gaming room conversion is reprised in Royal Flash for a gambling/bawdy house. Richard Lester loves his gadgets as much as Keaton and Melies did. In Superman III he has a fireplace that splits in two, complete with logs and flames, to reveal some fresh bit of hi-tech supervillainy for Robert Vaughn.

  6. dbenson Says:

    Lester’s “Help” has a sort-of gadget house. We see the Beatles entering what appear to be four separate townhouses; then we see those are merely four entries to one huge juvenile fantasy flat, with elevating theater organ, a nice patch of turf, and John Lennon’s wildly envied below-floor-level bed.

    It did occur to me it would be a chore to make the bed. Only years later did I realize that you’d have to either elevate the entire room around it or mess up the ceiling of the room directly below.

    I find my mind running to fantasy home design. Just folk, sometimes rich and sometimes not, do over rooms, yards, or even professional offices to imitate movie sets. At one end you have Barbra Streisand’s basement mall (little faux boutiques to display her stuff) and Michael Jackson’s infamous Neverland. At the other you have determined fans replicating Victorian ice cream parlors, Star Trek environments, retro movie palaces, Disney princess bedchambers and so on.

    Life imitating are imitating life: A near-cliche is movie bawdyhouses with rooms simulating various environments. “The Avengers” offered a railway buff who took all his meals in a rattling (but stationary) dining car as well as an old colonial officer reliving glory days in a private jungle. “Hollywood Hotel” featured a shanty town of struggling wannabes, whimsically constructed from discarded studio set pieces (the hero had a jail cell from a Cagney movie).

    No, I don’t think quarantine is getting to me. Why do you ask?

  7. Lester was apparently living in a gadget-strewn pop art creation at the time of Help! I guess the Beatles were living on the ground floor — maybe the sunken bed is on a riser so you can elevate it up for making.

    Now he has a cottage where, because the ceiling was originally made for our hobbit-sized ancestors, the floor had to be excavated to create a decent height. I remember wondering how much that cost.

    When we made Natan, we had to frame one of the grand-daughters very close, because she lived in an amazing pop art shagging palace/penthouse, where every object was stunning but also stunningly wrong to appear in the background of a Holocaust documentary… It reminded me that her aunt had produced a Jean Rollin sexy vampire film.

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