Archive for Ford Sterling

The Sunday Intertitle: Der Mute Tot

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 12, 2017 by dcairns

BEFORE there was Our Gang/The Little Rascals, it would seem, and before Chaplin’s THE KID, Mack Sennett tried his hand at packaging his own child-based Keystone Komedies. And no, I have no idea why the middle kid above is dressed as a Russian serf.

Three-year-old Paul Jacobs was discovered when a small boy was needed for a short, and he proved so adept that the studio started constructing stories around him. LITTLE BILLY’S TRIUMPH was released in 1914, the first of a few one-reelers centering on “the Keystone kids.” But the whole idea got derailed when Ford Sterling was tempted away by Uncle Carl Laemmle to create his own short comedy unit at Universal, an ill-starred enterprise which ultimately led nowhere as Laemmle slashed the budgets as soon as the first few films proved underwhelming at the B.O. Little Paul/Billy had gone with Sterling (the turncoat!) and so his promising career fizzled before he lost his baby teeth.

Info comes from Kops and Custards: The Legend of Keystone Films (A Book) by Kalton C. Lahue & Terry Brewer. If you already have Simon Louvish’s Sennett bio, you need this to complete your Keystone library.

Sennett evidently remembered those bumpkin sketches in which a hayseed goes to the theatre and doesn’t realise it’s make-believe. See also the American tourist in Montmartre witnessing an Apache dance. In this case, the sprog is getting exercised over a PUPPET SHOW. He should know better, at his age.

I saw LITTLE BILLY’S TRIUMPH on one of those DVDs that LOOKS kind of fancy owing to the covers being lovely period posters, but features fuzzy and milky and poorly-encoded transfers. Still, I pronounce the film pretty good for Keystone. The narrative is coherent and it’s not too busy, probably because the kids needed direction and couldn’t be turned loose like Sennett’s usual army of competitive pie-throwers. Since this is a Keystone film, it takes place in a nightmare world of cruelty, exploitation and violence. Since the characters in this case are kids , this seems more realistic than usual. The only token adults are a lone mom, an ice-cream vendor and a stray kop — identified by the IMDb as a svelte Edgar Kennedy in a cookie-duster mustache. I’m not convinced it’s him.

Young Mr. Jacobs is no Jackie Coogan, but who is? He’s still an adept and sympathetic performer (albeit with a slight tendency to glance off-camera for direction). The plot has bigger boys deprive him of the dime he was given to buy ice cream, so they can set up a tent show using puppets they purchase with the swag. Billy/Paul steals the B.O. takings and buys himself all the ice cream in the world. Amusingly, ice cream in 1914 was served in cardboard boxes and you ate it with your hands, apparently. Filthy business.

As is the Punch & Judy show put on by the pint-sized heavies, a wildly inappropriate melodrama featuring a lecherous “pay-the-rent” type villain in a top hat, with some serious consent issues. When the rapey glove puppet has been defeated, hero and heroine embrace and sink out of view, which also seems kind of adult for this audience. Still, they have to learn sometime.

Matt Stone & Trey Parker’s Weinstein documentary.

The emotional audience scenes — quite realistic, since the director no doubt could stand behind the camera and excite genuine reactions — makes this film a doddering ancestor of Herz Frank’s TEN MINUTES OLDER.

A happy ending sees Little Billy in possession of the full box office take and gorging himself to a state of terminal brain-freeze on all the ice-cream in the world.

Dirty Little Billy.

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The Sunday Intertitle: Silence is Golden

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on September 14, 2014 by dcairns

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Thanks to Mark Medin for aiming me at this one — a follow-up to last week’s Keaton, which was co-directed by Mal St Clair.

St Clair’s THE SHOW OFF (1926) is a movie where we can be truly grateful for silence — Ford Sterling, a longtime Keystone cop, plays a braying jackass who is already rather hard to taken without sound. If we had to listen to him, we’d end up climbing into the screen to throttle the bastard. Sterling plays the chief of the clowns in my favourite film, HE WHO GETS SLAPPED, but he hasn’t got much to do in it and isn’t required to engage our sympathy. His abrasive personality is probably what kept him from being a bigger success, though he was obviously well-known enough.

The film is strictly domestic comedy, with few visual gags and most of the humour deriving from Sterling’s crass behaviour. There’s also a big helping of pathos, with a dying parent and so on. St Clair negotiates the tonal shifts fairly well, though Sterling basically just bulldozers through, the script failing to supply him with much of a redemption. The highlights turn out to be scenes of more-or-less straight suspense, protracted to a nerve-shredding degree at the climax where Sterling ambles home with the money to save the family home, just as his poor mother-in-law is hunting for a pen to sign the property away.

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The film also features Gregory Kelly, who was the first Mr. Ruth Gordon, and who looks Japanese. And then it also features Louise Brooks, which I expect is the reason most folks watch it. Brooks is used quite effectively, and though as romantic interest for the second male lead, it should be a nothing part, it actually affords her some nice moments.

St Clair’s direction is pleasing too, with some dynamic tracking shots that reinforce the swaggering idiot hero’s conceit of himself, as he pushes the whole frame along with his jaunty march. And there’s this ~

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Really nice, and so modern. There’s been a certain amount of debate down the years about whether Brooks was an actress or just a great screen figure. I think she’s the embodiment of the kind of star who excelled in silents and wasn’t so effective in sound, not because of any flaw in her voice but because the rigidity of sound filmmaking stifled what was amazing about her. And then in filmed interviews in her later years she’s quite relaxed (to the point of not bothering to get dressed and doing them in her dressing gown) and you can see the vibrancy again. I guess the Kansan accent wasn’t ideal, and wasn’t what you’d imagine when looking at her in a silent, but I don’t find it a big problem (but then, I’m not American so it has fewer dust bowl associations for me).

Her delicacy and dancer’s poise improve every composition in THE SHOW OFF. A shame more St Clair features of this era don’t survive. And a shame about Ford Sterling.

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Oh, do be quiet, you silly man.