Archive for Mack Sennett

Pg. 17, #5

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , on May 27, 2020 by dcairns

I have watched the scenario work from the beginning, from the days when the main purpose of the script was to keep some prominent object moving before the eyes of the delighted audience. Naturally at that time any subtlety of motion would be wasted on a plot whose main situation took the form of a ball rolling down the hill with a frenzied mob chasing it. I now feel that scenario work is coming into its own.

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“The projector will be rolling, the camera will be panning, the angle of the shots will be changing, and the distance of the shots will be changing, and all these things have their own tempo, so you have to have a tempo, too. If you sit or stand or talk the way you do at home, you look silly on the screen, incoherent. On screen, you have to be purposive. You have to be moving or not moving. One or the other. So a lot of times, in a complicated scene, the best thing to do is stand absolutely still, not moving a muscle. This would look very strange if you did it at the grocery store, but it looks okay on screen because the camera and shots are moving around you.”

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Griffith was a tough directorial taskmaster–as just about all the best directors were. He once slapped Mabel Normand hard to make her crying-mad for a scene in The Mender of Nets (1912). After he shot the scene, Griffith put his arms around her and said, “There, darling, that’s what I wanted. I knew you could do it.” Lillian and Dorothy Gish recalled that when they first came to be interviewed by Griffith at the old Biograph studio in New York, he chased them all over the studio with a pistol to get their “emotional” reactions.

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Sennett made certain that he was walking in the same direction as Griffith every night after work, and he began to expound some of his own ideas about the techniques of making pictures. Sennett was anxious to discuss his theories on the possibilities of screen comedy, a topic which left Griffith completely unmoved. Griffith failed to see anything funny about comic policemen, regardless of the manner in which Sennett chose to present his thesis or how many times he explained it. The topic bored Griffith then, just as it would bore him after his walking companion became world famous. Nonetheless, he was tolerant of Sennett’s opinions, and as they strolled about the city, the two men discussed motion pictures and the great future in front of them.

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“I was interested in the idea of an artist at the end of the road. I wanted to write something about an artist in that predicament. It could have been any kind of artist; a painter, a writer, a concert pianist. But I had access to the biggest rock and roll singer in the world, and I was interested in that world. And there is no art form in which the violent impulse is more implicit than in rock music. And I was very interested in what was happening with Mick at that time, the flirtation with Their Satanic Majesties.”

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It wasn’t enough! — Why had I made no mention of the GEEZER? Yes that was the location, enormous swim bath of vegetation, but there’d been this geezer down there, the all-important geezer, and it was from him, presumably, I’d learnt . . . what I’d now utterly forgotten — And the more I tried to recall him — the more it seemed like the act of recollection was driving him into the mists — and Fog.

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When I mentioned my anxiety to my good friend Miss Ena M. Eaves, of the British Electrical Development Association, she told me of the work done on oven temperatures by Miss Bee Nilson, lecturer in nutrition at the Northern Polytechnic, and reproduced in her work, The Penguin Cookery Book.

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Jeanie MacPherson, quoted in Script Girls, by Lizzie Francke, Robert Mitchum, quoted by Dave Hickey in Mitchum Gets Out of Jail, in the collection O.K. You Mugs, edited by Luc Sante, The Fifty Year Decline and Fall of Hollywood, by Ezra Goodman, Kops and Custards, The Legend of Keystone Films (A Book), by Kalton C. Lahue and Terry Brewer, Performance, by Mick Brown, Donald Cammell speaking, The Bald Trilogy, by Ken Campbell (Vol. 1, Furtive Nudist), Vegetarian Cookery, by Janet Walker.

Seven passages from seven page seventeens from seven books on my nearest shelf.

It was perhaps to be expected that two books on Hollywood history would contain references to Griffith near the start, but it wasn’t planned by me. In his passage, Campbell is trying to recall an urban visionary he met in a dream, which he then too scantily transcribed: I’m happy to be able to help him out by demonstrating that this was doubtless Griffith in oneiric flâneur mode.

The Sunday Intertitle: Ambrose

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on November 19, 2017 by dcairns

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.

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.