Archive for Mack Sennett

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.

The Sunday Intertitle: If you want to get ahead, get a hat

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on October 18, 2015 by dcairns


“Do you deliberately wear that hat to look eccentric?” asked my boss. Nothing could have been further from my mind, except spatially. But I do have to remind myself to take the hat off occasionally, when indoors, because it’s so comfortable, and I don’t want to turn into Henry Jaglom, a man who seems to have adopted the same policy as Dean Martin in SOME CAME RUNNING. The sun hasn’t graced that man’s upper cranium since before I was born. He’s probably accumulated a block of dandruff like a sugar loaf.

There are a number of mysteries for me in D.W. Griffith’s THOSE AWFUL HATS, a 1909 Biograph comedy (a genre the earnest Griffith rarely dabbled in).

The whole film takes place in a cinema, and all three minutes of it play out in a single, unwavering longshot. However, the upper left-hand corner represents the cinema screen, and an image has apparently been matted into it. One would expect a split-screen effect in this period, or a double-exposure, but since the entire concept of the film is about people getting in the way of the screen, traveling mattes APPEAR to have been used to allow them to pass in front of the image. (Film stock wasn’t fast enough to allow a genuine cinema projection to be captured on camera, certainly not with well-lit live figures interacting with it.)

To begin with, the onscreen image is another wide shot, such that Griffith COULD have simply built a set on the stage, framed by a rectangle with curved corners, to pretend the existence of a screen, as Buster Keaton later did in SHERLOCK JNR. But at a certain point the smaller image cuts, which would have been impossible to get away with as the foreground characters are moving about so much (Keaton’s audience sit very still, and even then you can see their positions shifts slightly during his artful jump-cuts).

Weirdly, the film-within-the-film has suffered nitrate decomposition, whereas the surrounding picture is fairly clean. This strikes me as an impossibility, unless the film has been weirdly restored and the compositing done more recently. Arguing against this is the rather shonky nature of the matting, with the ladies hats fragmenting into solid bits and invisible bits — they abstract into Rorschach blot jumbles, pinned to the ladies heads by unknown methods. (On the IMDb, one José Luis Rivera Mendoza refers to the technique as the Dunning-Pomeroy Process, but other sources suggest that this was only developed in 1925 by C. Dodge Dunning, and since he was only seventeen at the time. It would be unlikely that he could have invented it at aged one.

Gesticulating wildly in a loud check suit is Mack Sennett. I wasn’t sure I’d recognize him, but the moment I saw the suit and the flamboyant arm-waving, I thought I bet that’s him.

The punchline: a digger’s claw descends and pincers a hat neatly from one woman’s sconce. It at first looks set to pick her up by the head, Rhesosaurus-style. And indeed lowering again, it grabs Woman 2 by the waistline and plucks her away entirely. More gesticulating from the crowd, but I’m not sure if they’re angry or happy. I *think* they perceive this second action as a step too far.


It’s suggested that this film was commissioned as an announcement to gently remind ladies to remove their colossal head-ornaments when viewing the galloping tintypes, and this is borne out by the inevitable intertitle ~


I guess the massive hat was the mobile phone of its day.