Archive for The Fatal Mallet

It’s Hammer Time

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on November 11, 2020 by dcairns

I’ve written, briefly, about THE FATAL MALLET before, but its brand of bucolic mayhem plays differently when you watch all the early Chaplins in order, I promise.

This one is simple, violent and deeply stupid. Mabel has two suitors, both grubby, disreputable and subnormal, which makes no sense at all but that’s the premise. Accept it and see what happens. What happens is what the Chaplin Encyclopedia calls “barnyard antics,” and what I call stupid people hitting each other, Keystone Komedy’s stock-in-trade. The rustic setting turns it into a meditation on the beauties of nature and the terrible things we do in it, like THE THIN RED LINE but with more false moustaches.

Introduced by Mabel to her slovenly beau — Mack Sennett, her real-life perpetual fiancé, unrecognizable in his degenerate disguise — Charlie reacts roughly like a three-year-old, and shoves Mack in the face. Then he get slightly more sophisticated, points offscreen (“Look, a baby wolf”) and leads the unprotesting Mabel away while Mack is staring vacantly into that unseen realm beyond the frame where all the good stuff happens in Robert Bresson films.

What follows is an escalating tit-for-tat routine with little idylls of childish wooing interspersed. Some of these show Chaplin adding fresh expressivity to the Tramp, as he performs dainty tricks for his lady. This is the first film where the Tramp is not drunk. Maybe there’s more can be done with this character than just getting shitfaced and annoying women?

What just happened?

Mabel throws herself into the knockabout with girlish glee — Chaplin in drag could get smacked all over the screen and it was funny because of the costume. Hitting Mabel isn’t automatically funny at all, so the violence has to have an element of the accidental, the ironic, if a kick up a lady’s arse can be ironic. So she only takes a brick to the face when it’s aimed at Mack. And she gives as good as she gets, smacking Charlie unconscious with a single blow.

Suddenly another, even larger Mack turns up, Mack Swain, who it seems is in fact Mabel’s swain. He is handsomely dressed, unlike the two stumblebutt ragamuffins she’s been idling with. Sensing that this supermack is a formidable character, Charlie and Mini-Mack stock up on bricks…

“This one-reeler proves that hitting people over the head with bricks and mallets can sometimes be made amusing,” said Moving Picture World. I see imitative behaviour problems with a statement like that.

A new gag: heretofore in Keystone skirmishes, violence has always been effective. A blow on the head with a brick WORKS. Swain casts all this comfortable certainty into question: his skull is apparently constructed on cannonball lines, and he is invulnerable to the most savage four-brick conk on the nut. What now?

Again, Chaplin is making use of the David & Goliath paradigm that will serve him so well with Eric Campbell in just a few years. But the David is not a very sympathetic figure here. The rather courtly Swain deserves Mabel’s hand. Charlie deserves a fractured skull.

After a fair bit more brick-hurling, the mallet is discovered. I’m not really sure this qualifies as a dramatic turning point of the Robert McKee-approved school. I’m uncertain a blow from a mallet is any more devastating than a brick to the face, you see. All I can really say for sure is that this film has both. I do, however, like the superstitious awe with which Sennett regards the weapon — a thing almost beyond his comprehension, like the monolith appearing to the apemen in 2001.

Sennett’s very good here. His character has a certain authentic ugliness owing little if anything to the makeup box, and his presence grounds Charlie in a seedy not-quite-reality.

The mallet works! Swain is rendered comatose. But you can’t put the genie back in the bottle. Now that the mallet’s deadly power is unleashed upon the world, it is anyone’s to use. So Charlie brains the other Mack with it. The romantic square becomes a triangle, then a simple line.

Enter Tiny Tarzan, Chaplin’s original kid, Gordon Griffith. Like everyone else in the film, he has the hots for Mabel. I look forward to someone concussing him with a blunt instrument. You think they won’t? OK, they’re more merciful: Charlie simply kicks the sprog out of frame and gets back to flirting with Mabel in a small patch of hay.

Both Macks reawaken but are locked together in a shed. Good cowering from Sennett, textbook rising-to-his-full-height from Swain. They break free, and the ritual Kicking the Co-Stars into Echo Lake Duck Pond finish is enacted, with Sennett finally walking away with Mabel. Well, he is the producer.

Sennett makes a pretty good support for Chaplin. I think he thought he was going to be co-lead. He cameos in a few more shorts, but never played a major role with his protégé again.

Mabel Bodied

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on May 29, 2014 by dcairns


More Mabel Normand over at Mubi, as The Notebook presents this fortnight’s edition of The Forgotten.

The kid getting fresh is Gordon Griffith, the screen’s first Tarzan. Although Elmo Lincoln played the King of the Apes in 1918, little GG played his younger self, thus preceding Elmo to the role by minutes. Here, he gets some practice in with a “Me Gordon, you Mabel,” routine. From century-old Keystone knockabout THE FATAL MALLET.

The Sunday Intertitle: Hope Floats

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 25, 2014 by dcairns


Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle may not have raped and  manslaughtered anyone, but he does spank Teddy, “the Keystone dog,” in FATTY AND MABEL ADRIFT, a rather good comedy he directed in 1916. Mabel, of course, is Mabel Normand. I’ve been watching lots of her stuff recently and you can expect to read about more of it here.

The film opens with a slightly uncanny, Meliesian sequence of Fatty and Mabel in heart vignettes and a naked little boy as Cupid conjoining them with a well-aimed arrow from his quiver. My DVD added soupy saxophone music to this, giving it an inappropriate LAST TANGO IN PARIS vibe, so I muted that and randomly played a CD, which turned out to be the soundtrack to THOMAS by Amedeo Tomassi, which gave everything a giallo quality. This, strangely, was less problematic. Though it did make Al St. John seem like Max Cady.


St John plays a jealous jilted type, interfering in newlyweds Fatty & Mabel’s domestic bliss in a way that seems to prefigure the triangle in Keaton’s ONE WEEK. Instead of sabotaging the couple’s made-from-a-kit new home as in the Keaton film, St John enlists the aid of some bandits to tow the cottage out to sea. The honeymoon has been a rather asexual affair, with Mabel bedding down with Teddy the dog while Fatty restrains himself to a kiss on the brow, delivered not in person but by his shadow. You can’t get safer sex than that.

So one could argue that St John hasn’t really interrupted anything.

This is one of the more structured Keystone films I’ve seen, though arguably it begins too early, before the marriage, to no major effect. But I enjoyed how it spent time on different aspects of the central relationship, with sitcom business about Mabel’s inedible rock cakes, which even Teddy won’t touch. When Mabel tested a rock cake by tapping it on her skull, Amedio Tomassi obligingly provided two perfectly synched percussion beats, despite the fact that he was on a separate disc playing at random.


Arbuckle throws himself about frenetically, of course, and St John’s vigorous knockabout is impressive — he’s not a particularly charming clown, so the heavy role suits him well. Mabel is domesticated, which is a shame — she gets to spread her wings more in star vehicles like MICKEY, and the crude kick-up-the-arse stuff she did with Chaplin (eg THE FATAL MALLET) is also refreshing. You don’t expect to see women mixing it with men in the more violent skits, but Mabel was a game girl.

I think more gags could have been devised out of the promising situation of a house at sea, also, but the mere sight of Fatty, Mabel and a confused Teddy bobbing about in their respective beds in the waterlogged cottage cracked me up. They make that last quite a while without anything in particular happening, and it’s all good stuff.

Anyhow, the bandit chief (Wayland Trask) is a real tough guy, swigging gasoline and eating dynamite and living in a cave on the beach. Yet he has a business card.