'The Mack Sennett Collection, Volume One' Attests to Risk-Taking in Creativity and Innovation

by Thomas Britt

20 October 2014

This collection of films is significant in illustrating the development of Mack Sennett's contributions to early film comedy and the lasting effects of Sennett and his troupe.
 
cover art

The Mack Sennett Collection, vol. One

Director: Various
Cast: Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, Billy Bevan, W.C. Fields

US DVD: 19 Aug 2014

A comprehensive review of Flicker Alley’s The Mack Sennett Collection, Vol. One could reasonably fill a year’s worth of weekly write-ups. There are 50 films in the collection. Though most of them are shorts, having originated as one-half reel to two reel films released from 1909 to 1933, there are some longer entries, including a couple that are feature length. This collection of films is significant in illustrating the development of Mack Sennett’s contributions to early film comedy and the lasting effects of Sennett and his troupe.

The films are divided into three programs on three Blu-ray discs. While another recent Flicker Alley release, the documentary collection We’re In the Movies, is an overt argument for film preservation, here the point is implicit in the mere existence of these works (some quite rare) in a high quality Blu-ray release. Yet those interested in the science of film preservation are reviewing the set with their eyes firmly on the technical processes involved.

A well-intentioned reviewer named Paul J. Mular wrote a thorough gauge/transfer/image quality commentary that appears as a “Customer Review” on the Amazon.com product page for the set. Richard M. Roberts, the source for many of the films here and associate producer for the Blu-ray release, responded to Mular’s review with corrections to his “gauge-calls” and the following exhortation:   

Instead of wasting ones time trying to figure out what [gauge] or generations the original materials come from, spend the time better commenting on whether the films are funny or not, presented well, historically important, the things that really matter. They all do indeed look terrific, no matter what source materials were used, and that speaks more to the hard work of the Cinemuseum team in putting the whole set together than trying to guess what source was used. These are eighty to a hundred year old films, that have come down to us in all matter of print materials, be glad they’re still with us, and for goodness sake, just have a good time watching them!

Roberts’ characterization of Mular’s efforts as a waste of time is debatable. But there’s much to discover and appreciate when one’s primary objective is to explore the content of the films, while also valuing the methods that kept them alive.

Sennett was most prolific as a producer, having produced more than 1,000 films in a span of a quarter century, ending in 1935. His contributions to the selections gathered by Flicker Alley are multifarious, but parsing who did what and when is also not the most useful way to appreciate the films as a unified whole. To watch this collection of 50 films, “gathered from around the world to be fully restored and digitally remastered in HD”, is to recognize the sorts of cinematographic innovations, visual surprises, narrative situations, and thematic variations that compose the “Mack Sennett film”.

The Curtain Pole, released in 1909, is the earliest film included here. Sennett stars as Monsieur DuPont, who creates chaos when he tries to replace a broken curtain pole. This sort of plot is central to the films we associate with Sennett and slapstick comedy, in general. Simple tasks escalate into dangerous and/or contentious physical struggles, all played for comic value. The Curtain Pole is notable for its early use of what might be described as accumulating outrage, with the growth of a mob that pursues the central troublemaker. In this respect, a line could be drawn through film comedy from influential shorts such as this to later large-scale landmarks like The Blues Brothers (1980).

In The Curtain Pole, the limits of cinema itself are being explored. Shot in the streets, the disorder captured by the camera is convincing. The collisions and the dust kicked into the air are real, which creates a feeling that no one on screen is safe. This contrasts with the broad and unrealistic acting style that owes much to theatrical traditions. Every aspect is overdone, but the purely physical action retains a feeling of authenticity while the acting does not.

Also pertinent to film as a developing form is the The Curtain Pole‘s playful use of horses within the action. A reversal of the film sends a horse galloping backwards. In the 1870s, Eadweard Muybridge’s photographic experiments involving horses had been significant forerunners to the acquisition and exhibition of motion pictures. That director D.W. Griffith and writer Sennett acknowledge the scientific foundations of moving images in service of their madcap vision creates an additional layer of humor for those interested in film history.

The Manicure Lady (1911) and A Dash Through the Clouds (1912) demonstrate the centrality of the chase sequence to Sennett’s comic narrative scenarios. In The Manicure Lady, a car is added to the action sequence. The film features an inventive instance of interior/exterior activity viewed simultaneously. The lead character (a pursuant barber played by Sennett) is visible through the window of the car of two characters he’s chasing. And in A Dash Through the Clouds, exterior settings expand to include the skies, as the chase incorporates flight scenes.

Both films also typify a key dramatic situation of the plots collected here, which is rivalry in romance. The results vary, creating different conclusions about power in relationships. In The Manicure Lady the barber proves himself to be a dogged pursuer, punching out the competition and winning his love’s hand. But in A Dash Through the Clouds, the female lead (Sennett superstar Mabel Normand) rescues her admirer but ultimately chooses the high-flying rival.

Another short from 1912, A Grocery Clerk’s Romance, begins with a couple already married and already out of balance. The comedy of marital acrimony is a common view of domestic life within Sennett’s films. Here, the lazy husband rests while his wife toils. The titular grocery clerk intercedes and does the washing, wooing her with this “labor of love”.

Crosscutting between exaggerated romance and exaggerated danger, the courtship of grocer and wife contrasts with the lazy husband’s peril at the hands of criminals who bind him next to a bomb. This combination of elements effectively develops the darkly comic tone of the short, as the grocer (who wants the husband dead) prevents intervention and counts down to the pending explosion.

Alas, the husband escapes in time, perhaps learning the value of quick action as opposed to laziness. A Grocery Clerk’s Romance is one of the cleverest comedies on the first disc, showcasing the mock-outrage of the villain and his quickly arranged, and ultimately foiled, marriage to the non-widow. That the titles refer to their nuptials as “hasty” is a reflexive acknowledgment of the economical narrative, the boundaries, of the one-half reel film.

The lightning-fast reversals of romantic fortune continue with On His Wedding Day (1913). It’s a film that reuses many ideas from the earlier shorts mentioned here. A man, determined to marry, meets a more attractive prospective wife. He takes or wins her from another in just a matter of moments, but in doing so courts a costly comeuppance. He loses his nice clothes. He is covered in soot. Of course, he incurs the anger of a growing horde. His reunion with the original bride-to-be might not be ideal, but it is a relief from the turmoil that results from philandering on his wedding day.

Though other selections from 1913 don’t represent major evolutions in storytelling, they do achieve visual/cinematic innovations that remain captivating a full century later. The celebrated Bangville Police (which most popularly introduced the Keystone Cops) contains a memorable shot of farmer’s daughter Della (Normand) overhearing the conversation of two silhouetted figures in the background. For a body of work that hadn’t yet utilized interior settings to their full potential, this composite of exterior and interior action is a complex image that also advances the plot. And the slapstick style of the police, forever bumbling, forever falling, and forever late, becomes a Sennett/Keystone fixture.

A Fishy Affair plunges the camera (and visual action) underwater, to reveal the fish swimming in a river. The film makes an inspired visual match of the fish swimming, with a group of people searching a room for missing money. And the pièce de résistance is a sequence featuring live alligators that introduce a palpable danger to the slapstick comedy.

The Speed Kings—Earl Cooper and Teddy Tetzlaft is mainly noteworthy for its footage from a genuine Santa Monica Road Race (one of the overt instances in this collection in which the scripted action merges with “actuality”). The racing footage is shot from several perspectives, including from the car, framing the driver. Yet despite all of the kinetic action shot at the track, it is the last-act physical comedy of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle that steals the show. He flips and flops across the ground, a ballistic style with fleeting balletic moments that seem to defy physics. 

The Great Toe Mystery and Recreation (both from 1914) don’t do much to advance the plot variations of the Sennett comedy, but each represents a sort of evolution. In The Great Toe Mystery, one notices an increased attention to the possibilities of interior settings and production design. In fact, some of the comic value is derived from characters stuck in particularly confined spaces. One gag takes place inside a trunk and another in a dumbwaiter. Recreation finds the full-body acting style of short silent comedy becoming more sophisticated, thanks to the presence of director/star Charles Chaplin.

Chaplin appears briefly as a cop in this set’s A Thief Catcher, a 1914 film previously considered lost but revived here thanks to a print found in 2010. But Recreation features The Tramp front and center, and with him comes a style of silent film acting executed with a degree of precision unseen prior to his arrival. His command of posture and his power to communicate with sometimes quite subtle adjustments of his head and body are marked contrasts to the overstressed and theatrical methods favored by so many other actors in this collection.

The final three films from 1914 included here offer advances in staging, framing, and dramatic situations. Shot in the Excitement begins with the familiar premise of rival suitors and recycles elements from The Great Toe Mystery (the note) and A Grocery Clerk’s Romance (the explosive trap). But the staging of action on either side of a tall wall, while simple, is instantly engaging. And that establishment of conflict within the frame continues to expand in daring ways, with a spider that interrupts a tryst and boulders and cannonballs that assault the characters. Also, the choice to cover the chase sequence in wider framing is a welcome variation in relation to the chases of previous films.

Similarly, The Noise of Bombs zeroes in on a single compelling bit of staging and expands outward. In this case, it’s the revelation of a baby surrounded by dynamite. In addition to being the film’s foremost visual surprise, the dynamite links to the narrative device of a “time lock”, which comes via a note about a bomb hidden in the house and set to go off in ten minutes. This, like the previously mentioned reflexivity of the hastily arranged marriage, is a knowing reference to the film’s one-reel running time. The characters tear up rooms looking for the bomb, and the combination of baby plus dynamite plus bomb generates a level of suspense that overwhelms the comic value.

A different sort of suspense is present in Ambrose’s First Falsehood, a film that succeeds as drama, despite its comic mode. Mack Swain, another of the more skilled actors in the collection, creates a sympathetic character in Ambrose. At first, he appears to be honorable and is not entirely dishonest. But later, when he chooses to lie in order to hide an initial falsehood, he becomes less easy to defend.

Ambrose’s First Falsehood is an altogether more mature way of addressing the kinds of themes and use of dramatic irony found in earlier films. Returning once again to A Grocery Clerk’s Romance for the sake of comparison, the viewer will associate that film’s husband-presumed-dead to the present Ambrose. Here, however, there’s more attention to the serious process of mourning than there was in A Grocery Clerk’s Romance, which used the disappeared husband as but one thread in the comic fabric of a man trying to move in on another’s wife through extreme (explosive) measures. Ambrose’s First Falsehood actualizes the dramatic irony, going so far as to have the reunited husband and wife mutually sort through true and false information as they reassess the events. This creates a genuine interest in the manner and moment that truth will be revealed.

There’s a noticeable unevenness to the quality of films from 1915. A Bird’s a Bird has some value as a dark comedy. One sequence, in which a beard is cut off and hidden in the food during a meal, plays like the prelude to the revolting chicken dinner of David Lynch’s Eraserhead. But the film suffers from its threats to animals and jokes made at the expense of “foreigners”.

Gussle’s Day of Rest is simply too uneventful. Sure, it’s a film about rest, but at two reels, the running time is excessive for the content of the plot. The film is to be praised, though, for the performance of Syd Chaplin as Gussle. He displays a variant of the precision of performance accomplished by the more famous Charles. He uses strategically employed moments of stillness as punctuations in a performance of motion. Syd’s approach to performance stands out to an even greater degree when viewed next to subsequent film Do-Re-Me-Boom. The actors in that film directly acknowledge the camera/viewer, and their performances are theatrical, joining other aspects of the film that seem to retreat back from the developing cinematic style.

Furthermore, the presentation and function of the bomb in Do-Re-Me-Boom! are not nearly as creative as they were in other Sennett shorts, pre-1915. This is especially odd, as it is a movie whose title directs focus to the bomb as a central part of the plot. The entire process of rigging the bomb (in a piano) is shot in a pedestrian manner. An expectation of the ignition connects to the film’s musical motif, which creates an interesting sort of unity between plot and aesthetic. But the shooting and cutting do not generate a sufficient level of suspense or interest, especially compared to the earlier achievement of The Noise of Bombs.

The undisputable highlight of the 1915 films is A Lover’s Lost Control. A showcase for star Syd Chaplin (also serving here as co-director), the film brings back the Gussle character, last seen causing trouble in parks on his Day of Rest. This time, though, he’s in a department store. The interior setting increases the consequences for his misbehavior, and Chaplin spares nothing in skewering the rituals of shopping.

The gags are non-stop and they all connect, from various uses of fans, fabric, and boxes, to a hysterical sequence involving powder, to a painful bit of physical comedy with shards of glass. The interactions of the players constitute some of the most effective ensemble acting in this entire collection. One scene between Gussle and a shoe salesman, turning on the line “I wonder which sock the hole is in”, is a thrill of stop-start comic energy. 

Also significant is the film’s creative variation on the crowd-chase. Here, the crowd sneaks up slowly on Gussle as he flirts with a woman, which precedes an eventual car chase that plays out in a more traditional manner. And the beginning of the third act delivers on the promise of the crowded interior setting. The many boxes of merchandise that line the location have been begging to be disturbed, and as the film enters its final minutes, they become projectiles in a riot.

The final film from 1915 is A Submarine Pirate, another film starring and co-directed by Syd Chaplin. The scale of the film is considerably larger than the Gussle shorts. While the production design and cinematography of the adventures at sea are impressive, overall the film sinks under the weight of its own plot and overreliance on action set pieces.

Maintaining a much better balance of comedy, drama, and action at sea is Fatty and Mabel Adrift (1916), directed by and starring Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Mabel Normand. Here, the direct engagement of the actors with the audience is treated in a more formalistic style than that of Do-Re-Me-Boom!. Arbuckle and Normand’s faces are framed in hearts, and they look at us and then at each other before Cupid hits Arbuckle with his arrow.

Later, Normand again plays directly to the camera, beckoning Arbuckle to kiss her. Laura Mulvey might say the effect is that Normand is asking the viewer to kiss her, and it would be difficult to argue the point. Another stroke of formalism is the shot of Arbuckle’s shadow, kissing her as she sleeps. It’s a romantic variation on the sorts of menacing shadows that will appear in later influential horror films such as Nosferatu (1922) and Vampyr (1932).

The Mack Sennett Collection, vol. One

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