Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Cinecon 46 - Down on the Farm and book signings

I'll be at Cinecon signing and selling copies of Mack Sennett's Fun Factory outside the dealers room at the Hollywood Renaissance in the book-signing area on the following times/days: Thursday 9/2 @5pm, Friday 9/3 @12-noon and Saturday 9/4 @12-noon. I'll also be introducing the 1920 Mack Sennett feature DOWN ON THE FARM on Thursday at 8:55pm. Hope to see you there!

Monday, August 2, 2010

Charlie Chaplin in A Thief Catcher, and other rarities at Slapsticon

Each July brings the classic film festival that is—for me—the most eagerly anticipated of the year: Slapsticon, held in the Washington, DC area (Arlington, VA, to be exact). Slapsticon is an absolute must for anyone who loves silent and early sound comedy made roughly during the years 1900-1960 (but with a prime focus on the comics of the silent and early sound period). Every year at Slapsticon, there are some unbelievable rarities—both from archives, and from the personal inventories of film collectors.

Charlie Chaplin in A THIEF CATCHER.

The “rarities” factor of this year’s Slapsticon, however, took things to an unprecedented level with the “re-premiere” of an early 1914 Keystone comedy called A THIEF CATCHER (discovered by historian and producer Paul E. Gierucki—you can read the details here), which features a brief but assertive appearance by Charlie Chaplin as a Keystone cop. Gierucki’s 16mm print is of the circa 1918 reissue by the Tower Film Company entitled HIS REGULAR JOB. A THIEF CATCHER is a film that at one time (in the 1910’s to 1930’s) was mentioned as a possible title in Chaplin’s oeuvre. However, when authors began writing books about Chaplin, it disappeared from his filmography—no doubt because of confusion with a possible retitle of another lost Chaplin appearance in HER FRIEND THE BANDIT (a film reportedly reissued as “THE” THIEF CATCHER). As a result, the Slapsticon screening received much attention in the domestic and international press (including the BBC and Reuters), and the film lived up to all the “hype” as a quality early Keystone one-reeler, Chaplin or no Chaplin.

A THIEF CATCHER, first and foremost, is a showcase for its star Ford Sterling, who is a gifted and under-appreciated comedian. Sterling’s flourishes in the film—which include at one point getting his own fingers inextricably entwined as though they were imaginary “Chinese handcuffs”—had the audience howling. In the film, Sterling is a rural sheriff (or at least is wearing a sheriff’s badge—some subtitles may have been deleted from the reissue print that would explain his precise status) who ends up being held captive in a shack by a trio of what are described in the title as “yeggmen” (an old phrase for safecrackers or burglars). The first yeggman is played by a clean-shaven Mack Swain (in a newsboys cap and sweater). The second yeggman, who holds Sterling hostage by gunpoint in a shack, is Edgar Kennedy—sporting a thick black “Italian” mustache, enhanced eyebrows and a well-past-5:00 shadow of a beard. The third yeggman is played by Bill Hauber, but he is knocked down a hill before the arrival at the shack (Hauber later turns up as a cop).

When Charlie Chaplin arrives onscreen, there is very little doubt that it is indeed the famous graduate of Fred Karno’s music hall troupe (though Slapsticonian humor being what it is, Mr. Gierucki--after the screening--was greeted by many helpfully tongue-in-cheek confirmations that “it was definitely Billy West”). Wearing a slightly oversized policeman’s coat and a flat (rather than tall) hat, and wielding a billy club, Chaplin’s appearance and body movement is unmistakably unique to anyone having even the passing familiarity with his work. Chaplin is accompanied by a second cop, who is much taller, wears the tall “bobby” style hat often associated with (though not always sported by) Keystone cops, and large black pasted on eyebrows and mustache. (With the artificial facial applications, the second cop is difficult to recognize--I had initially thought he might be Dave “Andy” Anderson, but quickly retracted that belief.) Chaplin and the second cop trail Swain to the shack where Sterling is being held by Kennedy. Arriving and standing behind Swain, Chaplin begins a series of “Chaplin-esque” gestures: first stopping to hoist his belt, then putting his left hand up to the other cop to mime “I’ll handle this,” then shifting his billy club from his right hand to his left and using it to poke Swain in the stomach to get his attention. When Kennedy exits the shack to join his partner, Chaplin pushes Swain out of the way with his right hand to get to Kennedy, then punches Kennedy lightly on the should with the right hand while going into the familiar crouch and stances (neck tilted slightly foreward, legs apart) Chaplin assumed whenever he “meant business.”

Eventually, the rest of the Keystone cops (who were seen in the station earlier in the film) are summoned to subdue the yeggmen. Without a second or third viewing, it was difficult to see all the cop faces in the station scene. The chief at the desk was definitely someone I didn’t immediately recognize, though it may be someone under heavy makeup who I’d recognize with a little more study. Rube Miller definitely plays the only cop in the station with a flat hat (the others have the tall bobby style headwear), and Rube later leads a phalanx of cops to the shack. I believe I quickly spotted George Jeske among the cops in the station, and when the authorities arrive at the shack, Bill Hauber (who earlier had played the third yeggman) is definitely prominent among their ranks. Earlier in the film, there was a large middle-aged woman with dark hair who was seen beating a rug. Again, her identity merits further viewings—I had initially suspected Phyllis Allen, but that is too easy a conclusion to jump to without additional study.

Besides A THIEF CATCHER, a number of other Sennett offerings were shown Saturday morning during “The Sennett Spot,” which I introduced. Ford Sterling also went over very well with the audience (as did Charlie Murray) in the rare 1920 Sennett-Paramount DON’T WEAKEN. The crowd also loved the 1914 SHOT IN THE EXCITEMENT, with a rare Keystone lead role for Alice Howell (opposite Al St. John and Rube Miller). However, the film I was most anticipating—because I had not seen it before—was the 1926 Sennett-Pathe comedy FUNNYMOONERS, starring Ralph Graves, who is supported by Thelma Parr, Marvin Loback (in a travel pest role that slightly predated Billy Bevan in HOBOKEN TO HOLLYWOOD, and by many decades John Candy in PLANES,TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES), Vernon Dent and Sunshine Hart. In the film, Graves is continually rebuffed as a suitor for Thelma by her father William McCall, who then arranges her to be sent to a girls school to get her away from Graves. Ralph dons drag to impersonate the school chaperone escorting Thelma to the school. Their plan seems to work, until Ralph agrees to give Loback a ride. His presence not only destroys Ralphs’ car, but any attempts by eloping Ralph and Thelma to finalize their wedding vows.

Watching FUNNYMOONERS for the first time, I was able to add some character roles for actors who were mentioned in scenario files for the film, but without roles specified. Louise Carver plays the real school chaperone “Miss Simpkins,” and Joe Young appears briefly as a motorist. Barney Hellum, listed as being cast in the film, is not seen in this print. Additionally, I spotted Billy Gilbert as a hotel proprietor, and Martin Kinney (the strange-looking undertaker-esque performer of Ham & Bud and Triangle Comedies) in a rare Sennett appearance as a deputy of sheriff Vernon Dent.

Among the many Slapsticon films which should be noted from a Sennett standpoint was GENTS OF LEISURE, a 1930 Paramount Phil Ryan talkie two-reeler starring Chester Conklin and Vernon Dent, and directed by Del Lord. Chester and Vernon play two hoboes who are very similar to the ones played by Billy Bevan and Andy Clyde in several films for Lord in 1926. In fact, Lord—who never met a successful visual gag he could reuse in future comedies, including those starring the Three Stooges—reaches back to those Bevan-Clyde films for several gags. At the beginning, in a gag brought forth from WHISPERING WHISKERS (1926), Conklin and Dent are sleeping side by side on railroad tracks. A train approaches, and each man quickly rolls out of the way of the locomotive in opposite directions. Later, on the run from a cop, Conklin and Dent enter a barn and don a cowsuit, as had been done in previous Lord comedies like BLACK OXFORDS and WANDERING WILLIES (and the Sennett talkie THE BEE’S BUZZ).

On the Monday after Slapsticon, I viewed a number of films at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. Among them were THE MAN NEXT DOOR (1913), the earliest surviving appearance by the Keystone cops (who are played in the film by Bill Hauber, Charles Avery, Dave Anderson. Ford Sterling runs afoul of gun-toting neighbor Nick Cogley when he is caught with Nick’s wife Dot Farley (who I had mistakenly identified as Ford’s wife in my book). I also saw LITTLE BILLY’S CITY COUSIN (1914), a Keystone kiddies entry in which Matty Roubert and Gordon Griffith play two country boys who become rivals when Little Billy’s (Paul Jacobs) attractive female city cousin arrives for a visit.

I also watched a 1913 Rex comedy entitled THE WIDOW AND THE WIDOWER, starring Wilfred Lucas and Lucille Ward (both shortly to join Keystone). I recognized that one billed member of the cast, Chance Ward, is the actor who plays the rich man to whose house Mabel Normand makes a delivery in the Keystone THE RIOT (1913). Chance Ward, with mustache and hat, can also be seen as a pool player in a still from Keystone's A GAME OF POOL (1913). I had never seen Chance Ward's name associated with Keystone before recognizing him in this film.

Most interesting of these Library of Congress films were two of Sennett’s “Woodley Specials”—special films made specifically for exhibition at Sennett’s own Woodley Theater in downtown Los Angeles, and not a part of his regular release schedule. Most of them were made in 1917 under the direction of Eddie Cline, though there were no credits on the original titles. Each film was approximately 5 minutes. The first was a title I knew about: WOODLEY SPECIAL presents “THE KEYSTONE GIRLS OPEN THE TROUT SEASON.” In it a gaggle of Sennett girls, including Juanita Hansen, Mary Thurman, Phyllis Haver, Ethel Teare, Maude Wayne, Vera Reynolds and Myrtle Lind, are seen fishing with poles in a mountain stream. No doubt owing to the temperature of the water, they are uncharacteristically not wearing bathing suits, but instead wading outfits which do not show much skin. Alice Davenport is on hand as the girls’ chaperone.

F. Richard Jones in the Sennett commissary.

More of an eye-opener to me was WOODLEY SPECIAL presents “WHAT HAPPENED TO MRS. JONES”, a Woodley title of which I was not previously aware. The Mrs. Jones of the title who visits the studio with her daughter Dicky is actually the first wife of Keystone/Sennett director Mrs. F. Richard Jones—Carol Jones (What happened to Mrs Jones?--well, she and Dick Jones would soon divorce, then he had a second brief marriage, followed by his third marriage to Sennett girl and future Hollywood costume designer Irene Lentz—who survived him after his untimely death). “Dicky” is the Jones’ daughter Dickey Carol Jones, who was less than a year old when this film was made. Mrs. Jones and Dicky arrive at the studio entrance, where a guard (probably the "Mr. Walker" who Sennett mentioned in his autobiography) stands watch and a number of Keystone employees are seen going in and out. We see Sennett girls wearing island costumes that look like those in the two Billy Armstrong-starred comedies A SHANGHAIED JONAH and HULA HULA LAND, which means this was likely filmed in April or May 1917. Dickey is placed in a carriage towed by a dog, which then chases another dog, with Mrs. Jones in pursuit. The Sennett cyclorama figures into this sequence. We also see Polly Moran entertaining her co-workers with a monologue (which of course we cannot hear, this being a silent film). All in all, WHAT HAPPENED TO MRS. JONES is one of the more interesting candid films associated with the Sennett studio, and features some revealing “behind the scenes at the studio” shots.

Besides the films, Slapsticon is valuable as a meeting place for an international quorum of comedy film historians, authors, researchers, preservationists, collectors, documentary and dvd producers and fans. Besides the “usual suspects” who I’m happy to see every year (many of whom can also be found on forums such as Silent Comedy Mafia), I was also delighted to make the acquaintance of many first time attendees. Among these were Hilde D'haeyere, who came all the way from Belgium and is doing extensive research on the subject of Sennett-Color. In fact, Hilde taught me a number of details about Sennett-Color, not the least of which was that I was mistaken in thinking it was based on two-strip Technicolor. Instead, it was closer to Multicolor or Cinecolor, and indeed did include genuine blue in its color palette. As a matter of fact, armed with this information, I put two and two together and realized that William T. Crespinel—who founded Cinecolor in 1932—actually worked as a Sennett cinematographer as early as 1929, so it is possible that he had a hand in Sennett Color as well. I eagerly await Hilde’s research on the subject to tell us all more! It was also a pleasure to meet Andrew Scholl, who came all the way from Australia, and has been doing extensive research on the graduates of Australia’s seminal Pollard Opera Company, who include Snub Pollard, Alf Goulding, Daphne Pollard and Billy Bevan. I was also very glad to make the acquaintance of Trav S.D., author of a book I really enjoyed and which is highly recommended: No Applause--Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous. Now the hard part is waiting another 11+ months to do it all again at Slapsticon 2011—hope to see you there! (In the meantime, keep up to date on the planning and schedule at the Slapsticon website).