Sunday, May 7, 2017

True Heart Susie (USA,1919)

With a plot that was already outdated to its own era, reflecting the recurrent theme of D.W. Griffith of portraying Victorian, virginal young heroines, this film gets to touch the audience and make them nostalgic about an era gone a long time ago. An era of good country people, a more peaceful interaction with nature, and without all worries that come with a more urban environment.
In addition to it, the fate of two actors who played important roles in this film proved to be dramatic, as both actors Robert Harron and Clarine Seymour died young, not too long after this film was launched.
Actress Lillian Gish -in a surprisingly stiffy and exaggerated acting -is True Heart Susie, her love interest is her old childhood friend, William -played by her brother in law in real life - Robert Harron. Susie has always loved William since they both were very young, but William has never seen her in the same way. However, Susie was a completely innocent girl and kept her hopes high that someday William would correspond to her love. She lived with her elderly aunt, her mother having previously passed away and there was no mention to her father.
William has always dreamed about attending college, but his ambitions were not encouraged by his family, who thought he would do better if he focused on farming. His father even claimed: “A good farmer is better than a poor lawyer or preacher”, as it is written in one of intertitles.
Once, when both William and Susie made a trip to the village, it was evident how he enjoyed flirting with the more “modern”, “flirty”, “better-dressed”, “not too innocent” girls along the way. This fact per se must have alerted Susie that William was not really interested in her, but her love remained. Fortunately, Susie had a “sister” called Daisy who liked her much more. It was actually a cow she loved as her sister.
Touched with William’s dream to further his education and determined to help him, Susie decided to sell many of her belongings, including her beloved cow, to help sending William to the country college. Lillian got the money and made William believe that the money for his tuition plus a sum for extra expenses came from a philanthropist.
After a hard adaptation period at college, William graduated and returned home being a different man. This was inevitable, as time passed and he broadened his social and intellectual horizons. He eventually became the minister of the village and married Bettina, a gold digger and city girl. In addition to Bettina has never loved William she was too used with the bright lights of the big city and could never adapt to the life in a village. Their marriage, as expected, quickly deteriorated and both William and Bettina regretted their decision. Bettina felt trapped and bored and Willian did not have a domestic goddess at home, somebody who would take care of him as he liked.
Susie continued with her life and kept in touch with both William and Bettina, always being polite and self-contained, never disclosing her love to William to anyone although her sorrow hunted her mind all along.
After a while, Bettina could no longer avoid the parties she loved so much. One night, she told Willian she was indisposed and used it as an excuse to sleep in a spare room, but she actually left to go to a party with her friends behind William’s back. Bettina’s home key ended up being dropped at the party without her realizing it and after she left the party, she was caught in a rain storm. She only realized her key was gone after she was on her doorstep and she took shelter at Susie’s house. Susie took care of Bettina, but both the strain and the rain ended up making Bettina seriously sick.
Bettina had told William before dying that she had taken with a neighbor a reference book William needed and she had also seen Susie and they both got caught in the rain that night. Having believed that Bettina died while doing him a favor he vowed that no other love would ever come to his life. However, without knowing about it, Susie’s aunt inadvertently delivered to William the receipt of his college tuition, claiming Susie had sacrificed herself so much to get the money. William got very touched, but he still wanted to stick to his vow. However, things changed when one of Bettina’s friends visited William because she had a guilty conscience that Bettina had passed away because she had attended her little party and asked for William’s forgiveness. Thus, the truth was suddenly revealed to William.
Having realized he loved Susie all his life, William proposed to her and in the end the audience is led to believe that they both got to recover the bliss they both enjoyed back to the time when they were two country youths.
This film does not really solve the everlasting enigma if men marry plain, simple girls or those who put on paint and powder on their faces, but it definitely provides a beautiful witness of self-sacrifice and romantic love. Perhaps due to the fact we do not see such deep manifestations of love that often nowadays, it makes us miss that simple, past era, when material comfort was not abundant but it seems for some people it was easier to give themselves that much. It might be the biggest appeal of this film, even greater than the good production values.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Peeping Pete (USA,1913)

The subject of peep hole had been explored in films virtually since the invention of cinema and this split reel (a film shorter than a one-reeler, in other words, lasting less than 11 minutes) shows this theme in a typical slapstick fashion. 
The greatest distinction of this film is not really its simple plot, but the fact that it is the earliest surviving appearance of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle in films, back to 1913. He worked at Keystone up to 1917, and it did not take long until he was very popular among the audiences. During this time, his pairing with Mabel Normand was also very successful, which can put those actors among the pioneers of romantic comedies, a genre that would end up establishing itself in the next decade.
Pete (played by Mack Sennett, the head and founder of Keystone studios) spies on the wife of a neighbor through a hole on the fence. Her husband (Ford Sterling) finds it out and gets furious. 
Sterling had his typical acting of broad gestures, ridiculously fake mustaches and an almost surreal temper. However, Sterling is less over the top here than in other films because all the other actors are equally exaggerated. The wife is played by Fatty Arbuckle in drag, which gives an. extra funny effect to the film. The trend of appearing in drag on screen was with Arbuckle throughout his career and he performed quite well in this type of role. 
Sterling also had some quite funny scenes when he tried to take revenge of Sennett for spying his wife and carried a revolver (which shot lots of smoke) with him, causing a plenty of confusion and misunderstandings when he inadvertently intimidated and scared people away while he was trying to find Sennett.
We can also see Arbuckle falling and tripping often in this film. Do not be fooled by his overweight, as Fatty was a quite skilled physical comedian and dancer and he often displayed such skills on screen. Arbuckle also had a very pleasant voice and it is said he could sing very well. Were not for the scandal that virtually ended his career in 1921 and it seems he could have made a smooth transition to talkies, if only he had a chance of doing so. 
In the end, both husband and peeping Pete ended up forgetting their disagreements and became friends. Not before the wife and a plenty of other neighbors got desperate in fear that a double murder would happen (as one of intertitles of the film) said. 
Not really an easy film to be understood by modern-day audiences, as the film is very short and it’s logically not possible to develop the psychological profile of characters well. The plot is also not narrative, but revolves around a simple premise and random gags. Still, it’s interesting to see how Arbuckle was a good comedian from the start and how comedy shorts would develop more and more each year. On the following year. Keystone studios would hire Chaplin (who was also starting his career in films) and produce its first feature-length comedy with most of famous Keystone comedians + Marie Dressler (already a famous stage actress). But this is another story.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Mabel at the Wheel (USA,1914)

This is a very well-known and famous Keystone short but perhaps more because of Mabel Normand and Charlie Chaplin feud in the backstage than the film itself. Supposedly Chaplin had disagreements with Normand on the type of humor of the film and he also did not like the fact that he was directed by a very young woman. Apparently, Mack Sennett (the head and founder of Keystone studios) intended to fire Chaplin, but he had requests of more Chaplin’s films by film exhibitors, which showed Sennett that it would not be a good idea to get rid of an actor who was actually being successful.
However, film is good enough to be successful on its own right and much of this film’s merits come from Mabel Normand herself. She, like her character in the film, was a woman ahead of her time, very physically skilled and brave, which was something completely new compared with 1910s angelical, virginal standards of femininity.
In his first year in films, Chaplin’s little tramp was not already the likeable fellow the world would admire so much. He was a rough man and far from being a gentleman, the kind of guy who would shamelessly make a woman fall on a water pond while taking her out, just like he did with Mabel in the beginning of film. He also did not hesitate in slapping Mabel back after she slapped him. Chaplin would also pursue this rough style of flirting in the film “Tillie’s Punctured Romance” with Canadian actress Marie Dressler, which was also produced by Keystone in that same year.
Something that also looks weird in this early representation of the little tramp is Chaplin’s top hat and exaggerated gestures, an acting that closely resembles Ford Sterling’s and villains of comedic vaudeville or stage plays. Fortunately to Chaplin, he soon improved his character, as those nearly surreal villains soon got out of fashion in films.
Chaplin, after being jealous of another suitor of Mabel, tried to destroy the other guy’s car. Both Mabel and the other suitor find out that Chaplin caused the harm and it caused a fight of bricks and even Mabel took an active part in it. After a while, we can see that the other guy would take part in a car race.
Unfortunately, her suitor ended up being kidnapped by Chaplin and his accomplices and did not show up for the race on time and Mabel, who was in the audience, realized there was something wrong. We can also see Mack Sennett himself in the audience, playing an unsophisticated and simple man. Having started his cinematic career as an actor in Biograph studios, in the first years after Keystone studios was founded, it was not unusual that the boss himself both acted and directed in films, a trend that would soon be over, as it did not take long until Sennett focused himself on administrative tasks of the studio.
Mabel stood up and approached the mechanics, she exchanged her clothes and got into the car that was supposed to be driven by her sweetheart. Many driving scenes were made, which was still a novelty back to 1914, considering that cars were not even very common yet and it was even more unusual to see a woman driving. But this did not stop Mabel and, considering she had even driven an airplane in a 1912 film (A Dash Through the Clouds) and wore a swim suit in another film also in 1912 (The Water Nymph), driving a car was not probably a big deal to her.
Despite the dangers along the way, Mabel drove so skillfully that she won the race and just in time to be observed by her sweetheart, who managed to free himself from the place where he was taken hostage. Rather than being victim of prejudice, Mabel was actually praised by the other guys, generated some publicity (we can see in the end of the film that a cameraman approached Mabel to film her) and was treated as an equal by the other pilots. Meanwhile, Chaplin was quarreling with his accomplices and looked even more mentally disturbed and evil than in the beginning of the film.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Fatty's Plucky Pup (USA,1915)

The comedy shorts of Keystone studios of the 1910s were usually one reelers (circa 11 minutes long), but this one is a two reeler (circa 22 minutes long). The main impact on the plot is that the psychological profile of character of actor Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle is slightly better developed than it would be in a one reeler. 
As expected in a Keystone film, we can see a snapshot of life of working class citizens, lots of rough physical gags and pretty straightforward situations. Fatty is an adult man who still lived at home. It seems he did not have a job and often found himself in trouble and relied on the protection of his temperamental mother even to simple tasks.  But those problems did not prevent him from having a sweetheart just around the corner
Fatty saved a dog who was being maltreated by two men and released the other dogs who were caged by those tough guys. This was the beginning of a new friendship. Actually, in real life this friendship was old as Fatty was the owner of Luke and the one who decided to put his dog in films. 
After that, Fatty’s character brought the dog home and there is a quite funny scene where he gives Luke a bath, with “the finishing touch” of taking care of the nails of his new friend in a rather awkward way. Unfortunately Fatty’s mother did not like Luke very much, perhaps because Fatty washed the dog on the same bucket where she washed clothes. 
The utmost trouble happened after Fatty disrupted a game two unscrupulous men were playing on the street. The men decided to take revenge on Fatty by kidnapping his sweetheart. Luke was the first to realize what happened and came to the girl’s rescue. He followed the kidnappers to the shack where they hid her. Thus, when the girl finally got to call Fatty’s house in a moment of distraction of the guys, Luke was already outside, barking and terrorized some of the though men. 
As soon as Fatty received that call, Luke returned to Fatty’s home and promptly guided him to the shack. The timing was perfect, because the guys were quite close to kill the girl. Meanwhile, Fatty’s mother called the police station, Fatty looks for help at that same place and then we can see the Keystone Cops coming to the scene. A frantic chase happens, but they all got to find the girl.
Luke found the girl even before the policemen did, he untied her, which was particularly important considering how unskilled Fatty was to handle the rescue by himself.  She fainted for a brief time, which was a typical reaction of a 1910s damsel in distress, but we can soon see the girl, Fatty and Luke happily sitting on the shack, reunited and happy.
A noteworthy detail is the ridiculously fake mustache of nearly all villains. It is also a delight to see the urban landscapes of the era, with lots of empty space and only a few cars here and there, symbols of a way of life that has been gone for many decades. 
Not a particularly innovative or hilarious short, but it remains entertaining and with a plenty of historical value and it is worthy watching. 

Monday, February 20, 2017

Mabel's Wilful Way (USA,1915)

In this one reeler, Keystone studios remained faithful to his formula of a park (a perfect scenery to benefit from the sunny weather of California), some cops and a girl. But she was definitely not a delicate flower.
Mabel Normand, at the height of her youth and popularity, had another ground-breaking performance. And she was a rather innovative actress because, despite her beautiful and delicate looks, she was not only a “damsel in distress” or a cute woman in the scene only to give some “atmosphere”, but she was also a daredevil, both on screen and real life. She did a plenty of her own stunts in her films and was even an airplane driver in real life back to the 1910s. 
Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was already a known comedian, having started in films in 1913 at Keystone studios itself. Arbuckle still plays in this film the role of a baby-man, who was incapable of controlling his own impulses, which is a standard of a plenty of his early films at Keystone studios. This limited a lot his comedic potential and fortunately he abandoned such characters as time passed. Since this film is a one reeler and it was no required a deep psychological development of his character, his broad, unrealistic gestures and behavior are fortunately barely seen by the audiences.
Much has been said about the 1920s romantic comedies by Harold LLloyd, but the Normand x Arbuckle duo had already engaged in the genre in previous decade with successful results. Part of the excellent chemistry they had on the screen came from their close friendship in real life. 
In this film, Mabel was out in an amusement park with her parents, but she felt bored and decided to have some fun without them. She ended up meeting two suitors (Arbuckle and Edgar Kennedy) and enjoyed the park with them in a mischievous, but innocent way.  Then we can see one of the highlights of the film, which showed how a genuine amusement park was like back to the early XX century, and how much fun people seemed to have there.
Unfortunately -to the guys -they inadvertently had problems in the park with some people who happened to be Mabel’s parents. Needless to say, it was a ticklish situation when Mabel decided to introduce her new friends to her parents, who were not really happy to see their old antagonists again.
We can see some rough scenes for nowadays’ standards, especially where Arbuckle feeds a bear with a cone of ice cream and a rather ethnically insensitive scene where some balls are thrown on a man in blackface for sheer entertainment purposes. It is also a bit disturbing to see Mabel spanked by her parents for her misbehavior at the end of the film.
In addition to still being enjoyable, this film also provides us with an interesting historical witness of an old era. Amusement parks were still at their beginning (at least in the USA) and at the turn of XIX and XX the entertainment of middle classes in Northern hemisphere started to change greatly. Cinema itself was part of this change. Consequently, although this comedy is clearly outdated we can still laugh at some of its gags.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Cruel, Cruel Love (USA,1914)

This film was made during the first year of Chaplin in films, which he spent working for Keystone studios. Thus, the style of this comedy short was typical of the output of Keystone films of the era: Knockabout slapstick, actors in broad gestures to the point of situations often have a surreal aura, fast pace of films, misunderstandings, chases, fake facial hair. We can see it all in this film. Therefore, the pathos, slow pace of subsequent Chaplin films -which made him a legend of cinema worldwide – were still absent here. 
Another important fact is that this short film was considered lost for some decades and the existing footage was found in South America, with some missing minutes compared with the original film. Thus, current audiences must take it into consideration before analyzing this cute little slapstick comedy.
It must be highlighted that the actors do engage in broad, stagy gestures, which was an acting style already out of date back to 1910s films. This is particularly true when we realize that the subtle style of actresses like Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, etc were already quite successful in Hollywood at that time. Minta Durfee had the most exaggerated acting among all main actors of this film, but it is really no surprise as she always acted quite stagy in her Keystone films.
The character of little tramp existed only as a rough draft of what the audiences would see years later. Actually, Chaplin plays a wealthy man who was left by his love interest (played by actress Minta Durfee, who in real life was back then the first wife of another silent comedy star of the same studio, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle) after she caught Chaplin in an apparently compromising situation with the maid. In reality, Chaplin was only trying to help the maid, who had just hurt her foot and the supreme irony is that the maid had hurt herself right after meeting her own boyfriend (who, obviously was not Chaplin, as she already had another sweetheart).
Chaplin, in despair, tried to kill himself by taking poison even though he did not know that his butler had replaced the poison by water and was laughing out loud at Chaplin’s near-death reactions. As Chaplin was not aware he had only drank water, he thought his death was imminent. 
The real boyfriend of the maid showed up and explained the entire situation to Durfee, that Chaplin had not done anything wrong. Durfee sends Chaplin a letter saying she wants him back and the film has a happy end. 
Although those who are not familiar with Chaplin’s short films in his first years in Hollywood (before he took over full creative control on his films and when he was not a cinema star yet) will barely recognize him in this film, it is still worth watching. This comedy perhaps looks a bit “primitive” to nowadays’ standards, but they were quite usual and popular back to the 1910s and they were vehicles to catapult a plenty of actors into stardom, being Chaplin only one of them. 
The production values of Hollywood were already being consolidated back them. An example of it is that the first comedy feature-length comedy of Hollywood was produced exactly in 1914 by the same Keystone studios, having Charlie Chaplin in the cast and also Marie Dressler (who was already a famous theater actress). This short film was definitely part of all evolvement cinema was witnessing on early XX century. 

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Two Tars (USA,1928)

This film is arguably among the most known silent shorts by Laurel and Hardy. This is a delicious mix of situational comedy and slapstick, of standard material of late 1920s with some subtle influence of slapstick of previous decade. Everything adapted to the so-called Jazz Era. 
Laurel and Hardy play the roles of two Navy men on their day off. They decide to rent a car, get involved in an accident and it does not take long until they meet two beautiful girls and get interested in them. An awkward conversation takes place, where the guys try to act though to impress the girls -without much success. 
The girls were having some problems with the candy machine, Laurel and Hardy tried to help them, but ended up worsening the situation by inadvertently breaking the machine and making all candies fall on the sidewalk. A furious employee of the store shows up. At first, Laurel and Hardy tried to comfront them, but after it was clear that they were not as though as they seemed, the girls took the problem into their own hands and one of them even beat up the store employee. This was a very interesting scene, as it was reversed the standard of “damsels in distress”, so popular in the 1910s, in favor of a new sort of woman that blossomed in the 1920s: The flappers, strong-willed young girls, who attended parties, smoked, and were much more liberated. 
Although the Laurel and Hardy were not exactly brave or skilled, the girls ended up going out with them in their car. The day was beautiful and everyone was happy, but then there was a traffic jam, and it is where it started the most famous part of the film. Actually, the idea of making a film in a traffic jam was pretty ingenious for 1928, as cars have not been around for too long yet. The drivers involved in the jam were understandably stressed and angry there and what started as a minor argument ended up having greater proportions, involving all drivers -including the girls themselves. 
Chaos happened and a fight started, with typical knockabout gags we could easily have seen in a slapstick comedy. This even included things being thrown, people falling down and getting dirty. This is not a very common type of a gag in Laurel and Hardy’s films, considering they have always been situational-oriented since the beginning of their duo. However, despite the clearly physical scenes of the fights during the traffic jam, we can also observe that the mechanical gags of the broken cars were well-elaborate and quite expensive for its era, especially because it was employed lots of damaged cars. Even the type of destruction each car endured were funny by themselves. 
Another noteworthy detail is how the policeman’s attempts to restore order ended up failing terribly and his authority was mercilessly ridiculed. We can see it clearly when his motorcycle was smashed in the middle of all confusion and how the policeman’s vehicle was so powerless in comparison with all those cards around him. This idea of making fun of authorities was very common in films by Keystone studios back to the 1910s, especially in films by the Keystone Cops. Although a full decade had passed and this film was produced by another studio we can see that cinema audiences still liked to laugh at the same things.