Friday, November 21, 2008

Three Keystone Comedies: “His Prehistoric Past,” “ Fatty Joins the Force,” “The Bangville Police”

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles downloaded a few interesting comedy shorts from the Keystone era from and we screened them in advance of a feature film. Two of them, His Prehistoric Past and The Bangville Police, were scored somewhat at random with 1920’s jazz records (for some reason the late-1920’s recordings by Jelly Roll Morton and His Red Hot Peppers were special favorites of the people who did these versions, and “Black Bottom Stomp” and some of Morton’s other well-known titles of the period were clearly recognizable), while the one in the middle, Fatty Joins the Force, was totally silent — though just as a movie it was probably the best of the three, with a discernible plot (Fatty Arbuckle rescues a girl from drowning, she turns out to be the daughter of the police commissioner, her dad rewards Fatty by giving him a job on the police force, then Fatty finds out being a cop isn’t all it’s cracked up to be) that frankly made the gags even funnier.

His Prehistoric Past was one of Charlie Chaplin’s last Keystone productions, a 1914 spoof of D. W. Griffith’s Man’s Genesis (1912) and a bizarre film in which Chaplin strides into a prehistoric setting wearing a bearskin but still with his derby hat, rattan cane and a pipe (!), playing Weak-Chin and wrestling with King Lowbrow (Mack Swain) for the affections of Sum-Babee (Gene Marsh), Lowbrow’s favorite among his 1,000 wives. (According to the titles, this takes place in the Solomon Islands where every man has 1,000 wives — and Weak-Chin can’t help but ask Lowbrow how he can possibly manage having 1,000 mothers-in-law.)

Much of the print we were watching was so murky it was difficult to figure out what was going on, and Chaplin’s clowning was funny but lacked the depth of his later and better movies (as Theodore Huff noted in his Chaplin biography, at Keystone Chaplin usually played unsympathetic characters — including an out-and-out villain in the feature-length Tillie’s Punctured Romance — and it was only at Essanay in 1915 that the lovable, heartbreaking “Tramp” character emerged). Judging from the title, this appeared to be a 1930’s reissue and the final payoff — in which Chaplin appears in modern dress and it’s revealed that the entire movie has been a dream — was cut so short Charles had to ask me what it meant. (The entry on the film suggests that there was a modern-dress framing sequence at the beginning so that the “it was all a dream” revelation was not supposed to be a surprise, but that’s not how it turned out here.)

The Bangville Police has been called the first Keystone Kops movie, which it is and it isn’t; made in 1913 and only seven minutes long (it was originally released on a “split reel” with another comedy, A Fishy Affair), it’s the first Mack Sennett short to feature comic policemen but it’s hardly as much fun as the later ones, in which the Keystone Kops sped around in a Model “T” and continually fell off of it and engaged in other pratfalls. This time Mabel Normand plays a girl whose parents’ farm is being menaced by a gang of comic desperadoes (led by Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle in a transparently phony moustache and beard that make it impossible not to recognize him), and the cops arrive in a car that was ancient even then, with the number 13 on its hood and steered with a tiller. The gimmick here is that the cops are slow, not fast — their vehicle just creeps along and even when they get out of it, they’re stupid but not inventively speedy as they were in the later movies — and it’s an amusing film but not as funny as the later Keystone Kops vehicles, though Mabel Normand is quite good in it and she’s photographed with unusual care for a Mack Sennett comedy (well, she was the boss’s girlfriend … ).