Straight Shooting – 1917

Straight Shooting was John Ford’s first feature film, and at times it feels strongly like someone’s first film. This is mostly apparent in the first hour, which is concerned with providing an introduction to the cast of characters, meaning simple shots and title cards all over the place, spending a great deal of time setting up the film’s primary conflict. It’s not an elegant or particularly efficient way to do it, and it feels a bit like the person behind the camera is learning as they go. The setup feels like a first draft, a first run at trying to establish something, and if it’s surprisingly dull and anti-cinematic, well, that’s why. Ford would get better at this sort of thing – seemingly during the production of this film, in fact – but it can feel like he’s learning as he goes along.

The setup is that there are farmers and ranchers. The ranchers, lead by Thunder Flint (Duke Lee), dislike a particular farmer, Sweet Water Sims (George Berrell), and want him to get off his land. They buy all the streams and prevent Sweet Water from getting his sweet water. Then they plan on shooting him. There’s a rogue element in Cheyenne Harry (Harry Carey), a gun for hire who is initially brought on to help get rid of Sims.

The film doesn’t really get going until a scene in a bar, with Harry and a rancher named Placer Fremont (Vester Plegg) trying to match each other drink for drink. It’s a great scene, using alcohol as a way to have the men push each other further and reveal things in their character. It’s a scene that relies heavily on the actors’ performances, as the characters try to assert domination over each other – Plegg plays an excellent weasel – and it works as the film in miniature.This is where the film starts moving, and once it does it becomes a solid bit of storytelling.

There’s still a feeling that people in the early silents were making it up as they went along. Sometimes this results in genius, such as a shot with a long-distance assassination, with both the assassin and victim in frame, the victim barely visible in the corner. It’s a clever way to depict an execution that is done better than many modern films, but it also feels risky and new, even today when the shot is 100 years old. Sometimes the results are not as good, like in the climax, which is staged for maximum chaos but without much thought as to how to actually film it. There are a lot of stunts – a succession of people being pulled off of horses, for example – which are interesting in theory but sometimes barely in frame, thrown in because the stunts are exciting. Chaos is exciting, but Ford hadn’t cracked the code of how to actually film chaos at this point, though he gets close – he throws in a ton of insert shots of vases breaking near actors, a good way to have a high impact way of showing gun shots. Still, wide shots of men on horses riding in circles isn’t as thrilling as it could be.

There is some acting that seems a bit cheesy to modern audiences – the death scenes are amusingly over-dramatic – and some flaws in the way it’s filmed, but once it gets going the film holds up better than you would expect. It’s the most American genre with the most American story – plucky underdogs taking on the well dressed oppressors – made by the most American director, John Ford. There is enough good here to overcome the flaws.

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Chaplin Double Feature

I did not forget about this. Instead, I saw the chance for a lot of Chaplin shorts in the future of this feature and decided to string them together until I had a film that was not Chaplin related at all (which will be 1917’s Straight Shooting, if you’re keeping track). So, here we have two Chaplin shorts, both of which are similar enough that talking about them both simultaneously made the most sense.

To talk about both of these features is to talk about the Tramp, who gives the earlier film, The Tramp, its title and is Chaplin’s most famous character. It holds up, even if his films are antiquated, because it’s still a character that’s used in comedy to this day. Our modern tramps might not look like Chaplin’s, who dresses like the discard pile at a film studio’s costume department – that’s not even entirely inaccurate, since his costume was made out of pieces Chaplin found that would exaggerate proportions and just look wrong together – and has a mustache which gained unfortunate connotations in the 1930s – something Chaplin himself used to great effect in The Great Dictator. But they maintain the spirit of the character, who is just sympathetic enough to root for, but not so sympathetic that we can’t laugh when he falls in a bucket of water for the fifth time.

In The Tramp, our tramp rescues a girl from a roving band of miscreants and then starts working at her father’s farm, where he also has to foil a robbery by the same men who attacked the woman. The second, The Vagabond, casts him as a poor violinist who winds up saving a girl from a roving band of gypsys – played so broad and stereotypical that modern audiences could become uncomfortable – before she is painted by a passing artist and reunited with her families. Both are used as excuses for pratfalls, which is to be expected, for that is what people paid to see when they watched a Chaplin film. The man hitting people over the head with a big stick in the Vagabond is a solid bit of slapstick, especially as he hits more and more people – it’s a rare gag that gets funnier with repetition.

Both shorts feature Chaplin as a director, and here he’s not especially adventurous with the camera. It’s immobile, cutting between set scenes rather than moving with the actors. That does lead to a weird moment in The Tramp, where a pond seems to appear out of nowhere as the location shifts. It’s a pretty typical silent film style, of course, and Chaplin frequently uses a static frame as a way to set up a gag – chase scenes around objects are a clear favorite, right up to using a full-sized building as a barrier. The Tramp also uses film tinting as a way to indicate the time of day – a blue tint indicates night, an orange one indicates either that it’s evening or that night but the house has its lights on – which is clearly a way to work around the limitations of early film but does provide a welcome splash of colour. Chaplin also chafes at the limits of silent film with The Vagabond, since he brings musical characters into a film made before sync sound was invented – while it’s difficult to tell what it would have been like to watch the film in 1916, one thinks it would have benefitted from a consistent soundtrack across all showings, there are ample opportunities for extra gags in the music (the print I watched also didn’t have the greatest soundtrack recorded for it.)

It’s also notable that the films don’t just end with everyone falling over. The Tramp’s ending is best described as bittersweet, while The Vagabond has a last-minute twist that changes the same idea into a happy one. Chaplin is interested in more than just people falling over, even if that’s his primary concern for most of the running time, he also wants to explore how people relate to the hero of the film. It doesn’t take up a huge amount of the runtime, but it does reflect that he’s thinking of the Tramp as more than a setup for gags but instead as a complete person. He’s still primarily interested in the gag, but he’s also interested in making people care about the characters beyond the gag. We root for the Tramp because we like him, and the laughs are more effective because he’s making the character into a person rather than just someone who gets himself into wacky situations. That makes the gags funnier too.

The Knockout – 1914

The most clever moment of The Knockout is a part where the film breaks the fourth wall. Pug, played by Fatty Arbuckle, has to change in order to get ready for a boxing match. First, he declines to change in the training room, because there’s a girl there, and in what looks like a back alley he refuses to change on camera, motioning for the camera to move up, which it does. It’s a cute moment, while also being the first point in the film where the camera actually moves. To this point, the camera had been static, and it doesn’t move that much overall – a late film rooftop chase is a more traditional bit of camera movement, as it follows characters scampering around in a stunt sequence. To have it move for a joke adds a bit of punch because the camera moves so rarely, and almost never because a character on screen is demanding it.

The Knockout is a slapstick comedy, which was Keystone’s stock and trade for most of its existence, whether you’re talking about comedians like Arbuckle and Charlie Chaplin – who makes a brief cameo as a referee in a boxing match – or the famous Keystone Kops – not officially here, but there is a crew of bumbling police officers. It also represents Keystone getting more ambitious, which eventually lead to their first feature length comedy – Tillie’s Punctured Romance, also in 1914, which might be the next entry given that it is the first feature length comedy ever made, even though it’s the same year, though I haven’t decided yet. It’s two reels, for one. The stunts are fairly ambitious, including a tug of war with Arbuckle taking on the crew of cops, as well as a rooftop chase sequence mentioned earlier.

The plot follows Pug, who in the process of protecting his lady from some miscreants somehow gets roped into a boxing match against Cyclone Flynn. That match was created when a couple of hobos decide to pretend they are the boxer in order to buy some pie, but then the actual Flynn shows up and makes the combat more serious. There’s also a man with an improbable mustache who tries to rig the match. The plot slowly collapses into chaos, as Keystone films often did.

The Keystone films I’ve seen have effectively been stories about people falling over in increasingly elaborate ways, and as the studio gained ambition and budget it would make an attempt at tying it all together with a plot, before just letting the entire thing become about people falling over again. It’s not clear why the final act is a long chase sequence, other than a chase sequence being a way to have many people fall over in quick succession, especially once a bumbling crew of police officers get involved. Established characters seem to be abandoned completely in order to have the inherent comedy of Arbuckle running around shooting guns at random. At this point Keystone knew their market, and likely figured that not many people would care if the film just devolved into people falling over like all their films did.

The big problem I had with the film, however, is how the main boxing sequence is framed. You have Chaplin and Arbuckle, as well as Edgar Kennedy playing Cyclone Flynn, all in the ring together. This should be a sequence that is referenced in film history class, boxing is incredibly easy to film competently – the design of the ring gives you the edges of the frame, so you know where the camera needs to be, and you’ve got some quality slapstick comedians in front of the camera. Instead, they zoom out, in order to get that man with an improbable mustache in frame. This means the majority of the frame is filled with nothing, the players being confined to a relatively minuscule part of the image. Combined with the odd angle it’s hard to actually see what they’re doing, which is a problem when it’s the centerpiece of the film – it’s called The Knockout!  How can it have a bad boxing sequence? When you’re not even completely sure that it’s Charlie Chaplin on screen, one of the most distinctive actors of the silent era, you need to reconsider how the sequence is set up.

The flaws of The Knockout aren’t something that exist because it’s an early film. We had figured out how to frame a boxing sequence. Thomas Edison’s footage of boxing cats had shown that we had basically figured out how to film a boxing match as far back as 1894. We had figured out how to tell a story long before film was even invented. It can be amusing, Keystone had worked to perfect the art of people falling down since its inception, but it’s not really something I can recommend as an introduction to silent film.