There are two, closely related, yet mutually exclusive mysteries, regarding the output of Keystone, Mack Sennett's comedy factory of the silent age. The first mystery assumes that the films were funny in their day, and poses the question, "Why aren't these films funny now?" The second takes the contrary assumption that the films, for the most part, were never funny, and asks, "Why were they so popular?"
Now that Chaplin's thirty-five surviving Keystone productions have been collected, it will be possible to say, with greater confidence than has been hitherto possible, how somebody as genuinely funny as Chaplin evolved his technique in an environment where, despite continual clowning by swarms of grotesque or goofy comedians of varied but often considerable talent, nothing funny ever seems to happen.
Studying the evolution of Chaplin's genius will be a scientific operation (complicated by some uncertainty about what order the movies were made in: dedicated Chaplinites have consulted antique weather reports to attempt to pinpoint the shooting dates more precisely from the onscreen evidence) in which there will no doubt be great pleasure and interest, as well as agonizing tedium and frustration. More than anything, the few samples I've seen of Chaplin's Keystone work confirms his own opinion that sophisticated work was rendered impossible by the studio's commitment to chaos and pace as ends in themselves.
Instead of doing any of that important work, I've watched Teddy at the Throttle (1917), directed by Clarence Badger, which doesn't feature Chaplin but does include roles for a couple of legends-in-waiting, Gloria Swanson and Wallace Beery, as well as the titular Teddy, one of the screen's first star dogs.
To take these personages in turn: Clarence Badger's long career faded out in 1941, and his seventy-nine assorted films as director include one minor classic, the appealing Clara Bow romantic comedy It (1927), decidedly lightweight but still a pleasure to watch eighty-four years later, which has to count for something. Perhaps Badger should receive some credit for Teddy's slightly pared-down style: it's not as cluttered as most Keystones. Instead of featuring ten times as many characters as it needs, on the dubious principle that more comedians will result in more laughs, it settles for twice as many as are required. And the intertitles aren't a wearisome compendium of bad puns and jokes overheard in bars: they settle for trying to tell the story. Unfortunately, the story (uncredited) is a confusing morass of legal sub-clauses involving somebody-or-other's inheritance, and tangled relationships involving characters named only as "his sister" or "her lawyer." This means that watching the film depends on dismissing the narrative entirely and focusing on the physical antics of the cast, few of which advance the narrative anyway.
Gloria Swanson is a surprising person to find at Keystone, right at the onset of her career, and by all accounts she hated it there even more than Chaplin did. At least he was used to falling on his arse for money. The 1917 Swanson is mostly unrecognizable as the grande dame of Sunset Blvd., or even as the star of DeMille melodramas a couple of years later. The "young fellah," as C.B. called her, becomes identifiable only when she smiles. This being a Keystone comedy, occasions to smile aren't that frequent.
A funny performer, as can be seen in the early, boisterous parts of Raoul Walsh's Sadie Thompson (1928), Swanson struggles to make much impact here, even though she only shares the screen with a couple of upstagers at a time (Chaplin was frequently faced with an army). This isn't due to any lack of ability, so much as the film's inability to focus on any one thing for long, or to select anything worth focusing on.
Wallace Beery, looking positively svelte, but not particularly more young or handsome than he would thirty-two years later at the finish of his life and work, does somewhat better than Swanson. He even has a few scenes of being villainous all by himself, where he can rely on the audience's undivided attention. He counts his wad of ill-earned loot, and shoots furtive glances at the wretched audience who may, for all he knows, try to swipe it from him at any moment. The scumbags.
By the way (and it does seem entirely by-the-way), the "leading man," if we can use the term in a Keystone film, ever, is one Bobby Vernon, a short, anxious-looking fellow with the gift if agility, a gift not quite highly developed enough to allow him to altogether escape the gaze of Clarence Badger's camera, alas. His credits span thirty years and one hundred and ninety nine films, all with titles like The Great Towel Robbery and Ship A-Hooey! and reading them all will give you grey, flickering, scratchy nightmares.
And, in the title role, preserving more dignity than his co-stars, is Teddy the wonder dog, a photogenic, lolloping Great Dane. In Sunnyside, a sprawling novel of World War One and the silent film industry, author Glen David Gold dismisses Teddy as essentially an animated prop, lacking the expressivity and nuance that Rin Tin Tin brought to the screen (his plot synopsis of a Keystone Teddy film makes the confusing, painful busy-ness hilarious in itself). So Teddy is not the true first canine star, by this argument. And indeed, he's predated by a British pioneer, Blair, the star of Cecil Hepworth's Rescued by Rover (1905), a movie so successful it had to be remade, shot-for-shot, because the negative wore out.
Teddy does perform impressive stunts (one suspects a kennel full of disposable back-up hounds was kept in readiness), but he is never "at the throttle": he doesn't, like Mr. Bascom, Jerry Lewis's canine companion in Frank Tashlin's Hollywood or Bust (1956), ever drive a jalopy. And the cheating doesn't end there: when Beery ties Swanson to the railroad tracks, a lengthy chase (much of it shot in front of rotating dioramas, provoking the film's best laughs via sheer cheapness and antiquity) she is rescued, not by any of Teddy or Bobby's frantic exertions, but by ducking beneath the tracks, so that the train wheels sever her wrist-chains and free her. So she was never really in any danger at all.
Thinking about the film's reliance on printed text to elucidate plot points, its wasted stars, its air of incoherence, its jam-packed, itchy staging, its substitution of frantic, barely-motivated action for any semblance of dramatic development, I was suddenly struck by its frighteningly close resemblance to George Lucas's Star Wars prequels. If Teddy at the Throttle seems altogether less malign and vexatious than those, it's either because it's about two hours shorter than any of them, doesn't feature any offensive racial caricatures, doesn't make any fatuous claims to have been "written" by anybody, and is ninety-four years old, and thus, in a very real sense, not our problem.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.