Got an assortment of short films to cover today. Rather than give each of them individual full-length reviews — I find it hard to justify giving a 20-minute film an entire day to itself — I thought I would cover the three of them in a single post. Two are comedies, one is science-fiction; two are effectively silent films, one is a talkie; and all are black and white and older than 1950.
The three films? The Three Stooges short Brideless Groom, Georges Méliès’s famous A Trip to the Moon, and the Charlie Chaplin Keystone short The Rounders.
Directed by Edward Bernds, this is another short featuring the Shemp configuration of the Stooges. In fact, this one has Shemp in the lead role as “Professor” Shemp Howard, vocal instructor, giving him a role that demonstrates some of the differences in his performances and Curly’s. As funny as Curly was, it would be difficult to picture the jovial and juvenile Stooge in this role. Professor Shemp is too irascible, being as abusive to Larry as Moe usually is; at the same time, though, he has a degree of insecurity that would have been out of place had the role been filled with Moe. This comes into play with the fact that although Shemp is a bit of a ladies’ man, he’s nervous about the idea of marriage — which, in an idea paralleling the earlier Buster Keaton film Seven Chances, is a requirement for him to inherit a half million dollars. The plots are fairly similar overall — even down to this film also eventually devolving into the protagonists dealing with a mob of money-and-marriage-crazed women. The short has a somewhat different sense of humor than the Keaton film, though; while both are slapstick, of course, the fact that it’s active caused by the interactions of the Stooges makes it feel different than the simply unlucky Buster Keaton, and the Stooges have a different method of dealing with their problems. Aside from a deliberately-painful singing performance by Dee Green in the beginning (which has to be praised if only because that’s exactly what they were going for), Brideless Groom is a fun and funny take on the concept.
Georges Méliès directed, wrote, and starred in this extremely early science fiction short. Inspired by stories from Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, it tells exactly what the title implies: a very fanciful take on what a trip to the moon might entail. A group of scientists fire a bullet-like rocket to the moon, encounter and fight moon men, and make their escape back to the Earth. The story is very simplistic — and being well before any real exploration is full of incidents that are more fantasy than sci-fi by today’s standards — but it’s enjoyable and pretty easy to follow. There is also narration for the film (rather than the title cards that would become the norm for silent films), available in both the original French and in English. The English, however, is still spoken by a Frenchman, and the narrator has a sufficiently thick accent that it is sometimes hard to understand him; the first several times he referred to “the president”, it sounded to me as though he was saying “the prisoner”, and I’m pretty sure prisoners aren’t generally allowed to organize trips to the moon. So the narration is something of a mixed blessing; it clarifies some details, but sometimes it’s hard to make out what’s being said, and other times it’s simply redundant. On a technical level, the film also has to be mentioned as one of the keystone moments in film (indeed, it’s probably for this that it’s remembered, more than anything), as it involves the use of several forms of special effects that still work reasonably well more than a century later.
Although this is a Charlie Chaplin short, that isn’t actually why I decided to check it out. I decided to watch this film because it also stars Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, who I haven’t had the opportunity to see in action before. The film does show some of Arbuckle’s comic ability — and comic agility — but it doesn’t ever really get to show either of the comic stars to their fullest. It doesn’t quite get off the ground, perhaps because it is just 15 minutes long and thus doesn’t have time to build things up. The Rounders stars Arbuckle and Chaplin as two neighbors in a hotel, both being drunken sots and both having violent relationships with their wives. The wives — Minta Durfee and Phyllis Allen — berate and batter their husbands for their drunkenness, all the while protesting how they’re the victims in the relationships. This could be a very early take on inverting the lopsided stereotype of domestic violence and highlighting the hypocrisy of a wife being allowed to batter her husband with heavy objects while he isn’t allowed to strike back even in self-defense. This is particularly apparent when the title cards quip “Pity the poor weak women” while Chaplin is helplessly battered near to unconsciousness. However, the theme rather loses something when Arbuckle’s character resorts to trying to strangle his wife to get her to back off. Still, what drags the short down isn’t a lack of coherence in its theme, so much as it’s just a lack of anything to really laugh at. The comic antics aren’t comic enough, aren’t varied enough, and aren’t creative enough. As a result, The Rounders is a disappointing outing from comic actors who can clearly do better.