For today, another installment of short films. This time I’m looking at three shorts, and though they are all silent films, they aren’t all from the same era. In fact, there’s almost a hundred years between the oldest and the newest. This time I’m reviewing something from Pixar, another film from Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, and my first experience with silent film star Harold Lloyd.
The films, in alphabetical order, are:
- The Blue Umbrella (2013)
- Fatty’s Magic Pants (1914)
- A Sammy in Siberia (1919)
The Blue Umbrella (2013):
Disney and Pixar films of late have come with a short film preceding them in the theatre. For Monsters University, the preceding short is The Blue Umbrella, directed by Saschka Unseld, who has previously worked on a layout artist on a few of Pixar’s features. Like La Luna and Paperman before it, The Blue Umbrella is a silent film. It tells the story of an umbrella (naturally) being carried through the city during a rainy day; the umbrella is sapient — indeed all “inanimate” objects are, even if the people are unaware of it — and falls for a bright red umbrella being carried by a young woman. Trials and tribulations await as it attempts to meet its mate.
It’s a very simple story, and it’s more cutesy than imaginative. The umbrella’s face is drawn on in a fairly basic manner, and it lacks the perosnality of other anthropomorphisms from Pixar. I have to say I would have easily lost interest in the short except for one thing: other than the painted-on nature of the face, everything about the film is absolutely gorgeous. It’s CGI-animated, but many of the scenes are so believable that it’s difficult to distinguish them from reality. Gutter pipes and manholes and cement curbs are given tremendous rain-slicked detail, and it’s all lit and framed perfectly. As a story, The Blue Umbrella may not have much to offer, but taken on a strictly technical level, it’s quite the cinematic achievement.
Fatty’s Magic Pants (1914):
A short comic film starring Roscoe Arbuckle, also re-released later under the name Fatty’s Suitless Day. As might be imagined from the two titles, its humor largely consists of Fatty losing his clothes. Fatty’s girlfriend (Minta Durfee) wants to go to a dance, but it’s strictly formal dress — and Fatty doesn’t have a suit. With a rival (Harry McCoy) horning in on his girl, Fatty ends up stealing a suit from his neighbor, but this leads to trouble later on when he’s discovered at the ball… it’s simple, basic humor, and it would only amount to a small bit of comedy in any modern work. But it’s a short film from the 1910s, so it has to be given some leniency on those grounds; sure, it only has one real gag, but it only really needs one, as long as it’s executed well and stays in play long enough. It works all right for what it is.
A Sammy in Siberia (1919):
The first Harold Lloyd picture I’ve seen, A Sammy in Siberia is only a seven minute short film, but nevertheless has a clear narrative and a fair amount of laughs. A young Russian woman (Bebe Daniels) and her family are terrorized by Bolsheviks who invade and take over her home, and she goes out in search of help. Meanwhile, a young officer at an American outpost (i.e,, “a Sammy”), gets separated from his group and winds up lost. The two meet, he helps her, and you know the basic plot. There’s a lot of slapsticky humor about, particularly with Lloyd’s antics, but what really makes this little short remarkable is how clear everything is shot. It’s not just that every shot shows exactly what it needs to; it’s that it is very clear that star Harold Lloyd and director Hal Roach were both very much aware of how the audience would be seeing things. Many of these older silent shorts will show a funny gag, but with the medium being new, and the stars being used to vaudeville (with an audience viewing from multiple angles), it’s not always shot at the best angle. Sometimes things are obscured by an actor or by another prop. That is not the case here. Everything is set up perfectly for maximum visual clarity and visual effect. There are no hints that any “tricks” are being played with the camera work. It’s even possible to identify Lloyd at a distance simply by how he walks; he’s not walking in any sort of outrageously obvious “funny” walk, and yet his motion is certainly distinctive. At the risk of sounding pejorative to other silent film stars, many from this early stage are simply carrying out vaudeville acts, but Lloyd is already genuinely acting, and creating a persona despite having no dialogue (even in cue card form). The whole thing makes me very eager to check out his famous feature, Safety Last!