Thoughts On “The Knockout” (1914)

If you’re already a big silent comedy fan, you might recognize The Knockout as being the one Keystone Walter Kerr used in his beloved book The Silent Clowns to illustrate how supposedly “unfunny” early Sennett films were. (And if you’re just starting to learn about silent comedy, I’m excited to be introducing you to The Knockout!) After describing the plot in some detail (“cowardice and belligerence alternate with indifferent logic through the balance of the twenty-minute film”), Kerr concludes with these observations: “It is probable that, except for an innovative detail here and there, the substance of this’plot’ doesn’t strike you as particularly funny. My point is that it isn’t, not through today’s eyes.”

So let it be written.

Walter Kerr, I love your book. The Silent Clowns is one of the most beautifully-written and thoughtful works of film criticism I’ve ever seen. You have inspired me, moved me, and made me think…but I think you’re wrong about The Knockout. 

Of the many “action” Keystones, as I’ll call them, the early boxing comedy The Knockout certainly ranks as one of the best. It’s fast and full of slapstick violence but still surprisingly lighthearted. It has a detailed plot and boasts a perfect ensemble cast of many of the Keystone regulars. It has a scene involving two guys throwing bricks at each other. And the cherry on top of this mayhem sundae is one of the best, most quintessential Kops chases of all time.

The film begins (depending on how complete your version is) with two hobos being thrown off a train. Seeing that a boxing match is going on in town, they decide one of them should pretend to be boxer “Cyclone Flynn” in hopes to getting some of that sweet promotional money for a meal.

Hustling for grub.

In the meantime, Roscoe is introduced in a cute shot showing him sharing a snack with his dog Luke. He meets up with his girlfriend, played by Minta Durfee.

Too cute not to GIF.

Then the girlfriend falls prey to an overconfident masher (Al St. John, with his usual rubbery enthusiasm). Roscoe goes medieval on him to the delight of several onlookers. The masher, conceding defeat with no hard feelings, convinces the mighty Roscoe to enter the boxing match against Flynn so they can all win some easy money.

The Knockout roscoe will you fight

I like how you could probably guess the plot just by looking at this still.

As Roscoe begins training at an athletic club, the hobos spy on him and see him breaking thick chains with his neck and lifting 500 lb weights one-handed. They panic and send him a note from “Flynn,” offering to split the prize money if Roscoe purposely loses. Contemptuous of this besmirching of his honor, Roscoe tears up the note. Then of course the real Cyclone Flynn shows up (played by Edgar “Slow Burn” Kennedy) and the hobos skedaddle.

But not before receiving a thorough butt kickin’.

Just before the match, a hulking, gun-toting cowboy (Mack Swain with what must be the most magnificently long fake mustache of his career) informs Roscoe that he’s bet a gigantic amount of money on him and that he better win “or I’ll kill you.” He proceeds to take a box seat that’s unnervingly close to the ring (which also results in the awkward composition of the boxing match shots, seemingly designed to squeeze Swain in…but, ah well).

The Knockout mack swain

I wasn’t kidding about the mustache.

The auditorium fills up with excited boxing fans, including Minta disguised as a boy (boxing matches were a man’s zone back then), Rube Miller giving the most hyperactive of Ford Sterlings a run for his money, and many members of the stock company giving it their all for the camera. The referee (played by Charlie Chaplin, who appears to have guzzled a good two pots of coffee before this scene) runs in–and the match begins!

Fists flail, punches are occasionally landed, and pratfalls ensue, all to the rowdy crowd’s delight. Roscoe sloppily chugs milk between rounds and Al St. John sprays him with it. By the end of the match there’s so much liquid on the floor that the whole company might as well be on a skating rink. Roscoe finds himself fighting the decidedly biased referee almost as often as Flynn, and he finally collapses on the ropes.

The Knockout roscoe loses

Most synopses you find on The Knockout get a bit vague on what happens next, assuming that Roscoe’s pistol-waving mayhem was completely random. But if you watch closely, Roscoe, seeing that he’s lost the match and knowing that his neck is on the line, panics, grabs the MC’s gun and tries to shoot Flynn. Since this is a silent comedy the bullets do considerably less damage than what reading this sentence does to your eyes, but it does lead to mass chaos and a classic chase scene. Kops spill delightfully from a police station door, figures are silhouetted against the sky as they run along rooftops, and an oh-so-polite high society gathering is crashed in the most hilarious way. It’s everything you could hope for when you picture a Keystone comedy. It practically achieves transcendence.

Ah, the poetry to be written on this scene alone…!

Boy oh boy does The Knockout ever get funnier upon repeated viewings. The number of talents involved means that there’s often multiple things going on in the frame, especially once Chaplin bounces in (viewers might be surprised that his part was so small, but he’s simply one of the ensemble here–after all, The Knockout is an Arbuckle vehicle.). Everyone involved seems to be having a ball, from Arbuckle to the actors and extras making up the wildly enthusiastic boxing match audience. You can sense the camaraderie.

I can imagine that some viewers might be tempted to think of The Knockout as being disjointed, with one half being speedier than the other. They might be tempted to argue that it’s merely a lopsided piece of primitive slapstick (Walter Kerr would applaud this). But, as I’ve explained before, these old shorts require rapt attention, more than we give to TV screens nowadays. Watch carefully, and The Knockout will reveal that it’s surprisingly well choreographed. It starts slow (as many good comedies do), establishes the characters’ motivations and the plot, heightens the excitement with some brick-throwing, moves the plot along with some twists, builds up to the “big match,” then tops it all off with an insanely-paced chase finale involving guns firing in all directions (gee, that probably wouldn’t get green-lighted nowadays). Have I mentioned how much I adore the absurdity of the party crashing scene?

…And a single tear dripped down my cheek.

Speaking of that chase scene, let’s take a minute to celebrate the Keystone Kops flailing through the frames in all their helmeted, tailcoated, fake-mustached glory. As I’ve explained before, the Kops weren’t central figures in Keystones but were brought in as a part of climactic chase scenes. But even so, in The Knockout the Kops are everything you’ve dreamed them to be, exploding out of the police station, tumbling over like bowling ball pins, and pratfalling as if the ground were made of glass. Let us contemplate the GIFs:

Glorious!

The more Keystones I watch, the more certain ones start to stand out, and The Knockout is one of them. It’s everything you’d expect from the Fun Factory. Every time I watch it I’m delighted by the amount of effort and ambition involved.

Take a look at The Knockout below! I chose this particular video since it has a nice soundtrack, although I couldn’t be less happy but how the picture has been “stretched.” However, even with the distortion it’s still enjoyable:

Extra tidbits:

  • There are several versions of this film out there, some missing key footage. Hunt around for the most complete one you can find!
  • This was Chaplin’s 17th film appearance.
  • When Chaplin became popular, the film was later released as a “Chaplin film” and retitled “Counted Out” (many of Charlie’s Keystones were given this treatment).
  • Al St. John plays at least two roles in this film–he’s the Kop in the flat hat.
  • In the scenes where he’s chasing Edgar Kennedy, Roscoe seems to have gotten a bloody nose during filming but kept the cameras rolling.
  • You can see a little glimpse of Kennedy’s famous “slow burn” in the scene where he confronts the hobos, running his hand over his forehead in annoyance.

My main source for this post, and the others throughout Keystone Month, is Brent Walker’s comprehensive work Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory. It could not be more highly recommended!

Advertisements

14 thoughts on “Thoughts On “The Knockout” (1914)

  1. Great post Lea – that porch where Roscoe and Minta flirt was next door to the studio – it appears in dozens of Keystones, including Chaplin’s first scene in his first movie Making a Living. The “police” station (with police painted on the sidewalk) was the studio entrance door, also appearing in many Keystones, including the police station in Tillie’s Punctured Romance, and the “dentist” office in Chaplin’s Laughing Gas.

    • Very interesting, thanks for sharing! I’ve started to notice that porch myself in lots of Keystones–at least, noticed that all the porches looked surprisingly similar! 😉

  2. Took another look at this one… I must disagree with Walter Kerr as well. (I haven’t read the book; it sounds good!) I think The Knockout is quite entertaining. Anything with Fatty to me is almost always pretty funny. An interesting and amusing detail is when he breaks the fourth wall to raise the camera while changing clothes; that was really neat for 1914. The brick-throwing scene is pretty funny, too. I always love it when Fatty and Al St. John square off.

    I might complain that Chaplin’s antics in the boxing match go on a bit long, but the Kops are at their finest in the ensuing chase. It’s a well-made Keystone. I think the author could have certainly picked a weaker film to try and make his points.

    I got a kick out of the audience at the boxing match too. I wonder who the guy is in front just across the aisle from Minta. He almost steals the scene—and that’s a pretty hard scene to steal!

    • That would be Rube Miller, another proud Over Actor in the vein of Ford Sterling. 😀 Yeah, if Kerr was going to pick a Keystone to pick apart, maaaaybe something like Fatty Joins the Force (1913), which has some shots that don’t match up very well, or A Flirt’s Mistake (1914), which has a strange, simple plot, would’ve sort of worked…although I like both of those too. To be honest, I can’t come up with a Keystone that literally makes no sense at all–if you pay close attention there’s always a plot point or specific motivation that ties it together.

      • Yes, both A Flirt’s Mistake and Fatty Joins the Force would have been better fodder for criticism. A Flirt’s Mistake has some amusing spots, but the plot is pretty barebones. Fatty Joins the Force has more in the way of a plot, but is not one of the funnier Keystones to me. I think that is due to the fact that Fatty had not developed his comedic style quite as much at that point. Also, the ending is kind of sad. 😦

        I can only think of one Keystone film I’ve seen that came close to literally making no sense. It did have a plot, but it was so off-the-wall, I remember thinking “Man, this is dumb.” I can’t think of the title, but as I recall it started off with the main character working in a hotel and finally ending up with him in a submarine firing torpedoes. And even that one is interesting in a sense, if only for its bizarreness. Are you familiar with it? I’ll see if I can find the title.

      • Hmmm…is it A Submarine Pirate (1915)? With Syd Chaplin? Would have to watch it again, but the plot seems similar…

  3. Pingback: The Champion (1915) | Century Film Project

  4. Great analysis. Nice to see this one get the recognition it deserves.
    The Knockout reel two was given to me by a family friend after I inherited my grandfather’s standard 8mm projector on my tenth birthday and told that person I had nothing to watch on it. This was 1974. My first 8mm movie, my first exposure to silent films and to Charlie Chaplin who I am still to this day infatuated with. It took another couple of decades for me to see reel 1.

  5. Yes! A Submarine Pilot. The editing seems really odd in that one too, with all the ultra-fast cutting toward the end—or that could just be lost frames, not sure—anyway, it’s hard to deduce exactly what’s going on in the submarine there.

  6. Fascinating stuff – I’ve not yet seen The Knockout, but I’m just getting towards the end of The Silent Clowns. It’s a great book, but I agree he does tend to make very firm judgements on things – it’s also interesting to note that the time between him writing the book and today is now longer than the age of some of the films when he wrote about them (that’s a horrible sentence, bot hopefully makes some sort of sense!). From that point of view ‘through today’s eyes’ becomes a subjective term!

    • That’s a point I haven’t thought of before! Time, it sure does fly. Kerr’s book is one of my absolute favorites. I love it so much that it doesn’t pain me to disagree with him on some points–like about how good Arbuckle’s work is, for instance.

  7. Whoof! Thanks for bringing this one up! I had somehow skipped the title when watching the Flicker Alley “Chaplin at Keystone” set…must have intended to come back to it when I had a spare half-hour. I watched it for the first time, this morning. You’re right: it is packed with content, and is definitely not the frenetic, clunking time-waster that had irritated Walter Kerr.

    I would guess several possibilities, based on Kerr’s evaluation: 1) the print he watched was either shown WAY too fast, or incomplete; 2) it was displayed with ill-matching accompaniment; 3) it was presented as a Chaplin vehicle. Any one of the three elements could ruin the experience; a combination would surely sink it. I’m especially sensitive to the musical accompaniment, when I watch silent films, and often insist that the sound be turned off, if the playing doesn’t match the action; it’s crucial to the story of “The Knockout” because the pace of the fight slows down, as the boxers become exhausted.

    Next time my sisters visit, I’ll probably nag them to watch it and see if they find it as amusing as I did.

    • Feel free to let us know what they think. 😉 The print Kerr saw could very well have had one of more of the flaws you’ve described. The Keystones that were later re-released as “Chaplin films” seemed to suffer a bit more than most, since footage was sometimes chopped out to make Chaplin’s roles seem larger. I hear there’s a print of The Knockout that’s missing a ton of Al St. John’s footage–yikes! He’s pretty essential to most of Arbuckle’s early scenes, so I can only imagine how disjointed that print must be.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s