There are some silent comedy shorts that are so of-their-time silly that you aren’t sure if a newbie could handle them. They’d probably think to themselves, “This is what silent comedy was like? Lots of grimacing and flailing around? Humor was, like, so primitive back then. And look at those special effects–why did they even bother before CGI?”
What this newbie doesn’t know is that there’s more to these “primitive” comedies than meets the eye. Well, a little more, anyways. If you chuck aside your “21st century cynicism” glasses for about 15 minutes, you can have a delightful time experiencing the supreme Awesomeness of a short like Shot in the Excitement (1914). Allow me to give you a tour.
One of many, many, many one-reelers churned out by the Keystone Film Company, the oddly-titled Shot in the Excitement keeps things simple. Country girl and hayseed father are whitewashing fence. Country boy that the girl fancies shows up. She ditches whitewashing so they can go spoon.
Dorky rival shows up and sees them together. Decides to break up their fun by scaring them with a gigantic spider that is gloriously fake. They get him back, he gets them back, and it’s tit for tat until dorky rival decides to take the ultimate revenge by firing off curiously slow-moving cannonballs.
So, when you watch this short you’ll notice several things:
1. Geez that’s some over-the-top acting! Did people back then really think this was good?
Okay, two things. Yes, it’s some very over-the-top acting. I mean, Al St. John, Alice Howell, and Rube Miller are involved, man. This is like a triple threat of the uninhibited. But here’s the other thing: the actors are aware of their performances. They know they’re acting outlandish, and it’s done on purpose to serve the cartoony atmosphere.
Audiences would’ve recognized this as broad comedy, already being familiar with the countless examples of genteel light comedy and straight drama. Screen comedy in 1914 was certainly not all in this style.
2. What the heck is with all the pointing and handwaving?
That called pantomime, my friend, and aside from being Awesome it helped save the studio from the fuss of creating too many title cards. But aside from that practical purpose, it became a kind of art form in itself, an offshoot of the long theatrical tradition of pantomime. It’s harder to do than it looks–try it sometime!
3. Wow, that is one fake spider.
Well, yeah. It is.
3. Err, those cannonballs are moving pretty slow, aren’t they?
They are!! Which is half the reason I’m recommending this short. Seriously, isn’t that one of the top ten funniest things you’ve ever seen in your life??!
4. Okay, I guess it looks sort of funny, being an early special effect and all.
Hold on, what’s that on your face? Hey hey hey, I told you not to wear your “21st century cynicism” glasses for just 15 freakin’ minutes. You’re worse than a teen whose phone was taken away for 10 minutes. Gimme those. *Throws cynicism glasses into Minnesota River* Now, the cannonballs are an example of a silly special effect that knows it’s being silly. It’s not trying to wow you with its realism–it’s trying to be a cartoon.
And it’s Awesome.
You can probably agree that Shot in the Excitement is a perfect example of a short that seems very haphazard and improvised. But is it, really? Did you notice, for instance, how clean the cinematography is? Many of the backgrounds are simple: a rustic wooden fence, the top of a hill against the sky, the nicest views of the hills surrounding the Keystone studio. Did you notice how well the shots are composed, with the actors hitting their marks and standing out clearly against those clean backgrounds? And did you further notice how well the action flows in the last sequence, no shot being too fast or too long, no feelings of disorientation as we cut back and forth from the different characters (and cannonballs)? Keystone’s best-kept secret is that their films took more care and planning than first meets the eye but retained a wonderful, freewheeling energy.
Much of that energy, of course, is due to the cast. The three leads, Al St. John, Alice Howell and Rube Miller, are either underappreciated or completely forgotten today. Al and Alice, at least, became some of the era’s biggest comedy stars.
The slightly creepy-looking Rube Miller (hey, he had light-colored eyes and orthochromatic film wasn’t kind to them) was once a circus clown, performing for years for the Ringling Brothers and other venues. He joined Keystone in 1912 as a supporting actor and stuntman, eventually directing and starring in his own comedies for the studio. These usually had rural settings, part of the number of Keystone “rube” comedies which were probably meant to compete with the popular Snakeville series. We don’t technically know who directed Shot in the Excitement, but it was probably Miller. At the time it was released, Miller, Roscoe Arbuckle, Charlie Chaplin, and Sennett himself seemed to be the main Keystone directors.
The wonderful Al St. John is most familiar to people from his work in Arbuckle’s Comique series, famous for being the earliest films to feature Buster Keaton. Prior to Comique, St. John had worked at Keystone since 1913. He was a fearless acrobat and stuntman who specialized in trick bicycle riding (try and find footage of him on his bike if you can, it’s like he’s one with the machine!). He was also one of Keystone’s goofiest and uninhibited performers, grimacing and flailing enough to make Ford Sterling jealous. I’m not going to lie, Al got on my nerves at first, but once I “got to know” him he’s become one of my favorite early comedians. His starring 1920s two-reelers are some of the silent era’s best. He later had a long career as “Fuzzy Q. Jones,” a funny, grizzled Western sidekick in film after film.
Alice Howell was simply one of the finest female clowns of silent films (emphasis on “clown,” as opposed to the many light comediennes). She had a background in vaudeville where she performed in an act with her husband called “Howell and Howell.” After about a year at Keystone she started working for L-KO. Her popularity grew until she was given her own starring series for Century Comedies–a studio which was created just to showcase her talents. Usually playing an assortment of household drudges, Howell had a slightly daffy persona and a distinct costume of frumpy clothes and frizzy hair piled up on the top of her head. She was noted for her Lucille Ball-like fearlessness to perform zany slapstick, and some referred to her as “the female Chaplin.” She retired from films in 1926.
So I hope you enjoyed this tour through this silly, unpretentious little one-reeler and that you gave it an honest chance. I’m sure Al, Alice and Rube would be happy to know they made you chuckle over 100 years later, in the far-off 21st century. (And so would the guy who rigged up all those low-flying cannonballs.)
Viewing of this short via the Mack Sennett Collection Vol. 1 was essential, including its commentary by Richard M. Roberts. Screenshots are from the YouTube version that I posted above. My other top sources for this article, as well as all the articles for Forgotten Comedians Month, are:
Massa, Steve. Lame Brains & Lunatics: The Good, the Bad, and the Forgotten of Silent Comedy. Albany, Georgia: BearManor Media, 2013.
Walker, Brent E. Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2010.
Lahue, Kalton C. and Gill, Sam. Clown Princes and Court Jesters. South Brunswick: A.S. Barnes and Co., Inc., 1970.