This is the final post for Forgotten Comedians Month. This past August was successful indeed–the heartiest of thanks to everyone who’s been following along these last few weeks! I’m sure Charlie Murray, Gale Henry, Musty Suffer, Charley Bowers, Louise Fazenda, and all the other forgotten folk appreciate it. (Oh, and Pimple. We mustn’t forget Pimple.) September’s looking mighty interesting, since in a matter of days a certain important film will be turning 100…
Are you in the mood for a short comedy? Would you like to watch something that’s off the beaten track? Do you have a hankering to see pompous orchestra leaders, ladies in men’s clothing, bathing beauties playing ball, and flower girls rolling down hills? If so, Hearts and Flowers (1919) may be the short for you!
It’s a cheery 21 minutes off Sennett-ness with a cute ending. Only silent comedy buffs will recognize the stars in this film–Ford Sterling, Louise Fazenda, Phyllis Haver, Billy Armstrong–but in my opinion it’s as worth your time as the usual work by Lloyd or Chaplin.
Ford Sterling (one of the very first actors at Mack Sennett’s Keystone studio and for a time one of the most popular screen comedians), is a orchestra leader in a plush hotel. All the young ladies “go for him.” He’s the living embodiment of both a ham and a cad.
He’s interested in a pretty “prune grower’s daughter” in the audience (played by Phyllis Haver), who’s there with her jealous boyfriend (Billy Armstrong). They dance and make eyes at each other, jealous boyfriend be darned. At the same time, the daffy hotel flower girl (Louise Fazenda, at the time Sennett’s most popular leading lady after Mabel Normand) develops a crush on the debonair orchestra leader even though she, too, has a boyfriend. (He’s a wimpy little man in a sad wrinkled suit.) She giddily tries to flirt with the orchestra cad, but he rebuffs her advances: “You have the grace of a hippopotamus, but lack its charms.”
Jealous Boyfriend, hoping to get rid of the orchestra cad, tricks him into thinking that the flower girl is actually an heiress to $2,000,000. Cad obligingly ditches Phyllis for the supposedly-rich Louise. But Phyllis, upset at this turn of events, attempts to get rid of her rival by disguising herself as a man and trying to wile the flower girl away. Her disguise is so successful–Haver is an amazingly good male impersonator!–that the two even share a kiss. (Which I’m thinking is mainly meant to be taken as a joke about her talent at disguise, since none of the old reviews I’ve found bother to mention it. *Obligatory discussion of mildly risque material in early film comedies*)
But Phyllis can’t distract Louise for long, and soon the flower girl and the orchestra cad are about to get married. Unfortunately for him, she has three large brothers who are none too keen about their future brother-in-law. Knockabout ensues!
This is one of those shorts that’s often dismissed as “disjointed” or “slow in the beginning” or what have you. But really, I think that’s just another case of folks being too quick to dismiss anything that wasn’t made by one of the Big Four, God bless their irreplaceable masterpiece-making souls. Hearts and Flowers isn’t a candidate for the Criterion Collection, true, but like many Sennett products you sense that sincere effort went into it. There’s fun touches like the melodramatic character names given in the opening title card (Ford is “a leader of men”) and the way the audience reacts to the orchestra’s performance. Each main character is given a decent time to develop their characters and perform their “bits of business” for the camera, with the crazier slapstick saved to give the end a burst of energy.
Ford Sterling is inspired, as he usually is in so many goofy ways. He had long since abandoned his super-duper-broad Dutch character, and playing a debonair society type seems all too easy for him. Louise is also delightful, playing a type of character that she was known for–a naive girl who is “just keen” on a man, even though he has zero interest in her. And Phyllis steals the show with her male impersonation (although Louise does manage to hold her own with a guffaw-worthy reaction to her former sweetheart showing up).
One of the best things about Hearts and Flowers is the quintessential Bathing Beauties scene, which serves no purpose beyond showing off some feminine eye candy. We see the ladies run along the beach in their modest 1920s suits and play ball. Eye candy they may have been, but I always find it refreshing to see the Beauties doing things, being healthy, rather than just lounging around in provocative poses (well, most of the time). Buster fans will want to pay extra close attention because three of his leading ladies are in this scene: Phyllis (in a very cute bathing suit), Virginia Fox, and even his finest leading lady, Sybil Seely. Not only is there a brief closeup of Sybil, but we see her tackle another girl during the ball game, kick a ball and even do the splits! (She’s the one in the striped turban.)
All in all, Hearts and Flowers is a bubbly little classic and one that I’m always happy to pop into my Blu-ray player. It can be watched on The Mack Sennett Collection Vol. 1, as well as Fandor (the Netflix for the indie/arthouse crowd). Here’s the Bathing Beauties scene–watch for Virginia and Sybil’s closeups right in the beginning!
My top source was The Mack Sennett Collection Vol. 1. The black and white screenshots are from Fandor’s page for this film. My other 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.