Saturday, September 8, 2012

Cohen Saves the Flag - 1913

Country: United States
Language: English
Director: Mack Sennett
Stars: Ford Sterling, Mabel Normand and Henry Lehrman
Release Date: 27 November 1913 (USA)
Production Co: Keystone Film Company
Sound Mix: Silent
Color: Black and White
Plot Keywords: Jewish | Silent
Genres: Short | Comedy | War
Cohen is a sergeant in the Union Army and the bitter rival of another officer for the attentions of Rebecca. Like most burlesque Jewish characters of this period, this caricature borders on anti-semitism. Yet Cohen is also the hero of the film.
'Cohen Saves the Flag' is a very early Keystone comedy, one of several starring Ford Sterling as a scruffy coward named Izzy Cohen. All of the instalments in the 'Cohen' series feature some humour based on Jewish stereotypes, which has dated badly; fortunately, these films also have clever storylines and non-ethnic slapstick gags, so (with the possible exception of 'Cohen Collects a Debt') these films are still funny in spite of some (arguably) anti-Semitic content. All of the other 'Cohen' shorts are set in the contemporary present; 'Cohen Saves the Flag' backdates Izzy Cohen to 1861 in order to put him in a Civil War setting.
The Keystone comedies were filmed on the cheap, but Keystone's directors often employed the clever device of filming their actors in front of some elaborate public event, thus enhancing a quickie movie's production values. The best-known examples of this are the soapbox derby gate-crashed by Chaplin's tramp in 'Kid Auto Races at Venice' and the parade in 'A Busy Day'. For 'Cohen Saves the Flag', ingeniously, producer/director Mack Sennett was able to piggyback on the filming of 'Battle of Gettysburg', an elaborate Civil War drama produced by Thomas Ince. (Ince's big-budget dramas and Mack Sennett's low-budget comedies were both bankrolled by the same financiers, so Keystone actually had permission to shoot 'Cohen Saves the Flag' on the sidelines of Ince's war film!)
In the opening scene (which unconvincingly depicts 1861), Cohen (Ford Sterling) and his rival Goldberg (Henry Lehrman) are competing for the affections of dainty Mabel Normand. The men resolve their differences intelligently by poking each other's eyes and biting each other's ears. I suspect that there was meant to be some ethnic subtext here: ie, supposedly, Jews fight 'dirty' ... but in fairness, there are many Keystone comedies that feature dirty fighting among non-ethnic characters. Anyway, I laughed heartily while these two 'Jewish' characters noshed and gnashed each other.
Suddenly the Civil War breaks out. Mostly to impress Mabel, cowardly Cohen enlists in the Union army and somehow receives a sergeant's stripes. Goldberg enlists too ... and becomes a lieutenant, with Cohen under his command. Gleefully, Lieutenant Goldberg sends Cohen into battle, confident that he'll get killed.
The battlefield sequences in this cheapjack comedy are genuinely impressive; Mack Sennett (underrated as a director) manages to frame the action so that Ince's costume extras in the background actually seem to be in the same movie as the Keystone clowns in the foreground. More by accident than anything else, Cohen rescues a Union flag during his terrified efforts to escape the cannon fire. Goldberg finds Cohen guilty of desertion, and convenes a firing-squad to shoot him. The climax of this comedy - with some good work by Normand - is unexpectedly exciting as well as funny.
Ford Sterling is now almost completely forgotten, which is a great shame. He was an extremely talented and versatile comedian. Funny, too. Even people who are familiar with Ford Sterling's work seldom realise how extremely *influential* he was on the work of later comedians. Harvey Korman built an entire career out of imitating Ford Sterling. You may have noticed that, whenever modern actors imitate silent-film comedians, they always do a little hop straight up into the air. This cliche has been around at least as far back as 1928's 'Show People', a silent-film comedy *about* silent-film comedians. But in fact, Ford Sterling was the silent-film comedian who *invented* this bit ... and the only one who consistently used it. Sterling had a vast repertory of gestures and facial expressions, which he used for expressing an astonishingly subtle range of emotions. And Sterling proved his ability as a dramatic actor in 'He Who Gets Slapped', in which he had the great honour of applying makeup (on-camera) to Lon Chaney. Sterling successfully made the transition to talking-picture roles (notably as the White King in 'Alice in Wonderland'), but an accident caused him to lose a leg, forcing his retirement and hastening his death.
Features The Battle of Gettysburg (1913).

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