Wednesday, January 15, 2014

A One Night Stand (USA, 1915)

This is exactly what modern-day audiences would expect from a silent comedy: Broad and fast gestures, fake mustaches, people running and much more.
Starring Chester Conklin and Mae Busch, the film gives us a very interesting historic glimpse on how a dramatic production worked back in the 1910ies, whether on and off stage.

The manager of a theater production is not satisfied with some of his employees, who cannot focus on their jobs, keep on doing “a few home town tricks” and acting silly. The show is about to begin and the theater group are preparing everything to the upcoming play, or as an intertitle says: “Limbering up for the coming show”. Rather than working, the stagehands are playing some kind of game with a ball and they are caught playing by the manager. 

The misfits have the potential to ruin the whole production, so it is important to make them behave themselves properly. Anyway, despite all the problems, the play starts but things will not run smoothly for a long time. The actors will have problems with the scenery caused by the same incompetent stagehands, specially the one who picked up a fight while he was holding the scenery. Thus, what was supposed to be a beautiful melodrama production involuntarily becomes a slapstick in itself. Confusion arises off stage and many things are thrown, including bricks. Gags are quite funny.

The plot of some silent comedy shorts seem to be hard to understand for nowadays’ standards and there is a reason for that. Rather than being fixed to a script, the comedians had much room for improvisation grounded only in an overall idea of the story. What does it exactly mean? By its own nature, screen comedy moves faster than drama and this is even more evident when it comes to slapstick. However, this is not the only point to be considered.
In one-or two-reel slapstick comedies there is not a strict commitment to carefully-related situations. Unusual facts are a commonplace, most of them completely detached from reality and it can be seen even in the appearance of some characters that did not have any resemblance to real people at the time. Coincidences may happen and facts are not a usual result of previous ones. Logic and probability are forgotten. Characterization is not a priority and gags have more prominence.
As director Al Christie (1881-1951) said in his book The Elements of Situation Comedy:[1] “In a one reel subject it is almost impossible to develop details of personal inclinations and habits, yet even in a subject of this sort it is possible to analyze each character and keep each character withincertain bounds”. As there is no time for deeper characterization, the film usually shows the predominate traits of the characters, both the physical and emotional. Thus, in some slapstick films we can see “the romantic girl”, “the fat man”, “the jealous wife, “the coward soldier” and so on and so forth. The possibilities are endless.
As such sort of comedies, with frantic pace and lots of physical movement, finished being produced with the advent of talkies due to limitation of movements that the use of microphones and heavier equipment imposed, those films are not usually familiar to modern day audiences. Anyway, they continue to be funny and serve as a valuable historic witness to an era.

Further reading and materials:
2. Mack Sennett Classics, Volume 2: One Night Stand / Cursed By His Beauty / Fatty's Tintype Tangle / Plumber / Star Boarder (Silent)

[1] The Elements of Situation Comedy, Al E. Christie, University of California Libraries (January 1, 1920)

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