Saturday, November 7, 2015

Stubs – A Submarine Pirate (1915)

A Submarine Pirate (1915) Starring: Sydney Chaplin, Glen Cavender, Wesley Ruggles, Phyllis Allen. Directed by Charles Avery and Sydney Chaplin Screenplay: Mack Sennett (uncredited). Produced by Mack Sennett. Run Time: 25 minutes U.S.  Black and White. Silent, Comedy

While Charlie Chaplin was just emerging as one of the world’s biggest film stars, he wasn’t the only Chaplin making movies. His half-brother Sydney, whom Charlie had convinced Sennett to hire, was still making movies for Keystone Films even after Charlie had decided to leave for greener pastures at Essanay.

Just as Charlie had a recurring character, the little Tramp, Syd also had one at Keystone, Gussie. Starting with Gussie, the Golfer (1914), Syd would make about ten films as Gussie in 1914 and 1915. But in what would turn out to be his last film for Keystone, he would shed the Gussie character name in A Submarine Pirate (1915). Being unfamiliar with the Gussie series, I don’t know if he also shed the persona of that character.

Shot in San Diego, with the cooperation of the U.S. Navy, the film crew was able to use a real submarine. According to an article in the New York Times, dated November 15, 1915, the Navy claimed they planned to use the film to promote recruitment.

Released on December 26, 1915, A Submarine Pirate starts with a witless waiter (Sydney Chaplin) who is eating the leftovers from the guest trays in an unnamed hotel. He doesn’t seem to notice, until it’s too late, that he’s about to eat a real plate.

The hapless Waiter (Sydney Chaplin) eats not only the leftovers, but the plate they're on.

He’s no better at walking, as he falls down the stairs, while carrying a tray. His boss, hotel manager (Harold J. Binney), is not happy about the mess and starts to kick the waiter around the lobby. The mess is still there when one of the hotel’s guests with a bandaged leg (Frank Alexander) slips and falls. While the hotel manager continues to punish his waiter, the man returns, firing a gun into the lobby.

Hotel guest makes his displeasure known by firing a gun in the lobby.

All the commotion causes one guest (Phyllis Allen) to pass out. When she comes to, she blames Syd. Her retribution is interrupted by the appearance of a Peach (Cecile Arnold), with whom the waiter immediately starts to flirt. Ditching his duties, he accompanies her up to her room and kisses her at the door. Downstairs, the angry female guest is waiting for him. When he sticks his head out of the elevator door, he narrowly misses her ambush. He goes back upstairs and another guest of the hotel, a mysterious inventor (Glen Cavender), gets on in his place. When the inventor gets off the elevator, he is smacked in the head by the woman with her parasol.

The Waiter makes a play for Peach (Cecile Arnold).

The inventor is taken to the hotel’s restaurant, where his accomplice (Wesley Ruggles) is waiting for him. The waiter, of course, waits on him. He listens as the inventor tells his accomplice his plans for stealing gold being shipped on a passenger ship. When he’s discovered eavesdropping, he uses a telephone covered in flowers as a listening device.

The waiter not so subtly eavesdrops on the conversation between mysterious
inventor (Glen Cavender) (l) and his accomplice (Wesley Ruggles) (r).

While he’s in the kitchen, one of the cook’s is supposedly an uncredited young actor who would later become one of the big three silent comedy stars, Harold Lloyd.

Harold Lloyd is one of the cooks in the kitchen.

Swapping the inventor's satchel with another guest's look-a-like purse, the waiter takes the accomplice’s place and goes to make the rendezvous with the inventor’s submarine. Stopping at a surplus shop run by its Owner (Josef Swickard), he buys a captain’s uniform.

The Waiter buys a second-hand uniform.

Once on board, the waiter causes the submarine to submerge before the submarine is actually ready. The crew gets even by submerging the sub while he’s on deck. He manages to hold on to the periscope and is spotted, so the Sub Officer (Wesley Ruggles) lets him back on.

When the passenger ship with the gold is spotted, the Waiter once again is topside using a megaphone to tell the ship to surrender. Taking a boarding party with him, he commandeers the Ship’s Captain (Glen Cavender) to take him to the gold and a vault is opened.

The Waiter demands that the passenger ship surrender.

But the Captain manages to sneak away and has the telegraph officer send a distress message. A nearby gunship receives the message and comes to the rescue. But before they can, the waiter discovers their plot. At the same time, the Captain’s men, armed, take positions outside the wire room. But the now wily Waiter manages to bull his way through and, along with his crew, jumps ship.

Here’s where some of the action gets a little odd. With the gunship to the rescue, the passenger ship is to be evacuated and there seems to be a mad dash for the lifeboats. Not sure what is behind that move.

Meanwhile, back on board the sub, the waiter uses the submerging key to knock some sense into his first mate. Of course, without the key, the sub can’t go down below the surface. The waiter then goes into the torpedo room to “help”. It’s unclear what they’re shooting at, but the waiter manages to be holding on to the torpedo when it’s launched. He does eventually let go and swims back to the sub. Nothing seems to have been hit by the torpedo.

The Waiter holds on to the torpedo and gets fired into the water.

Having lost the submerging key in the melee, the sub has no choice but to fight it out with the gunship. Using some sort of submarine gun, the waiter manages to bombard the surface ship, but after a while, the gunship, with its superior fire power, manages to breach the hull of the sub and it goes down. The waiter manages to find a porthole to swim through, but is swimming into the path of a sharp-toothed fish when the story ends.

The Waiter gets attached by a fish when he tries to escape the sub.

When doing research for our review of Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914), I found references to A Submarine Pirate being Sennett’s second most financially successful film, which, given the output of Keystone, is really saying something.

A Submarine Pirate moves at a fairly hectic pace. Based on the age of the film, some of the action is missing from the two current prints that I’ve seen. There is a very short scene which seems to indicate that the pirates were taking the gold off the passenger ship, but it's really not clear what happens to it. Not sure if this plotline was abandoned during the filming process, edited out prior to release or has simply been lost to time.

While these early silent comedies are sometimes big on pratfalls and short on plotlines, one doesn’t want to put too much on the thin story that is supposed to hold all the action together. Still, this seems like the pirate plot was “pasted” over other footage of a witless waiter causing havoc in the hotel where he works.

It becomes obvious that the hectic pace at the beginning of the film needs something to slow it down a little. The action I describe up the arrival of the Peach at the hotel takes place within the first two and a half minutes. The celluloid would certainly catch fire in the projector if that pace was kept up throughout. So after exhausting all they could do with the hotel lobby, kitchen and dining room bits, they tacked on the idea of a pirate sub hijacking a luxury liner; at least that how it looks 100 years later.

Charles Avery, Chaplin’s co-director had previously worked with him on several of his Gussie films. One of the original seven Keystone Kops, Avery later helm thirty-one of Fatty Arbuckle’s films at the studio. Frankly, it’s difficult to tell what part of A Submarine Pirate Avery directed versus what Chaplin did or if they directed together.

It’s hard to judge the acting capabilities of the actors in the supporting cast, as so much attention is paid to Syd Chaplin. Wesley Ruggles, who appears as the Inventor’s Accomplice and as the Officer on the Sub, was the younger brother of Charles Ruggles. Like the Chaplins, Wesley got his start in acting with Sennett. He appeared in several of Syd’s Gussie films. Wesley would go on to produce and direct films as well. For most of the film he sits and talks to the Inventor with a big moustache and beard blocking most of his face.

Glen Cavender, the mysterious Inventor and the passenger ship’s captain was another actor from the Keystone stable. He would make over 259 films between 1914 and 1949, including films with Mabel Normand and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, both together and separately. He appeared in Fatty and Mabel Adrift (1916).

Glen Cavender, who plays the mysterious inventor, made over 259 films during his 35 year career.

Phyllis Allen, the angry hotel guest who takes a dislike to Syd, is only in the first part of the film. She would appear in 74 films in the decade between 1913 and 1923, appearing in such Charlie Chaplin films as The Adventurer (1917), Pay Day (1922) and The Pilgrim (1923). While we know she can wield an umbrella, there isn’t much that can be gleamed from her acting besides she looks somewhat like Marie Dressler.

Another young comedian, Harold Lloyd, was also in the cast, though his appearance is not credited. Having started as an extra in the Edison production of The Old Monk’s Tale (1913), he had already been in a few Sennett shorts before appearing as a cook in A Submarine Pirate. He would soon become popular as Lonesome Luke in films we would make for Hal Roach, but find immortality as the “Glass” Character in such films as Safety Last (1923), The Freshman (1925) and The Kid Brother (1927).

Ultimately, this is Syd Chaplin’s film. While he is a talented comedian, we’re shown he can do pratfalls, juggle and other acrobatics, he comes across as a pale version of his younger brother. And while the little Tramp is endearing, the witless waiter turned wily sea pirate is really not. And he goes from hapless to brainy and back whenever the plot requires it.

Syd Chaplin in A Submarine Pirate.

The problem I have with connecting to the Waiter character I think comes down to his motivation in the movie. The character isn’t trying to thwart the piracy or get the money for some higher cause (ex. keeping a widow from losing her house, saving the hotel from bankruptcy, etc.), rather he hijacks the plot for what appears to be simple greed. He’s not a sympathetic character as a result.

Despite the film’s success, Syd would stop acting long enough to manage Charlie’s career, negotiating his lucrative contracts with Mutual and later with First National. He would appear in some of Charlie’s films, including Shoulder Arms (1918), and continue to act on his own throughout the 1920s.

A Submarine Pirate doesn’t quite congeal the way I had hoped before watching it. I know that comedic tastes have changed, but it’s not the slapstick that bothers me, so much as feeling the story was slapped together. In the hands of other silent comedians, such as Buster Keaton, who made several comedies revolving around boats and ships: The Boat (1921), The Navigator (1924) and Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928), there is a lot of humor to be found at sea.

I don’t want to use maritime lingo to describe how I feel about the movie, but let’s just say that this isn’t the comedy adventure I had hoped for and I would say that you can miss A Submarine Pirate.

For other silent films, check out our Review Hub for Silent Cinema: Here.

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