January 23, 2012

Barney Oldfield's Race for a Life (1913)

Know during his lifetime as "The King of Comedy", Canadian filmmaker Mack Sennett was one of the greatest innovators of slapstick in the silent cinema of Hollywood. While also an actor, his greatest contributions were as producer and director at Keystone Studios, were he developed his trademark style of slapstick comedy and launched the careers of a notable group of actors, including Mabel Normand, Ford Sterling, the Keystone Kops and most notably, Charlie Chaplin. Having started his career as an actor at Biograph Studios, Mack Sennett's career owed a lot to legendary filmmaker D. W. Griffith, who directed him in several of his early short films. This experienced allowed Sennett to be a first hand witness of the development of Griffith's narrative style. "Barney Oldfield's Race for a Life" is a short film in which Mack Sennett actively parodies Griffith, particularly his common topic of last minute rescues. And to do it he had the aid of the most famous race driver of his time: Barney Oldfield himself.

In "Barry Oldfield's Race for a Life", Mabel Normand plays Mabel, a young beautiful woman in love with her boyfriend (Mack Sennett). However, a villianous man (Ford Sterling) also wants her, and makes several advances towards Mabel. The young woman rejects him strongly, and this enrages the villain, who decides to kidnapp Mabel and in vengeance, chain her to a railroad track. Then the evil man finds a locomotive and lets it loose in order to fulfill his revenge. When her boyfriend discovers this, he now must has to race to save her before the train kills her. Fortunately for the hero, the famous racer Barney Oldfield is in town, so he asks for the help of the legendary Oldfield to save Mabel's life. So both men jump into Oldfield's Blitzen Benz and race against the train, hoping to arrive to Mabel's spot before the locomotive kills her, in a dangerous adventure that will also involve a group of bumbling policemen, who also are on the race riding a small handcar through the railroad.

As written above, this Sennett production has a lot in common with D. W. Griffith's popular "last minute rescues" in the sense that it's based on the concept of having a trapped victim (Mabel in this case) and a hero running to save her from an impending doom (the train). It's a plot that Griffith had been doing since his earliest work ("The Adventures of Dollie", 1908) and had been perfecting ever since; and in fact, Sennett himself appeared in one of the best know of them: "The Lonely Villa". However, Sennett of course takes everything to the extreme to make a parody of it, with of course the inclusion of the staple of the company (the ineffectual police) and the celebrity of the day (Barney Oldfield). Certainly, the film's a cleverly devised cocktail of thrills, however, what's perhaps the greatest contribution to the history of cinema is one single iconic image: Ford Sterling as a mustahcoid villain tying Mabel Normand to the racetracks. An image so strong that nowadays is more famous than the film that originated it.

As a matter of fact, the image includes the two most talented members of the film's cast: Ford Sterling and Mabel Normand. While the film is suppoused to be a vehicle for Barney Oldfield and has Sennett himself as the protagonist, "Barry Oldfield's Race for a Life" belong entirely to Ford Sterling in his performance as the villanous man rejected by Mabel. In one of his most accomplished performances for Sennet, the original 'Chief Teeheezel'of the Keystone Cops takes the villain role and delivers a classy demonstration of how to properly overact. While the role is certainly an archetype, Sterling makes it his own and creates an icon. The talented Mabel Normand may not have a lot of space to shine in this film, but she showcases the natural charm and flair for comedy that made her a star. Unfortunately, his counterpart (and real life lover), Mack Sennett himself is not a particularly likeable hero, and his performance is quite weak. Barney Oldfield simply plays himself, and for the most part, isn't bad at it.

While there's a group of bumbling policemen on the race too, it's not clear if they are the classic Keystone Kops or a variation on the same theme. Since they are not exactly the stars of the film, it's hard to know (and the ending is particularly gloom for the policemen), though the basis is the same. Nevertheless, the movie is entirely based on the last minute rescue situation that has Oldfield as the star. This is perhaps the root of the film's problems, as neither Sennett nor Oldfield make for good protagonists. While the villain is well drawn, the heroes are very thinly developed. Certainly, Sennett achieves a great thrilling race sequence, following Griffith's technique to the letter and actually adding nicely the comedy elements. Nevertheless, there's some spark missing, and that would be the lack of an appropriate protagonist to balance Sterling's villain, as whenever Sterling is not onscreen, the film goes down. Perhaps making it a proper Keystone Kops film would had helped it.

Anyways, while probably not exactly one of Sennett's best films, "Barry Oldfield's Race for a Life" is without a doubt a movie of hight historical value, as the origin of one of the classic images of cinema. To fans of motor sports, it's also interesting to watch Barry Oldfield on screen, a legend of his time (he was the first driver to run a mile track in one minute flat or 60 miles per hour) who seems to be a tad forgotten in these modern days. While not entirely succesful, "Barry Oldfield's Race for a Life" is still a pretty fun and entertaining short film that in its parodic way, contains one of the best accomplished examples of the classic "last minute rescue" that Griffith had developed.


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