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A Movie Star

1916. Triangle. Directed by Fred Fishback; supervised by Mack Sennett. With Mack Swain.


In this ambitious Sennett comedy, a movie actor makes a personal appearance at the "nickel picture house" where one of his pictures is playing. He collects a crowd of admirers and goes inside with them to watch himself perform feats of daring as western hero Big Hearted Jack.Young women in the audience sigh over him, their beaux get increasingly annoyed, and finally the Movie Star's wife shows up, armed with an umbrella, to drag him home.

One target of A Movie Star is clearly actorly ego and the emerging cult of the screen idol. This movie star is an unlikely heartthrob; he is played by fat, middle-aged Mack Swain with an absurd lock of hair plastered in the middle of his forehead. He preens and poses and gazes adoringly at the poster of himself. Yet as soon as he is recognized, the girls flock around. Urged on by the nickelodeon owner, he addresses the audience "My performance speaks for itself…God bless you…" There is a legitimate actor in the house ("Shakespearean Repertoire," says his business card) who rolls his eyes at the Movie Star's behavior both onscreen and off.

The movie goes on to poke fun at old-time movies and old-time movie houses. The nickelodeon owner is an ethnic type, comically entrepreneurial. When he spots the Movie Star in person in front of his theater, his exhibitor's mind goes into high gear. He escorts the celebrity inside and has the projectionist repeatedly put up a hand-written slide that says "Ladies and Gents. Our hero, Handsome Jack, is among us. Stand up, give the ladies a treat, Jack." The projectionist and the ticket-seller are funny, and the theater's "one-man orchestra," a pianist who also provides war-whoops, gun-shots, and clip-clopping horse effects, is hilarious.

By 1917, nickel picture houses were already quaint, as were movies like "Big-Hearted Jack." This is purportedly a production of Thrill 'Em Films and it satirizes all sorts of Western clichés. One title reads "Big-Hearted Jack's Shooting Iron Never Barked Truer." Big-Hearted Jack, introduced as "One of Nature's Noblemen," looks like he'd be more comfortable working in a delicatessen than riding a horse, while the city slicker who wins away Jack's girl couldn't be more effete. In a climactic scene, Jack's girlfriend is chased on horseback by an Indian brave, who pulls her onto his horse and immediately starts in to smooching (it's funny but also impressive, clearly done without stunt doubles, back-projection, mechanical horses, or anything else.)

Best of all, A Movie Star has fun with some of the complexities that arise when there's a movie within a movie, with the same actor (Mack Swain here) taking a different role in each (the Movie Star in the framing movie, Big-Hearted Jack in the inside movie). At the beginning of A Movie Star, when the first movie-goer notices the star (he stands next to a large photo of himself and assumes the same pose), she keeps touching him to make sure that he's corporeal. He says, "Yes, I'm the same fellow," and she seems surprised that he can talk. When Big-Hearted Jack loses his girlfriend to a city slicker, the women in the audience console The Movie Star, and show so much emotion that he begins to weep himself. Unlike his stage counterpart this fellow can, through the miracle of mechanical reproduction, watch himself performing. There he is onscreen emoting, and there he is among the audience commenting to his seatmates "Yes, I admit it's good.

A note on syntax: by 1917, all lessons about showing a movie-within-a-movie had been learned. In A Movie Star we first get familiar with the inside of the nickelodeon and the location of its blank screen. Once the lights go down, we see a long view from the back of the theater, and see the first scene of Big-Hearted Jack over the heads of the audience. Within a few shots, Big-Hearted Jack fills the entire frame, and we cut back and forth between the movie, the audience, the piano player, and occasionally the projectionist. There is never any confusion, partly because Big-Hearted Jack, with its exteriors and western costumes, looks entirely different from the urban audience in the darkened theater. (contrast this with Mabel's Dramatic Career, made 3 years earlier, where we never see Mabel's movie without seeing the surrounding theater and the heads of the audience as well.

I love the way the credits for A Movie Star read. The characters include "A Screen Hero (Mack Swain)," "His Screen Sweetheart (Louella Maxam)," "His Screen Rival (Ray Grey)," "His Screen Mother (May Wells)" and finally "His Real Wife (Phyllis Allen)." This is a distinction I'm always struggling to make; there are screen characters and real characters and behind them there are real-life actors, and it's hard to keep straight which you are talking about and sometimes which you're watching.

 

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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein