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Selected Short Subjects: “Idle Eyes”

Ben Turpin
Ben Turpin

Cross-eyed Ben Turpin was a vaudeville comic who entered movies at the dawn of the 20th century. Having worked with Charlie Chaplin in his first couple of Essanay releases, Turpin achieved greater notoriety in such Mack Sennett’s productions as “The Daredevil” and “The Sheik of Araby” (both 1923). Turpin left movies in 1924 to care for his ailing wife, returning after her death in October of 1925. No longer a star of the same magnitude, Turpin appeared in several more films for Sennett, eventually being hired by Weiss Brothers-Artcalss productions to star in a series of slapstick comedies as the 1920s, and the silent era, were drawing to a close. “Idle Eyes” (1928) is one of his films for the Weiss Brothers.

By the late 1920s, screen comedy had grown considerably since the knockabout Keystone comedies of the teens. Top comedians like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd were starring in popular feature films, while short comedies with the likes of Laurel and Hardy or Charley Chase were subtler and relied more on situations than gags. Thus, something as simple and gag oriented as “Idle Eyes” likely seemed a bit archaic in 1928. However now, in the 21st century, removed from its era and approached on its own singular merit, “Idle Eyes” is a perfectly delightful slapstick comedy filled with clever ideas that are well executed by the veteran comic.

There really is no substance or structure to this film at all. Ben is a tramp scrounging for food. The opening has him stealing cakes from a bakery deliveryman, who gets a faceful of frosting as Ben escapes him. Ben is then chasing after a baby buggy trying to steal the apples in the child’s cart. He teases the child until the baby starts throwing fruit at him, as he pockets each item. Preoccupied with his task, Ben doesn’t look where he is going and bumps into a light post, causing the light to come down and break over his head. When he reaches for the newly acquired fruit, he finds they are merely wax toys.

Ben then settles in the park, enjoying an ice cream he has acquired. When the baby throws his own ice cream and hits his nursemaid in the face, she looks up and sees a laughing Ben also holding ice cream. She walks over and smears the ice cream in his face as he responds with incredulity, wondering why he had been accosted. Ben then sits next to a man eating a banana, and when the man isn’t looking, tries to steal a bite. This causes a physical conflict where the man ends up dunked in a nearby pond.

A car gets stuck in the mud. Ben agrees to help the man for a dollar. Ben gets behind the wheel while the man pushes. Ben revs up the engine, causing the tires to spin and spray mud all over the owner. Ben runs away and ducks into a beauty parlor, where he is promptly given a job. After smearing various beauty creams on a hapless customer, a beauty cream fight ensues where everyone is throwing the substance about as it splatters in their faces.

The films ends with Ben being told by a homely woman about a newspaper article that indicates he is the missing heir to a fortune. She states “with your riches and my beauty we can really go places.” Ben takes one look at the ugly lady and jumps head first into a nearby pond as the movie ends.

As can be seen by the description, this is hardly the sort of carefully paced and executed two reeler as Laurel and Hardy’s “Two Tars” or Charley Chase’s “Limousine Love,” both of which were released the same year. “Idle Eyes looks like a much older movie, and its reliance on gags harks back to the frantic, haphazard structure of the earlier Keystones. It never really settles upon an idea, just keeps free form floating from one gag to the next. The gags themselves are outrageous and hilarious, while the performers respond with sweeping movements and blatant gestures as if the film was shot in 1915 rather than 1928. There are wild pratfalls, bulging eyes, and shaking fists abounding, while every face in the movie gets hit with something at some point.

Historically, “Idle Eyes” is a fascinating look at a silent comedy using very primitive methods appearing to be more outrageously amusing than archaic after nearly 90 years have past. The film is now just another loosely structured slapstick comedy that succeeds because it never lets up for more than a few seconds. As these films go, “Idle Eyes” is quite funny.

“Idle Eyes” was directed by Leslie Goodwins and stars Ben Turpin, Georgia O'Dell, Helen Gilmore, and Billy Barty. It is available on DVD here.

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