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Selected Short Subject: “A Dash Through The Clouds” (1912)

mabel normand
flicker alley

"A Dash Through The Clouds" is the third film on the new Mack Sennett Collection


“A Dash Through The Clouds”
Released June 24, 1912. Directed by Mack Sennett. Written by Dell Henderson
Cast: Fred Mace, Mabel Normand, Phil Parmalee, and Sylvia Ashton
Released June 24, 1912. Running time 10:16

There is a great scene in “A Dash Through The Clouds,” the third film on the Mack Sennett Collection. It is a long shot of an airplane coming in for a landing, flying toward the screen. The pilot, Phil Parmalee, and actress Mabel Normand leave the plane and walk into the foreground toward the camera. It is all done in a single shot, with no edits. The positioning of the camera, and the movement of the actors, not only make this a really impressive visual for a 1912 movie, but it shows that Mabel was indeed on that plane for the scene. Let’s remember that aviation was less than ten years old by this time, and the plane in the movie looks more like a kite. The Wright Brothers themselves had trained Parmalee, an actual pilot.

This one-reel Biograph comedy opens with Mabel (called Martha in this movie) and her boyfriend Arthur (Fred Mace) approaching aviator Slim (Parmalee) who offers them a ride on his airplane. Arthur flatly refuses, but Martha is excited to go. She is thrilled with the flight, while Arthur quite visibly worries about her on the ground. After the plane lands, Arthur, a gum salesman, goes off to a nearby Mexican quarter to sell his wares. He flirts with a local girl, upsetting the villagers to the point where they band together and chase him. Slim and Martha board the plane and rescue Arthur. He is relieved and thanks Slim, but is upset when Martha walks away from him and gets back on the plane. Arthur has been replaced.

Fred Mace does a beautiful comic turn as the chubby schnook with the rumpled suit and crooked tie. His misgivings about air travel are understandable in that aviation was so much in its infancy, and quite dangerous (pilot Phil Parmalee was actually killed in a plane crash shortly after appearing in this movie). But Mace's reaction has all the comic gusto of a Mack Sennett comedian. He holds up his hands, shakes his head, puts his hand on his heart, and offers other, similar responses to the trepidation he has over going up in the air. He comes off as old fashioned, critical of advancing technology. When he later goes to the village to sell his wares, he travels by horse, further demonstrating his backward thinking.

Where Mace exudes intimidation, Mabel exhibits validation. She is very much a modern girl, excited about new things. The 20th century was only a dozen years old, and the ways and mores were often more staid, especially with women. Mabel Normand represents the free-spirited thinking of courageous youth. She is excited to engage with this edgy new invention. Parmalee, who is not an actor, anchors the proceedings by displaying a solid confidence, which is said to simply have been his real life manner.

The structure of this Biograph film shows Sennett venturing further into the comic territory he would explore upon setting up his own Keystone studio. Fred Mace is quite obviously dressed to appear as the outsider who bulges his eyes, flails his arms, and shakes his fist in a comic manner. Mabel comes off as attractive, energetic, and fearless. The villagers are comic villains with blatant gestures. There is a conflict, a chase, and a rescue. The film closes on a gag.

However, along with being a portent to Sennett’s Keystone work, “A Dash Through The Clouds” has it s own merit. Its presentation of early aviation makes it something of a cultural artifact. It has a breezy quality that maintains interest in the situations and the characters. Mace’s physical comedy is nearly always in reaction to something within the situation, and he plays it effectively. All the laughs are due to him. As early cinema’s history goes, “A Dash Through The Clouds” contains several significant elements to help us understand and appreciate that history.

CineMuseum’s restoration for the Mack Sennett Collection blu ray is outstanding, as is usual for this three-disc set. This is the last Biograph production in the collection. For more information about Mack Sennett and his career, Brent Walker’s book Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory is now available in affordable softcover.

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