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Selected Short Subject: "A Fishy Affair" (1913)

Ford Sterling
public domain image

The 8th film on the new Mack Sennett blu ray collection


“A Fishy Affair”
Directed by Mack Sennett
Cast: Ford Sterling, Laura Oakley, Bert Hunn, Bill Hauber, Nick Cogley, and Dot Farley.
Released April 24, 1913. Running time: 7 minutes

The Keystone style continues to develop with this short film that is another showcase for Ford Sterling, who was quickly becoming the biggest star at the studio. CineMuseum’s outstanding restoration of this film for the Mack Sennett Collection on blu ray allows us to clearly see and appreciate each nuanced expression.

Ford is prepared to go fishing, and asks his wife for some money. The wife had just put a sock full of cash under the mattress and she refuses to give Ford a penny. Disgruntled, he goes off to fish. Meanwhile, a burglar sneaks in the bedroom window and steals the money. A nearby cop sees him and gives chase. As the crook passes the lake, he throws the money in and keeps running. Naturally Ford fishes right at that spot, hooks the money, and when he returns home he’s accused of stealing it. The cop catches the burglar and returns to the house where the crook confesses. Ford is angry with his apologetic wife, but they make up as the film ends.

The Keystone films had, by now, clearly established their structure for having a simple premise, which was filled with gags. However, “A Fishy Affair” follows that premise, but stands out as one of the more important Keystones from this period for several reasons.

Ford Sterling is far less manic and overplayed here. There is a great deal of subtlety to his performance. He does not completely eschew his noted bombast, but instead layers it with subtler reactions. As he heads down the road to the fishing spot, he comes upon a small hill. He tries to walk up the hill, but stumbles back down; he angrily kicks the hill, but hurts his foot. He then uses the fishing rod as a pole vault and makes it to the top. It is a delightfully funny bit of business that appears as an organic portion of the character’s trajectory and is one of this short film’s comic highlights. Once he gets to his fishing spot, Sterling uses all that is at hand to create comedy. He baits his hook with a worm, and then blows on it for luck as if it were dice. Sitting nearby a weeping willow, he angrily slaps and yells at the tree each time the wind causes its leaning branches to hit the side of his face. He catches useless things (a sock, a minnow), but although he reacts with disappointment, he keeps everything he catches, putting it into a bucket. It is these elements of character that are both charming and funny. .

Mack Sennett’s direction is so impressive, one wonders if perhaps he learned a bit from watching Henry Lehrman’s footage. Sennett often relied on medium shots and let the action work within the frame. Lehrman used different angles to enhance the visual effect. With “A Fishy Affair,” Sennett not only provides several close-ups of Sterling so we can enjoy his subtler reactions, but also cross-cuts between the tranquil fisherman, his frantic wife searching the house for the money, and the cop pursuing the crook. These scenes each have a distinct, separate rhythm of their own, but Sennett’s cuts maintain a steady pace. Lehrman has set that foundation in his own Keystone work. This is Sennett’s response. The cuts are not equal in time, though. Most of the footage relaxes with Ford Sterling, who is once again the central figure in this comedy. Another impressive bit of directorial technique is an underwater shot that shows a school of fish swimming past Ford’s baited hook as if they were ignoring it. For a film shot in 1913, this visual is quite impressive. Sennett liked to bring his crew to a location and work within its elements to create comedy. This time it was a nearby alligator farm. Ford hooks a baby alligator, drops his pole and goes running home, naturally running right through a group of gators.

“A Fishy Affair” is well directed, well played, and filled with very funny moments. The Keystone product continued to increase in popularity as well as cinematic vision. While one can acknowledge Sennett's better direction, "A Fishy Affair" really belongs to Ford Sterling. There is a great deal of substance to this husband who just wants a bit of solitude engaging in an activity he enjoys. The inconveniences are minor, but he responds to each one comically and effectively. It is one of the finest performances Ford Sterling would offer at Keystone

For more information, please consult Brent Walker’s book “Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory,” now in affordable softcover. There is also Wendy Warwick White’s book on Ford Sterling.

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