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Selected Short Subject: “A Grocery Clerk’s Romance” (1912)

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The fifth film from the Mack Sennett Collection on blu ray

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“A Grocery Clerk’s Romance”
Directed by Mack Sennett
Cast: Ford Sterling, James C. Morton
Released October 28, 1912. Running Time: 7:38

CineMuseum’s restorations on the Mack Sennett Collection allow for us to better appreciate a lot of character nuance that was lost when viewing the unrestored prints of these same movies. This is especially evident with comedian Ford Sterling, whose bombastic approach became somewhat out of vogue when Chaplin came along and redefined how screen comedy was presented. But Sterling’s performances had their own areas of subtlety, and his performance in “A Grocery Clerk’s Romance” is a good example.

The plot has a lazy husband (Morton) sitting around while his wife slaves over a washboard. Ford comes along and argues with the husband, who leaves the premises. Ford, who is smitten with the wife, has arranged for thugs to kidnap the husband, tie him up, and blow him up with bombs. Meanwhile, Ford endears himself to the wife by helping her with the chores. One of the children sees his father tied up with a bomb about to go off, so he runs for help. Ford feigns concern and gathers some neighbors to rescue the husband, timing it right so that the explosion will have gone off by the time they get there. The bomb does go off, but the husband manages to escape ahead of time. He runs back just in time to interrupt the quickie marriage ceremony of his wife and Ford.

As the Keystone films continue, greater experiments with the comedy would be made, as Sennett pursued wilder and more frantic presentation. Sterling appears here without the garish makeup he would wear in later films. Thus, his performance is not enhanced by an immediately comical looking appearance. He makes the best with the materials and situation, tying a makeshift apron well above his waist, and waving with his fingers at the wife as he puts the laundry on a clothesline. When the townspeople are gathered and run to rescue the husband, Sterling continually checks his pocket watch, and occasionally stalls the chase, in order to time things out right for the execution he has arranged. The situation is amusing and Sterling really carries the entire proceedings. He is the film’s comic center, while the others are connected tangentially.

One of the many strong points about the Mack Sennett Collection is that the restorations and the blu ray clarity allows for reassessments of actors like Ford Sterling and his own development as a pre-Chaplin pioneer in physical comedy. He would quickly become the studio’s biggest star, but would be eclipsed by Chaplin, and move to another studio. Chaplin would leave Sennett after a year, and Sterling would return. The Sennett collection offers work from Sterling during this early period, and from his later return.

Cinema had already established melodrama pretty well as early as 1912 when this movie was made, and Sennett was no stranger to this genre. A film like “A Grocery Clerk’s Romance” was a comic variation on melodrama, with a man as the victim, with no hero to save him (he had to save himself). Sennett would explore comic variations on melodrama often as he continued to produce films.

For more information on Sennett's films, check out Brent Walker's brilliant book "Mack Sennett's Fun Factory," now in affordable softcover.

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