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Selected Short Subject: “Bangville Police” (1913)

Mabel Normand
public domain image

The 7th film on the new Mack Sennett blu ray collection


“Bangville Police”
Directed by Henry Lehrman.
Cast: Mabel Normand, Fred Mace, Nick Cogley, Dot Farley, Charles Avery, Edgar Kennedy, Rube Miller, Jack Leonard, Fred Happ, Raymond Hatton.

Released April 24, 1913. Running time: 6 minutes.

“Bangville Police” is another of the more important films on the Mack Sennett Collection’s first blu ray disc (of three). The Keystone product is further defined by this wild comedy in which a series of compounding misunderstandings result in summoning the local police, who arrive amidst a series of slapstick mishaps on the way. This film, then, is part of the evolution of the noted Keystone Cops, for which many identify Sennett’s entire career. The Keystone Cops were not a set unit that had a series of films. They were really a collection of available Sennett comedians who put on uniforms to do a slapstick chase at the end of some of the movies. While this approach would be refined and explored in subsequent films, “Bangville Police” offers one of the earlier examples in the process.

Mabel Normand is a farm girl who longs for her pet cow to give birth to a calf. However when two of the farm’s hands sneak into the hay loft for a rest from work, Mabel overhears them talking about the impeding birth of a calf, but mistakes the conversation and believes it is two burglars hiding out in the barn. She quickly summons the police, who rush to the scene, but after a great deal of frantic hurrying and violent setbacks, the police are chagrined to find nothing more than a newborn calf in the barn, while Mabel herself is delighted.

There are several elements regarding “Bangville Police” that cause it to stand out, not the least of which is its early example of using an inept police force in its slapstick climax. First, it further showcases the talents of Mabel Normand, whose commitment to character is evident in each scene. When she discovers what she believes are burglars, she responds by scurrying into the house, calling the police, and throwing a bunch of furniture against the locked door. Her mannerisms are quick and expressive, and her facial expressions are subtle and nuanced. The gamut of emotions she conveys within the context of her character maintains the brisk pace of the comedy.

Fred Mace plays the police chief (a part usually played by Ford Sterling, but not here). He expresses both determination and ineptitude as he is awakened by Mabel’s phone call, fires some shots in the air to summon his chief deputy (Charles Avery) who rounds up a few more cops. As this is a rural setting, the weapons the others are carrying include a pitchfork and a shovel. Mace and Avery travel by auto, the others by foot. And while the ones running to the scene are stumbling about with wild pratfalls, Mace and Avery in the car are beset by continual mishaps on the dirt road. The visual of the car has its own level of brilliance, complete with a large dangling bell, a crank for a steering wheel, the word “Police” painted across the hood, and an oil can seated between Mace and Avery. It is prone to exploding backfires and difficulty in maintaining a straight balance as it twists and turns down the road. When the car stalls, Mace hits it with a wrench until the engine explodes, forcing the sheriff and deputy to continue on foot.

“Bangville Police” is also the first example on the Mack Sennett collection of a film directed by Henry Lehrman, an important Keystone filmmaker. Lehrman took Sennett’s basic structure of a conflict, a chase, and a happy conclusion and expanded upon it with his own sense of comic rhythm. The edits in “Bangville Police” are much quicker. We see a frantic Mabel placing furniture in front of a locked door, then cut to the cops running on foot to the scene, and then Mace and Avery headed there in the car. Each of these sequences has its own framework and its own series of gags. Lehrman edits between each scene, offering enough time for something funny to happen, and then cutting away, increasing both the pace and the excitement. Lehrman times out the laughs so that the viewer has little time to rest before something else funny occurs. It is really quite brilliant.

Lehrman’s structure goes beyond his penchant for quick edits. He builds the six-minute film while providing this vast array of detail. The opening scenes show the tranquility of farm life, with Mabel tending to her cow, and playfully tickling her adoring father’s face with a handful of hay. Once the discovery of the alleged burglars takes place, the pace quickly picks up, but it is not sudden. Lehrman builds on each situation until he reaches the point where the chase is on and the gags are presented with an increasingly rapid comic rhythm. Along with the broader slapstick, there are several subtler comic visuals, such as the small Avery hopping the fence once they reach the farm, while the chubby Mace, slowly climbs through it.

Finally, Lehrman does not rely chiefly on medium shots, merely allowing the situations to tell the story. He instead frames his action with a number of close-ups and long shots with a keen awareness of which angle would be most effective.

With each film on the Mack Sennett blu ray collection, we see consistent cinematic improvement and a greater understanding of the studio’s evolving comic style.

For more information, see Brent Walker’s book “Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory” now in affordable softcover

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