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Selected Short Subject: “The Curtain Pole” (1909)

Sennett collection
Flicker Alley

"The Curtain Pole" is the first film on the new Mack Sennett blu ray collection


“The Curtain Pole”
(Released February 15, 1909)
Directed by D.W. Griffith. Written by Mack Sennett.
Cast: Mack Sennett, Harry Solter, and Florence Lawrence
Running Time: 10:02
(Credits acquired from Brent Walker’s book “Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory,” now in affordable softcover)

The first film on the new Mack Sennett Collection from CineMuseum is a fascinating portent to what Sennett would later make his comic framework. It was made at the Biograph studio, where Sennett worked as an actor, a writer, and later a director. It was at Biograph where Sennett learned the rudiments of the filmmaking process, and was inspired to create visual comedy. “The Curtain Pole” is clearly inspired by the French farce that represented screen comedy at the turn of the century, but Sennett’s ideas for frantic action bring the visual humor to a new level.

Sennett plays DuPont, a Frenchman who is visiting friends that are putting up curtains. A curtain rod breaks, so DuPont insists on going to the store and buying a new one. The gist of the subsequent film concentrates on DuPont’s attempt to get the bulky, cumbersome curtain rod back to the house. It is not heavy, but does not bend, and DuPont has a great deal of trouble manipulating the item without banging into something or someone.

“The Curtain Pole” is important because it is a very early example of Sennett taking a comic premise and building upon it with layers of humorous events, concluding with a chase scene. DuPont at first is merely a mild intrusion as he makes his way down the street with the pole. But soon he is accosting enough people along the way that they start to chase him. The crowd chasing him slowly builds with each person he hits, so DuPont hops into a horse drawn carriage in an attempt to hurry to his destination. As the carriage gallops along the street, DuPont sits with the pole extended sideways across his lap, sticking out on either side. The ends of the pole, rushing past, manage to topple a vegetable cart, a man on a ladder, and others, each of these people joining the ever-growing crowd that is still chasing after DuPont, and the carriage, on foot. When he finally loses the crowd and reaches his destination, DuPont discovers that the original curtain pole has been repaired, the drapes are up, and he went through all of that for nothing.

“The Curtain Pole” introduces its premise immediately, builds upon it creatively, accelerates its pace, and ends with a frustratingly funny conclusion. These are the basics of many Keystone subjects. Director D.W. Griffith was much more attracted to melodrama than comedy, but this was shot during a time when he was realizing how much more one could do with the camera. Griffith’s vision throughout this comedy, especially the chase sequence, is fascinating. There is usually some level of movement in the background, while the foreground is the main focus. He frames shots of a barren street, holding the shot for just enough seconds, before the carriage comes galloping into the frame, sometimes from around the corner, followed by the crowd giving chase. Griffith would experiment with ideas like the close-up, etc, to further enhance character development in movies like “Musketeers of Pig Alley” (1911) and would reach the level of epic cinema with “Birth of a Nation “ (1915) and “Intolerance” (1916). Here he is responding more specifically to Sennett’s comic perspective, using his directorial prowess to spotlight the gag sequences most effectively.

“The Curtain Pole” still holds up over 100 years later. It is still funny and exciting. One can only imagine how thrilling it must have been for audiences of 1909. It is the perfect film to open the three-disc Mack Sennett blu ray collection.

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