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Selected Short Subject: “The Great Toe Mystery” (1914)

Charley Chase
Charley Chase
public domain image

The 11th film on the new Mack Sennett blu ray collection

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“The Great Toe Mystery”
Director unknown
Cast: Charles Parrott (Charley Chase), Alice Howell, Rube Miller, and Harry McCoy
Released July 25, 1914. Running Time 10:51

The most interesting thing about this comedy on the new Mack Sennett Collection on blu ray is its appearance by Charles Parrott (Charley Chase) in a leading role. Parrott had joined Keystone fairly recently, but would not establish his Charley Chase character for about another ten years. In the interim he would act, write, and direct at several studios.

The story deals with a shoe clerk (Charley) who waits on a pretty female customer (Alice Howell) who has a hole in her sock, causing her big toe to protrude. The clerk teases her about it, and flirts. The woman’s husband confronts him and they prepare to leave, but not before the clerk puts a note in her shoe. They get home, and the woman goes off to the park, which is where the clerk had planned to meet with her. She never read the note, so her showing up in the park is pure chance, but the clerk sees it as a positive response. The husband finds the note, goes to the park, and starts shooting at the clerk. He runs away, hides in a trunk, but the trunk is delivered to the woman’s house. This causes more confusion, chases, even an appearance by the Keystone Cops.

This early Charley Chase appearance, when he was still billed as Charles Parrott, is interesting as being perhaps the earliest film in which he has as big of a role. He plays the shoe clerk as fluttery and effeminate, with gestures that will later be recalled to enhance what he called his “nance”character in his early talkies. “The Great Toe Mystery” is such of an early film in his career; it is interesting to see mannerisms that would show up decades later (e.g. when he looks at the note in this film, he uses the same gesture and stance as he would in a similar scene in the 1932 talkie “Girl Grief.”).

Alice Howell is a great comedienne in her own right, but here she is just the pretty girl, and plays it essentially straight. Because it is unknown who the director is, it is difficult to zero in on a particular style, but gags with the clerk being stuck in a trunk, or going up and down a dumb waiter in an attempt to avoid the trouble occurring on each floor, are typical period Keystone.

“The Great Toe Mystery” was made shortly after director Henry Lehrman left Keystone to form his own comedy company, and he took top Keystone comedian Ford Sterling with him. This left a real gap. Of course Charlie Chaplin’s presence in Keystone films at this time helped fill the gap, but the studio had several projects going on at once, so capable directors and actors were needed. A lot of performers got their chance to direct, but unfortunately existing records do not always reveal whom.

A breezy, amusing Keystone slapstick, “The Great Toe Mystery” also enjoys some significance in other areas, and the print on the Mack Sennett Collection is great.