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Selected Short Subject: “The Manicure Lady”

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"The Manicure Lady" is the second film on the new Mack Sennett blu ray collection

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“The Manicure Lady”
Released May 18, 1911. Directed by Mack Sennett. Written by Edwin August.
Cast: Mack Sennett, Vivian Prescott, Eddie Dillon, and Kate Bruce.
Running time: 11 minutes.

The second film on CineMuseum’s Mack Sennett Collection is another Biograph release made before Mack Sennett formed his own Keystone company. Sennett’s films for Biograph were, for the most part, much more restrained than those he would make at Keystone. His wild slapstick ideas would be more evident when he was able to assume full creative control.

“The Manicure Lady” features Sennett as a barber with some interest in one of the girls doing manicures at his shop (Vivian Prescott). She flirts with male customers, who become so distracted by her, they will often get out of the barber chair and decide upon a manicure over a haircut. Sometimes, the men’s wives will take them out by the ear, abruptly ending the flirtation. The manicurist is really only having a bit of innocent fun while drawing decent tips from her smitten customers, until a rich cad comes in and convinces her to go to lunch. She has a nice time, so he comes to pick her up again after work. The barber is upset by this rival, and hops on the back of the rich man’s chauffeur driven car. When he sees the man try to make a move on the manicurist, the barber climbs into the back window, beats the man up, throws him out the same back window, and slips a ring on the manicurist’s finger.

While the film itself is rather ordinary, there are still some early cinematic ideas that are impressive. Sennett was very interested in movement on screen, so he effectively utilizes what the French call mise-en-scène, which translates roughly to “placing on stage.” In cinematic terms, mise-en-scène refers to how people and objects are placed in the frame. Sennett has the manicurist seated at the left, while the barber works at his chair on the right. On one side we see the manicure and flirtation, on the other we see a haircut and a shave. His girl giving attention to her customers distracts the barber. Sennett frames the shot with each person on either side of the frame. The casual flirtation at left is a distraction that is hampering the barber’s effectiveness on the right side of the screen. There is movement on both sides, and it conflicts within the frame, displaying the tension from the barber on the right and the carefree manicurist on the left. Cinematically, it exhibits Sennett’s having learned from his mentor at Biograph, D.W. Griffith, who framed his scenes in a similar manner.

Sennett’s use of movement is also effective when he has the barber stand rigid, stiff with anger and jealousy, as his girl gleefully waves to the rich cad outside and prepares to leave with him. The fluttery movement of the happy manicurist offsets the seething tension of the barber.

The comparison-contrast aspect of the film is most effective during the lunch sequence. The barber and manicurist prepare to leave together, but the rich customer, who has a chauffeur driven limo that plans to take her to a fancy restaurant, sidetracks the woman. She goes, quite willingly, while the dejected barber is forced to eat alone. Sennett cross-cuts between the manicurist and the rich customer dining el fresco in a ritzy place surrounded by attentive waiters, and the barber eating alone in a seedy diner with a grouchy waitress. It should be noted that the beautifully restored print on CineMuseum’s three-disc Mack Sennett Collection blu ray is so clear, it allows us to see the nuanced acting by Sennett and Ms. Prescott so we can more accurately assess the effectiveness of the film.

Although “The Manicure Lady” is nowhere near the level of Sennett’s later Keystone work, it is a good example of his Biograph films, and shows a solid understanding of the cinematic process and the impact of how things are placed on screen. This knowledge and understanding will become most effective when Sennett begins supervising his own comedy productions.

For more information on the Sennett films, Brent Walker’s brilliant study “Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory” is available in affordable softcover.

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