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Selected Short Subject: “The Speed Kings (1913)

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The ninth film on the new Mack Sennett Collection

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“The Speed Kings”
Directed by Wilfred Lucas.
Cast: Mabel Normand, Ford Sterling, Roscoe Arbuckle, Earl Cooper, Teddy Tetzlaff, Barney Oldfield, Edgar Kennedy, Paul Jacobs, Bert Hunn.
Released October 30, 1913. Running time 9 minutes.

By the Fall of 1913, the Keystone product was established and increasing in popularity. Distributors were asking for more of the comedies that had their audiences laughing and cheering. The Mack Sennett Collection, new on blu ray, allows us to see the continual progression of these comedies.

“The Speed Kings” features Mabel Normand smitten by racecar driver Teddy Tetzlaff (misspelled Tetzlaft in the credits) and her father Ford Sterling championing Earl Cooper. This sets up a conflict between the father and the daughter that is stronger than the rivalry between the two drivers. The film then effectively uses the race as a backdrop for broad Keystone comedy, and while there is not much to the film, it is carried by the performances as it features some of the strongest players at the studio.

Mabel Normand’s commitment to character is always impressive, and she seems quite aware of her natural charisma by this time. Ford Sterling continues to be hilarious with his overstated gestures and understated facial expressions combining to define his screen character. And while Sterling is usually the central force in any comedy, Mabel is this time his clear co-star rather than support. Much of the body of the film concentrates on the two of them watching the race. When Ford cheerfully reacts to his man being ahead, Mabel is crying. When Mabel’s favorite pulls ahead, her tears change to cheers while Ford reacts angrily to the race, and begins admonishing his daughter. These amusing responses are crosscut with the excitement of the race itself.

Director Wilfred Lucas was a longtime stage actor, who later started acting in movies and kept doing so right up until his death in 1940. He is probably best known for his appearance in two Laurel and Hardy features – “Pardon Us” (1931) and “A Chump at Oxford” (1940). It is easy to see that Lucas the director was a protégé of D.W. Griffith at Biograph. His crosscutting between the action and the reactions effectively builds suspense in the same manner Griffith would do in his melodramatic short films. The humor is supplied by the performances, as Lucas is not essentially a comedy director (he would go on to helm dramas and adventure films, including an early Tarzan effort with Elmo Lincoln, the screen’s first Tarzan).

An early appearance by Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle adds to the laughs in this short. When Mabel runs toward the racetrack, Fatty stops her, and the struggle. Ford runs to protect his daughter by jumping on Fatty and biting at his ear. Later in the film, the two get into another comic skirmish, where biting, slapping, tickling, and (literal) butt kicking are all part of the melee. Arbuckle had a discernible charisma of his own, which would already be evident here, and would present itself even more effectively when he began teaming frequently with Mabel Normand in some of the studio's best productions.

For “The Speed Kings,” the art is in its artlessness. What seems basic and primitive is actually quite carefully choreographed and executed. Its wonderful simplicity results in a wildly funny Keystone one-reeler and continued to increase the films’ popularity. Our ability to trace this development is made possible by the wonderful Mack Sennett Collection, new on blu ray.

For more information, consult Brent Walker’s excellent study “Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory” now in available softcover.

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