One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on a blockbuster film release:
Who says you can’t make five reels of burlesquey, jazzy comedy and keep your audience amused right through? Mack Sennett is the boy that has done it in Down on the Farm, which kept capacity audiences roaring all day yesterday at the Kinema. Crowds lined the street, testifying to the popularity of Mr. Sennett and his works.
Down on the Farm is a roaring farce; that is, when it isn’t burlesque of melodrama, or plain “hokum,” but who cares a hang about that old hocus-pocus “dramatic form” in Sennett films, anyway? The great point is, you laugh, and you keep right on laughing for a straight hour. The plot, when there is a plot, isn’t new, but the incidental comedy is. The story burlesques the stock yarn of the girl who has to marry the villain to save the family name. It rises to real heights of farce when the girl, to get rid of the villain, pretends to be ruined, naming as seducer “an artist—the man who painted our barn.” The villain exclaims, “Oh, ain’t that romantic!”
There’s a grand mix-up, with everybody thinking everybody else is crazy, and the heroine runs away with the child. Thereupon ensues one of the very funniest chases in all picturedom. You will laugh at it until you weep, even if you think beforehand that you’re tired of comedy picture chases.
Jack Callicott, the managing director of the Kinema, worked hard to bring that roaring audience in. He convinced the local ball team, the Los Angeles Angels, to hold a “Sennett Day” event before their game against the Vernon Tigers on the Saturday before the big opening. But first the Sennett crew had to get to Washington Park, so they had a parade. Exhibitor’s Herald reported it was:
a procession, the like of which never before made its way through this or probably any other city, wound through the downtown streets and made for the ball park. Everything that moves and has its being on farm was in that cavalcade—everything except a mortgage. Aged vehicles in which old Dobbin might have been hitched thirty-five years ago were occupied by Sennett representatives garbed and made up to resemble the Sennett principles. . . Horses of farcical mien and horses of noble deportment, and a huge and mild-eyed cow passed by, bearing a banner announcing the obvious, “This is no bull,” and continuing with the assurance that it was no bull that ‘Mack Sennett’s Five-Part Super-Comedy Down on the Farm opens tomorrow at the Kinema Theater.’
Once they arrived, they put on a fifteen-minute show. Moving Picture World described it:
The Sennetters invaded the ball park and gave a ballyhoo that amounted to something. Teddy [the Great Dane] was there dragging his trainer in a kid’s express wagon, the balky mule was in line, as was the Sennett baby actor and some grown-ups, gotten up in impersonation of the stars. Every old wagon on the Sennett lot was paraded around the park, and some seemingly impromptu stunts were pulled off…The event had been widely advertised as “Sennett Day” and most of the town was out in the bleachers.
After people succumbed to the advertising and went to the theater, Callicott gave them quite a show in addition to the film. Exhibitor’s Herald said that the prolog:
is a gem of humor called “Trials and Tribulations Around a Barnyard.” The hero is a mule with a mind of its own and a disposition not to be moved, though the heavens fall and the earth be dipped in the sun. The scene is an ensemble of everything that is expected in a farmyard and some things not expected. Pigs and cows, goats and dogs, hens and geese, and finally Teddy himself ramble through the mélange in which lively dancing of “hoe-down” type and effective singing add to the effect, and all beautifully illuminated and staged.
Callicott succeeded beyond all expectations. According to Moving Picture World, the film broke Kinema box-office records for every day of the week. Exhibitor’s Herald added that Sunday’s receipts were the largest ever in a single day at the theater and the records were exceeded by four to seven hundred dollars each day. They concluded:
It was a great success, and the credit for the event is due Managing Director Jack Callicott of the Kinema Theatre…Experts on exploitation concede to Mr. Callicott credit for what is probably the most sensational and successful publicity stunt put over in the city where such efforts are events of nearly every week.
Feature-length films with Sennett-style comedy were in their infancy in 1920, but things were about to change. This one was still just a longer version of one of his shorts. Louis Reeves Harrison reviewing it in Moving Picture World wrote that it was “mostly composed of two-reel material. There is a slender thread of story running through the production, but it is not essential.” Nevertheless, he concluded it was “good entertainment.” In his autobiography, Buster Keaton pointed out the difference in shorts and features: “the faster the gags came in most short comedies, the better. In the features, I soon found out that one had to present believable characters in situations the audience accepted.” (p. 173) In a few years he’d put that into practice. Even sooner, Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid premiered nine months later in January 1921, showing how a story and gags could co-exist.
Down on the Farm is not lost, and people still think it’s pretty good. Brent Walker in Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory wrote “it “ranks among the best and funniest of Sennett’s surviving feature films.” If your library has Kanopy (LAPL does), you just need a library card to watch it.
The night after Kinsley saw Sennett’s movie, she got to see a live theater show that she liked even more, the 1919 edition of Hitchy-Koo:
It has smart lines, as well as pretty girls, it romps through two hours and a half of hilarious joy as though they were but minutes.
How hilariously grateful and how appreciative the audience was for this brilliant three or four shows in one, because that’s what Hitchy-Koo is. There’s the funniest burlesque on the old villain-and-mortgage plot ever thought up, done by a picture company. Then there are swift-moving and brilliant dance pageants…There’s a vastly spectacular, hilariously amusing historical scene of Pocahontas and John Smith, with jazz dances by the Indians. The cutey Duncan sisters romp and chirp their way through a couple of songs that fit’em like their curls, and then, for no reason whatever, but with every excuse in the world, the show melts away into a barber shop scene, with George Moore, of happy “you don’t know the half of it dearie” memory, cutting up in his usual supremely more-is fashion. And through it all pops up ever and anon the quite indescribably comical Mr. Hitchcock.
You’ll have to see the show to thoroughly appreciate it. That hungry-to-howl house certainly did.
Opening night was star studded: that howling house included Thomas Meighan, Roscoe Arbuckle, Al St. John, Bryant Washburn, Clara Kimball Young, Lew Cody and Ruth Roland. However, Kingsley didn’t mention the person responsible for the songs that propelled the show and the reason musical fans today wish they could have seen it: writing the words and music for Hitchy-Koo of 1919 was one of Cole Porter’s earliest jobs, and his first hit, “Old-Fashioned Garden,” was part of the show. We can only imagine what the staging for “My Cozy Little Corner in the Ritz” and “I’m an Anesthetic Dancer” was like.
Louis Reeves Harrison, “Down on the Farm,” Moving Picture World, May 8, 1920, p.862.
“Kinema’s Down on the Farm Parade Breaks Theater’s Attendance,” Exhibitor’s Herald, May 22, 1920, p. 55-6.
“Mack Sennett Day at the Ball Park,” Los Angeles Times, April 17, 1920.
Epes Winthrop Sargent, “Advertising and Exploitation,” Moving Picture World, May 15, 1920, p. 945.