Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Old Barn (Mack Sennett Productions/Educational Pictures, 1929)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran The Old Barn, a 1929 Mack Sennett short that was certainly one of his first sound films and may have been the first. I’d downloaded this off and used it to fill out the disc on which I’d burned the 1933 film Corruption, and it proved to be a mildly amusing but not especially inspired comedy, directed by Sennett himself from a script by the usual committee — Hampton Del Ruth, Alfred M. Loewenthal, Andrew Rice, Earle Rodney and “story supervisor” John A. Waldron. (It was Sennett who pioneered the system — still used for TV sitcoms today — of having the writers sit around a table and bounce potential gags off each other, eventually evolving a script between them by using each other’s laughter, or lack of same, to determine what an audience is likely to find funny.)

By this time Sennett was already on the downgrade, having lost his distribution contract with Paramount and signed with Educational Pictures (the studio formed by his one-time comedy producer rival, Al Christie, which did not in fact make educational pictures) — though within a few years he’d make a mini-comeback, regaining his berth at Paramount and launching Bing Crosby’s movie career and W. C. Fields’ talkie comeback (and also giving Paramount the inside track on signing Crosby and Fields for features). The Old Barn is an interesting little movie, surprisingly naturalistic for a 1929 talkie (as Charles noted, the actors actually spoke normally and without the long … pauses … between … words characteristic of a lot of early sound features) but also not especially funny. It starts out at a country hotel and ends up in (not surprisingly) an old barn, where the various characters are alternately trying to capture and trying to hide from an escaped convict. It’s an O.K. movie but the funniest gag has nothing to do with the plot; it’s the opening logo, in which Sennett parodied the MGM lion by having a dog emerge from an archway and bark to herald the film.