The Sawmill (Vitagraph, 1922)
I certainly wouldn’t describe Larry Semon as one of my favorite comedians, but all the same, The Sawmill (1922) isn’t a half bad short slapstick comedy.
The setting is a forest and sawmill in the Pacific Northwest. The characters are the owner (Frank Alexander) and his daughter (Ann Hastings), the boss (Al Thompson) and his daughter (Kathleen O’Connor), the foreman (Oliver Hardy), and the “dumbbell” (Larry Semon). There’s very little plot, but the film can be roughly divided into four segments:
- The owner arrives at the mill and the foreman starts pressing his men to work harder to impress him. The foreman is sweet on the boss’s daughter, but she’s rather taken by Larry. This does not put the two men on good terms. Commence the first chase sequence, the foreman going after Larry.
- Larry, fed up with nearly being killed several times over, launches a counterattack on the foreman’s gang. Commence the second chase sequence, Larry after the foreman’s henchman. The owner becomes collateral damage, being soaked at various times in sawdust, soup, and paint.
- The owner blames the foreman for losing control of the mill, and consequently, fires him. The boss’s daughter has disappeared from the picture at this point, so Larry’s attentions have been redirected to the owner’s daughter. The owner does not care for these developments. Commence the third chase, the owner after Larry.
- The foreman returns with a gang of disgruntled employees. They take the owner hostage. Larry and the owner’s daughter escape. Commence the fourth chase, the foreman’s gang after Larry.
Semon films were never much for characterization and The Sawmill is not an exception. “The boss”, “the owner”, and “the foreman” are only distinguished by the title cards that introduce them, and as for Semon’s character, he doesn’t have one. Really, there’s not anything to even suggest that he works at the sawmill. He just plays a clown, pure and simple.
When sitting down to a Semon film, you can be pretty certain of what you’re going to see. The Sawmill covers all the familiar ground: tumbling, forward rolls, swinging from ropes, jumping off towers, and paint dumped on heads. It notably lacks any racial humor (there is a bit of yellowface, but the character is never involved in any of the gags).
Semon was big in the early days, but quickly vanished as the market for shorts dried up. He never made a successful transition to feature-length films. His features are mostly just shorts padded out with two or three unnecessary reels – although The Perfect Clown (1925) isn’t too bad, I don’t think. Most, including myself, would say his peak was the “The [Blank]” series – The Show, The Bakery, The Sawmill, etc. – made in the first couple years of the 1920s at Vitagraph. His earlier films from the late 1910s, the “[Blanks] and [Blanks]” series” – Dunces and Dangers, Frauds and Frenzies, Tough Luck and Tin Lizzies, etc. – are considerably rougher and even less plot driven.
The Sawmill is notable for being the most expensive two-reel silent comedy ever produced. The scene where the owner’s house explodes and Larry is catapulted into the sky inside a safe, only to land several miles away without a scratch on him, is remarkably similar to the much maligned refrigerator scene in Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull (2008). Remarkably similar.
I hadn’t seen The Sawmill in two or three years and I found that it was better than I remembered it being. This time, what I was watching was a video assembled from three prints, one an original Kodascope in very nice condition, and it’s around three-four minutes longer than any other version of the film I’ve seen. Maybe the additional footage is an improvement, or maybe it’s the more detailed and less tightly cropped picture. In any case…
My rating: I like it.
Available from Harpodeon