Directed by Mal St. Clair
Cast: Charlie Murray, Ford Sterling Harriet Hammond, James Finlayson, Baldy Belmont, and Fanny Kelly
Released September 5, 1920. Running Time: 21:27
As cinema entered the 1920s, comedy was becoming a bit less knockabout and a bit more situational, even at the Sennett studios. As the Mack Sennett Collection on blu ray demonstrates with its selection of films, there is a discernible evolution of comedy as well as in the filmmaking process.
Along with satirizing the hamminess of melodrama and the seriousness of unsmiling authority figures, the Sennett productions also attacked pretention. “Don’t Weaken” features Ford Sterling and James Finlayson as dancers who think a great deal of themselves and their abilities. They are rivals, they have a dance off, and Ford’s exuberance causes him to sail out a second floor window and splatter into a vat of whitewash on the street. This scene is a good example of how the largely situational comedy is punctuated by the broad slapstick that had become Sennett’s trademark.
Ford gives a bit too much attention to Charlie Murray’s wife and daughter (he spirits the daughter away from Finlayson’s dancing school and offers her private lessons). So Charlie challenges Ford to a boxing match.
The structural context of the film builds nicely and evenly, and while the situations are played, the performances are varied. James Finlayson is notable for chewing the scenery, even in films 20 years after this, while Ford Sterling established himself several years earlier with the bulging eyes and florid gestures. In this film, both actors incorporate elements of their more blatant methods but just enough to fit into this subtler context. Sterling is especially amusing as he glides and cavorts across the dance floor, and employs similar gestures in his attempt to box opponent Murray.
Sterling makes the most of every appearance. He will have his back to the camera and turn toward it with a special grimace on his face. He’ll break into a few steps of dance as he meets someone for the first time. His pretentions are enormous, and his way of playing them hilarious. Even in the boxing ring, just prior to his fight with Charlie, Ford sits loftily in his corner, fully confident, and saying to the daughter “oh I won’t hurt your father.” It is his dancing away from Charlie’s wild swings that keep him on his feet. Before returning to his corner between rounds, Ford takes a bow. Things extend to slapstick when butt kicking and stepping on toes become part of the bout. Ford is so in control with his graceful dance moves, he actually smokes a cigarette between rounds. Charlie finally emerges victorious by knocking out Ford while the pretty legs of Charlie’s daughter who is seated at ringside distract him.
“Don’t Weaken” is yet another one of the funniest comedies on the Mack Sennett Collection.
For more on Sennett, check out this book. For more on Ford Sterling, read this one.