“Teddy at the Throttle” (1917) – Movie Review

Teddy at the Throttle (1917)
Bobby Vernon, Teddy and Gloria Swanson

Teddy at the Throttle became a centenary picture this year and as I question Gloria’s role of the damsel in an upcoming article, I couldn’t help but start my foray into movie reviewing with this Mack Sennett short.

Released in 1917 by Keystone Studios, Teddy at the Throttle [C. G. Badger, 1917] is one of many Mack Sennett comedies in which Gloria Swanson stars opposite Bobby Vernon; another young actor of the silent era famous for his appearances in these kinds of two-reel shorts. Together, Gloria and Bobby made a delightful on-screen couple and they starred in a string of successful films together. While this was just before Gloria’s graduation to the feature-film, Bobby would have no feature length successes, tragically dying in 1939. Starring alongside our two plucky heroes is Wallace Beery who was by then the real-life estranged husband of Miss Swanson. The pair had married less than a year earlier but Gloria had instantly regretted it. Twice her age at the time, Gloria recounts that Beery raped her on their wedding night [Swanson on Swanson, 1980, p. 61] and was controlling of her both personally and financially. Separating herself from him after a brief period of co-habitation and refusing to entertain him in any way, except when doing scenes together, Beery was violent when filming the more physical sequences of Teddy. With that in mind, tying Gloria to the tracks seems a little less funny and a little more tragic.

“Here I was ignoring him [Wallace Beery], pricking his balloon in front of the whole company. I couldn’t help it. I gave him professional courtesy, that was all. His jokes no longer made me laugh. His terrible temper no longer frightened me.” – Swanson on Swanson [1980, p. 75]

Miss Swanson plays Gloria Dawn; a young girl who lives with the fiendish Henry Black; her guardian, played by Wallace Beery. Mr. Black is also the legal caretaker of Bobbie Knight’s fortune with which he has been ‘feathering his own nest’  aided by his sister. They both plot to have Bobbie marry the sister and that way their mis-appropriation of the money would never be discovered. After receiving a letter from the executor of Bobbie’s estate they both learn that if he is to marry someone other than Gloria, she stands to inherit everything. What a plot twist, eh? Inconveniently, Bobbie is now enamoured with the sister! So in an effort to correct their error, Henry tries to convince Gloria that he loves her in the assumption that she is about to become the main benefactor of Bobbie’s inheritance. Too cunning for such a cheap trick, Gloria figures out the reason for this show of affection and tries to warn Bobbie as he bumblingly chases after Black’s sister. Caught in the act and desperate to avoid prison, Henry attempts to do away with Gloria in (you guessed it) a murderous scheme involving a railroad track. Luckily, Gloria Dawn manages to whistle for her trusty canine companion Teddy, who comes running to her rescue all while Mr. Black finds himself trying to escape up a tree. Foiled!

Gloria tied to the tracks

This campy, over-the-top two-reeler bears some expected hallmarks; exaggerated acting, a tired series of plot twists and an overly dramatic love square(?) with no known benefactor at the end of it all. But it’s this intentional buffoonery that makes it a delightfully silly short which is an actual joy to watch. Through the flicker of the erratic frame-rate, the goofy acting, falling over chairs and animated flailing of limbs you half-expect banana cream pies to start flying! Just before Gloria finds herself chained to the tracks there is a terrible storm in which each lead character gets soaking wet, wind swept and covered in copious amounts of mud in a scene that would either have been a delight or a nightmare to film. The iconic imagery of the damsel chained to the railroad tracks is something everybody is familiar with whether it be from Teddy or The Looney Toons; the irony being of course that both of these examples are that of parody. Even by 1917 the images of moustache twirling guardians and damsels chained to the railroad tracks were visual cues deemed fit only for comedy, plucked straight out of mid-1800s Victorian melodrama. Though these motifs have become something of an assumed recurrence when talking about the silents it is a plain mis-recollection that all villains in silent movies were out to steal their young wards fortune by subjecting them to locomotive predicaments. This film employs these tropes for comedic and satirical effect; after all, it’s a comedy! But it’s a vision so thoroughly etched into the collective conscience that people en-mass genuinely believe that Wallace Beery’s guardian character is representative of all silent cinema bad guys; spoiler, they weren’t. Irrespective of this, to the more than casual viewer, it’s an added ironic smirk; but knowing that Wallace Beery was a real life bad guy in the melodrama of his failed marriage to Miss Swanson is an added frown.

In todays context, I found that it induced in me a strange nostalgia reminding one of other old films and TV shows that were themselves nostalgically paying tribute to Teddy. A sort of nostalgia-inception! Teddy is not to be held up as a shining example of silent-era comedy at its finest. Iconic? Yes, but it’s definitely not a film to be subjected to a critical eye in a film studies class and I wouldn’t hesitate to say that it isn’t even the best example of comedy to come out in 1917. Teddy at the Throttle in 2017 stands as an important tile on the mosaic of film history, albeit small, if only for the recurring mark it has imprinted on so many other films that followed, leaving a lasting impression even 100 years later.

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