Hell hath no fury like Ford Sterling scorned and he comes up with a doozy of a revenge plot in this Keystone classic. This anarchic bit of fun is one of the wackiest films from a famously wacky studio and it also manages to make movie history with its (reportedly) clever use of a scheduled lake draining to create its messy climax.
They say I’m too violent? I’ll kill them!
In the freewheeling, pre-feature 1910s, the roughest and wildest comedy studio was Mack Sennett’s Keystone. All comedians—male and female—were expected to engage in pratfalls, hurl bricks and get a pie or two in the face.
Oh, by the way, singular pie. Pie fights were comparatively rare in silent film despite what you might have heard. (Believe it or not, they could be dangerous.)
In 1913, Keystone was still top of the anarchic heap. The famous Keystone Cops had been introduced the year before to great success. The critics sniffed at the “vulgar” comedy but who needed the critics? The public couldn’t get enough and they were the ones buying the tickets.
Mack Sennett’s greatest asset as a producer was his inventive thriftiness. A Muddy Romance is often cited as an example of his quick-thinking cheapness paying off.
The story goes that when he heard that nearby Echo Lake was being drained, Sennett raced out with Mabel Normand and the Cops to improvise some madness in the mud. Thanks to this improvisation, Sennett managed to snag some top grade production values for free.
That thriftiness would eventually become Sennett’s downfall as he allowed major talents to slip through his fingers. He always felt that there were plenty more fish in the sea. True enough but how often does a Charlie Chaplin come along?
Keystone’s top comedian pre-Chaplin and the villain of A Muddy Romance, Ford Sterling is in the curious position of being simultaneously famous and obscure. What do I mean? Well, how often have we seen this picture used to symbolize silent film?
Yep, Ford Sterling is often the man we think of when silent movie villainy is mentioned. Of course, what some people don’t seem to realize is that Sterling was considered an absolute riot at the time and no silent film audience would ever think of taking him seriously.
(Oh and that “tied to the train tracks” thing that Sterling and Co. were spoofing in the photo? It was a hoary cliché of the Victorian stage but there are some people who still think it was common in silent film. I debunk that here. And here. And here’s a video. And a chart. Seriously, can we stop believing this nonsense?)
Still, one thing is correct. Ford Sterling was one of the funniest bad guys of the silent screen and A Muddy Romance showcases him to perfection.
The story, if you can call it that, opens with Sterling courting Mabel Normand. She returns his affections and all is well. However, a very determined Charles Inslee shows up. Their rivalry culminates with Inslee dousing Sterling in milk and Sterling accidentally planting a pie in Normand’s face. Romance ended? You better believe it!
Inslee and Normand decide to elope. They grab a minister and race off with Sterling in hot pursuit. The love birds and the minister row into the middle of a lake, which gives Sterling a plan. There’s a giant crank labeled “do not touch” beside the lake. Suppose he were to, mwahahaha, drain the lake!
Of course, the water cops are on the case and after pretending that he was just interesting in playing with leaves, Sterling confesses to his nefarious deed. Some prints end with Mabel Normand and the Cops being rescued from the mud while others include a scene in which Sterling escapes by faking suicide.
Sterling’s over-the-top performances (done, apparently, in an outrageous Dutch accent) were beloved in his day but his reputation has not aged well. Chaplin pooh-poohed him in his autobiography (who didn’t Chaplin pooh-pooh?) and the idea that Sterling was lesser talent who got by with mugging for the camera has taken hold in some circles.
I’m not going to deny that Ford Sterling mugs. He does. But oh my goodness, is he ever good at it. We can sit around dissecting the theory of comedy (well, you can, I’m going to take a nap) but the final verdict is in the audience reaction. All I can say is that Ford Sterling in general and A Muddy Romance in particular make me laugh until my sides ache.
Sterling was capable of subtlety and enjoyed success in supporting character parts after his stint at Keystone but he was at his best when he was allowed to be as broad as the great outdoors. Sterling is best described as a living cartoon, his stylized movements designed to be as wacky as possible.
Check out the variety of poses and expressions used in A Muddy Romance:
Part of what makes A Muddy Romance so successful is that Sterling’s villainy escalates in a mad but believable manner. You see, comedies can be as outrageous as they like so long as they stay true to the internal logic established for the film. A Muddy Romance starts with a jug of milk being tossed into Ford Sterling’s face and concludes with him draining an entire lake with a few turns of a crank. Outrageous? Yes, but it works.
You see, the gags build on one another and create a pyramid of anarchy. The splash of milk leads to a pie in the face, the pie leads to brick throwing, the bricks lead to Sterling brandishing a pistol, the pistol leads to someone calling the Keystone Cops, the Cops lead to Sterling draining the lake.
It’s not really a plot in the accepted sense of the word but there is constant momentum and it’s all held together by Sterling’s outsized sense of vengeance. Basically, the motto of his Keystone career could be “as one does.” His girlfriend ran off with another man and so he drained the lake. As one does. His love loves another so he tried to run her down with a train. As one does. (By the way, Sterling and Mabel Normand subverted their usual damsel-villain trope in the meta showbiz short, Mabel’s Dramatic Career.)
The broad slapstick comedy would eventually give way to something a bit more subtle but it has always had affectionate fans. I am not a particular devotee of slapstick or even the Sennett style but there is something about Ford Sterling’s brand of wickedness that appeals to me. If you wanted evil and you wanted funny, then you wanted Ford.
A Muddy Romance remains a charming reminder of the by-the-seat-of-their-pants filmmaking of the Nickelodeon era and it’s a fabulous introduction to the mad talents of Ford Sterling. Highly recommended.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★★
Where can I see it?
A Muddy Romance was released as part of the Slapstick Encyclopedia. ReelclassicDVD released it as part of A Festival of Silent Comedy Volume Three. I have not seen this version but have generally been very happy with their releases. There are also assorted public domain prints floating around. Generally speaking, you’re best off if you stick with recognized brands.