The cooperation of the United States Navy created a curious and expensive Keystone comedy about the schemes of a hotel waiter with ambitions to rule the seas as a pirate armed with an experimental submarine. Syd Chaplin’s last picture for the studio.
Home Media Availability: Released on Bluray and via streaming.
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Trends come and trends go in cinema but there has been one constant throughout the history of cinema: militaries offering expensive equipment and cooperation in exchange for a chance to use the movies as recruitment tools. Many of the biggest Hollywood blockbusters of recent years have followed this formula and producer Mack Sennett, never one to pass up cheap comedy backdrops, took the deal in 1915.
A Submarine Pirate starred Syd Chaplin, Charlie’s older brother. Charlie Chaplin had made his start at Keystone but quickly left for greener, more profitable pastures. Syd never achieved the screen popularity that his brother enjoyed but he did score a hit with this nautical comedy.
A nefarious inventor (Glen Cavender) and his accomplice (Wesley Ruggles) scheme to use a cutting edge submarine to commit piracy on the high seas against a cruise ship filled with wealthy passengers. Unfortunately for them, they choose to discuss these plans at the hotel employing a waiter with ambitions of his own (Sydney Chaplin).
After brawling with guests and flirting with a “peach,” Syd returns to his duties (with the kitchen staff including an unknown Harold Lloyd) and chances to overhear the inventor and his accomplice scheme. Syd decides to commit a little land piracy of his own and steals the orders for the submarine captain, as well as the key to the diving system, commandeering the vessel and heading out to rob the cruise ship.
Unfortunately for Syd, the cruise ship captain has managed to call for help and the United States Navy is ready to save the day…
One of the most obvious features of The Submarine Pirate is its major jump in production values between the hotel antics and the maritime scenes. With full access to the personnel and vessels of the American navy, it’s like jumping from a low budget sitcom episode to a pricey theatrical blockbuster. In fact, the effect is quite jarring but there’s no denying that the second part of the film is far superior to the first.
The setting of A Submarine Pirate is often linked to the May 7, 1915 sinking of the Lusitania (the picture was released in November of the same year). However, it is worth remembering that Germany’s U-boats had been a threat since the dawn of the First World War and the German use of targeted attacks on the British, retaliation for the British blockade of German ports, had been aimed at military vessels since late 1914 and had been unrestricted since February of the following year. Both nations worked with the goal of starving one another into submission. Ain’t war glorious?
“Unrestricted” submarine warfare meant that military ships were no longer the only target. Merchant ships would be attacked without warning and, indeed, the German U-boats sank 30% of the world’s merchant ships during WWI. Obviously, as an Englishman who had been a one-time trainee sailor and assistant steward, this topic would have been personal to Sydney Chaplin.
That said, there isn’t really much about the picture’s success that seems to be due to Chaplin’s comedy prowess. His bellboy and waiter antics are delivered well but are pretty typical for a Keystone comedy of the period. What really sets this film apart is the use of real naval equipment.
One of Sennett’s signatures—and actually one of my favorite things about his films—was to hijack any event he could think of as a setting for one of his comedies. Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp character debuted before soapbox racecars in The Kid Auto Races at Venice. Mabel Normand and Roscoe Arbuckle were sent all over California, including the San Diego Exposition, to find events to play against. Normand was famously stranded in a local drained lake in A Muddy Romance.
Josephus Daniels was secretary of the U.S. Navy at the time and personally viewed and approved A Submarine Pirate. (Daniels made it his mission to banish sex and alcohol from the Navy—insert joke about what to do with a drunken sailor here, as well as any funny business about knowing what sailors are like— and was, unsurprisingly as a member of the Woodrow Wilson administration cabinet a virulent racist.) Motography reported that Daniels felt the film would aid naval recruitment enormously “so vividly does it present the romance and the mechanical marvels of the new navigation.” The picture was immediately put into service as a recruitment tool, a move that its producers claim delayed its wide release as the government had dibs.
And, obviously, there was propaganda value in showcasing that American gun boats were more than up to the task of sinking any submarine, no matter how advanced. At the time, President Wilson was preparing to run for reelection and staying out of the war in Europe was a centerpiece of his campaign strategy. His slogan, “He Kept Us Out of the War” would hardly have gone well with a government-sanctioned film portraying Americans fighting Germans. A fanciful, semi-science fiction plot with a mad scientist’s sub hijacked by a wacky waiter, though? Who could possibly object?
Thus, Secretary Daniels got it both ways: a film that showcased American naval might against an advanced U-boat without actually advocating going to war with Germany. This may have also been a factor in choosing Sennett over other, more serious filmmakers who would have likely jumped at the chance to use real bang-bangs in their movies.
A Submarine Pirate looks great, there’s no denying that, and it is an interesting picture if you look at the context of the complicated and dangerous time it was made. However, the gags are exactly what you would expect from a Keystone film of this period: lots of hitting and kicking and lots of derriere gags. I am not extremely amused by slapstick but if you like this kind of thing, this is the kind of thing you like. Otherwise, see it for the historical interest because it really is fascinating to see how little the romance between Hollywood and the military has changed in over a century.
Where can I see it?
Available on Flicker Alley’s Mack Sennett Bluray and also available via streaming.
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