Ben Turpin is one of the iconic figures of silent comedy, immediately recognizable by his crossed eyes and brush mustache. He had one of the longest careers of any of the silent clowns, dating back to 1907, and lasting until his death in 1940 (his final appearance was in Laurel and Hardy’s “Saps at Sea”, in which he played the cross-eyed plumber who can’t understand why all of the faucets in Oliver Hardy’s apartment are performing the opposite functions!) Turpin’s star really began to rise after he was paired with Charlie Chaplin in the first two comedies Chaplin made for the Essanay company in 1915. Turpin worked most memorably for Mack Sennett’s studio, where he appeared in a series of parodies of popular dramatic films of the day.
Turpin’s career began at the Essanay studio in Chicago. He worked as a janitor at the studio as well as performing in comedies. One of his earliest efforts is “Mr. Flip”, from 1909, in which he plays an obnoxious man who pesters every woman he comes in contact with. It’s a crude comedy, to be sure, but also possesses a certain charm in its simplicity and good-natured gagging.
The film opens with Turpin, appearing quite dapper with a boutonniere and straw hat, as he enters a shop. He immediately begins flirting with the female clerk, and she resists his effort until a moving man comes by with a dolly cart which he uses to carry Turpin out of the scene. Next, he enters a manicurist’s shop, and after flirting with one of the manicurists, the other puts a pair of scissors up through the bottom of his chair, which he sits down on, causing him to jump up in pain and flee the scene. There is an interesting moment of a close-up insert shot when we see the second manicurist inserting the sharp end of the scissors up through the bottom of the chair. Turpin goes on to flirt with a telephone operator, hair dresser, waitress, and finally a bakery clerk, who throws a pie into Turpin’s face!
“Mr. Flip” is an interesting, early screen comedy, predating the Keystone comedies as well as those of Chaplin. The closing “pie-in-the-face” gag is the earliest one I have yet identified in watching many of the early comedies. What is perhaps most interesting about the film, at least from a formal standpoint, is that it is shot in wide proscenium-style shots that capture the entire scene, which was certainly the prevailing style at the time. It’s worth comparing this with the editing of the Keystone comedies, which increased the pace of the shots greatly. Turpin’s style of comedy, crude and largely physical, would be quite influential in the comedy styles that would emerge in the coming decade.
Although Turpin never quite achieved the status of such leading clowns as Chaplin, Keaton or Lloyd, he remains an important figure in screen comedy, particularly for his work in the early years of the medium.