Those Awful Hats
Reviewed in July 2009 / Click Here to Comment
Director: D.W. Griffith. Cast: Mack Sennett, Flora Finch, Robert Harron, Arthur V. Johnson, Florence Lawrence, Linda Arvidson, John R. Cumpson, George Gebhardt, Anita Hendrie, Charles Inslee, Gertrude Robinson, Dorothy West. Screenplay: D.W. Griffith.


Photo © 1909 American Mutoscope & Biograph
Judy Garland disciples and Mrs. Miniver fans, take note: as near as I can tell, this three-minute short marks the debut of "hat acting" as a cinematic staple. For decades afterward, millinery would threaten mightily to upstage the women of the screen, but in D.W. Griffith's miniature skit, they threaten to upstage the entire screen. That is, even as a crowd of men sit watching a tedious-looking bit of ham-acting in an early cinema, their pleasures are ruined by the arrival of several women and one flamboyant man (played by slapstick legend Mack Sennett) whose hats are too big for the other audience members to see around. This predicament leads to all sorts of rambunctious fisticuffs between Sennett and the male patrons, and lots of aggrieved embarrassment on the faces of the women; it's unclear whether their hideous headware, which Flo Ziegfeld probably would have adored, is meant to mark them as tacky working-class gals with no clue how to dress up, or tasteless ladies enslaved to hideous fashions and slumming it up obtusely in the movie-houses. The cut-out process shot that incorporates the film-within-the-film looks pretty slapdash by comparison to Edwin S. Porter spectacles from five or six years earlier, but no one's pretending that Those Awful Hats is great art. In fact, it was nothing more than a pre-film advertisement, the great-grandpappy of those contemporary skits asking you to silence your cellphones and shut your damn traps before the feature presentation begins. By those standards, it's a terrific hoot, even before the arrival at the top of the frame of a formidable device for punishing the thoughtless fashion victims. The first reprimand is a kicky surprise; the second one is an even more evil joke. Ephemeral, quite by intention, but very playful, and it certainly makes its point. You can see how this teaser would prime an audience for surprising, exuberant spectacles, even as it admonishes them to be on their best sartorial behavior. B


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