I laughed uproariously throughout this 1914 Vitagraph comedy, which deftly parodies the excesses of earlier film (and stage) melodramas. In the present day, there's an unfair perception that silent-film acting was exaggerated and lacking any subtlety. In fact, only a small minority of (mostly lesser) silent films are guilty of that charge. 'Goodness Gracious' features intentionally exaggerated acting and broadly improbable plot twists, clearly establishing that overripe acting and plot coincidences were already recognised as clichés as early as 1914.
Clara Kimball Young, batting her eyelashes even faster than Bernadette Peters, plays Gwendoline, an innocent(?) heroine who seeks a livelihood in the big city. She's briefly employed in a 'bucket shop' (a crooked brokerage house) and arouses the attention of a moustache-twirling top-hatted villain (played by her real-life husband James Young). After temporarily escaping his clutches, she finds gainful employment in the firm of a dry-goods millionaire (James Lackaye). The millionaire's youthful son Cornelius (played by Sidney Drew, well into middle age) falls in love with her ... but his father disapproves of their marriage, and he cuts off Cornelius with only a shilling (24 cents, it says here in the titles). The villain arrives, murders Gwendoline's employer (just temporarily, mind you) and frames Cornelius for the crime. Will true love triumph?
The film's plot is (intentionally) ridiculous, including a two-year jump in the action at one point. What makes this movie hilarious is the deft overplaying of all concerned, plus some incredibly broad sight gags. When Gwendoline strolls through the 'park', we see her standing in front of an obvious painted backdrop on an indoor stage. One of the trees is following her: the villain has got his own portable tree! This may be the cinema's earliest example of the gag (later used by Chaplin in 'Shoulder Arms') in which someone disguises himself as vegetation. This film also features one of the earliest movie appearances of Sherlock Holmes; here, he's the detective commanding a squadron of sub-Keystone Cops.
Despite that one phony outdoor set, there are in fact some very interesting shots of rural Brooklyn here, including Sheepshead Bay. The movie climaxes with a spirited chase through a tenement, with most of the cast clambering in and out of a dumbwaiter shaft. (Anybody here remember dumbwaiter shafts? Modern audiences will wonder what that thing is.) There's a gag involving a Chinese laundryman that avoids the usual ethnic stereotypes. My only complaint about 'Goodness Gracious' is that the film places a lot of emphasis on undercranking, to speed up the action. I've never understood why an action that isn't funny in itself is supposed to become funny just by speeding up. Fortunately, the acting, the scriptwriting, and the gag titles in 'Goodness Gracious' are extremely funny, and I'll rate this delightful comedy 9 out of 10.
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