On this date in 1916, The Santa Ana Register ran an advertisement for Clune’s Theatre’s Tuesday night bill which included a live fashion show featuring gowns worn by Santa Ana young ladies and dancing by beautiful ladies. The main attraction was “Diana of the Follies,” a fashion-themed film starring Lillian Gish as a gold digger.
If you’re wondering to yourself what all this has to do with Seal Beach, take a look at the ad copy for “Vampire Ambrose,” a “Keystone Comedy taken at Seal Beach and Anaheim Landing.
The sad news is that “Vampire Ambrose” is a lost film, so we’re left only to wonder what 1916 Seal Beach and Anaheim Landing locations served as a background for all the inevitable Keystone Comedy cavorting and pratfalls. Was Main Street featured in the action? Did Pacific Electric red cars pass through a shot? Was Anaheim Landing used primarily as a beach location or did the film use the bungalows, boardwalk, and other buildings. Keystone Comedy’s production crews and actors loved beachside amusement park settings in their films, so it seems unlikely that “Vampire Ambrose” avoided the roller coaster, the Joy Zone attractions, and the pier while filming. Unless some reels of “Vampire Ambrose” show up in an obscure film archive somewhere (highly unlikely since the Library of Congress estimates that 75% of all silent films are lost forever), we’ll never know for certain.
What we do know is a few details about the film and more about the film’s star, Mack Swain (1876-1935). Swain was a successful vaudeville actor before becoming a featured player at Mack Sennett’s Keystone Films. Tall and heavyset, Swain made the perfect antagonist or foil when cast against a young, plucky, and diminutive stage comedian who also started his film career at Keystone. The two would continue to work together after they moved on from Keystone, and if Swain is remembered at all today it is for his appearance in one of the most famous sequences in silent film comedy made by that same young, plucky, and diminutive comedian.
Yes, Mack Swain played The Tramp’s mining partner, Big Jim McKay, in “The Gold Rush,” where they shared a memorable Thanksgiving dinner of boiled shoe leather.
Swain’s career and range as a film actor went beyond his work with Charlie Chaplin. He appeared in the original silent version of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” a Rudolph Valentino thriller, “The Eagle,” and John Barrymore’s swashbuckler, “The Beloved Rogue,” among many other films well into the mid-thirties talkies era. Not too shabby a career for someone who started out in film as a Keystone Cop.
At Keystone, Swain headlined his own series of films, sometimes, but not always, teamed with another Keystone comic, Chester Conklin, nicknamed “The Walrus.” Swain’s screen character Ambrose was usually an oafish henpecked husband type with a wandering eye and an appreciation for young beauties. The Ambrose character proved so popular that Swain took it with him when he left Keystone.
Chester Conklin, Gloria Swanson, and Mack Swan
“Vampire Ambrose” was not a comedy about a supernatural bloodsucker like Dracula, but instead was a lampoon of what was known in the teens as “vampire pictures.” These films starred actresses like Theda Bara and Louise Glaum as seductresses with such overwhelming powerful sexual appeal that they drove men crazy with self-destructive desire. Today we called actresses who can play these roles “screen vamps,” but when “Vampire Ambrose,” they were just known as “vampires.”
“Vampire Ambrose,” inverted the formula by making a man the “vampire” being pursued by women yearning for his embraces and abandoning dignity for desire when caught in his intense gaze. The comedy of this is made all the more ridiculous by 300-pound Mack Swain playing the male “vampire.”
“Vampire Ambrose” stayed in release for a whopping five years, usually filling out the bill with more serious and arty feature length films. The ad descriptions of “Vampire Ambrose’ are stilted hyperbolic delights to read. “It’s a comedy, a corking one too with 300 laughs to 30 minutes of film this picture is sure to delight you. Not for a moment are you allowed to be serious. Sometimes the merriment is so fast you can hardly keep up with it. But if you really want to enjoy yourself don’t miss this picture.” “A burlesque on the many so called vampire pictures, a regular scream from beginning to end. A comedy with a punch in every foot of film.” “The rollicking Keystone farce, “Vampire Ambrose” — he lures you into the realms of laughter — and holds you in a merry mood for full 30 minutes.”
Damn. Now I really want to see “Vampire Ambrose.” Check those unmarked film cans, movie archivists!
While we’re waiting for the “Vampire Ambrose” to be rediscovered, you can still visited Clune’s Theatre in Santa Ana. It’s now known as the Yost Theater and you can find out more about it here.
As an added bonus, here’s a chance to see Mack Swain not getting laughs by bullying Charlie Chaplin, but by showing off his comedic charms as a vain, attention seeking movie star in, um, “A Movie Star.” Enjoy!
– Michael Dobkins