The Grocery Clerk
Written and Directed by Larry Semon
Cast: Larry Semon, Lucille Carlisle, Monty Banks, Frank Alexander, Frank Hayes, Jack Duffy, Bill Hauber, Pete Gordon
Released December 1, 1919. Two Reels.
Larry Semon is one of the more interesting comedians of the silent era. While having little understanding of a linear structure, Semon’s films show him to have a real comprehension in several other areas. His gags are elaborate and clever. His stunt work is breathtaking. His shots and camera placement show an impressive understanding of cinema’s form and function during the medium’s infancy.
In “The Grocery Clerk,” Semon plays the title character, smitten with the postal girl, rivaled by the town dandy, bossed by a heavy set employer, and fraught with annoying customers. These are rudiments for a series of isolated gags, and an eventual situation that leads to a chase climax. It is all very basic, with glimmers of real cleverness and insights strewn throughout.
Semon, who also wrote and directed the film, opens “The Grocery Clerk” with an establishing shot of the store. It is a big, multi-level structure and Semon presents it as an imposing backdrop against the smaller people milling about in the foreground. The film then cuts to Semon himself, a tracking shot of his car moving toward the camera down a dirt road. He is sitting in the back seat and steering with his feet. So, first we are given the film’s setting, then the central character, with all of his weirdness on display. He picks up several girls who work at the store, including Lucille with whom he is smitten. He and Lucille sit up from while the others crowd the back, framing the background of the shot. Semon, the director, then cuts back to a medium shot as the car goes over a hole in the dirt road and everyone flies out onto the ground. It is sudden, abrupt, and amusing.
This, then, becomes the structure of the entire two-reel film. A given situation results in a slapstick conclusion that is very sudden, big, physical, and jarring.
Most of the action takes place in the store. Larry holds a dirty pipe too close to a fan, and gets dark black soot blown all over some customers and his boss. The pipe dips into the flour, gets too close to the fan again, and now a white substance covers the same people. He cuts slices of cheese for another customer, and the cheese starts moving along the counter. A close-up reveals several mice peeking out of holes in the cheese. Larry sells flypaper to a customer, and sets one of the pieces right where a sleeping old man has been snitching accessible crackers. Throughout all of these silly shenanigans, the heavy set Frank Alexander, as the boss, weaves in an out of each scene, flailing his arms and yelling, as if his appearance next to the skinny Larry caused enough visual contrast to make him amusing.
Monty Banks, as the dandy, with an accomplice, attempts to rob postal girl Lucille. She fights off both men, with wild punches and jumps from tables. The men get away and Larry pursues them. This results in the obligatory chase scene that concludes most of Semon’s films, complete with breathtaking stunt work that shows the comedian/filmmaker to be as courageous he is clever.
This is all perhaps more historically interesting than aesthetically rewarding. What sets Larry Semon apart from the forgettable number of silent comedy practitioners is his consistent style, his frequent cleverness, and his dauntless courage. His over-the-top choices to pelt people with barrels of matter, to climb dizzying heights and jump off in full camera view, and the speeding vehicles and dangerous pratfalls all help to increase his significance. There is a real art to Larry Semon’s vision, for all of its free-form haphazardness. “The Grocery Clerk” may not have a classic linear structure, but each gag is carefully placed in the frame, the camera sometimes shooting from a low angle, sometimes from high, editing from medium shots to closeups. The editing choices offer a distinct sense of rhythm. The Larry character’s perseverance and eventual triumph is very gratifying.
Larry Semon is one of the most fascinating comedians of the silent screen era. His films continue to hold up for their clever gags, amazing stunts, and fast pace. Despite his limitations, it is not difficult to understand the popularity he enjoyed in his time.