Most of Larry Semon’s films, with the extremely notable exception of 1925’s The Wizard of Oz, have a these-and-those-other-things structure to them: Bombs and Blunders, Babes and Boobs, Big Bluffs and Bowling Balls (and these are just half the ones starting with ‘B’), etc. Eisenstein theory of collision montage comes to mind:
“By what, then, is montage characterized and, consequently its cell – the shot? By collision. By conflict of two pieces in opposition to each other. By conflict. By collision” (from “The Cinematographic Principle and the Ideogram” (1929) in Film Form, pg 37).
Memorably, however, such strict alliterated title structures rarely delineate any actual conflicts, characters or other signifiers in Semon’s short, two-reel films. In fact the title usually doesn’t mean anything except as a kind-of truncated haiku. But at their best, they detail ideas far far away from the story on the screen and come off as surreal tone poems, full of color and cultural irreverence. The best of these are Plans and Pajamas (anxious dreaming, perhaps), Rummies and Razors (a poetically fateful pairing, visually as much as anything), and Huns and Hyphens (as in: the long lost civilization of Hyphens).
Along with no mention of either Huns or hyphens (but featuring a young Stan Laurel), Semon’s 1918 film Huns and Hyphens contains one of the strangest most thrilling and complexly unpredictable chase sequences in all of cinema:
In the first instance, whom is chasing whom doesn’t seem to matter. Halfway in, Larry’s character (in overalls) preys on the antagonist wearing the apron. In the second place, spacial characteristics such as mass, weight, height – even geography! – are powerless to effect the outcome of this comedy. Not only do pillars and walls cave in like cheese and crackers, but notice, too, how the city scene becomes a rural scene in a span of two seconds, and then back just as fast.
And then, the insane idea: human flight with your nemesis on an unguided umbrella. The complexity of this moment is that for Semon the filmmaker, the scene is a slapstick artist’s F.U. to the world encumbered by rules and disappointments. True flight, by which is meant the dream of human flight, by which is meant fake-flight, is the ultimate anti-Realist fantasy, and here it is the cathartic moment of the film. But, the characters are scared witless like they haven’t been throughout the chase. So, amidst this fantastic moment is revealed a very realistic human vulnerability: fear of death. Here we can sense Semon’s love of the ‘and’ conjunction, combining unrelated, even opposing ideas together with a simple grammatical function.
On a historical note, this high-hanging display of acrobatics atop a building predates both of Harold Lloyd’s sweaty-palms films: Never Weaken (1921) and Safety Last (1923), as well as Buster Keaton’s aerial, The Balloonatic (1923). All three are heavily influenced by this early feat of absurdity, and predates Eisenstein’s essay “The Cinematographic Principle and the Ideogram” by 11 years.