The earliest extant film by Chicago’s Essanay Studios following the company’s debut short An Awful Skate from 1907 (a print of which can still be viewed at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York) is probably their 1909 production of Mr. Flip. Directed by Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson, Mr. Flip is an important and influential slapstick comedy (it is the earliest such film included in Kino Video’s 2002 Slapstick Encyclopedia DVD box set) and also a good showcase for the comedic acting chops of Ben Turpin. Turpin, who had come a long way as a performer since his film debut in An Awful Skate (which merely saw him crashing into other people on roller skates), plays the title character as a lascivious cad who repeatedly pops up in various establishments to sexually harass the female employees. In each instance, the women turn the tables on “Mr. Flip” by inflicting physical pain on and/or humiliating him, causing him to flee.
The film is similar to An Awful Skate in that almost every scene features a gag that plays out in a single unedited shot before cutting to a new location and also a new shot. The difference is that in Mr. Flip each location features an elaborate, impressively designed set; Mr. Flip is shown attempting to caress or kiss the cheeks of various women (a female bartender, a seamstress, a telephone operator, a barber, etc.) in each of their places of work. In succession, he finds himself unceremoniously escorted out of the bar by a bouncer with a dolly cart, stabbed in the rear with a pair of scissors, smothered with shaving cream, sprayed with seltzer water, etc. Aside from the intriguing way the plot opens itself to a feminist reading, the film is probably most noteworthy today for its final scene, where a woman working behind the counter of a diner responds to Mr. Flip’s advances by smashing a pie in his face. This is believed to be the first time the famous “pie in the face” gag was depicted in a film comedy.
In 1909, the language of cinema had not yet evolved to the point where directors were routinely cutting to close-ups of actors’ faces during the emotional high points of a scene. D.W. Griffith’s innovative use of extensive close-ups in The Lonedale Operator was still two years away. The one close-up in Mr. Flip is an insert shot of a woman sticking a tiny pair of scissors through the bottom of a wicker chair, a detail that would have gone unnoticed in the wider shots that otherwise characterize the movie. Still, in spite of the dearth of close-ups, which make it impossible to clearly see Ben Turpin’s famously crossed eyes, the comedian’s performance nonetheless manages to be effective. Though the film is lighthearted, Mr. Flip’s nervous, jittery energy and his inability to keep his hands off of the female characters make him truly annoying and thus fully deserving of the comeuppance he receives at the end of every scene. It is also worth noting that Mr. Flip’s costume contains elements that would become part of the iconic looks of future screen comedians; his thick, obviously fake mustache predates Groucho Marx’s famous greasepaint mustache by many years (though both mustaches can be said to have a common root in vaudeville), and his flat-top straw hat is uncannily similar to the one that would become forever identified with Buster Keaton beginning in the 1920s.
Mr. Flip can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube: