I’ve been planning a post on The Tin Man for a while, and the For Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon has provided the perfect push to write about this odd comedy short. Every year the blogathon has a theme, and this year’s theme is science fiction.
The Tin Man fits the theme like Frankenstein would. Both movies contain a mad scientist and a being he’s created in his laboratory, and both have elements from the horror genre. Instead of a castle, our film’s heroines find themselves in an dark, creepy house full of frights. There’s no weird sidekick to the scientist, but an escaped criminal fills the spot of added danger. What makes this short so memorable is the failure and abuse of technology is portrayed as the lesser horror than modern dating.
It’s a nice touch that the credits tie into the robot man theme by looking like panels of tin with bolts. When the last panel slides away, we see that Thelma Todd and Patsy Kelly are driving through the fog. They’re dressed up for a party or a date, but they can’t find the house. It turns out Patsy wrote down its address in the dark, so she never noticed the fountain pen she used was out of ink. Patsy only has a blank piece of paper. A radio bulletin warning motorists and pedestrians about an escaped convict keeps them driving until they’re lured to stop at a house by its lights.
The duo don’t know it, but they’re about to enter a house designed to be a trap! When they ring the doorbell, the house’s doors open by themselves as the chimes ring. The women cautiously enter what looks like an uninhabited home. There are sheets of cloth over its furniture. When the camera cuts to a ceramic face on the wall, movie conventions make us guess someone will be staring through the eye holes. He is!
We’ve found our mad scientist. Another cut shows his spying location. He’s in his lab, where he’s laughing in a crazed manner. Actor Clarence Wilson is clearly having fun playing his part. Do not expect subtly in performance or costuming. He’s an older, hunched over, balding, little man. His crown of remaining hair makes two points going upward like horns. He’s surrounded by generic mad scientist lab equipment.
We quickly find out why he’s so delighted to have Patsy and Thelma in his home: “At last! At last, the Gods have been good to me. Not only one, but two, two females have walked into my clutches. (Laughs maniacally.) I’ll make them and all their sex pay for ignoring, slighting, and insulting me! Revenge is sweet!” The rest of the film revolves around his acts of revenge and how they spiral out of control.
He’s invented a surrogate to take his place in interacting with women. On the wall, we spy the first part of it. We see an image of a man. It looks like an idealized version of the scientist. It’s taller, stands straighter, and has limbs that are thicker and look stronger. Like its creator, the man on the wall has a mustache. Surrounding him are lights, wires, knobs, and levers. He is the robot’s control panel.
Before the scientist flips a lever to bring his creation to life, he has another evildoer monologue: “Ah, my robot! My machine man. As your first step you shall lay siege to this beautiful female’s heart. A caveman assault. What sweet revenge will be mine if you succeed in winning this fool’s love. I have seen women fall for worse, and now let them suffer!” The nebbish does not want to become a superman through his creation; he wants to become a super lothario.
I don’t want to spoil too many of the gags that make up the robot seduction scenes, but I have to talk about how he looks and acts. The mad scientist’s idea of a desirable man is tall, suited with an ascot around his neck, with a full head of hair, big, straight teeth in more of a perpetual grimace than a smile, and a booming, deep voice. He’s flat-headed like Frankenstein’s monster and moves in a jerky way reminiscent of that creature.
The robot doesn’t have any artificial intelligence. Our crazed scientist makes him move, act, and speak using those previously mentioned wires, knobs, and levers along with a microphone. The robot’s audio equipment takes whatever the scientist says in his high-pitched voice and transforms it into a much deeper, more traditionally masculine voice.
We get to see how cracked the scientist’s idea of seduction is. While he makes the robot act friendlier and politer to Thelma, obviously the beautiful one referred to earlier, the man pays more attention to Patsy. He makes his robot target her and pull stupid pranks on her again and again. The scientist never learned the dating rules that if you’re interested in a woman, you pay attention to her and not her friends, and you don’t alienate that woman by being mean to her friends.
It’s not delving too deeply into a slapstick short to say this man’s harassment of Patsy reveals his own self-loathing. He picks the less conventionally attractive, less trim, klutzier, and more socially awkward of the friends to humiliate. Perhaps she could have been someone who would have sympathized with his dating troubles. Superficially and personality-wise, Patsy is out of his league, and that may be what irritates him the most.
By the time Patsy finds the man behind the wall, she’s ready to tell off the self-proclaimed “Poppa” to the robot. She wants him to “listen to Momma” and get her revenge on him to “just see how you like it.” When the battle of the sexes heats up, that’s when things in the house get even crazier. Patsy’s attempt to control the robot releases him to act out on his own. You’ll want to see what he does. Here’s a hint. The mad scientist will scream, “Run, run for you lives! My robot is out of control.”
If you’ve enjoyed this post, please consider donating to the blogathon’s charity of choice, The National Film Preservation Foundation! You can use the button below to help the foundation raise funds to restore, score, and stream silent film Cupid in Quarantine (1918). The movie is a quirky, romantic comedy “that tells the story of a young couple conspiring to stay together by staging a smallpox outbreak.” If you’d like to donate, but can’t, please help spread the word about the blogathon. Everyone is welcome to check out its host blogs–Ferdy on Films, This Island Rod, and Wonders in the Dark–where you can find links to other bloggers’ entries and get fundraising updates.