Cohen Saves the Flag (1913)

It is highly unusual to watch one movie while searching for evidence of another, but that is the main reason why most people today would bother to subject themselves to the painfully unfunny 1913 one-reeler “Cohen Saves the Flag.”

Produced and directed by Mack Sennett for his Keystone Film Company, this was part of the short-lived “Cohen” series that starred Ford Sterling as a highly disagreeable protagonist whose appearance and behavior was a burlesque on Jewish stereotypes. But the films in the series were so dumb that they insulted the intelligence of viewers of all faiths.

This film takes place in the early 1860s as Cohen and his equally unappealing rival Goldberg (Henry Lehrman) engage in a crude physical fight for the attentions of the fair Rebecca (Mabel Normand. The men enlist in the Union Army, with Goldberg commissioned as a lieutenant and Cohen given a sergeant’s ranking. Goldberg tries to get rid of Cohen by sending him on a dangerous mission, but he accidentally winds up causing the Confederate forces to go into retreat. As the film’s title suggests, Cohen saves the U.S. flag from the rebels, but Goldberg falsely accuses him of cowardice and arranges for him to be shot by a firing squad. The fair Rebecca (remember her?) mounts a horse and rides to the rescue to save Cohen.

The film appears to have been mostly improvised, with Sterling trying endless physical shtick in a vain attempt to elicit laughter – and a low point comes with Cohen putting his kosher habits on hold to hide from Goldberg in a pigsty.

The sole reason that “Cohen Saves the Flag” is because Sennett arranged to have his shabby little film made on the sidelines of a considerably bigger production – the Thomas H. Ince feature “The Battle of Gettysburg,” which included hundreds of costumed extras in an elaborate Civil War military epic. Sennett kept his cast and crew out of the range of Ince’s cameras, thus snagging a lavish backdrop to their dismal antics.

Sadly, “The Battle of Gettysburg” is considered a lost film, with the only surviving footage visible amid the knockabout in “Cohen Saves the Flag.” If you can look past the crummy Cohen and his cronies, you can enjoy an elusive glimpse of what must have been Ince’s crowning achievement as a filmmaker.