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7 Comedic Counterpoise: Landscape and Laughs in the Films of Sidney N. Shurcliff Martha J. McNamara The scenes are beautifully shot and utterly bucolic: salt marshes extending to the horizon snaked with slow-moving rivers, tree-lined country lanes leading to gracious estates, and wind-swept beaches rising to grass-topped dunes. It’s the early 1930s, and the coastal landscape north of Boston outside the town of Ipswich, Massachusetts, couldn’t be more quiet, pastoral, and timeless—except, that is, for the incursion of automobiles careening across the landscape, sailing off cliffs, sinking into rivers, and crashing spectacularly into trees, stone walls, and each other. No sound is needed to conjure the squeal of automobile tires, the screech and bang of crumpling metal, the shouts of people dodging out of the way, and the crack of gunshots as kidnappers, jewel thieves, bootleggers, and a “highly efficient, motorized” police force in Model T and Model A Fords, Chevy touring cars, and MG sports cars wreak havoc on the New England landscape. We also don’t need sound to imagine the gales of laughter, wisecracks, injokes , and jovial teasing among the “Motormaulers,” a group of young men and women who scripted, filmed, acted in, and screened a series of slapstick comedies produced between 1930 and 1937. Leading the group were the self-styled “joyful idiots” Alan Bemis, Edward “Ned” Dane, John H. Marshall, and Sidney Nichols Shurcliff. Friends at Harvard College, they shared a fascination with automobiles and had access to resources that enabled them to produce amateur Keystone Kops–type films to entertain themselves, their families, and their friends. In all, the Motormaulers produced four silent black-and-white movies: The Rise and Fall of Susan Lennox (1930), The Junkman’s Holiday (1932), Rollo’s Revenge or the Last of the Gotrocks, (1933), and Why do Oysters Perspire?: A Stark Drama of Stolen Pearls and Savage Revenge (1937). The films are zany and hilarious. They no doubt provided a kind of comic relief similar to that which heartened Americans of all ages and social classes during the Great Depression and sent them in droves to movie palaces to see Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, and the movies of Mack Sennett’s Keystone Film Company. But the Motormaulers’ films 148 | Martha J. McNamara don’t just depict vehicular high jinks; they also reveal a deep engagement with the New England countryside and, in particular, the salt marsh landscape of the Massachusetts coast.1 This incongruous juxtaposition of crashing cars and idyllic settings does not, by and large, derive from the aesthetic of Max Sennett’s Keystone Kops films. Sennett’s films and other slapstick comedies of the teens and twenties typically depicted buffoonery set in apartments, factories, amusement parks, city streets, and railroad tracks. The Motormaulers films, in contrast, celebrate the natural environment. They include lyrical pans and beautifully framed aerial shots of the Ipswich marshes, scenes shot across meadows and down country roads as well as views of more formally designed landscapes. In short, the films convey a deep, almost reverent, sense of place as much as a wacky comedic sensibility. This love of place and the impulse to give it such prominence is the work of the Motormaulers’ “prime mover and inspiration,” the landscape architect Sidney Shurcliff, who was the principal cameraman for three out of the four films as well as the series’ scriptwriter, director, and editor.2 Shurcliff’s homage to the New England coastal environment is not a surprise given his lifelong immersion—and that of members of his extended family—in the work of landscape architecture and urban planning. His father, Arthur Asahel Shurcliff, was one of the leading landscape architects of the early twentieth century and, having trained in the offices of Frederick Law Olmsted, a member of the first generation of American practitioners who identified themselves as professionals. A2S (as he called himself) founded his own firm in 1905 shortly after marrying his neighbor on Boston’s Beacon Hill, Margaret Homer Nichols. Sidney Nichols Shurcliff, their first child, was born the next year in 1906 and was joined over the course of the next ten years by his five siblings.3 Soon after Sidney’s arrival, Arthur and Margaret purchased land on Argilla Road in Ipswich, Massachusetts, thirty-five miles north of Boston. Here, in 1908, the Shurcliffs built a modest wood-frame house as the family’s summer retreat. A summer community, primarily doctors from Boston, had been steadily growing along...


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