In real life, the main use for a dummy is to model clothing. But it was different in early films. The dummy held vast potential for the many pranksters and con artists that populated the magical universe of silent film. The dummy was a more versatile device to the pranksters than the whoopee cushion and it was a more important tool of the trade to the con artist than the Brooklyn Bridge. But it must be pointed out that, in this special universe, the dummy possessed greater powers than it had in the real universe. Sometimes, the dummy seemed to have a life of its own.
Charlie Chaplin in Mabel's Married Life (1914)
But that was not even the dummy's greatest power. In these films, their likeness to a man was so compelling that a person could not distinguish one from the other. Otherwise, whether drunk or not, Chaplin could not have possibly believed that this faceless configuration of canvas and sawdust was an actual man.
In the coming decades, other comedians demonstrated their personal performance styles in various encounters with boxing dummies. Roscoe Arbuckle shows himself to have a faster and rougher style than Chaplin in this scene from The Knockout (1914).
An exaggerated version of this routine was performed by Billy Bevan in the 1922 Sennett comedy Gymnasium Jim. With the aid of special effects, the dummy manages to amazingly dodge blows from its opponent and spring up at him when he least expects it.
The Three Stooges did even more poorly ganging up together on a boxing dummy.
Fright Night (1947)
Sometimes, whether you were preparing for a boxing match or not, it was just plain old fun to punch a dummy.
Snub Pollard in Money to Burn (1920)
The early trick pictures, which had been wonderfully pioneered by Georges Méliès, displayed surreal transitions between the animate figure and the inanimate figure. Take, for instance, a 1902 film by American Mutoscope & Biograph called The Corset Model. Here is how the company describes the plot in their catalog: "The scene opens with a salesman displaying corsets to the buyer of a country store. He calls in a female model and tries a corset on her. While the buyer is looking at the figure, the salesman removes the head and arms and finally shows that instead of legs, she has a wire frame."
I recently saw a funny variation on the man-pretends-to-be-dummy routine in a Sennett comedy, Hooked At The Altar (1926). Ralph Graves pretends to be a dummy outside of a clothing store to elude a police officer out to arrest him. Just then, the police officer becomes distracted by a champion boxer who has come strolling past the shop. The police officer is a big fan and asks the boxer about a match he fought the night before. The boxer, willing to oblige a fan, proceeds to demonstrate his winning punches on the supposed dummy. Graves, who wants more than anything to avoid being arrested, remains still while suffering the boxer's powerful blows.
|Chaplin remains wary of dummies in The Floorwalker (1916).|
This article is not intended to be a comprehensive study of the dummy in film comedy. I already took a close look at this subject in my book The Funny Parts. But I have continued to collect examples of early films in which dummies were used for comic effect. Please allow me to now share those examples with you.
The Linen Draper's Shop (1904, Clarendon)
A saleslady poses as a mannequin to thwart a shoplifter who has been stealing dresses off mannequins.
The Girls and the Burglar (1904, American Mutoscope & Biograph)
Two girls use a dummy to frighten away a burglar.
Mrs. Smithers' Boarding School (1907, American Mutoscope & Biograph)
Mischievous pupils look to scare Mrs. Smithers by putting a dummy in her bedroom. The pupils make a point to situate the dummy under the bed so that its feet are clearly poking out. Just as planned, Mrs. Smithers screams in terror thinking that an intruder is lying in wait for her. The same plot was later used for Elsie's Aunt (1913) and His Wife's Burglar (1914).
Give Me Back My Dummy (1908, Pathé Frères)
On his way to deliver a well-attired dummy, a porter stops at a bar to quench his thirst. A boy comes upon the dummy, which has been left unattended outside of the bar, and decides that it would be fun to switch outfits and take the dummy's place. The porter is somewhat shaky on his legs when he exits the bar. He is bending to lift the dummy when the dummy suddenly socks him in the head and then retreats rapidly down the street. Strangely, the porter is more furious than puzzled that this inanimate figure has mysteriously come to life. He chases after the dummy and, after a long run and several blows and tumbles, he is stopped by a police officer, who demands to know what the excitement is about. This delay is just what the boy needs to again change outfits with the dummy. The boy is concealed in a narrow passage as he watches the befuddled porter take hold of the dummy and continue on his way to the dress shop. The same plot was later used by Italy's Aquila company for a 1909 comedy called La statua vivente (The Animated Dummy). A mischievous person switching places with a dummy to give another person a fright was presented with several variations in early comedy films. (Give Me Back My Dummy was released in France under its original title Rendez-moi mon mannequin.)
Prospective Heirs (1908, Pathé Frères)
Wanting to see how his heirs will react to his death, a rich man fakes his suicide by having his servants dress a dummy in his clothing and hang the dummy from a chandelier in his library. A similar plot turned up in The Receipt for Rent (1912). This time, though, the ruse was related to poverty instead of wealth. A penniless tenant wants his landlady to think he's dead so that she won't try to collect rent money from him. Presumably, this is only a temporary solution to avoid eviction as a landlady has no reason to let a dead man keep a room in her home. (Prospective Heirs was released in France under its original title L'oncle à héritage.)
An Unlucky Acquisition (1909, Eclair)
A man brings home a dummy, which his mother-in-law mistakes for an intruder.
Curing a Jealous Husband (1909, Lubin)
Looking to teach her green-eyed husband a lesson, a wife makes use of a dummy to fool her husband into thinking she is hiding a lover in the closet.
My Friend, Mr. Dummy (1909, Lubin)
Phillip, who has had one too many drinks, invites a dress shop dummy to have a beer with him. The dummy is being led across the street by Phillip when it is struck by a car. The driver is panicked and pays Phillip money to keep quiet about the accident. Later, a servant girl drops a bucket out of a third floor window and the bucket hits the dummy in the head. The servant girl rushes downstairs and, when she sees this lifeless figure sprawled on the ground, she assumes that she has committed murder and faints. The proprietor of the clothing store sees Phillip in possession of the dummy and quickly pursues the man to regain his property. The proprietor is forlorn when he sees that the dummy has been badly battered, but his mood improves when he discovers Phillip's hush money in one of the dummy's pockets.
The Artist's Dummy (1909)
A dummy who is mistaken for a man by busy city folk experiences a series of adventures before it is finally returned to its owner.
A Dummy in Disguise (1910, Gaumont)
As a joke, a man takes the place of a dummy outside of a tailor's shop. Because it's closing time, the proprietor carries his dummies into the shop and locks the door on his way out. Now that he is alone in the shop, the man gets the idea to break into the safe. He pockets every last dollar that he can find, but he can't get the door open to leave. He waits overnight for the proprietor to return and carry him back outside. The thief is sure that he will make a quick escape, but his ruse is exposed and the police arrive to arrest him.
Her Husband's Deception (1910, American Film Manufacturing Company)
A man puts a dummy in his bed to make his wife think he's fast asleep and then climbs out of the window to meet his friends.
Henpecked Bertie Goes Fishing (1911, Lux)
While on a camping trip with his wife, Bertie rigs up a dummy to hold a fishing pole so that it appears he's fishing in the lake when, in truth, he has snuck off to a nearby casino.
Toto and the Dummy (1911, Itala)
Toto is taking apart a dummy when a neighbor glances into his peephole and gets the idea that Toto is dismembering a body. The neighbor activates a fire alarm, which brings the fire department. Assuming Toto's room is on fire, the firemen break down the door and turn their hoses on full force, which causes Toto to be flooded out of his home. (The film was released in Italy under its original title Totò secondo dottor Crippen.)
Mrs. P. Rune's Boarding House (1915, Universal)
A landlady (Gale Henry) believes that she has witnessed her new boarder (Max Asher) stuffing a dead body into a trunk. When the police arrive, they determine that the boarder is a ventriloquist and the only thing that he stuffed into his trunk was his dummy.
The Godmother (1913, Vitagraph)
A group of college boys are expected to provide a chaperone for an upcoming date. One of the boys arranges for his godmother to be their chaperone, but the woman becomes sick at the last minute and has to stay home in bed. The boys, who are desperate, convince a tailor to don a dress and pretend to be the godmother. When the tailor gets tired of posing as a woman, the young men dress up a dummy to look like the godmother.
Married Men (1914, Lubin)
A henpecked husband decides that it is time for him to stand up to his violent, hot-tempered wife. He dresses a boxing dummy in his wife's clothing and practices throwing punches at this fearsome icon. His wife learns of her husband's efforts and switches places with the dummy. Before her husband can lay a blow on her, she lunges at him and beats him mercilessly. The same plot was used later for a 1914 Biograph film called His Loving Spouse.
Izzy and His Rival (1914, Reliance Film Company)
Izzy (Max Davidson) sets up a dummy in a road and, after an automobile runs over the dummy, he substitutes himself for the figure and demands the driver pay him damages.
Cactus Jim's Shop Girl (1915, Selig)
After his marriage proposal is rejected, Cactus Jim (Tom Mix) is so fearful of being ridiculed by his friends that he buys a dummy, takes it home and pretends that it is his bride. The friends soon discover his ruse, but the girl has a change of heart and accepts the marriage proposal.
Decades later, these routines were still being employed by major comedians. In Ride 'Em Cowboy (1942), Lou Costello doesn't realize that a wooden facsimile of an Indian warrior has been replaced by the real thing.
Dummies became so prevalent in Hollywood that, if you drove down Sunset Boulevard, one was liable to fall out of the sky and land on you. This is something that Glenn Tryon learned in 45 Minutes to Hollywood (1926).
The lesson remains to this day that you should never trust a dummy.