There is nothing particularly funny about a bowl of soup. Not the steam. Not the broth. Not the crackers. I had lentil soup the other day and it didn't even make me crack a smile. Yet, soup became a major comic prop in the early days of film.
The myopic maid featured in Nearsighted Mary (1909) spills soup on her employer's head. This was soon to become a familiar gag. At the dawn of film comedy, it was commonplace for clumsy waiters and incompetent servants to spill soup on people. The soup may land on a head (preferably bald), or into a lap, or down a back. A critic for Moving Picture World described a scene from The Rink (1916) in which "soup invades the decollette of a feminine diner."
This was a world in which absurdly long beards hung down into soup bowls. Harold Lloyd ran into this problem in Luke's Late Lunchers (1916). He quickly addressed this diner's vulgar display by tying his beard around his neck.
Often, whether by accident or sabotage, inappropriate ingredients became submerged within the murky depths of a soup pot. Mischievous children poured an excessive amount of pepper into a soup pot in Nora Declares War (1917). A 1914 British comedy (title unknown) featured George Robey hiding an anarchist's bomb in a pot of soup. A housemaid accidentally poured kerosene into soup in a 1910 Powers comedy called Our Housemaid. This business with the kerosene-spiked soup was a time-tested Commedia dell'arte routine that would later be performed on film by both Charlie Chaplin (Shanghaied, 1915) and Buster Keaton (The Timid Young Man, 1935).
During this period, the most ludicrous soup ingredient was introduced in a 1909 Gaumont comedy called In the Consomme. A maid mistakenly drops a sponge into a pot of soup and, without realizing the maid's error, her employer ingests the sponge as part of his meal.
The world became less funny when we stopped laughing at a bowl of soup.
I no sooner posted this article then Jay Brennan, the author of Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only The Gorilla!, reminded me of this soup routine from You're Darn Tootin' (1928).