Monday, October 12, 2015

The Rise of the Comedy Feature, Part 3: Skirts (1921)

Ford West, Bynunsky Hyman, Harry Gribbon and Rosa Gore in Skirts (1921).
The Hippodrome Theatre was a midtown Manhattan landmark from 1905 to 1939.  The building's architects, Frederick Thompson and Jay H. Morgan, worked with the Fuller Company to create a state-of-the art theatre that boasted an unprecedented seating capacity of 5,300.  I wrote about the brilliantly unique features of the theatre in a previous article.  According to Wikipedia, "The Hippodrome featured lavish spectacles complete with circus animals, diving horses, opulent sets, and 500-member choruses."

 

The success of the Hippodrome inspired a trend among Broadway producers to stage grand-scale variety revues.  Like the Hippodrome showmen, Florenz Ziegfeld featured fantastically colossal scenes in his "Ziegfeld Follies" shows.  He crowded the stage with the most beautiful chorus girls to be found.  Stanley Green, the author of "Ziegfeld Encyclopedia of the Musical Theatre," wrote that the Ziegfeld girls always created the highlight of the show when they "paraded up and down flights of stairs as anything from birds to battleships."  These shows brought the Broadway stage an image of grandeur and opulence.

Ziegfeld Follies Girls
In 1919, Fox Film president William Fox attended a Hippodrome show during a visit to New York City.  The show, "Happy Days," brought forth a pageant of circus acts and vaudeville acts.  Two performers were singled out by critics for their performances in the show.  The first was Clyde Cook, who played the mischievous elf Puck.  Cook amused audiences with his limber comic moves and his eccentric dance steps.  The second outstanding performer was Poodles Hanneford, a zany circus clown who astonished crowds with his expert bareback riding.  But the show delivered so much more.  The Water Girls, beautiful young ladies in exotic swimsuits, essayed graceful dives into an immense water tank.  A favorite scene in the show was "A Book Store," which featured hundreds of colorful storybook characters coming to life and stepping out from book shelves.


Audiences cheered for the clown riding a horse around a track.  They cheered for the elephant that lumbered on stage to perform tricks.  It's no wonder that Variety reported, "The Hip show this season looks more circusy than ever."

 

Fox was so excited by the show that he quickly arranged to sign Cook to a contract.  More important, he made plans to produce a cinematic version of the Hippodrome's epic variety revue.  He would create his own lavish spectacle featuring clowns, trained circus animals, opulent sets, storybook characters, and an immense chorus of beautiful young women.


A contest among Fox employees produced the film’s title, Skirts.  The studio’s ambitions for the film were perfectly outlined in a press notice that was released during the film’s production.  Fox's publicists noted, "Skirts. . . establishes a precedent and fixes a new standard of ultimate effort in extravagant comedy for the coming year.  It contains all the sensational and spectacular features of the three-ring circus, all the dash and splendor of the musical comedy, with its thousand beautiful girls, and wit and humor worthy of the best comedians.  They have carried the banner of mirth into the very heart of joyland."

Hampton Del Ruth
Hampton Del Ruth had recently been hired by Fox to bring efficiency and discipline to Fox's comedy short subject division, which was responsible for putting out bi-weekly two-reel comedies under the "Sunshine Comedies" brand.  Del Ruth’s predecessor, Henry Lehrman, had gotten bogged down in production delays and was unable to provide exhibitors with timely short subjects as the studio’s contracts required.  This had become a serious problem for the studio, which was the reason that it was vital for Del Ruth to fulfill his commitments to exhibitors. 

Motion Picture News ballyhooed Del Ruth's arrival at the studio.  The magazine reported, "Plans have been laid for a busy season of production at the Sunshine studio for the making of two-reel comedies, each one of which when released will carry Mr. Del Ruth's guarantee of something worth while and different.  Each story will mean something, teach a lesson, or drive a moral home; it must gain its point by good, honest, wholesome laughter and humor.  He does not believe it is necessary to insult or abuse any class or condition to attain this result.  It is his ambition and purpose to put in each something more than mere entertainment; he wants each one to embrace a point so high and striking it cannot be forgotten." 

Not long after this article appeared, Fox presented a much bigger challenge for Del Ruth.  It wasn’t enough for the produce to create 26 two-reel comedies in the next year.  Now, he also had to create a five-reel comedy feature that would outdo every comedy feature that had ever come before it.

In between scenes, Chester Conklin tells Hampton Del Ruth a joke.  The ladies are Marvel Rea and Virginia Warwick.
Contrary to the claims that appeared in Motion Picture News, the Sunshine comedies did not provide meaningful stories with moral lessons.  The principal aim of the Sunshine crew was to make comedies that were large in scope and absurd in concept.  This was not a bad aim to be sure.  The comedies turned out to be delightfully goofy and imaginative entertainment.  The same idea for largeness and absurdity was no doubt at work when Del Ruth got to work on the feature film.

Skirts was to be the Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World of its day.  The film strove to provide a big cast, big stunts, big thrills and big laughs.  It was no exaggeration when Fox publicists boasted that no expense was to be spared.  A great sum of money was lavished upon the production, which was necessary if it was expected to set a new standard for comedy productions.  Exhibitors Herald called it "the most lavish and ambitious attempt of its kind on record."   

The preparation of the project was underway as early as October, 1919, at which time the popular Singer's Midgets were hired to appear in the film.  Certainly, this troupe would give the film the circusy flavor of the Hippodrome shows.  Motion Picture News reported, "[T]he Singers brought with them their entire menagerie of midget animals.  The latter are as freakish and unusual in the way of stature as are their owners.  This menagerie consists of four elephants, sixteen ponies, a monkey, a deer with fawn, seventeen hounds, four Dogenburg goats and a midget lion.  These animals are highly trained and in themselves present an act of unusual interest."


What else could an audience expect from Singer's Midgets?  In 1921, the troupe performed a ten-act show at the Keith's Theatre in Boston.  A theatre critic with the Harvard Crimson wrote, "The Midget strong man, the Midget conjurer, the Midget 'Cleopatra' with the winning ways - these and many more were there.  The Midget cowboys did their stunts, the Midget soldiers marched, and the Midget singer rendered 'Girl of My Dreams,' while the beauties of the chorus went on miniature fashion parade.  Taken all in all, a very good example of small people 'going big.'"

For their appearance in Skirts, the Singer’s Midgets were called upon to recreate their stage routine "The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe."  Fox credited all nineteen of the Singer’s Midgets in their press releases.  The group included the following: Dora Veig, Anna Neider, Victoris Neider, Mitsi Vashek, Emilie Jaranyi, Isabella Steingruber, Karl Becker, Franz Steingruber, Louis Vashek, Fritz Tarabula, Julius Daranyi, Shandor Rocka, Joseph Posher, Gabor Baggi, Karl Florian, Edward Wilmot, Stephen Miskosh, Peter Dteneck and Vincent Tarabula.  Becker and Roka later appeared as Munchins in The Wizard of Oz (1939).  Becker was to become the Mayor of Munchkinland.


But it wouldn't be enough for Singer's Midgets to ride around on ponies or perform tricks with a midget lion.  Their scenes had to be much bigger than that.  Del Ruth came up with a cyclone scene.  Exhibitors Herald reported, "In the cyclone scene, during which automobiles, trees and human beings are sent sailing through the air, the Liliputians ride to safety in the big shoe so familiar to readers of fairy tales."  A cyclone, a large collection of little people, and a fairy tale theme.  Why does that sound familiar?

Circus scene from Skirts.
At the peak of production, a total of four units were in operation under the supervision of Del Ruth.  Put in charge of the respective units were Roy Del Ruth, Del Lord, Eddie Cline and Jack Blystone.  This was a formidable union of comic talent.   

It was arranged for the climax of the film to be set at a banquet.  Publicists bragged that the set constructed for this scene was three hundred feet long and two hundred feet wide.  They claimed, "[I]t was bigger than anything ever erected for motion picture use, save possibly one or two sets in Griffith's Intolerance. . . The tables at which the banqueters are seated were wide enough to accommodate [two thousand] diners plus the thousand girls who presently came dancing down them four abreast."

William Fox
Yes, my friends, bring on the dancing girls!  Fox had resolved to have a chorus bigger and better than any of the past choruses of the Hippodrome or the Ziegfeld Follies.  The climatic dance number would, in fact, focus on the mammoth chorus dancing on top of tables at a splendid banquet.  The following is a report that appeared in Exhibitors Herald:
Determined to make Skirts an offering that would go down in motion picture history as unique and the most lavish of its kind, Mr. Fox conceived the idea of a ballet of hippodromic proportions.  Orders were issued to the casting director at the Hollywood studios to provide a chorus of not less than one thousand of the most beautiful women obtainable.  Although the mecca of all aspirants for film honors, it was realized that Los Angeles could not begin to provide the combined beauty of face and form demanded.  As girl after girl was rejected, it was feared that the necessary number of perfect types could not be secured.

As a last resort "Perfect Form Contests" were instituted in cities throughout the United States and Canada where Fox film exchanges are to be found.  Six weeks of contests presently brought together the group required.

A person possessing the statistical mind of the Fox studios was spurred by curiosity to investigate the nationalities of the girls in the perfect beauty chorus.  Girls of Russian, English, German, Swedish, Norwegian, Scottish, Irish, Italian, French, Polish, Hungarian and even Turkish and Syrian forebears were numerous.  One miss confessed that her father was a Chinaman, while her mother was a Polynesian.  This queer admixture of blood imparted to her a piquancy of beauty unusually attractive.
 

Fox demanded that the women be dressed in elaborate costumes comparable to costumes worn by the showgirls in the Ziegfeld Follies.

Ziegfeld Follies Girl
The film’s costume designer, Margret Whistler, would later design the dresses and costumes for Fox’s The Queen of Sheba (1921).

Betty Blythe as The Queen of Sheba.

In the end, Fox publicists claimed, "This rapid moving army of feminine beauty, moving in graceful unison, is regarded as one of the most impressive spectacles that has ever been filmed."


Fox was determined to get his exhibitors on board with this comedy special.  In April, a major exhibitor was invited to see the film being shot.  M. L. Finkelstein of Rubin & Finkelstein, owners of a chain of thirty-five theatres in Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth, was accompanied by Del Ruth onto the Sunshine stages.  Finkelstein was pleased by the visit.  "I feel quite sure," he declared, "that Mr. Fox's big special Sunshine comedy. . . will be booked for runs in every one of our chain of theatres.  We shall anxiously await its completion."

It was reported that Del Ruth was shooting the final scenes of the film during the first week of April.  Del Ruth worked hard to assemble a finished print of the film (described as "long-heralded" by Film Daily) in time to preview the film at an exhibitors' convention held at New York's Commodore Hotel in May, 1920.  Much to Del Ruth’s dismay, the film was not well-received by the conventioneers.

Fox decided to withhold the comedy special's release date until Del Ruth could find a way to fix the film.  Del Ruth saw that he had no choice other than to resume production and reshoot scenes.  Unfortunately, the unscheduled reshoots were delayed by several weeks because the studio had a number of large-scale films in production (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court was one) and no stage space was available for Skirts.  Certainly, space was needed for Sunshine's epic collection of fools and beauties to engage in tomfoolery amid the tumult and crowds of a sprawling three-ring circus.


In June, Exhibitors Herald reported that Del Ruth was shooting a new scene for Skirts.  Del Ruth had purchased a locomotive and several train cars for an action scene in which the train would ultimately meets its destruction.  Film historian Bob Birchard found an intriguing reference to this scene in the press book for Skirts.  The passage read, "A runaway train dashing through a burning forest rushes upon a blazing bridge which crashes beneath its weight, plunging the train into a stream."  Birchard rightly pointed out that this passage could accurately describe the climax of Buster Keaton’s The General (1926).  He noted that, in The General, "a railroad bridge is on fire and a Union officer sends the train across the bridge, only to have the bridge and train collapse into the creek."  In The Funny Parts, I wrote about a spinning house gag that Eddie Cline used in the Sunshine comedy A Schoolhouse Scandal (1919).  Cline later reused the gag in Keaton's One Week (1920).  It is not hard to imagine that Skirts’ train sequence was directly borrowed by Keaton for The General.

So, what exactly was Del Ruth’s premise for the train scene?  The film's villain, Jack Cooper, has kidnapped the heroine, Alta Allen, and he has taken her on board a locomotive.  The film's hero, Chester Conklin, hires a plane to overtake the train.  A news item focused on a daring stunt that was employed in Conklin’s rescue of Allen.  It was explained that, according to the "Fox folks in Hollywood," it was a "stunt that will force cold chills up and down the spine."  The stunt was described as follows:
Miss Allen, escaping from the locomotive cab, reaches the roof of the train and crawls along from coach to coach.  Conklin, from his airplane overhead, discovers her, and his trusty pilot causes the plane to swoop down with a rush over the roof of the car.  The rescuer has climbed over the side of the plane and is hanging by his feet from the underwork.  At a signal from the director the plane dips and Conklin seizes Miss Allen, lifting her from the third floor of the coach and carrying her upward and away to safety.
A dubious claim was made that Conklin accomplished the airplane feat himself.  According to a press release, the comedian was strapped tightly to the bottom of the plane before the plane swooped down over the train.  I can see no possible way that this could be true.  The various Fox Sunshine units made extensive use of stunt men, which makes it is reasonable to assume that a stunt man substituted for Conklin in this highly dangerous scene.

Stills show that the heroine has to rescue her savior from the river.

 

Conklin figured prominently in another Skirts press release about a big action scene.  Fox reported that the comedian was nearly killed when an explosion sent him hurtling from the top of a three-story building to the ground floor.


Most of Skirts' cast were veterans of Sennett comedies.  The Fox studio used its extensive financial resources to routinely lure talent away from the Sennett studio.

The protagonists of Sennett's comedies were rarely admirable or sympathetic.  This was certainly the case with Jack Cooper, who had made it his specialty to play morally disreputable characters.  In this scene from Skirts, Cooper must be compelled by his landlady to pay overdue rent.

Jack Cooper and Milla Davenport.

This still shows Chester Conklin and Cooper as rivals for Ethel Teare's affections.

Chester Conklin, Ethel Teare and Jack Cooper.

Conklin and Cooper had been at odds with each other before in Sennett films.

Chester Conklin, Mary Thurman, Ford Sterling and Jack Cooper the 1918 Sennett comedy Beware of Boarders.
The characters that Conklin played were not much better than Cooper's characters.  Conklin's protagonists at Sennett displayed villainous qualities even when they were supposed to be the good guy.  For evidence of the sort of roles that Conklin was playing before he left Sennett, you need only to take a glance at the definitive Sennett filmography in Brent Walker's mighty tome, Mack Sennett's Fun Factory.  Here are Walker's plot descriptions for the last two films that Conklin made at Sennett:
The plot of The Foolish Age (1919): "[Chester] foists his attentions on banker's daughter [Phyllis] Haver until he learns that [Louise] Fazenda has inherited a fortune."

The plot of Love's False Faces (1919): "Chester tries to make a play for [his] married landlady. . ."
Conklin was an adulterer, a homewrecker, a gold digger, and a wolf.  He was, to put it simply, a cad.

The actor continued to play the same character at Fox.  The character's unsavory nature was evident when Conklin played the title role in the Sunshine comedy A Perfect Villain (1921).  Exhibitors Herald summarized the plot as follows: "A watch which the hero-villain loads with TNT and presents to his rival is the center of excitement.  A poker game in which the infernal machine is repeatedly returned to its donor is a high light of the action."  Yes, "hero-villain" is an appropriate title for Conklin's dubious characters.  It is impossible to imagine Keaton or Lloyd killing off a rival with an exploding watch.  This was hardly the sort of person that an audience would be willing to follow faithfully for six reels.  The stills for Skirts certainly do not show Conklin behaving in gentlemanly manner.  Does a good leading man slam a door shut on a lady's head?
Chester Conklin and Ethel Teare.
The plan was for the new and improved version of Skirts to reach theatres in August.  A press book and other press materials were assembled in anticipation of the film’s release.  Fox publicists called Skirts "a new and lofty keynote in the motion picture comedy realm."  A press release proclaimed the film to be a "Super-Comedy."  The studio promised, "Thrills include the washing away of a palatial home by a flood, a train plunging through a burning bridge, a submarine rescue at sea, a 2,000-foot parachute drop from an airship, an explosion which blew up a three-story set, and the rescue of the heroine from the roof of a speeding train by an airplane."  But the release date was cancelled at the last minute.  Del Ruth had left his position at Fox by September 11.  The Film Daily reported, "Fox Sunshine Comedy unit reorganized.  Hampton Del Ruth out as supervising director."  Del Ruth was replaced by Sol Wurtzel.


William Fox had his general manager, Winfield Sheehan, address the Skirts situation with Wurtzel.  Fox soonafter wrote to Wurtzel, "With reference to Mr. Sheehan’s note to you, to have a director ready to make animal and slap-stick scenes for the picture SKIRTS, I have reached the conclusion that the only man I would care to have complete that picture would be Blystone.  I have so told Mr. Sheehan and he will take the matter up with you on his arrival."
Laura LaVarnie, Jack Blystone and Alta Allen.
It was likely due again to the unavailability of stages that filming was further delayed.  Blystone did not resume production until January.  He discarded much of Del Ruth’s earlier Skirts footage.  By the time that he was finished, the five-reel comedy had expanded to a six-reel comedy.  The discarded footage was later recycled into two-reel Sunshine comedies, including The Singer Midgets’ Scandals, The Singer Midgets’ Sideshow and Mary’s Little Lobster.  Birchard informed me, "Footage shot for Skirts turns up as late as A Roaring Lion in late 1923."  It is known that footage from the film was recycled because stills from the film were recycled, too.  Birchard is in possession of the stills and the press book that were printed just prior to the film's scuttled August release date.  These same images appeared again in lobby cards and other press materials for the later shorts.

Del Ruth was barely out the door at Fox when some of his footage from Skirts was included into Mary’s Little Lobster.  The film starts out with presumably new footage of Ethel Teare and Tom Kennedy at a young ladies seminary.  According to Motion Picture News, the action starts with "a mechanical contraption. . . bouncing the pupils out of their beds, down a chute-the-chutes into a swimming pool."  The second reel, which includes footage from Skirts, involves Slim Summerville stealing a safe from the school.  Summerville is caught up in a chase as he attempts to carry out the safe with him.  After he finally gets away, he breaks open the safe and is surprised to find that all the safe contains is a monkey.  Finding a monkey in a safe makes more sense with Skirts’ circus setting than it does with Lobster’s seminary setting.  It was established in earlier press releases that Summerville had a prominent role in Skirts as the circus ringmaster.  The comedian also took a hand in directing parts of the film.  How much of his acting or directorial work ended up in the final film is unknown.

 
Skirts was released in its new form on April 10, 1921.  Not much of the plot was revealed in trade journals.  We discover as the film opens that Clyde Cook grew up in a circus sideshow as the son of a bearded lady and he now works in the sideshow as a handyman.  Of course, a dilemma must be introduced to set the plot into motion.  Chicago Tribune's Mae Tince explained, "[Cook] loves the owner's daughter and she loves him.  The strong man, however, also loves her. . . Papers arrive to prove that the circus boob is an heir.  But, ha, they are stolen by the strong man."  Cook has to catch up to the strong man and regain his papers to claim his sizable inheritance.  Press materials identified Edgar Kennedy as the "heavy villain," which suggests that he played the nefarious strong man.  The idea of rivals competing for a big cash prize makes for a simple plot.  It is the sort of plot that could be found in a two-reel comedy.  Of course, this brings us back to the idea that Skirts, as a tale of madcap destruction, rampant greed and frantic chase scenes, was the Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World of its day.

Birchard splits Skirts into three phases.  Phase One was the cut that was shown at the exhibitors’ convention in May 1920, Phase Two was the cut that was prepared for release in August 1920, and Phase Three was the Blystone version that finally made it to theatres in April 1921.  Many changes occurred during these phases.  Actors were shifted from one role to another.  Scenes were shuffled from one reel to another.  I suspect that this production was just as chaotic as it sounded.  Birchard wrote, "Chester Conklin and Harry Gribbon are rivals in the second phase.  Gribbon is in the Navy and Chester is the villain, but there is also stuff with Chester as a talent agent (which may or may not preclude him from being a villain).  Chester also turns up in images where he appears to be a member of the circus band."

Chester Conklin plays an unscrupulous talent agent in this scene from Skirts.  The woman standing next to Conklin is Alice Davenport.  I was unable to identify the aspiring bathing beauty.   
Birchard identified Jack Cooper acting in a villainous manner in scenes where Conklin is dressed in his circus attire.  But the Exhibitors Herald article indicated that Conklin rescued Allen from Cooper during the train sequence that was part of the Phase Two reshoots.  So, did Conklin go from being a villain to a hero as the article suggests or did he go from being a hero to a villain as Birchard's stills suggest?  Gribbon is identified in another press release as playing the hero of the film, which is verified by Birchard's stills of Gribbon as a sturdy and upright navy man.  Surely, Gribbon's navy man was involved in the "submarine rescue" cited in Fox's press materials.

Harry Gribbon and the ladies.

This means that it possible that each phase of the production had a different leading man - maybe Conklin first, then Gribbon, and finally Cook.  At first, I thought that the trade journals identified Cook as the film’s lead from the start.  But I just needed to read the various news items more closely.
"Singer's Midgets, 35 in all, will hereafter appear in Sunshine Comedies as will Clyde Cooke [sic], an English comedian."
Film Daily, October 20, 1919.
"During the coming year there will be a great elaboration of the Sunshine comedies.  The Singer Midgets have been engaged to appear in these features and we also have Clyde Cook, the famous Hippodrome comedian."
Exhibitors Herald, January 17. 1920.


How do these facts sort out?  Fox contracted with Cook in 1919 to star in his own series.  The studio had high expectations for Cook and considered his hiring to be a coup for them.  However, Cook’s commitments with the Hippodrome prevented him from starting his series for a number of months.  None of the news items that I listed above specifically say that Cook would appear together with Singer’s Midgets in Skirts.  The most convincing proof that Cook was not part of Skirts’ original cast was the fact that, when the cast was listed in a news item dated May 29, 1920, Cook’s name was nowhere in sight.  I agree with Birchard that Cook did not become attached to Skirts until Phase Three.  The plan for Cook when he joined Fox in April was to get the comedian to complete a short subject series for the studio’s upcoming 1919-1920 season.  He began his stay at Fox working on a two-reel comedy called Kiss Me Quick.  Within the next year, the comedian turned out six more short comedies for the studio.  One of the films that came to occupy Cook's time was The Huntsman.

 


Gribbon had been well-received as the leading man of two feature films, Down on the Farm and Up in Mary's Attic.  It would be understandable for Fox to assume that the actor could assure Skirts' success.  Gribbon, whose on-screen image had been significantly rehabilitated since his Sennett days, was now able to play a big, bright hero.

This still from A Dash of Courage (1916) shows the villainous sort of character that Gribbon had once played at Sennett.  The other actors are Bobby Vernon, Wallace Beery and Raymond Griffith.
At one time or another, the cast of Skirts included Clyde Cook, Edgar Kennedy, Chester Conklin, Harry Gribbon, Ethel Teare, Alta Allen, Dorothy Lee, Laura LaVarnie, Blanche Payson, Rosa Gore, Milla Davenport, Lois Scott, Jack Cooper, Bobby Dunn, Tom Kennedy, Polly Moran, Billy Armstrong, Bynunsky Hyman, Joe Murphy (billed as Mutt Murphy), Glen Cavender, Gus Pixley, Ford West, Harry McCoy, Billy Franey and Harry Booker.  It was not hyperbole for Fox to state that the film’s principals "rank among the foremost players in the comedy field."  When the film was finally released, ads proclaimed that the Sunshine Beauty Brigade consisted of "3,000 of America's loveliest girls," which was three times the size of Del Ruth's original chorus.  More reels and more ladies.  Was more better?


The Skirts experience could not have been entirely bad for Del Ruth as, in February, he married Skirts' leading lady Alta Allen.  Actually, to be clear, Allen was only Skirts’ Phase Two leading lady.  She performed in Phase One as a chorus girl and it is unknown if she participated at all in Phase Three.


Despite all of the reshoots and reediting, the exhibitors could not have been more displeased.
"Certainly glad I did not run this as a special.  O. K. for kids."
E. A. Baradel,  Palace Theatre, McGehee, Arkansas.
"Picture a fair comedy, but not a special as advertised.  Will get by very well at regular admission."
G. D. Pinholster, Clinch Theatre, Frostproof, Florida.
"Quite a lot of money spent making this one.  Offers mild entertainment, but is not as good as advertised to be.  Lost money on this one."
Berriman Brothers, Lyric Theatre, Bartlesville, Oklahoma.
"No plot.  Very poor picture.  No appeal whatsoever."
J. Carbonell, Monroe Theatre, Key West, Florida.
"Thought this was a Fox special, but found out it was a piece of cheese.  People walked out and laughed at me."
A. Binder, Arthur Theatre, Detroit, Michigan.
"Fox's idea of something.  Was nothing.  The operator and myself saw the last reel.  We are old and tough and could stand it."
G. N. Armstrong, YMCA Theatre, Rose Lake, Idaho.

The film was poorly received by critics as well.  Chicago Tribune's Mae Tince saw the film simply as a way for Fox to cash in on a growing new trend.  She wrote, "The producing companies all seem to be taking a flyer at feature comedies.  Skirts is Fox's latest novelty."  Tince was not pleased at all by the film.  She stated flatly, "I don't think Skirts is funny."  But then she qualified her remarks.  She wrote, "Now Skirts may be funny.  I am inclined to think that perhaps it is. . . The longer I live the more I lean to the idea that I don't know a comedy when I see one.  We have had this hunch ever since, having nearly passed away of ennui during Mr. [Lloyd] Hamilton's April Fool, we discovered that the beautiful, dark, young lady to our right. . . thought it simply wonderful and sat through the feature on the program so that she could see the comedy again.  She's bright, too.  So — you see — ?"

By every indication, Tince could have looked to her right and to her left and found no one else laughing at Skirts.  The film passed through theaters without leaving much of an impression.

Tince wrote in closing, "Well - summed up - lots of Mr. Cook, too much of the strong man, not enough of the midgets, scarely any skirts, lots of doing every minute - and plenty of laughs - if such be the things you laugh at. . . [S]ome of the stunts are quite electrifying if you hadn't seen them done so many times before by Helen Holmes and others."  I suspect that Tince's summary has a fair amount of merit.  Del Ruth had adhered to Fox's strict instructions to put the main emphasis of the film on the beauties.  Early test shots and early promotional material were largely centered on the young ladies.  It was the entire reason that the film was named Skirts.  But having the beauties periodically parade through a scene had no storytelling value and it did nothing to provoke the laughs that were expected from a long-heralded comedy spectacle.  So, it made sense for Blystone to excise considerable footage of the beauties.  We know, too, that much of the Singer's Midgets' footage was removed from the film and used later in short comedies. Was the film hindered by, as Tince said, "lots of doing"?  Life Magazine said as much when it reported, "[Clyde Cook's] drollery is throttled by the excessive footage."

The kinder words from critics were reserved for the film’s stop-motion animation prologue, which depicted the creation of Adam and Eve.  The scene was developed by special effects technician K. C. MacLean.


A number of critics made note of Cook's stone-faced acting.  Tince wrote, "It is no fashionable these days for a comedian to smile.  The dolorous Buster Keaton, the dumpy Snub Pollard, the obese and, I think, awful Lloyd Hamilton all maintain a determined calm through most of the vicissitudes, comic and otherwise — mostly otherwise — that beset them.  Clyde Cook is no exception." 

This article went through its own Skirts-style reworking.  I produced an earlier version of the article before I got it into my head that I needed to delve much deeper in my research.  I went searching for production material that might close the gaps in this twisting and turning story.  Unfortunately, many of Fox's old records were never archived and they became lost throughout the years.  What has survived?  In 1972, Fox’s New York office donated 1,500 film scripts to the University of Iowa.  The scripts are limited to the period of 1929 to 1971, which means the collection entirely bypasses the studio's extensive silent film period.  Material from the Hollywood office was at one time donated to two libraries, the Margaret Herrick Library and UCLA's Performing Arts Library.  Recently, though, Fox withdrew their material from UCLA and stored it at the Fox Research Library, which is located on the studio complex in Los Angeles.  The material is not presently accessible to the public, but I did speak to a librarian at the facility and he was confident that he had nothing going as far back as 1921.  This left the Herrick Library.  The library had a listing in their catalog for Skirts.  Their holdings on the film included a whopping total of 101 stills!  I decided to acquire photocopies of the stills in an effort to recreate the film as best as possible.  I was told by Birchard that I could distinguish original scenes and reshoot scenes based on the still codes.  The stills for the Del Ruth scenes have an "HDR-SPEC" prefix and the stills from the Blystone scenes have a "BLY-15" prefix.  Unfortunately, the collection did not include stills from the Blystone reshoots.

Let us review a few of the stills. 

The following images show Teare in a distressing situation with Conklin and Davenport.  Teare is brandishing a letter or legal papers.  Pieces of smashed ceramic are at Teare's feet, which may be the reason the landlady is upset with her.

 

A large portion of the film evidently took place at a luxury boutique, where wealthy gentlemen were able to watch comely young women model clothing and jewelry.
Joe Murphy, Bynunsky Hyman, Bert Gillespie and Rosa Gore.

Conklin turns up at the boutique.

Rosa Gore (reclining) and Chester Conklin,
It is noted on the back of the photo that the woman sitting beside Conklin is Phyllis Haver.  It looks like Haver to me, but the actress' identity has been disputed by Ben Turpin biographer Steve Rydzewski.  Haver was a frequent co-star of Turpin during this period.

Ben Turpin and Phyllis Haver.
The boutique is, in a general, a wild place.

Rosa Gore, unidentified actress, Joe Murphy and Ford West

Bynunsky Hyman, Jim Donnelly (?), Rosa Gore, Chester Conklin and Bert Gillespie.

The boutique presumably spoofed the type of fine clothing salons frequented by the Los Angeles elite during this period.  The best example that I could find was Bullock's Wilshire, which opened in 1929.  Wikipedia describes the boutique as follows: "For refreshment, there was the top-floor desert-themed tearoom and the adjoining lounge where society women gathered for luncheon fashion shows.  Truly elite service was reserved for the selected men invited to shop in the privacy of J.G. Bullock's wood-paneled private suite on the fifth floor.  Titans of business and politics relaxed over cocktails and hors d'oeuvres as sales associates modeled potential gifts."


Los Angeles historian Hadley Meares wrote, "[E]ach department [had] its own little boutique.  Live models swayed around the Louis XIV salon in designer dresses, high rolling Hollywood players smoked cigars while being presented with shirts in Jo Bullock's wood-paneled private suite, and harried mothers could drop off their children in the crib-filled nursery before peeking into a room devoted solely to the creations of Coco Chanel, or indulging in a spritz of a new fragrance in the mirrored Hall of Perfume."


This photograph from a fashion exhibit at Bullock's Wilshire also shows models inserted in a life-sized picture frame.  But, of course, Del Ruth's boutique could be seen as ostentatious and salacious compared to Bullock's Wilshire.  My friend, Marilyn Slater, told me that she attended fashion shows at the boutique in the 1940s.  She said that, at the time, the place was "very stylish and posh" and the customers that it attracted were mostly "dignified women with white gloves."

Jack Cooper is caught hiding beneath an animal skin rug by Joe Murphy, Bert Gillespie and an unidentified actor.

Many stills from the film feature Harry Booker, Laura LaVarnie and Alta Allen.  It is difficult to figure out the story that was being told by these images.  Booker is clearly having money problems.

Harry Booker, Laura LaVarnie and Alta Allen.

He is so desperate that he attempts to rob the boutique.

Harry Booker, Alta Allen, Laura LaVarnie, Rosa Gore, Bynunsky Hyman and Ford West.
But what is Booker's relationship to LaVarnie and Allen?  It could be that Booker is LaVarnie's husband and Allen's father.


But it could be that the ladies have money and Booker is a broken-down old crook trying to cheat them out of their cash and steal their jewelry.

 
 

LaVarnie is unmoved by Booker's efforts to win her heart with flowers.

LaVarnie is displeased to find that Booker has invited the janitor into the suite for a smoke and a drink.


The disparate scenes only add to the confusion.  Teare has an entirely different look in this scene.  She is no longer wearing the country girl outfit and wig.

The actors are, from left to right, Gus Pixley, Lois Scott, Ethel Teare, Blanche Payson, Billy Franey and two uncredited extras.

Booker gets into all sorts of trouble at the boutique.

Harry Booker is caught with friendly fashion models by Rosa Gore, Laura LaVarnie and Alta Allen.

I have seen a still that features Cook dressed in a top hat and tuxedo, which suggests that the young man did win his inheritance in the end.

Perhaps, a Hippodrome show was not a good inspiration for a feature-length comedy.  It was eventually discovered that a problem with upsizing the Broadway musical was that it caused producers to neglect story and character development.  This is likely the same problem that hindered Skirts.  The film was a series of grand set-pieces that did not necessarily come together to advance the story or make the audience care about the circus handyman.  It is hard to imagine that Singer’s Midgets floating upstream in a big shoe or chorus girls dancing on tables at the banquet brought Cook's character any closer to defeating the evil strongman and winning his inheritance, which was supposed to be the whole point of the story.

Tombstone-like ad for Skirts.
Despite its failure, Skirts was a film history milestone, paving the way for the much better known comedy features of the 1920s.  Keaton and Lloyd kept the spectacular and expensive set-pieces.  Keaton especially liked to elevate comedy to a large and dangerous scale.  He used a train crash in The General (1926) and he used a flood and cyclone in Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928).  But both Keaton and Lloyd were careful to build sympathetic characters and interesting storylines around the large set-pieces and, just as important, they kept the large set-pieces funny.  This made a crucial difference.


This is not the sort of stunt that could be found in a Helen Holmes serial.

The one exception to this rule may have been The General's train wreck scene.  Michael Barrett, film critic with the PopMatters blog,wrote, "[T]he most famous stunt in The General has nothing to do with Keaton except as its creator.  It’s the collapse of a train on a burning bridge, which was reported as the most expensive sequence ever filmed to that time.  What does it mean that the most famous image in a Keaton film doesn’t have Keaton in it?  It’s certainly an impressive shot every time you see it — there’s the train really falling — but hardly a knee-slapper."

 
At least Keaton inserted himself into the train wreck in a publicity still.


Nonetheless, the stage was now set for the comedy feature to enter its Golden Age.

Cook's short comedy series for Fox continued for two more years.

Acknowledgement

The production stills from Skirts come from the Herrick Library's Hollywood Museum Collection.  I thank my friend Marilyn Slater for obtaining copies of the stills.  Marilyn went above and beyond the call of duty for the cause of film history.  She made multiple visits to the library and she diligently operated her scanner to assure the sharpest possible images.  Marilyn, you are the best!  I recommend that you visit Marilyn's Mabel Normand site at looking-for-mabel.webs.com.  I also thank Bob Birchard, Steve Zalusky and Steve Rydzewski for their assistance.

A big phooey to Mae Tince for calling Lloyd Hamilton "awful."  Being a true objective journalist, I could not say what I really thought of Miss Tince in the article.  And now, well, being a Christian man, I still can't say it!

I dedicate this series of articles to the memory of Mr. Harry Gribbon.

Flash the Dog gets between Harry Gribbon and Polly Moran in the 1928 MGM feature Honeymoon.
Moran, Flash and Gribbon in another still from Honeymoon.
Gribbon stars as a hard-nosed police detective in the 1930 Warner Brothers' feature The Gorilla.

Gribbon in another still from The Gorilla.

6 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. While there was a Bullock's downtow in 1921, the fabled Bullock's Wilshire didn't open until September 1929:
    http://carole-and-co.livejournal.com/445941.html

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  3. I thank you for this information. I will revise the article.

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  4. What a wonderful article. Fox comedy studio has always fascinated me. However because of this article I will mourn less the fact I can't see SKIRTS. I have a Xerox of an article around here (of course I can't find it when I need it) but it was a small town California paper reporting on a scene from SKIRTS being filmed there. They describe Jack Cooper as the star. He was filming at a train station.
    Had the privilege of meeting and conversing with Mr. Birchard at Mostly Lost this summer. I am all a twit awaiting for Bob and his collaborator's missive on Fox comedy.

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  5. I thank you for the kind words, Tommie. The loss of the Fox comedies ranks among the great losses of silent film. Let me know if you ever come across the train station article.

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