Saturday, November 4, 2017

So You Want to ID Films


Billy West is a legend among silent comedy fans for his astonishingly accurate impersonation of Charlie Chaplin, which he performed in dozens of clever and fast-paced short comedies from 1916 to 1920.  Exhibitors who were unable to pay the high rental rates for the latest Chaplin comedy were content to book the latest West comedy.  It was reported by The Film Daily (April 4, 1920): "There are numerous fans, particularly among those who patronize the moderate-sized and smaller houses, who are willing to accept the West productions and find them laughable."  Some patrons may have preferred West's simple, good-natured comedies to the increasingly sophisticated comedies that Chaplin was producing.  It is comparable to Beatles fans flocking to the Bee Gees after the Beatles got fancy with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.


Still, it must be noted that West's comedies also received bookings in large metropolitan theatres.  For instance, The Orderly played in major Loew's theaters throughout New York City.  The exhibitors in major cities were big promoters of West.  Harry C. Miller, the manager of the Boston Theatre, offered positive words about The Orderly to Motography (April 20, 1918).  He wrote:  "It has come to pass that you can hardly tell Billy from Charlie, and he seems to go over practically as strong, considering that he is not so well known.  He is gaining popularity and with a few original pictures, I believe he is made."  Similar praise of the film came from Charles H. Ryan, manager of Chicago's Garfield Theatre.  Ryan wrote, "Our patrons like Billy West and we are not missing the Chaplin comedies since we have started these.  This one gets many laughs."


Kalton C. Lahue and Sam Gill considered the appeal of West in their classic silent comedy study "Clown Princes and Court Jesters."  They wrote:
Billy's tramp was another dimension of Charlie's.  Where Chaplin's little fellow exhibited a tendency towards cynicism, tempered with a degree of hopeful optimism (which was always badly bent by the fade out), Billy's tramp was the cheerful optimism who is treated pretty decently by faith.  Most of his problems came about as a result of his own carefree ineptitude.

In my last "Tidbits" article, I posted a screen capture from an unidentified West comedy.  It was my guess that the film was The Villain or The Millionaire.  It was a process of elimination.  I had never come across this scene in the West comedies that I had seen, so I was able immediately eliminate those films from consideration.  I turned up plot summaries for other films in trade magazines.  This allowed me to eliminate many more films.  For instance, I found this plot summary for The Slave in Motography.


The plot summary begins, "Billy is a slave in the palace of the Sultan of Bacteria."  The frame captures present no evidence of a sultan, a palace, slaves, or harem girls.  This obviously was not the right film.

Still, my guess was not a good one.  Steve Massa informed me that he has seen both The Villain and The Millionaire and neither film contains the scene depicted in the screen captures.


The problem was that I focused my attention on the films that West made for King-Bee and Bull's Eye.  It seemed at the time to be a reasonable strategy.  The most obvious clue to take from the screen captures is that West is made up to look like Chaplin.  It was in the King-Bee and Bull's Eye series that the comedian made a habit of dressing in Chaplin's habit.  As noted earlier, West is generally known to have functioned as a Chaplin imitator from 1916 to 1920, at which time he abandoned the Chaplin outfit, make-up and eccentricities for an entirely new look and personality.  But could West have ever reverted to his Chaplin impersonation in one of his later series?  This is what Mr. Massa suggests in his own speculation on the matter.  He pointed out that, from the screen captures, it looks as if West is attempting to copy Chaplin's The Idle Class.  It isn't hard to see a resemblance.  The Idle Class features Chaplin in dual roles - the tramp character and a wealthy man.  The climax of The Idle Class is set at a masquerade ball, which is also the setting of the West scene in question.  The costumes that West wore for the scene are even similar to the costumes that Chaplin wore for The Idle Class.  But The Idle Class wasn't released until September 25, 1921.  West doing his own take on The Idle Class would mean that the comedian departed from his 1920's character and, for at least this one time, made a forthright comeback as the world's greatest Chaplin impersonator.  It's a shame no one in the press took notice.


I worked hard to identify this film from the screen captures.  I went as far as assembling my own Billy West filmography.  But associating these images to a specific film is made difficult by the fact that few of West's post-1920 films survive.  It is usually possible when investigating a lost film to look to old trade magazines for production information, plot details and critical assessment.  But the films that West made during this period generally received little coverage in trade magazines.


What about identifying the film from other cast members?  The only other actor in the frames that I could identify was the leading lady, Ethelyn Gibson.  Gibson, who was married to West, was the comedian's leading lady from 1917 to 1926.  The actress managed during that time to appear in most of the comedian's films.  This didn't help me to narrow my search at all.

Billy West and Ethelyn Gibson
When all is said and done, I failed to solve the mystery.


I will at least share my West filmography.  This should not be taken as an authoritative work.  It was something that I put together in a few days.

West started out performing his Chaplin act in vaudeville.  The act, billed as "Is He Chaplin?", played at major vaudeville houses throughout the country.


Thomas Saxe was a co-owner of Saxe Amusement Enterprises, a palatial theatre chain in Wisconsin.  In 1915, Saxe booked West at his Crystal Theater in Milwaukee. 


A news item from The Moving Picture World (July 3, 1915, p. 92) indicates that Saxe was so impressed with the comedian that he ventured into film production to bring the "Is He Chaplin?" act to motion pictures.


Saxe was later a co-founder of First National Pictures, but I could find no evidence that the theatre chain owner became involved in film production as early as 1915.  More important, I could find no evidence of the films that West was reported to have made with Saxe.

The first West films on record were produced by Unicorn Film Service.


Unicorn Film Service (1916)

His Married Life (December 1, 1916)
Bombs and Boarders (1916)
His Waiting Career (1916)


King-Bee Film Corporation (1917 to 1918)

Unicorn Film Service sold West's contract to King-Bee Film Corporation during a bankruptcy liquidation.

Back Stage (May 15, 1917) (A print is held at Nederlands Filmmuseum)
The Hero (June 1, 1917)
Dough Nuts (June 15, 1916)
Cupid's Rival (July 1, 1917)
The Villain (July 15, 1917)
The Millionaire (August 1, 1917) (Nederlands Filmmuseum)
The Goat (August 15, 1917)
The Fly Cop (September 15, 1917)
The Chief Cook (October 1, 1917)
The Candy Kid (October 15, 1917)
The Hobo (November 1, 1917)
The Freeloader (working title: The Pest) (November 15, 1917)
The Band Master (December 1, 1917)
The Slave (December 15, 1917)
The Stranger (working title: The Prospector) (January 1, 1918)
His Day Out (working title: The Barber) (January 15, 1918)
The Rogue (February 15, 1918)
The Orderly (March 1, 1918)
The Scholar (March 15, 1918)
The Messenger (April 1, 1918)
The Handy Man (May 1, 1918)
Bright and Early (May 15, 1918)
The Straight and Narrow (June 1, 1918)
Playmates (July 1, 1918)
Beauties in Distress (working title: The King of the Volcano) (July 15, 1918)


West's King-Bee films were often gag-driven.  Let us take, for instance, The Orderly, in which West plays an orderly at the Peace and Quiet Sanitarium.  Here is a description of the plot provided by Moving Picture World:
In The Orderly the action takes place in a sanitarium, and Billy is cast as a disorderly orderly.  He indulges in such pranks as putting a bulldog in a patient's bed in place of a hot water bottle; scrubbing the floor by attaching brushes to his feet; placing ice in another patient's bed to reduce his temperature, and giving still another patient a foot bath under somewhat embarrassing circumstances.
The Scholar, which features West as a student, has a schoolroom setting.  The Chicago Board of Censors required the removal of a scenes that show the following: a man pulling a pincushion from his posterior, the silhouette of girl undressing, West striking a boy with slingshot in posterior as the boy bends over, a man's underwear exposed through his torn trousers, and a fat man exposing underwear as he falls to the ground.  This does not suggest subtle humor. 

West eventually followed Chaplin's lead in making room in his films for pathos.  He is sympathetic in The Straight and Narrow, which involves an ex-convict pressured by an old cellmate to participate in a safecracking scheme.


Here is a detailed synopsis for The Stranger provided by Moving Picture World:
After a luckless prospecting trip, Billy starts homeward across the desert, mounted on his little burro with his pick, shovel and pack strapped up behind him.  Finally he comes in sight of Red Dog Gulch and, hungry and thirsty, he pushes on toward the city.  Susie is the daughter of the town drunkard.  She starts out on her horse for a little ride, and a little way from town is attacked by Pedro and Little Casino, two Mexicans, who try to steal her horse.  Billy happens along, runs the Mexicans off and takes Susie back to town. 

Arriving in town, Billy's first thought is for food.  Being without a cent, he hocks the burro in the local pawnshop and goes at once to the restaurant, where he orders a large feed.  In the midst of his dinner, he remembers the burro, and knowing that he must be hungry, too, Billy gathers the rest of his dinner and goes to feed his little pal.  The pawnshop is closed for the night, and Billy breaks in a window and feeds the burro.  He is discovered by the pawnbroker and arrested for burglary, though with Susie to vouch for him, the court soon releases him.

Billy then wanders into the main saloon, gambling room, dance hall, where he has many exciting adventures with the roulette wheels with a dance-hall vampire and with the local bad man.  He finally gets into such a mess that he is forced to run for his life.  He breaks into the pawnshop again and steals his burro out to escape on.  Then with most of the town in pursuit, he starts out across the desert.

Meanwhile, Oliver, who is the owner of the saloon, has been making love to Susie, who resents it and will have nothing to do with him.  Oliver then engages Pedro and Little Casino to kidnap the girl.  They do, and are just taking her to their den in the mountains when Billy, in trying to escape from the posse, blunders into them and makes the capture.  The posse arrives, bent on hanging Billy, but when they find that he has rescued the pet of the town, they give him three cheers and hang the Mexicans instead.  Billy then beats up Oliver for his share in the proceedings, and Susie rewards him in the best approved style.
It is obvious that West modeled this film on Chaplin's The Tramp (1915), which contains many of the same plot elements.  Still, it is an unusually complex and well-developed story for a two-reel slapstick comedy. West breaking into the pawnshop to feed his burro likely left a lump in the throat of many viewers.


Apart from the episodes of pathos, West was able at times to depart from pincushion-in-the-posterior humor for more clever and imaginative comic business.  His Day Out contains one of my favorite West routines.  West, who is posing as a barber, warmly welcomes a bearded man to sit in his chair.  Like Chaplin, West is dedicated as an imposter.  If he's going to be a fake barber, he's going to be the best fake barber he can be.  He uses an electric razor to meticulously remove the man's unruly beard.  After the man is clean shaven, West generously applies powder to the man's face and vigorously rubs tonic into his hair.   To make sure the man leaves the shop looking his best, he pulls out a comb and neatly combs his hair.  But the man is appallingly ungrateful, attempting to leave the shop without paying.  He snidely tells West, "You can keep the hair."  West, abandoning his efforts at courtesy, shoves the man back into the chair and switches the electric razor to reverse, which allows him to miraculously reapply the shorn whiskers to the man's face.

Oliver Hardy chokes West in The Rogue (1918).
King-Bee executives were determined to showcase West in a five-reel feature.
Motion Picture News (September 22, 1917)

The King-Bee Film Corporation announces that it is considering the production of a five-reel comedy with Billy West as the star in a modern version of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," with Billy West playing the great lover.

Moving Picture World (November 10, 1917)

About January 1, Billy West will be seen in the first five-reeler made by the King-Bee company entitled King Solomon.

Motion Picture News (December 1, 1917)

King Solomon, the title of the King-Bee Comedy, featuring Billy West, now under production, has been changed to Old King Sol.   This change was made by Nat I. Spitzer, sales manager of King-Bee after receipt of a letter from a London company, stating that it had the world rights to a picture under the title King Solomon.   Old King Sol will be the first five-reel production made by King- Bee with Billy West featured.
The feature was never produced.

Higrade Film Enterprises (1918)

In 1918, West left King-Bee for Higrade Film Enterprises.  He is known to have produced three films for Higrade.  The films were distributed by General Film Company.

Bunco Billy  Billy (1918) 
Bombs and Bull (1918)  
Billy in Harness (1918)


West needed to take time off from work to recuperate from influenza.  He remained bedridden from October to December.

Mack Swain played a heavy in West's Bull's Eye series.
In 1918, King-Bee was purchased by new owners, who renamed the company Bull's Eye Film Corporation.  Shortly after, West signed a four-year contract with Bull’s Eye.  West went into production for Bull's Eye in December, 1918.  On May 20, 1919, it was announced that West had defected to Emerald Motion Picture Company.  The actor claimed to have left King Bee because the company had failed to live up to the terms of their contract.  Bull's Eye filed an injunction application to restrain Emerald from releasing West comedies.  A trial was held from May 19 to June 30.  Judge Samuel Alschuler denied the Bull's Eye company's injunction request.

West is being arrested by Leo White in a scene from The Chauffeur (1919).  It was during the making of the Bull's Eye series (possibly during the making of The Chauffeur) that a trick automobile collapsed on White, knocking out two of the actor's teeth.
Bull's Eye and Emerald ended their legal battles by merging their assets.  In the end, West's Bull's Eye series became an odd smorgasbord.  To start, it consisted of unreleased King-Bee films purchased by Bull's Eye as elements of King-Bee's corporate assets.  It included films that West produced for Bull's Eye before defecting from the company.  It included films that Bull's Eye produced after West's defection and using Harry Mann or Monty Banks as a stand-in for West.  It included films that West produced for Emerald.


I am aware of three alleged West films that actually starred Mann - Flirts, Her Tender Feet and Don't Park Here.  They were omitted from this list.  Bull's Eye released later films under the "Billy West Comedies" banner even though West was still absent.  One such film was A Scented Romance, which starred Sid Smith.

Bull's Eye Film Corporation (1919)

He's in Again (working title: A Good Day) (December 15, 1918)
Rolling Stone (January 20, 1919) (LOC)
Ship Ahoy! (February, 1919) (extant)
Her First False Hare (May 19, 1919) 
Her Nitro Night (December 1, 1919)
Haunted Hearts (December 15, 1919)
The Chauffeur (1919)
Lured (1919)
Coppers and Scents (1919) 
Out of Tune (1919)  
Soaked (1919)  
The Wrong Flat (newspaper ads: January 28, 1919 and July 19, 1919)



Reelcraft (1920)

It is not clear to me what West was doing in 1919 while his backlog of films were being rolled out to theaters.  It was announced on March 30, 1920, that Reelcraft had absorbed the assets of Bull's Eye and Emerald, which included West's contract.  West is not shown to be working again until he joined Reelcraft in 1920.  Reelcraft promoted West's new series in an ad published in Moving Picture World on April 24, 1920.  The company announced that West's new comedies were to show the comedian "as himself on his merits alone discarding the derby hat, baggy trousers, shoes and cane."  In 2015, Will Sloan of Partisan Magazine wrote, "West starred in these comedies as a dapper city slicker – trimmer moustache, more stylish clothes. . . [N]o longer a Tramp clone. . ."

West's mimicry of Chaplin has never failed to enchant me.  But my interest in the comedian quickly wanes whenever I watch him perform as this new character.  His timing is still impeccable.  His pantomime skills are still admirable.  But the dapper city slicker is uninteresting to me. 

The Strike Breaker (March, 1920)
The Masquerader (April, 1920) 
Brass Buttons (April, 1920) 
The Dreamer (May, 1920)
The Beauty Shop (May, 1920) (Nederlands Filmmuseum)
The Artist (June, 1920)
Hard Luck (June, 1920)
What Next? (July, 1920)
Italian Love (July, 1920) (extant)
Hands Up (August, 1920)   (MoMA)
Going Straight (August, 1920) (MoMA)
The Dodger
Mustered Out  
Happy Days
Foiled
Cleaning Up (LOC)
Blue Blood and Bevo


Joan Comedies (1920 to 1921)


A new West series was announced on September 25, 1920.  Joan Film Sales was scheduled to release 12 comedies on a one-per-month basis starting in November.  The following was reported in Moving Picture World on December 18, 1920: "In this series, Joan announces that Billy West will be seen in a different kind of role from any he has previously portrayed and that his work will also be distinctly different from that of other screen comedians. . ."  I was only able to find eleven titles.  The first film, Sweethearts, featured West's misadventures in a Chinese den, which was far from an original premise.


Sweethearts  (November, 1920)
Service Stripes (December, 1921)
He's In Again (January, 1921) (Nederlands Filmmuseum)
The Conquering Hero (February, 1921)
Best Man Wins (March, 1921)
He Loves Her Still (April, 1921)
Why Marry? (May 1921)
Happy Days (June, 1921)
Italian Love (August, 1921?)
The Darn Fool (October, 1921?)
The Sap (1921)


Sunrise Comedies (1922)

On March 15, 1922, C. B. C. Film Sales announced yet another new series of West comedies.  The company was scheduled to release 26 comedies on a biweekly basis.  The series was originally set to be called Sunbeam Comedies, but the name was later changed to Sunrise Comedies.  The series was produced by Harry Cohn and directed by Malcolm St. Clair.  I could only locate four titles in the series.  It is possible that there are more titles, but it is certain that the series ended far earlier than planned. 

Don't Be Foolish
(1922)
You'd Be Surprised (1922)
Wedding Dumbbells (1922)
I'm Here (1922)

Lahue and Gill wrote:
Don't Be Foolish is a minor classic of carefully thought-out sequences and sight gags, smoothly blended together and moving to a climax at a rapid pace.  Billy West was one of those few screen comics who believed that standing around doing nothing was just padding and Don't Be Foolish is certainly example of moving screen comedy.

Smart Films (1922)

West entered into an agreement to make a series of films for Smart Films.  Arvid E. Gillstrom supervised production, which began in the fall of 1922.  The first film completed production in November and a second film went into production but may not have been completed.   

Why Worry?
(1922)
It's Going to Be a Coal Winter (1922)

Why Worry? involves West visiting a garage and falling in love with the owner's daughter.  This makes him an enemy of the chief mechanic, who is also is interested in the young lady.  Lillian Gale of Motion Picture News wrote: "The comedian is the usual low comedy type, wearing ill fitting clothes and always getting in 'bad.'"  Film Daily wrote:
Billy West without his mustache and shuffling feet is starred in this two-reeler, the first of a new series.  Those who like him may be satisfied with his latest offering, but the comedy is neither particularly funny or high class.  The sequence in which West takes a mouthful of supposed nitroglycerin and pursues the villain by being literally a spit-fire in action, while a new idea, may be disliked by some audiences.
The plot is neither sophisticated nor novel.


Broadway Comedies (1923 to 1925)


Broadway Comedies were produced by Cumberland Productions and distributed by Arrow Film Corporation. 

One Exciting Evening (October 1, 1923)
Be Yourself  (November 1, 1923)
Hello Bill (December 1, 1923) (Looser than Loose)
Pay Up (January 1, 1924) 
Hello, Stranger  (February 1, 1924) 
The Nervous Reporter (March 1, 1924) (LOC) 
Not Wanted (April 1, 1924) (extant)
Oh, Billy!  (May 1, 1924) 
Dyin' for Love (May 15, 1924) (LOC)
Two After One (June 1, 1924) 
That's That (July 1, 1924)
Don't Slip (September 1, 1924)
Line's Busy (September 15, 1924) (extant)
Love (October 15, 1924) (extant)
Meet Father (November 15, 1924) 
Watch Out! (December 15, 1924)
Phone Troubles (newspaper ad: July 5, 1924) This could be an alternate title for Line's Busy.
Midnight Watch (newspaper ad: August 29, 1924)
So Long, Dad (newspaper ad: September 10, 1924)
Believe Me (working title: Start Here) (January 15, 1925) (LOC)  
Hard-Hearted Husbands (February 15, 1925)
Rivals  (March 15, 1925) (LOC)  
Copper Butt-Ins (April 15, 1925) 
West Is West (May 15, 1925) (extant)
Fiddlin' Around (June 15, 1925) (Looser than Loose)
The Joke's On You (working title: A Day's Vacation) (July 15, 1925) (extant)
So Long, Bill (August 15, 1925) (extant)
Hard Boiled Yeggs (1926) (extant) 


The Features (1926 to 1927)


West's feature films were produced by Billy West Productions and distributed by Rayart Pictures.

It surprised me to learn that West starred in four feature films.  The films were marketed as comedy dramas.  It was promised in promotional material that the films would emphasize tender and romantic stories rather than swift and rowdy slapstick.  West was willing to set aside his gag-driven ways of the past.  It was his priority to make himself a sympathetic protagonist and develop an appealing romantic plot around himself and his leading lady.   Lucky Fool was the first of the films to be produced, but it was the last one to be released.  A reasonable assumption is that West did not trust the film to grant him a strong debut in the feature market. 

Thrilling Youth (August 3, 1926) (MoMA) 

Motion Picture News provided the following synopsis:
Billy Davis leaves college, find dad in financial trouble, works to make the bakery business a success.  He is in love with Mary Bryson, whose father is a big competitor in the bread business.  Bryson's secretary bribes Davis foreman to put cement in the bread.  Billy, warned by Mary, tells customers of the trick by airplane sky-written message.  Bryson denounces his secretary for underhand plotting and latter is severely beaten by Billy, whose romance with Mary is happily concluded.
Here is what they thought of the film:
There's more of the human interest touch to this picture than you usually find in a comedy, as a good deal of its plot centers on the attempt of an ex-collegian hero to make good in business after having had quite a hectic career in the pleasure-pursuing line.  At first sight it would seem difficult to associate romance with bread-making, but both romance and merriment enter largely into the dough-kneading stunts flashed in this film.  Dapper Billy West, always a smilingly pleasing personality, puts a lot of pep into his character sketch of the Davis lad and keeps his audience continually on the broad grin with amusing antics.
The idea of cement being mixed into bread was a stock gimmick used in short comedies for years.  It is not promising that this was a major plot point of West's feature debut.

Oh, Billy, Behave (October 27, 1926)

The Trouble Chaser (March 9, 1927) (MoMA)

Lucky Fool (working title: Help! Police!) (April 18, 1927) (MoMA)

West's company was bankrupt by the time that he finished the four features.


One last short comedy from West was released in 1927.  The film, One Hour to Play, was possibly footage cut from one of West's features.

West spent the rest of his film career playing bit parts in feature films.  The actor can be seen as a clown in this scene from The Shadow of the Eagle (1932).


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