Saturday, April 28, 2018

The Spencer Bell Misidentification Syndrome


This is NOT Spencer Bell
One of the best known black comedians of the silent era was Spencer Bell, who achieved prominence while engaged by producer Jack White from 1922 to 1926.  While at White's Fine Arts Studio, Bell played a sidekick to Lige Conley in a series of Mermaid Comedies.


Bell and Conley functioned as a virtual comedy team.  This became evident to me when I enjoyed the team in a double feature, Wild Game (1924) and Below Zero (1925), at the Museum of Modern Art.  According to film history researcher Carlos Devanti, the team was billed in Italy as Pick and Puck.



The man hanging from the plane in this ad for Air Pockets is Bell.


Here are news articles that specifically identify Bell in this role.



Here is a screen capture of Bell hanging off the plane.


A second black actor, Henry Trask, also hangs off the bottom of a plane in this film.

 

Trask is mentioned in yet another news item.


Today, no reliable credit listing exists for Bell.  The Internet Movie Database lines up 78 actor credits for the funnyman, but the list is not entirely an accurate record.  To start, it is reasonable to assume that not all of Bell's screen appearances are identified on the list.  This is a common problem when it comes to credits for the supporting players of the period.  At this time, acting credits were limited to the lead actors and the lead support.  But a less common problem also mars the data.  A question has recently been raised among film historians if it is possible that many of the roles attributed to Bell belong to other actors.  Useful information has come from several sources, including Tommie Hicks, Richard Roberts, Robert Moulton, Lord David Heath and Steve Rydzewski.

In 1925, Chadwick Pictures Corporation circulated press releases for a black contract player billed under the gag name "G. Howe Black."


It has long been believed that G. Howe Black was actually Bell.  But comparing screen captures of Bell and screen captures of Howe show distinct physical differences between the men.

Bell is credited by IMDb with appearing in eight Larry Semon comedies from 1922 to 1924.  But screen credits do not verify this claim outright and a careful examination of the films has raised doubt in my mind that the black actor in the Semon films is Black.  From what I can see, the actor bears a strong resemblance to Curtis McHenry, a high-spirited comic actor who often played servant roles in Christie comedies.  McHenry did receive credit in one Semon comedy, Stop, Look and Listen (1926).


Let's talk a bit about McHenry.  McHenry transitioned from the circus to films in 1920.  He started with the L. K. O. series and soon moved to the Century Comedies, where he was known as "Snowball."  This is a 1922 news item in which "Snowball" is praised for performing "death defying stunts" with lions.


The comedian's affinity to animals is demonstrated by this news item found by Moulton.


McHenry is mostly recognized today for his work in the Christie comedies, but the comedian often remained nameless despite his stand-out work for the studio.  A review for the 1925 Christie comedy Call a Cop reports: "A colored comedian does some excellent work in a 'scared to death' scene with a skeleton." 


McHenry is identified in an on-screen title for Christie's Goofy Ghost (1928).


An exhibitor, who no doubt took notice of the credit title, went on to praise McHenry's work in the film.


McHenry is also known for having played Friday in Bryan Foy's 1924 satire of the classic "Robinson Crusoe" novel.


Other black comedians received better press attention in the Hollywood press during this period.




So, let me provide screen captures from the various (mostly fuzzy) prints and you can decide for yourself if Bell deserves all of his IMDb credits or if many of these credits in fact belong to McHenry.

We know for sure that Bell appeared in the following films:

Ten Dollars or Ten Days (1924)


Lizzies of The Field (1924) 
 

Fast and Furious (1924)


The Outlaw Dog (1927) 

 

Mickey's Luck (1930)


Smart Money (1931)


We know for sure that McHenry appeared in the following films:

The Lyin' Tamer (1926)


The Great K & A Train Robbery (1926) 


Isle of Sunken Gold (1927)


Hold 'Er Cowboy (1928)  



Goofy Ghosts (1928)

So, fine, you now know what Bell and McHenry look like.  Here is the uncredited actor that appears in Semon films from 1922 to 1924:

The Counter Jumper (1922) 




Horseshoes (1923)


Lightning Love (1923)


No Wedding Bells (1923)


The Gown Shop (1923)



Kid Speed (1924) 

Her Boyfriend (1924)


Dome Doctor (1925)


The Cloudhopper (1925)


Here is the actor billed as G. Howe Black:

The Wizard of Oz (1925) 


Blue Blood (1925) 


The Perfect Clown (1925) 


 
 



Keep in mind is that the character is called "Snowball," which was McHenry's usual name on screen.


What do you think?


Additional notes

This article, which is dated December 4, 1920, was uncovered by Robert Moulton.


The article is important as it may identify two black comedians that have remained unknown for decades.  Film historians have questioned who played Buster Keaton's caddy in Convict 13 (1920).

 
This just might be Thurston Brooks, who we now know from the article was working with Keaton at the time.  Convict 13's caddy bears a distinct resemblance to an uncredited comedian who acted as Larry Semon's sidekick in The Sportsman, which was filmed the same month that this article was published.


 

It is noted in the article that a black comedian working with Semon at the time was Huel Brooks.  Could the actor in The Sportsman be Huel Brooks?  I also cannot help but wonder if Huel Brooks and Thurston Brooks are the same man.


At the time, audiences couldn't always tell the difference between a white actor in blackface and an actor with a natural black coloring.

    
Tom Wilson, best know as the cop who tormented Charlie Chaplin in The Kid (1921), adopted blackface for several film roles.


Wilson appeared in blackface in Fox's Goodbye Girls (1923).  An exhibitor in Baltimore reported, "Tom Wilson, negro comedian, keeps 'em laughing from start to finish."

Charles "Heinie" Conklin appeared in blackface in George Washington Jr. (1924).  A Detroit exhibitor wrote, "[T]he colored comedian carries off the bacon."  An Akron exhibitor noted, "The colored comedian is the whole show."  An exhibitor from Conway, New Hampshire, declared, "Colored comedian kept audience in a roar."


Update (May 8, 2018): I acknowledged in this article that an important source of information was Steve Rydzewski, but I failed to clarify that Rydzewski was the first film historian to specifically identify G. Howe Black as Curtis McHenry.

2 comments:

  1. The man pictured with Lige Conley in the FAST AND FURIOUS lobby is Harry Thaw. As per the WHITE BROTHERS book, Jack White hired Thaw and Bell and had to also make them perform janitorial jobs. Although Thaw is in 99% of F&F, there are shots of Spencer Bell subbing for Thaw on the hand car.
    Bell and McHenry do resemble each other greatly as does Clarence Muse. Bell's nose is flat on the end.
    As for the fellow who plays Keaton's caddy in CONVICT 13, I had his unconfirmed name as Bumps Adams. I wish I could identify the Universal "black guy" as he is in tons of SiCom. I have researched these fellows for years and this subject is the one with least information.
    What amazes me about silent comedy is that were scores of first rate comedians. Here's a great "what if" speculation: If the teen and twenties weren't so racist, think of the dozens of comic masters who would have undoubtedly emerged.

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  2. I have a copy of Huel Brooks death certificate. It indicated he was employed as an actor. Thanks for proving he was. I also have a copy of Spencer Bell's death certificate.

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