Tuesday, October 4, 2011

A Race Comedy Curio from Monty Banks

The Funny Parts includes a discussion of a film that earns the title of "The Most Racist Comedy in Silent Cinema History." This film went awry for taking the conventional "scared black servant" routine to an extreme. But I came across a second comedy that uses black characters in a highly questionable manner and yet expresses little regard for convention. The film is a Monty Banks comedy, Where is My Wife? (1921).

Banks, who is roaming along a sunny beach, is thrilled by the silhouettes of bathing beauties visible on the outside of a changing tent. He makes his way to meet the ladies, but the ladies startle him when they emerge from the tent and reveal themselves to be black. Banks, in the grip of terror, wastes no time in fleeing the scene.

Black people plague Banks throughout his weekend. The next day, Banks has to leave town unexpectedly on business. He is exiting his hotel when a black janitor accidentally smacks him in the face with a broom. Banks becomes so incensed that he grabs the broom and snaps it in half. Banks then goes outside and hails down a cab. The driver who pulls up is also black. Banks has just finished loading his luggage into the back of the cab when the driver stomps hastily on the gas pedal and drives off without him. Banks races after the cab and, when he finally catches up, he breathlessly demands his luggage. The two men get into a heated argument when Banks refuses to pay the driver. Banks observes the driver reaching into his pocket and, assuming the man is about to pull a knife, he quickly concedes to pay the fare and dumps a fistful of cash into the driver's hand. It is at this point that the driver brings his hand out of his pocket and Banks sees that all the man is holding is a handkerchief. Banks has already argued with a black janitor and a black cabdriver and now, as he enters the train station, he has an altercation with a pair of black train attendants.

The film ends with Banks sprinting back to the hotel under the mistaken impression that his wife is cheating on him. He has the worst possible shock when he sees the black janitor leaving his lodging and assumes that this man must be his wife's lover. He is so overwhelmed that he faints. His wife rushes to his side to revive him and, when he realizes his suspicions were misguided, he feels so diminished in stature that his body literally shrinks in size.

Banks is not normally at odds with black people in his films. Clyde Bruckman, who wrote the story, did not generally treat black characters in this heated manner. In an examination of Bruckman's oeuvre, examples can be found of other less than competent black janitors (Willie Best in Feet First, 1930) and the point could be made that Bruckman created his share of scared black servants (Dudley Dickerson in Nervous Shakedown, 1947), but the attitude of Where is My Wife? is never otherwise expressed in the writer's known work.

The routine with the black bathing beauties is a standard routine, which Bruckman later reworked for Buster Keaton's Seven Chances (1925). But the other scenes, in which a relentless stream of black service workers create problems for Banks with their assumed ineptitude and unsavory habits, are wholly unique. This does not resemble the random leakage of racist sentiments from the filmmakers. By every indication, the filmmakers were looking to service the story with these incidents and specifically designed this series of scenes as a build up for what happens at the end. All of this businessman's fears and frustrations about black service workers and his anxiety about interracial coupling culminate in the moment when he believes that his wife has had sex with the black janitor.

Admittedly, the film's logic (if any) cannot be stated with decisiveness. The black characters are stereotypes of the day. The black janitor (a white actor in blackface) carries around a horseshoe for luck and walks around looking perpetually dumfounded. But it is important to consider that the janitor didn't have sex with Banks' wife; the janitor might not have hit Banks with his broom if Banks had been looking where he was going when he sprinted out of the hotel; and the cab driver, incompetent or not, did not try to pull a knife. The paranoia of Banks' character seems to be less about jealousy and more about racism. The viewer is free to interpret the film as he sees fit. It could be interpreted as a mockery of the black labor force or it could be interpreted as indictment of racism. The message of the film, whether the character is overwhelmed by jealousy or racism, is that making assumptions leads to foolish mistakes and makes a man small. In either case, Where is My Wife? is a curious little film.


Billie Reeves Makes His Film Debut

Charlie Chaplin achieved popularity on stage playing a drunk theater patron in the Karno troupe's classic "Mumming Birds" sketch.  The sketch was well established by the time that Chaplin stepped into the role, which had been originated by Billie Reeves when the sketch debuted in 1904.  It was due in no small part to Reeves' performance that the sketch became an immediate sensation.  The actors who succeeded Reeves in the role would have no doubt felt pressure to follow Reeves' example in order to assure the sketch's continued success.  Under the circumstances, it is conceivable for Reeves to have served as an early role model to Chaplin.

I considered Reeves' possible influence on Chaplin as I was looking through 1915 issues of The Moving Picture World and came across ads, notices and reviews for three short films starring Reeves.  The films, Counting Out the Count, The Substitute and The Clubman, happen to be the first three films to feature the comedian.  Counting Out the Count, in which Reeves poses as a count at a society function, sounds much like a later film by Chaplin called The Count (1916).  The Substitute finds Reeves up to acrobatic tricks.  The comedian dons roller skates at a restaurant and, as he rolls across the floor, he collides with waiters, topples patrons, and becomes hopelessly entangled with other skaters.  No doubt remains from the plot description provided by The Moving Picture World that the film was a forerunner to Chaplin's The Rink (1916).  The plot of Reeves' The Clubman is described as follows:

He is the ridiculously inebriated man about town who is summoned home by his wife during the course of a wild night at his club.  He zig-zags homeward.  Billy's tour of inspection of his rooms leaves in its wake the desolation of an earthquake.  He is hard on the furniture and bric-a-brac.  He wanders to the music room and becomes entangled in a tiger-skin rug.  The thing coils itself around his leg and Billy's foot somehow gets between its jaws.  His wife, awakened by her husband's frenzied howls, hurries downstairs to encounter Billy deliriously endeavoring to escape the beast.  He finally succeeds and so frightens his wife with it that she scampers upstairs.  After battling with a pillow and becoming almost stifled by the clouds of feathers which rise from the scene, Billy silences the innocent chirp of the canary by eating him and, exhausted, falls into deep sleep.

This is the same basic plot that Chaplin later used in One A.M. (1916).  Chaplin, in his inebriated state, also does battle with a tiger-skin rug and other inanimate objects around his house.  These various actions make the films comparable, though Reeves' battle with a pillow is admittedly less ambitious than Chaplin's battle with an entire bed.

It is possible that a tramp posing as a count, a bungler creating havoc on roller skates and a drunken man stumbling through his home were skit premises shared by many comedians in the English Music Hall.  Still, it was Reeves who brought these ideas in full form to the silver screen and it suggests that perhaps Chaplin looked to this prominent forebear for inspiration at this early stage in his career.

In either case, it is a shame that prints of Reeves' films are rare and the comedian is largely unknown even to silent film comedy fans.  He deserves to be known just for the fact that he may have had the original Shemp haircut.  Just read the description of his hair style as described by Kalton C. Lahue and Sam Gill in Clown Princes and Court Jesters: "His long hair, parted in the middle and combed down around his ears, gave Billy a rather shaggy appearance, especially when he was excited."

In closing, here is a photo of Reeves in tramp garb.

Additional Note (published September 12, 2014):
Michael J. Hayde provided further information on this subject in his new book, Chaplin's Vintage Year: The History of the Mutual-Chaplin Specials.

In 1912, Reeves toured vaudeville houses with a sketch entitled "Too Full for Words; or, A Lesson in Temperance."  Reeves set out to create a film adaptation of this sketch when he made The Clubman.  Intriguing, though, is the fact that a Variety critic described an important element of the sketch that was not identified in reviews of The Clubman.  The main character originally contended with props that manage, through concealed springs and wires, to function in ways that oppose the homeowner.  For instance, Reeves found himself unable to insert his key into the lock of his front door because the keyhole repeatedly moved away from the key.  The moving props were likely meant to express the drunk man's disoriented perspective.  It might appear to a man who is inebriated that he is unable to get his key in the door lock because the keyhole keeps moving on him. 

Chaplin, who had seen the sketch with Reeves' brother Alf, altered the routine by eliminating the mechanical props.  Chaplin's props remain inanimate, which doesn't make it any easier for the addled man to handle them.  This change allowed Chaplin to get the laughs rather than the props getting the laughs.

Of course, this presumes that Reeves didn't abandon the mechanical props himself by the time that he made The Clubman.  We can never know this unless the film becomes available.  Nevertheless, I maintain the same position in either case.  Chaplin's changes, as original and effective as they may be, do not alter the fact that One A.M. is essentially an uncredited film adaptation of the Reeves sketch.

Two of the earliest comedy films made use of a similar premise and even similar titles.  Robert W. Paul's Two A.M.; or, The Husband's Return (1896) involves an inebriated husband who stumbles home late at night and tries to get frisky with his annoyed wife.  The Biograph catalog reported the premise of The Prodigal's Return; 3 a.m. (1896) as follows: "Return of the clubman after a big time at the club.  His efforts to undress and get into bed are very laughable."  What made Reeves' routine unique was its clever and extensive use of props, which is something that clearly appealed to Chaplin.

Other information provided by Hayden suggests that Chaplin adapted The Rink from one of his stage routines.  The routine, which was simply titled "Skating," was submitted to producer Fred Karno by Sydney Chaplin and J. Hickory Wood.  Sydney performed the lead role when the sketch debuted in 1909.  In the same year, brother Charlie performed the routine while on tour with the Karno company.  Reeves briefly returned to Karno in 1911 and might have performed the "Skating" routine at that time.  In the end, no evidence exists to show that Reeves had any claim of ownership on the routine.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Dick Van Dyke Show Blogathon Bonus

As a Dick Van Dyke Show Blogathon bonus, I have written a second article consistent to my blog's ongoing efforts to recount the history of gags and routines.

Carl Reiner, who ran the daily operation of The Dick Van Dyke Show for its entire five-year run, was determined that the series never be a conventional sitcom that relied on standard plots.  This attitude was reflected by his on-screen surrogate, Rob Petrie, who made it his goal as head writer of The Alan Brady Show to produce material that was new and different.  This is evident in writer meetings between Rob, Buddy and Sally.  Buddy is always quick to offer an old vaudeville joke, but Rob invariably dismisses these jokes and encourages his staff to come up with something better.  It is the height of embarrassment for Rob when, in the 1963 episode "When a Bowling Pin Talks, Listen," he learns that a sketch idea he got from his son is not original at all and in fact came from his son's favorite series, The Uncle Spunky Show.  Still, as much as Reiner was determined to be original, I can think of at least two Van Dyke episodes based on old tropes that went as far back as silent films.

The script to the first season episode "The Curious Thing About Women" was written by Frank Tarloff.  The plot was simple.  Rob, looking to discourage Laura from opening his mail, arranges for a mysterious package to be delivered to their home.  Laura, unable to contain her curiosity, opens the package and a self-inflating raft bursts loose.

Reiner was reluctant at first to accept the script.  According to Vince Waldron, the author of The Official Dick Van Dyke Show Book, Reiner believed the script "hewed a bit too close to traditional sitcom conventions for his somewhat less formulaic sensibilities."  Reiner's reluctance is explained at length in the following excerpt from Waldron's book:

"I didn't love the fact that we made Mary so silly that she had to open the package," says Reiner, who confesses that his biggest problem with Frank Tarloff's script was that he simply couldn't imagine his own wife - or anyone else's, for that matter - behaving as Laura Petrie does in the episode.  "I made Laura a little sillier than my wife," explains Reiner, "but I was still basing things on Estelle.  And I never liked that show particularly, because that wasn't my wife."  

But, despite his reservations about the script, Reiner was willing to loosen his standards as needed to produce 30 episodes that season and this meant occasionally accepting scripts less than faithful to his principles.

Reiner's instincts were correct about "The Curious Thing About Women" because, in fact, the script was not new and different.  It was a story that had been handed down from generation to generation.  I do not know how far back the story goes exactly, but I can point to a silent comedy that made use of the premise.  In Canned Curiosity (1915), a man is determined to prove to his friends that all women are curious.  He fills small tin cans with smoke from his uniquely scented cigar, attaches a note demanding that the cans not be opened, and then leaves the cans at the homes of various women.  As the man expects, every woman winds up opening the cans and allowing the smoke to escape.

Tarloff was partnered with Arthur Stander and Phil Sharp when he originally made use of this idea for a 1950s sitcom, I Married Joan.  The writers took the idea of a man trying to make a general point about women's curiosity into a specific disagreement between a husband and wife and, by making it that the package contained a raft, they put something more substantial and laugh-provoking in the package than scented smoke.  The finished episode, which was titled "Joan's Curiosity," was broadcast on December 3, 1952.

Reiner was likely unaware that he was remaking an old I Married Joan episode.  It didn't matter though.  Regardless if the episode was unoriginal, or if the material failed to meet Reiner's standards, or if a lead character was depicted in an inappropriate manner, the episode has remained a favorite among fans of The Dick Van Dyke Show for half a century.

An episode titled "That's My Boy??" (1963) deals with a trope that can at least be traced back to a Biograph comedy called The New Baby (1912).  Rob Petrie is nervous bringing his wife Laura to the hospital to give birth and, in time, he allows his nervousness to get the better of him.  Problems begin when a nurse admits to Rob that she keeps confusing the Petries with another couple in the maternity called the Peters.  Rob later questions if his baby looks like either him or Laura and becomes convinced that the nurse mixed up their baby with the Peters' baby.  He invites the Peters to his home to discuss the matter, but he has a big surprise when he opens the door to greet the Peters and he discovers that the couple is black.

The old trope essentially involved a white baby getting mixed up with a black baby and a nervous new father reacting with shock and outrage.  By Stork Delivery (1916), a Keystone retelling of the story, had the white father (Mack Swain) and his uncle (Vin Moore) throttling the black father (Bobby Dunn, in blackface) and battering him with chairs and dresser drawers.  The routine in its original form had a father realizing that he had the wrong baby because the baby is black. The routine in its updated form had a father realizing that he had the right baby because the baby isn't black.  Van Dyke said that, when he opened the door and revealed the black couple (Greg Morris and Mimi Dillard), they received the biggest laugh in the history of the show.

The attitude expressed towards the black characters in the earlier versions of the routine was less than kindly.  This is evident in the plot description provided by The Moving Picture World for The New Baby.  The plot description reads as follows: 

The nervous expectant papa leaves for the office in a fever, for the stork is expected at his home.  On the same day a new cook is engaged.  She is a colored woman with a small baby, which she brings with her and ensconces in the kitchen.  The gardener, hearing the cry of the picaninny, runs off to the nearest telephone and calls up the expectant papa, informing him that the baby has arrived.  A few moments later the proud papa, rushing into the kitchen, followed by a crowd of friends he has collected en route, finds the cause of the excitement to be a little human "chocolate drop."  His gloom, however, only lasts a moment, and the joys carry the day.

Fifty-one years after the "chocolate drop" days of The New Baby, the entertainment business had gotten a lot more sensitive about the portrayal of black characters.  The script for "That's My Boy??" had to be submitted to a number of people in authority for approval.  The NAACP raised no objections, but the script was initially rejected by all other parties - CBS, Procter & Gamble, and Benton & Bowles.  It was only because the show's executive producer, Sheldon Leonard, stood firm on the matter that the episode eventually got made. 

The episode's director, John Rich, made sure to cast attractive actors to play the Peters and he set up the scene to, in words, "give control of the moment to the black man."  Rob is embarrassed, awkward and foolish while his guest is cool, calm and collected.  Rob asks, "Why didn't you tell me on the phone?"  Mr. Peters replies, "And miss the expression on your face?"

In time, the routine reverted back to its original form in several films, including The Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult! (1994) and Due Date (2010).

The Dick Van Dyke Show Blogathon: "My Blonde-Haired Brunette"

This article is proudly brought to you as part of The Dick Van Dyke Show Blogathon hosted by Ivan G. Shreve Jr.'s thrilling blog, Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.  It is also brought to you by Joy dishwashing liquid, which gives your dishes that See Yourself Shine.

I assume that people reading this will be familiar with the premise of The Dick Van Dyke Show.  The show followed television writer Rob Petrie (Dick Van Dyke) as he made his way through misadventures at home with his wife Laura (Mary Tyler Moore) and son Richie (Larry Mathews) and at work inventing funny sketches for the fictitious Alan Brady Show.  

The series creator, Carl Reiner, was determined to forget about stock sitcom devices and draw material from his own experiences as a comedy writer and suburban family man.  He wanted this sitcom to be funny, of course, but he also wanted it to be smart, sophisticated and grounded.  Its grounded situations made it more real than The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet Show or Father Knows Best.  And it was, due to its leading lady, more sexy.  In a review of a Dick Van Dyke DVD collection, Donald Liebenson declared Laura Petrie "television's first babe-mom."  

Another unique aspect of the show was its timbre.  The show was never noisy or, in any other way, abrasive.  It only made sense for a series that showcased Van Dyke's easygoing charm to develop a natural and relaxed quality.  Jackie Gleason shouted.  Sid Caesar shouted.  Danny Thomas shouted.  Dick Van Dyke didn't shout.  Much of television comedy in the 1950s showcased a raucous vaudeville style, but the early 1960s offered a number of comedies that were quieter and more natural.  Other obvious examples are The Andy Griffith Show and Leave it to Beaver.  

I have selected for discussion today the first season episode "My Blonde-Haired Brunette" (1961).  The plot of the episode is set into motion by a simple rift.  Laura is disappointed that Rob would rather sleep late on a Saturday morning than join her for an intimate breakfast.  It makes it worse that Rob is not polite in his refusal.  He snaps at his wife for waking him with a kiss.


For the rest of the weekend, Laura becomes increasingly distressed thinking that Rob is no longer attracted to her.  She obsesses over possible signs that the romance has gone out of her marriage and finally convinces herself that she must take desperate measures to remedy the situation.  On the advice of her friend Millie (Ann Morgan Guilbert), Laura dyes her hair blonde hoping that it will make her look as attractive as Bridget Bardot.  But Laura is appalled to see how she looks with blonde hair, believing that the only movie star she resembles is Harpo Marx.

Laura desperately tries to dye her hair back to its natural color before Rob arrives home, but she has only managed to dye one side of her head when her husband comes strolling through the door.  The audience got two good comic reveals out of the situation - they initially got to a laugh seeing Laura with her hair blonde and then they were able to get an even bigger laugh seeing Laura's two-tone dye job.

Laura, feeling defeated, falls into Rob's arms sobbing.  Moore's comic sobbing would prove to be one of her greatest stock-in-trade on the show.  Moore has said in interviews that it was her work on this episode that convinced Reiner that she could be funny and didn't have to always play straight woman to Van Dyke. 

Now comes the denouement.  Once the sobbing stops, Rob assures Laura that she doesn't need to change herself to get his attention.  He may not always be as demonstrative of his affection as Laura would like, but he insists to her that he loves her exactly the way she is.  Fans of the show never doubted the affection between this couple.  The show presented a couple deeply in love with one another.  It was the wholesomeness of their relationship that viewers found so endearing.

John  Rich, who directed this episode, later directed an episode of  All in the Family called "Black is the Color of My True Love's Wig" (1973).  This is the Dick Van Dyke episode in reverse.  Laura used hair dye to go from brunette to blonde.  Gloria (Sally Struthers) uses a wig to go from blonde to brunette.  But the reversal goes deeper than that.  Rob didn't, for a moment, like Laura as a blonde.  He liked her as her natural-born, unadulterated self.  But Gloria's husband, Mike (Rob Reiner), likes this change in his wife's looks and he no doubt likes it too much.  He tries to coax Gloria to wear the wig while they're having sex.  Gloria is hurt and angry that her husband doesn't appreciate her for who she is.  She complains,  "It's this pile of hair from Kresler's that's getting to you!  I just happened to be standing underneath it!"  This is a more cynical perspective of marriage.  Rob and Laura faced simple doubts and misunderstandings that could be resolved with a warm embrace.  But some greater ills are at work in this new situation.  A shouting match erupts between the couple and feelings of resentment and dissatisfaction are exposed. 

Laura's decision to dye her hair was developed reasonably and patiently over the first half of "My Blonde-Haired Brunette."  Gloria introduces her wig early on and offers an abrupt motive for buying the hairpiece.  She explains that, on days that she doesn't feel like washing her hair, she will be able to use the wig to cover up her greasy locks.  No wife in New Rochelle looked more well-scrubbed than Laura Petrie.  A housewife as stylish as her would not be caught dead with greasy, stringy hair.  But only in the gritty world of seventies television could a wife admit that she couldn't be bothered to wash her hair.  It had to make a man long for Laura Petrie, who surely wasn't wearing capri pants simply to hide the fact that she hadn't had time to shave her legs. 

Attitudes change from generation to generation and Rob Reiner, who happened to be Carl Reiner's son, was certainly part of the next generation.  He had in fact been the real-life model of the Petries' son, Richie.  How was his character to get out of this awkward situation?  In the closing minutes of the episode, Mike reconciles with Gloria by making a hollow speech about how she is more important to him than a wig.  But Mike is still left looking lascivious, superficial and even perverse.  The studio audience can be heard laughing loudly when Mike's infamously cranky father-in-law, Archie Bunker, sneers at him and calls him a "hair lover." 

The Dick Van Dyke Show celebrated family and marriage.  All in the Family, and too many shows that followed it, denigrated family and marriage.  Everyone Loves Raymond was often likened to Dick Van Dyke, but the acrimonious shouting that often occurred on that show made it a lot more like All in the Family

The Petries were a model couple who were always able to plausibly resolve their misunderstandings and differences before the end of the half hour.  Blogger Bob Sassone wrote, "I pretty much became a writer because Rob Petrie was one.  I also hoped I could get a woman like Mary Tyler Moore."  Many fans feel this way about the show.  The show's enduring appeal comes from the fact that fans liked the Petries and recognized the value of their relationship.  And, besides, who wouldn't want to hang around the office all day telling jokes with Sally and Buddy?

Additional Note (published September 12, 2014): The writer of the All in the Family episode, Michael Morris, had written a similar script for a 1968 episode of The Mothers-in-Law called "The Wig Story."  The episode is discussed in an enjoyable article at the Thrilling Days of Yesteryear website.