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.


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