Sunday, July 14, 2013

Battling Butlers

A forgotten silent film comedian now stands at the center of a highly publicized legal battle between Warner Brothers and the Weinstein Company.  The comedian's name is Davey Don.  Who is Davey Don, you ask?  We will get to that soon enough, but let me first provide a little background on this lawsuit. 

A Columbia Pictures executive commissioned a script to be written based on a 2008 article in the Washington Post titled "A Butler Well Served by This Election," which described Eugene Allen's experiences as a black man from segregated Virginia who served as the White House's head butler from 1952 to 1986.
 Eugene Allen

Harvey Weinstein purchased the script, titled "The Butler," from Columbia.  The Weinstein Company applied to the Motion Picture Association of America to get clearance for the "Butler" title.  Warner Bros. Pictures exercised their right to block the use of the title, which belonged to them in relation to their ownership of a 1916 film called The Butler.  The film was part of a series of "Otto" comedies produced by the Lubin Manufacturing Company in late 1915 and early 1916.  Warner Brothers was not necessarily concerned that the public would confuse Weinstein's film with the earlier film (especially as no print of the film is known to exist).  The company was more interested in reserving exclusivity of the title for possible use in the future.  A studio rep made the point that they never saw value in the title "The Bodyguard" until a project came along about a love affair between a pop singer and her bodyguard.  Warner Brothers' The Bodyguard (1992) went on to earn $411 million worldwide, making it one of the highest grossing films of all time.  Maybe, the film would have been just successful if it had been called The Pop Singer and the Bodyguard, but the Warner Brothers rep understandably believes that the title helped them to effectively market the film.  But this title war has brought up another issue.  Warner Brothers seems to believe it's time to address Harvey Weinstein's repeated refusal to follow the MPAA's rules.  The title belongs to Warner Brothers and they do not want to relinquish it.  It is as simple as that.  Many observers regard the lawsuit as a transparent ploy by Weinstein to drum up publicity for his film.  Using a lawsuit to get a film free publicity is something that Weinstein has done numerous times in the past.

The 1916 film has been belittled in the course of this battle.  Weinstein's supporters in the media think it's laughable for anyone to see any significance, legal or otherwise, in a film that is nearly one-hundred years old.  But I feel compelled to protect the legacy of Davey Don.  Frankly, not much is known about the man.  He was born in Utica, New York, in 1867.  Under the name David L. Don, he performed on Broadway from 1900 to 1912 in a variety of musical comedies. 

This is where Don performed in The Belle of Bohemia in 1900.

Don's most successful musical comedy was The Red Mill, which was written by Victor Herbert.  Don, in the role of Willem the innkeeper, introduced the popular song "You Can Never Tell About a Woman."  Here, the song is performed by the Comic Opera Guild as part of a 2012 revival of The Red Mill.

Otto was a comically dimwitted German immigrant portrayed by Don in the same broad style as Weber and Fields' Mike and Meyer.
Weber and Fields

Otto bungles his way from one low-wage job to the next.  The titles of the comedies reflected Otto's latest profession - Otto the Bellboy, Otto the Reporter, Otto the Artist, Otto the Gardener, Otto the Salesman, Otto the CobblerThe Butler should have, by right, been called Otto the Butler, which would have avoided the current controversy. 

Moving Picture World provided the following plot description for The Butler: "Mrs. Van Webber is giving a dinner and reception in honor of her daughter's return from college.  Things are going along smoothly, when a telegram arrives which calls all servants out on strike.  Leaving Mrs. Van Webber in a quandary as to who will prepare the dinner.  Gwendoline suggests that Otto, their hired man, be allowed to take charge of the dinner.  When the striking servants learn that Otto has taken their jobs, they station their gang around the house and whenever Otto appears they threaten him until he gets nervous and wants to throw up the job.  But Mrs. Van Webber gives him more money and Otto starts in anew.  The strikers now thoroughly aroused at Otto, chase him through the house and stone him."

It is obvious from this plot description that the earlier Butler was, in its own modest way, a socially conscious film that addressed class conflicts and labor rights.  The Van Webber mansion is one of several mansions that served as a backdrop to Otto's misadventures.  Stately manors had great meaning in the series, the main character of which was a poor immigrant desperate to climb the golden rungs of America's social ladder.  Otto, described by Moving Picture World as an "unfortunate wretch," is invariably undone by his ill-conceived schemes to improve his position.  Like Eugene Allen, Otto only wanted to escape racial discrimination and find a place for himself in a great mansion.  But, as it turns out, he fails again and again in his attempts at social-climbing.

Marriage seems to be a quick way to achieve upward mobility.  In Otto the Gardner, Otto pretends to be a prince to woo the lovely Lady Dora, who lives in a palatial estate.  Of course, it isn't long before his masquerade is exposed.  In Otto the Traffic Cop, Otto assumes a job as a traffic cop on a busy street corner and finds himself desperately dodging speeding autos.  A woman faints after she is nearly struck by a car and Otto agrees to help her to her home, which happens to be a mansion.  The woman only works at the mansion as a maid, but Otto assumes she owns the magnificent home and asks her to marry him.  Of course, Otto comes to regret his impulsive proposal.  Worse than the fact that the maid has no money is the fact that she is a widow five times over and her five husbands died in sudden and violent ways.  In His Lordship, Otto is a waiter who is struggling desperately to break his addiction to alcohol.  While on duty, Oscar is instantly attracted to a rich young woman named Carrie and he is glad to accept the woman's invitation to follow her home.  Yes, her home is yet another mansion.  It is, inarguably, the series' theme.  Carrie, who has a wickedly playful nature, cannot resist the opportunity to play a prank on Otto after he gets drunk and passes out.  She has her butler dress her guest in silk pajamas and place him in a luxurious bed.  When he awakens, the woman's staff pretends that Otto is a lord and tells him that it is his wedding day.  The mock marriage ceremony that ensues ends with Otto lifting the bride's veil and seeing that he has married a black woman.  He is shocked because this is not at all what the status-seeking man had in mind.

Otto was invariably led to places where the rich played.  In Otto the Sleuth, Otto arrives at a mansion to investigate the theft of a beloved canary.  His aggressive interrogation techniques antagonizes a grim, hulking butler, who is quick to toss him out of the front door.  Otto, determined to collect the reward money, buys a bird like the one stolen so that he can pretend he solved the case.  But the real canary has already been found.  The butler, who is highly displeased with Otto's attempted fraud, again tosses him out of the mansion.  Otto's ejection from the mansion is yet another great defeat for our unfortunate wretch.

Throughout its long history, Warner Brothers has managed through a series of mergers and acquisitions to accumulate a diverse catalog of movies.  When the Lubin company went bankrupt in 1916, the company's film library was purchased by the Warner brothers (The company name had yet to be established).  The owner of the Lubin company, Siegmund Lubin, had previously loaned the brothers money to start up their studio and this may have been a way for them to repay his generosity.  Lubin, who was known to help young Jews in the film industry, was particularly supportive of the Warners, who like him had immigrated to the United States from a Jewish community in Poland (Lubin from Samter and the Warner brothers from Ostrołęka).  He was willing to finance their production company although he was a member of the Motion Picture Patents Company, which was engaged in legal efforts to terminate upstart film companies.  The fact that he acted in direct violation of his legal obligations to Motion Picture Patents Company caused him to be censured by the other members of the organization.

Lubin breaking the rules of an association brings us back to Weinstein.  Weinstein and his lawyer, David Boies, have tried to give the public the impression that Warner Brothers is somehow acting in a racist manner.  Boies called Warner's refusal to grant Weinstein the right to call its movie The Butler “a transparent attempt to hold a major civil rights film hostage to extort unrelated concessions from TWC.”  I am personally burned out on the word "racist."  The word "racist" is to a liberal what a squirrel is to a dog.  Every time this fleet-footed, big-eyed, bushy-tailed word makes an appearance, it grabs the urgent attention of every liberal from miles around.

This is guaranteed to give the film publicity and it doesn't matter to Weinstein or Boies if this cheap strategy stirs up a great deal of rancor.

It is odd for accusations of racism to come from Weinstein considering that this is the man who produced Django Unchained, the most racist movie of all time.  Even worse, Weinstein made a point to release the abominable Django Unchained on Christmas as if to thumb his nose at the good spirits and fellowship of the day.

Warner Brothers has made it clear that they wouldn't have a problem if Weinstein simply calls the film Lee Daniels' The Butler.  Lee Daniels, the film's director, should like that title.  Daniels and others involved in the film were willing to change historical facts to suit their purposes.  They were willing to change the name of the butler who is at the center of the story (The story became so heavily fictionalized that they had to change the butler's name from Eugene Allen to Cecil Gaines).  But none of them sees it as possible to change the title.  It's nonsense.  For all I care, they could call it The Butler Did It, Breakfast is Served or The Secret Diary of Cecil Gaines.

How about calling it Gerard Butler?

But I am not here to talk about Harvey Weinstein or Lee Daniels.  I am here to remember a bygone comedian, Davey Don, and make the point that no one should assume Mr. Don's films were insignificant just because they were made a long time ago.

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