Friday, September 12, 2014

Can Such Things Be?: Marcel Perez's Wild and Surreal Antics Draw Criticism

Marcel Perez
Carl H. Claudy, a writer with The Moving Picture World, expressed open disgust of foreign comedies in a 1911 article, "Foibles of the Photoplay."  Claudy said that the films of André Deed showed no "standard or class."  He described the work of Marcel Perez as "slush."  He was particularly upset by a recent Perez comedy called Tweedledum's April Fool Joke (originally released in Italy as Pesce d'aprile di Robinet).  He accused the film of being "horse play of the childish order."  In the film, Perez plays a do-nothing son.  His father becomes so resentful of the young man that he cuts off his funds and kicks him out of the house.  Out of spite, the son places an ad in the local newspaper to notify the public that his father will provide food and shelter to vagrants.  This, of course, causes vagrants to swarm to his parents' home.  "So," wrote Claudy, "[paupers] ransack the house, tear it to pieces, [and] get gloriously drunk."  In the final moments of the film, Perez strolls into the home with a sign that reads "April Fool."  He is joined by his parents and the vagrants in a hearty laugh.  The film ends.

It undoubtedly rankled Claudy that the main character of the film was a "very devil of a fellow," but the critic expressed even greater dissatisfaction over the unbelievability of the plot.  Claudy, who had worked for newspapers, couldn't imagine an editor printing an ad that summoned the community's poor to a soiree at a private residence.  He also had to shake his head in disbelief to see the parents laughing hilariously after their home has been destroyed.

Marcel Perez in Tweedledum and Friscot Wager for a Wife (1913, Ambrosio)
Claudy asserted that, compared to foreign film producers, American film producers possessed humor and wit on "a far higher plane."  He offered as proof a recent Edison comedy called Department Store (1911), which featured a sympathetic character and a realistic situation.  He said that the audience "laughed, applauded and understood."  He maintained that the worst American comedies (specifically, Essanay's "Hank and Lank" series) were a "few degrees" better than the best foreign comedies.

Hank and Lank
A fair-minded person could not possibly consider Hank and Lank less devilish than Perez's waggish son.  Hank and Lank, as played by Victor Potel and Augustus Carney, are lazy tramps forever on the lookout for a scheme to cheat people out of money.  This is a still from They Dude Up Some (1910), in which the tramps pretend to fall down an open manhole so that they can collect payment for their scrapes and bruises.

In Blind Men (1910), the tramps pretend to be blind as a way to solicit public charity.  The series producer, G. M. Anderson, assured exhibitors from the start that the series would be wholesome fare.  He said, "[G]reat care will be exercised to keep the exaction of the story away from the slapstick variety of comedy.  Each story of the escapades of Hank and Lank will be legitimate in its way, and the producing of each will aim at giving point to the humor of a situation without resorting to horseplay or vulgarity."  So, maybe, the absence of violence and adultery is all that it takes to make a comedy wholesome.

Other American critics shared Claudy's view, reacting more kindly to the gentle, relatable work of Vitagraph's John Bunny than the wild and far out comedy that was imported from Europe.  It is hard to imagine that someone could be offended by one of Max Linder's boulevard farces.  But let's look at the opening scene from the 1910 comedy Max is Absent Minded (released in France as Max est distrait).  The scene introduces Max at breakfast.  Because he is preoccupied reading a newspaper, he pours coffee into his top hat.  It is a simple gag.  It is a gag that likely made viewers laugh.  But a Chicago-based critic for The Nickelodeon wrote, "Max is a bit disgusting in this film, where he pours coffee into his silk hat and then drinks it."  Presumably, it was the fact that Max drank the milk that pushed the critic over the edge.

A 1910 Gaumont comedy, A Dummy in Disguise, also offended a critic of The Nickelodeon.  The critic complained, "[T]he piece drops to the level of helter-skelter farce, with everybody hitting somebody else; and the final picture is one of those inexcusable bits of vulgarity, where an enlarged head is thrown upon the scene, the actor twitching and mouthing, and screwing up his face in an effort to be comical.  Why do the French, who are the very soul of wit, allow such disgusting horse-play?"

This could have largely been a case of national loyalty.  It would make sense in this context for a critic to favor homegrown product and hold resentment for foreign product that had dominated the market for years.  American film companies sporadically produced comedies during the early years of film production.  Essanay finally established a permanent comedy unit in 1907.  Other companies eventually followed their example - Biograph and Vitagraph in 1909, Edison in 1910, and Kalem in 1912.  Before 1909, the demand for comedy in the marketplace was mostly satisfied by European companies, including Gaumont, Williamson Kinematograph, Pathé Frères, George Albert Smith Films, Lumière, Robert W. Paul, Hepworth, Warwick, Lux, Itala, Aquila and Ambrosio.

Marcel Perez in Tweedledum on His First Bicycle (1910)
Claudy cannot be faulted for preferring likeable protagonists.  I, myself, get little pleasure from the comedy anti-heroes that populate films and television series today.  It can make a film more satisfying when a character responds to a dilemma with genuine emotion rather than mass destruction.  I also complain often about the overuse of CGI, which is often more important today than characters and story.  But silent film comedy was artful in its wild, fantastic and often destructive action.  American film comedy would have never risen to its great heights if it had never broken free of John Bunny's drawing room.

Helen Costello and John Bunny in Mr. Bolter's Niece (1913)
Another critic with The Moving Picture World half-heartedly defended Deed's films, which were known in America as the "Foolshead" comedies.  He wrote, "It may be that all sorts of faults can be pointed out in these 'Foolshead' films.  Their improbability and impossibility being the most important, but the average audience seems to accept them as they come.  The films are enjoyed and apparently the more absurd the performances the more the audience likes the pictures.  It would be difficult to say anything else.  It is scarcely right to commend these films, as they violate even common sense.  The fact remains, nevertheless, that they are popular and that the average audience will applaud them and ask for more."  In Foolshead Swallows a Crab (1909), Deed finds after he has eaten a crab that he is behaving much like a crab.  At one point, he walks backwards.  Is that believable?  Does it cause me to feel empathy?  No, but I can say that it makes me laugh.

André  Deed is tossed out of a hotel room in A Lodging for the Night (1913).

Department Store, which involved department store workers who come together to help a co-worker who has been robbed, may have been a touching film, but the same story could have easily been enacted on a theatre stage.  Deed and Perez provided impossible dreamlike visions that you could never see in a live theatre show.

Little did Claudy know that American comedy was soon to be coarsened by the Keystone studio, which would create a sensation the following year.  He would one day get to enjoy the tender and sympathetic comedy of Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, but he would first have to endure years of low comedy from Ford Sterling, Chester Conklin and Mack Swain.

Carl H. Claudy
Claudy later achieved success as a science fiction writer, often depicting wholesome American astronauts battling ugly space aliens.  If he expected his readers to suspend their disbelief about invisible beings from Venus prowling the Earth, then he could suspend disbelief about Perez's surreal antics.

The back cover for Claudy's The Mystery Men of Mars features, in bold letters, a forthright expression of disbelief - "Can Such Things Be?"  The European comedies of this early period were wonderfully creative and absurd.  Such things could exist through a writer's imagination, an actor's expressions, and a technical crew's ingenuity.  Welcome to the cinema of the fantastic.

You can read more about Deed, Perez and Linder in my book, Eighteen Comedians of Silent Film

Reference Sources

Claudy, C. H.  "Foibles of the Photoplay."  The Moving Picture World, Volume 8, Number 20, (May 20, 1911). 

The Moving Picture World (April 15, 1911) 

The Nickelodeon (October 1, 1910).  p. 200-201.

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