Friday, October 30, 2015

Saucy Sue, Rebellious Betty and Other Examples of the Women-Child

Lauren Duca examined film comedy’s woman-child in a Huffington Post article titled "The Rise Of The Woman-Child."  The main point of the article was to criticize a perceived double standard in the treatment of the woman-child versus the treatment of the man-child.  Duca wrote, "[W]hile the man-child has flourished for decades, the female counterpart finds it near impossible to garner sympathy."

Duca had no trouble finding support for her claim.  Anna Kendrick, who played a woman-child in Happy Christmas (2014), said, "If you’re a female, then you should have your shit together and you should be figuring it out.  With men it’s just like, 'Oh, you know, he’s just still a frat boy at heart, and it’s no big deal.’"  Paul Fieg, who directed Bridesmaids, said, "Classically, male characters have been able to get away with that more in the past.  There's this weird thing ingrained in our culture that it's no fun to watch a woman out of control.  You know, versus with a guy out of control, where the idea is that's just what they do."

The fact, plain and simple, is that Duca, Kendrick and Fieg are wrong.  The man-child did not flourish for decades while the woman-child was shunned.  The women-child has been in full view and full force through the entire history of film.  She can be traced back to comedy films that entertained audiences more than a hundred years ago.  I wrote about this subject in Eighteen Comedians of Silent Film.  Here is an excerpt from my book:
A prevalent idea was that women, by their wildly irrational nature, were disruptive and needed to be contained.  Saucy Sue (1909) was the story of a mischievous country girl who is invited to stay with her rich uncle in the big city.  Her lively antics create problems for her uncle, who quickly sends her back home.  In 1910, Mabel Normand starred in a series of "Rebellious Betty" comedies for Vitagraph.  Betty was described in promotional literature as "a mischievous and willful tomboy, who shrinks at nothing so long as she can get her own way."  The action in the first Betty comedy was described as follows: "[Betty] succeeds in upsetting half a dozen people, destroys an artist's masterpiece, jumps upon and rides away with somebody else's bicycle, which she afterwards abandons for a horse, and finally knocks off the head of the butler."  Normand later played a similar role in the Biograph comedy Tomboy Bessie (1912).  Bessie wields a slingshot to shoot rocks at chickens.  At one point, she steals a bicycle and crashes it.
I continued this discussion in a recent article (which can be found here).
A trend developed in 1917 with comedy features that centered on young women.  The plots either had to do with a spoiled, rebellious heiress who has to be tamed for the plot to reach a satisfying resolution or a working girl who falls in love with an heir or a nobleman and has to overcome class conflicts to live happily ever after.  The critics clearly identified the bad traits of the spoiled heiress.  June Caprice's heiress in The Mischief Maker is "always impulsive;" Ann Murdock's heiress in Please Help Emily is "willful;" Jackie Saunders' heiress in Betty Be Good is "impulsive and mischievous;" and Margarita Fischer's heiress in Molly, Go Get 'Em is "irrepressible."  These traits are the reason that these young women are always getting themselves into trouble.  It takes the right man to bring out the loving and steady woman dormant inside these wild and bratty girls. 
For anyone who wants to know more about film comedy’s woman-child, I recommend that you read my forthcoming book, I Won't Grow Up!: The Comic Man-Child in Film from 1901 to the Present.

For most of film history, moviegoers have reacted to the man-child and the woman-child in much the same way.  They have not unconditionally accepted the man-child’s bad behavior.  They have only maintained sympathy for the man-child if they could see that he was willing to better himself.

The modern woman-child displeases audiences because she avoids the next important stage of human development - intimacy.  Adam Sandler's man-child always gets the girl at the end, but his female counterparts risk the wrath of feminists if their personal growth leads them into an intimate relationship with a man.  The feminist edict is that there be no man and certainly no marriage.  Duca, herself, made it clear that she resented the idea that a woman's problems could be "solved with a white dress."

Sonja Bennett, writer and star of the woman-child comedy Preggoland, said, "The message of [Preggoland] is not that when you’re a woman and you’ve got your shit together or become a better version of yourself that means you want to be married or have children."

So, if the woman doesn't get her man, what does she get?  Duca wrote of Kendrick’s Happy Christmas character:
By the end of the film, she hasn’t sworn off drinking, found a job or even clearly gotten over her ex.  Her arc ends inconclusively. . . Jenny is left in limbo, a strange space, considering film usually insists on redeeming its characters in 90 minutes or less.
The film’s writer and director, Joe Swanberg, said, "It’s a tricky narrative arc to leave the character at the end of the movie in roughly the same place they started."

Traditionally, marriage and family were the ultimate goals for a man and a woman.  The natural role of God's creatures is to reach sexual maturity so that they can couple with the opposite sex and create the next generation.  It is the circle of life.  It is fine if you want to get your shit together to become an insurance adjuster or a real estate agent, but we play a more crucial role in society when we devote ourselves to being a good parent.  I know that some people hate this idea, but I see it as pointless, contrived and arrogant for men and women to put themselves above the dictates of nature.  You have a choice – chose nature or limbo.

The limbo ending is not fair to the people who have paid money to see a film.  The nature of storytelling demands a resolution.  A story is not a story without a resolution.  This rule stands firm, which means that it cannot be subject to feminist notions.

Others resent the films that show women making any responsible decision at all.  To them, the idea of the protagonist achieving a successful marriage or a successful career is unrealistic and, therefore, offensive.  Jenny Slate, the star of the woman-child comedy Obvious Child, said, "I think that there are a lot of women who grew up with perfect rom-com leading ladies in the ‘90s, who are like, 'Yeah, that’s not the way we see ourselves.'  We see all of it, and want to show all of it, and we don’t want to be told that we can’t be leaders just because we're lazy or we're messy sometimes.  Sometimes everybody is lazy and messy, and it's okay."

Messiness is definitely a theme of the film.  The film includes several crap jokes, including the leading man stepping in dog shit.  Key scenes take place in bathrooms.  Slate is dumped by her boyfriend in a bathroom. . .

she meets her new boyfriend in a bathroom. . .

and she learns that she’s pregnant in a bathroom.

The film opens with Slate, who plays a stand-up comedian, telling a crowd of people in a club about her messiness: 
I used to hide what my vagina did to my underpants.  And, by the way, what all vaginas do to all underpants, okay?  There is no woman who ends her day with, like, a clean pair of underpants that look like they've ever even come from a store, okay?  They look like little bags that have fallen face down in, like, a tub of cream cheese, and then, like, commando-crawled their way out.  And then, like, carabinered up, like, into a crotch.  Like, they're not items that are for anyone to see.  But now, I'm just like, "Whatever."  You know, I have a human vagina.
Freud would say that this toilet fixation suggests that the young woman suffered development difficulties at the anal stage.

Being lazy and messy will not get you far in life, believe me.  And I personally do want to see a film that celebrates a willful loser just so that the willful losers of the world don't have to feel bad about themselves.  That is not the job of comedy despite what Slate and other modern comedians say.

Slate misunderstands the role of the hero if she thinks that the hero, in his ideal and admirable form, is part of an evil plot to make the film-going public feel inadequate or outright useless.  Whether or not a person is useless is their own personal choice.  We have no reason to blame the hero for this.  The problem may be that we have become so enthralled with the anti-hero that we forgot what a hero is exactly.  The hero is aspirational.  The hero is a role model.  By his example, the hero is able to guide us on the right path and help us to succeed in the world. 

The traditional comedy film managed to include, amid the foul ups and mishaps, a message of aspiration.  The idea was that, even though we are not perfect and make mistakes, we will still succeed if we work hard, be brave, and never give up.  The modern comedy is vastly different.  It tells the viewer that it is alright for them to mess up and they have no need at all to become a better person.  It instructs them to laugh at their chronic laziness and revel in their perpetual drunkenness.  The objective of these films, pure and simple, is to have the viewer embrace his or her foolishness.  But it is a false message.  Believe me, Seth Rogen would not be a wealthy man if he really was a fool.  Of course, a lazy, selfish, messed up person will respond favorably if he is told that he is fine just the way he is.  Hollywood is an increasingly effective enabler that tells imperfect and ineffective people exactly what it is that they want to hear.

So, does the woman-child develop at all during the course of this new type of film?  Duca wrote, "[W]ith the woman-child, there is usually a series of people who shape her journey.  Resolution comes from building a sense of self through a community of people rather than just one man."  Hilary Brougher, a Columbia University film professor, agreed with this idea.  She said, "For women, happily ever after used to be the guy.  But one of the edgier things coming out of this is that happily ever after is a group of imperfect people who understand and support you."

In other words, women are being told by filmmakers that they have a full and happy life as long as they have friends.  A bunch of screwy friends surely help to get the heroine laughs in a sitcom, but most women know deep down in their hearts that screwy friends are no replacement for the ideal mate.

I should note that Obvious Child does end with the girl getting the guy (Jake Lacy).  But, although both the guy and the girl are close to 30 years old, neither of them is quite ready to grow up.  They don't eliminate the possibility of adult commitments, but they make it clear that this is something for them in the future.  Their answer to the beckoning call of adulthood is, essentially, "Some day, not now."


These films put forth an opposition to marriage, prosperity and ideals that is, in the end, just bratty opposition to adulthood.

F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre Writes About Dan Leno

F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre did not endear himself to many of the men and women who are dedicated to the study of silent cinema.  His strange offenses may be difficult to understand, but I will do my best to sort them out and put them into perspective.

People who love silent films have to live with the sad fact that most silent films are lost because the film studios either destroyed prints or allowed prints to deteriorate.  It was with great affection and interest that I wrote a biography of silent film comedian Lloyd Hamilton.  I could never get over the fact that some of Hamilton's best films, including his immensely popular Robinson Crusoe Ltd., have not survived.  It is, to me, no less than a tragedy.  But then we had MacIntyre turning up as a frequent reviewer on the Internet Movie Database and claiming to have special access to rare prints of silent films presumed by scholars to be lost.  MacIntyre's breezy and witty reviews of these films got scholars excited that long-lost classics had been rediscovered.  But were they really?  Film historian Thomas Gladysz contacted MacIntyre about his review of the lost film Social Celebrity.  MacIntyre responded as follows:
This print is (or was) in the personal collection of a private film collector in Europe, who does not wish to be publicly identified. . . This collector is a private individual who only very rarely grants access to his film collection.  I was given very limited access to his collection, solely in order to inspect his films as physical artefacts in need of restoration.  I do not have direct contact with this gentleman; I contact him only through his attorneys, who are strongly inclined to refuse all requests for access to his collection.  He has made it clear that he will not grant public access to his collection.  As this gentleman has been helpful to me in my own business endeavours, I must respect his privacy.
Gladysz was rightfully suspicious.

I became a fan of MacIntyre after I read his 1994 science fiction novel The Woman Between The Worlds.  The story, which is set in Victorian England, involves a Scooby gang that bands together to battle a powerful otherworldly creature and its ghoulish invisible minions.  The first half of the book is an enjoyable and energetic romp, but the book suddenly takes a dark and violent turn and the characters that have earned our sympathy are shockingly slaughtered one by one.  MacIntyre later addressed the book's abrupt change in tone, explaining that his wife died while he was writing the book and his grief expressed itself in the death and destruction that dominated the book's final chapters.  He sounded apologetic, as if it bothered him a great deal to write book so unpleasant and disturbing.  But, from what I now know about MacIntyre, I do not believe this explanation at all.  I believe that he set out in an impish way to trick unsuspecting readers, soothing them with lighthearted adventure before luring them to unexpected atrocities and doom.  This is not to say that I disprove of the book.  It is the work of a truly talented author.  I am not alone in my admiration of MacIntyre’s books.  Other fans of the author’s work included Isaac Asimov and Harlan Ellison.

I later enjoyed MacIntyre’s clever and insightful reviews on the Internet Movie Database.  I approached MacIntyre to collaborate with me on a book.  He reacted with enthusiasm to my proposal. 

I was amused at first by MacIntyre's long and rambling emails, but I eventually wanted us to get down to business.  Much to my chagrin, it was hard to get the man to focus.  He was later described by Invisible Ink columnist Christopher Fowler as "intelligent but undisciplined."  I had recently abandoned a Betty Hutton biography because a collaborator was in the middle of a divorce and he was having a great deal of difficulty concentrating on his work.  So, I had little patience left for MacIntyre.  I made it clear to him that we had to move ahead on our project.  He agreed to get to work immediately on a chapter on British comedian Fred Evans.  He claimed that he knew a great deal about Evans.  I was happy to see him finally direct attention to a specific topic.

I got an email from MacIntyre the day after Christmas to wish me a happy Boxing Day, which he explained is a tradition among his friends and family in Great Britain.  I understood at the time that he was living in Wales.  By then, my erratic friend had abandoned his plans to write about Evans.  He said that he decided that it would be better for him to write about another British comedian, Dan Leno.  This was not a reasonable choice for the purposes of our book.  Our book was about film comedians.  Leno could hardly be called a film comedian.  He had make a few short films from 1900 to 1902.  I had in fact seen one of the films, a trivial 36-second film called An Obstinate Cork.   Here it is.

I was unaware that any of Leno's other films had survived.  MacIntyre assured me that he knew an obsessively private film collector in Europe who had rare prints of many silent films presumed to be lost.  I must say that, by this time, I had become somewhat wary of my collaborator.

The next time that I heard from MacIntyre, he said that he had abandoned his essay on Leno to focus instead on French clown Marceline.  Marceline’s only film, Mishaps of Marceline, is lost.  Here is a reconstruction.

How was it appropriate to write an essay about Marceline for a book about film comedy? 

MacIntyre later informed me that he had to take a break from his research on Marceline because he was reading articles about Marceline’s suicide and it had made him severely depressed.  He doubted that he would be able to finish his essay.  He felt bad about this because he found Marceline’s story to be interesting and he thought that someone should tell the man’s story.  I told him to forget about Marceline.  I said that, if it would make him feel better, I would write up something about Marceline for my blog.  It had become obvious to me by now that he had serious psychological problems.  I asked him if he had ever seen a psychiatrist and received a diagnosis about his condition.  I was trying to help him, but he must have resented my comments because he never spoke to me again.

Months later, I got the news that MacIntyre had committed suicide.  He set his apartment on fire and burned up in the flames.  The story was written up in the New York Times under the title "Fiery End for an Eccentric Recluse."

Gladysz and others did considerable research on MacIntyre after his death.  It was determined that his name was fake and his British accent was fake.  He had been born and raised in New York.  No one ever found out his real name.  Oh, and I should mention that he did not live in Wales.  He lived in Brooklyn.

Journalist Annalee Newitz assembled a revealing article about the man.  She wrote,
[MacIntyre] was fanatical about privacy, and used several different names for himself, with different identities on his tax forms, his ID, and on his various writing projects.  He told stories about his history that sounded like 19th century fairy tales, claiming that he was born in Scotland but sent to an orphanage in Australia to do labor. . .  He despised his family, and neighbors claimed they could hear him screaming at his mother late at night, accusing her of ruining his life. . . Though MacIntyre tried to project a jovial, man-of-the-world personality to his friends in fandom, there was always something dark about this fictionalized self.  He often claimed to be deformed, and said that he had to wear gloves because of some sort of problem with his hands.  Sometimes he said his fingers were webbed; other times he simply alluded to a "hideous skin condition."  He also complained that he suffered from synaesthesia.  Online, he claimed to have been married more than once, with children.  But when his body was found this summer, police could locate no relatives - children or otherwise.

Fowler wrote, "MacIntyre enjoyed starting feuds, and one of them ended with the female neighbour who used to carry out his endless bags of rubbish being tied to a chair, shaved and sprayed black.  Delightful eccentricity had now given way to a damaged mental state.  His career followed a downward spiral and he lost his job working nights in Manhattan as a printer."

I later learned that MacIntyre had written material for our book, but he ended up posting the material to the Internet Movie Database.  He wrote about a number of Leno films, including The Rats (1900), Mr. Dan Leno, Assisted by Mr. Herbert Campbell, Editing the 'Sun' (1902), Bluebeard (1902) and The Obstinate Cork.  You saw the 36-second Obstinate Cork earlier.  Let’s see what MacIntyre had to say about the film:   
Never try to guess a film's content by its title!  When I learnt that Leno had made a film cried "An Obstinate Cork", I assumed that this would be a screen record of one of his comedy turns ... with Leno making increasingly slapstick attempts to open a bottle of wine or beer.  No, even better: champagne, because (when the bottle eventually opens) the bubbly will foam all over the place.

In the event, I guessed right about the champagne but wrong otherwise.  This film isn't even a comedy; by modern standards, it's really more of a home movie.  Leno wore elaborate costumes on stage (often including female drag in dame roles), but here we see him in his normal offstage appearance: in a frock coat and stock collar, with his hair neatly parted down the centre.  Standing beside him is his real-life wife Sarah Reynolds: she had danced in Victorian music-halls under the stage name Lydia, but she was never remotely as popular as Leno.  In this film, she's dressed in a demure shirtwaist, with her hair tucked into a severe chignon; her husband is clearly the more glamorous figure.

Mr and Mrs Leno are standing outdoors in Clapham Park, near their home.  Leno attempts to open a bottle of champers, but it gives him some bottle right back. He struggles a bit, and it eventually opens.  Skoal!

That's it.  To watch this film, you would never suspect what a major entertainer Leno was in the decade before his untimely death.  Leno had an extremely expressive face, capable of being both comic and tragic at the same time.  In this movie, when he briefly grimaces with the effort of his task, it's not clear whether Leno is mugging for comic effect or expressing honest emotion.

The American Biograph film studio were notorious for inserting their "B" logo into the backgrounds of their film sets, to establish artistic ownership and discourage other exhibitors from creating pirated prints.  I looked for a similar "B" in this British Mutoscope & Biograph movie -- viewing a print pirated by Kinora (no relation to Kia-Ora) -- but I couldn't find anything comparable.

More for its historic significance than for any actual hilarity, I'll rate "An Obstinate Cork" 7 out of 10.
MacIntyre provided a fair, interesting and sometimes amusing assessment of the film.  More important, he effortlessly weaved historical facts throughout his description of the film.  I see value in the man’s work and I believe that film historians who demanded that all of MacIntyre’s suspect IMDb reviews be indiscriminately deleted were looking to throw out the baby with the bath water.

Leno appeared in Editing the 'Sun' with his frequent partner Herbert Campbell.  MacIntyre wrote:
"[It] is a crude silent film, almost a parody newsreel.  It depicts an actual event, yet it's clearly a staged enactment.  On April Fool's Day 1902, Leno and Campbell served as guest editors of the "Sun."  This movie purports to show the two men hard at work in the newspaper's office in Temple Avenue, which looks suspiciously like a movie set. . . Leno tries to paste some news stories into a page layout, while Campbell laughs at the sloppy results.  Leno's neat hair becomes disarrayed, and he ends up with the news items pasted to his head like court-plasters.
Here is what MacIntyre had to say about Bluebeard:
"Blue Beard" (two words) was the pantomime musical comedy playing at the Drury Lane Theatre from Christmas 1901 into the spring of 1902.  Very loosely based on Charles Perrault's fairy tale about a polygamous serial killer, this panto starred Herbert Campbell as Blue Beard, the dancer Julia Franks as his seventh bride Fatima (he murdered all the other lot) and the great comedy star Dan Leno as Fatima's sister Anne, whom Blue Beard must also marry in order to wed Fatima.

Leno, Britain's leading comedy star of the day, frequently wore grotesque costumes (often female) but nearly always displayed his own hair in its distinctive style, parted neatly down the centre.  In this brief film, as Sister Anne, he wears an elaborate frock that's quite pretty in its own right, topped by a wig of long ringlets that includes a feminine version of Leno's trademark centre-part.

Leno's stage act consisted largely of comic patter songs (unsuitable for a silent film, of course) and elaborate clog-dancing routines: his dances, too, were not especially suitable for silent film, since Leno performed extremely percussive clog routines that relied heavily on sound for their effect.

Act One of "Blue Beard" concluded with sisters Anne and Fatima entering a forbidden room in Blue Beard's castle, where they discover the severed heads of his previous six wives.  This being a comedy panto, naturally the heads are still alive and they offer some bad jokes. . . Stepping forth to confront Leno is some sort of huge vaguely disc-shaped face of plywood and scrim, with rolling eyes and lolling tongue.  Dangling from the face's chin is a long beard resembling a hula-dancer's grass skirt: this beard serves the obvious purpose of concealing (not much!) the lower body of the actor wearing the enormous face.  The actor's feet are just barely visible at the bottom edge of the beard, and his hands (supporting the enormous face) are just visible behind the face's surprisingly understated ears.  When this enormous face confronts him, Leno reacts comically and performs one of his distinctive "twizzle" dance steps, which would likely be more effective if we could hear it as well as see it.

Several reliable sources categorize Editing the 'Sun' and Bluebeard as lost films.  Yet, despite his likely oeuvre of hoax reviews, he acknowledged that he was unable to track down a print of The Rats.  He wrote, "I've searched diligently for this film, and I now sadly conclude that it seems to have vanished. . . Though "The Rats" probably contains no information about these performers that is not already known, it would be a fascinating glimpse into the theatre world of that era.  Here's hoping this lost film gets found!"

He proceeds to provide a bit of supposition about the film:
'The Rats' was apparently a brief newsreel-like film (not a comedy) of these six performers as themselves: merely acknowledging the camera, not performing in character.  Due to the unwieldy nature of early cinema cameras, the Water Rats' upstairs meeting-room was an impractical site for filming them, so this movie was probably shot elsewhere.  If this film was ever intended for exhibition, surely "The Water Rats" or "The Grand Order of Water Rats" would have been a more appropriate title than the merely generic one given here.
Did the Bluebeard film really include a "disc-shaped face of plywood and scrim" or is this something that came out of MacIntyre's vivid imagination?  This can be a description that MacIntyre obtained from an old magazine or newspaper, but I can tell you that my usual periodical sources include no such description of the film.  The pantomime show on which this film was based had disembodied heads turn up in Bluebeard's forbidden chamber, but no head that I know of had rolling eyes, a lolling tongue and a skirt-like beard.

Gladysz came up with a reasonable theory on MacIntyre's actions.  He wrote:
The New York Times noted MacIntyre worked night jobs in order to spend his days at the New York Public Library researching things which interested him.  Those subjects included early film, of which he was by all accounts knowledgeable.

MacIntyre was something of a pastiche artist.  To me, his reviews of silent films he couldn’t have seen read like a kind-of pastiche of reviews found in the old film periodicals housed at the New York Public Library.  That occurs to me now when I reread his IMDb review of A Social Celebrity.  Its last line, "Louise Brooks is as seductive as usual, but she has very little to do here," echoes the kind of observation made by a number of film critics in the 1920’s.

It’s hard to know why MacIntyre claimed to have seen A Social Celebrity and other lost films – and thereby muddied the historical record.  Perhaps it was a game.  Perhaps it was one way of getting attention.  Perhaps it was his way of asserting control over a world in which he felt increasingly out-of-sorts.  We’ll never know.  MacIntyre was an enigmatic, intellectual loner.
MacIntyre’s IMDb reviews angered many film historians.  William Charles Morrow, author of The Chiseler blog, wrote, "The more I hear about this man, the more his story sickens and disgusts me.  The major problem we have in trying to discuss a person who was a known, serial liar and fraud is that one never knows what's real and what is not.  His word is worthless by itself."

I proceeded to write the silent film comedy book on my own.  It became Eighteen Comedians of Silent Film.  The book included a brief passage on Fred Evans, but nothing on either Dan Leno or Marceline.

I became frustrated and angry with MacIntye while I was working with him, but I now feel guilty that I did not show the man more understanding and compassion.  I still read his IMDb reviews and I still enjoy them.  I do not believe he did great damage to the study of silent cinema.  I regret that I could find no way to make our collaboration a more worthwhile and satisfying experience for him.

The Mirror Routine Ban

Comedy has a rich history.  Just the history of the mirror routine has kept me busy turning up a variety of facts.  More facts about the routine were recently provided on the NitrateVille forum by Max Linder authority Georg Renken. 

I have written extensively about the stage act ''The Broken Mirror,'' a popular variation of the mirror routine that entertained audiences in Europe and the United States from at least 1910 to 1922.  Most journalists at the time identified the performers of the act as "The Schwartz Brothers," which is the way that I identified the performers in my previous writings, but I now know that newspaper advertisements of the day showed the duo being billed under the name "The Schwarz Brothers."

The Schwarz Brothers were, as I said before, a father and son.  Renken found that the duo’s real names were Camillo and Carl Robl.  The men were so determined to retain exclusive rights to the mirror routine that they registered the act for copyright protection in every country they visited.  They were able, in the end, to establish ownership of the routine in France, Spain, Germany and Austria.  In 1912, the Austrian police raided theaters to confiscate prints of a Dutch film that featured the mirror routine.  It was easy to identify the film as it was called De Gebroken Spiegal, which translates into English as The Broken Mirror.  The EYE Film Museum summarizes the film’s plot as follows:
While cleaning the lieutenant's cheval-glass, Jan, his valet, accidentally smashes the mirror.  When the lieutenant comes home early in the morning after a drinking bout, he decides that he must shave and put on clean clothes.  Fortunately for Jan, the lieutenant is not only befuddled, but also somewhat myopic.  In order to deceive his master, Jan stands behind the empty mirror frame and "reflects" the lieutenant's every move.
The role of the lieutenant was played by Philip Kelly and the role of the valet was played by Dirk Logemann.  EYE quotes The Bioscope, a London-based film magazine, as calling the film "a cleverly worked comic, in which the mirror episode provides excellent fun."

By looking up the act under the new spelling, I was able to turn up additional articles.  I found that Camillo and Carl were well-received in New York on their arrival in 1913.  Variety reported in October: 
The Schwarz Brothers, or Schwarz and Co., in "The Broken Mirror," presented the turn in American vaudeville for the first time Monday at the West End theatre, New York, and lived up to all previous reports heard of this truly remarkable act of its kind.  In "mirror work," where two people dressed alike give the illusion of a reflection in the glass, the Schwarzcs have no equal.  Not alone that their intricate and difficult performance is highly finished in every way, the act is hinged upon a complete story that carries a large quantity of comedy, adding laughter to surprise.  The mirror business is continued for the greater part of the 19 minutes the act runs.  It is timed to a nicety, almost delicately spaced, so exact are the simultaneous movements of the two men involved.  No attempt is made to keep secret that two are engaged in the illusion.  The tale of the sketch prevents that, for the story is of a valet, having broken an expensive plate glass flamed mirror, who seeks to hide the accident from his master by appearing behind the mirror himself, half dressed as the head of the house is, and making the master believe the mirror is still intact.  The finish is a strong laugh through which the valet escapes blame for the breakage.  A servant girl is employed, making a company of three.  The Schwarzes walked away with the hit of the Evelyn Nesbit Thaw show at the West End.  It is a big novelty comedy act.
The phrase "timed to a nicety" explains for the most part the appeal of the act.  And, as if the October review wasn’t enough acclaim for Camillo and Carl, Variety offered further good words about their act the following month:
The Schwarz Brothers repeated their ''Broken Mirror" for the third week.  They continue to prove they have a big comedy turn and do some very finely drawn work in it.  If the "mirror" could be set upstage center, the effect all over the house would be heightened.  From certain sections, where the frame really appears as a mirror, instead of seeing it diagonally the "mirror work" is even better appreciated.
According to Variety, the ''Broken Mirror" act again "made a big hit” when the Schwarz Brothers returned to the United States in 1915.  The paper said of their performance at Chicago's McVicker's Theatre, "The brothers displayed wonderful proficiency in the art of mimicry and the mirror deception kept the house in a mirthful state."

I noted in a prior article that Max Linder performed the mirror routine in a 1913 film, Max on the Road to Matrimony.  It was my understanding at the time that legal threats from the Schwarz Brothers compelled the producers to withdraw the film from circulation.  Thanks to Renken’s extensive research of foreign periodicals, I now know that the film continued to play across Europe in two alternate forms.  The complete one-hour version of the film, which featured the mirror routine during its final act, continued to be shown in countries where the courts had rejected the Schwarz Brothers’ copyright claims.  The routine was excised from prints of the film that were distributed to the other territories that I mentioned before.  Max on the Road to Matrimony was the UK title.  The film was released in France as Le duel de Max (Max’s Duel), it was released in Germany as Max und die Liebe (Max and His Love), and it was released in Australia as The Last Laugh.  Surprisingly, it does not appear that the film ever made it to the United States.

The mirror routine definitely stood out whenever the film was exhibited in its complete form.  Kalgoorlie Miner, an Australian daily newspaper, reported, "The story is full of quaint and whimsical humour, which culminates in some exceedingly funny scenes before a mirror, in which Max sees strange visions."  A Dutch newspaper, Nieuwe Tilburgsche Courant, recounted, "This number keeps visitors for a good hour in tension and laughter whether they like it or not.  Here we get to see ‘the broken mirror,’ a nice counterpart to the famous scene.  Only here is the mirror did not break, but it was simply taken by the crafty nephew out of the frame."  The Bioscope noted, "[Max] sees a horrible apparition in the mirror.  A trickster is revealed and Max is happy once more."

I am grateful for the wonderful work of Georg Renken.  I recommend that you visit his Max Linder website at

Man With A Computer

In a recent Los Angeles Times article, Steve Zeitchik identified a new type of film called the "impressionistic biopic."  The article provided the recent biopic Steve Jobs as an example.  The film’s screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin, has adamantly defended the film against criticism that its episodes deviate too far from the true story.  The writer contends that, in telling the story, he preferred to make creative and interesting choices rather than simply provide dramatic re-creations of actual events.  Similarly, Robert Zemeckis saw his biopic The Walk (about wire-walker Philippe Petit) as not so much a historical account as, according to Zeitchik, "a whimsical ode to the powers of dreams."

Zeitchik enthusiastically endorsed Steve Jobs and The Walk as "narratively ambitious" works that expand "creative possibilities."  He wrote, "In a postmodern storytelling universe that has long left literalism behind. . . these movies sidestep the issue of whether an event really happened.  Accuracy is defined not as literal fact but spiritual truth; if a movie conveys the essence of a person, that is enough.  New films about Steve Jobs, jazz great Miles Davis and wire-walker Philippe Petit — and slightly older ones about musician Brian Wilson and the FBI's infamous Abscam sting — implicitly offer themselves up as real without adhering to a strict version of reality." 

I cannot agree that art is more important than truth.  It is the height of vanity for a filmmaker to proclaim wisdom in replacing hard facts with fanciful illusions.  I also cannot agree with Sorkin’s double-talk that a writer’s fabrications can "[get] at some larger truths."  If you get caught telling a lie, see how well it works to say that you lie to tell a larger truth.  People generally lie to serve a personal agenda and promote their own malleable version of the truth.  It is no different with Sorkin.  Nothing good has ever come from a person trying to rewrite history.  It is the outstanding actions of men and women that express the spirit of a story and it is the duty of the filmmaker to be faithful to the story as it occurred.

Impressionistic painters used their imagination to elevate ordinary subject matter.  Paul Cezanne used this style to create beautiful images from regular people - Man With a Pipe, Man with arms folded, Man in a Straw Hat.  The biopic subject is typically a man whose accomplishments have made him an outstanding figure in human affairs.  This type of man does not require an artist’s whimsy to endow him with strength or substance.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Another Look Up Skirts

Tommie Hicks, the host of a silent film comedy channel on YouTube, sent me an article with additional information on Skirts, a film that I discussed in my last article.  This information elaborates even further on the film's troubled production history. 

In 2003, Joe Blackstock of the Daily Bulletin dug up an old story about the daring aerial rescue scene, which was shot in the Southern California town of Narod.  Blackstock noted that the shooting was scheduled to begin and end on January 14, 1920, but problems in staging the scene forced the crew to stay in town for two extra days.  As I surmised, Conklin had a stand-in for the scene.  Del Ruth arranged to substitute his star with stuntman Earl Burgess.  It was Burgess' job to hang from the bottom of the plane and daringly snatch a dummy stand-in for Alta Allen from atop the train.  It appears that Conklin wasn't even in Narod when the scene was filmed.

Del Ruth coupled two train cars.  The first car represented a runaway train on which the heroine and villain were traveling while the second car was occupied by the camera crew, whose job it was to film the plane's descent over the train and the subsequent rescue.

Narod was a small town filled with citrus groves.  It was exciting for the residents to have a movie company in town.  Blackstone wrote, "The train tracks were lined with spectators during the filming hoping to catch a glimpse of movie history."

Unfortunately, the scene ran into problems.  Blackstone reported, "Del Ruth spent the first day unsuccessfully trying to coordinate the movement of the trains with the plane, which was a lot faster."  On the second day, the director made changes.  He moved the camera onto the runaway train itself and, more important, he moved his crew to another section of the railroad line.  Blackstone wrote, "The filming was moved east of Ontario, where the telegraph poles were below the level of the tracks, a safety factor for those in the plane.  They got closer to success that second day, though on one attempt Burgess was nearly killed when he just missed hitting one of the poles."

According to Blackstock's information, Del Ruth was never able to satisfactorily stage the rescue stunt and he had to discard the scene from the finished film.  It was explained by the Pomona Progress that, "[a]fter three days of constant trial and equally constant failure," Del Ruth had simply run over budget and had no money left to spend on the sequence.

This story clearly places the filming of the scene within the Phase One production schedule.  So, why did the Exhibitors Herald report this as a fresh news item in June?  I have two possible explanations.  First, a publicity man could have seen value in reviving a five-month old story to generate press for the upcoming release.  Second, Del Ruth could have restaged the scene during Phase Two production.  A reference to the scene was made in the press book, which means that the scene was at one point completed.

According to Bob Birchard, Allen turned up in Skirts' early costume tests as a bathing beauty.  It was my understanding that Allen wasn’t promoted to leading lady until Phase Two production.  But the Pomona Progress story makes it clear that Allen participated in the shooting in Narod, which means that she was the film’s leading lady from the start.  The newspaper identifies the actress as playing a "beautiful heiress."

Burgess was back doing aerial stunts for Del Ruth the following month.  Gerald A. Schiller wrote in "Aviation History" magazine:
On February 6, 1920, Burgess was doing a scene in a film for comedian Chester Conklin and accompanied by flier Walter Hawkins.  Like too many stunt fliers, Burgess had refused to wear a parachute.  According to some reports, he was also out of condition and overweight.  He was apparently supposed to climb out on a wing, simulate a fight with a dummy, knock the dummy (the "villain") off the plane, then climb back into the cockpit.

After the scene was filmed the first time, they flew back to the airfield to give Burgess a rest.  However, the scene had to be reshot — either because they needed another copy for foreign release or because the director was unhappy with the first take (accounts differ).  Burgess insisted on doing the second take right away rather than wait until the next day.  This time, after he threw the dummy from the aircraft, Burgess began to work his way back to the cockpit.  But when he reached the wing skid, the two men in the camera plane flying nearby could tell the stuntman was close to exhaustion.  A.C. Mann, the pilot of the camera craft, tried to maneuver below the plane where Burgess hung, so that he could get his top wing under the tired performer.  But the stuntman looked across at the other plane, shook his head hopelessly and let go.  He fell 500 feet onto some high-tension wires and died shortly thereafter.

This gives me the opportunity to admit to one glaring error in my Lloyd Hamilton biography. Burgess did a number of aerial stunts for Fox and other studios.  When I read about the circumstances of Burgess' death, it seemed to match up with an aerial scene that appeared in the Sunshine comedy A High Diver's Last Kiss.  The problem was that A High Diver's Last Kiss was filmed in 1918 but, as I later learned, Burgess died in 1920.  Yes, that was as I said a glaring error.  When you assume, you make an ass out of you and me. 

The Photo-play Journal reported on the filming of A High Diver's Last Kiss.  The magazine explained:
There was a time when the driving of automobiles filled with dummies off of dangerous places would satisfy an audience, but today real actors must take the place of the substitute.  This is the reason why so few of these scenes are shown of late.  In some scenes where aeroplanes are used it is possible to get the effect from a machine suspended from lines.  In The High Diver's Last Kiss a recent Sunshine Comedy, it was, however, necessary for Betty Carpenter and Slim Summerville to make many of the scenes from an aeroplane flying several hundred feet from the ground.  The cameraman was in another machine which flew near enough to photograph the action. Capable aviators were driving both machines, still to risk one's life climbing about a machine going eighty miles an hour at a height of several hundred feet in the air is not nearly as funny as it looks on the screen.
So, what film had Burgess performing stunts on an airplane wing?   Conklin starred in four two-reel Sunshine comedies during this period.  Here is a list:
Her Private Husband (March 15, 1920)
The Great Nickel Robbery (April 26, 1920)
Dangerous Eyes (May 10, 1920) 
Should Dummies Wed? (May 24, 1920)
Which one of these films had aerial stunts?  The Great Nickel Robbery, which burlesques the poor trolley car service that passengers receive for their nickel fare, ends with a wild and fast-paced streetcar chase.  Dangerous Eyes, which involves the misadventures of a janitor in a department store, ends with a wild and fast-paced rooftop chase.  Should Dummies Wed? has to do with a burglar who steals an antique suit of armor.  The burglar brings the suit of armor to a pawnshop, but the pawnshop owner suspects that the item was stolen and ends up chasing the burglar through the streets.  At one point, the burglar is almost struck by a streetcar.  Motion Picture News reported, "The street car trick is worked — with the trolley running on the switch just when it approaches the victim.  This stunt is becoming passe."  (Little did this critic know that this gag would persist throughout the decade.  See The Funny Parts and Eighteen Comedians of Silent Films for more information.)  The Film Daily was fairly descriptive of Her Private Husband's plot.  The magazine noted:
Fox's newest Sunshine comedy starts with a laugh in which Chester Conklin is reposing on the lap of a woman of plentiful proportions, sewing a patch on his trousers, while he plays solitaire on the floor.  After that, Conklin, as the waiter and the cook, starts throwing a mass of dough about, and then comes the breaking up of crockery.  No particular attention has been paid to continuity, for the next scene finds him before a cinema theater, where he flirts with a youthful, married, amateur actress. There is a laugh where Conklin tampers with the poster, but the stuff that results later lacks novelty, a great deal of it consisting of the shooting of revolvers and then a burlesque on a benefit performance. There is some good trick photography in the last few hundred feet, where Conklin bounces lightly about on balconies.  Some of the gags in the early portion are funny.
Not one of these stories has Conklin battling a villain on the wing of a high-flying plane.  Could Burgess have died while filming another scene for Skirts

Chester Conklin in Skirts.

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Rise of the Comedy Feature, Part 3: Skirts (1921)

Ford West, Bynunsky Hyman, Harry Gribbon and Rosa Gore in Skirts (1921).
The Hippodrome Theatre was a midtown Manhattan landmark from 1905 to 1939.  The building's architects, Frederick Thompson and Jay H. Morgan, worked with the Fuller Company to create a state-of-the art theatre that boasted an unprecedented seating capacity of 5,300.  I wrote about the brilliantly unique features of the theatre in a previous article.  According to Wikipedia, "The Hippodrome featured lavish spectacles complete with circus animals, diving horses, opulent sets, and 500-member choruses."


The success of the Hippodrome inspired a trend among Broadway producers to stage grand-scale variety revues.  Like the Hippodrome showmen, Florenz Ziegfeld featured fantastically colossal scenes in his "Ziegfeld Follies" shows.  He crowded the stage with the most beautiful chorus girls to be found.  Stanley Green, the author of "Ziegfeld Encyclopedia of the Musical Theatre," wrote that the Ziegfeld girls always created the highlight of the show when they "paraded up and down flights of stairs as anything from birds to battleships."  These shows brought the Broadway stage an image of grandeur and opulence.

Ziegfeld Follies Girls
In 1919, Fox Film president William Fox attended a Hippodrome show during a visit to New York City.  The show, "Happy Days," brought forth a pageant of circus acts and vaudeville acts.  Two performers were singled out by critics for their performances in the show.  The first was Clyde Cook, who played the mischievous elf Puck.  Cook amused audiences with his limber comic moves and his eccentric dance steps.  The second outstanding performer was Poodles Hanneford, a zany circus clown who astonished crowds with his expert bareback riding.  But the show delivered so much more.  The Water Girls, beautiful young ladies in exotic swimsuits, essayed graceful dives into an immense water tank.  A favorite scene in the show was "A Book Store," which featured hundreds of colorful storybook characters coming to life and stepping out from book shelves.

Audiences cheered for the clown riding a horse around a track.  They cheered for the elephant that lumbered on stage to perform tricks.  It's no wonder that Variety reported, "The Hip show this season looks more circusy than ever."


Fox was so excited by the show that he quickly arranged to sign Cook to a contract.  More important, he made plans to produce a cinematic version of the Hippodrome's epic variety revue.  He would create his own lavish spectacle featuring clowns, trained circus animals, opulent sets, storybook characters, and an immense chorus of beautiful young women.

A contest among Fox employees produced the film’s title, Skirts.  The studio’s ambitions for the film were perfectly outlined in a press notice that was released during the film’s production.  Fox's publicists noted, "Skirts. . . establishes a precedent and fixes a new standard of ultimate effort in extravagant comedy for the coming year.  It contains all the sensational and spectacular features of the three-ring circus, all the dash and splendor of the musical comedy, with its thousand beautiful girls, and wit and humor worthy of the best comedians.  They have carried the banner of mirth into the very heart of joyland."

Hampton Del Ruth
Hampton Del Ruth had recently been hired by Fox to bring efficiency and discipline to Fox's comedy short subject division, which was responsible for putting out bi-weekly two-reel comedies under the "Sunshine Comedies" brand.  Del Ruth’s predecessor, Henry Lehrman, had gotten bogged down in production delays and was unable to provide exhibitors with timely short subjects as the studio’s contracts required.  This had become a serious problem for the studio, which was the reason that it was vital for Del Ruth to fulfill his commitments to exhibitors. 

Motion Picture News ballyhooed Del Ruth's arrival at the studio.  The magazine reported, "Plans have been laid for a busy season of production at the Sunshine studio for the making of two-reel comedies, each one of which when released will carry Mr. Del Ruth's guarantee of something worth while and different.  Each story will mean something, teach a lesson, or drive a moral home; it must gain its point by good, honest, wholesome laughter and humor.  He does not believe it is necessary to insult or abuse any class or condition to attain this result.  It is his ambition and purpose to put in each something more than mere entertainment; he wants each one to embrace a point so high and striking it cannot be forgotten." 

Not long after this article appeared, Fox presented a much bigger challenge for Del Ruth.  It wasn’t enough for the produce to create 26 two-reel comedies in the next year.  Now, he also had to create a five-reel comedy feature that would outdo every comedy feature that had ever come before it.

In between scenes, Chester Conklin tells Hampton Del Ruth a joke.  The ladies are Marvel Rea and Virginia Warwick.
Contrary to the claims that appeared in Motion Picture News, the Sunshine comedies did not provide meaningful stories with moral lessons.  The principal aim of the Sunshine crew was to make comedies that were large in scope and absurd in concept.  This was not a bad aim to be sure.  The comedies turned out to be delightfully goofy and imaginative entertainment.  The same idea for largeness and absurdity was no doubt at work when Del Ruth got to work on the feature film.

Skirts was to be the Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World of its day.  The film strove to provide a big cast, big stunts, big thrills and big laughs.  It was no exaggeration when Fox publicists boasted that no expense was to be spared.  A great sum of money was lavished upon the production, which was necessary if it was expected to set a new standard for comedy productions.  Exhibitors Herald called it "the most lavish and ambitious attempt of its kind on record."   

The preparation of the project was underway as early as October, 1919, at which time the popular Singer's Midgets were hired to appear in the film.  Certainly, this troupe would give the film the circusy flavor of the Hippodrome shows.  Motion Picture News reported, "[T]he Singers brought with them their entire menagerie of midget animals.  The latter are as freakish and unusual in the way of stature as are their owners.  This menagerie consists of four elephants, sixteen ponies, a monkey, a deer with fawn, seventeen hounds, four Dogenburg goats and a midget lion.  These animals are highly trained and in themselves present an act of unusual interest."

What else could an audience expect from Singer's Midgets?  In 1921, the troupe performed a ten-act show at the Keith's Theatre in Boston.  A theatre critic with the Harvard Crimson wrote, "The Midget strong man, the Midget conjurer, the Midget 'Cleopatra' with the winning ways - these and many more were there.  The Midget cowboys did their stunts, the Midget soldiers marched, and the Midget singer rendered 'Girl of My Dreams,' while the beauties of the chorus went on miniature fashion parade.  Taken all in all, a very good example of small people 'going big.'"

For their appearance in Skirts, the Singer’s Midgets were called upon to recreate their stage routine "The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe."  Fox credited all nineteen of the Singer’s Midgets in their press releases.  The group included the following: Dora Veig, Anna Neider, Victoris Neider, Mitsi Vashek, Emilie Jaranyi, Isabella Steingruber, Karl Becker, Franz Steingruber, Louis Vashek, Fritz Tarabula, Julius Daranyi, Shandor Rocka, Joseph Posher, Gabor Baggi, Karl Florian, Edward Wilmot, Stephen Miskosh, Peter Dteneck and Vincent Tarabula.  Becker and Roka later appeared as Munchins in The Wizard of Oz (1939).  Becker was to become the Mayor of Munchkinland.

But it wouldn't be enough for Singer's Midgets to ride around on ponies or perform tricks with a midget lion.  Their scenes had to be much bigger than that.  Del Ruth came up with a cyclone scene.  Exhibitors Herald reported, "In the cyclone scene, during which automobiles, trees and human beings are sent sailing through the air, the Liliputians ride to safety in the big shoe so familiar to readers of fairy tales."  A cyclone, a large collection of little people, and a fairy tale theme.  Why does that sound familiar?

Circus scene from Skirts.
At the peak of production, a total of four units were in operation under the supervision of Del Ruth.  Put in charge of the respective units were Roy Del Ruth, Del Lord, Eddie Cline and Jack Blystone.  This was a formidable union of comic talent.   

It was arranged for the climax of the film to be set at a banquet.  Publicists bragged that the set constructed for this scene was three hundred feet long and two hundred feet wide.  They claimed, "[I]t was bigger than anything ever erected for motion picture use, save possibly one or two sets in Griffith's Intolerance. . . The tables at which the banqueters are seated were wide enough to accommodate [two thousand] diners plus the thousand girls who presently came dancing down them four abreast."

William Fox
Yes, my friends, bring on the dancing girls!  Fox had resolved to have a chorus bigger and better than any of the past choruses of the Hippodrome or the Ziegfeld Follies.  The climatic dance number would, in fact, focus on the mammoth chorus dancing on top of tables at a splendid banquet.  The following is a report that appeared in Exhibitors Herald:
Determined to make Skirts an offering that would go down in motion picture history as unique and the most lavish of its kind, Mr. Fox conceived the idea of a ballet of hippodromic proportions.  Orders were issued to the casting director at the Hollywood studios to provide a chorus of not less than one thousand of the most beautiful women obtainable.  Although the mecca of all aspirants for film honors, it was realized that Los Angeles could not begin to provide the combined beauty of face and form demanded.  As girl after girl was rejected, it was feared that the necessary number of perfect types could not be secured.

As a last resort "Perfect Form Contests" were instituted in cities throughout the United States and Canada where Fox film exchanges are to be found.  Six weeks of contests presently brought together the group required.

A person possessing the statistical mind of the Fox studios was spurred by curiosity to investigate the nationalities of the girls in the perfect beauty chorus.  Girls of Russian, English, German, Swedish, Norwegian, Scottish, Irish, Italian, French, Polish, Hungarian and even Turkish and Syrian forebears were numerous.  One miss confessed that her father was a Chinaman, while her mother was a Polynesian.  This queer admixture of blood imparted to her a piquancy of beauty unusually attractive.

Fox demanded that the women be dressed in elaborate costumes comparable to costumes worn by the showgirls in the Ziegfeld Follies.

Ziegfeld Follies Girl
The film’s costume designer, Margret Whistler, would later design the dresses and costumes for Fox’s The Queen of Sheba (1921).

Betty Blythe as The Queen of Sheba.

In the end, Fox publicists claimed, "This rapid moving army of feminine beauty, moving in graceful unison, is regarded as one of the most impressive spectacles that has ever been filmed."

Fox was determined to get his exhibitors on board with this comedy special.  In April, a major exhibitor was invited to see the film being shot.  M. L. Finkelstein of Rubin & Finkelstein, owners of a chain of thirty-five theatres in Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth, was accompanied by Del Ruth onto the Sunshine stages.  Finkelstein was pleased by the visit.  "I feel quite sure," he declared, "that Mr. Fox's big special Sunshine comedy. . . will be booked for runs in every one of our chain of theatres.  We shall anxiously await its completion."

It was reported that Del Ruth was shooting the final scenes of the film during the first week of April.  Del Ruth worked hard to assemble a finished print of the film (described as "long-heralded" by Film Daily) in time to preview the film at an exhibitors' convention held at New York's Commodore Hotel in May, 1920.  Much to Del Ruth’s dismay, the film was not well-received by the conventioneers.

Fox decided to withhold the comedy special's release date until Del Ruth could find a way to fix the film.  Del Ruth saw that he had no choice other than to resume production and reshoot scenes.  Unfortunately, the unscheduled reshoots were delayed by several weeks because the studio had a number of large-scale films in production (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court was one) and no stage space was available for Skirts.  Certainly, space was needed for Sunshine's epic collection of fools and beauties to engage in tomfoolery amid the tumult and crowds of a sprawling three-ring circus.

In June, Exhibitors Herald reported that Del Ruth was shooting a new scene for Skirts.  Del Ruth had purchased a locomotive and several train cars for an action scene in which the train would ultimately meets its destruction.  Film historian Bob Birchard found an intriguing reference to this scene in the press book for Skirts.  The passage read, "A runaway train dashing through a burning forest rushes upon a blazing bridge which crashes beneath its weight, plunging the train into a stream."  Birchard rightly pointed out that this passage could accurately describe the climax of Buster Keaton’s The General (1926).  He noted that, in The General, "a railroad bridge is on fire and a Union officer sends the train across the bridge, only to have the bridge and train collapse into the creek."  In The Funny Parts, I wrote about a spinning house gag that Eddie Cline used in the Sunshine comedy A Schoolhouse Scandal (1919).  Cline later reused the gag in Keaton's One Week (1920).  It is not hard to imagine that Skirts’ train sequence was directly borrowed by Keaton for The General.

So, what exactly was Del Ruth’s premise for the train scene?  The film's villain, Jack Cooper, has kidnapped the heroine, Alta Allen, and he has taken her on board a locomotive.  The film's hero, Chester Conklin, hires a plane to overtake the train.  A news item focused on a daring stunt that was employed in Conklin’s rescue of Allen.  It was explained that, according to the "Fox folks in Hollywood," it was a "stunt that will force cold chills up and down the spine."  The stunt was described as follows:
Miss Allen, escaping from the locomotive cab, reaches the roof of the train and crawls along from coach to coach.  Conklin, from his airplane overhead, discovers her, and his trusty pilot causes the plane to swoop down with a rush over the roof of the car.  The rescuer has climbed over the side of the plane and is hanging by his feet from the underwork.  At a signal from the director the plane dips and Conklin seizes Miss Allen, lifting her from the third floor of the coach and carrying her upward and away to safety.
A dubious claim was made that Conklin accomplished the airplane feat himself.  According to a press release, the comedian was strapped tightly to the bottom of the plane before the plane swooped down over the train.  I can see no possible way that this could be true.  The various Fox Sunshine units made extensive use of stunt men, which makes it is reasonable to assume that a stunt man substituted for Conklin in this highly dangerous scene.

Stills show that the heroine has to rescue her savior from the river.


Conklin figured prominently in another Skirts press release about a big action scene.  Fox reported that the comedian was nearly killed when an explosion sent him hurtling from the top of a three-story building to the ground floor.

Most of Skirts' cast were veterans of Sennett comedies.  The Fox studio used its extensive financial resources to routinely lure talent away from the Sennett studio.

The protagonists of Sennett's comedies were rarely admirable or sympathetic.  This was certainly the case with Jack Cooper, who had made it his specialty to play morally disreputable characters.  In this scene from Skirts, Cooper must be compelled by his landlady to pay overdue rent.

Jack Cooper and Milla Davenport.

This still shows Chester Conklin and Cooper as rivals for Ethel Teare's affections.

Chester Conklin, Ethel Teare and Jack Cooper.

Conklin and Cooper had been at odds with each other before in Sennett films.

Chester Conklin, Mary Thurman, Ford Sterling and Jack Cooper the 1918 Sennett comedy Beware of Boarders.
The characters that Conklin played were not much better than Cooper's characters.  Conklin's protagonists at Sennett displayed villainous qualities even when they were supposed to be the good guy.  For evidence of the sort of roles that Conklin was playing before he left Sennett, you need only to take a glance at the definitive Sennett filmography in Brent Walker's mighty tome, Mack Sennett's Fun Factory.  Here are Walker's plot descriptions for the last two films that Conklin made at Sennett:
The plot of The Foolish Age (1919): "[Chester] foists his attentions on banker's daughter [Phyllis] Haver until he learns that [Louise] Fazenda has inherited a fortune."

The plot of Love's False Faces (1919): "Chester tries to make a play for [his] married landlady. . ."
Conklin was an adulterer, a homewrecker, a gold digger, and a wolf.  He was, to put it simply, a cad.

The actor continued to play the same character at Fox.  The character's unsavory nature was evident when Conklin played the title role in the Sunshine comedy A Perfect Villain (1921).  Exhibitors Herald summarized the plot as follows: "A watch which the hero-villain loads with TNT and presents to his rival is the center of excitement.  A poker game in which the infernal machine is repeatedly returned to its donor is a high light of the action."  Yes, "hero-villain" is an appropriate title for Conklin's dubious characters.  It is impossible to imagine Keaton or Lloyd killing off a rival with an exploding watch.  This was hardly the sort of person that an audience would be willing to follow faithfully for six reels.  The stills for Skirts certainly do not show Conklin behaving in gentlemanly manner.  Does a good leading man slam a door shut on a lady's head?
Chester Conklin and Ethel Teare.
The plan was for the new and improved version of Skirts to reach theatres in August.  A press book and other press materials were assembled in anticipation of the film’s release.  Fox publicists called Skirts "a new and lofty keynote in the motion picture comedy realm."  A press release proclaimed the film to be a "Super-Comedy."  The studio promised, "Thrills include the washing away of a palatial home by a flood, a train plunging through a burning bridge, a submarine rescue at sea, a 2,000-foot parachute drop from an airship, an explosion which blew up a three-story set, and the rescue of the heroine from the roof of a speeding train by an airplane."  But the release date was cancelled at the last minute.  Del Ruth had left his position at Fox by September 11.  The Film Daily reported, "Fox Sunshine Comedy unit reorganized.  Hampton Del Ruth out as supervising director."  Del Ruth was replaced by Sol Wurtzel.

William Fox had his general manager, Winfield Sheehan, address the Skirts situation with Wurtzel.  Fox soonafter wrote to Wurtzel, "With reference to Mr. Sheehan’s note to you, to have a director ready to make animal and slap-stick scenes for the picture SKIRTS, I have reached the conclusion that the only man I would care to have complete that picture would be Blystone.  I have so told Mr. Sheehan and he will take the matter up with you on his arrival."
Laura LaVarnie, Jack Blystone and Alta Allen.
It was likely due again to the unavailability of stages that filming was further delayed.  Blystone did not resume production until January.  He discarded much of Del Ruth’s earlier Skirts footage.  By the time that he was finished, the five-reel comedy had expanded to a six-reel comedy.  The discarded footage was later recycled into two-reel Sunshine comedies, including The Singer Midgets’ Scandals, The Singer Midgets’ Sideshow and Mary’s Little Lobster.  Birchard informed me, "Footage shot for Skirts turns up as late as A Roaring Lion in late 1923."  It is known that footage from the film was recycled because stills from the film were recycled, too.  Birchard is in possession of the stills and the press book that were printed just prior to the film's scuttled August release date.  These same images appeared again in lobby cards and other press materials for the later shorts.

Del Ruth was barely out the door at Fox when some of his footage from Skirts was included into Mary’s Little Lobster.  The film starts out with presumably new footage of Ethel Teare and Tom Kennedy at a young ladies seminary.  According to Motion Picture News, the action starts with "a mechanical contraption. . . bouncing the pupils out of their beds, down a chute-the-chutes into a swimming pool."  The second reel, which includes footage from Skirts, involves Slim Summerville stealing a safe from the school.  Summerville is caught up in a chase as he attempts to carry out the safe with him.  After he finally gets away, he breaks open the safe and is surprised to find that all the safe contains is a monkey.  Finding a monkey in a safe makes more sense with Skirts’ circus setting than it does with Lobster’s seminary setting.  It was established in earlier press releases that Summerville had a prominent role in Skirts as the circus ringmaster.  The comedian also took a hand in directing parts of the film.  How much of his acting or directorial work ended up in the final film is unknown.

Skirts was released in its new form on April 10, 1921.  Not much of the plot was revealed in trade journals.  We discover as the film opens that Clyde Cook grew up in a circus sideshow as the son of a bearded lady and he now works in the sideshow as a handyman.  Of course, a dilemma must be introduced to set the plot into motion.  Chicago Tribune's Mae Tince explained, "[Cook] loves the owner's daughter and she loves him.  The strong man, however, also loves her. . . Papers arrive to prove that the circus boob is an heir.  But, ha, they are stolen by the strong man."  Cook has to catch up to the strong man and regain his papers to claim his sizable inheritance.  Press materials identified Edgar Kennedy as the "heavy villain," which suggests that he played the nefarious strong man.  The idea of rivals competing for a big cash prize makes for a simple plot.  It is the sort of plot that could be found in a two-reel comedy.  Of course, this brings us back to the idea that Skirts, as a tale of madcap destruction, rampant greed and frantic chase scenes, was the Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World of its day.

Birchard splits Skirts into three phases.  Phase One was the cut that was shown at the exhibitors’ convention in May 1920, Phase Two was the cut that was prepared for release in August 1920, and Phase Three was the Blystone version that finally made it to theatres in April 1921.  Many changes occurred during these phases.  Actors were shifted from one role to another.  Scenes were shuffled from one reel to another.  I suspect that this production was just as chaotic as it sounded.  Birchard wrote, "Chester Conklin and Harry Gribbon are rivals in the second phase.  Gribbon is in the Navy and Chester is the villain, but there is also stuff with Chester as a talent agent (which may or may not preclude him from being a villain).  Chester also turns up in images where he appears to be a member of the circus band."

Chester Conklin plays an unscrupulous talent agent in this scene from Skirts.  The woman standing next to Conklin is Alice Davenport.  I was unable to identify the aspiring bathing beauty.   
Birchard identified Jack Cooper acting in a villainous manner in scenes where Conklin is dressed in his circus attire.  But the Exhibitors Herald article indicated that Conklin rescued Allen from Cooper during the train sequence that was part of the Phase Two reshoots.  So, did Conklin go from being a villain to a hero as the article suggests or did he go from being a hero to a villain as Birchard's stills suggest?  Gribbon is identified in another press release as playing the hero of the film, which is verified by Birchard's stills of Gribbon as a sturdy and upright navy man.  Surely, Gribbon's navy man was involved in the "submarine rescue" cited in Fox's press materials.

Harry Gribbon and the ladies.

This means that it possible that each phase of the production had a different leading man - maybe Conklin first, then Gribbon, and finally Cook.  At first, I thought that the trade journals identified Cook as the film’s lead from the start.  But I just needed to read the various news items more closely.
"Singer's Midgets, 35 in all, will hereafter appear in Sunshine Comedies as will Clyde Cooke [sic], an English comedian."
Film Daily, October 20, 1919.
"During the coming year there will be a great elaboration of the Sunshine comedies.  The Singer Midgets have been engaged to appear in these features and we also have Clyde Cook, the famous Hippodrome comedian."
Exhibitors Herald, January 17. 1920.

How do these facts sort out?  Fox contracted with Cook in 1919 to star in his own series.  The studio had high expectations for Cook and considered his hiring to be a coup for them.  However, Cook’s commitments with the Hippodrome prevented him from starting his series for a number of months.  None of the news items that I listed above specifically say that Cook would appear together with Singer’s Midgets in Skirts.  The most convincing proof that Cook was not part of Skirts’ original cast was the fact that, when the cast was listed in a news item dated May 29, 1920, Cook’s name was nowhere in sight.  I agree with Birchard that Cook did not become attached to Skirts until Phase Three.  The plan for Cook when he joined Fox in April was to get the comedian to complete a short subject series for the studio’s upcoming 1919-1920 season.  He began his stay at Fox working on a two-reel comedy called Kiss Me Quick.  Within the next year, the comedian turned out six more short comedies for the studio.  One of the films that came to occupy Cook's time was The Huntsman.


Gribbon had been well-received as the leading man of two feature films, Down on the Farm and Up in Mary's Attic.  It would be understandable for Fox to assume that the actor could assure Skirts' success.  Gribbon, whose on-screen image had been significantly rehabilitated since his Sennett days, was now able to play a big, bright hero.

This still from A Dash of Courage (1916) shows the villainous sort of character that Gribbon had once played at Sennett.  The other actors are Bobby Vernon, Wallace Beery and Raymond Griffith.
At one time or another, the cast of Skirts included Clyde Cook, Edgar Kennedy, Chester Conklin, Harry Gribbon, Ethel Teare, Alta Allen, Dorothy Lee, Laura LaVarnie, Blanche Payson, Rosa Gore, Milla Davenport, Lois Scott, Jack Cooper, Bobby Dunn, Tom Kennedy, Polly Moran, Billy Armstrong, Bynunsky Hyman, Joe Murphy (billed as Mutt Murphy), Glen Cavender, Gus Pixley, Ford West, Harry McCoy, Billy Franey and Harry Booker.  It was not hyperbole for Fox to state that the film’s principals "rank among the foremost players in the comedy field."  When the film was finally released, ads proclaimed that the Sunshine Beauty Brigade consisted of "3,000 of America's loveliest girls," which was three times the size of Del Ruth's original chorus.  More reels and more ladies.  Was more better?

The Skirts experience could not have been entirely bad for Del Ruth as, in February, he married Skirts' leading lady Alta Allen.  Actually, to be clear, Allen was only Skirts’ Phase Two leading lady.  She performed in Phase One as a chorus girl and it is unknown if she participated at all in Phase Three.

Despite all of the reshoots and reediting, the exhibitors could not have been more displeased.
"Certainly glad I did not run this as a special.  O. K. for kids."
E. A. Baradel,  Palace Theatre, McGehee, Arkansas.
"Picture a fair comedy, but not a special as advertised.  Will get by very well at regular admission."
G. D. Pinholster, Clinch Theatre, Frostproof, Florida.
"Quite a lot of money spent making this one.  Offers mild entertainment, but is not as good as advertised to be.  Lost money on this one."
Berriman Brothers, Lyric Theatre, Bartlesville, Oklahoma.
"No plot.  Very poor picture.  No appeal whatsoever."
J. Carbonell, Monroe Theatre, Key West, Florida.
"Thought this was a Fox special, but found out it was a piece of cheese.  People walked out and laughed at me."
A. Binder, Arthur Theatre, Detroit, Michigan.
"Fox's idea of something.  Was nothing.  The operator and myself saw the last reel.  We are old and tough and could stand it."
G. N. Armstrong, YMCA Theatre, Rose Lake, Idaho.

The film was poorly received by critics as well.  Chicago Tribune's Mae Tince saw the film simply as a way for Fox to cash in on a growing new trend.  She wrote, "The producing companies all seem to be taking a flyer at feature comedies.  Skirts is Fox's latest novelty."  Tince was not pleased at all by the film.  She stated flatly, "I don't think Skirts is funny."  But then she qualified her remarks.  She wrote, "Now Skirts may be funny.  I am inclined to think that perhaps it is. . . The longer I live the more I lean to the idea that I don't know a comedy when I see one.  We have had this hunch ever since, having nearly passed away of ennui during Mr. [Lloyd] Hamilton's April Fool, we discovered that the beautiful, dark, young lady to our right. . . thought it simply wonderful and sat through the feature on the program so that she could see the comedy again.  She's bright, too.  So — you see — ?"

By every indication, Tince could have looked to her right and to her left and found no one else laughing at Skirts.  The film passed through theaters without leaving much of an impression.

Tince wrote in closing, "Well - summed up - lots of Mr. Cook, too much of the strong man, not enough of the midgets, scarely any skirts, lots of doing every minute - and plenty of laughs - if such be the things you laugh at. . . [S]ome of the stunts are quite electrifying if you hadn't seen them done so many times before by Helen Holmes and others."  I suspect that Tince's summary has a fair amount of merit.  Del Ruth had adhered to Fox's strict instructions to put the main emphasis of the film on the beauties.  Early test shots and early promotional material were largely centered on the young ladies.  It was the entire reason that the film was named Skirts.  But having the beauties periodically parade through a scene had no storytelling value and it did nothing to provoke the laughs that were expected from a long-heralded comedy spectacle.  So, it made sense for Blystone to excise considerable footage of the beauties.  We know, too, that much of the Singer's Midgets' footage was removed from the film and used later in short comedies. Was the film hindered by, as Tince said, "lots of doing"?  Life Magazine said as much when it reported, "[Clyde Cook's] drollery is throttled by the excessive footage."

The kinder words from critics were reserved for the film’s stop-motion animation prologue, which depicted the creation of Adam and Eve.  The scene was developed by special effects technician K. C. MacLean.

A number of critics made note of Cook's stone-faced acting.  Tince wrote, "It is no fashionable these days for a comedian to smile.  The dolorous Buster Keaton, the dumpy Snub Pollard, the obese and, I think, awful Lloyd Hamilton all maintain a determined calm through most of the vicissitudes, comic and otherwise — mostly otherwise — that beset them.  Clyde Cook is no exception." 

This article went through its own Skirts-style reworking.  I produced an earlier version of the article before I got it into my head that I needed to delve much deeper in my research.  I went searching for production material that might close the gaps in this twisting and turning story.  Unfortunately, many of Fox's old records were never archived and they became lost throughout the years.  What has survived?  In 1972, Fox’s New York office donated 1,500 film scripts to the University of Iowa.  The scripts are limited to the period of 1929 to 1971, which means the collection entirely bypasses the studio's extensive silent film period.  Material from the Hollywood office was at one time donated to two libraries, the Margaret Herrick Library and UCLA's Performing Arts Library.  Recently, though, Fox withdrew their material from UCLA and stored it at the Fox Research Library, which is located on the studio complex in Los Angeles.  The material is not presently accessible to the public, but I did speak to a librarian at the facility and he was confident that he had nothing going as far back as 1921.  This left the Herrick Library.  The library had a listing in their catalog for Skirts.  Their holdings on the film included a whopping total of 101 stills!  I decided to acquire photocopies of the stills in an effort to recreate the film as best as possible.  I was told by Birchard that I could distinguish original scenes and reshoot scenes based on the still codes.  The stills for the Del Ruth scenes have an "HDR-SPEC" prefix and the stills from the Blystone scenes have a "BLY-15" prefix.  Unfortunately, the collection did not include stills from the Blystone reshoots.

Let us review a few of the stills. 

The following images show Teare in a distressing situation with Conklin and Davenport.  Teare is brandishing a letter or legal papers.  Pieces of smashed ceramic are at Teare's feet, which may be the reason the landlady is upset with her.


A large portion of the film evidently took place at a luxury boutique, where wealthy gentlemen were able to watch comely young women model clothing and jewelry.
Joe Murphy, Bynunsky Hyman, Bert Gillespie and Rosa Gore.

Conklin turns up at the boutique.

Rosa Gore (reclining) and Chester Conklin,
It is noted on the back of the photo that the woman sitting beside Conklin is Phyllis Haver.  It looks like Haver to me, but the actress' identity has been disputed by Ben Turpin biographer Steve Rydzewski.  Haver was a frequent co-star of Turpin during this period.

Ben Turpin and Phyllis Haver.
The boutique is, in a general, a wild place.

Rosa Gore, unidentified actress, Joe Murphy and Ford West

Bynunsky Hyman, Jim Donnelly (?), Rosa Gore, Chester Conklin and Bert Gillespie.

The boutique presumably spoofed the type of fine clothing salons frequented by the Los Angeles elite during this period.  The best example that I could find was Bullock's Wilshire, which opened in 1929.  Wikipedia describes the boutique as follows: "For refreshment, there was the top-floor desert-themed tearoom and the adjoining lounge where society women gathered for luncheon fashion shows.  Truly elite service was reserved for the selected men invited to shop in the privacy of J.G. Bullock's wood-paneled private suite on the fifth floor.  Titans of business and politics relaxed over cocktails and hors d'oeuvres as sales associates modeled potential gifts."

Los Angeles historian Hadley Meares wrote, "[E]ach department [had] its own little boutique.  Live models swayed around the Louis XIV salon in designer dresses, high rolling Hollywood players smoked cigars while being presented with shirts in Jo Bullock's wood-paneled private suite, and harried mothers could drop off their children in the crib-filled nursery before peeking into a room devoted solely to the creations of Coco Chanel, or indulging in a spritz of a new fragrance in the mirrored Hall of Perfume."

This photograph from a fashion exhibit at Bullock's Wilshire also shows models inserted in a life-sized picture frame.  But, of course, Del Ruth's boutique could be seen as ostentatious and salacious compared to Bullock's Wilshire.  My friend, Marilyn Slater, told me that she attended fashion shows at the boutique in the 1940s.  She said that, at the time, the place was "very stylish and posh" and the customers that it attracted were mostly "dignified women with white gloves."

Jack Cooper is caught hiding beneath an animal skin rug by Joe Murphy, Bert Gillespie and an unidentified actor.

Many stills from the film feature Harry Booker, Laura LaVarnie and Alta Allen.  It is difficult to figure out the story that was being told by these images.  Booker is clearly having money problems.

Harry Booker, Laura LaVarnie and Alta Allen.

He is so desperate that he attempts to rob the boutique.

Harry Booker, Alta Allen, Laura LaVarnie, Rosa Gore, Bynunsky Hyman and Ford West.
But what is Booker's relationship to LaVarnie and Allen?  It could be that Booker is LaVarnie's husband and Allen's father.

But it could be that the ladies have money and Booker is a broken-down old crook trying to cheat them out of their cash and steal their jewelry.


LaVarnie is unmoved by Booker's efforts to win her heart with flowers.

LaVarnie is displeased to find that Booker has invited the janitor into the suite for a smoke and a drink.

The disparate scenes only add to the confusion.  Teare has an entirely different look in this scene.  She is no longer wearing the country girl outfit and wig.

The actors are, from left to right, Gus Pixley, Lois Scott, Ethel Teare, Blanche Payson, Billy Franey and two uncredited extras.

Booker gets into all sorts of trouble at the boutique.

Harry Booker is caught with friendly fashion models by Rosa Gore, Laura LaVarnie and Alta Allen.

I have seen a still that features Cook dressed in a top hat and tuxedo, which suggests that the young man did win his inheritance in the end.

Perhaps, a Hippodrome show was not a good inspiration for a feature-length comedy.  It was eventually discovered that a problem with upsizing the Broadway musical was that it caused producers to neglect story and character development.  This is likely the same problem that hindered Skirts.  The film was a series of grand set-pieces that did not necessarily come together to advance the story or make the audience care about the circus handyman.  It is hard to imagine that Singer’s Midgets floating upstream in a big shoe or chorus girls dancing on tables at the banquet brought Cook's character any closer to defeating the evil strongman and winning his inheritance, which was supposed to be the whole point of the story.

Tombstone-like ad for Skirts.
Despite its failure, Skirts was a film history milestone, paving the way for the much better known comedy features of the 1920s.  Keaton and Lloyd kept the spectacular and expensive set-pieces.  Keaton especially liked to elevate comedy to a large and dangerous scale.  He used a train crash in The General (1926) and he used a flood and cyclone in Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928).  But both Keaton and Lloyd were careful to build sympathetic characters and interesting storylines around the large set-pieces and, just as important, they kept the large set-pieces funny.  This made a crucial difference.

This is not the sort of stunt that could be found in a Helen Holmes serial.

The one exception to this rule may have been The General's train wreck scene.  Michael Barrett, film critic with the PopMatters blog,wrote, "[T]he most famous stunt in The General has nothing to do with Keaton except as its creator.  It’s the collapse of a train on a burning bridge, which was reported as the most expensive sequence ever filmed to that time.  What does it mean that the most famous image in a Keaton film doesn’t have Keaton in it?  It’s certainly an impressive shot every time you see it — there’s the train really falling — but hardly a knee-slapper."

At least Keaton inserted himself into the train wreck in a publicity still.

Nonetheless, the stage was now set for the comedy feature to enter its Golden Age.

Cook's short comedy series for Fox continued for two more years.


The production stills from Skirts come from the Herrick Library's Hollywood Museum Collection.  I thank my friend Marilyn Slater for obtaining copies of the stills.  Marilyn went above and beyond the call of duty for the cause of film history.  She made multiple visits to the library and she diligently operated her scanner to assure the sharpest possible images.  Marilyn, you are the best!  I recommend that you visit Marilyn's Mabel Normand site at  I also thank Bob Birchard, Steve Zalusky and Steve Rydzewski for their assistance.

A big phooey to Mae Tince for calling Lloyd Hamilton "awful."  Being a true objective journalist, I could not say what I really thought of Miss Tince in the article.  And now, well, being a Christian man, I still can't say it!

I dedicate this series of articles to the memory of Mr. Harry Gribbon.

Flash the Dog gets between Harry Gribbon and Polly Moran in the 1928 MGM feature Honeymoon.
Moran, Flash and Gribbon in another still from Honeymoon.
Gribbon stars as a hard-nosed police detective in the 1930 Warner Brothers' feature The Gorilla.

Gribbon in another still from The Gorilla.