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.

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