Friday, October 30, 2015

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

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