Sunday, July 17, 2016

Reflections in a Soap Bubble

I remember the times in my childhood when the foamy lather created by shampoo provided an irresistible opportunity to play.  I could pile layers of foam on my head to create a sudsy Afro that made me feel like Linc from The Mod Squad.  Moments later, I could let out a hearty "Ho-ho-ho!" to go along with the frothy white beard that I now sported.  Soapsuds always have been fun.

In the early days of film, soapsuds were a facilitator of the most exaggerated physical comedy.  Take, for instance, the central comedy action of the 1915 Selig comedy Wipe Yer Feet.  Sid Smith smears a floor with soapsuds, which causes everyone who enters the room to slide and skate about.   During this period, soapsuds played a pivotal role in many slapstick comedies, including Soapsuds and Sapheads (1919), Soapsuds and Sirens (1917) and Black Hands and Soapsuds (1917).  So many comedies worked up a good lather.  Let's see, there was also Love and Lather (1916), The Lathered Truth (1916) and Love, Laughs and Lather (1917).

It wasn't unusual in a Larry Semon comedy to have a bucket of thick and creamy soapsuds topple onto a man's head.  This became a source of frustration for T. O. Service, a critic with Exhibitors Herald and Moving Picture World.  The critic vented his wrath in an article published on June 14, 1928.  He could not have been more explicit in his dislike for "[c]omedies in which glue, mush, oil, soapsuds or other fluids are spilled upon people's faces, down people's necks, into people's food, or pockets, under people's feet, and comedies in which people are dropped into vats of such fluids."

Service was not likely to have enjoyed Collars and Cuffs (1923), in which Stan Laurel floods a laundry with suds.  Ted Okuda and James L. Neibaur described the scene ideally in "Stan Without Ollie: The Stan Laurel Solo Films, 1917-1927":
[A] large washing machine goes haywire, capturing the boss in its soapy confines, covering him completely with lather. . . [T]he soapy water spills out of the laundry and onto the street, causing cars to spin out of control and pedestrians to slip and fall.  Responding police officers hurry into the laundry and are so caught up in the messiness that they dive into a clothes hamper to avoid the tumult.  Stan attempts to flee, but he's unable to produce any traction on the slippery soapsuds and winds up running in place.

Alice Day in The Soapsuds Lady (1925) 

In June, 1928, H. A. Woodmansee wrote in Picture Play Magazine, "A gag man at one studio thought it would be amusing to show Junior Coghlan washing his pony in the bathtub, spattering soapsuds and horrifying the English butler.  And, just to top it off, the boy could mount the pony on four bars of soap and skid him around the hallway!"

Motion Picture Herald was unimpressed with the Colortone short Beer and Pretzels (1933), which the magazine described as "Just four guys sliding around in some soapsuds."

Edgar Kennedy is undone by a washing machine.

Photo courtesy of Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. of "Thrilling Days of Yesteryear" blog.

Lou Costello gets trapped in an industrial washing machine in Rio Rita (1942).

The manic Elsie Ames wreaks havoc in a laundry in What Makes Lizzy Dizzy? (1942).

The washing machine was a prominent fixture of the modern post-war home.  This was a time of great prosperity and yet a time of great anxiety.  It could be that an out-of-control washing machine was a perfect symbol of the times.

The washing machine was a perfectly calibrated instrument for a specialist like dear old mom.  But should dad or the children pour detergent into the washing machine, the viewers knew to prepare themselves for a volcanic explosion of soapsuds.  A similar expectation occurred when Barbara Eden's 2,000-year-old genie tried to operate a dishwasher on I Dream of Jeannie.

I Love Lucy ("Never Do Business with Friends," 1953)


Mister Roberts (1955)

Dennis The Menace ("The Man of the House," November 6, 1960)

Bachelor in Paradise (1961)

An extraordinary amount of suds was generated around Doris Day for The Thrill of It All (1963).


In Palm Springs Weekend (1963), a crowd of fun-loving young people are reveling in a pool party at the La Casa Yates hotel (actually The Desert Palms Inn) when a bratty boy (Billy Mumy) knocks a container of detergent into water.  Actor Troy Donahue remembered a problem that the actors had filming this scene.  He said, "We shot on a sound stage, and they used real soap in the pool, and you can't breathe in real soap.  There's no oxygen and half of us nearly asphyxiated in those suds.  After the first take, they had to have respirators and oxygen tanks ready at all times."

David C. Tucker, author of "Lost Laughs of '50s and '60s Television," described an episode of the 1963-64 sitcom Grindl in which Imogene Coca "plung[ed] into a bathroom full of soap suds."

Blake Edwards worked up a good deal of suds for The Party (1968).

The Doris Day Show ("The Buddy," 1969) 

This episode was likely meant as a callback to The Thrill of It All.  Fans of Day had come to know that soap bubbles were never far away from the squeaky clean actress.

A memorable episode of The Brady Bunch, "Law and Disorder" (1973), features Bobby (Mike Lookinland) being engulfed by an excess of foam from an overflowing washing machine.

Life with Lucy ("One Good Grandparent Deserves Another," 1986)


Chris Pine and Lindsay Lohan in Just My Luck (2006)

Today, soapsuds can provide comic relief from the harsh world news.  The Daily Mail reported that, in China, a lorry dumped a ton of washing powder into a sewage plant.  The newspaper noted, "Officials were left bemused when a 15-foot high cascade of foam swept through the plant and outside."

In an unrelated story, The Daily Mail reported, "Drivers in Florida had to swerve to avoid an enormous bubbly surprise by the side of the road on Monday morning.  And now police in Boca Raton are investigating who committed the age-old prank of pouring entire bottles full of dish soap into the fountain at the entrance to the Loggers' Run neighborhood.  Witnesses described how the joke-gone-wrong caused the fountains on the waterfall to create a huge foamy mess that grew out of control as it spread across the road."

Have fun with the suds in your next bath.


  1. Fun article. The Thrill of It All is one of my favorite movies

  2. Interesting article. The Thrill of It All is one of my favorite movies.