Saturday, November 4, 2017

Hop, Bite and Bow: The Flea in Film Comedy

Charlie Chaplin as a flea circus owner in The Professor (1922)
The freeloading flea has long been a comic nuisance in films.

The troublesome flea (1906)
A guest at a reception is plagued by a persistent flea in the 1906 film The troublesome flea (released in France as La puce gênante).  The Billboard described the plot of the film as follows:
At an evening reception one of the guests is attacked by this unpleasant little insect, and out of sheer annoyance removes his nether garments in an adjoining room. Unfortunately they fall out of the window.  The other guests, bursting into the room, finding him in this dilemma, chase him into the street.  He runs full tilt into a policeman, who likewise gives chase - into the country - up a tree - when the guest removes the policeman's trousers and tries to don them instead - finally coming a cropper in an outhouse.  Exceptionally clear, fine detail, and very amusing.
A flea circus manager uses a magnifying glass to search for an escaped flea in The Showman's Treasure (1907).

Linder is credited by Jornal do Brasil as the star of the 1908 comedy Travels of a Flea (released in France as Les pérégrinations d’une puce).  A critic with Moving Picture World described the plot as follows:
In a glass case a woman is exhibiting a few trained fleas for a livelihood, and the spectators get the benefit of the whole performance for two cents.  After the fleas have performed their stunts the public depart, when all at once the last spectator starts to scratch himself frantically.  He rushes out and stops to tell a policeman what his trouble is.  He has scarcely finished his tale when the officer also gets the itch.  At the same moment the flea trainer comes running out of her menagerie, screaming that one of her artists has been stolen.  Seeing the policeman going his way, scratching, she pursues him.  He, however, stops to talk to a nurse, the flea jumps on her; she goes her way, and stopping to have a drink, the troublesome animal jumps on the waiter.  From waiter to officer, from officer to a row of soldiers, from soldiers to a college boy, does the flea jump and bite, until the trainer, who has followed all the peregrinations of her beloved pet, and has vainly endeavored to catch up with the last but always changing, flea-troubled citizen, catches hold of the young student, and after having secured her beloved scholar, goes home, taking the youth along with her.
Sime Silverman of Variety found limited appeal in the "twisting and squirming."  He thought that this gag was "totally exhausted" by the time "the gyrations of the first person ceased."

Yet, much more flea-induced twisting and squirming went on for the next several decades.

In 1911, fleas were again a problem for Linder in Max's Divorce (released in France as Max se marie).  The film is a remake of The troublesome flea.  At his wedding, Max realizes that a hyperactive flea has taken refuge in his pants.  He sneaks out to a balcony to remove his pants and shake them out.  But he loses hold of his pants, which fall into the street.  He wraps a curtain around himself to cross a large hall, but the curtain becomes entangled with an ornament and is yanked off his body. The wedding party is appalled to see Max without his pants.  His bride is so humiliated that she files for divorce.  Max pleads his case before a panel of judges.  Film critic Pablo C. Ducros Hicken wrote, "Max throws his judges a large number of those parasites, whose virulent action stir judges into a chaotic pandemonium and forces them to spontaneously strip their robes from other clothes." 

Fleas cause more marital strife for Linder in a 1912 comedy, A Flea in Her Bridal Bed (released in France as Une nuit agitée).  Max is constantly interrupted on his wedding night by an annoying flea crawling around his bed.  No matter how hard he tries, he can't get rid of the pest.

The Motion Picture News outlined the plot of The Flea Circus (1913) in unique detail:
The professor, after many years of hard work, has succeeded in training a number of fleas, and some of them have become very intelligent, one in particular.  One day, when taking this flea out for an airing, it escapes, and the professor is much disturbed.  He follows it on hands and knees to his apartment, but is not quite as nimble as his pet, which gets into the next apartment and proceeds to make enemies with an old gentleman with a bald head.  This old gentleman, by a dexterous movement of his hand and fingers, catches the pet, and is about to throw it into the fire, when the professor appears and explains to him what a terrible crime he is about to commit.  He saves his pet and takes the old gentleman and says that he will show him a few things he did not know about fleas.  We next see the professor in his laboratory with his wonderful microscope, and then we see through the microscope the marvelous performances of the flea in question and his brothers.  They walk a tight rope, they pull guns and round-abouts, they work a treadmill, they jump through hoops, and do many other novel things.  The method of feeding them is shown, and the method of placing the chain around their necks. It is by means of this chain composed of a wire one two-thousandth of an inch in diameter that the flea is trained.  This subject is a remarkable offering from a scientific point of view, and further, is full of fun.
Charlie Chaplin is the owner of a flea circus in his unfinished film The Professor (1922).  The comedian uses his mime skills to "coax" his pretend fleas through an acrobatic routine.  Chaplin was fond of this comic business and always intended to include it in a film.  He nearly featured his flea acrobats in The Circus (1928), but he could never find a place in the story for his tiny friends.  He eventually showcased the routine in Limelight (1952).


Flea comedy reached its zenith with Our Gang's Thundering Fleas (1926).  Variety described the plot as follows:
The star performer of the [flea] circus escapes and the owner of the show commissions the kids to go out and catch all the fleas that they can, promising the one that will return his bike-riding flea a reward.  The kids bottle thousands of fleas, and finally set them loose at the home of little Mary at the time that her sister is being wed, the result being that the minister, the bride and groom and all the guests are all twitching and scratching. . .

In Hot Luck (1928), Big Boy (Malcolm Sebastian) brings his dog into a firehouse without realizing that the dog has fleas.  Raymond Ganly of Motion Picture News reported: "Situations embarrassing for the firemen and their chief develop with the visit of the fire commissioner and his wife to the flea-ridden station house."

In Hop Off (1928), Charley Bowers makes his living as the proprietor of a flea circus.  The stop-motion fleas that appear in the film don roller skates and use a bald man's head as a skating rink.


A flea circus gets loose in Laurel and Hardy's bed in The Chimp (1932).


The Three Stooges had encounters with fleas.  Larry inspects a dog for fleas in Mutts to You (1938).  He disposes of an uninvited flea by smashing it between an anvil and a flat iron.


The Stooges pick up fleas in the back of a dog catcher's truck in From Nurse to Worse (1940).

Fred Allen is the custodian of a flea circus in It's in the Bag (1945).

Mischa Auer plays a flea circus owner in Mr. Arkadin (1955).

Red Skelton did a couple of routines about fleas.  A 1962 episode of The Red Skelton Hour, titled "Once Upon a Flea," involves Clem Kadiddlehopper (Skelton) selling a talking flea to television show host Ed Shewllivan (Will Jordan).  In 1971, The Red Skelton Show featured a sketch in which Skelton's trained flea act is undermined by a passing dog.

In the 1970s, a couple of popular British sitcoms found humor in fleas. 

First, there was an episode of Steptoe and Son ("Loathe Story," 1972).  Harold (Harry H. Corbett) invites his new posh girlfriend (Joanna Lumley) and her snooty mother (Georgina Cookson) for an afternoon tea at his home, but he fails to make a good impression when the tea party is invaded by fleas. 

Fleas again disassembled snootiness in a 1976 episode of Good Neighbors called "Whose Fleas Are These?"  Tom (Richard Briers) and Barbara (Felicity Kendal) believe that their livestock is responsible for an infestation of fleas.  Their neighbor, Margo, is repulsed to learn of this development.  But the situation takes an interesting turn when a pest control expert visits.  It turns out the fleas come from a dog belonging to Mrs. Domes-Patterson, a snooty society woman that Margo has been supporting in a local election.

The City of Lost Children
(1995) features an assassin who uses trained fleas to inject poison into his victims.

Flea circus performers play a role in A Bug's Life (1998).

Reference sources

Hicken, Pablo C. Ducros.  "Max Linder, The King of Laughter."  La Nación, June 16, 1940.
Motion Picture News (July 5, 1913)
Motion Picture News (September 29, 1928)
Moving Picture World (April 11, 1908)
Variety (March 14, 1908).
Variety (September 8, 1926)

Plot information for The troublesome flea and Travels of a Flea was found on Georg Renken's Max Linder website at

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