"Cruel and Unusual Comedy"...on the air on NPR

Elif Rongen-Kaynakci and Steve Massa were guests on the Leonard Lopate Radio Program on March 16, 2012.

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Friday, May 1, 2009

"Race Riots"

Wednesday, May 27 at 4:00
Race Riots: Beyond Black and White

Black and White (1913) with David Morris
A Change of Complexion (1914) with Henry Bergman.
Haunted Spooks (1920) with Harold Lloyd, Sunshine Sammy
Below Zero (1925) with Lige Conley, Spencer Bell
A Natural Born Gambler (1916) with Bert Williams
silent, with piano accompaniment by Ben Model

In the very early days of cinema it was the norm to have white actors wear blackface to portray black characters. Although an embarrassment today, this practice was a holdover from the stage, whose traditions of minstrel shows and vaudeville had a huge effect on silent film comedy. At that time practically all of the black characters shown on screen were subservient, shuffling, and superstitious. By the 1920s real black performers had mostly taken over these roles, but they remained demeaning and stereotypes. This program gives us a variety of the ways that silent comedy used black characters and performers. BLACK AND WHITE is an example of white actors in blackface. A CHANGE OF COMPLEXION shows characters being blackened up without their knowledge, which was a re-occurring theme in these films. Sometimes the aftermath of an explosion, or absent-mindedly wiping their face with a greasy rag, etc. –– the resulting embarrassment and confusion was a standard laugh producer. HAUNTED SPOOKS and BELOW ZERO showcase two popular black performers. The first is Ernie "Sunshine Sammy" Morrison who, non-threatening because he was a child, became the closest thing to a black silent movie star, while Spencer Bell specialized in the subservient sidekick, but still found ways to get legitimate laughs. Finally, A NATURAL BORN GAMBLER captures on film the phenomenon of Bert Williams, the black comic who was able to transcend stereotypes and make tremendous progress in the white stage and recording worlds.

Black and White (8/28/1913) Prod: Biograph Co. Dir: Del Henderson. Writ: William Beaudine. 1 reel. Cast: David Morris, Clarence Barr, Sylvia Ashton.

Today the Biograph Studio is remembered for D. W. Griffith, and as the place where Mack Sennett, Mary Pickford, Blanche Sweet and the Gish sisters got their start. When anyone discusses the beginnings of American film comedy they’ll often mention Griffith’s THE CURTAIN POLE ('09), but then skip to the formation of Mack Sennett's Keystone Studio. The truth is that before Keystone, Sennett had his own comedy unit at Biograph where he laid the foundation for his later work and success.

Griffith began directing for Biograph in 1908, and in order to provide a well-rounded program of films had to turn out comedies as well as dramas. Since he was never interested in comedy, by 1910 a unit was set up for comedies under the direction of Frank Powell, leaving Griffith free for dramas. Sennett became one of the main players and assistants on the Powell comedies, and when Powell left the studio Sennett inherited the unit. When Sennett himself left in 1912, his right-hand men Del Henderson and Edward Dillon got their directing break.

Henderson and Dillon did a wide variety of subjects, including a number of comedies such as A RAG-TIME ROMANCE, MISTER JEFFERSON GREEN, and COME SEBEN, LEBEN (all '13) that were set in an area referred to as "Dark Town," or even worse "Coonville," with white actors in blackface playing the denizens. BLACK AND WHITE is a bit different since it concerns a white hobo who mistreats his black manservant. Although the black characters are still played by whites in make-up, at least this film has elements of social commentary with the black servant coming out on top and turning the tables on his abusive "master." Actually it’s the black woman who's the cleverest character and masterminds taking the white man down a few pegs.

The cast features two neglected silent comedy performers – David Morris, who plays the mean white man, and Sylvia Ashton as the black woman. Ashton was a heavy-set, matronly actress who after working on the stage began her movie career at Biograph working for Sennett and Henderson. She also worked in the early days for Nestor, Komic Comedies, and Bison. In the late Teens she made her way to Keystone for shorts like HER FAME AND SHAME ('17), and moved into features such as Cecil B. DeMille's OLD WIVES FOR NEW ('18). Very busy in the 1920s playing mothers and aunts (she was known as “Mother Ashton” at the studios), one of her most memorable roles was as Mama Sieppe opposite Chester Conklin in Erich von Stroheim’s GREED (’24). She retired due to ill health at the end of the silent era. The pop-eyed and often manic David Morris was a supporting comic who specialized in eccentrics, and started in films at Selig in 1912. His varied stage background included stints with Cohan and Harris, Klaw and Erlanger, George W. Lederer, and Singer Amusement Co. During 1912 to 1914 Morris was in residence at Biograph usually playing older characters such as fathers, uncles, and bosses. After Biograph he made the rounds to practically every unit that was making comedies – Keystone, Kalem, L-Ko, Christie, Universal and Fox Sunshine. By the mid-1920s he’d settled in at the Sennett studio where he kept busy supporting the likes of Billy Bevan and Ben Turpin. Sadly, despite his stage experience, Morris didn’t transfer well to sound pictures and ended up being demoted to uncredited bit roles, which he did until 1949.

We chose this film because of its being so early and because of its use of blackface for two of its main characters. There is a great deal made of "status", i.e. who is in charge and who is subservient. Morris browbeats Barr, but when Barr befriends Ashton the cook, she does the same to Morris, hitting him with the whip. Notice also the hand-held pies, slid out of their metal pan and then held and eaten like a large sandwich.

Like many of the Biograph shorts in the MoMA collection, this print is missing its titles; each spot where a title should go has a couple frames of black with the word "title". What the text is that should go in place of these "slug" frames is not known. The upside, though, is that MoMA's material on these films is strikingly sharp and from original Biograph materials, printed on the Biograph printer itself. The film's few and simple set-ups make this a performance-driven picture, and relies heavily on the actors explaining things to each other, and sometimes to us, before and after they do them. Notice the Biograph "AB" logo in the background, on the side of the house in some shots. By 1913, studio's placing their logo on the sets was seen less and less, so it's interesting to spot it here.

A Change of Complexion (5/26/1914) Prod: Crystal Film Co. Dir: Phillips Smalley. Dist: Universal. ½ reel. Cast: Vivian Prescott, Henry Bergman, Caroline Rankin.

Crystal Films was a small company that distributed through Universal. Most of their split-reel and one-reel comedies were written and directed by Phillips Smalley, the partner and husband of woman film pioneer Lois Weber. In addition to the more slap sticky one-shot comedies like this one or HOW MOSCHA CAME BACK (’14), Crystal also produced a series of polite situational comedies that starred Pearl White, before she became “Queen of the Serials,” and Chester Barnett. A huge number were made from 1912 to 1914, and actually spun off another group, the “Baldy” Belmont series. Joseph “Baldy” Belmont was a long-time stage veteran who often wore a toupee, and would frequently lose his flip-top for comic effect. The Belmonts ran in 1913 and 1914 where he was teamed with Vivian Prescott who plays the disgruntled cook in this film. The Manhattan-based Crystal closed up shop in 1914.

It’s quite a surprise to see Henry Bergman as one of the leads here, as he’s become so synonymous with the film universe of Charlie Chaplin. The German-born Bergman had much experience in opera and comedy before entering films, appearing in twenty-three Broadway shows, many of them musicals such as THE YANKEE GIRL (’10) with Blanche Ring. His first films were for Pathe and Universal, and he appeared in other Crystal comedies such as WILLIE’S DIGUISE (’14). When Henry “Pathe” Lehrman set up his L-Ko comedy company later that year Bergman was part of the original supporting ensemble for star comic Billie Ritchie, in addition to starring in occasional outings like THE BLIGHTED SPANIARD or THE BARON’S BEAR ESCAPE (both ’14). He remained with L-Ko into 1916 when he left to join Chaplin, becoming his screen support, assistant director and confidant until his death in 1946.

Bergman’s wife is played by Caroline Rankin, who billed herself as “The Thinnest Woman on the Screen.” Her stick figure frame paired with Bergman’s 300 plus pounds makes the perfect “Jack Spratt and his Wife” combination. Also known as “Spike,” Rankin was a silent comedy regular who supported everyone from Lloyd Hamilton to Max Linder, working in tons of shorts as well as features. The name star of A CHANGE OF COMPLEXION is Vivian Prescott, although she exits early after setting up the comic situation, who was featured in many Crystal shorts, often teamed with Charlie De Forrest. A child stage actress who starred in hit shows such as A CHILD OF THE REGIMENT ('07) and SAL THE CIRCUS GAL (’09), Prescott entered films in 1909 for the Biograph company. While there she worked for D.W. Griffith and Frank Powell, although her best roles came with Mack Sennett in shorts like THE MANICURE LADY (’11) and WITH A KODAK (’12). After a couple of years she went to Lubin and Imp before landing at Crystal, who publicized her as “The Refined and Cyclonic Comedienne” (which seems to cover all the bases). After marriage she left the screen and disappeared from the public eye in 1917.

This was another one of the surprises we had in the screening process, both for spotting Bergman and because we were so surprised by the prank that Bergman and Rankin's characters play on one another. Steve and I were so stunned by its outrageousness the first time we saw it – especially when Bergman runs out into the street and people begin pelting him with snowballs (??!!) – we ran it again. Our guest speaker for the class, filmmaker and historian Donald Pruden, pointed out the the gist of the prank played is about social hierarchy. The subservient maid is chided by her employers for associating with the visiting actor (someone from the theater being socially beneath her). Her revenge on her employers is to put them in a place socially beneath even an actor...someone who is black. It's not certain as to where this film was made, either Chicago or NYC/Bronx, probably the former.

Haunted Spooks (3/31/1920) Prod: Hal Roach. Dir: Roach & Alf Goulding. Dist: Pathe. Photo: Walter Lundin. Titles: H. M. Walker. 2 reels. Cast: Harold Lloyd, Mildred Davis, Wallace Howe, William Gillespie, “Sunshine Sammy” Morrison, Edgar Blue.

Ernest Fredric Morrison, better known as Sunshine Sammy, was the son of a chef and born in 1912. Entering films in 1917, he gained a good deal of attention as the comic relief in a number of Pathe features that starred Baby Marie Osborne. Sammy’s popularity quickly grew and in 1918 he appeared in the Roscoe Arbuckle two-reeler THE SHERIFF, and possibly a few starring shorts of his own. The 8/24/1918 Motion Picture News reported:

“The first two-reel Pathe-Diando Comedy featuring the little negro who is known as Sunshine Sammy has been completed under the direction of Walter McNamara, and is titled “Black Cupid.”

Hal Roach signed him in 1919, making Sammy the first black performer to be signed to a long term Hollywood contract, and outside of his future Our Gang cohort Farina, possibly the only black silent comedy star. Black stage comic Bert Williams had starred in only a couple of shorts before his early death in 1922, and although talented black adult comics turn up in supporting roles in tons of shorts they were rarely given anything to do but be scared or whip out dice to shoot craps with. But on the Roach lot Sammy was allowed to be what he really was – a tough, smart kid with an infectious personality and smile. Most of his time was spent giving Snub Pollard, Eddie Boland and Paul Parrott a run for their money. Even Harold Lloyd was no match for Sammy’s crack comic timing as can be seen in this short and GET OUT AND GET UNDER ('20).

In 1922 the Roach studio created Our Gang by surrounding Sammy with other talented kids and focusing on their feelings and take on the world. Of course the series became an instant hit and became one of the studio’s mainstays until Roach sold the franchise to MGM in 1938. Sammy’s last Our Gang comedy was CRADLE ROBBERS (’24), when he left the movies to headline in his own vaudeville act. Billed as “Sunshine Sammy – Our Gang star,” he sang and danced his way across the country before returning to Hollywood in 1940 to spend three years as part of another gang – the East Side Kids. After a number of cheaply-made adventures like SPOOKS RUN WILD (’41) and CLANCY STREET BOYS (’43), Sammy joined the army and entertained troops during World War II as part of the USO. Later leaving show business, he spent the last part of his life being feted for his con tributions to black film history.

Print being screened is a good 16mm, possibly from British materials, and which was an edition that has circulated widely among collectors for years, and sold by Blackhawk Films for the home market. It is complete and while the intertitles are not from the original release they are from some silent-era issue and the text is the same as the original film. Interesting to note that, in spite of all the stereotypically frightened black characters in the film, it is Sunshine Sammy who becomes Lloyd's ally and helps him out of his troubles. The negative black stereotype that is the core of the ruse perpetrated by the lawyer – that black men are easily frightened into a panic by ghosts – is now so old it's hard to comprehend as having even been funny in the first place, and what remains is that we just know that it's wrong to find this funny now. By the way, that bridge Lloyd stands on to shoot himself in reel one still stands today, in Echo Park...although if you visit you'll find it's locked off by a locked gate. (Did someone from L.A.'s parks dept see this film?)

Below Zero (7/7/1925) Prod: Jack White. Dir: Norman Taurog. Dist: Educational Pictures. 2 reels. Cast: Lige Conley, Estelle Bradley, Spencer Bell, Robert Kortman, Robert Graves, Bert Young.

Working in comedy shorts was a thankless and often physically dangerous occupation for black comics in silent pictures. Stereotyped roles, skimpy pay, hazardous stunts, and little recognition was their lot in life. In the 'teens there was a company called Ebony Films that made comedies with black casts, and later a group called the Custard Nine, but for the most part the black performers were on their own and at the mercy of the white industry. The following comment from Jack White (The White Brothers, DGA 1990), one of the biggest comedy producers of the 1920s, gives a good picture of how they were treated:

“We always had one or two black actors. It just happened that way. There was no problem about it. I had some blacks that were funnier than the whites. They were real funsters. They didn’t know they were funny, but I knew it. I paid them $75 a week to be a janitor and an actor. They were working all the time and had a check every Saturday night.”

Some of the “funsters” that White refers to includes Ray Turner, Edgar Blue, Curtis McHenry, and Henry Trice, but perhaps the most high-profiled of this group was Spencer Bell. Coming from a background of minstrel shows and vaudeville, Bell appeared on the Hollywood scene in the early 1920s, and had most of his best opportunities working with Larry Semon and Lige Conley. Despite having to work within the stereotype of “scared darkey,” Bell had frequent chances to show his stuff – extreme athleticism, split-second timing, and the funniest legwork in pictures. Sometimes when working with Conley he’s practically the co-star, but there was never any focus on him in the Educational press sheets – he’s always “and Spencer Bell the funny colored man of these comedies.” Jack White remembered:

“The one who appeared the most was Spencer Bell. He could imitate a mule kick. Norman Taurog gave him the nickname “Thou” because he was always quoting the Scripture.”

His character name in the White comedies was usually “Moonlight,” the ones in the Semon comedies were worse – “Snowball” or “G. Howe Black.” Bell appeared everywhere - shorts for Fox and Sennett, plus features such as THE OUTLAW DOG (’27), THE PEACOCK FAN (’29), and SMART MONEY (’31). He passed away young in 1935.

In preparing our playlists for the class edition of this 5-session series, we had intended to show this, but wound up cutting one film off each program to allow time for discussion, and so this short was not screened as part of the course. When this public screening edition of the series allowed us to put titles back in, this one went right back on this program. There are a few Lige Conley shorts where Spencer Bell is his sidekick and the two are almost a team, and in which Spencer is not doing crazy fright gags or playing dice, etc (see also FAST AND FURIOUS...click on the link to watch an edition with a score by Ben Model on YouTube). BELOW ZERO is one of these "team" shorts with Conley and Bell, and we wanted to include to show that, if only occasionally, there was some balance.

A Natural Born Gambler (7/24/1916) Prod: Biograph Co. Dir/Writ: (often credited to Bert Williams). 2 reels. Cast: Bert Williams, Sam Lucas, Billy Harper.

Bert Williams was the first black media star – popular on stage and in recordings as a comedian, singer, and writer. Initially making his name as part of the team of Williams & Walker in all black shows like IN DAHOMEY (’02) and ABYSSERIA (’06), after Walker’s early death William’s broke the color barrier by becoming a regular comic in the all-white Ziegfeld Follies along with the likes of W.C. Fields, Will Rogers, Leon Errol and Eddie Cantor.

His Follies and recording success led to a movie offer from the Biograph Company in 1916. Sadly only two shorts – A NATURAL BORN GAMBLER and FISH (’16) – were released before the company went under, but both are fascinating records of a great clown, with GAMBLER capturing his famous pantomimed poker game routine. Biograph had also begun shooting a feature starring Williams that was left unfinished when the studio folded, the rushes of which have been preserved by MoMA. Using many of the same players and sets as GAMBLER, this elaborate production would have been the first full-length film to star a black comic, not to mention presenting him as the hero of the piece.

Williams left the Follies in 1919, and appeared with Eddie Cantor in BROADWAY BREVITIES (’20). In 1921 -22 he starred in a tour of UNDER THE BAMBOO TREE. After his Biograph shorts other film projects were announced for him, but none seem to have come to fruition. Williams died of pneumonia while touring in UNDER THE BAMBOO TREE on March 4, 1922.

This new (2007) 35mm print is made off the 35mm nitrate camera neg, and has its original tints in place. If you've only seen this film on video or on any other print, you will be amazed...not only by the image quality on this subject but in Williams' superbly comic, underplayed, character-driven performance. You can easily see the line of his wig on his forehead, and where the blackface he wears (although not all the performers in the film wear it) begins and ends. Between this film and FISH, and listening to the many recordings Williams made, we can assemble in our minds an idea of what he might have been like in performance. Here's a streaming audio file of one of Williams' recordings of "Nobody" (found at archive.org)

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for keeping your work available on this site. Very helpful for teaching.