Monthly Archives: October 2017

Spying the Spy (Ebony, 1918)

Spying the Spy (Ebony, 1918)
Directed by R.W. Phillips (or R.G., he went by both)
Starring Samuel Jacks

America is embroiled in war and there are German secret agents everywhere. “I must catch some spies,” Sambo Sam (Samuel Jacks) tells himself. “My country demands it of me.” Sam models himself as a sort of Sherlock Holmes, complete with a calabash pipe, and what he lacks in competence, he makes up for in enthusiasm.

On the street, he at once picks up some clues: a German language newspaper, a link of sausage, and the name Schwartz on a mailbox. This can only be one of the Kaiser’s agents. He enters the apartment building and waits outside Schwartz’s door, imagining what nefarious deeds the spy must be up to inside. As soon as the door opens, he claps a laundry bag over the man’s head and marches him to police headquarters. But Schwartz, it turns out, isn’t a German spy but “a respectable colored gentleman”.

Undeterred, Sam sets out to round up more spies. He spots a group of men carrying a cannon into a building. “I’ll get that gang,” he cries to his friends William and Molly before rushing home for his detective gear. The gang is actually William’s fraternity. He goes in to warn them of Sam and they’re ready for him when he walks through the clubhouse door.

Sam is surrounded by black-hooded men with skull and crossbones on their chests. A trapdoor is opened and a slide wheeled into place. Down the slide Sam goes, to a subterranean torture chamber. Another hooded figure lifts an axe ready to lop off Sam’s head, but just then, a knocking sound is heard and everyone freezes. It’s really a workman installing carpet upstairs, but the gang pretends it’s their god calling for them: “Brothers, the master is knocking for us, we will now make our departure from here.” Each man lifts a gun to his head and pulls the trigger before collapsing to the floor. “Good night!” Sam exclaims, running out the door. The gang gets up and pulls off their hoods, laughing uproariously at the prank they’ve just pulled.

Ebony Films was a short-lived Chicago-based studio that made “race films”. It was unusual at the time for white and black actors to appear on screen together. Not unheard of — Larry Semon and Spencer Bell worked alongside one another many times, for example — but certainly unusual. Black people might appear as background extras, but if a white character needed to interact with a black character, the black character was more often than not a white actor in blackface. Race films essentially inverted this arrangement, giving black actors most or all of the principal parts, and were targeted at largely black audiences.

Race films existed from the beginning of cinema. I have in my nitrate collection a race remake of the The May Irwin Kiss likely released sometime around 1899. Some race films were similarly “inspired” by existing movies — the plot of Ebony’s own Mercy, the Mummy Mumbled (1918) is lifted wholesale from Vitagraph’s The Egyptian Mummy (1914) — but there were original films, too.

Older books sometimes refer to Spying the Spy (1918) as a spoof of The Birth of a Nation (1915), and while that’s not true in the slightest, I can see where they got the idea. I’m not aware of Spying the Spy ever being released on video and prints are rare. Most commentators are just going off a handful of stills, which, out of context, do actually make the fraternity look like a parody of the Klan.

The stated goal of Ebony Films was to break from the old and offensive stereotypes then common to the stage and screen and present “real negro comedies with real negro players.” Their output — at least, what survives of it — isn’t exactly a model of progressiveness, but there is something to be said in their favor. Sambo Sam doesn’t speak in dialect nor do the other black characters. I won’t say Spying the Spy doesn’t play on any stereotypes (I mean, the main character’s name is Sambo Sam), but the film isn’t a minstrel show. The antics that Sam gets into are standard slapstick fair that would work just as well if he were white without changing anything.

I could see being disappointed by Spying the Spy. It’s not Oscar Micheaux; Spying the Spy doesn’t have a message and isn’t trying to say anything about race relations. It’s a broad, low-brow, slapstick comedy. Taken for what it is, it’s not a bad film. Jacks does a good job portraying the bungling amateur detective. The cinematography is unremarkable overall, but I did like how Sam’s fantasy sequences were handled.

My rating: I like it.

The HD remaster of the Sheldon Lewis Jekyll and Hyde won’t be ready for Halloween. The negative it’s sourced from is in pretty poor shape and requires a bit of work to make presentable. I didn’t want to rush it. It should be out by early November. After that will be something particularly exciting: I mentioned in my Timothy’s Quest (1922) writeup that I’d never seen any other silent films set and shot in rural, inland Maine. Well, I found another one, and I guarantee you’ve never heard of it.

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Blackbeard (Selig, 1911)

Blackbeard (Selig, 1911)
Directed by Francis Boggs
Starring Sydney Ayres

If you read movie magazines from the early 1910s, you’ll find an almost universal theme coursing through every issue: will there be censorship? Motion Picture Story Magazine, in particular, had a long running series on the topic with interviews and guest articles by religious leaders of various stripes arguing the morals of the new medium. You’ll recall that the magazine was published by J. Stuart Blackton, co-founder of Vitagraph — who very, very coincidentally were at the height of production of their so-called Quality Films, as distinguished from those vile and corrupting pictures from other studios that played at the nickel theatres.

It’s often hard to reconcile the hyperbolic tone those “other” films are spoken of with the actual films themselves, which often come across as harmless and even quaint. With Blackbeard (1911), though, I kind of see what they’re talking about. I wouldn’t say it’s vile and corrupting, but it is graphically violent, and while the villainous Blackbeard is defeated at the end, he is — until them — more or less the main character. In other words, the story doesn’t focus on some hero out to stop the pirates — it focuses on the pirates.

Blackbeard (Sydney Ayres) and his men sack the island of Martinique. The Governor (Hobart Bosworth) and his household are carried away as prisoners. The Governor is forced to walk the plank, but his faithful maid Conchita (Bessie Eyton) dives in and swims him to safety at a nearby islet. With the other male captives similarly disposed of, the ladies are thrown into the hold where they’re menaced by Blackbeard until a pursuing British Man-O’-War is sighted. Blackbeard orders the hold be sealed and the prisoners suffocated with burning sulfur and they very nearly are until a lucky cannon shot blasts a hole through the deck to let in fresh air. The Man-O’-War overtakes the pirate ship, the British board them, and then it’s down to pistols and cutlasses. At last the pirates are defeated and Blackbeard is hanged from his own yardarm.

It’s gruesome stuff, especially the end, where it does not shy from showing the bodies swinging in the breeze.

Blackbeard was written and directed by Francis Boggs. It was one of his last works — he died the year of its release. I have prints of three of his films. The Cattle Rustlers (1908) is primitive even for the time, but he seems to have learned how to make a movie right quick — Blackbeard and Shipwrecked (1911) are both very well photographed and decently acted, at least in comparison to other films out in the early 1910s, and certainly compared to Vitagraph’s Quality Films. If I had any complaint, Blackbeard relies too heavily on titles to maintain the continuity, but that’s really just down to its length. To be told visually, either story would have to be simplified or the film would have to be a good deal longer than one reel.

My rating: I like it.