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An Accidental Champion (Educational, 1920) (?)

an-accidental-champion-screenshot-1An Accidental Champion (?) (Educational?, 1920?)
Starring Jimmie Adams

I have no memory at all of buying this film. I must have — it arrived a few days ago, it’s in my eBay history — but I honestly do not recall even looking at the listing. My only guess is that I must have been sleepwalking. And I say all that because I don’t know why I would buy it. It’s a 9.5mm film called An Accidental Champion, which of course is just a Pathescope re-title. What it’s actually supposed to be is the 1922 Hall Room Boys short High and Dry, and unless it was going for cheap, that really wouldn’t interest me.

Maybe my unconscious mind saw that something was up before I did when the picture first flashed on the screen and I didn’t see the Hall Room Boys. This is a Jimmie Adams film, although I’m not sure which. There are some clues I intend to follow up on, but for now I’ll be content with calling it An Accidental Champion, circa 1920.

Jimmie (Jimmie Adams) is down on his luck. A companion in his troubles is a stray hound (Buddy the Dog), who helps Jimmie steal food from street vendors. Buddy runs off with ten yards of sausage from a hot dog man who, unfortunately, also happens to be a dog catcher. A chase ensues which leads to the beach, where a pole-vaulting competition is being held. Jimmie, in his flight, accidentally wins.

an-accidental-champion-screenshot-2Champion Jimmie catches the attention of Lilian, the Mayor’s daughter, and he soon finds himself a welcome guest at the mayoral mansion. Joey Springer is not terribly pleased with these developments, what with him being in love with Lilian himself. The maid, Melba Marblehead, is also jealous — she has her eye on Jimmie.

In the garden one afternoon, Jimmie and Joey sit at either side of Lilian. Under the table, they both take what they assume is her hand. Joey slides an engagement ring onto a finger, but it isn’t one of the girl’s. Jimmy takes his new ring and gives it to Lilian, who is greatly pleased.

Just before the wedding, Melba sees her chance. She locks Lilian in the closet and puts on the gown herself, pulling the veil down so that no one is the wiser. Joey, meanwhile, has reached a new level of desperation. He bursts into the wedding ceremony with two guns drawn and demands that the preacher marry him to the bride.

Just after Joey has carried away his new wife, Lilian breaks out and the real wedding proceeds.

The first half of the film, with Jimmie and the dog, is much stronger than the second. an-accidental-champion-screenshot-3Neither act is about to win a prize for originality, but I enjoyed the dog antics and Jimmie’s acrobatics during the chase. The love-quadraleteral of the second half is comparatively dull, and while the boardwalk and beach scenes were plainly filmed at some real location, the mayoral mansion is a set that falls very short of being convincing. An Accidental Champion is a film that starts with promise but ends with a fizzle.

My rating: Meh.

I’m working on two films now: Somebody Lied (1917) and Lady Godiva (1911). I don’t know which will be released first, but it’s looking like Lied at the moment. After that will be an HD remaster of an old title, then I think I’m going to go ahead and transfer Pioneer Trails (1923) and maybe score it as well, just for me personally. Pioneer Trails is one of several “lost” films that I have a print of but can’t do anything with as it’s still under copyright. Assuming U.S. copyrights aren’t extended again — which is a big assumption — I can’t publicly release it until September 14th, 2018.

Hoot Mon! (Educational, 1926)

Hoot Mon screenhot 1Hoot Mon! (Educational, 1926)
Directed by Harold Beaudine
Starring Bobby Vernon

Are you familiar with the stereotype that the Scottish are stingy? That’s Hoot Mon! (1926).

To elaborate a bit more, Bobby (Bobby Vernon) is a car salesman in Scotland — or rather, he’s an attempted car salesman, given that he’s yet to sell a single car.

While driving down the road, he upsets Sandy McTarnish’s (Jack Duffy) horse, knocking the Scotsman off his buggy and into an open well. Thus begins the undying feud between Bobby and Clan McTarnish.

Later, he incurs the wrath of McRuff (William Irving) by flirting with McTarnish’s daughter (Frances Lee) — who we’re told is a prime example of “what a fine Scotch should look like” (like Broken China (1926), Hoot Mon! is very punny with its titles). McRuff fixes him for stealing his lassie by cutting both the brakes and steering of his car. Bobby careens through the countryside until he crashes into McTarnish’s castle — knocking McTarnish into the fireplace in the process. Ever the optimist, Bobby then tries to sell him the car, but is chased out.

The McRuffs and the McTarnishes are also feuding, which gives McRuff an idea for getting rid of Bobby. He gives Bobby a set of McRuff plaid and a bagpipe, telling him that McTarnish will “fall right on [his] neck” when he sees him. Bobby returns to the castle and blows into the bagpipe, which McRuff has loaded with ash. The soot shoots straight into McTarnish’s eyes.

Hoot Mon screenhot 2“The McRuff Clan has blackened the McTarnish Clan’s honor — I mean face!” Sandy cries to his fellow McTarnishes, who take up their swords in revenge. The McRuffs are ready to meet the challenge and a pitched battle ensues, much to Bobby’s chagrin, as he’s sure this will hamper the sale of his car. Then a sure-fire way to settle the matter dawns on him: he pulls out a nickel and tosses it on the floor. The McRuffs all drop their swords and scramble for it. McRuff himself takes the bait, and as he leans over, Bobby knocks him out with the hilt of his sword.

“That sight is worth a thousand dollars to me!” McTarnish says. $500 will do, Bobby replies, handing him the contract for the car. Daughter McTarnish reappears and Bobby resumes flirting with her. McTarnish tears up the contract: “Now that it looks like you’re going to be in the family, I won’t need a car — we can use yours!”

There are actually a great deal more cheapskate Scottish jokes — they make up the majority of the film, I’ve just glossed over most of them. I’ll grant that it’s nowhere near Broken China’s level of offensiveness and that it could have been much, much worse. Some of the jokes are even a bit funny, like when Bobby declares to a group of Scotsmen that all the car’s accessories are free and then they push him aside and proceed to take them. Also, despite being half the length of Broken China, Hoot Mon! manages to present a story that’s more than just an extended chase sequence. But I think Hoot Mon! only shines in comparison; I don’t think it’s that I like Hoot Mon! so much as it is that I hate Broken China. That’s reinforced by All Jazzed Up (1920), the third Bobby Vernon film I watched that night, which I found to be a quite good, if dark, short comedy. I can’t help but like Bobby Vernon, though. He plays nebbish so well — I would even venture to say that he plays it better than Harold Lloyd.

My rating: Meh.

Holy Smoke (Educational, 1921)

Holy Smoke adHoly Smoke (Educational, 1921)
Directed by Jack White
Starring Jimmie Adams

The first half of the film has an interesting set piece: It’s an elevator in hotel lobby with a manual counterweight — that is, a bellboy on the ground floor gauges how heavy the guest is and another bellboy upstairs piles on the enough weights to lift the guest without rocketing him through the ceiling. It serves for several decent gags, but after we see the thin guy, the fat guy, and the guy who of course gets crushed by the counterweight, it does start to get a bit repetitive.

The second half is improved by introducing an actual plot. The hotelier’s daughter (Elinor Lynn) has run up a big bill at the dressmaker’s and her father has to hand over his fire insurance policy to pay for it. Quite angry at this turn, he pulls out a caveman club and threatens to strike her. The bellboy (Jimmie Adams) steps forward: “If you must hit someone, hit me!” Father takes him up on that offer.

Fired, he takes a job at the blacksmith shop adjacent to the hotel. He does not get along well with the blacksmith, and after a fight, finds himself crashing through the wall of the hotel and into a guest room just as its occupant has left. The late occupant was the dressmaker, who, hoping to claim the insurance money, has left a bomb in the room. Jimmie throws the bomb out the window, but it lands in a chimney pot and roles down the pipe into the woodstove.

Bang!

The fire fighters, naturally, are much too incompetent to get even a bucketful of water onto the blaze. The hotel is reduced to ashes. The hotelier is lamenting his ruin when Jimmie appears holding the insurance policy, which he found in the room just before the blast. All is forgiven and Jimmie wins the girl.

I must say, the film never slackened the pace of its jokes, even if I thought the elevator gags started to get stale. Like Lige Conley’s Educational two-reelers, the first half of Holy Smoke (1921) has precious little to do with the second and could have been cut entirely without much narrative damage. But just as cutting the pointless department store scenes from Fast and Furious (1924) would have meant losing the impressive stop-motion sequence, dropping the first reel here would mean no elevator — and it was an interesting enough physical comedy prop.

Slapstick isn’t really my style, but I’ll grant this was a pretty good, zany short comedy.

My rating: I like it.

Oh, Mama! (Educational, 1928)

Oh Mama screenshotOh, Mama! (Educational, 1928)
Directed by Jules White
Starring Jack Miller

Henry Hooper (Jack Miller) is on vacation, but his wife (Lucille Hutton) doesn’t intend for him to be idle. She insists he help with the spring cleaning, which he is loath to do. Failing to rouse him from bed herself, she sends her son (Jackie Levine) after Henry. The boy is Henry’s stepson and the two don’t appear to have any great fondness for one another.

Following that setup, there’s not much more story to speak of. The gags are divided between tired housekeeping-themed slapstick and Henry trying and failing to catch and spank the boy. They could really be put into any order – there’s precious little connecting one scene to the next. I’m writing this within an hour of having seen the film, and not a single gag stands out in my mind as being worth mentioning in particular. Needless to say, none were at all funny.

Oh, Mama! (1928) is a terrible film. My recommendation is to not waste your time on it.

My rating: I don’t like it.

Broken China (Educational, 1926)

Broken China screenshotBroken China (Educational, 1926)
Directed by Harold Beaudine
Starring Bobby Vernon

Bobby (Bobby Vernon) wants to marry Betty (Frances Lee), but Betty comes from a long line of cops and her father forbids her from marrying anyone not on the force. The policeman’s ball is a costume party and Bobby decides to go dressed as a cop in the hopes of melting Betty’s father’s hard heart.

News arrives that Won Lung (Bill Blaisdell), the infamous smuggler, is back in operation in Chinatown. The whole force is called out for a raid. Bobby, in costume, is confused for a real cop and taken along. He finds himself separated from the others and, after some antics, falls quite accidentally into Won Lung’s secret underground hideout. Bobby, again quite accidentally, offends Won Lung and he and his henchmen pursue Bobby around the hideout for ten or twelve minutes. They catch him several times in traps both mechanical and supernatural (their god “Boola Boola” doesn’t much like Bobby either) only to keep losing him.

Eventually, Bobby figures out how to turn their own traps against them. One by one, he delivers the Chinese smugglers into the waiting hands of the police before escorting Won Lung to the back of the police wagon himself. Betty’s father congratulates him and she and Bobby kiss as the film ends.

 

I first became aware of this film from the TV series The Secret Life of Machines (1988-1993). It pretty frequently used clips from silent films, and a clip from Broken China (1926) was used to illustrate pneumatic elevators (one of the contraptions in Won Lung’s hideout). I had my eye out for it pretty much ever since and finally got my hands on a print several weeks ago.

Now, I don’t normally point out casual racism in films from this era. It comes with the territory, especially in comedy, and you’ve got to look beyond it. But holy good goddamn is this a racist film. Aside from the horrendous Chinese jokes, most of the humor is height-based. Bill Blaisdell is about a foot and a half taller than Bobby Vernon and much of the second half of the picture revolves around watching a shrimp trying and failing to fight a towering giant. The situation is briefly reversed when Blaisdell is crushed into a dwarf by a descending elevator. Bobby is quite cocky until his foe inflates back to his normal proportions. Also, if you dislike puns or double entendre, you will hate this film as almost every title includes one if not both.

Offensiveness aside, most of the film’s attempts at comedy are groan inducing. Some of the wordplay’s not bad (the policeman’s ball, held “in honor of the cop who pinched an old maid in the dark”) and the stick-figure illustrations on the intertitles are cute, but that’s about all I can say to its favor.

My rating: I don’t like it.

Fast and Furious (Educational, 1924)

Fast and Furious screenshotFast and Furious (Educational, 1924)
Directed by Norman Taurog
Starring Lige Conley

When I reviewed Air Pockets (1924) back in February, I had never seen a Lige Conley film before. I was very impressed by it and began wondering whether Conley was an overlooked genius or if Air Pockets was just a fluke. Now that I’ve seen Fast and Furious (1924), I suspect it’s the latter.

The film is rather starkly divided into two acts. In the first act, we meet Lige Conley, who plays a nameless department store clerk. We also meet his boss (Otto Fries) and the big boss (John Rand). The big boss has a daughter (Ruth Hiatt) that the film hints may be Conley’s love interest, but that plot thread doesn’t really go anywhere. Truth be told, the same can be said for all of the plot threads in the first act. Something will be abruptly introduced, there will be exactly one gag related to it, then, just as abruptly, it will be dropped forever. The only event that actually leads to anything is the last bit: robbers appear and make off with the store’s money, which takes us to act two.

In the second act, Conley and his black caricature assistant (uncredited, but it’s Spencer Bell) give chase and try to recover the stolen money. Whether they travel by car, motorcycle, horse, train, or railroad handcar, everything that can go wrong for Conley does. It’s still little more than a series of one-off gags, but at least the vague “chase” framework gives it some of the focus that the first act was sorely lacking.

Lige Conley is channeling Larry Semon something hard in his performance, and it doesn’t help that his partner in the film, Spencer Bell, was Semon’s long-time sidekick – although in Semon’s films, Bell is better known by the pseudonym G. Howe Black.

The first act of Fast and Furious is pointless. There was literally no plot, few of the gags worked, and nearly all of the situations were lifted wholesale from much more effective films. I would say you could cut it entirely, but then you’d lose the only decent scene in the movie: a heat lamp is turned on some eggs, and in a great stop-motion sequence, they sprout legs, dance around the counter, and then hatch into chicks. The second act had some impressive stunts and special effects, but stunts and special effects alone don’t make for a good comedy.

I did not like Fast and Furious. I do not recommend it. I don’t think there’s anything more to say.

My rating: I don’t like it.

Air Pockets (Educational, 1924)

Lige ConleyAir Pockets (Educational, 1924)
Directed by Fred Hibbard
Starring Lige Conley

Well that was a thing. I’m not too familiar with Lige Conley. In fact, to my knowledge, this is the first film of his that I’ve seen. I wonder if all of his work is this… well, I’m getting ahead of myself.

For a slapstick comedy, the plot of Air Pockets (1924) is surprisingly intricate. The foundation of the story involves a private detective, Uranius Holmes (Earl Montgomery), whose card tells us that he specializes in “Alimony, bombs, and secrecy – not responsible for lost property”. Holmes drums up business by committing the crimes he hopes to investigate.

No… no, I shouldn’t start with that. The plot really hinges on this committee of wealthy investors, led by Sanford Morgan (Otto Fries), who are being extorted by a mysterious person called Moscow Murphy under the threat of something unsavory happening to Morgan’s daughter (Olive Borden) – who does, in fact, turn up kidnapped later in the film.

Wait, back up. There’s this guy named Octavius Jones (Lige Conley), an inventor who fancies himself to be a real mover-and-shaker in the automotive industry. He’s invented a revolutionary “folding flivver” that will render the garage obsolete, if only he could get his hands on enough venture capital.

He’s also got a mother-in-law who’s fat (Sunshine Hart). That’s it. Her plotline, at least, is easy enough to follow.

With it all separated out, you might see how each story segues into the others, but understand that Air Pockets jumbles them together in an almost dreamlike manner. It has its fair share of standard slapstick gags, making much use of Octavius’s car and Uranius’s airplane (did I mention he has an airplane?), but it’s the confused, illogical-but-yet-unquestioned way that the story unfolds that really makes “dreamlike” the best way to describe it.

Also of note, the last act takes place mostly in the air and features some very good aerial photography and miniature work.

A word of warning, you will not like this film if you’re sensitive to racial comedy. It isn’t quite on the level of G. Howe Black in Wizard of Oz (1925), but Morgan’s valet and chauffeur and the mechanic at the airport speak in an exaggerated dialect (“Oh mammy – bring dat ground closer to mah feet”) and are the butt of many, many a joke.

That aside, I found Air Pockets mesmerizing to watch and will admit that it got a few laughs out of me. I think that counts as an endorsement.

My rating: I like it.