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Bingles Mends the Clock (Vitagraph, 1913)

Bingles Mends the Clock (Vitagraph, 1913)
Directed by Fred Thompson
Starring James Lackaye and Flora Finch

It’s never a good sign when you’re uncertain whether a film is meant to be a comedy, but I’m assured that’s what this is.

Martha (Flora Finch) notices the clock has stopped and tells her husband Bingles (James Lackaye) to have it repaired. The clockmaker says it will cost five dollars. Outrageous, Bingles exclaims. He’ll fix it himself.

He shoos his wife and children out of the living room so he can work on the clock in peace, but then finds he’s out of machine oil. He heads to the hardware store for some lubricant, but on the road meets some friends (one of them is Harry T. Morey) and decides to get some lubricant for himself. Back at home, drunk as a skunk, he picks a fight with Martha and beats his children.

“There, I’ve saved five dollars!” Bingles cries, throwing open the door — but there’s no one there to hear. Martha’s note says it all: “You have been drinking. I am going to mother’s never to return. It will be useless to follow.” Bingles looks up to see the clock’s hands spinning backwards.

Moving Picture World’s review said Bingles Mends the Clock was “a dull offering” “in poor taste” with “very little laughter”, and I have to agree. This was an all-around bad idea for a film.

My rating: I don’t like it.

You know what I do like? The Women Film Pioneers Project. As a film collector, you get pretty jaded. There was a bit in one of the Metropolis documentaries about the difficulty those that discovered the complete film in Argentina had of getting the Murnau-Stiftung to acknowledge them, but as any collector would tell you, that’s par for the course. If a film is proclaimed lost, then it is, now and forever. Should you have a copy of it, expect to be ignored, and if you should have the fortune of someone listening to you and even watching it, you might perhaps garner a few comments, but then the film will continue to be lost — even to those that just saw it. It gets to the point that you don’t even bother anymore. It’s so refreshing to find people who actually care, and the WFPP does. I think all the Flora Finch films they have marked “PC” (private collection) are mine.

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The Smoking Out of Bella Butts (Vitagraph, 1915)

The Smoking Out of Bella Butts (Vitagraph, 1915)
Directed by George D. Baker
Starring Flora Finch

I was so excited to finally obtain a copy of this rarity that I was running it not five minutes after opening the box and I’m writing this within the hour.

EYE thinks they have a brief fragment of it and you can see it online, but it’s misattributed. I don’t know what film that is, but only the title card at the start is from Bella Butts — the rest is something else. It doesn’t even look like a Vitagraph production. I don’t recognize any of the actors. It’s probably spliced-together projection booth clippings. When film got damaged and the projectionist needed to snip a bit out and make a splice, those clippings tended to wind up on the projection booth floor. Whenever they got around to it and swept up, they were collected together and may or may not have been saved. I’ve certainly got a box full. The clips might vary from only a few frames long to a couple of feet or more, if there was a length of sprocket-hole damage. There was a market for them. Companies like Pordell Projector bought them, cut them into individual frames, and sold them as slides. Movielets did the same. They were sold in random little collections stuffed in tins like Altoids — I’ve got several of those as well. You can play around with the clippings, find similar looking material, try to piece together some sort of narrative, but it’s all a tremendous amount of guesswork. I’ve put together what might be 30 second-ish fragment of Liberty, A Daughter of the USA (1916), but I can really only be sure that the two titles are from Liberty. The film sold by Pordell and Movielets is generally too far gone to salvage — the tins seal fairly air-tight and nitrate decomposes rapidly when it isn’t allowed to off-gas — but if you find loose projection booth floor sweepings, they’re usually fine.

That was a long digression. Anyway, I’ve just acquired a copy that, minus just a brief bit of no consequence at the start, is complete and really is The Smoking Out of Bella Butts.

Bella Butts (Flora Finch), anti-smoking campaigner, arrives in the town of Hicksville to spread the word. At the Ladies Aid Society, she proves how injurious smoking is by giving the women cigars — promptly causing dizziness, headaches, and nausea. Among the afflicted is the mayor’s wife (Betty Gray), who demands that her husband ban smoking or else she’ll divorce him.

His back to the wall, the mayor (Hugie Mack) complies. All the town’s tobacco products are seized and burned in a great bonfire. This does not win the mayor many friends among the menfolk, who soon start trying to smoke corn silk to feed their habits. When a cigar salesman (Jay Dwiggins) arrives, all the men — the mayor included — hide out in a basement to chain-smoke away his samples.

The woman of the house (it’s either Florence Radinoff or Edwina Robbins — hard to tell. That’s the drawback of the first minute or two being missing — there’s no cast list and you just have to recognize the actors) sees smoke pouring from the window and thinks it’s on fire. The fire department is called and start blasting water into the basement. Forced out by the deluge, the men are caught red-handed. Butts is on hand to demand the sheriff arrest the mayor. The mayor hands him a cigar and he forgets all his duties.

Butts gets her bag and “leaves Hicksville to its doom” while the mayor watches, smoking on the porch.

Flora Finch was most known for starring opposite John Bunny in more than a hundred “Bunnyfinches” — domestic sitcoms somewhat similar in style to those of Sidney Drew. Bunny shot his last film with Finch in 1914 before starting on a live stage tour that no one knew he would not return from. (The Jarrs Visit Arcadia was posthumously released in 1915.) Finch continued the act solo, to greater or lesser effect.

In terms of theme, Bella Butts is not unlike the Red Seal film I reviewed a thousand years ago, ‘Morning, Judge (1926), in which Flora Finch enacts a ban on a can-can dancing. ‘Morning, Judge even ended with bungling firefighters as well. But the difference is that Bella Butts wasn’t awful. The jokes are less bottom of the barrel slapstick, which helps, but mainly it’s because the plot was followed through to its conclusion and the filmmakers didn’t just abruptly drop storylines as they became inconvenient. Including the main storyline.

My rating: I like it. I may just postpone the next film I’d intended on scanning and scan Bella Butts instead.

Polishing Up (Vitagraph, 1914)

Polishing Up screenshot 1Polishing Up (Vitagraph, 1914)
Directed by George D. Baker
Starring John Bunny and Flora Finch

John Bunny was one of the first internationally renowned film comedians. His fame wasn’t the only thing that was big about him — he weighed around 250 pounds at the start of his career and 300 at his untimely death in 1915. He was largely responsible for the “fatty” subgenre that would remain popular in silent comedy into the 1920s. His first couple years at Vitagraph saw him paired with several actresses, but Flora Finch would become his regular co-star. The two made well over 200 “Bunnyfinches” together, and Polishing Up (1914) is one of them:

At dinner one night, John (John Bunny) tells his wife Flora (Flora Finch) that she looks like an old hag. Later that night, Flora writes to her sister: “I am going to a sea-side resort and polish up a bit.”

John also gets to thinking about his own appearance and decides he could do better. The next day, after his wife has gone to ‘visit her sister’, he takes a stroll down the street in his best suit. John makes the acquaintance of two young ladies (Phyllis Grey, Emily Hayes) vacationing on the coast, who invite him back to their hotel.

Meanwhile, Vivian Astor (née Flora) checks-in at the resort. She’s no sooner shown to her room than she sprains her ankle. Presuming her to be a wealthy widow, Dr. Reynolds (William Humphrey) is openly flirtatious while treating her, and she’s quite flattered by his attention.

Polishing Up screenshot 2Next door, John and the two ladies are about to settle in when they meet the doctor in the hallway. After learning about the accident, the two women go to visit ‘Vivian’ and the three get to gossiping about the conquests they’ve made. A little double-date dinner party is arranged for that evening.

And so “the widow” meets “the bachelor”. The others back off as John and Flora stare each other down. The tension is palpable. And then… they both start laughing. John gives a toast as the party gets started: “Here’s to our wives and sweethearts; may they never meet.”

Of the several Bunnyfinches I’ve seen, this one is my favorite. I really enjoyed this film. I don’t know if I agree with the sentiment, but I’ve heard it said that, for all the fame he won during his lifetime, Bunny’s comedy is all but inaccessible to modern audiences because it relies so much on the novelty of an obese man. I can sort of see it for his non-starring roles — like his comic-relief role in Vanity Fair (1911), which really is not much more than “look at that fat guy” — but with the Bunnyfinches at least, his weight isn’t the focus. It’s true that he does little, if any, physical comedy, but he had a remarkably expressive face and could convey a great deal of humor just in his look. Surely, in Polishing Up, the comedy stems from the awkward situation and is carried by the actors’ performances. The size of Bunny’s character is never even mentioned.

Vitagraph spotting: the hotel lobby is the exact same set used in John Rance, Gentleman (1914). Later, it would be transformed into the ballroom seen in A Florida Enchantment (1914).

My rating: I like it.

An Unusual Honeymoon (Vitagraph, 1913)

The Unusual Honeymoon screenshotAn Unusual Honeymoon (Vitagraph, 1913)
Directed by James Young
Starring Flora Finch and Charlie Edwards

When she’s co-starring alongside John Bunny, Flora Finch plays fairly grounded characters — generally the shrewish wife — but when she’s with other actors or flying solo, things can get pretty weird. An Unsusual Honeymoon is an intensely weird little film.

Newlyweds Mary (Flora Finch) and Tammas (Charlie Edwards) are on their honeymoon at the fair. From the numerous kilts and bagpipes (both of which Tammas sports), I can only assume we’re in Scotland. The two take in all the sights, including the wine tasting tent, where they get plastered. There’s a gas balloon tethered on the fairgrounds that Mary finds intriguing, climbing into the gondola to get a better look. Tammas follows her lead, and because he “desires adventure”, he cuts the tether. The couple sail away into the air.

Over a South Sea island, the balloon develops a leak for plot reasons and crashes to the ground. The natives look something like a cross between Zulus and Vikings. They swarm Mary and Tammas, but back away in terror as the latter begins playing on the pipes.

“They think we are gods”, Tammas says, his bagpipes in hand and his foot planted on the back of one of the prostrate Zukings. Not exactly — they actually think it’s the bagpipes that are enchanted. The King, frustrated that his subjects no longer heed his music (he’s got two great femurs that he swings around), decides to steal the pipes while the newlyweds sleep.

Without the protection of the enchanted bagpipes, Mary and Tammas are at the mercy of the increasingly hostile Zukings. They escape by throwing snuff into the air, which causes the natives to sneeze uncontrollably. They reach the shore and are picked up by a patrol boat, where their adventure ends.

This may be an unusual comparison, but this short reminded me of a late-series episode of The Simpsons, in that even if nothing else can be said in its favor, watching it is always a surprise because you can never tell where the plot is going. It isn’t totally random — it does operate on a certain logic — but at any moment, the slightest little thing could segue the setting and action into something totally unexpected. I had no idea what was going to happen next in An Unsusual Honeymoon and it was entertaining to watch unfold.

Written by Rose Tapley, who evidently was also an extra in the film, but I failed to spot her.

My rating: I like it.

Available from Harpodeon

‘Morning, Judge (Red Seal, 1926)

'Morning Judge screenshot ‘Morning, Judge (Red Seal, 1926)
Directed by Dave Fleischer
Starring Peggy Shaw and Flora Finch

Flora Finch is most known for playing opposite John Bunny as his shrewish wife in the numerous “Bunnyfinches” the two made for Vitagraph in the early 1910s. When Bunny unexpectedly died in 1915, she attempted to continue the act solo. It didn’t really work out. Going from the height of stardom in the ’10s, her career sunk lower and lower until, by the end of her life, she was reduced to doing extra work.

In ‘Morning, Judge, Finch plays Crabbine Hicks, president of the Women’s Uplift Society. To give an idea of her moral conviction, she once organized a movement “to prevent saw mills from selling undressed lumber”. The local theatre is playing a saucy can-can dance routine, which Crabbine successfully sues to shutdown.

Peggy Pierce (Peggy Shaw) is among the now out of work chorus girls. The coat boy at the theatre is Crabbine’s son, Buster (James Terbell). Buster is rather taken with Peggy, and as she has nowhere to go, Buster suggests that she and the other girls come over to his house. Mother is out all day with the society, and Dad (Joseph Burke) isn’t the sort to care.

Crabbine and the other society members are at the train station when one of them realizes they’ve left the treasury back at Crabbine’s house. The group discusses for a moment before deciding to go get it. They’re overheard by Naughty Nick, a “large bandit at large” who’s “in the country for his health, after too much night work in the financial district”. Nick also decides to pay the Hicks house a visit.

 

‘Morning, Judge is not a good film – not at all. It’s unfocused, unfunny, the plot just meanders from one scene to the next, and the “resolution”, if you can even call it that, is infuriating:

The police cum fire department are called, who turn out to be a rustic version of the Keystone Cops. Yes, you didn’t read wrong, the film was indeed released in 1926, not 1916. The force is complete with a dwarf, a giant, and a fat man (I suppose they wanted to cover all their bases) and they completely wreck the house when they arrive. One of them climbs down a ladder cradling what looks like a baby wrapped in a blanket, but golly gee, it’s actually a fire extinguisher. Ha, ha, ha, the end.

The chorus girls? Naughty Nick? Buster and Dad? No time for them when you’ve got a killer sight gag like that to go out on. Rarely has a film – and a comedy film, no less – angered me so much as ‘Morning, Judge. It’s only February, but I think I’ve already seen my worst film of the year.

My rating: I don’t like it.