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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.

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Auntie’s Portrait (Vitagraph, 1915)

Auntie’s Portrait (Vitagraph, 1915)
Directed by George D. Baker
Starring Sidney Drew and Jane Morrow

I think I must have referenced Auntie’s Portrait at least two or three times when talking about other Sidney Drew films, but I’ve never spoken about it directly. I should rectify that.

Auntie’s Portrait is usually cast as a “rare” film, but for all it’s supposed rarity, I’ve got five prints of it. The old standard definition video was sourced from the best print I had at the time, which still wasn’t very good — a bit soft and more than a bit dark. The new high definition remaster comes from the last print I obtained, which is just all around gorgeous. I’m very happy to have it as Auntie’s Portrait is my favorite Drew short.

Mr. and Mrs. Honeypet (Sidney Drew and Jane Morrow) are newlyweds. They receive a gift from Mrs. Honeypet’s wealthy aunt Flora (Ethel Lee). They dig into the box eager to see what it contains only to find a hideous portrait of Auntie herself. The Honeypets are obviously middle class, but they’ve got pretensions and this picture would disgrace their carefully curated walls. Not expecting Auntie to visit anytime soon, they decide to worry about it later. In the meantime, the portrait is consigned to the attic.

The next day, who should drop by but Auntie Flora, every bit as harsh and mean-looking as her picture. And about that picture — no sooner does she take off her hat and coat than the lorgnette comes out and she begins scanning the walls for it. Mr. Honeypet retrieves the portrait from the attic and tries to quickly hang it, but they don’t have a big place — just a few rooms downstairs — and he keeps being interrupted by Auntie. It seems like all is lost when he drops the picture and the frame breaks, but then inspiration strikes and Mr. Honeypet rushes out the back door.

Auntie, having gone round the house several times, has determined that her portrait is nowhere to be found. “I shall leave this house and never return,” she tells her niece, “and I’ll leave you out of my will, too!” She’s almost out the door when Mr. Honeypet barges in. “We sent it away to have this beautiful frame put on it,” he explains, showing her the picture with a new, elaborate gilt frame. “We wanted to surprise you!”

All is forgiven. Auntie decides that the best place to hang it is right over the mantle and the Honeypets begrudgingly take down their tasteful landscape and replace it with her glowering visage.

I tend to bring up Auntie’s Portrait when talking about Drew films because I really consider it the gold standard of their formula: newlyweds that are pretentious social climbers and probably a bit insufferable to be around, but not so bad that you want to see them fail. It’s not too confining as formulas go and there’s a lot that can be mined from it. There’s nothing wacky about the Drews’ better domestic comedies. Their world is really only a slightly heightened version of our own. You probably know people in real life not too unlike the Honeypets.

My rating: I like it.


Available from Harpodeon

 

And now, unless you enjoy my continued ramblings about Amazon, you can stop reading and I’ll think nothing less of you for it.

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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.