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Be Honest (Hal Roach, 1923)

be-honest-screenshot-1Be Honest (Hal Roach, 1923)
Directed by Len Powers
Starring the Dippy-Doo-Dads

Like Lampblack, Amateur Detective, this is another film that I had no idea what was until I transferred it, as it was a retitled Pathé Baby release in French without any clues in the catalogue description as to what its original title might have been. Unlike Lampblack, this didn’t turn out to be an excerpt or an abridgment — it’s a complete and unedited copy of Be Honest (1923).

Be Honest is an early (third episode, I think) installment of the Dippy-Doo-Dads series. These are live action films with an all-animal cast that are meant to be funny although they come across as more horrifying than anything else. And that isn’t just me looking back at them with modern eyes — check out some of the contemporary protests lodged by the American Animal Defense League against abusive animal pictures in general and the Dippy-Doo-Dads in particular. These “animals are undoubted cruelly treated”, they allege, and I doubt any sane viewer would disagree. The monkey who plays Siki looks positively terrified in every scene he’s in.

Hal Roach went all-out for the later releases and built a whole town at miniature scale for the Dippy-Doo-Dads, but Be Honest and earlier films were just shot at some dilapidated farm.

be-honest-screenshot-2Latude has been caged for thirty-five days (weirdly high-brow reference for this sort of film) and has grown bored and hungry. He provokes a nearby horse into kicking open the cage. Once he escapes, Latude goes on a feeding frenzy — stealing all the eggs from the farm. Siki, astride his canine mount Toto, assumes the role of policeman in bringing Latude to justice, but Latude is a wily fugitive, and even after Siki seems to have drowned him in a sack at the bottom of the lake, he effects one more “legendary escape” and lives to see another day.

My print spent the last fifty years in a puddle of standing water. Once the video is released (which it will be soon), try to guess which two bobbins were on the bottom of the stack; I don’t think the answer will surprise you. One is bad, but the third bobbin was so warped and rusted, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get the film out. Despite the humidity, the two bobbins that weren’t in actual contact with the water — two and four — are in nearly perfect condition.

It sometimes takes effort to sufficiently divorce yourself from the content of a film that you can come to appreciate it for what it is. It’s not a matter of liking it; I can appreciate films that I find thoroughly unpleasant. But then there comes a film like Broken China, which is just insurmountably racist, or this, which revels in abusing animals. These are films I don’t think I can ever appreciate, let alone like.

My rating: I don’t like it.


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Noir-de-Fumée, Détective Amateur (?, 1931)

Lampblack screenshotNoir-de-Fumée, Détective Amateur (?, 1931)
Directed by ?
Starring ?

To address the question marks, rather than posting in my standard form, I’ve decided to first take you on a little journey:

I mentioned before that I’m in the process of moving and I don’t have most of the film collection at hand. However, quite accidentally one title was left out and it’s been sitting on my make-shift desk for the last three months. It’s on four 60-foot bobbins of 9.5mm film. The title given on the bobbins is Noir-de-Fumée, détective amateur. It appears in the 1931 Pathé-Baby catalogue, item #3032.

But Baby releases were almost always re-titled, so what is this film really? Sometimes the catalogue listing will be of help: it might give the name of the star, or of the director, or rarely it will even reveal the original title. No such luck with Noir-de-Fumée, but there are a few clues. It’s in the children’s film section and is listed as a comedy. Also, it names one of the characters “Dollie”.

My first thought, based solely on this information, was that it’s a Baby Marie Osborne film. Pathé always called Osborne’s characters Dolly or Dollie, regardless of what the characters’ names were originally. The three screenshots are too small to tell who the actors might be, but one of them includes a black boy and that bears out the Osborne theory — Ernest Morrison frequently featured in her films. Trouble is, the description given didn’t match any of the Osborne films I was aware of, and after a quick scan of contemporary release notices and reviews available at lantern.mediahist.org for all of Osborne’s small oeuvre, none of them at all looked like contenders.

So, even if Osborne is out, maybe Morrison is still in. Pathé’s character naming might be an attempt to tie one of Morrison’s later works into his earlier output with Osborne. A Sunshine Sammy film, maybe? I know of them, but I’ve never seen one and I’m not familiar with their plots. Just glancing through a title list, it could be Rich Man, Poor Man (1922) or The Sleuth (1922). Those sound like appropriate titles for a film matching Pathé’s description.

I was leaning towards the Sunshine Sammy idea rather than what Morrison is most remembered for — Our Gang — simply because Noir-de-Fumée doesn’t fit at all with the sort of titles Pathé usually gave Our Gang films. Had it mentioned Négritina or Enfants, then yes, surely Our Gang, but it didn’t.

Noir-de-Fumee listingYou might be asking why am I making this so difficult for myself — why don’t I just look up the item number in the Pathéscope catalogue at pathefilm.uk? That would list the original title along with Pathé’s. That works for earlier films, back when French Pathé-Baby releases and English Pathéscope releases were both printed at the same factory and shared the same item numbers, but not for films of this vintage. Further, Pathéscope mirrored most of Pathé-Baby’s output, but not all of it, and I could find nothing resembling an English version of this title.

Well, that’s as far as I could get without biting the bullet and actually watching the film. Not that I didn’t care to see it, mind, but it was the difficulty of accomplishing this that I was avoiding. As for projecting it, I had my Gem with me, but that’s only for 9.5mm on reels — Noir-de-Fumée, as I said, is in bobbins and my Babies are boxed up. That left transferring it to video. It’s true that the components of my film scanner are here, but setting it up on the two banquet tables squeezed into this small apartment bedroom that I’m calling an office would be a challenge.

I avoided that challenge, as I said, for three months before curiosity won out over laziness. After transferring it, I saw at once that the male lead of the film was indeed Ernest Morrison. He plays Noir-de-Fumée (let’s call him Lampblack instead). The female lead character was called Boby (Bobbie). The Dollie (Dolly) that featured so heavily in the description doesn’t actually feature that heavily in the film. She’s kidnapped almost at once, and after that, she’s just a MacGuffin for Lampblack and Bobbie to rescue. (That’s an anachronism by the way — MacGuffin, I mean. The term more commonly in use in the silent era was weenie.) Dolly certainly isn’t Marie Osborne. Bobbie might have been — kids so young that they’re still chubby with baby fat are hard to tell apart — but I was reasonably sure Bobbie was played by Mary Kornman. That’s two Little Rascals (three actually, but I didn’t right away recognize Dolly as Peggy Cartwright). The Sunshine Sammy theory is looking shaky. The kidnappers are indistinct. A couple of them are in Snub Pollard getups but neither really looked like him otherwise. Paul Parrott was not to be seen, but there is a mule who I bet is named Dinah. The theory falls flat on its face.

Okay, so it’s an Our Gang film. Which one? Not so hard to find: “our gang” + “kidnap” = Young Sherlocks (1922), directed by Robert F. McGowan and Tom McNamara. Young Sherlocks was a very early entry to the Our Gang canon. Indeed, it was one of the first filmed. It was a two-reeler and Noir-de-Fumée is the equivalent of one reel, but the latter doesn’t seem to be severely edited because it’s actually just excerpting the imaginary sequence from Young Sherlocks with only minor edits and presenting it as a stand-alone film. That also explains the absence of the rest of the gang and probably why Pathé downplayed the connection to the series. It wasn’t released by Pathéscope because, in a way, it already had been. Pathéscope turned Young Sherlocks into three separate, much shorter films — Kidnapped, Comrades of the Crimson Clan, and Fun in Freetown — rather than release it in a single, longer form.

Maybe that was more than a “little” journey, but at any rate, we’ve arrived at our destination, so now let me talk about the film:

Lampblack screenshotDolly (Peggy Cartwright) is playing on the front lawn with her pony, Spinach, and an unnamed dog. A gang of bandits (Ed Brandenburg, Dick Gilbert, William Gillespie, Wallace Howe, and Mark Jones) appear and kidnap her, expecting to get $100,000 ransom from her rich papa (Charley Young). Across the street, Lampblack (Ernest Morrison) and his little friend Bobbie (Mary Kornman) witness the abduction and decide to intervene.

Lampblack and Bobbie follow the getaway car on their mule, Seventy-Five (Dinah). Spinach, who we’re told is a great friend of Dolly, follows as well, independent of the others, and catches up with the bandits first. They send him back with a note to Papa telling him where to bring the money. I imagine this took several takes and I also imagine why, given how cautiously the bandit gives the pony the note and how careful he is not to get his fingers anywhere near his mouth. Papa and Mama (Dot Farley) get the message and speed away in their car, stopping at the bank to withdraw a $100,000, which they seem to consider mere pocket change.

Meanwhile, Lampblack and Bobbie approach the hideout, but suddenly two bandits emerge and now they have to hide themselves. Bobbie squeezes down the barrel of a cannon (the bandits are prepared, we’re told) and Lampblack hides in a stack of cannon balls, his head sticking out the top but perfectly invisible (because he’s black and so are the cannon balls, you see). The bandits have come outside to smoke (polite of them). One tosses his still-lit match inside the cannon, where it lands square on the seat of Bobbie’s pants. As soon as they go back inside, she shimmies out and runs pell-mell across the countryside.

Lampblack sees Dolly tied to a tree, lackadaisically guarded by a bandit who seems to be more interested in the handsome man he sees gazing back at him in his looking glass. Lampblack picks up a shotgun and fires at the bandit, attracting the attention of the others. The kickback launches him into the air, landing on and knocking down one of the other bandits. He shoots again and likewise catapults himself into another.

Bobbie runs to a gas station and sits in a bucket of water. Papa and Mama are there refueling. Dripping wet, she walks over and lets them know where Dolly is being held. They pick her up into the car and speed off without even paying for their gas.

Back at the hideout, the bandits have got the upper hand on Lampblack. He’s backed up against a telegraph pole and they’re throwing swords at him. Every one narrowly misses Lampblack and strikes the pole, eventually causing it to snap in half and come tumbling down on them. Seventy-Five appears to lend assistance, kicking cannon balls at the bandits (he has remarkable aim, you know).

The day is won and Lampblack unties Dolly. Just then, Papa, Mama, and Bobbie pull up. Papa, so pleased with the kids’ efforts, gives them the $100,000, and golly gee, what candy we could buy wit’ all dis dough.

Young Sherlocks lobby cardI’m not big on child comedies, mostly because they star child actors. Mary Kornman doesn’t do much besides stand around and squint. Peggy Cartwright, as I said, is hardly in the film. In the few scenes where she’s not tied up, she does moderately well exhibiting the correct emotion, but her timing is atrocious. I will say, however, that Ernest Morrison is a natural. He acts believably as the kid who starts out on an adventure half-playing pretend and then finds himself in over his head when it gets real (it’s a slapstick comedy, yes, but he does manage to mix in some pathos — he’s the only one who does, in fact, including the adult actors).

My rating: Without Morrison, I would say dislike, but he elevates it to a solid meh.


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Don’t Tell Everything (Hal Roach, 1927)

Don't Tell Everything screenshotDon’t Tell Everything (Hal Roach, 1927)
Directed by Leo McCarey
Starring Max Davidson and Spec O’Donnell

Story time: I first saw Don’t Tell Everything (1927) theatrically at an LGBT silent film festival ages ago. The festival lineup was a pretty mixed bag, but I remember thinking that this was a good two-reel ethnic comedy. Not so good that I didn’t immediately forget every detail about it, but I did come away with the impression that it was the best film screened that day. Flash forward ten or eleven years and a print turns up on the market. I think: hey, why not?

The vague recollection I had of this picture was much better than the actual product.

The Doodlebaums are throwing a house party and the Ginsbergs – Asher (Spec O’Donnell) and his Papa (Max Davidson) – are invited. After “some little inexpensive thing” goes wrong with his car, Papa entrusts it to a doofy looking but conveniently located mechanic (Jesse De Vorska). Asher generally makes an ass of himself at the party, much to the embarrassment of Papa. Papa is desperately trying to woo the rich widow Finkelheimer (Lillian Elliott). “Who is that brat,” she asks him. “In all my life I never saw him before,” he replies.

After the party, Papa returns to the mechanic to retrieve his car. We’ve previously cut back to the mechanic once and have seen that he’s completely disassembled the machine, but now it looks perfect. As Papa starts cranking it, the mechanic slinks off, and the car begins to fall apart. Eventually, the whole thing washes down the storm drain.

Jump forward a couple weeks. Papa and Finkelheimer are married. To maintain the lie, Papa has thrown Asher out. Incidentally, I’m not entirely clear how old Asher is. He acts likes a young child, but looks like and I assume is supposed to be a teenager. Anyway, Asher writes to his father to say that if he can’t live at home as his son, then he’ll become a girl and accept the job of their maid. Asher doesn’t wait for an answer.

On the street, Finkelheimer spots him as he nears their building. Girl-Asher is pretty noticeable with his bleached-blonde hair, short skirt, rayon pantyhose, and trampy walk. Suspicious, Finkelheimer follows at a distance. She enters just in time to hear the tail end of his intimate conversation with Papa: “Your wife won’t get wise to us – she’s too dumb”. Papa tries to play it off and Finkelheimer pretends to believe him. She steps outside as the other two go into the bedroom, where Papa helps Asher undress. Finkelheimer sneaks back in and peers through the transom, where she sees Papa on the floor marveling at how smooth Asher’s legs are.

Finkelheimer storms out, saying that she’s going to get a lawyer. Asher, feeling guilty, chases after her to explain. He’s only wearing a slip right now, remember. He quickly amasses a crowd of gawkers, including a cop (Budd Fine) who tries to arrest him. Asher flees, jumps in a barrel, and is submerged neck-deep in black paint. Once the coast is clear, he stumbles back to Papa, who strips him down and puts him in the bath.

Finkelheimer returns with the threatened lawyer (James Finlayson), who tries to assure her that it must just be big misunderstanding. He opens the door to the bathroom to see Papa scrubbing Asher’s chest. Papa’s excuse that “the maid needed a bath – awful” does not placate Finkelheimer this time.

At last, Papa confesses to everything and all three are reconciled surprisingly quickly. There’s a knock at the door, which Finkelheimer answers. Sheepishly, she returns to Papa to tell him that “I didn’t dare tell you – I also got a son”. Enter the mechanic that destroyed Papa’s car.

The biggest problem with Don’t Tell Everything is that it never commits to the gimmick. The Asher in drag story never goes anywhere, and the scenes with Finkelheimer catching Papa in flagrante with the supposed maid are just breezed right over. Conversely, it runs standard comedy tropes into the ground. The party scene is essentially one joke repeated a dozen times. Literally the same joke. It isn’t even a very strong joke – one man is trying to perform a magic trick with a glass of punch while Asher keeps breaking the glass with his slingshot. And that’s stretched out to nearly four minutes.

I don’t know what I initially saw in this film. The others screened that day must have been truly atrocious. I would not recommend it now.

My rating: I don’t like it.

The Great Outdoors (Hal Roach, 1923)

The Great Outdoors slideThe Great Outdoors (Hal Roach, 1923)
Directed by Fred Guiol
Starring Frank Butler, Laura Roessing, and Sidney D’Albrook

The Spat family – that is, J. Tewksbury Spat (Frank Butler), his wife Mrs. J. Tewksbury Spat (Laura Roessing), and her brother Ambrose (Sidney D’Albrook) – are out camping. None of them being entirely on the ball, they neglected to bring fishing poles. When hunger sets in, they jump in the river and try to catch trout by hand. This… doesn’t go well. All they succeed in doing is getting soaking wet, and that’s when they realize they didn’t bring anything else to wear. They had better work something out before the sun sets and they freeze to death. Tewksbury’s starts a fire and Ambrose rigs up a clothesline to dry off their things. Trouble is, the clothesline runs directly over the fire, which they don’t notice until they’ve burned every last stitch of clothing they have.

As chance would have it, camping nearby is group of outlaws – three of them, in fact: two men and a woman (Katherine Grant, George Rowe, Jules Mendel). Tewks gets an idea: he goes near their camp, just out of sight, and tosses a rock in the river, loudly exclaiming “There goes all our money!” The outlaws strip down to their underwear and jump in after the supposed loot. The Spats then help themselves to their discarded clothes. Unfortunately, they were a bit too slow and the outlaws see them as they’re getting away. Commence the chase.

The chase leads to the railroad tracks, where the Spats have several misadventures with the pursuing outlaws and with a railroad bull who doesn’t take kindly to them hopping on his train. At the end of the line is “the final disaster”: a cop spots the Spats climbing down off a boxcar and, given their dress, takes them for the wanted outlaws. Fade to black as they’re lead away in handcuffs.

 

The Great Outdoors (1923) is the fourth installment of the 24-part Spat Family Comedies series. How many Spat Comedies survive, I don’t know. Including this one, I’ve seen three. All seem to follow the same basic formula, which I can most easily describe by saying Tewks is the Skipper, Mrs. Spat is Mary Ann, and Ambrose is Gilligan.

I enjoyed Great Outdoors up until the train sequence, when the film seemed to lose focus. There were some good scenes there, and some scary-looking stunts, but they just didn’t fit in with the camping theme. I thought the ending was decent, even if I guessed that was the direction it was headed as soon as the switching clothes gimmick was introduced. All in all, I suppose the good outweighs the bad in this short, so it has my recommendation.

My rating: I like it.

The Soilers (Hal Roach, 1923)

The Soilers screenshotThe Soilers (Hal Roach, 1923)
Directed by Ralph Ceder
Starring Stan Laurel and James Finlayson

I continue my look at silent films with gay themes:

The sissy is a stock character, common in silents, although he neither began nor ended there. Very rarely he gets to be the star, but usually the sissy is in a supporting comic relief role. He’s flamboyant, has stereotypically gay mannerisms, dress, and speech, and is assuredly meant to be read as gay, but how his sexuality is addressed varies from film to film. Most of the time, it simply isn’t mentioned at all. Sometimes he’ll be given a nominal female love interest – sometimes in addition to a less overt male one, letting those in the audience choose to see what they want to see. What’s uncommon is a film where the sissy is explicitly and undeniably gay, but The Soilers (1923) is just such a film.

In the early 1920s, Stan Laurel acted in a series of spoofs of popular films (Mud and Sand, When Knights Were Cold, Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pryde, etc.), most shot and released only months after the originals hit the screen. The Soilers is a spoof of The Spoilers, first a novel by Rex Beach, twice adapted for the silent screen in 1914 and 1923.

In The Spoilers, Roy Glenister stakes a claim during the Alaskan gold rush that proves to be immensely valuable. The government and law enforcement are both corrupt and under the control of Alexander McNamara, who abuses the courts to steal Glenister’s claim. I can’t say for sure about the book, because I’ve never read it, or about the ’23 film, because I’ve never seen it, but in the ’14 version at least, the story culminates with a knock-down-drag-out fight between Glenister and McNamara that lasts so long and gets so violent that it’s ludicrous. The Soilers broadly covers the same ground:  Bob Canister (Stan Laurel) strikes it rich, Smacknamara (James Finlayson) jumps his claim, and it ends with an even more cartoonishly violent, prolonged flight.

But the topic of this review is gay characters. In The Spoilers, a woman named Cherry Malotte is in unrequited love with Glenister. In The Soilers, the Malotte equivalent is a sissy. He doesn’t have a name, so I’ll give him what in the 1920s was considered a stereotypically gay name, Clarence.

We first see Clarence shortly after the fight breaks out. Canister and Smacknamara are brawling across the table when Clarence walks in from the back room. He shows not the slightest care for the fight, but walks up to the table, moves Canister’s head aside, and carefully selects one of the papers. He then turns and strolls out, much to the amazement of the fighters, who’ve paused to watch him leave. They’re interrupted several more times in a similar manner. Eventually, the fight makes its way to the back room, where we see Clarence calmly filing his nails as Canister and Smacknamara try to kill each other.

The fight drags on and winds up downstairs in the saloon. Canister, at last, is victorious, but no one seems to care much – not his mining partners and certainly not Helen (Ena Gregory), whom Canister had been in love with. One person is impressed, however. From the window, Clarence clasps his hands at his heart and cries “My hero!” Canister shrugs him off. Clarence picks up the potted flower from the windowsill, gives it a smell, and then drops the pot on Canister’s head. Canister goes down and the street cleaners toss him in the back of the garbage truck.

 

The Soilers was originally a two-reeler, but that version isn’t in circulation today. I’m not sure if it even survives. I’ve seen the commonly available one-reel cut-down several times and have multiple copies of it in my collection. It’s focused on the fight – the lead-up is trimmed almost to nothing. A while ago, I obtained a copy of the international release, which is also a one-reel cut-down, but it’s a different cut – one that preserves considerably more of the pre-fight sequences. I never really liked The Soilers before, but the additional footage greatly improves the film. Who knew that it actually had a plot after all?

The fight is overly long, and while I’m sure that’s on purpose and part of the parody, it’s still the weakest part of the short. There’s one cut scene that I found funnier: Canister visits the town of Ping-Pong for the first time, which we’re told “is a peaceful place… you might be indiscriminately massacred in the streets, but in perfect tranquility”. There’s a shoot-out going on between everyone and everyone else, with Canister strolling down the center of it all, casually stepping over bodies. It’s very simple, but it’s a good spoof of the original film and the humor flows naturally from it. The fight sequence just tries too hard, in my opinion.

My rating: Meh.


Available from Harpodeon