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.