Two of the very biggest names in the American theatre during the early 20th century were the comedy team of Weber & Fields. They were 'Dutch' comics, portraying an exaggerated ethnic stereotype that was meant to be German ('Deutsch'), not from Holland. In their most famous stage get-ups, they both wore goatees and shallow bowler hats. Although they spoke onstage in broad 'Dutch' accents, in some ways the stage act of Weber & Fields prefigured Abbott & Costello. Lew Fields, the nominal straight man, was tall and dapper whilst Joe Weber was the podgy little fall-guy who submitted to the straight man's physical and verbal abuse. Onstage, Weber wore a false belly that made him look almost spherical. Typically, they made their entrance with Fields pushing Weber onto the stage while Weber uttered his plaintive catchphrase: "Don't poosh me, Meyer!" Throughout their stage act, tall Fields would mercilessly slap and pummel fat little Weber.
Also like Abbott & Costello, Weber & Fields relied heavily on lowbrow cross-talk humour. Allegedly, Weber & Fields were the creators of that moss-covered wheeze: "Who was that lady I saw you with last night?" "That was no lady; that was my wife." Not only were Weber & Fields hugely successful performers; they also had a major career as theatrical producers and entrepreneurs. At one point, they parted company for several years (this was the period in which Fields gave Vernon Castle his early break, depicted in the film 'The Story of Vernon & Irene Castle'). Weber & Fields re-united in time for some performances on 1930s radio and early sound films, but by this point their advanced age limited them to purely verbal humour. Weber was childless; Lew Fields was the father of playwright Joe Fields, lyricist Dorothy Fields, and Herbert Fields (who wrote the scripts for several Rodgers & Hart musicals).
'Friendly Enemies' ostensibly stars Weber & Fields as a team, but Lew Fields has the lead role and Joe Weber is very much in support. Fields plays a German immigrant named Carl Pfeiffer: that's how the silent-film intertitles spell it, but surely his forename should be 'Karl', ja? Although Carl has become hugely successful in America (he owns a shoe factory), he still loves his German homeland and considers himself German even though the United States is about to enter the war against the Kaiser. (This film's action begins in 1917.)
Carl's banker is the American-born Henry Block (played by Weber), an unpretentious back-slapper who enjoys baiting Carl. Henry often addresses Carl as 'Charlie', knowing that the immigrant prefers his German forename 'Carl'. Carl's son William (handsome Jack Mulhall) is in love with Henry's pretty daughter June (Virginia B. Faire), and the two fathers approve of the marriage even though it will make Carl and Henry relations. But now Jack has a commission in the Army, and he'll be shipping out to fight the Kaiser.
SPOILERS COMING. This film has a realistic set-up but a hugely implausible plotline. Hoping to end the Great War (so his son can stay home and get married), Carl gives $10,000 cash to a German agitator named Miller (splendid villain Stuart Holmes) who vows he can quickly konvince the Kaiser to kut the kommotion. Instead, Miller plants a bomb in the troopship containing William and thousands of AEF doughboys bound for France. A happy ending comes from an improbable source. Carl realises that his true loyalty is to America, and he ends the film by vowing: 'Call me Charlie!'
Weber & Fields made very few films: their stardom peaked well before talking pictures, and their humour relied largely on verbal punchlines spoken in funny accents. Despite this, in 1925 most cinema audiences would have been familiar with their act. The plot of this movie is interrupted by two comedy set-pieces in which Carl and Henry, lunching in a German restaurant, discuss military strategy whilst using the tableware and plates as props for troops. (Almost a precognitive parody of C. Aubrey Smith's tabletop manoeuvres in 'The Four Feathers'.) These two sequences are quite funny, with smashed crockery resulting. George Melford's directing is excellent. (Why isn't he better known?) I'll rate 'Friendly Enemies' 6 out of 10, despite its ridiculous script.
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