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A Natural Born Gambler (1916)

 -  Short | Comedy  -  24 July 1916 (USA)
5.7
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Ratings: 5.7/10 from 97 users  
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A lovable scoundrel is busted for gambling and thrown into jail, where he dreams of playing poker - but even in his dreams, he loses.

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Title: A Natural Born Gambler (1916)

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Cast

Credited cast:
Bert Williams ...
The Hon. Bert Williams, walking delegate
Rest of cast listed alphabetically:
Wes Jenkins ...
Brother Gardner
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Storyline

Our story centers upon the activities of a Negro fraternal organization, the Independent Order of Calcimine Artists of America. [Inside joke: "calcimine" is whitewash, and yet most of these black actors appear to have darkened their complexions with blackface makeup.] The group meets in the back of a saloon. Their leader, Brother Scott, is a lawyer who disapproves of gambling-- although, after breaking up a poker game, he doesn't object to appropriating others' winnings. Our protagonist is lodge member Bert Williams, described as a "walking delegate," who is clearly in arrears with both the saloon's barkeep, Hostetter Johnson, and with the lodge itself. Early on, he is compelled to remit the dues he owes (three dollars), which he does reluctantly. [Some prints of the film omit the next sequence: After leaving a meeting with his friend Limpy Jones, who is handicapped with gout and must ride on Bert's shoulders, Bert passes a graveyard where he overhears two chicken thieves splitting up... Written by wmorrow59

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Genres:

Short | Comedy

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24 July 1916 (USA)  »

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1.33 : 1
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Trivia

In an unprecedented move for its day in 1915, Biograph Company executives hired actor Bert Williams to star, produce, direct, and write his own films, having full control, the first time a Black-American ever had such control given by a mainstream movie company. The two films made for Biograph were "A Natural Born Gambler" 1916, and Fish (1916). See more »

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Featured in Black Shadows on the Silver Screen (1975) See more »

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User Reviews

 
A rare glimpse of a great stage comic, who deserved better
7 July 2002 | by (Westchester County, NY) – See all my reviews

The most important thing about this film is that it features the great stage comedian Bert Williams, in one of his few motion picture appearances. There seems to be only one other survivor among his movies, a short comedy simply entitled Fish, which is very hard to find. (Footage from an additional, unfinished Williams short is held by the Museum of Modern Art.) For those interested in Bert Williams and the early history of African-Americans on stage and screen, A Natural Born Gambler is Bert's most accessible film, and a milestone of sorts.

For what it's worth, it's not entirely accurate to refer to Bert Williams as "African-American," as he came from Nassau in the Bahamas, of African, Danish, and Spanish ancestry. He was a light-skinned man whose speech retained his West Indian accent, but he was compelled by the stage conventions of his day to darken his face with burnt cork makeup, outline his lips, and speak in the thick patois of the American black-face minstrel; in fact, that's where his show business career began, in minstrelsy. But according to those who saw him perform (including my grandmother), Bert Williams was touched by genius, and brought a unique sensitivity, pathos, and dignity to his work that somehow transcended the degrading Sambo roles with which he found himself saddled. Williams belongs in the pantheon of great clowns, alongside Charlie Chaplin, W.C. Fields, Fanny Brice, etc. His phonograph recordings of comic monologues and droll songs, some of which he wrote, are still funny and worth seeking out.

Sad to report, however, only a pale shadow of the man's talent comes through in A Natural Born Gambler. Perhaps if he'd been allowed more opportunities Williams might have adjusted to film technique and made some comedies which better reflected his capabilities; after all, Chaplin made over thirty films for Keystone before he even began to hit his stride. Or perhaps Williams was a performer who needed his voice for full effect, like Groucho, Mae West, Will Rogers, etc. Unfortunately for posterity, however, Williams didn't live long enough to make talkies. Meanwhile, this film, while an interesting relic of its era, does Williams' reputation no great favors.

I don't know how audiences responded to this film in 1916, but for the modern viewer A Natural Born Gambler offers blatant examples of the cinema's worst African American stereotypes: the black folks we see here (all male, by the way) spend their time drinking, gambling, cheating each other, and running in terror from imaginary "debbils" in a graveyard. The dialog titles preserve the fractured English of minstrelsy, e.g. "De kitty am to pay de expenses ob de game". Our hero, Bert -- who uses his own name for this role -- is a scoundrel who steals chickens from chicken thieves, and eventually winds up in jail. It's a testimony to Williams' likability as a performer that he manages to elicit audience sympathy despite his behavior in the first portion of this film. Only in the final sequence is Bert allowed to cast off the tired conventions of stereotypical racial clowning and be himself, as he performs a portion of a routine he made famous on the stage. Thrown into jail, Bert dreams of a poker game in which he is the sole player. He mimes shuffling an invisible deck of cards, dealing them out, etc., and from his expressions we follow the course of the game until -- even here, in his fantasies -- Bert loses once again. It's a lovely sequence, impressively performed in one long take lasting over two minutes. For this sequence alone, we can be grateful that A Natural Born Gambler was made, and can still be seen.

For those interested in Bert Williams' work I recommend tracking down his recordings before seeing this film. The recordings are available on a variety of labels, and, as noted above, the best of them preserve the man's comedy far better than silent films did -- better than this one did, anyway.


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