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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The Hon. Bert Williams, Walking Delegate
Wes Jenkins ...
Brother Gardner
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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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Short | Comedy

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24 July 1916 (USA)  »

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1.33 : 1
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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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mixed motives and black faces
4 August 2016 | by (France) – See all my reviews

Was Biograph really being that generous? I doubt it. We now know, because the footage has been restored. that Bert Williams made a film for Biograph in 1913 entitled The Lime Kiln Field Day or The Lime Kiln Club Field Day. It was based (as is A Natural Born Gambler) on stories that appeared in The Detroit Free Press (1879-1891) by a white journalist, Charles Bernard Lewis (Brother Gardner's Lime Kiln Club) and which Williams and his then-partner George Walker ("Two Real Coons") had performed in a half-hour stage version way back in 1909, although no doubt the sketches remained part of Williams' solo act.

This 1913 film had been commissioned by the theatrical agents Klaw and Erlanger but the moving spirit behind it seems to have been the small-time impresario Sam Corker Jr., a long-time friend to African American artists who died in 1914. The film, which had an all-black cast(Corker is the only white to appear in the film in a tiny cameo), turned into a full-length feature (surviving footage runs for an hour) which may have alarmed Biograph, who were enemies to the feature-length film, and must certainly have alarmed a certain D. W. Griffith who was about to embark on his own racist epic. It may even have alarmed the incoming President (Woodrow Wilson) whose racial views were somewhat similar to Griffith's and who is several time quoted with approval in Birth of a Nation). Epic films serve a political purpose and here was the first major "national epic" (the response to the great Italian epic Cabiria that had appeared in 1914) at risk of being upstaged by a bunch of uppity n****** or so I rather imagine the thinking to have gone.

So the film, although virtually complete, was pulled. Which presumably meant that Biograph was in breach of contract. So it seems to have offered the making of these shorts as a sop to Williams and they are, needless to say, nothing like as good as the original full-length film and rely far more heavily on racial caricature. It is good that they exist but Biograph was not doing anybody any favours or acting out of any noble impulse. They are also evidence that it was Biograph and not Williams who was responsible for abandoning the earlier film and that, even if, following the death of Corker, the film's main supporter, Klaw and Erlanger were in agreement (Marc Klaw, like Griffith, was from Kentucky), they did so at considerable inconvenience to themselves.

There seems to be a certain misunderstanding concerning "blackface". Properly speaking this term does not simply mean that someone has blacked up their face. Orson Welles or Laurence Olivier playing Othello, for instance, are not wearing "blackface"; they are simply using black make-up. Blackface was a particular style of make-up (for black performers mainly in fact involving the application of white make-up around the eyes and mouth) developed by the minstrel troupes in the USA, designed to emphasise the blackness of the face, certainly, but also to give a comic effect similar to the make-up of a clown. It is not intrinsically "racist" and it was not simply an attempt by whites to pretend to be blacks; it was used equally by black performers, both when they were performing for white audiences and when they were performing for black audiences. Bert Williams was a strong advocate of "blackface" and supposedly claimed to have "found himself" in that makeup style.

When "blackface" becomes offensive in films is when white actors in dramas are blacked up in a a manner that resembles "blackface" (the locus classicus is the character of Gus in Griffith's Birth of a Nation although there are constant examples throughout the film). Here the impression is given (and clearly intended to be given) that African Americans are somehow "clownish" in real life. It is as though, in a film consisting mainly of black actors, the white characters were always represented in white-faced "auguste" clown make-up as a means of ridiculising them. Something similar is in fact occasionally down in Indian films where "whites" are deliberately made up to look very red-faced.

Maciste, the supposedly black slave in the Italian film Cabiria, played by former Genoese docker Bartolomeo Pagano, appears in not very convincing black make-up but not in insulting blackface, which was a style unknown outside the US. Nor is he in the least portrayed as a racial caricature. The character was in fact so popular that a whole spin-off series of films was subsequently made featuring him (although he stopped bothering with the boot-polish).


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