At the height of her fame, Alice Howell was sometimes referred to as the female Charlie Chaplin. Unfortunately little is left for us to judge her by. Like most the top comediennes, she spent a lot of time playing second fiddle to male comics (as the girlfriend and then wife of Nervy Ned for instance) and this film is a rare glimpse of her in a starring role. And it is a rather impressive film.
Her style of humour bears little or no resemblance to that of Chaplin. It is zany and off-the-wall in a way Chaplin never was and which remains relatively rare (Keaton of course apart) in the US comic tradition before the Marx brothers. Like many later "Keystone"-type comedies (dragged out, as it were, to half an hour), this is something of a jumble of disparate elements kept moving at a speed that does not give the audience a chance to reflect but, unlike most comedies of the sort, there is a certain coherence, a touch of social satire, a good deal of imagination and an evident attention to detail. So certain routines are highly original (the bizarre diner with everyone eating in unison and the quasi-feminist industrial dispute amongst the domestic workers that collapses as soon as a job is on offer) and others that, despite the frenetic speed of the short as a whole, are played out slowly over several scenes (the butler and cook getting very realistically plastered on the over-alcoholised punch).
1920 was a year when Arbuckle was on the verge of disaster, when Chaplin, moving away from th short subject, produced no films and when Lloyd was also at something of a crossroads in his career after splitting up with Pollard and Daniels. This film therefore stands out amongst the comic shorts, which had in general become distinctly repetitive and formulaic.
With of course one notable exception. For Keaton it was an annus mirabilis and he would show that there were still extraordinary things and quite different things that could be done in a comic short, producing three of his finest films (One Week, Convict 13 and The Scarecrow) in the year, three of the finest short comedies ever made. But Keaton stands head and shoulders above the others (Chaplin and Lloyd included as far as short subjects are concerned) and, amongst the many also-rans, Alice Howell occupies an honourable place.
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