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Bert Williams
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Short | Comedy

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20 November 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 »

Goofs

After Bert catches a fish and leaves the stream, his parents come looking for him and find his cloth cap left behind. In Bert's next scene however, when he attempts to sell the fish he has caught to a woman living nearby, he is once more wearing the cap. In the following scene, as his parents search for him, his father is holding the cap. Afterwards, and for the rest of the film, Bert is bare-headed. See more »

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Another glimpse of a legendary comedian
16 February 2008 | by (Westchester County, NY) – See all my reviews

In the mid-1910s (the exact point in time is uncertain) the great comedian Bert Williams signed with the American Biograph Company to star in a series of comedies. He was the first Black performer so honored, but the proposed series did not last long: this film, entitled 'Fish,' was the second and last short completed and released before the struggling company went out of business. The best known Williams comedy is his first effort for Biograph, a two-reel short called A Natural Born Gambler. Over the years, prints of that film have been available to collectors in the 8mm and 16mm formats, and more recently it was included in Kino's "Slapstick Encyclopedia" series on video and DVD. The one-reel 'Fish' has been much harder to find in any format, but a restored print was recently screened at NYC's Museum of Modern Art as part of a tribute to the long-neglected Williams, a pioneering comedian who was one of the best paid entertainers of his day.

It's a testament to Williams' talent that he was able to breathe some life into this short, and find a moment or two of humor given the unpromising material. The setting appears to be a rural village—although the actual location was probably a neighborhood in the vicinity of the Biograph Studio in the Bronx! Bert lives in a rustic-looking cottage with his parents and two much younger brothers. The three sons have been ordered to chop wood, but Bert would rather shirk his chores and go fishing. When his father orders him to take kindling to the stove, Bert sighs and wearily totes a couple of tiny sticks while his kid brothers carry large stumps. As soon as he can manage to escape Bert does so, and happily fishes at a nearby stream. Almost immediately he catches a large fish, and decides to head for a more affluent neighborhood to sell his catch to anyone willing to buy it.

This is where race enters the picture: Bert is a Negro, on foot in an exclusive-looking ritzy neighborhood, where the only other persons of color he's likely to find would be servants. The first individual he encounters is a white woman who orders him to go away. Next, he sees a prosperous-looking white man lounging in a lawn-chair on the grounds of a mansion. The property sits on the top of a steep incline, but Bert laboriously makes his way up the hill. He tries to make a sale but the man sets his dog on him, and Bert tumbles back down the hill still holding his prize catch. (For this shot an obvious-looking dummy doubled for the star.) Just as Bert is about to leave, the homeowner seems to have a change of heart and indicates he should come back. Bert struggles back up the steep incline, only to discover that the homeowner has called him back merely to announce that he doesn't want any fish next Sunday, either! By now Bert's family is searching the neighborhood for him. They locate the fugitive, haul him back, and set him to chopping wood again.

That's the sum total of the story related in this ten-minute film. Williams had a sensitive and very "readable" face, and he was a sympathetic presence on screen; nonetheless, at the museum screening I attended 'Fish' didn't provoke much laughter. There were chuckles at Bert's eloquently mimed distaste for chopping wood, and at his difficulty climbing up that steep hill, but other factors worked against enjoyment. For starters, although the child actors playing his brothers were African-American, Bert's parents were portrayed by white actors in black-face. (I think the actor playing Bert's mother may also have been a man in drag, though I'm not certain.) Williams himself was light-skinned and always performed in black-face, but seeing him play opposite white actors faking "blackness" is discomfiting. What's worse, the actors playing his parents overplay their roles, mugging and gesticulating amateurishly, especially in contrast with William's more nuanced acting. It was painful to watch one of the great comedians of the era having to work opposite second-rate actors.

Moreover, the biggest problem with this comedy is that very little of it is funny. In A Natural Born Gambler Williams worked with a large ensemble, which gave all the performers ample comic opportunities. Better still, that film concludes with Bert's wonderful solo routine, a one-man poker game, certainly his best scene before the cameras. In this film, however, the star was not provided with competent supporting players, a worthwhile scenario, or the chance to perform another memorable solo set-piece. Williams' character, like Tom Sawyer, prefers to shirk his chores and go fishing, and Bert conveys this amusingly enough, but otherwise he has no genuine comic business to perform. When he struggles up that steep hill we sympathize, and we feel sorry for him when he's treated harshly by the homeowner, but there's little here to laugh about.

Bert Williams' warm personality and humor is better conveyed in the songs and monologues he recorded than in the films he made during his brief movie career. There is some good news in the latter department, however: at the recent screening of 'Fish' at the Museum of Modern Art it was announced that additional Bert Williams footage from the museum's Biograph collection is now being restored. This material was apparently intended for a third, previously unknown comedy that was never finished or released. This untitled film features many of the same actors seen in A Natural Born Gambler, and appears to have been a more lavish production than either of Williams' two official Biograph releases. It's sad to think that this third project was never completed, but great to know that the footage survives and that it may yet be seen by those of us interested in the life and career of this fascinating, gifted comedian.


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