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Dude looks like a lady, 14 February 2015

This brief comedy features Marcel Perez, former circus clown and stage comedian. At this point in his career he was churning out comedies in Turin, Italy, and his screen character was known as "Robinet" or "Tweedledum," depending on where one saw the films. Like his fellow pioneer Max Linder, Perez explored basic comic ideas in these early efforts, simple situations easily conveyed in the silent medium. Perez, also like Linder, found lots of juicy material in relations between the sexes, and both men relished farcical situations involving infidelity, jealousy, and lots of frantic dashing about in bedrooms.

In this amusing short known as "Miss Tweedledum" (or variations thereof), our hero finds it necessary to dress up in drag. Why? Well, because he was busy romancing a married woman, only to be interrupted when her husband unexpectedly returned. Naturally he's left with no choice but to hide in the bedroom, don lady's clothing, and claim to be the wife's gal pal. This fools the husband, so much so that he is immediately attracted to his wife's friend, and openly flirts with her. Robinet is forced to head for home still wearing woman's clothing, topped by a goofy hat that looks like an inverted flower pot. Unfortunately for him, his disguise is so convincing that every guy who sees him along the way is instantly smitten, makes a pass, and follows close behind. Eventually Robinet stops off at the police station and demands that police protect him from all the mashers. The cops obligingly provide an escort, but they too are taken with the lady, and twirl their mustaches roguishly as they march her homeward.

Something tells me that even in 1912 this situation was already familiar to audiences, but Perez and his supporting players throw themselves into it with vigor. Is it still funny, more than a century after it was produced? One's mileage may vary, of course, and a lot depends on how much the individual viewer appreciates drag routines, but personally I enjoyed it. There's something inherently funny about seeing a tomcat get a taste of his own medicine. Plus, a bonus this film provides for historically minded viewers is the glimpse of vintage fashions, along with a few nicely composed shots of beautiful downtown Turin. It looks to me as though the finale of the film is missing, which means we're denied the wrap-up gag (if there was one), but as it stands, "Miss Tweedledum" concludes with a deftly executed police march, sort of a mini-parade, which ends the surviving footage on an amusing note.

Marcel Perez went on to make longer, funnier and more elaborate films, but this one serves as a pleasant introduction to this long-forgotten comedian.

The misadventures of a Stage Door Johnnie, 31 January 2015

Like his contemporary Max Linder, comedian Marcel Perez began his film career in Europe, starring in a series of very short films in which he explored simple situations. This brief comedy, made in Italy when Perez's screen character was known as "Robinet," explores the theme of obsessive love. Our hero, who appears to be something of a swell, goes to the music-hall and manages to make a nuisance of himself before taking his seat to watch the show. He instantly falls in love with a singer who bears the formidable name of Mimi Kratzfuss, and dashes backstage to meet her. She's already departed, but Robinet bribes her maid, gets the lady's home address, and rushes there. After various misadventures, Robinet slips into Mimi's room with a skeleton key and declares his love. Miss Kratzfuss, caught in her nightgown and understandably alarmed, summons the police, and Robinet is brusquely shown the door.

That's the gist of it. From the 21st century perspective, Robinet's behavior is indeed alarming. We would call him a "stalker," and while watching this comedy I couldn't help but think of real life situations where performers have been plagued by over-enthusiastic admirers. (Jodie Foster comes to mind.) But it must be remembered that this short was produced in a more innocent era; or at least, more innocent where this kind of relationship is concerned. Robinet is portrayed as goofy and clueless, but not dangerous, rather like the hicks in Keystone comedies who shout instructions to actors on the screen at the local cinema. In any case, there are several memorable moments in this film. I especially liked the wildly exuberant opera singer in the music- hall, and the funny little march-step performed by the cops, seemingly for their own amusement. Perez, as always, darts about with grace and vigor, whatever the circumstances.

It's interesting to compare this early short with a longer and far more elaborate comedy Marcel Perez made ten years later in America, Sweet Daddy, in which he once again falls in love with a stage performer. Watching the two shorts back to back reveals his remarkable development as a film comedian.

The Man in the White Suit, 24 January 2015

Viewers who've seen the 1969 feature The Comic may recall the bit where "Billy Bright," the former silent comedy star played by Dick Van Dyke, appears in a TV commercial for detergent. The comedian steps out onto the street in a blinding white suit, which, of course, is promptly spattered with mud, axle grease, and every other dark and nasty substance the filmmakers could think of, only to be magically cleansed by the product being pitched. If you need evidence that this routine has been around for a while, it can be found in a very brief but amusing comedy called L'abito bianco di Robinet (a.k.a. Robinet's White Suit), made way back in 1911 by a comedian named Marcel Perez. Perez appeared under a variety of names in a screen career that spanned over two decades. At this point in his career, known as Robinet, he made a series of highly popular films for the Ambrosio Company of Turin, Italy. This one offers a brisk, amusing example of his style.

Robinet appears to be a prosperous householder, and he starts his morning in a cheery mood. Once he determines that the weather is good—erroneously, as it turns out—he instructs the maid to fetch his white suit. Looking dapper, he takes his hat and cane, and steps out to face the day. But things do not go smoothly. First, it's raining hard. Undaunted, our hero purchases an umbrella and tries to continue on his way, but he is forced to deal with a series of escalating calamities: his umbrella is destroyed, he is splashed with mud by a passing car, knocked down by a cyclist, smeared with paint (black, of course), and, on top of all that, pummeled by just about everyone he meets. Finally, in a twist ending (only slightly marred by a bit of missing footage), order is restored, and so is Robinet's cheery mood.

The films of Marcel Perez would become more elaborate in the ensuing years, but this very short and simple effort serves as a pleasant introduction to a long forgotten silent clown.

A diamond in the rough, 22 December 2014

Mary Pickford was the top movie star in America (and throughout much of the world) from the time of the Great War until talkies came along at the end of the 1920s. She got her start in pictures in 1909 at the Biograph studio, working for legendary director D.W. Griffith in dozens of short films, in all kinds of roles. When this early comedy 'Wilful Peggy' was made in 1910, Pickford's name was still unknown to the general public. She was just another up-and-coming actress at Biograph, not a star, and thus had not yet developed a familiar screen persona or settled on favorite themes for her vehicles. And yet, looking back with hindsight, we can find in this short some of the key ingredients that would contribute to Mary's phenomenal popularity, and become familiar motifs in her great feature-length vehicles.

Wilful Peggy is set in 18th century Ireland, and from the first scene it is plain that this was a place and time when social distinctions were of crucial importance. Henry Walthall is the Lord of the Manor, a middle-aged and unmarried aristocrat, perhaps a widower. He finds Peggy (Mary Pickford), a lower-class barmaid, asleep before the tavern where she works, awakens her gruffly and demands service. But instead of deferring to him she is angry and uncooperative, that is, until he doffs his hat and is polite to her. After that she's all smiles, and the Lord is plainly smitten with this attractive "rough diamond." Later, when a young man from the village tries to kiss Peggy, she gives him a brisk beating. The Lord witnesses this from a concealed place, and is thoroughly won over. He proposes marriage. Peggy's mother is delighted, but her daughter is startled and dismayed by this turn of events, in part because of the age difference between herself and her suitor, but more importantly because of their sharply dissimilar social status. Nonetheless she gives in, and they are wed.

Soon we find that "the peasant bride" must struggle to adjust to her new position in society. She's uncomfortable wearing finery, and when the Lord's servants bow to her she's embarrassed. Peggy's unhappiness reaches a peak at a posh garden party when she falls over while attempting to curtsy, provoking mean-spirited laughter from her husband's friends. She stomps out in a huff. At this point she's approached by the Lord's nephew, who fancies her. He proposes that she don male attire and accompany him to an inn for some carousing, and, "in the spirit of deviltry," she agrees to go. Once they're alone at the inn, he attacks her. Her husband, meanwhile, rides to the rescue, but arrives to find that Peggy can take care of herself; in fact, she has given his lecherous nephew a furious thrashing!

As the plot summary may suggest, Wilful Peggy is a light-hearted comedy, and yet in the course of its brief running time it touches upon some serious themes. From Peggy's point of view, acute discomfort with her new husband's exalted station in life is no laughing matter, nor is her humiliation at the garden party. The Lord is amused at her audacity and finds the trait attractive, but his attitude is somewhat patronizing, and we have to wonder how happy or healthy such a marriage could ever be. However, this short was created only to entertain, not to provoke any troubling thoughts about class distinctions. Mary is adorable, and it's easy to see why she quickly became an audience favorite. Like the Lord of the Manor, we admire her for her pluck, and for the fact that she does not kowtow to her social superiors. In the prime of her career Pickford would explore culture clash issues in several of her great feature films, such as Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley, Stella Maris, and Little Lord Fauntleroy. This short plays like an early, abridged edition of the material she would develop to perfection in later years. It also serves as a reminder of how succinctly and clearly director D. W. Griffith and his crew at Biograph could tell their stories, as they adeptly convey a great deal of information in a few quick shots. Wilful Peggy is miles ahead of most other films of its period, and still entertaining for silent film buffs today.

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Or, the Finger of Suspicion, 10 November 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Although it runs barely thirteen minutes from start to finish, this one-reel drama relates a fully detailed story of crime, suspicion, and false accusation, resolved at the last moment in a satisfying fashion thanks to some clever detection. The filmmakers tell their tale cogently and succinctly, and the performances are fairly nuanced for the period. And happily, the film survives in a clear and virtually complete print (held by the Library of Congress), with perhaps a few seconds missing at the very end of the final scene.

Produced by the New York-based Reliance Film Company, A Brass Button stars James Kirkwood and Mary Alden as an upper class couple in crisis. Just prior to hosting a swanky dinner party, husband Albert Lowden, head of a brokerage firm, receives a letter informing him that if he doesn't make good on a substantial debt by 8 PM the following day, his company will be shut down. Albert chooses to conceal this news from his wife, and assumes a cheery attitude as the party begins. Among the guests we meet a wealthy couple, whose names are not given; the wife wears a spectacular necklace which is handled and admired by the Lowdens. Next, we meet the servants of the Lowden household, in particular a surly young maid who, initially, refuses to wear a serving apron for the party until her supervisor insists. (Presumably she's too proud.) Suitably attired, the maid glumly serves appetizers to the guests, until she sees the necklace on the floor, where it fell unnoticed. She manages to snap it up and tuck it in her apron pocket unobserved, then rushes to the master bedroom to seek a hiding place. After considering a few options—maybe under a lamp?—the maid has an inspiration: "Soap!" First she tries to cut open a bar of bath soap, but, finding this too labor intensive, instead grabs a tin of soft soap from Mrs. Lowden's dresser and pushes the necklace into it.

(Incidentally, this detail might confuse some 21st century viewers, as I confess it confused me on my first viewing, because the item seized by the maid is not familiar to our eyes. My guess is that the tin holds 1911-style deodorant, as it resembles a modern "speed stick," though it would have been instantly recognizable to contemporary viewers. In any case, a title card towards the finale clarifies the point that the substance in the tin is soap.)

Meanwhile, the wealthy couple have discovered that the necklace is missing. There is a search, and the servants are questioned, but no trace of the necklace can be found. The party ends on this unhappy note, as Mr. and Mr. Lowden go to their bedroom distressed and perplexed. The next morning, after Mr. Lowden departs for work and his wife leaves the bedroom, the maid rushes in and retrieves the necklace. She fondles it happily (I felt this business was overplayed somewhat), but when her mistress returns she quickly drops it into her pocket. Soon afterward, Mrs. Lowden finds the letter dunning her husband for the money he owes. After examining the soap in the container on her dresser, which bears an impression of the necklace, Mrs. Lowden begins to suspect her husband of the theft. Worse, she shares her hunch with the lady who lost the necklace, who is predictably furious. Mrs. Lowden's suspicion is not alleviated when her husband returns home, all smiles, and announces "The market has broken in my favor. I am saved from bankruptcy!" When she accuses him he tries to laugh it off, then turns somber. Subsequently, the wealthy lady arrives with two detectives, one of whom is ready to arrest Albert straightaway, but his partner, a more level-headed cop, takes a moment to examine the evidence, and finds that an impression of a brass button has been left in the soap; thus, whoever wears a garment with a matching button is the guilty party. The maid, hearing this, tries to make a run for it but is stopped, and the necklace is found in her pocket. So, justice prevails, though we have to wonder what impact this episode will have on the future of the Lowdens' relationship.

Maybe the plot isn't brilliant, but it suits the format perfectly: this is an ideal story for a one-reel silent drama. Historically minded viewers will appreciate the period finery and costumes. A fashion moment to savor arrives when the wealthy lady returns to the Lowden household the morning after the party, wearing an ENORMOUS hat. Dramatically speaking, I enjoyed the rather subtle bit when Mrs. Lowden reads the letter threatening her husband with ruin, and delicately draws her finger across her own throat. Title card: "The finger of suspicion." Unfortunately, the director is not credited, but whoever was responsible made a clean job of it. There's nothing flashy about the directorial technique on display here, nor is any flash required for this kind of story. A Brass Button is a straightforward and effective drama of its era, a treat for silent film buffs and anyone interested in early 20th century social history.

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Doug Fairbanks rides again!, 14 September 2014

This recently rediscovered, newly restored Douglas Fairbanks feature has been screened at two festivals this year, the San Francisco Silent Film festival and 'Mostly Lost 3' in Culpeper, Virginia. I saw it on the latter occasion, and it's a pleasure to report that this is a terrific movie, and a significant addition to the Fairbanks canon. Originally produced for the Fine Arts Corporation, and released by Triangle in the spring of 1916, The Good Bad Man marked a venture into unusual territory for the star at this juncture in his career, when his vehicles tended to be breezy comedies with modern settings. Although there are some comic moments, The Good Bad Man is a straightforward Western with a serious theme, closer in tone to a William S. Hart production than it is to a typical Fairbanks romp of the mid-1910s, such as His Picture in the Papers or The Matrimaniac. The star wrote the screenplay himself, and gives an unusually impassioned performance, which suggests that this project was close to his heart.

Doug plays a good natured drifter who calls himself "Passin' Through." He's an outlaw but not a bad guy, for he never hurts anyone when he commits his robberies, nor does he take anything of great monetary value, such as jewelry. He collects trinkets for himself, just whimsical souvenirs really, but makes a point of taking food and other goods for children who truly need assistance. Passin' Through has a special interest in helping orphans and fatherless boys, and we learn that he struggles with what we call "father issues" nowadays. It seems that his father died before he got a chance to know him, and he harbors doubts that his parents were legally married when he was born. (In reality Fairbanks's father was a drunkard who abandoned his family when Doug was a small boy; the star's real-life father issues may account for his choice of material here, as well as the notable intensity of his performance.) As the story begins, Passin' Through arrives in a frontier town and almost immediately butts heads with the local crime boss, a mean-spirited crook known as The Wolf. He gets himself into trouble and is arrested, but with the help of a kindly lawman our hero learns the truth about his parents, and the role The Wolf played in his father's death, and eventually gains an advantage over the villain and avenges himself.

That's the gist of the plot, but what makes this film special isn't the story so much as the performances, as well as the visual aspects of the production. Doug has a nice rapport with leading lady Bessie Love, who was still a teenager when she appeared in this film, and cute as a bug. Their first scene together concludes with a memorable detail: as Passin' Through takes his leave of his new love interest, he suddenly produces a train conductor's ticket-punch, and pops a little hole in a ribbon that's part of her outfit. It's as if he's claimed her, or marked her as "his." She's startled for a moment, but appears to have no objections. In addition to the charming scenes between Doug and Bessie, what's most striking about this film are the beautifully scenic desert locations, and the climactic shots of riders—an impressive number of them—on horseback, galloping across the landscape. Director Allan Dwan, who worked with Fairbanks several times, handles the action scenes deftly, while cameraman Victor Fleming (who, of course, went on to become an estimable director in his own right) makes a major contribution: the cinematography is beautiful.

We're lucky the film looks so good. In fact, we're lucky we can see it at all, when we consider how many silent movies are lost. For decades The Good Bad Man was believed to be among the missing, but in recent years a 35mm print was located at the Cinémathèque Française, and this is the one that's been restored and shown at the aforementioned festivals. At 'Mostly Lost' the screening was introduced by Rob Byrne of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, who showed us examples of footage before and after the restoration. He also explained that what survives is not the original 1916 release, but rather a reissue from 1923, which was re-edited and reworked in minor ways. (For instance, Bessie Love's character Amy was renamed Sarah May.) In any case, it's a pleasure to see a "new" Douglas Fairbanks production from this early, crucial period of his career. The Good Bad Man is a real treat for silent film buffs, and here's hoping it is screened widely and often in the years to come.

Moonshine (1920)
"Peaceful Valley"? Looks more like Toontown to me, 8 September 2014

When animation greats such as Chuck Jones, Tex Avery and Bob Clampett gave interviews in later years about their work, they frequently cited silent era comedians such as Charlie Chaplin as influences, and fondly reminisced about the crazy gags and wild chases in the silent comedies they viewed as kids. I don't know if those guys were Lloyd Hamilton fans, or if they happened to see his short comedy Moonshine, but it sure looks like the kind of thing they were talking about. Moonshine plays like a live action Looney Tune, populated with real people instead of anthropomorphic animals. The first half in particular is amazingly "cartoon-y," and easily as action-packed and funny as your average Bugs Bunny or Droopy Dog vehicle.

As the title suggests, our story concerns the eternal struggle between moonshiners and revenue agents. And because this film was produced in 1920, the year Prohibition became the law of the land, the subject of booze (and government efforts to suppress bootleggers) was a hot topic, ripe for satire. Our setting is the rural community of Peaceful Valley, a name instantly belied by the film's opening shot, which looks like it could be a combat sequence outtake from The Birth of a Nation. A pitched battle is underway between the hill folk and the revenue men, but it's portrayed like a baseball game, complete with cheering spectators and a scorekeeper who marks off casualties on a big scoreboard. (Sounds like Tex Avery, doesn't it?) In the midst of all the shooting, we learn that one of the moonshiners' wives is expecting a baby. And this prompts a truly memorable sight gag, the kind of image I love to find in silent comedies: it's a traveling shot of a country doctor and a midwife in a carriage, racing to the home of the expectant mother, while an obviously mechanical stork flies above them, carrying a bundle! They reach the cottage just as the stork drops its bundle down the chimney, and rush inside to help the family with their new arrival.

Twenty years pass, and the baby has grown up to be Lloyd Hamilton. (He was still quite boyish and baby-faced in the comedies he made around this time.) The rest of the story concerns Ham's love affair with a local girl, Adenoid Applesauce, and his rivalry for her affections with a local fellow, a bad egg known as Merciless Milton. The gags continue to fly thick and fast. A cow gives milk directly to the breakfast table through a convenient tube; Milton is flattened by a felled tree—but survives unscathed, in true cartoon fashion; a cat and a horse get drunk; a document flies off a table, lands on a frog, and hops away; a man in a boat is dragged down the street; and other surreal events occur as casually as they might in a very weird dream.

Moonshine was the product of a brief but happy collaboration between Lloyd Hamilton and director/performer Charley Chase, two great comedy creators who seemed to bring out the best in each other. Chase makes two cameo appearances here: first as the bearded hillbilly "scorekeeper" during the gun battle, and later as a revenue agent who pursues Ham. As for our star comedian, Mr. Hamilton was in his prime when this film was made, finally coming into his own after years of toiling away in the comedy salt mines, as the marginally more appealing half of the Ham & Bud team. Unfortunately many of Ham's solo comedies are lost, but that's all the more reason to track down and appreciate survivors such as Moonshine.

In sum, I think it's worth noting that when this short premiered in December of 1920, Chuck Jones and Bob Clampett were grade-schoolers, while the slightly older Tex Avery was just reaching his teens. Something tells me that those guys were in the audience at their local Bijou's, laughing it up at that mechanical stork.

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Little moments from a big picture, 6 September 2014

One of the major motion picture releases of 1923 was Paramount's The Covered Wagon, directed by James Cruze, which ultimately proved to be among the biggest box office hits of the silent era. Based on a best-selling novel, it told the story of an arduous wagon trek across the plains in the 1840s, from Westport Landing (now Kansas City) across the mountains to what is now Oregon. Along the way the pioneers struggle with illness and hunger, hunt buffalo, face a prairie fire, encounter hostile Indians, etc. It's no surprise that so many people flocked to see this epic Western, especially in the U.S., for there were many older Americans at the time who had had similar experiences, and plenty more who had heard about the covered wagon days from parents and grandparents. The film's great success inspired imitations, as well as parodies. Two Wagons—Both Covered is a two-reel comedy starring Will Rogers that pokes fun at the popular epic with a fair degree of success, although, like so many parodies, it may not be quite so amusing to viewers who haven't seen the original. However, silent era buffs familiar with the target of satire should get some chuckles out of it.

Our leading comedian plays two roles: grizzled scout Joe Jackson, based on the character portrayed by Ernest Torrence in the original, and dandified Palm Beach cowboy Bill Bunian, based on J. Warren Kerrigan's Will Banion. Both roles allow for broad comedy, but the Bunian part is showier. He's quite the dude, well dressed and neatly groomed compared to the others. Asked why he's a year late for the trip, he replies "When one shaves every day, it takes up time." He immediately makes a play for our leading lady Molly Wingate (Marie Mosquini), who is also inordinately dolled up for someone traveling across country in this manner. Some of the short's humor grows out of their courtship, but the filmmakers also managed to come up with gags on other topics, whether related to The Covered Wagon or not: saxophones, booze, Brigham Young and his wives, those newfangled bicycles, and whatever else struck their fancy. The film ends with an extended routine involving Los Angeles real estate developers that's a take-off of the contemporary land boom in Southern California, and was thus something of an inside joke, although it's still amusing when viewed today.

Speaking of inside jokes, Will's portrayal of Bill Bunion could be viewed as a rather harsh attack on J. Warren Kerrigan. He's such a fop, so heavily made up—far more so than the actor himself in The Covered Wagon—that one has to wonder what was intended. Kerrigan was a huge star in the mid-1910s, but was allegedly not so popular with some of his colleagues. He was considered arrogant, and this impression was underscored in 1917 when he made insensitive comments about the war. (Amazingly, he told a reporter from the Denver Times that he believed artists, actors, musicians, writers, and other creative types should not be drafted until America had first conscripted "the great mass of men who aren't good for anything." Overnight his popularity plummeted.) Kerrigan's homosexuality was not public knowledge, but his predilections were an open secret in Hollywood. In light of this, Rogers's heavily rouged Bill Bunion comes off as more pointed, satirically speaking, and certainly more caustic, than might otherwise be the case. In another possible dig at Kerrigan, there's a scene where an ignorant pioneer expresses his intention to raise chickens once he gets to California, unaware that all of the chickens in his crate are roosters, and can't breed. Well, okay, that one may be a bit of a stretch where attacks on Kerrigan are concerned, but hey, you never know.

In any case, this two-reel comedy will definitely be of interest to silent film buffs, even if it mystifies everyone else. I'd say the only shortcoming of Two Wagons—Both Covered where comedy is concerned is that a little too much of the humor is conveyed by title cards, rather than visual gags. Even so, those title cards are generally witty enough to carry the day.

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Saddle up, Julius, and don't spare the horses, 10 August 2014

When I watch Walt Disney's 'Alice in Cartoonland' shorts I'm reminded of the early comedies Charlie Chaplin made at Keystone. In both cases you're looking at films that are lively and sometimes funny, but also primitive, violent, and crude in every sense of the word. It's unlikely that anyone who saw these films when they were new could have predicted that Disney and Chaplin would develop their artistry to the heights they each attained; moreover, it's likely that applying the very word "artistry" to what they were doing would have been considered questionable if not ridiculous at the time.

Alice in the Wooly West, released in 1926, is a typical entry in Disney's 'Alice' series, neither the best nor the worst of the examples I've seen. It's fast and furious, and packs plenty of action into its six-and-a-half minute running time. The story, a harsh tale of frontier justice meted out in the Old West, could not be simpler. For cartoon buffs it looks like a template for the more polished adventures of Mickey, Minnie, and Pegleg Pete from the '30s, but executed with a bluntness that some may find startling—or, depending on your taste, kind of refreshing.

The principle players are Julius the Cat (Felix in all but name), who is our hero; his nameless, goggle-eyed horse; the villain, a bear who serves as the Pegleg Pete prototype; and, of course, Alice. In this entry she's played by little Margie Gay, a Baby Peggy look-a-like with black bangs. No matter who plays her, however, Alice never has much to do in these films, probably because the rudimentary technique employed to blend her image with that of the animated characters did not allow for much in the way of interaction. Alice usually stands off to one side, out of the action, gesticulating, except when she's abducted by the villain, as happens here. In this episode, the villainous bear sets out to rob a stagecoach, backed by a team of desperado mice. (And how ironic that in this early Walt Disney cartoon, mice are the bad guys!) When the coach's trembling passengers step out, hands in the air, we see that they are mostly cartoon animals, but live-action Alice is among them. Then Julius shows up, guns blazing, and several of the mice are shot dead on the spot, a remarkably macabre scene. The villainous bear realizes the jig is up, grabs Alice, and heads for the hills. Julius follows, confronts the bad guy, and dukes it out with him while Alice stands by anxiously awaiting the outcome. I guess it goes without saying that justice eventually triumphs.

For viewers accustomed to Disney's prime output the animation here will look primitive, but once you've seen other cartoons of the era made by other, lesser talents, the 'Alice' series comes off quite well in comparison. Disney's amazingly proficient animator Ub Iwerks cranked out reams of drawings for these shorts almost single-handed, and to Iwerks belongs much of the credit for the smooth action and clear, easily readable design. The gags are pretty simple, but serviceable. For example, during the stagecoach chase, when the pursuing mice shoot the coach's wheels off, it sprouts legs and runs. Later, as Julius chases the bad guy, firing his pistol wildly, he and his horse come to a pond. Instead of stopping, the horse dives in and swims across while Julius continues to sail overhead, still firing. Moments later the horse emerges from the water, and Julius lands on him neatly. They continue to charge forward as if nothing happened. Simple gags, sure, but still amusing.

They may not be the best cartoons ever made, but I tend to seek out Disney's 'Alice' shorts and usually enjoy them, just as I seek out Chaplin's Keystones. It's fascinating to see where these guys started, and marvel at how far they went.

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Featuring Charley Chase and that miraculous wonder substance, alum, 8 August 2014

Charley Chase had a long and illustrious career as a screen comedian, but he really hit his stride in the mid- to late 1920s. The two-reel shorts he made for the Hal Roach studio during this period are usually enjoyable at the very least, sometimes superb, and generally rank with the best comedy output of the era. This is when Chase perfected his style of character-driven, semi-realistic farce comedy, often based on themes of embarrassment and frustration. A prime example is Are Brunettes Safe?, one of the seemingly effortless 18-minute gems he and the Roach crew crafted during this period. (It's also one of many with a quizzical title, one that poses an absurd rhetorical question that has little or nothing to do with the actual content of the film; you might say these titles count as a bonus gag.)

On this occasion Charley is a newspaper advice columnist. One day he gets a letter from an older lady who lives in a small town and hasn't seen her son in years, but hopes to be reunited with him. She includes a photo, and the son, Bud Martin by name, is the very image of Charley. Charley's boss encourages him to go to the lady's town and pose as her son, for a human interest story. What could possibly go wrong? Since this is a Charley Chase comedy we're talking about, plenty, and fast.

When Charley arrives at the train station in the town where the lady lives, he is disturbed to find that the townsfolk react with surprise and fear when they see him, and run away. All he knows about Martin, at this point, is that the man walks with a limp. There's some nice comic business as Charley struggles to limp correctly, and a great tracking shot as he hobbles down the street, while business owners react with horror, close their shops, pull in their goods, etc. As he passes a girls' school, a schoolmarm grabs the girls and yanks them inside. (We might start to suspect that Bud Martin isn't such a nice guy, or an ideal subject to impersonate, but our innocent hero seems oblivious.) Charley reaches Mrs. Martin's house at last and meets a nice young lady in the garden. They flirt, and hit it off. When Charley greets the older lady she accepts him as her son, hugs him and says she knew he would come back some day—and fight the charges against him! Only now does our hero begin to feel queasy about his impersonation. Worse still, he learns that the young lady he just met is "his" sister, but she hasn't seen her brother in such a long time she didn't recognize him. They're both dismayed, of course.

Most of the rest of the film takes place at the village box social, which is something like an indoor carnival. Bud's family enters a pie in the bakery competition, plus there is live entertainment, dancing, a merry-go-round, etc. At the party Charley is promptly mistaken for Bud by one of Bud's old cronies, a low-life floozy (Polly Moran) who insists on pulling him onto the dance floor. Chase was a terrific dancer, and in many of his films a comic dance is the high point; this tussle with Moran is one of the best, as Charley struggles to dance despite his gimp leg. Soon afterward, just before he's called upon to sing, he accidentally swallows alum.

I need to pause for a quick sidebar about alum. I've never purchased it, or had it on hand in any household where I've lived, and yet, thanks to its constant use in the old cartoons and short comedies I grew up seeing on TV, I feel like this mystery substance (a "colorless astringent compound that is a hydrated double sulfate of aluminum and potassium, used in solution medicinally and in dyeing and tanning" according to the dictionary) which seems to make people pucker uncontrollably, is as familiar as an old friend, one who always makes me laugh. And if there were to be a trophy awarded for Best Use of Alum for Comic Purposes, this comedy would definitely be in the running for top honors.

Anyhow, Charley must sing after he's swallowed the stuff, and this results in a priceless routine as he struggles to get the words out while helplessly puckered. But the hoax cannot last, of course. Inevitably, the real Bud Martin arrives in town, and finds his way to the box social. The expected confusions ensue. Charley and Bud encounter each other briefly, in a nicely handled split-screen effect. All is revealed, and the mix-ups are straightened out just in time for the fade-out. Happily, Charley and Bud's sister are now free to canoodle, and no longer have to worry about breaking any taboos.

Are Brunettes Safe? is a terrific comedy. My only quibble is that, after that great dance sequence and the business with the alum, the last few minutes of the short feel a bit rushed. This is one occasion when it might have behooved Mr. Chase to go for a longer running time. But why quibble? Plot concerns are secondary. I'm just glad this short has survived, and can still be enjoyed today. Leave them laughing, after all.

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