Even if you've never seen a Billie Ritchie comedy, when you watch him in Almost a Scandal you may find that he looks vaguely familiar. He has a little square mustache under his nose and wears a derby, plus a tight jacket, checked vest and baggy pants; and he carries a bamboo cane that he swings wildly as he turns corners. Oh, and he also wears big shoes and totters about with a funny little waddling walk. Does this sound like any other silent movie comedian you might know?
Okay, obviously, to our eyes he comes off like a Chaplin impersonator. But to hear Ritchie tell it, Chaplin was imitating HIM. Billie put out a press release saying he'd been playing the 'Tramp' role for decades, yet the evidence does not entirely support his claim. Like many of his colleagues in comedy from the U.K., including Chaplin, Ritchie was a veteran of Fred Karno's stage troupe. Ritchie, who was older than Chaplin, joined the troupe several years ahead of him. More significantly, Ritchie toured the U.S. in the Karno sketch "Mumming Birds" playing the comic drunk, a role Chaplin later assumed. (Ritchie did not originate the role, but definitely played it before Chaplin did.) Where the tramp costume and persona are concerned, Ritchie's claims are more dubious. Stage clowns were known to wear baggy pants, many of them had "funny walks," and lots of them wore derbies. As for facial hair, Ritchie's mustache was quite bushy in his first film appearances, but was likely trimmed so that his expression would read better; and thus, it came to resemble Chaplin's already-familiar mustache.
Beyond these surface details, however, we're left with the performers themselves. Even if Ritchie originated everything Chaplin did in the movies, every gesture and every gag—which of course is extremely unlikely—the fact remains that Chaplin won the popularity contest. Billie Ritchie was one of many moderately well-known comedians in a comedy-rich era, and never came close to attracting a mass audience the way Chaplin did. If anything, based on his surviving films, Ritchie seems to have taken a perverse pleasure in playing the most unlikable character imaginable. Admittedly, in his earliest appearances at Keystone, Chaplin was often a rascal or even an outright villain, while other popular stars such as Ford Sterling frequently played rogues and scoundrels. Yet somehow, in those instances, the performances are so over-the-top you know it's all in fun. With Billie Ritchie you catch yourself wondering if the guy really was a mean-spirited S.O.B. (or I do, anyway). That may be unfair, he may have been a perfectly nice person behind the scenes, but we'll probably never know.
Almost a Scandal is one of Ritchie's earliest surviving films. It was made for L-KO, a Keystone offshoot studio run by Henry Lehrman, a Sennett protégé who had recently departed from his mentor's company, taking a number of comedians and crew members in the bargain. As it turned out, Lehrman's taste in comedy was very much like Sennett's. This short, which Lehrman directed, could easily pass for a product of the Keystone fun factory: it's full of extramarital flirtation, excessive drinking, and startling violence, all here in abundance. Yippie!
Henry Bergman and Louise Orth play a couple who seem far more interested in seducing other people than in being together. In the course of running an errand at the bank she flirts enthusiastically with two guys in turn, i.e. Billie and the cop on the beat. (The cop, by the way, sports the biggest pair of mutton-chop sideburns since Chester Alan Arthur.) As soon as the lady returns home, her husband, perhaps suspecting something, reminds her that he's armed with two pistols, which he displays. So, we figure there's probably trouble ahead. Henry goes to a nearby saloon where he meets Billie, and they compare notes on their romantic conquests; but of course, Henry has no idea that Billie is messing with his wife. Later, Billie and Louise have an assignation at the very same beer garden where Henry brings his own date, and, needless to say, after a few near misses the truth is revealed to all, and Henry takes after Billie to wreak vengeance.
It's all very Keystone-like, and amusing at times. Hank Mann has a brief bit as a drunken bum in the saloon, and performs an impressive backward roll when Billie strikes him. Mann also has a good follow-up gag, when he starts to hit Billie with a bottle, weighs it in his hand thoughtfully, reconsiders, and walks off with the bottle instead. The most starling gag comes during the climactic fight, when Billie and Henry engage in a sword fight. When Billie is about to make a thrust the camera cuts away to the shocked faces of spectators; seconds later, we see that Henry has been completely run through with a sword! But he is unfazed. Like a cartoon character he shows no ill effects, and immediately draws one of his pistols and starts shooting wildly.
As for Billie Ritchie, he comes off as an able comic performer here. He isn't as disagreeable as in some of his other appearances, but that doesn't mean he's a sweetheart, either; at one point during the beer garden sequence, he's so pleased with the way things are going, he pointlessly kicks a chair out from under a sleepy old man. That's jolly behavior by Ritchie standards. This film isn't the best or funniest of his surviving comedies, but it's typical of his work. If you're curious about this comedian, and want to see the guy who dubiously claimed that Chaplin was a Billie Ritchie imitator, Almost a Scandal is as good a place to start as any.
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