The folks at Undercrank Productions are back again, ready to remind us that they’re among the most dogged and tireless preservers and distributors of weird, under-acknowledged, and misunderstood films from the silent era. This time they have two new DVD releases of oddities and wonders from the first quarter of the twentieth century.
The first is Volume Two of their Found at “Mostly Lost” series, a collection of short, uncirculated films identified, either partially or fully, at the annual Mostly Lost film workshop held at the Library of Congress’ National Audio-Visual Conservation Center in Culpeper, Virginia. Every year, attendees gather to watch unknown films from vaults and archives all over the world that have baffled archivists and historians, literally shouting out during the screenings to identify actors, locations, or even antique props. The ten films featured here were all identified during the 2015-2017 Mostly Lost conferences, a true grab-bag of genres and experiences. Many are boiler plate silent comedies such as Derby Day (1922), a vehicle for Italian slapstick comedian Monty Banks to do his best Charlie Chaplin impression as a well-dressed tramp who gets into a series of increasingly absurd misadventures, beginning with a manic chase scene where he pursues a dump truck containing a full lunchbox and climaxing with him running a madcap race as a horse jockey. The best, however, is the superb Noodle Nut (1921), where Billy Bletcher—the man who in the 1930s would begin a famous career as a member of Walt Disney’s stable of voice actors—plays a hapless noodle salesman who repeatedly tries and fails to transport a delivery of five-foot noodles across town to a client appropriately named Mack A. Roni. The slapstick, particularly his antics with a short-tempered, chubby rival, are ripped straight from a Laurel and Hardy short, especially the ones that saw them stuck with Sisyphean tasks like moving a player piano up an impossibly tall flight of stairs.
There are hits and misses among the other films and even a few curios: an untitled short capturing the quick-change act of turn-of-the-century vaudevillian Adolph Zink; James Young Deer’s surprisingly progressive The Falling Arrow (1909) which beats D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms to the onscreen interracial romance punch by almost a decade. But the two best films in the collection are the ones that reject the confines of genre almost entirely for the sake of pure, uncut imagination. The clumsily titled 1906 Vitagraph short And the Villain Still Pursued Her; or, the Author’s Dream predicts the European surrealist movement of the 1920s with its use of dream-logic plotting and fantastic imagery. The short sees an exhausted writer enter the world of one of his dreams where a beautiful damsel in distress is pursued by a dastardly villain. There are a number of inspired riffs on the special effects of Georges Méliès whose films would have been familiar to the director, if only through pirated copies circulated in the States: rag dolls are thrown down stairs which then jump cut to actors in a heap at the bottom; legs are stretched like taffy to twice the length of the actor’s body; the characters climb over a runaway hot air balloon which becomes a cut-out animation like the rocket-ship landing in A Trip to the Moon (1902).
The second is a rediscovered Bobby Bumps short named Fresh Fish (1922), part of the series of animated shorts made by Earl Hurd that were among the first films to use cel animation. A delightful mixture of live action and animation, the film-within-a-film sees a real-life child directing his animated doppelgänger on a fishing trip with his dog. There are no inter-titles, instead all the dialogue is provided via cartoon speech bubbles, even in the live-action bits that see artist and artwork bicker and squabble over the story. One magnificent scene where the animated boy and dog get trapped in a storm—in reality a bucket of magically churning water—is so impressive one could imagine Robert Zemeckis having trouble duplicating it for Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
As delightful as these films are, the overall release is a disappointing one, the packaging and menu work being woefully threadbare with no special features. I would have adored even a few introductory inter-titles before each film explaining how they were identified at the Mostly Lost festival: did somebody recognize an actor or location?; did somebody notice a studio logo located somewhere on a set background? Additionally, the only description of the festival is an unsatisfactory blurb on the back cover and a single DVD menu. A short describing the history of the festival, even a brief one only a few minutes long, would have transformed this release into an essential one for historical film buffs.
The second new release, The Alice Howell Collection, proves more satisfying. A collection of twelve surviving slapstick comedies starring Alice Howell—a former Vaudevillian who moved to California and worked her way up into one of the most popular silent comedy stars of her era—the release is a dazzling cross-section of one of early Hollywood’s overlooked pioneers. As one of the introductory inter-titles explain, she quickly developed an onscreen persona completely apposite from the Lillian Gish-style ingenues that populated so much of California’s early output: a “slightly addled working-class girl with a round Kewpie-doll face topped off with a mountain of frizzy hair piled high on her head.” Here was a woman with the bizarre physical mannerisms of Charlie Chaplin (with whom she’s reported as working with at least once), the can-do enthusiasm of Harold Lloyd, and the rag-doll athleticism of Buster Keaton.
Consider a scene in perhaps the best of all twelve shorts, John G. Blystone’s Neptune’s Naughty Daughter (1917). During a chase scene on horse-drawn carriage, Howell’s character contrives to find herself dangling from the side next to one of the giant wheels. She grabs onto the wheel’s spokes and lurches forward, planting her feet on the inside of the rim, leaving her body to be spun around and around like a sock in a washing machine before she’s finally pulled back up into the carriage in a single unbroken shot. If her timing had been off by a few milliseconds, her heads, hands, neck, or back could’ve been easily crushed under the wagon.
The rest of Neptune’s Naughty Daughter is also indicative of the stories Howell frequently starred in: a naive yet short-tempered go-getter who gets waylaid by romantic entanglements. The film itself sees Howell play a sexually curious young woman cloistered in a repressive, religious household who escapes and finds herself fighting off several potential suitors, climaxing in a stupendous set piece on a ship where she beats, bashes, punches, and kicks the crap out of men several times her size for a solid ten minutes. Compare this to the plot of Rube Miller’s Shot in the Excitement (1914), a short where an impoverished young woman blows off her father’s whitewashing business when wealthy suitors comes a-courting. Their squabbles over Howell escalate to include shotgun blasts to the ass to attempted artillery homicides with seemingly sentient Civil War-era cannonballs that chase after their targets like messenger pigeons.
Howell is frequently the butt of the jokes, but she’s rarely cheated of the last laugh. Many times these films end with her in married bliss, much like Richard Smith’s Under a Spell (1920)—a kind of proto-Office Space which sees her husband go on a banana-fueled rampage after the hypnotist who makes him think he’s a monkey gets knocked out—and Dick Smith’s A Convict’s Happy Bride (1920) which sees her reunited at the ending with her wrongfully-imprisoned husband. Other times she successfully climbs up the socioeconomic ladder as in Lehrman’s Under New Management (1915) where she works her way up from office stenographer to the boss of her husband’s company all while fighting off…*ahem*…unwanted male attention.
The main through line in these twelve films are Howell’s willingness to be the butt of the joke, a relative rarity in an industry which saw women primarily as objects to be threatened, rescued, and/or venerated. But crucially, no matter how scatterbrained she might be, she proves irresistible to the men around her. That’s the key to her persona: she’s a ditz, but she’s the ditz you know you want.