The Jazz Singer at 90, Part IV (Jewish subjects on film before 1927)

4

Cohen’s Advertising Scheme (1904)

The Jazz Singer marked the first time many American Gentiles were exposed to Judaism. Sure, it promotes assimilation over religiosity, and the characters are a bit stereotypical, but by 1927 standards, this was a huge step forward.

Many prior Jewish characters typified all the worst, ugliest, most anti-Semitic stereotypes. Legendary director Edwin S. Porter’s Cohen series was a prime example of the “scheming merchant” stereotype.

Cohen’s Fire Sale (1907)

In Cohen’s Advertising Scheme, a grotesquely stereotyped shopkeeper tricks a passerby into buying a coat on which he’s hung a large sign advertising the store.

In Cohen’s Fire Sale (1907), Cohen is once again grotesquely made up like an ugly anti-Semitic stereotype. When a shipment of hats is accidentally picked up by rubbish collectors, Cohen chases their wagon through the streets of New York in hot pursuit.

After the hats fail to sell, Cohen reviews his insurance policy, sets a fire, and holds a fire sale. The film ends as Cohen reads the insurance policy and gives his wife a ring.

In Cohen Saves the Flag (1913), directed by the legendary Mack Sennett, popular comedian Ford Sterling plays Union Sgt. Cohen. He and Lt. Goldberg are bitter rivals for Rebecca (Mabel Normand). Yet again, Cohen is made up as a grotesque, ugly, anti-Semitic stereotype.

However, Cohen turns the tide of battle when he throws back an enemy grenade and raises a fallen flag. The film also contains impressive battle scenes, and a positive portrayal of a Jewish woman.

Goldberg tries to get Cohen shot by firing squad, but Rebecca rides to the rescue and conveys the truth about his battlefield heroics. Cohen is now hailed as as hero, and gets revenge on Goldberg.

Another early depiction of Jewish life was D.W. Griffith’s A Child of the Ghetto (1910), set on the Lower East Side’s Rivington Street. After Ruth’s mother dies, she supports herself as a seamstress. Then the son of the factory owner steals some money, and she’s accused of the crime.

Ruth flees the city and hides in the countryside, where a young farmer takes her in, and they fall in love. At the time, few other films dealing with Jewish subjects suggested moving from the city to the country might improve people’s lives and offer a better future.

Griffith’s Romance of a Jewess (1908) is also set on the Lower East Side. Professional actors commingle with real street vendors and locals. Again, the protagonist is named Ruth, and played by Florence Lawrence, “The Biograph Girl.” She was also known as the first American moviestar, and was very popular before people even knew her name.

The story involves not only romance, but the conflicts between different generations, representing the Old and New World.

Old Isaacs, the Pawnbroker (1908) was one of Griffith’s very first films. Though it does contain more stereotypically-made up characters, it features a pawnbroker as a humanitarian hero. A little girl goes to the Amalgamated Association of Charities to get help for her sick mother, but all the red tape makes it impossible.

She then goes to a pawnbroker to beg for help. First she offers shoes, which his assistant rejects. When she returns with her doll, the manager’s heart melts, and he stops the goons trying to evict the family. He also pays their rent, gives them food and medicine, and buys the girl a new doll.

Hungry Hearts (1922) is based on Anzia Yezierska’s stories about Lower East Side Jewish women’s lives. She was the first writer who brought such stories to a mainstream audience.

This film tells the story of the immigrant Levins. Janitor Sara falls in love with landlord Rosenblatt’s nephew David, who teaches her to write and read. David dreams of opening his own law office and getting out of his uncle’s clutches, but his uncle breaks them up and raises the Levins’ rent.

Mrs. Levin goes crazy from the stress, and damages the walls. When Rosenblatt takes them to court, David defends them. He and Sara reunite, and the Levins move to suburbia.

From Germany came a Golem trilogy, of which only the last installment, The Golem, is known to survive in full. These films are devoid of stereotypes like hook noses, money-grubbing, and nefarious scheming.

The Jazz Singer is no Left Luggage or Ushpizin, but it was a positive step forwards. Progress never comes overnight, all at once. It has to start somewhere.

Classic silent and early sound comedians, Part V

2

This installment spotlights comedians including W.C. Fields, Max Linder, and Lloyd Hamilton. Since writing this in 2005, I was able to see some of Harry Langdon’s films, and quickly came to the conclusion that the people who have claimed him as the “forgotten” or fourth great silent clown are mistaken, if genuine in their intentions. He actually kind of creeps me out. He was rather popular for a rather short time. I’m far from the only one who feels there’s a bit of historical revisionism going on when certain people try to claim him as some undersung silent comedy genius.

***

12. Mabel Normand was the silent queen, débuting in 1910 and quickly becoming the favourite of the legendary producer Mack Sennett; she was one of his famed Bathing Beauties. She also appeared in a few of Chaplin’s early shorts, though her most prolific teaming was with Roscoe Arbuckle, frequently playing his wife, girlfriend, or love interest.

She was so great that Sennett (whom she was mutually in love with, despite how they never married) established the Mabel Normand Feature Film Company, at which she worked very hard and successfully, rarely ever using a stunt double to do the more hazardous things associated with slapstick. Unfortunately, in the early Twenties she was linked with the events on the night of the bizarre unsolved murder of director William Desmond Taylor (even though Mabel had nothing to do with the murder), and coupled with her bad spending habits and out of control personal life, she fell from grace, making her final film in 1927. In 1930 she died of TB-induced pneumonia.

13. W.C. Fields had been in show business for some time before he finally made a name for himself in the early Thirties. His silent pictures are said to be hit and miss; he didn’t really come into his own until you could hear his voice, which matched his personality and appearance perfectly. However, some of his better silent films, such as It’s the Old Army Game, which he did with his friend Louise Brooks, were later remade into sound films.

His screen persona was that of a curmudgeon, and he was very delightfully curmudgeonly, too funny, entertaining, and interesting to dislike, even though he drinks like a damn fish and is frequently rude and mean to children and animals (though supposedly in real life he liked kids). Another integral aspect of his screen character was his big bulbous red nose; he also wore an array of funny hats.

He started out in vaudeville, primarily as a juggler, which was how he came into contact with Louise Brooks, who was dancing for the Ziegfeld Follies during the time he was juggling for them. He was a very good juggler, though he had to wear gloves to protect his hands because of a skin condition. Louise remembered that he was very modest, chaste, shy, and polite, and one of her few real friends when she was dancing there; it seems surprising such a personality would become such close friends with a woman who was famously very very sexual.

He was also the second choice for the title role of the 1939 version of The Wizard of Oz (there had been an earlier version in 1910, starring a very young Bebe Daniels as Dorothy). He might not have been as young, handsome, or physically daring as some of the other comedians of the era, but he was funny, put on a great show, was very entertaining, and had that natural presence and personality. When you’ve got that, you don’t need looks or youth to carry you through. It will ooze right off the screen before you even say a word, and like Stan Laurel once said, a truly great comedian will get laughs even if he’s just sitting and reading the phonebook.

14. Harry Langdon is yet another man-child comedian, a whey-faced baby-faced clown who was quite popular for a time in the Twenties, so much so [some] people consider him the fourth great silent clown (as though rankings mean much of anything; all these guys were great, whether they’re “officially” placed as #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #15, #35, or #100!). Not all people dig his man-child character, and certainly he made some foolish decisions that cut his career shorter than it might’ve otherwise been (such as firing Frank Capra after their falling-out during the making of Long Pants), decisions that also produced weaker material than usual (what else do you expect when you’re directing yourself and thus have no one around you to tell you you’re making bad choices about material?).

From Long Pants in 1927 on out, most of his films were financially disastrous, and though most of his acting was done in talking pictures, those films are generally not considered as good as the stuff he was doing in the silent era. He’s like a good number of other comedians on the list; either you like him and find his brand of humour appealing or you don’t. Thankfully, some of his films have come out onto DVD now, with hopefully more to follow in future, so you can judge for yourself if you think he deserves to be called the fourth great silent clown or if you personally just don’t find his humour appealing.

15. Larry Semon, like Charley Chase, may just be one of the funniest actors you’ve never seen or heard about. Nowadays he’s best-remembered for directing The Wizard of Oz in 1925 (the 1939 version was not the first or only one); he also appeared in the picture as the Scarecrow (and believe it or not, Oliver Hardy played the Tin Man). Sadly, he died at only 39 mere years of age in 1928.

In the early Twenties he even was giving Chaplin a run for his money as the greatest, most popular screen clown. Unfortunately, most of his surviving films are his later ones, which aren’t his best, so it’s really hard to acccurately judge him, even though other more representative surviving films plus his reputation attest to a truly great clown and wonderful entertainer.

People issue proclamations about how he was unfunny, egotistical, and too crude a physical comedian based on only seeing a handful of very unrepresentative films; the old trick of judging a person or thing by something either unrepresentative or shown out of context on purpose to make it seem ridiculous. It’s like how only a handful of Theda Bara’s films survive; how can you determine if she’s really worthy of all the great things that’ve been said about her if you’ve only got below-par outings with which to judge her?

16. Max Linder, a dapper Frenchman in a top hat, was a cinematic pioneer, making his first film in 1905. It’s been said that his top-hat screen persona was the first recognisable screen figure, paving the way for comics like Harold Lloyd, Stan and Ollie, and Charlie Chaplin.

Probably his best-known film is 1921’s Seven Years Bad Luck, which was recently shown on TCM as part of their April Fools celebration, on the day they showed nothing but films by Charley Chase, Roscoe Arbuckle, and Harold Lloyd. Seven Years Bad Luck is a great, triumphant film for many reasons, one of his very best, surviving or lost; it also contains the original mirror routine which was later done in 1933’s Duck Soup (not to be confused with the 1927 Laurel and Hardy short also called Duck Soup and later remade in the sound era as Another Fine Mess).

This film is available on the only DVD collection of Max’s work issued to date, along with four shorts and an excerpt from Be My Wife. Sadly, only about a fifth of his 500 films are known to survive, and not all in the greatest of conditions; even sadder still is how this great actor and comedic legend exited that incarnation, by suicide at the age of 42, right after killing his wife. No one has yet found a motive for this sad, shocking turn of events.

17. Lloyd Hamilton was never one of the major clowns in his day, but he wasn’t such a minor comedian as to be considered obscure either. Incidentally, some of his films featured Virginia Rappé, who was also just a minor star who probably would be remembered about as well as, if not less so, than Lloyd Hamilton is today had it not been for the scandal that occurred after her untimely death.

He started working in films in 1914 and starred in a number of comedy serials—the Mermaid comedies, the Sunshine comedies, and as Ham in the Ham and Bud series. During work upon one of the lattermost comedies, he suffered a compound fracture in his left leg, which had him unable to work for months following. Supposedly the comedic walk he used in his later comedies was inspired by this injury. (Curly Howard also had an injury that inspired the funny walk he did to hide his limp; he accidentally shot himself in the foot but was so terrified of surgery he never had it worked on; his big brother Moe was the one who found him after this accident.) In 1931 he was hit by a car and hurt his left leg all over again; two months later, upon his release from hospital, he was showing a friend how well he could walk sans crutches, fell, and broke his right leg.

This rather obscure comedian is also mentioned near the end of chapter 14 of Cheaper by the Dozen, talking about the film shot of their family eating dinner at way past normal speed to make it look like they raced to the table, ate dinner, passed plates, and ran away from the table in about 45 seconds, with laundry, esp. diapers, prominently in the background: “We saw the newsreel at the Dreamland Theater in Nantucket, and it got much louder laughs than the comedy, which featured a fat actor named Lloyd Hamilton.”