Monday, October 06, 2008

His Nibs

[the film was never released in Finland]. US 1921. PC: Exceptional Pictures. D: Gregory La Cava, [Al Christie, D of the unreleased The Smart Aleck, incorporated in the film, inspired by a story by Irvin S. Cobb]; SC+ED: Arthur Hoerl; DP: William Tuers, A.J. Stout; CAST: Charles “Chic” Sale (Theo Bender, Wally Craw, Mr. Percifer, Elmer Bender, Peelee Gear, Jr., Miss Dessi Teed); cast of “He Fooled ’Em All”: Charles “Chic” Sale (The Boy), Colleen Moore (The Girl), Joseph Dowling (The Girl’s Father), J.P. Lockney (Old Sour Apples), Walt Whitman (The Boy’s Father), Lydia Yeamans Titus (The Boy’s Mother), Harry Edwards (first villain); orig. 5154 ft; source: UCLA: 4200 ft /20 fps/ 56 min, original in English, e-subtitles in Italian, grand piano: Gabriel Thibaudeau. Viewed at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone, Cinema Verdi, 5 October 2008.

The beginning of the print from a highly damaged source, almost like an abstract painting, freeze frames used in the restoration.

Richard Koszarski: "In 1955 William K. Everson wrote an article called “Movies Out of Thin Air” (...) perhaps the most curious example of such creative reconstruction was His Nibs, the first screen appearance of the American vaudevillian Charles “Chic” Sale.

In December 1919, Sale signed a multi-picture contract with Robertson-Cole for a series of feature films in which he would appear as the comical “rube” character he had created in his vaudeville act. Exceptional Pictures was created to produce the films, the first of which, The Smart Aleck, was to be made in Los Angeles (...) based on an Irvin S. Cobb story of the same name which had appeared in The Saturday Evening Post in 1914. Cobb was a prolific author of regionalist humor whose stories were filled with loveably eccentric characters and carefully rendered depictions of American small-town life (...). Cobb is best remembered today for his association with John Ford (...) Bringing Cobb together with “Chic” Sale would seem to have been a logical idea, and it was announced at the time that Cobb had personally chosen Sale for the part.

“The Smart Aleck” is the story of Gashney Tuttle, a hick from the small town of Swango, who is celebrated for what the locals consider his rapier wit. But when Tuttle visits a larger neighboring city to take in its “Great White Way” he is quickly swindled out of his bankroll and run out of town. Penniless, he returns to Swango in a freight car, where he is happy to find himself reinstated as the unchallenged village wit.

Production began at the Christie Studio on 1 March 1920, under the direction of Al Christie. The film was not a Christie production, but was made under contract by Christie for Exceptional Pictures. Christie also supplied some of its own contract talent, notably Colleen Moore, who played the love interest required by Hollywood convention (there is not a single female character in the original story). Other than general atmosphere and the notion of the country hero being swindled in the big city, the film appears to have taken very little from Cobb’s story. Press accounts promoting The Smart Aleck appeared throughout the spring, but suddenly stopped in June of 1920.

This is where the story gets interesting, and where a conventional Hollywood hick comedy turns into an ironic East Coast parody of Hollywood conventions.

I have been unable to discover why The Smart Aleck was never released, or why Arthur Hoerl and Gregory La Cava revamped Al Christie’s footage, turning it into a very different film called His Nibs. Between 1916 and 1920 Gregory La Cava had directed dozens of animated cartoons for William Randolph Hearst’s studio in New York. (...) In the summer of 1921 La Cava directed new scenes for the old Chic Sale picture (...), in which Sale appears in a framing story, playing the proprietor of the rustic Slippery Elm Picture Palace – and everyone else in town. His current attraction, a pot-boiler called He Fooled ’Em All, is all that is left of The Smart Aleck. As the projectionist, Sale provides a running commentary on his own film, a comic approach which suggests Pirandello more than Sennett or Roach. His Nibs is not only one of the first films to parody both exhibition practice and Hollywood narrative convention, but does so by dissecting an actual example of the genre. While there are many conventional satires of the movie business, (...), His Nibs is more interested in the medium’s formal elements, a far more unusual approach.

While a little research now makes it apparent that the framing story is a response to the film-within-a film, this relationship was missed by the film’s original critics (and its few recent commentators), all of whom believed that His Nibs was simply a clever, if conventional, rural comedy directed in one go by Gregory La Cava.

The writer Arthur Hoerl, who seems to have been responsible for this peculiar strategy, had a long association with low-budget cinema on both coasts. (...)" – Richard Koszarski.

A really special and original metafilm, satirizing and parodying cinema projection, live music, intermission programs, other aspects of cinema exhibition, local censorship, cinema storytelling, and local newsreels. - Charles "Chic" Sale is amazing in his seven roles. - One of the most surprising discoveries of the Festival.

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