|Abbie Mitchell the Colored Prima Donna in Songs of Yesterday. Photo: Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation, Culpeper, VA|
Viewed at Teatro Verdi, with e-subtitles in English and Italian, grand piano: Donald Sosin, 5 Oct 2015
BERT WILLIAMS AND COMPANY
Ron Magliozzi: Bert Williams and Company: The Roots of Black Performance on Film
Ron Magliozzi (GCM catalog and website): "At the time of his death, Bert Williams (1874-1922) had a record of achievement that still defines superstardom as we know it today. An internationally famed musical theater performer, a composer and partner in a black music publishing business, a major recording artist for Columbia Records, a merchandised celebrity and member of black society who lent his name to social causes and cultural organizations, and a leading man in motion pictures. As a black man in America at the time, only educator Booker T. Washington and boxer Jack Johnson rivaled his fame. Working with George Walker (1873-1911), his performance partner and visionary business manager, the team of “Williams and Walker” pioneered mixed-race vaudeville, created a worldwide fad for African-American dance, introduced fully staged black musicals to Broadway, and performed before British royalty, with a number of the actors Williams would later bring with him to the screen. In 1910 Williams broke the color barrier on stage in New York when he joined the all-white cast of the Ziegfeld Follies; co-star W. C. Fields would later famously describe him as “the funniest man I ever saw, and the saddest man I ever knew.” Williams’ eccentric costuming and unique persona set him apart, like Charles Chaplin’s Tramp, a comparison that was apparent to their contemporaries and landed them side by side in the premiere issue of an avant-garde arts magazine, The Soil, in 1916. Although Williams’ brief film career was ending in 1914, just as Chaplin’s was beginning, their similarities – stage experience, mastery of pantomime, signature fashion and mannerisms, and intellectual approach to their craft – are genuine."
"Jazz critic Gary Giddens’ description of Williams as “the patron saint of African-American performers,” aptly suggests that to understand the significance of Williams’ films we need to know the entertainment community that nurtured him and the social history that shaped his generation. Soon after the Emancipation Proclamation (1863) freed the slaves in the United States, the first group of African-Americans formally entered show business, at first taking up white-invented forms of minstrelsy, but soon producing the numerous troupes, choral groups, and concert bands that toured the world from Europe to Asia and Australia before 1900. While the process of creating their own brands of cultural product in the fields of music and dance rapidly changed popular entertainment around the world, it did so in a climate of brutal segregation."
"Just as Williams and Walker began their careers together in 1896, the situation worsened when America’s so-called “Jim Crow” laws declared that discriminatory “separate but equal” practices were constitutional. The cruel irony of white performers co-opting African-American ragtime music and dance moves so freely under these conditions was cause for comment in the black press in 1908: “the Caucasian performer really steals one-half of his work from Williams and Walker, Cole and Johnson ... Abbie Mitchell and others of the like almost constantly.”U.S. census figures for 1910 reported that 6,987 African-Americans were working in show business. In New York City, this tight-knit stage community, based largely in the mid-town Tenderloin and uptown Harlem entertainment districts, was well aware that there were civil-rights dimensions to their work: the freedom to perform where they wished and advance a more authentic image of their race would be notions they brought to filmmaking. "
"Meanwhile, blackface and dialect humor were racial stereotypes they accommodated to attract white audiences. To be profitable, their performances required the support of the white middle-class who had the money and white producers who controlled the major theater chains. The success they achieved amusing white and black audiences simultaneously, from different perspectives, was a form of “double-consciousness” – a term coined by respected writer W. E. B. Du Bois to describe the black experience of seeing one’s self through the eyes of others, as if, in his words, with “two souls ... two warring ideals.”"
"In fact, Bert Williams was a light-skinned Caribbean-American, born in the West Indies of mixed-race parents. The blackface he and other black comedians put on served to define their comic personas, although by 1910 the stereotypical African-American character that Williams had perfected with Walker in 1900 was criticized by some commentators. When the opportunity to star in films came to Williams in the fall of 1913, he left the Ziegfeld Follies for a season and brought with him to Biograph the very performers he had been accused of abandoning for the white stage several years before. On screen in Lime Kiln Club Field Day, centered between the clownish antics and matinee-idol manhood of his male co-stars, illuminated by the glow of affection from his female lead, one might argue his blackface is effectively redeemed."
"Acquired in 1938 by the Museum of Modern Art’s founding film curator Iris Barry, and preserved by archivist Eileen Bower in the late 1970s, it wasn’t until 2003 that the process of identifying the “Lime Kiln” footage began. First, by establishing that it was not the apocryphal Darktown Jubilee which Terry Ramsaye credits to Williams in his film history A Million and One Nights (1926); and second, by confirming that it was among a package of films commissioned by New York stage producers Klaw & Erlanger under a 1912 agreement with Biograph. The restoration of Bert Williams’ three Biograph films from their original camera negatives provides us with more intimate access to the artist. Whatever indulgence these films may require from audiences today, the recovery of Lime Kiln Club Field Day alone should be an incentive to reconsider the many other black subjects produced before The Birth of a Nation (1915)." – Ron Magliozzi
(All notes by Ron Magliozzi)
ACTORS’ FUND FIELD DAY AT THE POLO GROUNDS, NEW YORK CITY, AUGUST 18, 1910 (Vitagraph Co. of America – US 1910) D: ?; C: Bert Williams (Jack Johnson), Billie Reeves (James J. Jeffries), Annie Oakley (herself), George Bickel (clown with mallet and trumpet), Harry Watson, Jr. (clown hit with mallet), George Beban (Napoleon), members of the Catholic Protectory Band + the baseball team of the Friars Club + George Evans Minstrels + Borneo Dyaks (from Coney Island) + White Rats (“Table Tumblers”); 35 mm, 341 ft, 5' (18 fps); titles: ENG; print source: Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation, Culpeper, VA.
"Shot on the most famous playing field of its time in the United States, bordering Harlem and Washington Heights in upper Manhattan, this record of an annual sporting benefit for the Actors’ Fund of America features members of the Broadway companies of producers George M. Cohan, Lew Fields, and Florenz Ziegfeld, as well as the theatre organizations the Friars Club and the White Rats.
From the stage cast of the Ziegfeld Follies of 1910, Williams and Reeves perform a bit from their parody of the World Heavyweight Championship fight that had taken place on 4 July 1910. The victory of Black boxer Jack Johnson over James J. Jeffries in this contest had been the cause of deadly racial violence across America, which may explain why, in this topical satire, it is Williams who accepts the knockout blow. More than half of the acts in the film feature blacks and blackface performers, and three of the racially-themed attractions – the greased-pig chase, the pie-eating contest, and the “shoe scramble” – would be replicated in Lime Kiln Club Field Day."
"A reporter covering the event for the New York Times complained that “the motion picture machine and newspaper photographers obscured the view” for many of the estimated 13,000 spectators in attendance."
"Although stage stars Marie Dressler, Victor Moore, Emma Carus, George M. Cohan, Irene Franklin, Eddie Foy, and the boxer James J. Corbett have been credited with appearing in the film, they cannot be identified in the surviving footage. The film was released on a split reel with the drama Brother Man, starring “Vitagraph Girl” Florence Turner."
AA: In long shot and long take, a record of a big parade, Annie Oakley, a foolish band, wild men of Borneo, song and dance, a parody of black vs. white boxing (with Bert Williams), pie eaters, shoe scramble, a table wrestler.
A FOOL AND HIS MONEY (Solax Co. – US 1912) D, P: Alice Guy-Blaché; C: James Russell (Sam Jones); 35 mm, 767 ft, 11' (18 fps); titles: ENG; print source: Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation, Culpeper, VA.
"Self-described “cakewalk king” and vaudeville entertainer James Russell is given no opportunity to dance as the ill-fated fool in this cautionary comedy. A studio plot synopsis in Moving Picture World (11 October 1912) gives details that are not spelled out in the surviving print: “Sam Jones is a laborer – a wielder of the white-wash brush. He is in love with Lindy Williams. Having saved up quite a little money, Sam buys some swell second-hand clothes and goes to Lindy’s home. Lindy’s people are quite prosperous, her father having retired from his job as ‘Public Porter,’ Lindy is a coquettish ebony beauty and trifles with Sam’s affections. She plays Sam against Bill Johnson and finally, in despair Sam retires from the field. Walking along the road beaten and despondent, Sam finds a lot of money. Now, he vows, he will show them! He buys full dress clothes and other swell duds, an automobile and jewelry. Like a peacock he begins parading himself before Lindy and his rival, and, as can be expected, Lindy transfers her affections to him.” Believed to be the earliest surviving film with an all-black cast, it takes its title from the axiom “A fool and his money are soon parted,” and it has been said that the film would play just as effectively with a white cast."
"Although the notion that “class over race” may be read as a reflection of Blaché’s white, European point of view, in the history of race cinema it is perhaps more important to acknowledge that class consciousness was a relevant theme in the lives of African-Americans in Jim Crow America. The mass migration of uneducated, working-class Southern blacks threatened the hard-won social position of middle-class blacks in northern cities like New York and Chicago."
"Moreover, the conspicuous consumption demonstrated by the f ilm’s nouveau riche main character, which the film spends significant time satirizing, might be seen as a commentary on the phenomenon of successful black sports figures and entertainers like Williams and Walker showing off publicly in fine clothes and jewelry, a practice which was much remarked upon at the time, and which writer David Gilbert has described in The Product of Our Souls (University of North Carolina Press, 2015) as “a self-conscious expression of Black modernity.”"
"Shot in New Jersey under the title Darktown Aristocrats, a little over a year before Williams went before the motion picture cameras in New York, A Fool and His Money shares a number of key plot elements with A Natural Born Gambler and Lime Kiln Club Field Day: corrupt card games, disrupted fancy-dress dance parties, and male protagonists whose unearned money wins them the favor of the women they desire before they’re undone and shamed. These were among the limited range of situations, recycled in countless stage routines, race songs, and recordings, which served to define black life for largely white audiences at the time. The challenge for black entertainers, when they were allowed to do so, was to invest such material with authenticity."
AA: A heavy-handed satire on the nouveau riche with a seemingly all black cast. A world of callous utilitarianism where the women are only in it for the money. Visual quality good or high contrast.
FISH (Biograph Co., for Klaw & Erlanger; dist: General Film Company – US 1916) D: ?; SC: C: Bert Williams; 35 mm, 763 ft, 10' (20 fps); titles: ENG; print source: The Museum of Modern Art, New York (preserved with support from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Lillian Gish Trust for Film Preservation).
"On the eve of releasing A Natural Born Gambler in the summer of 1916, Biograph issued a number of misleading press releases claiming to have signed Bert Williams for a new series of two-reel comedies. In truth, both Fish and A Natural Born Gambler had been produced several years before, in 1913-14 under the studio’s original agreement with Klaw & Erlanger. Coming less than a month after the star rejoined the cast of the Ziegfeld Follies in June 1916, the studio made its reasoning clear in an item in Moving Picture World (29 July 1916): “There isn’t a more clever or popular comedian on the stage than Bert Williams and the fact that he has been chosen again as the star comedian with Ziegfeld Follies and is turning the people away at two-dollar prices in New York despite the hot weather bespeaks his drawing power.”"
"On the vaudeville stage, Williams’ signature monologues, consisting of storytelling and pantomime, were so popular that a number of them were recorded by the Columbia Phonograph Co. (e.g., “Elder Eatmore’s Sermon on Throwing Stones”)."
"Fish was based on a Williams skit describing the efforts of an eager young man to sell the fish he has caught to a disinterested homeowner, ending with the punchline “And none on Sunday.”
This single-reel short is markedly different in pacing and sensibility from the Lime Kiln subjects, and Biograph production logs suggest that it may have been shot in the summer of 1914 by the comedy unit headed by director Dell Henderson. In the real-world setting of locations in Van Cortlandt Park and the hilly environs of the Bronx, Williams’ screen performance loses the verbal irony that marked his studied interpretations of racially stereotyped characters on stage. In the company of white actors performing in blackface, the slow-witted character he plays, at the beck and call of a white landowner for the sake of a joke, falls solidly within the tradition of old-fashioned minstrel comedy. Furthermore, despite the fact that older actors were regularly cast in younger parts during the silent period, for Williams at 42 years of age to be playing a boy so manly in size and gait has decidedly racist dimensions. Viewed from a present-day perspective, Williams’ tattered image and subjugation in Fish calls to mind the revisionist narrative of Steve McQueen’s feature 12 Years a Slave (2014)."
AA: A crude farce, a heartless comedy with Williams as the sole real black talent. Visual quality: good.
ABBIE MITCHELL THE COLORED PRIMA DONNA IN SONGS OF YESTERDAY (De Forest Phonofilm, Inc. – US 1922) (excerpt) D., prod: Lee de Forest; C: Abbie Mitchell; première: 12.4.1923, Engineering Society Building Auditorium, New York; song: “Mighty Lak’ a Rose” (1901), M: Ethelbert Nevin, lyr. Frank Lebby Stanton; 35 mm, 1223 ft, 13' (24 fps), sd. (Phonofilm); dial: ENG; print source: Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation, Culpeper, VA.
"Abbie Mitchell (1884-1960) was a major figure in the pioneering generation of black musical performers who challenged the white-controlled Broadway theatre establishment, from Clorindy, or the Origin of the Cakewalk in 1898 when she was 14 years old through Darkydom in 1914. During this period she appeared in work by Williams and Walker, Cole and Johnson, and her husband, composer Will Marion Cook, and later went on to star in the premiere production of George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess (1935) and pla y with Tallulah Bankhead in the original stage production of The Little Foxes (1939). On screen in Lime Kiln Club Field Day (1913) and the lost short Uncle Remus’ First Visit to N ew Yor k (1914), by black film producer Hunter C. Haynes, Mitchell was among the earliest female performers in the first wave of all-black cast films produced in the U.S. In this experimental sound short, she performs an African-American dialect song in the stereotyped character of a plantation mammy to a newborn child."
AA: I confess that this film left no memory trace, my attention was not sharp.
UNCLE TOM’S CABIN (World Producing Corp.; dist: World Film Corp. – US 1914) Sam Lucas (Uncle Tom) - see separate blog note after this.