Fox Trot Finesse (1915)
“The Slapstick Encyclopedia” makes much of the more “refined” approach to comedy evinced by this movie, and its stars, Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew. The Drews eschewed slapstick in favor of situational comedy, much as John Bunny had before them. I haven’t found many surviving examples of their work, but here we have one to work from and consider, released in October of 1915, after many of Chaplin’s great but “vulgar” Essanay comedies of that year.
Here, Sidney plays Ferdie Crosby and Lucile (his second wife) plays Eva, Mrs. Crosby. Eva is young and sprightly, and in love with the Fox Trot, but Ferdie is middle aged and likes peace and quiet. His happiness is the more challenged by the fact that Eva’s mother (Ethel Lee, as “Mrs. U. Newitt”) is staying with them indefinitely. In order to get away from her, Ferdie gives in to his wife’s demands and dances the nights away, but he’s very tired and stiff the next day. Finally, mother-in-law leaves, called away because of a birth in the family. Now, Ferdie put his plan into action, and fakes an ankle injury. His wife is sympathetic, pampering him and giving him foot rubs, and he puts on a great show of being terribly disappointed at not being able to Fox Trot.
His wife, however, is no dummy. Although Ferdie makes a point of going about on horribly mis-sized crutches, she spots him tossing them aside on his way to work and skipping happily down the street. Now, he’s in for it! Eva writes to her mother, telling her that Ferdie is injured and needs another nurse, she can’t handle it all by herself. Ferdie panics, and tells his wife that it’s all been a joke, tearing up the letter to mother-in-law.
Maybe I’m setting him up here, but let’s have a look at what Sidney Drew said about his own work just 2 years later, in Moving Picture World: “Humorous action does not mean gross horse-play. It does not mean that the characters dash madly into scenes, trip over matches, and fall out of the scene again. In our own comedies, Mrs. Drew and myself work to appeal to the mind as well as the eye, but to appeal to the mind through the eye.” Quite a claim! But, does “Fox Trot Finesse” have much to offer the mind (or the eye through the mind)? I’d have to say not really. It’s a plot worthy of “The Flintstones,” not some highly refined observational humor. OK, no one gets hit with a brick, and people don’t “dash madly into scenes,” (although the constantly Fox-Trotting wife does add some physical comedy), but this is hardly sophisticated stuff: a husband tricks his wife and she uses the mother-in-law to get even.
I note that where the “Slapstick Encyclopedia” describes the Drews’ comedy, it uses the term “refined drawing-room style,” and this may be the real key. This is not a comedian who plays a tramp, or a bumpkin, or some other lowly member of society, this is a comedian who appears as a comfortably middle-class burgher, making fun of the mores of that class. He works in an office and they even have servants. And that’s what makes this “refined,” or at least not “vulgar,” the fact that it takes place in the “normal” world of the white middle class, and not on its fringes where Keystone and other studios focused. I was surprised by Drew’s look, actually he reminded me of D.W. Griffith in slightly later years. He was, as it happens, 27 years older than his wife in reality, so the focus on May-December romance as a source of dilemma and humor makes sense. Lucile and he worked together on the scripts, and at least by her account it was an equitable collaboration. Certainly, in this instance she comes off looking like the smart one, even if her obsession with Fox Trot is a bit bizarre.
Director: Sidney Drew
Cast: Sidney Drew, Lucille Drew, Ethel Lee
Run Time: 16 Min