With race very much in the headlines at this moment, it seems like a good time to go back and look at a bit of of African American film history. This short comedy was released by the Ebony Film Company, a Chicago studio formed specifically to create black-cast films.
The movie begins by showing a white man walking out of a theater presenting vaudeville, accidentally dropping the tickets he has just purchased. Shortly thereafter, our stars (Jimmy Marshall and Frank Montgomery) find them lying on the sidewalk. They are overjoyed – they can go to the theater tonight! They rush off to invite a girl (Florence McClain) to join them. The white man walks back onto the screen, scowling and looking down at the ground. The trio walks back to Florence’s house and decides to meet there later, but they should dress up first for their night on the town. The two men look rather uncomfortable in their collars, but Florence does them proud.
They go to the theater, where a white doorman looks hesitant to admit them at first, but it turns out that they can go in, they just can’t bring a black dog that tried to sneak in with them. They take up a position in a box right near the front of the stage as a performer is singing. She ends as our heroes take up their position in the box, and is followed by a “Bending Girl” – more or less a contortionist, though all we see her do is a few cartwheels. The protagonists are fascinated, and also quite loud in their applause and boisterous in their occasional emulations of what they watch. Next up is a juggler, doing sort of a Chaplinesque drunk act, and they enjoy his antics even more. Unfortunately, the little dog now manages to run up to them, causing the juggler to drop all of his balls and the protagonists to burst into raucous laughter. One of our heroes, trying to emulate his dexterity with his some balls, drops one onto the stage and has to run after it, at the same time as his friend drops his hat over the side and they both wind up on stage. The men are escorted out of the theater, and the women joins them in front.
Not to be discouraged so easily, they now decide to put on their own vaudeville show, a “real show.” This show has an all-black audience, and is set up in a large hall with folding chairs. The two “knights” are the stars, although they warm up the audience with a singer, who the audience does not appreciate. When one audience member throws an apple core, it knocks “her” wig off, and we see that it is a balding man in a dress. The big act, though, is the “Wurs & Wurst” acrobats. They attempt various tumbles, getting a somewhat mixed reaction from the audience. A prankster in the audience now starts throwing flour, and some of the ladies leave. The acrobats bring out a barrel for their next trick, but when one drops it on the other, he hurls it into the audience and precipitates complete pandemonium. The final shot shows the two knights in the wreckage of barrels and benches.
When I chose to watch this, I was under the impression that “Ebony Films” was a black-owned studio, and that we’d be getting a chance to see a slice of African American history and humor, but that is sadly not the case. Ebony Films did make movies with all-black casts, intended to be screened before black audiences, but it was white-owned this film was bought from another white-owned company, and accordingly much of the humor we see here meets the expectations and stereotypes typical in other comedy of the time, including eye-rolling, eye-popping, and intertitles and signs with “funny” bad English. Still, because it was intended for African American audiences, it does avoid some of the worst offenses, and a few observations on race and inequality seem to sneak in, perhaps added by the cast themselves, or perhaps simply more obvious to a modern viewer. For example, the moment where it appears that the knights and their girl will not be admitted to the theater must have felt familiar to their black audiences, and the fact that it is the little black dog that is turned away, can be seen as a comment on how African Americans were treated like dogs in white society. In general, the way the protagonists behave shows that they are in an unfamiliar and unfriendly environment, and they are duly ejected despite having legitimate (if dubiously obtained) tickets for their seats. The visual difference between the knights isolated in their box at the white theater, and the communal seating of all people together at the homebrew vaudeville also says something about the difference in cultural expectations. Even with the harsh criticism and thrown vegetables, that world seems friendlier and more comfortable than the one which they had previously been in.
The movie isn’t especially advanced, nor especially bad, by the technical standards of 1915. There are insert shots of the tickets, the editing is clean and advances the story effectively, and we see multiple angles of scenes, rather than the camera being locked down until a performance is complete. Much of our experience of the white vaudeville, especially the contortionist, is demonstrated through reaction shots of the principals, while there is more inter-cutting between audience and performers in the black vaudeville, creating another visual contrast. It’s essentially equal in production value to the work Charlie Chaplin was doing for Essanay, another Chicago company, at the time. It’s safe to say that Charlie was getting paid a lot better than these actors, however.
Starring: Jimmy Marshall, Frank Montgomery, Florence McClain, Bert Murphy
Run Time: 11 Min
You can watch it for free: here.