A Reckless Rover (1918)
Another short slapstick comedy distributed by Ebony Studios, this movie once again points up the troubled history of race relations in America. Although the studio was managed and operated by African Americans, it was owned by whites, and as this movie illustrates, it often represented their ideas of what Black entertainment could or should be.
Our movie begins with a title card and an intertitle, each of which is illustrated with large-lipped caricatures of a Black man. We are told that our hero Rastus (Sam Robinson) makes a sloth look like “a human dynamo of energy,” and we first see him lying in bed as his landlady bangs on the door to get her back rent. She finds a policeman, kitted out in Keystone Kop regalia, to assist her in getting into the room. She doesn’t want her property damaged by breaking in the door, however, so she gets a chair so that the policeman can get in via the window above the door. Rastus pushes the window up so that the cop is stuck, and he kicks and makes faces as the landlady struggles to pull him back through. Rastus goes back to bed and stuffs a pillow in the cop’s face to keep him quiet before he falls back down on the landlady. Now the cop is determined to break in the door and he is soon leaping across the bed while Rastus darts underneath from one side to the other to evade him. Rastus grabs his hat and coat and leaps out the window into the back alley. The landlady, meanwhile, has gotten a shotgun and shoots the cop in the backside, propelling him out the window as well.
The chase proceeds through unpaved alleys and muddy streets, though Rastus soon evades the cop by hiding inside a wooden box as the officer runs around the corner. To be safe, however, he decides to go into a Laundromat run by “Charley Moy” a Black man in yellowface, and steal some new clothes. Moy catches him, however, and threatens him with his iron. Rastus claims that the wind blew the clothes on the ground and Charlie decides to hire him to work at the laundry. Now Rastus has his pick of the clothing, and he chooses a new striped shirt and a tie with spots on it. Now an attractive young woman comes into the shop with the ticket for the very order he has been pillaging. He gives it to her and steals a kiss before she slaps him and leaves. Now Moy uses his iron on Rastus’s backside to encourage him to work harder and Rastus replies by whacking him with a wet garment, even as another customer enters the shop. When Charlie throws the rag back at Rastus, he misses, and of course hits the customer. Soon he is throwing everything in the place at Rastus, and Moy applauds as he catches each parcel without dropping them, but then expresses dismay when Rastus drops the lot into the washer to catch one last item. The customer grabs his bundle and goes, while Rastus runs all of the remaining ones through the wringer (without opening them first).
Now the lady customer arrives at home and inspects her laundry. She discovers a missing stocking (it’s the “tie” Rastus is wearing), and goes back to the shop. Meanwhile, Rastus has found the boss’s opium pipe and tries a few drags from it. At first, he looks like it is making him nauseous, but soon he starts spinning in place with a blissful look on his face. He prances about until he burns himself on the stove, then gets into the washer to cool off. Steam comes out of his ears. Charlie finds him and surmises what has happened, warning him against smoking from the tin marked in Chinese letters – a fade shows us that they translate to “Rat Poison.” The lady customer returns, and Rastus locks Moy in the back room so he can have her to himself. She recognizes the stocking around his neck this time, and he steals another kiss, trying to placate her by giving her other customer’s parcels. She throws these back at him and at that moment Moy breaks in and knocks a shelf on top of Rastus, pinning him to the counter.
The lady customer finds the cop from before and reports what has happened, so he goes to the store to investigate. Charlie comes out to try to smooth things over, but Rastus hides with the iron and hits he cop whenever his back is turned, making him think it is Charlie doing it. The cop hits Charlie and Rastus hits the cop and they both fly backward – Charlie to the back room and the cop into the street. The cop beats the ground with his nightstick, summoning a variety of other African American policemen in Keystone garb, most of whom appear to be napping on their beats. The four cops go into the store, but Rastus sets up the unconscious Moy to be their target, backside first. The cops fire their soda powder guns into the room, and Rastus calls out advice so that they will hit Moy. Rastus sneaks out the back, and the cops rush in and start trashing the place. The last shot shows Rastus running down an alleyway.
The movie itself is pretty primitive for 1918 – it looks like something Keystone could have put out five years earlier – and this isn’t helped by a print that is damaged in multiple places. The comic timing and acrobatics of some of the players (particularly Robinson and the main featured cop) is at least at the level of an “average” Keystone movie, but there are no budding Chaplins here. The use of Chicago city streets, apparently on the poorer side of town, is interesting to see. Who would have thought that there would be muddy, unpaved areas in Chicago 100 years ago?
I’ve been soft-balling criticism of these Ebony films because I want to find something good in movies that at least put Black actors and crews to work at this early time, but this one is outright offensive on multiple levels. If it’s not the Chinese caricature, it’s the horrible cartoons on the intertitles, and the depiction of African Americans as lazy, shiftless, unreliable, thieving, and generally stupid throughout. I’ve read that Ebony took some heat at the time for continuing to show movies they made before 1917, when the management was all white, but this movie is clearly from a later time, evidenced by a poster for “Hearts of the World” that Rastus runs past near the end. So, the Black management somehow thought this was OK, apparently. It is the case that the movie borrows its style heavily from Keystone comedies, and it is possible to imagine Ford Sterling or Al St. John playing a character like Rastus, but in context, it’s pretty easy to see why the NAACP would have objected to this studio’s output. The only thing one can say for it, in light of recent research affirming the importance for young people to see images of people like themselves for their healthy development, is that at least the children who watched this were seeing actual Black people on screen, not white men in blackface. It’s a pretty poor compensation, in light of the messages they received about themselves and others.
Director: C.N. David
Camera: C.C. Fetty
Starring: Sam Robinson
Run Time: 14 Min
You can watch it for free: here (do so at your own risk).