Do you love exploring silent comedy? How about getting to know obscure silent performers? If your answer to both questions is “Heck yes!” (and why wouldn’t it be?) then you’ll probably be excited about the latest DVD set by Ben Model’s Undercrank Productions: The Alice Howell Collection.
When it comes to comediennes in silent slapstick, most people are familiar with Mabel Normand, and–well, that’s pretty much it. (And don’t get me started on folks who watch a couple Chaplin features and a handful of Keaton shorts and call it a day.) While there were fewer female slapstick leads (men seemed more eager to be tossed off of cliffs or dragged behind Model Ts), those that did tough out the regimen of pratfalls, mud and brick-throwing were capable, versatile performers with their own unique spins on comedy situations. Alice Howell is a wonderful example, and happily, just enough of her films have survived to prove why.
While mostly forgotten today, Howell was once one of the most well-known two-reel slapstick comediennes. A performer in vaudeville and burlesque in New York, she headed to California to work for her friend Mack Sennett in the mid-1910s and became part of his Keystone stock company. Eventually whiled away by Keystone rival Henry “Pathe” Lehrman, she became a familiar figure in his L-KO Comedies and was eventually given her own production company, Century Comedies.
With her round face, huge expressive eyes, and slightly befuddled mannerisms, Howell was an obvious fit for silent comedy. She happily donned “slavey” clothes and frizzed up her hair into a cloud on the crown of her head. Often projecting an air of innocent confusion livened up by occasional spunky defiance, she seems more like a silent Lucille Ball than many of her contemporaries.
The Undercrank Productions set–funded by fans on Kickstarter–includes 12 of her films selected from archives around the world, all carefully restored and given piano scores by Ben Model. These include an early role in Keystone short Shot in the Excitement opposite Al St. John ( which I reviewed here), appearances in L-KO Comedies, and several of her solo shorts. While I was initially hoping a booklet would be included, I was happy to see that each short is preceded by text explaining its history–a big asset to appreciating the films and putting them into context (I love context).
My favorites of the bunch are probably His Wooden Legacy (1920) and Cinderella Cinders (1920), well-made, charming shorts with the familiar theme of “working class slavey bungling her way through high society.” I’m also fond of How Stars Are Made (1916), where a janitor (played by Raymond Griffith) sees Alice bumbling around a film studio and decides to kindly escort her around–a tad more character development than you see in most one-reel comedies. It’s also fun to spot some familiar faces–Oliver Hardy shows up as a heavy in Distilled Love (1920), James Finlayson plays multiple roles in In Dutch (1918), and Sybil Seely is a bathing beauty who gets a couple choice shots in Neptune’s Naughty Daughter (1917).
It’s a treat not only to study Howell’s expressive work, but to see examples of lesser-known comedy studios like L-KO (no less because the studio was the result of Lehrman deciding if he was going to keep butting heads with Sennett at Keystone, he would leave and make his own Keystone, dagnabbit). You also never know when you’ll experience a particularly cartoony gag, such as Alice getting wrapped around the wheel of a car (while it’s driving) and baking biscuits so light that they float through the dining room like bubbles.
While taking in this collection, I couldn’t help marveling at how these obscure shorts, having been largely forgotten for decades, are now available for us to enjoy on our flatscreen TVs in the comforts of our homes–with fitting scores, careful restoration and all. That’s a very lucky break for both these films and Alice Howell–and one heck of a blessing for us.
What’s also a blessing is the price–currently only $12 on Amazon. Quite the steal! And well worth it for the chance to discover a new comedy favorite.
Fun Tidbit: [UPDATED 4/27/19] The cute baby in the short Distilled Love (1920) is Fay McKenzie, who got to enjoy a screening of the short not long before she passed away on April 16, 2019 (she was 101!). Historian Stan Taffel and relative Bryan Cooper had made the screening possible. When Fay saw her infant self on screen she apparently joked, “Whozat?” (Thanks to Steve Massa for sharing the news about the screening on social media.)