Sometimes a silent film book comes along that you never knew you needed, about silent era performers you hadn’t looked at too closely, and somehow, that book clocks in at a mighty 480 pages of historical info, trivia, and rare photos. And, it has a fantastic cover. (The designer is the talented Marlene Weisman, who also did covers for Slapstick Divas and various Undercrank Productions releases.)
Pokes & Jabbs: The Before, During And After Of The Vim Films Corporation by film archivist and historian Rob Stone is just such a book, and it’s not only a mighty trove of information but certainly a labor of love, first taking shape during the research process for Stone’s 1996 book Laurel or Hardy: The Solo Films of Stan Laurel and Oliver “Babe” Hardy. (Ollie was in quite a few of the Pokes and Jabbs films, and starred in Vim’s “Plump and Runt” comedies.) Historian Steve Massa points out in the forward of Pokes & Jabbs that this research was begun in the pre-Media History Digital Library days, when–gasp!–you had to travel to archives around the country to find surviving copies of trade magazines. This is a fact that you’ll quickly learn to appreciate once you take in the hundreds–and I do mean hundreds–of film stats, synopses, and contemporary reviews packed into this book.
The comedy team of Pokes and Jabbs is certainly obscure today, but they were popular enough in their time to appear in countless split-reel and one-reel comedies, all featuring the sort of knockabout slapstick that lived up to their screen names. Like many comedians they had backgrounds on the stage. Bobby Burns (Pokes) specialized in “animal” roles in plays like The Wizard of Oz, while Walter Stull (Jabbs) was primarily in road show melodramas. They bounced around various studios, from Lubin to Mutual to Wizard Comedies and so on, until they settled on their comedy duo personas. For about three years Pokes and Jabbs shorts were released by the Vim Films Corporation at a fast and furious pace.
Since Pokes and Jabbs were pretty similar in height and both had dark hair and sported bushy mustaches, you might be forgiven for getting them frequently–or constantly–confused. Jabbs did tend to wear plaid while Pokes wore dark baggy suits and a crushed top hat, and if you look closely Jabbs appears to have a curled handlebar mustache–but somehow, this was never quite enough.
Stone’s book provides the backgrounds of both performers and the history of the whirlwind of studios they worked for, including obscurities like the Wizard Film Corporation (which had a rather cute elephant head logo). Their story has run-ins with various screen personalities like Ford Sterling, Rosemary Theby, and of course Oliver “Babe” Hardy, who appeared in a huge number of Vim comedies. Fans of Laurel and Hardy will be delighted to have such a clear breakdown of a large chunk of Babe’s early films, especially since there’s numerous stills.
While many Pokes and Jabbs films don’t survive, their descriptions are still amusing, especially with their usual straightforward-yet-flowery Edwardian writing style. Take this portion of the Motion Picture News recap of A Rare Boarder (1916): “Jabbs’ specialty is female impersonation, while Pokes’ speed is to woo and inflame the hears of all damsels that cross his path. In the boarding house where [Pokes] is staying, he finds several of the fair sex, and thinking that he will help push the sale of his bum jewelry he begins to lay siege to the affections of all of them, but at different intervals.” Other descriptions, such as this one for the film Home-Made Pies (1916), remind us where certain stereotypes came from: “Pokes attempts to get away with the pies, but succeeds only in separating himself from some of his teeth…Vigorously defending himself by using the pies as ammunition, which proves most effective, Pokes manages to seize Ethel and carry her off.” Now, the sheer number of silent comedies clichés packed into the Komic-Mutual split-reeler The Man With the Razor (1913) demands that I share its synopsis in full:
“A customer enters a barber shop and asks for a shave. The barber starts the process, lathers his face and begins to strop the razor. An organ grinder stops in front of the shop and starts to play a ‘Turkey Trot.’ The music is so inspiring that the barbers cannot resist it and begin dancing. This so infuriates the customer that he chases them out of the barber shop with a razor in his hand. In their mad flight the barbers upset the organ grinder, scare a number of policemen, break up a women’s suffrage meeting, drench a dude in a watering trough, deluge two milkmen in forty quarts of milk, and give a negro woman a bath in the tub with her washing. The chase is brought to an end when the customer catches up with a barber who has fallen exhausted on the ground, and insists that he finish shaving him right where he is.”
Pokes & Jabbs was published by the new Split Reel LLC, founded with the goal of focusing on the more obscure areas of silent film. I’ll be looking forward to their future releases! You can buy it on the Split Reel site here, or the usual online avenues like Amazon.
But wait, there’s more! There’s also the companion book The Pokes and Jabbs Picture Book, full of even more stills and poster reproductions. Between this and Pokes & Jabbs, I sure have a nice collection of early Ollie pics! Not to mention plenty of behind-the-scenes photos from the fun-loving Vim company.
Many thanks to Rob Stone for sending Silent-ology the review copies of these books! They’re much appreciated.