On Saturday at the Museum of Modern Art we had the once in a lifetime chance to see previously unreleased footage from an unnamed Bert Williams feature that had been shot in 1913. Williams was the Jackie Robinson of American show business — a good half century before Robinson’s breakthroughs. You can read my full biographical post on him here. In his day, Williams was just about universally hailed as a comic genius — even by lots of people not normally counted on to be racially tolerant. A headliner in vaudeville, on Broadway, and in the Ziegfeld Follies, until now we’ve had to rely mostly on the glowing testimonials of Williams’s contemporaries, such as newspaper critics and colleagues like W.C. Fields, Eddie Cantor and Flo Ziegfeld. That, and some phonograph records, and two film shorts made in 1916: A Natural Born Gambler and Fish. The films are essentially solo turns, however, much like Chaplin’s One A.M. , making it hard to gauge the full measure of Williams’ talents.
A couple of years ago I began to hear whispers about a lost feature from my friend Steve Massa; the news was unspeakably exciting. As a matter of fact I quietly leaked the fact of its existence in my book Chain of Fools, released last year. Saturday night, I got to see that film, and it was better than my wildest dreams. In short, this is an earth-shaking movie. It hasn’t even sunk in completely. I am only now beginning to process the importance of this discovery — gently suggested by MOMA curator Ron Magliozzi, who artfully opened Saturday’s program with a couple of minutes of the most racially offensive footage of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, released two years AFTER the Williams feature was shot. Magliozzi speculates that the Williams feature was not released because some production delays caused The Birth of a Nation to beat it to theatres, whereupon the nation was visited by a firestorm of race fury in all directions. Ironically, while we moderns are inclined to recall the understandable black anger about the film (there were protests at the time), the cruelest fact is that Griffith’s film was responsible for the resurrection of the Ku Klux Klan and an evil new era of prejudice that would last several decades. (Previous to this there had been some marginal progress in the post Reconstruction era, hence the popularity of Williams and many of his contemporaries in the first place during the ragtime era of the 1890s). But what Magliozzi didn’t stress — the elephant in the room….Bert Williams made a feature before either D.W. Griffith or Mack Sennett. The history books are going to need to be rewritten.
Now: this isn’t to slight Griffith’s FORMAL contributions; there’s no arguing that the innovations of The Birth of a Nation were groundbreaking; they changed the way motion pictures were made forever. There’s nothing comparable to THAT about this film. But still, there’s no denying that the Williams film is earlier or that it’s very good. A black man, one of the era’s great comic geniuses, made one of the earliest features in American cinema, and it is strong — as good or better as the films Chaplin would be making at Keystone and Essanay many months later. It’s a game changer.
In truth, what exists for us to look at are rushes. But because they pre-date the era of the close-up, they’re all what we would consider master shots, making it very easy to follow the action, and very easy, I should think, to be edited into a complete film, should anyone wish to undertake that. The film also provides all sorts of clues about the culture and background of the shoot — you can see the white and black cast and crew working together in happy harmony in unguarded moments, captured for all time on celluloid.
What is the film and how did it come to be made? The scenario ultimately comes from a collection of stories called Brother Gardener’s Lime Kiln Club. Numerous members of the seminal Harlem stage show Darktown Follies were involved. In addition to Williams, the film also featured the important black vaudevillian Sam Lucas, J. Leubrie Hill, and entrepreneur Odessa Warren Grey. It was produced at Biograph by theatre titans Klaw and Erlanger, with no less than three directors credited: Edwin Middleton, T. Hayes Hunter and Sam Corker Jr. Although I can’t imagine that a star and a talent of Bert Williams’ caliber wouldn’t ultimately be at the helm, much as Lloyd and Keaton later would be, even if they weren’t credited as such. The story chronicles a picnic orchestrated by the members of the small town Lime Kiln Club, and the attempts of three young suitors (one of whom is Williams) to woo the knockout Odessa Warren Grey. Williams, after winning a footrace and manufacturing a well that produces gin, wins the girl. And Williams does prove himself to be among the most gifted screen clowns I have ever seen; this footage is certain to cement his reputation for such, late as it is. It’s a shame he didn’t have the opportunity to make more films. Blame the racism of the times (and the fact that there was more money to be made on stage back then). But at least now we have this one.
Hopefully it’ll be released to the public in some form at a later date. Until then, you can see excellent clips from the film RIGHT NOW if you are in New York, by visiting MOMA and seeing the exhibition 100 Years in Post-Production: Resurrecting a Lost Landmark of Black Film History, which will be up through March 31, 2015. More details here.
And the helpful program notes from the film are here.
To learn more about comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc
To learn about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.