The Alice Howell Collection, Reviewed

We were delighted over the weekend to have the opportunity to watch the new two-disk set The Alice Howell Collection. While I’ve read lots about the pathbreaking comedienne (whom we wrote about here), and seen lots of films in which she had bit parts, I’d only seen a couple of her starring vehicles previously. The DVD set includes a dozen films, most of them two-reelers, equalling about three and a hours worth of comedy. (Although I strongly recommend watching them one at a time, as they were meant to be seen, for greatest appreciation.) While Howell was plenty popular in her own day, and was a pioneer female comedian, these films have gone largely unseen for close to a century. Many laurels are due to Undercrank Productions for their series of releases by artists like this. While they catch us up on the past, they are rewriting the future.

The films are marvelously preserved, with impeccable notes for each film, and brand new scores by Ben Model, who put the whole thing together, along with cohort Steve Massa, who has a track record as a major proponent of Howell’s work. The films are a wonderfully curated cross-section of Howell’s career, with an apparent eye to something I KNOW fans want…glimpses of many well-known co-stars in supporting roles. There’s a lot to keep you interested here. And amused. Here’s what’s in the set.

Shot in the Excitement (1914): This is the only one in the set I had previously seen, a decade ago at Slapsticon (the annual slapstick film convention, which apparently no longer has a website). Shot in the Excitement is one of only a couple of Keystones in which Howell had a substantial role. The plot is Sennett-simple. Alice and her farmer dad (Josef Swickard) are whitewashing a fence when rival suitors Al St John and Rube Miller (who also directed) arrive and do battle for her hand. There is a great escalation of the war between the lads—until the kops are called in. the title refers to the fact that a shot gun comes out and much shooting of butts happens. It escalates to a cannon!

Father Was a Loafer (1915): This is the first post-Keystone in the set, made after Henry Lehrman had poached Howell off the Sennett lot for his own studio, L-KO. This one is really a Billie Ritchie comedy, a rare chance to see the extremely Chaplinesque comedian (although it might be more accurate to say that Chaplin was Ritchie-esque). Here Ritchie plays a wealthy tippler who arrives home from the bar to discover that his wife (Alice) has given birth to triplets. He has scarcely left the house when he saves an even wealthier woman (Gertrude Selby) whose carriage is being hurled down the street by runaway horse. He comes dangerously close to committing bigamy, but Alice reads about his marriage plans in the newspaper and yanks him back home. Hank Mann plays the delivery doctor.

Under New Management (1915): A terrific title for a terrific comedy. Alice plays the boss’s wife, who barges into his small office in order to impose order, especially to crack down on the inter-office flirtations brought about by the presence of the stenographer (Gertrude Selby). Gene Rogers is the boss. His two clerks are Fatty Voss, and (best of all) a young Raymond Griffith, in a very different character and look from the dapper chap who would star in his own comedy features at Paramount a decade later.

How Stars Are Made (1916): An interesting “behind the scenes” look at L-KO, not dissimilar to many Keystone comedies made on the same theme with Chaplin, Normand, and others. Alice plays a girl with the ironic name of Lillian Russell, who dreams of being a star. She is instead made a studio janitor. Then she and another studio employee (played by her real-life husband Richard Smith,) usurp the positions of a couple of L-KO stars and ride in their stead on a float in a real life floral parade. These scenes, shot at an actual parade, are also reminiscent of Mack Sennett comedies (many of which had been directed by Lehrman). And it’s raining. Documentary proof that it sometimes rains in Southern California! Griffith and Voss are in this one as well.

Neptune’s Naughty Daughter (1917): This is the first of several in the set directed by John G. Blystone (who later directed Swiss Miss and Blockheads with Laurel and Hardy.) These ones ramble mightily and feature extravagant gags not unlike the comedies of Larry Semon. This one casts Howell as the wayward daughter of a fisherman who runs away from home and gets a job at a greasy spoon. In the end, she gets shanghaied and must be rescued. In one sequence, she knocks a pesky fellow out with garlic breath, sticks a large wall calendar in his mouth for a sail, and blows him out of the room with an oscillating fan. In another sequence, a light house topples over! BOTH very Semonesque impulses. This film features Robert, Eva and Ida Mae McKenzie; Fatty Voss; and Joe Moore 

In Dutch (1918): In this one, Alice plays “Hulda from Holland”, a shipboard stowaway dressed in a literal Dutch girl costume, complete with wooden shoes. Many Chaplinesque touches in this one, from stealing her lunch from a couple of sailors to the comical swaying of the “S.S. Rock-a-Much” in a storm. She gets married to comedy fat man Hughie Mack (sadly Frank “Fatty” Voss had passed away), and goes to work as a dancer at a cafe where he works as a waiter. Forced to hide their marriage, much conflict arises from the flirtation of other men with Alice. The cast also features  Billy Armstrong, Neal Burns, Jimmy Finlayson, and (not for the last time) Coo-Coo the Dog, Alice’s actual dog!

Distilled Love (1920): This one starts at a farm where Dick Smith is a painter (for some reason), and Alice is a milk-maid. A pre-Laurel Oliver Hardy is a bootlegger who operates his own portable speakeasy out of the back of his car. Hardy’s a bad dude in this one. His wife shows up with a baby and relinquishes it to Alice, assuming she is his lover. Hardy basically kidnaps Alice, who has been kicked off the farm because the landlady thinks the baby is hers. And much more like this, with Billy Bevan, Fay Holderness, and Ida Mae McKenzie. Fay McKenzie plays the baby!

A Wooden Leg-acy (1920): Dick Smith directed this one and the next two. In this one Alice inherits a wooden leg full of cash, only she doesn’t know it’s full of cash, resulting in many ups and downs along the way. One cool shot in the film features one of those old fashion moving-background scrolls, creating a cartoon-like illusion of movement. It’s just one shot, but it’s a highlight of the film.

Her Lucky Day (1920): Coo-Coo the Dog is a major character in this one! The title is ironic of course. In fact, the film gets mighty dark. A villain pays Alice’s back rent in order to make her his slave, essentially, forcing her to work in his bar. There is lots of Schlitz product placement in the film, documentary evidence of the film’s Chicago locations (though Schiltz was based in Milwaukee, the brewery also had a presence in Chicago). At one point things get so bleak, Alice tries to gas herself and Coo-Coot to death! Then she has to bring Coo-Coo to the vet! And Coo-Coo has to fight an organ grinder’s monkey over some cash! In the end Coo-Coo’s new litter of puppies signals a happy ending after all.

Cinderella Cinders (1920): Alice gets fired from her job at the greasy spoon (despite being the most efficient diner waitress in history; she serves the customers all the same food at the same time and synchronizes her service down to the second). She and Smith get jobs as servers at a fancy party where the Count and Countess “de Bunco” are to be the guests of honor. As we immediately suspect from their names, the de Buncos are actually escaped criminals. After some incidents of mistaken identity it all gets straightened out in the end.

A Convict’s Happy Bride (1920): In this one, a young family owes the ice man (who has a dwarf assistant for some reason) a lot of unpaid bills. First they try treating him like a king, but he demands more. Through a succession of mishaps, the husband goes to jail, and Alice (the wife) and their little boy move across the street from the prison. Alice paints everything in stripes to match her husband’s prison uniform (for some reason, he is allowed to come home for lunch). In the end the husband is vindicated. With Phil Dunham, and Jackie Condon. 

Under a Spell (1925): Alice wakes up to find a woman kneeling next to her husband (Neely Edwards), who is sleeping on the sofa downstairs. Unbeknownst to her, the “woman” is a male burglar in a wig and a dress. Later the husband protests his innocence and Alice weeps literal buckets of tears. Then, a hypnotist (Bert Roach ) comes along and she enlists him to get to the bottom of the truth of her husband’s affair. Because this is a silent comedy, the hypnotist makes the husband think he’s a monkey, and the bulk of the film concerts the wife’s efforts to catch him and switch him back as he runs around town causing monkey-like mayhem.

Sound like something you’d enjoy? If you’re a habitue of this blog, I predict you will!