Sunday, June 7, 2020
MERCY, THE MUMMY MUMBLED (1918)
RATING: *** & 1/2 out of ****
SPECIAL NOTE: This short can be found on various places on the web, but I recommend the version that was restored by the Library of Congress. It is part of the Pioneers of African American Cinema DVD and bluray set from Kino Classics, which can be streamed on the Criterion Channel. At the time of this writing, Criterion has taken down the paywall so that pioneering efforts by black filmmakers and other films about the African American experience can be viewed on the site and help promote understanding of their history and heritage. Special thanks to film historian, author and guide for the Hollywood Forever Cemetery Historic Walking Tour, Karie Bible for mentioning this special collection streaming on Criterion during her most recent virtual presentation.
PLOT: An eccentric scientist, determined to bring a mummy back to life, tells his daughter’s boyfriend he’ll let him marry her if his experiment succeeds. Meanwhile, Egyptian officials have arrived in the US in search of a mummy stolen years earlier by Americans. When a mummy actually materializes, it’s “gauze for alarm” for everyone. But is this mummy everything it’s “wrapped up” to be?!
REVIEW: Within the horror-comedy sub-genre, there exist sub-sub-genres. The general sub-genre basically turns on two separate axis. The first axis is the “old dark house” trope, wherein people are forced to spend a night in a house where all sorts of spooky happenings such as sliding panels, hidden passageways, and fake spirits abound. The second axis maintains all the spookiness of the first, but with the added element of the spooky threat being a real ghost, monster or alien.
However, it’s within the sub-sub-genre entries that you get the most variety. For one example, what I like to call the “old dark boat” sub-genre has the action take place on “haunted” sea vessels with the sea hexes and aquatic legends of fishermen’s and pirates’ lore added to the mix. This formula was visited in shorts and features starring Laurel & Hardy, Hugh Herbert and Allen Jenkins, and the Bowery Boys.
Another sub-sub genre is that of rampaging mummies, real or faked. In and of themselves just within the realm of serious horror films, films featuring mummies are their own subset. Like the “old dark boat” films, they benefit from mysterious Egyptian legends of curses and reanimated corpses for anyone who dare disturb a mummy’s rest. Wheeler & Woolsey, Shemp Howard, the Three Stooges and Abbott & Costello all mined treacherous tombs for goofy scares.
This subset is no surprise, given America’s intense fascination with Egyptian burial rites of princes, princesses, servants, stoneware, treasures and even the family cat. That fascination was probably never more intense than it was between the years 1904 and 1920, when a concerted effort to unearth King Tut’s tomb was undertaken. Mummies and those alien-to-Westerners rituals became fodder for countless serialized stories in newspapers, pulp magazines, novels, comic strips, and yes, movies… where the image of a bandaged individual could really be brought to life!
So, here we have an early entry in the mummy sub-sub genre of horror-comedies with the silent short, Mercy, the Mummy Mumbled. Distributed by Ebony Films, this was an all-black production in terms of the director, writers, production crew and actors. The main production company, however, was a white-led firm by the name of the Historical Feature Film Company. This (along with the production team's other comedy shorts) was target-marketed to both African American audiences and Caucasian. It’s a top-notch entertainment that should be celebrated, but there are some problematic details that have come to light since I first posted this review.
In the interest of fairness, I should point out my friend and fellow film historian Nelson Hughes has informed me that films from the Ebony company often received backlash for racial stereotypes. I agree that the merits or demerits of some elements in this short could be questioned, but I think this particular film could be shot scene for scene with an all-white cast, or a cast made up of any other ethnic group, and it would turn out the same. This one just seems to be a really funny situation, and played out wonderfully. But having said that, I have now had the opportunity to view two other comedy shorts from the Ebony company, and unfortunately, they are horribly racist in their characterizations, the way the dialogue is written on the title cards, and the gross caricatures used to promote the films. Based on these facts, I cannot endorse Ebony Films as a company, even though I did appreciate Mercy, the Mummy Mumbled, which may stand as an anomaly in its approach to the rest of the company's output.
On top of its entertainment value, it also features a portrayal of an African American as a scientist. As we know from so many films to follow once the sound era arrived, and especially within the horror-comedy genre, the standard portrayal of African Americans would soon be relegated to roles of servitude such as maids, porters, bellhops and the like. It would be quite some time before African American roles would expand to include portrayals from all walks of life.
The film is deft at compactly yet completely introducing its players and its setup. The scientist, Professor Pushee is obsessed to the point where one might say he’s a crackpot, perhaps even a “mad scientist,” walking hunched, clasping his hands together in glee when making breakthroughs, and having a tunnel-vision focus on his experiments. A more apt term would be "eccentric," however - unlike many of his screen brethren, this scientist doesn't appear to be motivated by anything but his curiosity. Meanwhile, his daughter is obsessed with her paramour, Bill and he’s mighty sweet on her. His sly glances betray to the audience just how enterprising he is; fortunately, the Professor is too distracted by his obsessions to notice.
There are wonderful character moments setting it all in motion. It all starts when the mad scientist places an ad in the newspaper offering to pay for a mummy to conduct experiments on. Until he can get his mummy, however, the professor will just have to settle for a duck… even though the duck isn’t settling for any of it!
A charming bit involves a young boy staring through the scientist’s window with wide-eyed awe, much like Ernest “Sunshine Sammy” Morrison’s delightful appearances in Harold Lloyd shorts as the curious neighborhood kid in such classics as Get Out and Get Under.
There’s also some game slapstick to be had as the Professor chases the duck he’s trying to inject. Futile are his many attempts to swat the duck back down with a broom. But hilarious of course is the Professor unexpectedly and inadvertently connecting with Bill’s head. Ditto Bill, who moments later throws a vase at the wayward duck only for it to bean the Professor on the back of his noggin.
Bill soon asks the Professor for his daughter’s hand in marriage, prompting the Professor to reply, “If my formula proves a success, then I will consent.” It sure is a non-sequitur of a disconnect but considering the flimsy nature of much that passes for inciting incidents in other horror-comedy films, it’s keeping good company. Especially when it sets up the next juicy bit of the film, wherein Bill spots the Professor’s newspaper ad and comes up with an idea: he’ll stage a phony mummy reawakening to gain the father’s consent! He procures a sarcophagus prop from a local costumer, along with materials to dress someone up as a mummy, and then offers $10 to the local shoe shiner to portray the mummy.
As if this film wasn’t already hilarious and inventive enough, the plot pulls another ace from the deck by introducing “Egyptian Emissaries who are searching for the mummy of the Royal Rambunctions stolen years previous by American souvenir hunters,” as the title card reads. The idea of legitimate Egyptologists or archaeologists searching for a mummy, or for some shady fortune hunters just out for free treasure, would fast become a trope in both serious and comical films featuring real or phony mummies.
It’s at this point I must stop to point out that Mercy, the Mummy Mumbled is at least a partial remake of the 1914 Vitagraph comedy short, The Egyptian Mummy. It borrows the conceits of a wacky scientist placing a want ad for a mummy to experiment on, and his daughter’s suitor concocting a scheme to fake bringing a mummy to life, albeit in not so grand fashion (the Vitagraph film merely has the romantic hero smear some paint on a drunk and stuff him in a sarcophagus).
The brilliance of Mercy, the Mummy Mumbled is the addition of the Egyptian emissaries entangling the plot like an endless coil of bandages. In this way, it bests its antecedent by ratcheting the comic chaos up substantially. That combination of “scientist wants to bring a mummy to life/boyfriend of scientist’s daughter fakes mummy resurrection to win father’s approval/party with a legitimate interest in mummies gets involved” all combines into one combustible cocktail of laughter.
Of course, the plot elements don’t do the job all on their own. This short is propelled by performances from amazingly gifted actors who more than likely “trod the boards” on vaudeville, learning their trade (sadly, I could find no information on the performers involved to cite them by name; hopefully that information will come to light some day). The result is simultaneously very broad with hilarious timing, but also very astute in the way that the characters think, act and react. Nothing is tossed off here. It’s all very well thought out, and much of the success goes to the actors, who are “all in” with imbuing each character with unique personality traits, facial expressions and body language.
The rest of the short goes into hyper-motion, as naturally you’d expect once the “mummy” is introduced. Bill carefully wraps up the shoeshine man and has him step into the sarcophagus and enlists a friend of his to feign being the seller when the Professor comes to pay for the goods. A scuffle ensues when the friend tries to take off with the thousand-dollar fee, but it’s the phony mummy who ends up grabbing a wad for humself, unseen and neatly tucked away in his bandages.
There’s plenty more laughs to be found when the couriers transport the “mummy” in horse-drawn carriage. Sliding out of the cab, the sarcophagus is riotously dragged along the ground, tethered to a rope. The lid coming slightly undone, the driver doesn’t even flinch at the site of the “mummy,” banging it on the head with a rolling pin. After the couriers deliver the cargo, they run into the inquiring Emissaries on the street below the Professor’s residence. The driver confirms, “The Professor called it an Egyptian Rummy.”
A quick note about effects: like many silent films of the time, special tricks are occasionally employed. In this film, a clonk on the head usually results in some animated “pain lines” emanating from the skull. These are similar to what you’d see in a comic strip or comic book, but all squiggly in motion like electrical bolts. The effect is always amusing.
While there is major image decomposition toward the end of what survives of this film, enough is visible to get an idea of what’s happening, even if the sight gags that may be unfolding onscreen can’t be altogether seen. A few things are certain: the phony mummy definitely doesn’t like being injected any more than the duck (“This Mummy sure must have been a tough one in his younger days,” reads the Professor’s title card after he tries to subdue the mummy). The Emissaries, summarily dismissed moments earlier by the Professor, return through the side window to get what they came for, spiriting away the phony monster.
The film stock becomes seriously deteriorated at this point, but just making a guess, it looks like the knocked-out mummy comes to just as the Emissaries are bowed down in prayer before it, and they jump out of a window in fright. It appears that the bandage is snagged on one of the Emissaries’ outfits, so as they tumble to the ground, the phony mummy becomes unraveled.
Without having seen it in its entirety, it’s hard for me to give this one a complete four out of four-star review, but my guess is, should an extant print ever emerge, that would be my final rating. Mercy, the Mummy Said is a pure joy for its comedy and for its imagination and should be applauded as a shining example of a superb all-black production crew and acting troupe working at peak powers.