Sunday, June 7, 2020
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.
Monday, June 1, 2020
RATING: * and ¾ out of ****
PLOT: Swimming champion Louise Fazenda is traveling with her husband, Elmer; her manager (Max Davidson) and her manager’s son. Needing a place to stay on an incredibly stormy night, they lodge at a hotel where not everything is as it seems... and there’s plenty to elicit some screams!
REVIEW: Here is a rarity. It’s a short produced within the first few years of sounds films. According to Edwin M. Bradley's book, "The First Hollywood Sound Shorts: 1926-1931," it was produced by independent producer Larry Darmour and distributed through RKO Pictures. At the time of this writing, it doesn’t exist in its entirety. It is only due to the kindness of film historian and collector Ralph Celentano that I’m able to view and review what’s left of this short at all. Thankfully, it seems that only a small portion is missing.
Let’s start there. Simply put, that “small portion” that is missing appears to be the impetus for the entire short. There are villains out to scare guests at a hotel, but we don’t know why they want to do that. We get enough to know they want to do this for some reason, and that they’ve been up to it for some time, from the following fragments:
First, we see an innkeeper and (presumably) his wife talking about recent, unusual activity. He says, “...scared to death – just like they’d seen the devil.” She replies, “Just like the man in 209, whose hair turned white overnight.”
We then cut to the balcony overhead, where a trio whose clothing makes them look like the hospitality staff. Their body language and expressions make them look like they are conspiring, although the curious line of dialogue from one of them sounds like, “...other guests that have seen things... and left.” Since there is obviously some dialogue missing, it’s hard to pinpoint the context of this conversation. But fear not... all will be conveniently revealed in the end!
It’s then that Lousie Fazenda and her entourage, including Max Davidson show up at the hotel, to take shelter from the raging storm outside.
Curiously, the housekeeper (who was not among the suspicious trip shown earlier) answers the door and turns them away, claiming the hotel is closed for the winter. She’s swiftly admonished by the innkeeper, who then lets the party in.
In his reprimand, the innkeeper says, “you know that we need guests” which helps fill in some more blanks in this story. Taking all the above facts together, it seems the scaring off of guests has been happening for some time.
There’s a couple of good moments when the guests check in. First, Max hilariously introduces his son as, “The Concentrated Spinach Baby.” Then, as he goes to sign the hotel ledger, all the rainwater collected in the brim of Elmer’s fedora rains down upon it. When he shakes the ledger off, all that water then hits Max and son in the face!
After the check-in shtick, the bellboy is instructed as to where to bring each guest. When told which room to give to Max, the bellboy replies, “Yes sir – that’s where the last gentleman was choked to death.” Of course, Max reaches toward his throat to protect it, a concerned look on his face. Once they arrive at Max’s room, the bellboy ominously tells Max, “You’ll have to share this room with Dr. Carver – the rest of hotel is closed,” while clutching at his own throat. Max is terrified, to say the least.
From here the short alternates between the happenings in each room, with a mix of general slapstick, misunderstandings, and ultimately spooky gags and tropes.
Among the shenanigans are Max having to share a bed with the aforementioned Dr. Carver, who just so happens to be a surgeon who sleeps with his scalpels. He’s also prone to making menacing-sounding comments in an unsettling monotone voice. They’re also some of the funniest lines in the short. One of the comments, “If I walk in my sleep, don’t wake me up... I become...” is cut off in what’s left of the print, but Max soon finds out just what happens.
Meanwhile, in Louise and Elmer’s room, Louise is doing her exercises with her resistance bands. She has Elmer hold the bands, which of course sends him soaring out of the bed and into the wall!
Inexplicable things happen in Max’s room, such as a visit from a someone who appears to be a child or little person wearing a Mardi Gras style mask that covers their whole body, and Dr. Carver sharpening his blades (“That’s the only foot I’ve got left,” Max exclaims). Max asks if the doctor is awake, and he declares “no,” so we know that he’s totally off-kilter when snoozing.
From here’s it’s full-tilt horror-comedy. The wall bed snaps back sending Elmer hurtling down a chute and outside onto the porch. A floating, “talking” candle warns Louise to “beware” and “don’t resist.” Her retort is quite funny – “I won’t... I’ll do anything you say... I’ve always been a good woman... name your price!” Max’s son’s bed also slides into the wall, and behind it stands a spooky figure in a sheet, blowing fire through its large skull mask (the spookiest effect in the short). The requisite running through rooms and hallways and clonking the wrong person on the head ensues, and then out of nowhere comes a seal who crawls into Louise’s bed in Elmer’s place! Shortly before the people in full body paint and Roman emperor garb show up...
It’s all fairly bonkers and nonsensical, but just slightly off the effect its going for due to pacing issues and the problems of early sound film.
The two main attractions here are of course, Louise Fazenda who was one of the leading ladies of silent comedy films, and Max Davidson, one of the male stars of silent comedy’s heyday. Now together in an early talkie, the overall short is hit-and-miss due to script and staging, but there’s no denying the energy with which the duo tackle their roles.
I should note here that Fazenda ultimately quit the film biz and settled into domestic life married to film producer Hal Wallis, but during her career there are two other films that may stand out to Scared Silly fans, and both like The Itching Hour are early talkies. One called The Terror is an early sound horror film, and an Edgar Wallace adaptation at that. The other, House of Horror is a lost film that, based on reviews upon its release, sounds like it was totally in the horror-comedy realm: its penchant for trap doors, falling objects and dashing in and out of rooms was duly noted. With Chester Conklin also in the cast, you know at the very least there’s a comic relief quotient.
Sometimes Fazenda tries just a little too hard in this short, with exaggerated line readings and facial expressions, but she’s trying. There is a flavor of post I Love Lucy-era Lucille Ball performance to her act. Anyone who recalls the color Lucy Show and Here’s Lucy remember that Lucy got even more broad in those shows.
Davidson also had a varied career that not only included much silent comedy but also a role in D.W. Griffith’s masterpiece, Intolerance. For classic comedy fans, Davidson can also be spotted in Clancy Street Boys, one of the best of the East Side Kids films; in the Three Stooges short, No Census, No Feeling; as well as in Charlie Chaplin’s classic feature, The Great Dictator. Of particular note for horror-comedy fans is Davidson’s role as the derelict maniac “haunting” the old, abandoned house those Our Gang/Little Rascals kids are busy exploring in Moan and Groan, Inc.
His stock-in-trade, particularly in sound films, was that of a stereotypical Jewish-dialect comedian. This was a time when dialect comedians had steady employment. El Brendel famously played a character with a Swedish dialect, while both Henry Armetta and Gino Corrado were Italian-American actors who did exaggerated versions of Italian characters; to name but three others in pretty well-populated field. When viewed today, some of these performances can come off as uncomfortably politically incorrect; there are mixed reports of how the acts went over with the groups they parodied. All things considered, in The Itching Hour, Davidson is pretty restrained.
Irving Bacon plays Louise’s husband. He has an amazing list of credits almost reaching 500 films, that includes some bona fide classics that are household names. For the comedy-minded, Bacon worked in several films with W.C. Fields and Abbott & Costello, and can also make a claim few others can: he has the distinction of appearing in Laurel & Hardy films produced at both Hal Roach Studios and 20th Century Fox. He most prolifically appeared in Blondie movies, mostly playing the beleaguered mailman run down by Dagwood.
Spec O'Donnell as Max’s son had a long career as well, almost spanning 200 films, starting from when he was a little boy. He often played quirky, freckle-faced characters who didn’t speak much but made up for it with often odd and hilarious facial expressions. Some notable distinctions for Spec include appearing in the Max Davidson short, Call of the Cuckoo which became a sort of ersatz Hal Roach All-Stars film in retrospect, seeing as how Charley Chase, Jimmy Finlayson and the a pre-teamed Laurel & Hardy all appeared in it. And in a true oddity, Spec got to play the same newsboy twice, eight years apart, in the films Princess O’Hara (at age 24) and its remake, It Ain’t Hay (at age 32); the latter starring Abbott & Costello.
One of the issues in reviewing this short today, apart from It being incomplete, is that the dialogue is hard to follow. Sometimes it’s just clipped so whole words or bits of words are missing. Other times It’s just muffled and muddled. This is particularly problematic when you can’t understand the parrot’s dialogue, which exists solely to add some laughs to the film.
With all that going against it, it’s hard to give a fair assessment to the film, because I feel like I haven’t really seen the film as intended. My just-about-average rating of one and 3/4 stars (almost 2) may seem generous to others who’ve watched this, but I have to at least credit the cast for their effort. They are trying, for sure. And if you’re in a generous mood, you may find some laughs in this one.
SPOTTED IN THE CAST:
Lon Poff is wonderfully macabre as Dr. Carver, delivering all his deadpan lines. He appeared in several shorts and features over the years, including playing one of the Adoop tribe members in Wheeler & Woolsey’s Diplomaniacs as well as part in the duo's The Rainmakers, the Andy Clyde shorts, His Royal Shyness and Alimony Aches, the Charley Chase short, Calling All Doctors, and both a silent and a sound Laurel & Hardy short – the classic silent, Two Tars; plus their celebrated horror-comedy, The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case.