It wasn’t quite a year ago today (and admittedly, I’m a little late with this review) but in April of last year silent film historian/accompanist Ben Model—the hardest working man in the 88 keys business—launched a Kickstarter campaign to produce a DVD showcasing the work of silent movie mirthmaker Alice Howell. Howell, described on the back of the finished product (a 2-disc collection) as “a frizzy-haired forerunner of Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett,” is largely unknown outside of dedicated classic film devotees, and Model (along with his co-curator, author/historian Steve Massa) has succeeded in rectifying this by raising the necessary funds from a total of 358 contributors.
If Alice Howell has had any DVD exposure, it’s likely due to One Wet Night (1924), which was included among the many comedy shorts on the 5-disc Slapstick Encyclopedia collection released by Image Entertainment in 2002. (The Howell comedy was one of several spotlighted in a program entitled “Funny Girls: Genders and Their Benders,” along with works by Gale Henry, Fay Tincher, and Louise Fazenda.) Night is an entry from Alice’s later movie period: her career in the “flickers” began at Mack Sennett’s Keystone, where she went to work in early 1914 after she and her vaudeville partner/husband Richard Smith relocated to sunny Cal-i–forn–i-a so he could recuperate from his tuberculosis. Howell started out as an extra at the studio, but her willingness to participate in the roughhouse shenanigans con brio allowed her to move up into featured parts such as in Charlie Chaplin’s Laughing Gas (1914).
Howell starred with Al St. John in one short that’s among the dozen on The Alice Howell Collection: 1914’s Shot in the Excitement, which features the two stars as “a pair of slapstick-crossed lovers”; their romance threatened by a skeevy rival (Rube Miller) who’s so determined to keep the two lovebirds apart that toward the end of the short’s climax he fires cannonballs at the duo and her father (Josef Swickard). (Watching everyone try to outrun the ammunition is one of many highlights in this corker of a short.) Alice and Al make a nice couple in this entertaining comedy, and if you’d like to “kick the tires” before investing in the DVD set, The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ has Excitement on the schedule among a night of Sennett shorts on May 6 (in addition, Howell is in The Great Toe Mystery , airing that same night).
I’m willing to gamble, however, that you’re not going to want to wait until next month to grab this latest Undercrank Productions release. There are some wonderful shorts in this collection; a particular favorite is Father is a Loafer (1915), Howell’s first appearance at L-Ko after following Henry “Pathé” Lehrman and other ex-Sennett players to this new venture. In her early shorts at L-Ko, Alice provided support for the studio’s big draws, Gertrude Selby and Billie Ritchie—the latter of particular interest to your humble narrator after reading the chapter on this unsung funster in Massa’s Lame Brains & Lunatics. Ritchie is often dismissed as a Chaplin knockoff, but Steve argues “he deserves his own place in silent comedy history for presenting possibly the most low-down, despicable, and unlikable character ever seen on the screen.”
In Loafer, Billie and Alice are husband-and-wife overlooking a brood of four children…but as Alice has just given birth to triplets, Ritchie decides it’s the open road for him. Billie rescues a young woman (Selby) from a runaway horse wagon and in gratitude, Gertie decides to rhumba down the matrimonial aisle with the bounder. Fortunately for Alice, she spots the wedding announcement in the newspaper (that is a periodical what’s really on its toes) and arrives just in time to give the would-be bigamist his proper comeuppance. As Alice Howell continued working hard for laughs at L-Ko, the studio started to push her into the spotlight as she created a character (from Massa’s Slapstick Divas)…
…a slightly addled working-class girl—maid, beanery waitress, charwoman—anything that fell under the term “slavey.” Although attractive, her comic get-up emphasized the eccentric. A round Kewpie-doll face with large eyes and bee-stung lips was topped off with a mountain of frizzy hair piled high on her head that resembled smoke billowing from an active volcano. To compliment her look of having just kissed an electric light socket, she wore old-fashioned plaid or checkered blouses, long print skirts, and big clod-hopper shoes.
“A stiff-backed penguin-waddle walk and her pile of hair became her signature trademarks,” finishes Steve’s description, and Alice Howell is fine form in several of the L-Ko comedies included in Collection. Under New Management (1915) is a little frustrating because only the first reel and two minutes of Reel 2 have survived (and there’s some noticeable nitrate decomposition throughout) but it not only gives Alice a nice showcase as a jealous wife whose husband (Gene Rogers) is a bit too flirtatious with his stenographer (Selby), it’s some of comedian Raymond Griffith’s early onscreen work: he plays a clerk who also has eyes for Gertie but he’s missing his familiar movie moustache (he looks a little like Shemp Howard). Griffith is Alice’s leading man in How Stars are Made (1916—also incomplete, just the second reel) and he looks more like his recognizable screen character in a comedy that gives the audience a little behind-the-scenes look at a movie studio (L-Ko).
Alice and her husband Dick would eventually become employees at the Emerald Film Company in 1920 and brought with them an unreleased short from their previous stint at L-Ko/Century. It’s speculated that Distilled Love (1920) was likely shot in 1918 because this very funny outing features Oliver Hardy as Peeble Ford, the villain of the piece (“Babe” worked at Century briefly in that year). Love is a little disjointed in parts (I think there’s also some footage missing) but I think this is one of my favorites on the Howell set not just for the presence of Hardy (okay, a lot of that) but because real-life spouses Alice and Dick (who co-directed) are the romantical lovers in this. (See if you can also spot Billy Bevan and Sybil Seely [from Buster Keaton’s One Week (1920)].) Alice and Dick are also lovebirds in Her Lucky Day (1920), a delightful short in which the plot unfolds in dreamlike fashion (there’s a reason for this).
If I wanted to introduce the charms of Alice Howell to someone unfamiliar with her work, it would be a tough choice between Day and Cinderella Cinders (1920), one of Howell’s best-known comedies. Cinders kicks off with Alice working in a beanery (there’s a great gag where she’s serving up griddle cakes to the clientele—who are all seated at the counter and devour their repast with syncopated precision [a title card reads “They never drop a bite”]). As the plot commences, Alice is hired to be a cook for a household throwing a big shindig that evening for a Count and Countess DeBunco. When the DeBuncos (who are in actuality husband-and-wife con artists) announce they’ll be detained, the family attempt to pass Alice and Dick (he’s the butler) off as the honored guests. Alice and Dick get hold of some spiked punch and wind up completely spiffed, adding to the hilarity of the comedy.
Alice Howell would see the twilight of her film years at Universal, where she and comic Neely Edwards made a number of one-reel shorts (along with Bert Roach, who played a butler) like the aforementioned One Wet Night (not on this set) and Under a Spell (1925—which is on this set). Spell is really mostly Neely’s show as a husband hypnotized into thinking he’s a monkey, yet it’s engaging all the same. Steve Massa notes that Alice’s cinematic swan song was the two-reel comedy A Society Architect (1927) (the [always reliable] IMDb says it’s the short The Junior Year —I just consider Steve a more dependable source). Alice’s daughter Yvonne had a brief movie career before deciding to marry a Hal Roach Studios director/cameraman that later became a two-time Oscar winner (A Place in the Sun, Giant): George Stevens. Of his famous grandmama, George Stevens, Jr. observed “she seemed to me to be a loving, red-haired grandmother business-woman with a lively sense of humor.” (Yah, you betcha.)
I know I’ve stated this many, many times in the past here on the blog…but we classic movie mavens owe a debt of gratitude to Ben for sharing these delightful gems with us through the magic of DVD. Much of the restoration (using prints from the Library of Congress and other sources) and music composition involved incalculable amounts of time and effort; suffice it to say, the finished product was well worth the wait. If you enjoy silent film comedy as much as I do (admit it…you know you do), you’ll want to run, don’t walk, to your nearest online store (including Shop TCM and Deep Discount) and grab a copy of what is unquestionably one of the finest classic movie DVD releases in 2019.