About Variety Stage Motion Pictures
The 61 motion pictures in the American Variety Stage collection include animal acts, burlesque, dance, comic sketches, dramatic excerpts, dramatic sketches, physical culture, and tableaus. The films represented were copyrighted between 1897 and 1920; the majority have been drawn from the Library's extensive Paper Print Collection. The practice of submitting paper print copies of nitrate film as copyright deposits dates from 1894 through at least 1912. The later films in this collection, superior in clarity and production, are from the 1919-1920 series, "Spanuth's Original Vod-A-Vil Movies," produced by Hans A. Spanuth of Chicago.
These motion pictures present a rare animated record of vaudeville acts from the turn of the century. Although not filmed during an actual theatrical performance, the films sought to recreate the atmosphere of a theater performance by showing the types of vaudeville acts and performers popular at the time.
The use of vaudeville acts as material for motion pictures made sense for early filmmakers. Early films were very short; thus the abbreviated nature of the early vaudeville act, or "turn," made an ideal subject for films. Vaudeville and other types of popular entertainment offered a pool of ready talent for filmmakers who frequently chose to record the less expensive, and, therefore, less famous.
Eager to attract the largest audience, early film companies experimented with the content of their films by presenting novel subjects and entertainment. Common sources of this type of entertainment were the "dime museums, side shows, tent shows, circuses, and the lesser circuits of variety, vaudeville, and burlesque" (Loughney 1988, 150). Film companies often attempted to obtain exclusive rights to show certain subjects, such as special events, notable individuals, or the performances of famous entertainers.
It is important to note that very few of the films in this collection present a vaudeville act exactly as it would have been performed on stage. Prior to 1929, almost all motion pictures were silent and thus could not include the verbal humor, music, and ambient sounds of the live variety stage. Therefore, filmmakers had to adapt stage performances and feature the most visual elements of them on film. The challenge was to find acts with strong visual components that would work well on films.
Not surprisingly, the so-called "dumb" acts, such as acrobatic or animal acts, that contained no dialogue or sound effects, were highly suitable for film. Traditionally, dumb acts were used at the opening and closing of a vaudeville show, because the audience could noisily file in and out of the theater without causing other spectators to miss the aural content of the act. These dumb acts exemplify the most transparent transfer from the vaudeville stage to film.
As the production of motion pictures ended its first decade, filmmakers developed more cinematic ways to convey humor and spectacle and relied less on the variety stage for inspiration. Therefore, fewer variety stage performers were filmed doing their acts. Another reason for this change, however, is that a main venue for exhibition of motion pictures was on the vaudeville stage itself. Therefore, once the novelty of moving images had worn off, it became increasingly unlikely that theater-goers would want to see films of vaudeville acts when they could see the live act on the stage. Other types of films, including actualities of nature scenes, foreign destinations, and current events, began to take precedence instead.
Those variety acts that were filmed in the later years of the silent film era tended to be the more proficient professional acts such as those seen in the Spanuth Vod-A-Vil film selections. These films, produced in Chicago by Commonwealth Pictures Corporation, were typically included on a motion picture bill only as an "added attraction" to the feature.
Animals of all types appeared on the vaudeville stage, including sheep, pigs, cats, dogs, horses, bears, elephants, donkeys, monkeys, and birds. Three typical vaudeville acts depicted in these films are "Laura Comstock's Bag-Punching Dog" named Mannie, Professor Leonidas's troop of cats and dogs featured in "Stealing a Dinner," and "Jumbo--the Trained Elephant."
The word "burlesque" refers to two kinds of entertainment. In its original meaning, burlesque signified a comedy that parodied its original source. Burlesque eventually also came to denote "leg shows" or acts that focused on a woman's body and featured scantily-clad women, often in the act of undressing. The films in this collection do not represent the full range of burlesque on the variety stage, especially because burlesque often relied on dialogue and song, and was longer in length than films of the time. Still, filmmakers took burlesque subjects as their inspiration and often captured burlesque performers.
Vaudeville acts such as Ella Lola ("Turkish Dance"); the "French chanteuse eccentrique," Karina; and Princess Rajah recreated their stage shows for the screen, thus providing a glimpse into the type of exotic dance entertainment shown on stage during this period. (Princess Rajah's act was filmed at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition and, like Ella Lola's act, is reminiscent of the hootchy-cootchy dances of exotic performers such as Fatima and Little Egypt.)
Films such as "Pity the Blind, no. 2," and "Trapeze Disrobing Act" offer the type of humorous burlesque seen on the vaudeville stage. The latter makes fun of the stereotypical unsophisticated "rube" who came to view burlesque. "Kiss Me" pokes fun at burlesque entertainment by featuring real burlesque posters on a wall with a poster of a woman that comes alive before a fascinated male spectator.
Comedy acts in various forms--including monologists, two-person acts with a straight man/woman and a comic foil--and broad farcical sketches were dominant forms of variety stage entertainment. When these comic sketches were translated to silent film, however, the important element of dialogue was omitted. The examples found in this collection, therefore, largely feature non-verbal humor that could be easily understood in screen.
While these examples are certainly typical of vaudeville humor, there is unfortunately no way of knowing whether these particular skits were actually performed on the stage. It is possible that some skits were adapted for use in these motion pictures or that only the less verbal parts of the acts were used. These motion pictures did, however, use typical vaudeville sets, humor, and stereotypical characters from the vaudeville stage.
Some of the acts featured in this collection were based on characters from comic strips, including Alphonse and Gaston, the Happy Hooligan, and Foxy Grandpa. These characters were also used in stage shows. The two Foxy Grandpa selections ("The Boys Think They Have One on Foxy Grandpa..." and "Foxy Grandpa and Polly in a Little Hilarity") were based on a stage musical, starring Joseph Hart and his wife, Carrie DeMar, who reprised their roles on film. Series of films were made with all three of the comic strip characters mentioned above, as well as the character of the Tramp ("The Tramp's Unexpected Skate").
Some of the films feature burlesque comedy that makes fun of the vaudeville theater itself, as in "The Extra Turn' and " Levi & Cohen, the Irish Comedians," both of which feature bad acts getting panned by the audience.
Popular comedians recreated parts of their sketches: for example, Charles E. Grapewin in "Chimmie Hicks at the Races" and the team of Montgomery and Stone in "Dancing Boxing Match." Montgomery and Stone became famous as the scarecrow and tin-man in the 1903 stage production of "The Wizard of Oz."
Ethnic humor can be seen in abundance in the broad stereotypes of Jews in "A Gesture Fight in Hester Street," and the Irish in "A Wake in Hell's Kitchen" and "Levi & Cohen, the Irish Comedians."
The selections in the dance category reflect the wide variety of dance styles that were performed on the variety stage during this period. It appears that many of the performers used in these films actually performed on the vaudeville stage. The Franchonetti Sisters, advertised by the American Mutoscope & Biograph Company as a "popular team of vaudeville artists," perform the French quadrille dance. Fougere, "the famous Parisian chanteuse," performs her ragtime cakewalk, "Hello, Ma Baby." The cakewalk dance, popular in minstrel shows, is performed in these motion pictures by a professional troupe from New York ("Cake Walk" and "Comedy Cake Walk"). Crissie Sheridan performs a skirt dance similar to those done by the popular Annabelle. Versatile dancer Ella Lola performs two dances, a period-style belly dance (Turkish Dance, Ella Lola) and one based on the "Trilby" craze. (In the play "Trilby" by George Louis Palmella Busson du Maurier, an artist's model named Trilby falls under the influence of the hypnotist Svengali.) Kid Foley and Sailor Lil provide a vivid example of a Bowery dance reminiscent of the Parisian "Apache dance." Cathrina Bartho performs her Speedway dance in "A Nymph of the Waves" that takes advantage of film tricks to make it appear as if she is dancing on waves. Ameta, a specialist in "novel" and "elaborate" dances, according to The New York Clipper, creates a swirling funnel from huge pieces of cloth in a variation on the skirt dance. (The comedy and burlesque sections also contain dance performances including "The Boys Think They Have One on Foxy Grandpa, but He Fools Them," "Karina," "Princess Rajah Dance," and "Turkish Dance, Ella Lola.")
Physical culture acts include acrobatic performances, contortionists, boxing, strongmen, iron jaw acts, and other exhibitions requiring physical prowess or dexterity. Several of the acrobatic acts featured here probably would have been the opening or closing acts of vaudeville bills.
Some of the acts in the motion pictures selected are advertised by the film production companies as being vaudeville or circus performers, implying that they were indeed professional performers who appeared on the variety stage. These include the "Japanese Acrobats," the Three Buffons in the comedic "Three Acrobats," Neidert of "Bicycle Trick Riding, no. 2," and Hadji Cheriff from the Midway Plaisance at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition ("Arabian Gun Twirler").
Other film selections feature acts that were described in advertisements or short articles in The New York Clipper. These include the "Gordon Sisters" with their "bag punching and scientific act;" Treloar, a Harvard graduate and ex-varsity oarsman who later won a prize for being the most perfectly developed man in the world; and Latina, who strongman Eugene Sandow describes as a type of "the perfect woman." Sandow, billed as "The Most Powerful Man on Earth," was an immensely popular attraction on the variety stage and is shown in these selections flexing his muscles and doing a back-flip.
The later Spanuth films feature performers of even greater skill. For example, the "Kawana Trio" perform difficult acrobatic stunts with their feet, and "Three Jumping Tommies" execute a series of impressive acrobatic stunts on the floor.
Dramatic excerpts, dramatic sketches, and tableaus
Short dramatic sketches or scenes from long dramatic pieces were often performed as vaudeville "turns," or acts. The examples in this category, "Duel Scene, By Right of Sword'," "A Ballroom Tragedy," and "The Society Raffles," are typical of the fare seen on the stage during this period. The latter two were obviously chosen because of the strong visual qualities of their stories. "Fights of Nations" is a patriotic piece that features a series of vignettes leading to a grand finale that conveys the philosophy of the United States as a melting pot. (Several nations are depicted through stereotypes in a series of altercations that culminate in the peaceful representation of a United States with Uncle Sam presiding over all. Notably absent from this final peaceful picture are African-Americans; a Native American woman is shown kneeling in a subjugated position.)
Tableaus, or living pictures, were also popular on the vaudeville stage. While "Spirit of '76" is not technically considered a tableau because it incorporates movement, it still serves as a representative sample of famous scenes being brought to life on stage--in this case, the well-known painting by Archibald M. Willard.