The Alice Howell Collection
starring Alice Howell, Oliver Hardy
It is estimated that 75-90% of all silent films are now lost. Thousands of short and feature length films made prior to 1929 have been lost due to fire, improper storage, and most shockingly willful destruction at the hand of their owners. Once sound came to motion pictures silent films were seen to have no further commercial value and were at best neglected and at worst discarded or chemically stripped for the films’ silver content. History would sadly repeat itself as huge swaths of golden age television would find their video tapes erased rendering amazing, creative work to the stuff of folktales. Long before anyone started thinking about film preservation home movie companies like Blackhawk Films, Ken Films, and Castle Films mined old movies to convert to 8MM and 16MM prints to sell to show on home movie projectors in the 1950-1970s. Often these films were wildly truncated feature films, often monster movies, that would cut a 70 minute feature into a six minute quickie somehow creating a story out of a few disparate scenes. But they would also release many short films and some of the easiest were silent movies. Silent shorts had an advantage for this market because they were cheap and since they didn’t have sound they would work in any format as standard 8mm film was a silent medium. It was in the pages of the Blackhawk Films mail order catalogs that Alice Howell and her 2 reel film Cinderella Cinders would be preserved. For decades that film was basically all the world remembered about a comedienne that was in her time considered one of the greats. Now due to the work of film collectors, archivists, and a dash of good luck we now have a dozen ,out of over a hundred, shorts on a DVD release from Undercrank Production.
Alice Howell got her start with Mack Sennett’s Keystone studios where she worked on Keystone Cops shorts while developing her signature slavey persona. A slavey was a kind of low level grunt servant girl typically working in a boarding house. The work would be hard and thankless without even the prestige of serving in a wealthy home. Howell played her characters with a charming mix determination and cheerful optimism. Her characters might be bullied and abused but she gave as good as she got and would be smiling in the end. Howell styled herself with mismatched clothes, a huge shock of curls bouncing above her round china doll face and a cupid bow mouth. The result was like a deranged Clara Bow impersonator. Her comedy was not exactly sophisticated and she would take a huge amount of damage with her pratfalls and physical slapstick that she performed with kooky dignity that kept audiences rooting for her. She took all manner of damage from being hit and kicked by all manner of human and animal species. No chair, table, or piece of china was safe in Howell’s presence. The bulk of the films on this set owe all their quality to the presence of Howell. The films are of a far lower quality than the better funded efforts of Chaplin, Buster Keaton, or Fatty Arbuckle.
The dozen films on this release date from 1914-1925 and all new and appropriate music scores by Ben Model. Her shorts are, as typical of the era, long on gags and short on plot. There is a loose framework of a story that the gags hang on. My two favorites from this set are Neptune’s Naughty Daughter and Distilled Love. Neptune’s Naughty Daughter (1917) plays like a precursor to Popeye cartoons as Alice is in love with a sailor and her father and the decidedly Bluto-esque Captain Braun disapproves. She is soon involved in barroom brawls, kidnapping, and must escape the clutches of the evil Captain Braun and his men. This film contains some great gags including a stunning bit of stunt work as Alice is thrown from a car and clings to the tire and the car continues to speed along. Distilled Love (1920) is another 2 reeler featuring Oliver Hardy of Laurel and Hardy Fame, here billed a Babe Hardy. There is precious little holding this one together. The film is includes a lot of gags about prohibition with the characters trying to evade the law, then there’s some stuff with Howell fending of a lecherous gentleman with the aid of a ram and a ridiculously photogenic mule and there is some parody of melodrama tropes. It sounds like a mess but Alice Howell’s charms and comedic chops shine through the clutter showing the comedienne at her best, able to rise above the material and go toe to toe with one of comedy’s all time heavyweights in Oliver Hardy.
Seeing films like these is always a bit melancholic as you are glad that they are found and available, but make you realize the extent of the lost cinematic history, hopeful for what may yet be discovered and resurrected.