Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Great Bert Williams

Two nights ago at the Museum of American History, part of the Smithsonian, we saw a screening of a silent film from 1913 called Lime Kiln Field Day, starring Bert Williams.  Doesn't ring a bell? I'm not surprised, because Bert Williams may be one of the greatest figures of American show business, but sadly, we have few chances to see what all the shouting was about.

He was a black comedian who starred in The Ziegfeld Follies, wrote and performed many highly popular songs, and has been lauded as the greatest performer ever in vaudeville. I've heard him sing one of his most famous songs, Nobody, transferred at the National Portrait Gallery from cylinder recordings. He worked in blackface, which was virtually mandated for black comics around the turn of the century, right at the time--not right after the Civil War which we would otherwise assume until C. Vann Woodward exposed the real history--when Jim Crow reigned supreme in American race matters.

Lime Kiln Field Day was intended to run for about 35 minutes as a feature film produced at the Biograph Studios in the Bronx, where many famous silent pictures, such as Mack Sennett's comedies, were shot.  The Biograph vaults turned up the old film a few years ago and talented professionals at New York's Museum of Modern Art restored them and figured out who the players were, often relying on sheet music covers.

Bert Williams stars, and shows all his talents, many very subtle, in the film. He was a master of facial expressions, slowly reacting to action with a look perfectly responding to the cue. We have to figure out exactly what he and the other actors are saying and doing because this film was never edited for distribution, when titles would likely have been inserted. The ease with which you can figure the story out attests to the truth of that great line Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond uttered in Billy Wilder's marvelous tribute to the silents, Sunset Boulevard: "We had faces!"

The other actors, especially the female lead, Odessa Warren Gray, who later opened up a successful fashion and millinery store in Harlem, and Henry Troy, who plays Bert's rival for her hand, demonstrate their own excellence, too. The whole picture is highly sophisticated for its time, much more interested in characters than the great Mack Sennett comedies, but in many ways, reminiscent of the silent star who was most similar to Bert Williams in talent: Charlie Chaplin.

The tragedy of this picture's not being released was apparently caused by the release shortly after it was shot of Birth of a Nation, the D. W. Griffith epic that enshrined the Ku Klux Klan as heroic, and helped shaped American culture toward favoring the South as the Lost Cause, perpetuated, of course, in 1938, by the novel and movie, Gone With the Wind. We are finally beginning to rid ourselves of the accepted Southern version of the Civil War and Reconstruction, with the demise of the stars and bars and the recognition that the Civil War was indeed all about slavery. The reappearance of this silent movie should awaken us to the existence of the very strong theatrical tradition in the U.S. carried on by black performers and theatrical producers during those trying times.

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