(Or, The Curious Case of the Backward Biograph)
“Lecherous” Uncle Zeke (James Kirkwood) won’t keep his hands off Bessie (Mary Pickford), the sweet young bride of his nephew (Billy Quirk), . . . and Pickford can’t keep from cracking up at Kirkwood’s antics: she gets a little encouragement from her fellow player to help her finish the scene. But . . . just before the cut, is he addressing the camera still in character? Is he questioning his own sanity or asking his director,“What the hell is this?” “Oh, Uncle!” (Biograph, 1909, dir. D.W.Griffith).
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Mary Pickford’s first day at the Biograph studio on East 14th Street in New York was still very fresh in her memory. D. W. Griffith had scolded and embarrassed her — in front of a crowd of other actors — for breaking character in the middle of a test shot, wasting valuable film stock. That unpleasant introduction to the world of moving pictures may have been on her mind three months later as she tried to avoid breaking up laughing and spoiling a scene in the comedy, “Oh, Uncle!”.
But Mary can’t help it. Turning her back to fellow player James Kirkwood, her shoulders begin to shake as she tries to stifle her laughter. Kirkwood, still in lecherous character, grabs those quivering shoulders, turns her around, lifts her chin and helps her finish the scene, more or less, without completely wasting the shot.
The fact that this flubbed scene appears in the finished film is an indication of the fly-by-the-seats-of-their-pants approach to comedy at Biograph in 1909. But it is our good fortune that it was kept in the four minute farce, a film that is all the better for it.
Biograph: Where comedies come to die?
“BUT,” . . . you say . . . “But, . . . Mack Sennett ! . . . Mabel Normand !! . . . ” and you would be correct . . . in 1911. But in the middle of 1909, Mack was getting his feet wet playing Max Linder knock-offs and Mabel had yet to arrive in the foyer of the ancient brownstone at 11 East Fourteenth. No, Biograph circa 1909 is hardly the first studio that comes to mind when thinking of the great comedies, comedians and comediennes of the silent era, and . . .
“Oh, Uncle!” (July, 1909)
. . . does nothing to contradict that opinion. It has all the rough edges that one would expect of an impromptu, semi-professional, in-no-way-ready-for-prime-time comedy sketch, albeit one featuring three accomplished stage actors. Watching the completed film even in its correct edit (more about that subject in a bit . . . ) gives the impression that we are witnessing a preliminary rehearsal, rather than finished takes.
Yet, this half-assed, unfinished (and barely started) feeling is one of the two main attractions of this split-reel comedy from Biograph in the summer of 1909, the other being Mary Pickford, adorable, fetching and utterly irresistible as “Bessie,” the newlywed pretending to be a housemaid, in black wig, apron and cap.
And irresistible she is to her new husband’s wealthy old uncle Zeke, who finds it more fun than expected to pull off an extended practical joke on the young couple when he sees that his nephew’s bride is such a cutie. Zeke’s hands are never idle around Bessie — around her waist, her bust, her arms, her chin, her cheeks, and then a near face-plant in the boobies just for good measurement.
Shot in two days at the Biograph studio in late July 1909, and released August 26 at a length of 292 feet, “Oh Uncle!” was quite literally filler. It filled the remainder of a 1,000 foot capacity single reel that contained The Seventh Day , a 693 foot drama that also featured Kirkwood and, in a bit part, Mary Pickford (playing a real housemaid).
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The plot of “Oh, Uncle!” is one of the countless variations on the “trading identities” trope. Per the Biograph Bulletin, the studio’s in-house publicity sheet, childless bachelor Uncle Zeke has prepared a will that leaves his fortune to his two nephews — the caveat being that in order to receive the inheritance, they must be unmarried. He tells each that he is coming for a visit. He finds the first nephew, Tom, already wed — plus Uncle Zeke detests the wife — so he’s out. . .
But none of this business is depicted in the film as released . . .
“Oh, Uncle!” begins with Bessie and Harry, our newlyweds, cuddling in a comfy chair, when their housemaid hands Harry a letter from his Uncle Zeke announcing he is coming for a visit, and casually mentioning the requirement for the inheritance. We see by the looks of horror on their faces that neither was aware of the peculiar terms of Uncle Zeke’s will.
Realizing the predicament their marriage has created, and thinking Uncle Zeke knows nothing of their recent wedding, Bessie comes up with a bold scheme to assume the identity of the maid (nicely played by an unfortunately anonymous actress).
At this point it becomes obvious that the Biograph Bulletin synopsis bears little resemblance to the final product on the reel, and probably reflects a more detailed original scenario that was severely trimmed during shooting in the rush to meet schedule.
In the finished film, it becomes clear to the viewer that Uncle Zeke has already seen the wedding notice for Harry and Bessie in the newspaper. But he has no intention of telling them that bit of information, thus his visit becomes an exercise in sadism toward the clueless couple, while they gamely continue in their ruse to fool Uncle Zeke into thinking Harry is still a bachelor.
Upon Uncle Zeke’s arrival, Bessie huddles with the maid in the kitchen (the scene of most of the film’s action) and puts on the maid’s apron and cap. In the living room Zeke arrives toting a suitcase, greeted by Harry. After admonishing Harry to remain unmarried, Zeke spies an assortment of ladies’ “unmentionables” that Bessie seems to have inadvertently left behind the living room chair after a previous cuddling session with Harry, plus a huge, broad-brimmed ladies’ hat. While Harry tries desperately to explain away those items, Zeke/Kirkwood gives us a knowing wink.
Then . . . Uncle Zeke meets cute young Bessie as “the maid,” and becomes a quasi-incestuous lecher while Harry is reduced to the role of cuckolded husband. After he’s had enough fun groping Bessie and enjoying Harry’s apoplectic reactions, Uncle Zeke lets them in on the joke, waiving the newspaper to show them that he knew of their marriage all along! Let’s just say they take it much better than would most of us.
However, Uncle Zeke does make amends. During the final scene group-hug, Harry lifts the wallet from Zeke’s rear pocket and hands it to Bessie, who inspects its contents — much to Zeke’s amusement — and he lets her keep it. I’ll assume that he planned to give its contents as a wedding gift anyway, along with the dress and hosiery he brought in his trunk for no other discernible reason.
But Uncle Zeke gets the last laugh as he plants a big, non-consensual kiss squarely on the lips of a surprised Bessie as the film ends.
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Film scholars and historians of acting have made much of the contrast between Pickford’s restrained performance in “Oh, Uncle!” and the wild gesticulation and mugging of her co-players, Kirkwood and Quirk. To be sure, their performances lack subtlety, but this seems intentional — after all, this is broad farce.
The contrast between the manic and straight or “normal” characters is the basis of much comedy, and so it is in “Oh, Uncle!”. Consequently, a comparison of acting styles within this film has limited value in assessing the nature or quality of Pickford’s acting. There are many other examples directly on point contrasting Mary Pickford’s more restrained approach to film acting in comparison with her Biograph colleagues, ones we will explore in other films.
Pickford’s Bessie is a classic comedy “straight man/woman” role opposite, or in this case between, two clowns. Billy Quirk was a vaudeville veteran. Kirkwood, like Pickford, was a product of the legitimate theater, the top tier of melodrama.
At 34, James Kirkwood had played leading roles in the original productions of two of the biggest hits by two of the most important producers of early 20th century Broadway — in Henry Miller’s production “The Great Divide,” and David Belasco’s “Girl of the Golden West.” A revival of “Divide” was Kirkwood’s final stage gig before entering films with Biograph. (Also joining him from the same production was his friend, Henry Walthall.)
James Kirkwood indulges in a little impromptu pantomime. I think he wants to take her out dancing . . . or measure her for a new dress to wear to a dance . . .
Kirkwood gamely yuks it up with the spastic Quirk, while Pickford wisely chooses the middle ground, playing straight to the buffoonish antics of the two clowns. Both Kirkwood and Quirk break the fourth wall and address the camera as if it were a vaudeville audience. Pickford simply holds her ground and her sanity, and plays the straight pivot around whom the two lunatics orbit.
I’ll have more to say about Billy Quirk in future installments on the Biograph comedies — he and Mary Pickford played essentially the same characters in a series of shorts in 1909 and 1910. Those films succeeded the popular “Mr. and Mrs. Jones” comedy series featuring Florence Lawrence who departed Biograph less than a month before “Oh, Uncle!” was shot. Thus, “Oh, Uncle!” is unofficially the first in the Pickford/Quirk series.
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Unfortunately, watching the Library of Congress streaming video of “Oh, Uncle!”— another good viewing print, this one apparently from the original copyright paper print — will leave you baffled.
Though it has been called “hopelessly jumbled,” in reality the LOC viewing (or “access”) print has the film assembled backward, i.e, the last shot in the film is first, the first shot is the last, and so on, for each of the twelve, thirteen or fourteen shots in the film, depending on what you count as a “shot.”
There are no intertitles (Biograph did not include them in the paper copyright prints until later in 1909), but there were apparently at least three (and likely more) in the original release, judging by a jump cut in the middle of an early scene as Bessie is changing into the maid’s clothing while Zeke is arriving, and a couple of later abrupt transitions between scenes in the kitchen and living room.
The icing on this cake of confusion is the presence of a “mystery piece” of film that fits nowhere in the narrative, neither in the backward LOC print, nor in my “correct” reassembly. It wasn’t until I separated each shot and placed them in their proper order that I realized that this “mystery piece” is actually photographically reversed — i.e., a mirror image — a copy of a few feet of film (or paper) from another cut.
In the following video clip, I have isolated the “reversed shot” in its entirety at half speed, followed by the corresponding piece that I cut from the longer, correctly oriented shot, also at half speed, with a one-second blank interval at the beginning of each of the two shots for separation.
Comparing the placement of furniture and the part in Billy Quirk’s hair between the two shots confirmed my suspicion. How this “mystery piece” got there, and more importantly, how the entire film came to be in its current backward form, I can’t say with absolute certainty. But it was sloppy workmanship somewhere in the reproduction process — at Biograph when preparing the paper print for copyright, or during the LOC’s transfer of the original 35mm paper prints to 16mm film in mid-century. I suspect the former, and a quick peek at that paper print roll would tell the tale.
Regardless, none of this detracts from the fact that we owe the Library of Congress a huge debt of gratitude and many thanks for their efforts in archiving and now distributing free to the public the legacy of Mary Pickford and Biograph.
In addition to the 16mm access/viewing print now available streaming, the LOC holds a 16mm negative made from the paper print and, of course, the original 35mm paper copyright print deposited by Biograph in 1909. The only other source material for “Oh, Uncle!” is a 35 mm nitrate negative held by The Museum of Modern Art, in New York. I have no idea of its genealogy. I’m hoping for an original camera negative, plus intertitles . . . but I’m not holding my breath.
“Oh, Uncle!” in its “backward” state is available in streaming HD video at both the Library of Congress National Screening Room website, and at the LOC’s YouTube page.
The following “re-edited” “Oh, Uncle!” is in no way a restoration of the film, nor is it intended to be a definitive version. It is for amusement purposes only. My amusement and, I hope, yours as well.
My re-edited version:
(You are welcome to download and share, but please credit 11East14thStreet.com. Thank you!)
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The Library of Congress, Digital Collections, National Screening Room, Oh, Uncle;
The Library of Congress, National Screening Room, YouTube page and playlist, Oh, Uncle;
Christel Schmidt, at pickfordfilmlegacy.tripod.com for the catalog of Mary Pickford Biograph holdings at the archives of the Library of Congress;
lantern.mediahist.org for The Moving Picture World, 3 July-31 Dec 1909, Review,”Oh, Uncle,” September 11, 1909, pp. 346;
New York NY Dramatic Mirror, 1909 Jun – Aug 1910 (Archives of The New York Dramatic Mirror at fultonhistory.com), for The New York Dramatic Mirror: Review, “Oh, Uncle,” September 4, 1909, p. 17, and Biograph advertisement, August 28, 1909, p. 16.
André Gaudreault, “OH, UNCLE”, “The Griffith Project, Volume 3, Films Produced in July – December 1909,” pp. 21-22, Paolo Cherchi Usai, General Editor, BFI Publishing, 1999;
Tom Gunning, “D. W. Griffith and the Origins of American Narrative Film, The Years at Biograph,” University of Illinois Press, 1991, 1994;
Cooper C. Graham, Stephen Higgins, Elaine Mancini, Joao Luiz Vieira, “D. W. Griffith and the Biograph Company (Filmmakers, No. 10),” The Scarecrow Press, 1985.