Tuesday March 01, 2016
Movie Review: The Lime Kiln Club Field Day (1913)
Williams and Grey get ready for their close-up.
Last Monday, at the Paramount in Seattle, as part of “Silent Movie Mondays,” I saw a movie few people have ever seen.
It's called “Lime Kiln Club Field Day,” and no worries if you haven't heard of it. It was produced by the Biograph Company in 1913, and starred Bert Williams, a West Indian vaudeville performer who is considered the first black star (headlining shows on Broadway, for example, at a time of the KKK and lynchings in the South), but it was never released. And it would‘ve disappeared completely if, in 1939, the Museum of Modern Art hadn’t bought 900 cans of film that the bankrupt Biograph company was planning to destroy. “Lime Kiln” was among those reels; MOMA didn't know what it had until recently.
And why do we care? Because it's the first feature-length film with a mostly African-American cast. Williams is in blackface but no one else is. And as fraught as the concept of blackface is, within the confines of the film it feels like another comic mask—like Chaplin's moustache or Keaton's stone face. In the film, it doesn't feel racially derogatory. He's our clown, as Chaplin was. Indeed, one of the startling aspects of the film is how typically “silent film” it is. How long before we got another cinematic portrait of the African-American community that was this positive? Or this neutral? I'm guessing decades.
The plot is fairly simple. Williams is one of three men trying to court a girl, played by the super-stylish Odessa Warren Grey, and things begin to turn in his favor when he inadvertently drops a jug of gin down a well, tainting the water. He then labels the well “Gin Spring” and sells it, or something, and comes into cash. Then he escorts Ms. Grey through the fair, onto the rides (including an early 20th century Merry-Go-Round with brass ring), and to the big dance, where, I believe, he's revealed as a charlatan. No matter. He still gets the girl. The movie ends at her gate with a big kiss. Multiple versions of a big kiss, actually. Spike Lee would be proud.
If I sound shaky on some of the details it's because no title cards were ever created for the film, and no script was found. The curators at MOMA, including Ron Magliozzi who toured with the film, went so far as to hire lip readers to figure out what was being spoken. Most it was unhelpful ad-libbing. (After the screening, I asked Magliozzi what was being said, and he mentioned that in some scenes, such as when the rivals all show up at Ms. Grey's gate, they‘re actually swearing: “What the fuck are you doing here!” etc. Makes one wonder how R-rated silent films might actually be. Surely a good future project for someone.)
Even without the title cards, though, you pretty much know what’s going on. Indeed, their lack probably helps the film, since we do get title cards in the Bert Williams short, “Natural Born Gambler,” which precedes “Lime Kiln,” and they‘re rendered in the usual, minstrel-y fashion of the time: “de debbil” for “the devil.” To me, the title cards are more problematic than the blackface, which in some ways emphasizes Williams humanity rather than detracting from it. So it’s probably a net positive that “Lime Kiln” doesn't have the cards. It allows the story to be the story.
The most commented-upon aspect of the film is the cakewalk at the big dance. It feels like the first episode of “Soul Train” ever recorded:
After our screening, there was a discussion, moderated by Seattle Theater Group's marketing director Vivian Williams, and featuring Magliozzi; Teddie Gibson, who composed a score for the film and played on the Paramount's Wurlitzer organ; and Dr. Louis Chude-Sokei, a UW professor who's written a book about Williams, “The Last ‘Darky,’” which I would love to read someday when I don't have a stack of books to get through. I‘ve sat through a lot of these Q&As, and they’re usually death, but this one was great. It had history, disagreement, discussion, insight. I wanted it to keep going.
So why was the film never released? Magliozzi suggests that once “Birth of a Nation” was released in 1915, and became a huge hit, and the KKK reformed and everything, it didn't seem like a good idea. But that would mean they kept it in the can for two years? Did they do that with silent films? I'm guessing there's a different answer—one we'll probably never know.