Posted by David Kalat on November 20, 2010
Lillian Travers (Edith Story) makes a surprise visit to her boyfriend Dr. Cassadene (Sidney Drew). But the surprise is on her when she catches him in what sure seems like a comprising position with a wealthy widow. He makes the requisite apologies, they make up, and it all goes pear shaped again when he blows their next rendez-vous, once again caught with the same widow. She gives him a third chance—and as she comes out of her house to meet him, there he is, entangled in the clutches of three fawning women. If this were any other movie, you’d expect Lillian to blow her top and walk out on him, continuing the cycle of sitcommy complications that you’ve come to expect by this point. Oh, but A FLORIDA ENCHANTMENT is not any other movie. And let us uncover its fabulousness in stages:
Lillian comes into the scrum of clingy ladies and gives Cassadene the cold shoulder. Instead, she and plants a big wet one on the respective lips of the pretty young things.
What Cassadene doesn’t yet realize is that there is no point in his apologizing. She just isn’t that into him anymore. His sweetie has taken a weird drug that changes people’s sex. She’s started growing facial hair, and developed a manly interest in women.
She fakes the disappearance of “Lillian” and adopts a new identity as “Lawrence Talbot.” Yep, werewolf fans, she beat ole’ Lon Chaney Jr. to that name, and helped establish its pedigree as the name for a person with metamorphic abilities.
For those of you who don’t know of him (and I’ll assume that’s most of you), Sidney Drew was a master of awkward comedies of social manners. He was a cross between Charley Chase and Edward Everett Horton. Given his fussy mannerisms, it’s a short hop to feminizing him all the way. Eventually, the farcical complications of Lillian/Lawrence’s transformation implicate Cassadene, and he takes the same drug—and instantly becomes a mincing, preening stereotype.
Role reversal comedies are a genre unto themselves, and this early example of the form plays by much the same rules as TOOTSIE or the like. But to find this kind of gender-bending comedy in 1914 is still startling. The sexual stereotypes are played broadly, but it’s not out of step with contemporary presentations of similar humor. You could condense this film down and restage it as a SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE sketch today.
A FLORIDA ENCHANTMENT was based on a book by Archibald Clavering Gunter. With a name like that, you know it’s gotta be old. The book was written in 1892 (if you’d like, you can read it here), and by the time Sidney Drew got to it, it had already been adapted into a play.
Sidney Drew was an established stage performer from a prominent theatrical family—he’s the uncle of John, Lionel, and Ethel Barrymore. In 1911, much to the snickering of his Barrymore clan, he joined the flickers and started making short comedies. By 1913, he was one of the leading lights of the Vitagraph company, where he specialized in domestic farces. Thanks to his fame and talent, he was in a position to exert some professional control over his work, and A FLORIDA ENCHANTMENT finds him not only starring, but producing and directing as well.
Let’s linger on that—there are any number of books on film history or screen comedy that would have you believe that this kind of auterist comedy was the sole province of Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd. But here’s a man you’ve probably never even heard of, Sidney Drew, exercising that kind of personal artistic vision as well.
His auteurship continued–and by 1918 he’d started his own production company (the VBK company) to make comedies for Metro.
It gets better. Let’s take a close look at when this movie was made. It was released on August 10, 1914, about a month after Sidney Drew got married to one of his co-stars, Lucille McVey (using the stage name Jane Morrow). She plays “Bessie” in A FLORIDA ENCHANTMENT. But she fairly instantly graduated to bigger things—marrying Drew and becoming “Mrs. Sidney Drew” in his continuing cycle of short comedies. This is significant because the “Mrs. Sidney Drew” role had been a component of Drew’s act all along, dating back to his days on the stage. The original Mrs. Drew, Gladys Rankin, was also a screenwriter (more gender-progressivism from the Drew clan!) and an integral part of Drew’s life, both at work and at home. Her death at the end of 1913 was a horrible, tragic loss for Sidney.
Her passing was a cruel blow, and the speed with which he remarried should not distract us. He set out to make A FLORIDA ENCHANTMENT while he was grieving—and its story, about a couple who decide to soothe their heartache by remaking themselves as new people, carries added poignancy with this knowledge.
There’s another shoe waiting to drop, and some of you may have hiccupped when you read that date above and can see what’s coming. But let me savor this moment anyway.
August 10, 1914 is when A FLORIDA ENCHANTMENT opens. That’s four months before TILLIE’S PUNCTURED ROMANCE. Four months before the movie that everyone calls the first American feature comedy.
To be fair, some of the historians who venerate TILLIE’S PUNCTURED ROMANCE as some kind of significant landmark are circumspect about how they phrase it, inserting qualifying words to gerrymander TILLIE away from anything that might challenge it. But if we’re not going to trip over ourselves with pedantic nit-picking, we can simply acknowledge that A FLORIDA ENCHANTMENT is an American feature comedy that predates TILLIE.
I’m not going to say it’s the first feature comedy, although it may be. I just happened to see A FLORIDA ENCHANTMENT at Slapsticon a few years ago, without looking for it or knowing anything about it beforehand, and so I can only conclude that there may yet be other worthy discoveries still buried. No point sticking my neck out to make claims I can’t back up.
The only reason anyone still watches or talks about TILLIE’S PUNCTURED ROMANCE is its alleged status as the first American feature comedy. Actually sitting through it is a bit of a chore. TILLIE has an excellent cast, but they don’t get to do anything all that funny.
I’ve argued before (and I’ll continue to do so—just watch me) that Mack Sennett’s approach to comedy was rooted in a specific cultural moment that doesn’t translate to our current viewing environment. He came up the ranks of Biograph and made parodies of D.W. Griffith-style melodramas. He exaggerated those melodramas, and audiences of the day (who didn’t have a lot of other screen comedy to which to compare this stuff) responded positively. But culture marched on, and those references faded. I don’t have the luxury of hopping in a time machine and popping back to 1914 to see TILLIE with a first-run crowd, so I have to engage in an intellectual exercise of evaluating it. There’s a lot of assumptions built into that process, and all I can really be sure of is that very few people today find TILLIE very entertaining.
And so the best part of it is, the fact that Sidney Drew got there first isn’t even the best part of his accomplishment. Being first is a fairly drab kind of triumph, the sort of thing that appeals to a Guiness Book of World Records mentality. Drew’s film does something much cooler: it’s still funny today. Indeed, there is some evidence it works even better with today’s audiences. Variety hated it so much in 1914, its reviewer wrote that the film should never have been released at all. And the fact that it is virtually unknown today, compared to TILLIE, suggests that it wasn’t a huge popular success in 1914. No matter—it works perfectly today, and with one exception needs no apologies.
That exception is for the blackface. (Deep sigh) What can I tell you? It’s set in and was filmed in Florida, and the characters have black servants. For some reason, which was undoubtedly racist in origin, white actors were cast in these roles, and made up to look black. The racial stereotypes aren’t any worse than usual for the era—nothing that would have been any better had the actors actually been black—but still. Just putting someone in blackface has so much negative baggage already, the damage is done.
However, there is one moment of near-redemption: Lillian has forcibly administered the sex-change drug to her maid, and the man-maid immediately makes a pass at the other maid. And in this sequence there is a brief moment where the man-maid (played by Ethel Lloyd) starts to powder his/her face aggressively… and we have the possibility of having a white actress playing a black man pretending to be a white woman, 90 years before TROPIC THUNDER played with the same incendiary humor. There is no payoff, but there are times I fantasize about that scene continuing, Ethel layering fake whiteface on top her blackface, and playing a woman as a man as a woman…
This blog post was never meant as an infomercial, but I’d be remiss if I let this go without telling you if you even could track this movie down. It is on DVD, but not under its own name, so Google may not point you in the right direction. It’s one of a number of silent obscurata packed into THE ORIGINS OF FILM box set.
Sidney Drew’s short films are harder to find, but just as rewarding when you do. A few have turned up in gray-market DVD-Rs circulating in the silent comedy underworld. It may take some serious dedication to track ‘em down, but here’s a taste of what awaits you when you do: here is a complete one-reel comedy from 1915 entitled WANTED, A NURSE. Never say I didn’t do nuthin’ for ya.
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