Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The NFR Project #30: 'Bert Williams Lime Kiln Club Field Day'

Bert Williams and Odessa Warren Grey in 'Lime Kiln Club Field Day.'
Bert Williams Lime Kiln Club Field Day
Dir: T. Hayes Hunter/Edwin Middleton
Prod: A.L. Erlanger & Marc Klaw
Scr: Charles Bertrand Lewis
Phot: Unknown
Premiere: 11/8/2014
Approx. 1 hr., 5 min.

Again, we have film that is not available to the general public online, which makes it difficult to discuss. However, it does give me a chance to bring up the subject of the most neglected American comedian, Bert Williams.

This is an uncompleted film, halted in post-production by producers Klaw and Erlanger, prominent vaudeville producers of the day, in the year it was filmed, 1913. Sixty-five minute of unedited footage was first printed in 1976; it was assembled, analyzed, and presented at the Museum of Modern Art in late 2014.

The movie is another in a long line of “Negro” entertainments; the characters engage in stereotypical behavior in a scattershot plot that features Williams as its protagonist. The National Film Registry cites outtakes that show black performers and white crew getting along, “enjoying themselves in unguarded moments.” Even these small snippets of recorded interracial harmony are extraordinary for the time.

The other emphasis is the talent of Bert Williams (1874-1922). From the Bahamas by way of California, Williams was a brilliant physical and verbal comedian, comedy writer, and songwriter. First in partnership with George Walker in a popular “coon” act that brought them to vaudeville in 1896 (where they popularized the cakewalk dance), and Broadway in 1903. Williams also made a number of hit recordings of comedy songs such as his signature “Nobody” and “When the Moon Shines on the Moonshine.” (In a time when 10,000 records sold classified a hit he sold 250,000. He, Jolson, and Nora Bayes were the top recording artists of their time.

After Walker sickened, Williams went solo and continued his success. He teamed with white comic actor Leon Errol for the Ziegfeld Follies. Despite institutional racism, despite still having to “black up” for shows, Williams stated that considered himself fortunate. Still, he was described as incredibly sad by those who knew him offstage. Isolated from black culture, tolerated by white culture as a profit-maker, Williams was uniquely alone, the pain of which may have contributed to his early death.

Hopefully, we will get to see this footage and learn more about Williams’ performing style. Here’s some film of his famous poker-game pantomime, which shows just how great he was.

The NFR Project is an attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry, in chronological order. Next time: ‘The Evidence of the Film.’

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