BFI Southbank, London
28 October 2016
Going to a silent film screening never fails to generate a sense of excitement especially if it is a film that one has not seen before. That excitement is magnified if it is a rediscovered silent, one that hasn’t been seen in the cinema for perhaps a hundred years. But tonight is something different because the film we are off to see is not only over a hundred years old but was never released in the cinema. In fact, it was never finished and nobody is really sure what it would have been called had it been completed. The film has been given the title The Lime Kiln Club Field Day (Dir. Edwin Middleton, T. Hayes Hunter, and Sam Corker Jr., 1913) and it is believed to be the oldest surviving film with an all-black cast. Some time in 1913 a Biograph film crew and their all black cast shot seven reels of film for a movie that, for reasons unknown, was never completed and the unedited, silent, non-intertitled daily rushes were stored away in Biograph’s film vaults. In 1939 the seven reels were part of a 900 reel hoard of Biograph material acquired by New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) when Biograph’s Bronx studio closed. The nitrate footage was transferred on to safety stock and some restoration work done but it was not until 2004 that the true significance of those seven reels was recognised.
There then began a painstaking project to edit the daily rushes into some sort of order and make a cogent and accurate plot out of them. There was nothing in film related literature of the era to provide any clues as to the plot or script although they did manage to identify many of the cast. MoMA went as far to draft in a lip reader to pick up clues to the plot from the words being spoken by the cast. It was not until 2014 that a fully edited version of the film was ready for screening (which if nothing else gave The Lime Kiln Club Field Day the record for longest post-production history of any film ever made!) . The film was first shown at MoMA in 2014 and at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival in 2015. Tonight’s screening is its UK premier.
Central to the film’s plot is actor Bert Williams who plays a top-hatted ne’er-do-well. He is competing with two others for the affections of a well dressed lady (Odessa Warren Grey, below left) although his efforts attract the disapproval of the lady’s mother. We then move to the Lime Kiln Club which is planning for its annual day out. Bert William’s lack of money hampers his ability to get a drink. On their day out, club members assemble outside the club and parade to a fairground where they eat and take part in a series of leisure activities. Bert, still desperate for a drink, espies a club member hiding a jug of gin in a well. In retrieving it he spills the gin in the well but then proceeds to sell the newly christened ‘gin spring’ to the other fair goers and with the money he has raised he entertains the well dressed lady at the fair and, on taking her home, earns a kiss (or two).
In some ways, the most remarkable thing about The Lime Kiln Club Field Day is its ordinariness. It is full of black actors playing ordinary people, doing ordinary things. In other films of the period, if black characters were ever present they were most likely portrayed as indolent, greedy or violent racist caricatures, most virulently in D W Griffiths’ Birth of a Nation (1915). Even when not portrayed in such blatantly negative terms, black faces rarely appeared in films other than in minor functional roles such as the cook, the chauffer or the train conductor for the next 50 or so years. Yet here are black characters shown engaging in leisure activities and even sharing an intimate moment, almost unheard of activity for the time. The film hinges upon the performance of Bert Williams (image, right). He was hailed as a great comedian, some even drawing parallels with Chaplin or Keaton, although there are few surviving examples of his work. Williams at the time was one of the biggest names in vaudeville and was at the forefront of pushing back barriers on black performers, becoming the first black star to take a lead role on the Broadway and by far the best-selling black recording artist of his time.
And yet despite being black and despite his fame amongst both black and white audiences Williams appears in this film in black face make up, the only cast member to do so. Was this, as some claim, a sop to white audiences whereby if the lead cast member wore black-face the remainder of the black cast didn’t have to? A black performer using black face makeup was unusual, although Williams also used it in his theatrical performances, which garnered mixed reactions from black audiences. Some students of Williams’ life and work have speculated that he wasn’t obliged to wear blackface, that he simply saw it as part of a tradition of mime performance, while others claim, perhaps less convincingly, that Williams saw himself as an outsider (he was Caribbean rather than Afro-American) and so didn’t understand the full implications of the blackface performance. We may never know, but Williams’ self image must have been shaped by many contradictory factors, one of the biggest stars of the Ziegfeld Follies yet forced to use the freight elevator when staying at predominantly white hotels. Most studies paint him as a tragic figure. Fellow vaudeville star W C Fields, who regularly worked with Williams, described him as “the funniest man I ever saw – and the saddest man I ever knew”. Williams died of pneumonia in 1922 at the age of 47.
The other fascinating insight provided by The Lime Kiln Club Field Day is the view it gives us of the silent film making process. In editing the surviving daily rushes into a cogent film plot the MoMA restorers have deliberately left in much intriguing detail. For example, at the start of each scene we have the silent film equivalent of the clapper board, identifying the scene and ‘take’ number. For many scenes, the editors have also left in multiple takes, which show the actors modifying and refining their performances for each subsequent take. The multiple takes at the films conclusion are particularly interesting with Williams and the well dressed lady going from just a quick peck on the cheek to a full blown embrace. There are also a delightful series of out-takes which reveal the interactions between the cast and crew, often sharing a joke, and shots of Williams having his make-up applied.
From what little information has been recovered about this film, it is likely that the The Lime Kiln Club Field Day was one of a series of films, based on a popular collection of stories known as Brother Gardner’s Lime Kiln Club, written by Charles M. Lewis. The only printed reference to the film(s?) is in the obituary of a crew member, who “….employed a large group of coloured performers for the ‘Lime Kiln Club’ series of motion pictures…in which Bert A Williams was featured.”. If other films in the series were made or completed then they must be considered lost. We may never know why The Lime Kiln Club Field Day was not completed. Some have speculated that it was as a result of the release of Birth of a Nation which set in stone supposed black character traits which other films then had to adhere to if they were to be successful. I’m not sure about this. Despite the popularity and success of Birth of a Nation on its initial release there was also considerable popular discontent with its crude racial characterisations. With Biograph’s film virtually ‘in the can’ it seems strange that they would not feel there to be a receptive audience (at least among the black community if not the white) for a film which provided a more realistic and positive image of black society.
Providing live piano accompaniment for a film in which the same scene was often played out multiple times and yet still be able to complement the pacing, emotion and humour of the film was a challenging task but one which tonight’s pianist, Costas Fotopoulos, accomplished with great skill.