Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew bring their signature subtlety to this charming little comedy about a May-December marriage and the problems that come when the wife of the union catches the terrifying foxtrot-itis. Will Sidney’s feet survive this dance craze?
Digging the Dancing Queen.
The popular narrative regarding comedy is that slapstick and physical stunts were the order of the day and sophistication only came about with the sound revolution. This is all nonsense. I won’t even start on the assumptions about physical comedy, that is another thwacking for another day, and will instead focus in on the comedians who eschewed slapstick for something more subtle.
Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew were a comedy team noted for their sophistication and charming wit. Sidney Drew came from a long line of actors; he was uncle to Lionel, Ethel and John Barrymore. The first Mrs. Drew had been Gladys Rankin but she passed away in 1914. Drew’s second wife was Lucille McVey, a talented and intelligent actress who was twenty-seven years his junior but every bit his partner in writing, directing and starring in their light comedies. She is the Mrs. Drew most people mean when they discuss the screen team. (I do not usually approve of referring to women as Mrs. Husband’s Name but this was Lucille Drew’s preferred stage name.)
The Drews excelled at taking familiar domestic comedy situations and freshening them up with charming performances and, often, fanciful double exposure. The result is more than the sum of its parts.
In Fox Trot Finesse, Sidney Drew is Ferdie, a little nebbish of a man who lives in constant fear of a visit from his domineering mother-in-law (Ethel Lee). Ferdie is married to Eva (Mrs. Drew), who has caught foxtrot-itis and wants to dance morning, noon and night. Eva is in her twenties and has all the energy that goes with youth. Poor Ferdie is in his fifties and this 24/7 May-December dance party is beginning to wear out his nerves and the soles of his feet.
A late foxtrot party proves to be the last straw for Ferdie. He can’t take much more of this! Finally, inspiration strikes. He can’t dance if he can’t walk. All he has to do is tell everyone that his foot is injured and he is off the dancing hook for weeks. (And this is the “finesse” of the film’s title.)
The plan works beautifully. Sweet Eva is prepared to pamper her poor injured husband but then he makes the fatal error of skipping down the street when he thinks no one is looking. You just know that Eva is going to have to do something about this.
The plot of Fox Trot Finesse is a familiar one today and was hardly new in 1915. Mother-in-law jokes? They’ve been around since marriage. What makes it unique, though, is the charm of the Drews and the way they are able to find a fresh spin for their old material. For example, the film opens with Ferdie breakfasting with his mother-in-law. He is terrified of her and does not want to make eye contact but he is also hungry and wants to eat. He “solves” the problem by poking a hole in his newspaper and forking his food through the opening. Later, he is commanded to kiss her goodbye. In order to avoid this fresh horror, he pretends to sob at her absence and shakes her hand vigorously. It doesn’t work but it was worth a try.
These incidents neatly illustrate Ferdie’s character for the audience. He has definite ideas of what he does and does not want to do but he is not brave enough to put his foot down and so he tries to sneak around, having his cake and eating it too without much regard as to who he hurts in the process. This is not spelled out for viewers, the Drews respected their audience and allowed them to reach conclusions for themselves. Frankly, this is rare even in modern films.
For her part, Mrs. Drew is an amiable whirlwind, completely unconcerned at the chaotic effect that her mother and her dancing are having on her poor husband’s psyche. She is, however, aware of Ferdie’s feelings on the subject and she uses them to get her way in the end. (A terrorized Ferdie is threatened by a ghostly apparition of his dear ma-in-law.) Generally, though, she regards her babyish husband with benevolent indulgence; after all, she knows who is really in charge. One gets the impression that the foxtrot incident is merely the first of many humorous misunderstandings that will occur in their married life and all of them, no doubt, will end in Ferdie’s unconditional surrender.
Both of the main characters are completely self-absorbed and blind to the needs of the other but what saves their marriage is the fact that they truly love one another. It shouldn’t be shocking that a married couple would muster screen chemistry but you would be surprised at how many of them fail at it. Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew have a warm, easy rapport and they clearly enjoy one another’s company. This makes their comedy enjoyable and the marriage of their character’s believable. Further, this is one of the few times that a May-December marriage is a) acknowledged and b) its inconveniences treated with humor. This is made even more notable by the fact that the couple on the screen was a couple in real life as well.
Generally, when silent films dealt with the issue at all, they sniffed at the concept if the older party was a woman and treated it as a tragic misunderstanding when the older party was a man, often ending the thing with the older fiancé or groom giving the young woman her freedom with a tragic sigh. Most of the time, though, men Drew’s age were able to have screen romances with women in their ‘teens and twenties without a word spoken on the matter. Love William S. Hart but he was the most guilty of this, as was Drew’s nephew, John Barrymore. There’s nothing wrong with May-December, of course, but Hollywood has always had a problem with it going both ways. There have been exceptions (there are always exceptions) but the general rule is that actors can romance women young enough to be their daughters or even granddaughters while actresses have some ‘splaining to do if they attempt something similar.
The Drews continued to work together until Sidney’s death in 1919. Despite their popularity at the time, their star has faded considerably over the years and relatively few of their collaborations have been released to the general public. It’s a real pity as their smart and fun films are delightful and are an ideal counterargument to people who insist that silent movies were all about the slapstick.
Fox Trot Finesse is Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew’s most famous film (1914’s A Florida Enchantment had Edith Storey as the leading lady and Mrs. Drew in a supporting role) and it is an ideal introduction to this comedic power couple. Do check it out if you get the chance.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★½
Where can I see it?
Fox Trot Finesse was released on DVD as part of the Slapstick Encyclopedia box set. The entire set is well worth purchasing as a fun introduction to silent comedy (and not just slapstick)>