When a well-to-do man drops his theater tickets, they are retrieved by a trio from the wrong side of the tracks. Once admitted into the swanky theater, the trio causes chaos and has an uproarious time. This picture was released by the controversial Ebony Film Corporation and was partially responsible for its downfall.
A foot in the door.
Here’s a classic silent comedy setup for you: a vaudeville show is underway and wacky audience members interact with the wacky acts, sometimes disrupting the whole show, sometimes merely heckling it. Charlie Chaplin adapted this stage classic to the screen with 1915’s A Night in the Show (he played dual roles), Buster Keaton took a stab at it in The Play House (he played dozens of roles) and Lupino Lane had a go in Only Me (he played ALL the roles).
Two Knights of Vaudeville does not have multiple roles but it does have a trio of rascals who get to attend a show thanks to three dropped tickets. This comedy short is the earliest film included in the Pioneers of African-American box set and it is going to make for a fascinating watch.
I will be dividing the commentary into two parts. First, we will discuss how Two Knights of Vaudeville works as a slapstick comedy with an apples-to-apples comparison with other comedy shorts of the period. Then we are going to discuss the historical context of the film and the complicated relationship between African-American audiences and comedy. Juicy stuff!
The plot of the film is simple. When a well-to-do man drops his theater tickets, they are immediately scooped up by two men and a woman, likely played by popular comedy stars Florence McClain, Bert Murphy and Jimmy Marshall. (Record keeping for this film is spotty at best.) The trio put on their best (including a boutonniere of green onions) and are admitted into the swanky theater. This is likely their first trip inside and they behave accordingly.
As is usual for comedy films employing this plot, each act is announced and each performer attempts to ignore the raucous audience. Our trio of gatecrashers are astonished by a contortionist, awed by a soprano but they get into trouble when they dive onto the stage during the juggling act.
Ejected from the theater, the three decide to make lemons into lemonade by sharing their experiences with their friends and neighbors. In short, they put on a show. However, the trio soon gets a dose of their own medicine when the rowdy audience pelts them with flour and other unpleasant things. The short ends with the two male leads tangled in a drum frame.
I would say that the slapstick in this picture is pretty close to similar low-budget comedies of the period. McClain takes the gentler sweetheart role while Murphy and Marshall show off their acrobatic skills with leaps, jumps and comical falls. Alas, the comedy is marred by all-too-common dialect title cards.
The leads show their theater roots by playing too broadly (by slapstick standards) and mugging for the camera but their performances generally work. At just ten minutes, the comedy moves at a furious pace, though this seems to be compensating for the staleness of the story. It’s also interesting to see the epilogue of the copycat vaudeville at the end of the film, which I have not seen in any other variation of this comedy setup.
Two Knights of Vaudeville is the most like A Night in the Show with both male leads openly disrupting the stage acts with their rowdy behavior. (I wonder if the former’s title is a play on the latter.) Chaplin’s short was also released in 1915 but as the original premiere date for Knights seems to be unavailable, I cannot be sure which film was released first. In any case, the act was an old one that Chaplin had been playing for years, having brought it over from England. Frankly, A Night in the Show is mostly interesting because it features two non-Tramp roles for its leading man.
While Keaton and Lane both freshened up the old chestnut by playing multiple roles and experimenting with double exposure, zooms and other technology, Knights is content to do the same old same old. Granted, this film did not have the resources of Chaplin, Keaton or even Lane but good comedy need not be expensive. In fact, the comedy short was one of the cheapest movies a would-be silent studio head could make. Heck, The Muppet Show found life in the old routine with a couple of plush old men a half-century later. But now we should discuss the circumstances of this film’s distribution and its reception.
Two Knights of Vaudeville was not made in New York, New Jersey or Hollywood but in Chicago. As a major destination in the Great Migration, Chicago was a logical place to build a studio focused on African-American subjects. The city boasted an unusually large number of theaters that catered to African-American audiences, many of which were located along the “Stroll.” The Stroll also housed the headquarters of the famed Chicago Defender, the most-read African-American newspaper in the United States at the time Two Knights of Vaudeville was released. This newspaper is going to figure prominently in the story of both the film and its distributor.
(For more on the subject of black urban migration and its effect on filmmaking, I highly recommend Migrating to the Movies: Cinema and Black Urban Modernity by Jacqueline Najuma Stewart. It is a primary source of information in this review. I am also indebted to the excellent essay Race Cinema and the Color Line by Charles Musser, found in the Pioneers of African-American Cinema box.)
One of the more controversial studios in the Chicago area was Ebony Pictures, a white-owned concern that produced rough slapstick comedies with African-American casts. The company took out ads in trade journals boasting of the authenticity of their pictures and the fact that they used black talent, not white actors in blackface. Ebony did not make Two Knights of Vaudeville but it did distribute it and this fact put the company in hot water.
The Historical Feature Film Company, the studio that actually made Knights, has left very few traces for historians to study. Ebony is far better documented and the company’s African-American general manager took pride in his work. He wrote that “colored players can put over good comedy without any of that crap shooting, chicken stealing, razor display, water melon eating stuff that the colored people generally have been a little disgusted at seeing.”
This admiration for comedy was the exception rather than the rule among the discerning black filmgoers of Chicago. Most acclaimed productions made by and starring African-Americans were dramas as dramatic films were seen by many critics of the day as a more suitable showcase for black talent, which is an understandable view. As W.E.B. Du Bois wrote, “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”
With the context laid out, you can see why the broad comedy of Two Knights of Vaudeville would not be universally welcomed. When the film was reissued in 1916, the Chicago Defender and its readers had a thing or two to say about it and Ebony’s slapstick comedies in general. Far from eschewing stereotypes, the films were charged with perpetuating them. The Defender has a point as the comedy of Two Knights of Vaudeville does display some pretty coarse racial tropes.
The attack on Ebony from such a popular and influential publication proved to be a death knell for the company. Theaters were pressured to drop Ebony comedies from their lineups and a fair number did. Despite its crossover success with white audiences, this was a blow. Ebony folded in 1919.
It should be noted that broad slapstick in general was widely condemned as being both vulgar and lacking artistic merit in the 1910s but the Ebony comedy complaints dealt with much deeper social issues. Stewart writes that “many of the first Black-produced films used stage-derived comedy routines to render Black characters and locales. This meant that some Black-produced films repeated blackface minstrel conventions that white filmmakers had been using since the earliest days of the cinema. At the same time, comedy could open up opportunities for parody and critique that reflected on the changing contours of modern Black life.” Indeed, we are never quite sure if we are meant to be laughing with or at the leads of Knights.
Whew! I told you that this would be a juicy topic and discussing it also kills one of the more tired tropes that silent film fans still find in the wilds of the internet and, alas, in real life. You know, when people try to claim that in the “simpler old days,” no one cared about racism and portrayals of race. Um, they kind of cared a lot, as this controversy shows.
Two Knights of Vaudeville is a interesting but problematic slapstick comedy that could have benefited considerably from a script revision or two. It’s worth seeing for students of comedy, independent film and African-American cinema but just know what you’re getting into.
Where can I see it?
Two Knights of Vaudeville was released on DVD and Bluray as part of the Pioneers of African-American cinema box set from Kino Lorber. I will be reviewing more films from the box very soon and I give it my highest recommendation.
Like what you’re reading? Please consider sponsoring me on Patreon. All patrons will get early previews of upcoming features, exclusive polls and other goodies.