What do you do when your girlfriend’s dad says no to the wedding? Earn money by forging Eqyptian antiquities, of course!
We’ve established that the western imagination was completely enraptured by Egypt and particularly its death rites. These rites were sanitized, westernized and deployed in silent drama from the very beginning but anything that could be used in drama was also immediately spoofed in comedy.
Lee Beggs (who also directs) plays Professor Hicks, an old snob who is absorbed in his attempts to create a rejuvenation serum. His daughter Florence (Constance Talmadge) is being wooed by Dick Graham (Billy Quirk) but daddy has an ultimatum: Florence shall marry rich or not at all and young Mr. Graham hasn’t a bean.
Distraught, Dick attempts to kill himself by attaching a rubber hose to the gas lighting fixture and inhaling but is interrupted and quickly gives up the notion. I know this film is about mummies but that certainly got dark quickly. (Comical suicide was, of course, a very popular gag in comedies of this period. Harold Lloyd and Douglas Fairbanks were among the many who tried to off themselves through elaborate means.)
Meanwhile, the professor finds a recipe for the rejuvenation formula that claims to work on long-dead things like Egyptian mummies. Instead of testing is formula out on fresher corpses first like any respectable mad scientist, the professor advertises for a genuine Egyptian mummy.
By the way, while this is a broad comedy, it does have its foot in the reality of its day. Mummies were considerably easier to obtain by the layman and not necessarily for study. In fact, ground-up mummies were an essential component in Mummy Brown, a hue popular with the pre-Raphaelites that was produced until the 1960s. (To the credit of some of these painters, they thought that the name was just fanciful marketing and were properly horrified when they realized the main ingredient was, well, mummies. Edward Burnes-Jones insisted on giving the tube in his possession a decent burial once he received confirmation that MUMMY BROWN IS PEOPLE.) And, alas, this is just one of the nutty things Europeans did with mummies. Professor Hicks is starting to look positively normal.
Anyway, Dick sees the professor’s ad in the newspaper and the promised reward of $5,000. (That’s about $120,000 in modern cash as of this writing. No wonder the professor wants his daughter to marry money!) With that kind of money up for grabs, it’s inevitable that hanky-panky will ensue and Dick is determined to strike the first dishonest blow.
He spots a vagrant (Joel Day) who is suitably gaunt, smears him all over with Mummy Brown and stuffs him into a pawn shop sarcophagus. Unfortunately, the vagrant is a raging, violent alcoholic. I’m sure nothing bad will come of THAT.
A product of the Vitagraph company, this comedy is very much in the popular Boy Meets Girl, Boy Loses Girl, Boy Does Something Absolutely Nuts to Win Girl Back model that just about every silent era comedian employed at one time or other. Of course, it was popular because it worked. Young people in love tend to be a bit mad anyway and this sort of comedy setup is just a slight stretch of reality. (Or maybe even not so slight.)
Lee Beggs shows himself to be an accomplished comedy director and the story zips back and forth between Dick and the professor’s mummy woes. It’s broad stuff but not exactly Keystone with much of the comedy coming from the vagrant’s attempts to make off with alcohol and his drinking everything he can lay his hands on.
Fans of Constance Talmadge should know that her part is very much supporting, a typical The Girl role, in short. She’s very charming and cute in the role and the mugging that would mar her later comedies is, ironically, not in evidence nearly as much in this broad spoof. This is the earliest Constance Talmadge appearance that I have seen and I would love to see more from this era.
Billy Quirk does well enough as the hero of this picture, though I would have liked to see the climax of the picture include him a bit more. As it stands, he leaves his potential father-in-law alone to grapple with a violent drunk suffering from withdrawal and wanders off to invest his $5,000 in the stock market. What follows is your typical happy ending fodder but it feels unearned. It’s probably a good thing that the professor is on the dim side because I would consider this to be a marriage deal-breaker.
This was not the only or last mummy-themed comedy. Vitagraph returned to the well the following year with The Dust of Egypt, in which Antonio Moreno plays a young man whose life turns inside out when a mummy in his care (Edith Storey, Moreno’s usual partner) comes to life and grapples with telephones and matches. 1915 also saw the release of When the Mummy Cried for Help, an Al Christie-directed comedy with Lee Moran and Eddie Lyons. The infamous Ebony Film Corporation also got in on the act in 1918 with Mercy, the Mummy Mumbled.
Most of the mummy comedies are considered lost films (Mercy, the Mummy Mumbled is available on Bluray) so I can’t say with certainty how The Egyptian Mummy stands up in an apples to apples comparison but just as a little comedy short? I think it works fine. It’s goofy, the climax is a little too Victorian Coincidence for my taste but it all generally works quite well. The cast has great chemistry, the direction is pretty sophisticated and a good time is had by all. (By the way, Beggs and Quirk are credited with working together in over forty films, about a fifth of which were directed by Alice Guy.)
Constance Talmadge fans will definitely want to check out this early step in her career, released two years before Intolerance. Fans of silent comedy in general should be pleased with the mad antics of the cast and anybody studying Egypt in western film will want to take a peek at this light variation of the theme.
Where can I see it?
This short was released on DVD as part of the now out-of-print Nickelodia DVD. Currently available for purchase as an HD digital download or via streaming from Harpodeon.
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