A Reckless Rover (1918) A Silent Film Review

Sam Robinson plays a ne’er-do-well who is on the run from the police and ends up in a Chinese laundry. Chaos obviously ensues and much laundry is destroyed in the process. A rare surviving comedy from the infamous Ebony Film Corporation.

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD and Bluray.

Splish Splash

We’re going to be paying a call on our old friend “context” today. The word is often used as a silencing tactic to avoid discussion of racist ingredients in older films but real context—looking at the time and place in which a film is made—is incredibly valuable. Our target today is the infamous Ebony Film Corporation, a company that rose with white financial backing but fell due to black protest.

The title cards are… oh dear…

Black characters had been featured in silent film from the beginning, often played by blackface performers. Every stereotype you can imagine was played out on the screen, from stealing watermelons to being afraid of ghosts. By the 1910s, black filmmakers were beginning to craft responses to these portrayals with the Lincoln film company in particular creating pictures that featured handsome and appealing heroes.

Ebony was a bit of a oddball in the mix because it was owned primarily by white businessmen but featured a black producer and a black cast. Its comedies were marketed to theaters of every kind but, as the marketing materials show, we have issues:

“Quaint racial happiness” is their selling point.
The logo is… well… (Picks jaw up from floor.)

A Reckless Rover is a rare surviving comedy from this studio. It involves the adventures of comedian Sam Robinson as he tries to avoid being arrested when his landlady calls the police on him for failing to pay his rent. (Robinson has been described as both the younger brother and cousin of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, just to make things fun. I believe cousin is the more accurate description and that he was mixed up with Luther Pollard’s younger brother, who was also on the Ebony payroll. As the kerfuffle over The Captive demonstrates, many silent film myths are based in nothing more than poor reading comprehension.)

Robinson evades the Keystone Cop-style police and ends up in a laundry business owned by a Chinese man. (Ebony comedies may not have used blackface but yellowface was A-okay, it seems.) Robinson steals clothing, uses a customer’s stocking as a necktie and generally wrecks the joint before the police show up again.


As you can see, this is pretty standard slapstick stuff with some pretty unsavory racial elements in the mix. The actual physical comedy is adept and the players engage in all the accepted knockabout practices: double takes, hopping up and down, leaping in and out of windows, etc.

Luther J. Pollard was in charge of Ebony’s productions and the forty players on its payroll. (Pollard’s brother was Fritz Pollard, one of the first African-American NFL players and its first African-American coach. Fritz also served as a talent scout for Ebony.) Unlike other studios that featured black talent, Ebony took out full-page advertisements in mainstream trade journals and its films were booked in theaters that catered to white moviegoers. (Oscar Micheaux hoped to negotiate a similar arrangement but his politically charged dramas and refusal to avoid the topic of racism made this impossible. Harmless and bumbling were fine but fiery and heroic would never do. By the way, at the time of this writing, The Black Panther is the #1 movie in America.)


Pollard is a complex figure. While he operated the Ebony company under the direction of majority white owners, he was concerned about not indulging in the sort of stereotypes that were common in Hollywood portrayals of black characters. In a 1918 item from Moving Picture World, Pollard stated that Ebony comedies did not use dialect title cards as a rule, which was pretty unusual and certainly welcome.

In Migrating to the Movies, Jacqueline Najuma Stewart writes that Ebony comedies were both slapstick and modernist critique of African-American stereotypes. Whether or not that is true, white audiences certainly would not have read the comedies that way and, as the anti-Ebony campaign of The Chicago Defender proves, black critics were none too impressed either. Pollard may have toned down the stereotypes but they were still there and now they were more acceptable for middle class audiences.

Not even the Keystone Cops can save the day.

The newspaper launched a campaign against the studio, encouraging theaters that catered to black clientele to refuse to book Ebony products. While the comedies were indeed shown in white theaters as well, the loss of the African-American audience struck a blow and Ebony folded in the early 1920s.

This is highly significant because it shows a minority group objecting to racial stereotypes, taking action and seeing that action result in real change. For comparison, Irish-Americans in Portland, Oregan demanded and received permission to censor the film Castles for Two (1917) in order to remove scenes of drunken Irish peasants that they deemed offensive. (I realize that the Irish were not in the same position as black Americans at this point, they were well on their way to mainstreaming, but it does show that ethnic and racial stereotypes were unwelcome in many corners.)

He smoked opium that was really rat poison. You see the type of comedy we’re dealing with.

Anyone who spends any time reviewing classic film will sooner or later run into the context brigade. “You can’t judge a film by modern standards,” they sniff. “You’re condemning a movie just because it doesn’t reflect modern racial attitudes? How closed-minded of you! You’re denying the past! Why are modern people offended by everything?”

This type of commenter is so high on their own smugness that it’s difficult to break through but it’s clear that their own grasp of past attitudes is pretty narrow and flawed. We have established that black audiences (and other marginalized groups) were offended, did complain and, in some cases, did get results. In calling out the racist material in Ebony comedies, we are merely following an unbroken line of objections stretching back to the initial release of these shorts.

Context: The Chicago Defender was like, “Nope.” when faced with Ebony comedies.

Unfortunately, the context brigade has a pretty large membership and the appeal is obvious. “We need to look at context” often means “I don’t want to feel uncomfortable or have to discuss race even when the film I am watching is steeped in it.” Well, too bad. I’m placing the real experiences of 1918 African-Americans—all too often ignored completely in the rush to hide behind the old “context” fig leaf—over the potential discomfort of some modern viewers. Deal with it. We will not indulge the fantasy of a la-la land where it was all gumdrops and rainbows and racist humor was just swell. Do you want to break it to them about the Tooth Fairy or shall I?

Let’s have anther look at that great hat.

A Reckless Rover is an important piece of film history, existing in a halfway point between mainstream Hollywood and the emerging African-American movie industry. That being said, A Reckless Rover is the sort of mean-spirited, knockabout comedy that is decidedly not my cup of tea and the racial aspect is pretty stomach-turning. It’s recommended for its historical value but know what you’re getting yourself into.

Where can I see it?

A Reckless Rover is available on DVD and Bluray as part of the Pioneers of African-American Cinema box set. There is considerable nitrate decay in the film’s opening scene but it soon clears up. The film features a spunky piano score by Donald Sosin.


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20 Replies to “A Reckless Rover (1918) A Silent Film Review”

  1. I do not think the drugs humor is racist. Smoking rat poison instead of opium reminds me of all those jokers in the 1970s smoking oregano because they couldn’t get marijuana. (And I’m remembering this from my small town American school system, that was all-white except for one black student.) Or for a more recent example, all those idiots with dain bramage from smoking Spice or synthetic marijuana because they couldn’t get their hands on the real stuff. Or even going back to Prohibition, all the idiots who blinded themselves trying to drink rubbing alcohol. No, I think idiot druggie behavior is universal, and not really a black stereotype. And the photo you shared is hilarious! Thanks for discussing all these lesser known movies. I do think we should give credit to the real flesh-and-blood people who were making these movies under difficult social conditions, both actors who were doing their best with the available parts, and also producers trying to stay in business by getting their movies to wider markets. I know you think they are sell-outs, but I do feel they were trying to climb a slippery ladder, even if they fell short of the ideal. I’m glad you are also reviewing the films that take the bull by the horns with serious social issues, as well as the light ones.

      1. I am all in favor of balanced portrayals of people of all races, but I do remember other movies where the drug fiends are white (not just black or Chinese). It is good that you are bringing these issues forward for discussion.

      2. That’s really a false equivalence. Chinese people have been smeared in popular western entertainment as opium fiends and dealers for centuries, white characters have not. When a racist meme portrayed a famous African-American man eating watermelon and fried chicken, the meme’s originator claimed that “white people eat those foods too.” White people do eat those foods but that is beating around the bush: activities that are benign or at least not racially-tinged when associated with some groups are incredibly racist when associated with others.

  2. Have watched A Reckless Rover twice since getting the Pioneers set. To clarify: have watched it once, and the second time “watched” it playing on the den big screen while doing food prep next door in the kitchen. I really enjoyed Sosin’s sassy score and nimble piano work both times, but Rover is a painful and anger-making film to actually sit down and watch. No other words describe the experience for me.

    Might I add that “context” promoters needed (and need) to hang around with as many older relatives and their friends as partner and I have throughout the years. We both come from big clans and have heard over and over that what feels gratingly bigoted now in movies, tv, etc. felt (surprise!) gratingly bigoted then.

  3. I like to see these types of pictures because they do show history and how horrible racism was thought of as just entertainment. It’s sad but one should never forget but see how sad it really was

  4. At the risk of having others here shower me with thrown popcorn, I have to bring up the suggestion that it is selected outrage that people seem to experience over the issue of racial/ethnic insensitivity in early 20th century entertainment. “Context” may be a word to use when referring to a story itself, such as Birth of a Nation.” “Era” may be the better word to use when considering insensitivity overall, and it may be correct to apply the “Era” inappropriateness argument to most Silent Movies.

    If 1920’s Black moviegoers were offended by racial stereotypes in many Silent Movies, wouldn’t/shouldn’t they also be offended that in MOST Silent Movies the cast was entirely white. Maybe they were, but they also probably resignedly accepted the era they lived in A modern movie would not be made today without a variety of ethnicities included – it is the “era” we live in. The Silent Era (and the 1920’s as a whole) was a different era – applying our modern sensibilities to the films made in the 1920’s would be as awkward as asking a 1920’s audience to accept some of the norms of modern cinema – graphic sex and violence – things many of us resignedly accept.

    For those of us at this website who are white, on the shelves of our Silent Movie collections, are there movies we enjoy, but would have the creeps showing to a new-toSilent-Movies black friend without first explaining the era that it was made in?

    1. Understanding the culture of an era is not the same as blithely ignoring black protest and attempting to deify racist dweebs like D.W. Griffith. The phrase “context” is most often used as a silencing tactic to prevent anyone anywhere from ever discussing something that makes a particular viewer uncomfortable. I highly recommend reading up on the specifics of protests against racism of silent films written by non-white writers.

      We can acknowledge something as racist or otherwise problematic and still watch it. My problem with the context brigade is that they demand silence on racism from everyone else just because they personally do not wish to talk about it. Too bad. I will continue to discuss the matter on this site. (After “we need to look at context!” the next cry is “we don’t censor!” which is another nice little strawman. Nobody is saying these films should be banned. They need to be seen and discussed but discussed in depth, not hand-waved away with “context”.)

      Frankly, I would never presume to explain historical racism to a non-white friend. If they wish to share insight and experience with me, I will gratefully listen but it is not my place to explain.

      I would also like to say that “selected outrage” is not a good hill for you to die on. Don’t worry, in addition to racism, I also talk about sexism, jingoism and numerous other social issues in silent film. Trust me, I am quite militant on most issues. It’s like that time some dude got mad at me dissing Griffith and claimed I let John Ford and Erich von Stroheim off the hook. Somebody clearly has not been reading my stuff.

      1. In my opinion, Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances is a funny, funny movie. If I were to show it to a black friend, particularly one new to silent movies, I would be uncomfortable doing so without some appropriate pre-comment about the times it was made in. Mary’s gardener, who I think may be someone in black face, and the non-contact scene Buster has with the black woman on the street might otherwise raise some irritated eyebrows, and possibly unspoken thoughts that would reflect poorly on me. (In fact, one review I saw somewhere said that the street scene/joke “ruined” the film.)

        Unless I knew the friend very well, I might pick another film without controversial content to share and enjoy. The prejudices of the 1910’s and 20’s do not match that of our contemporary world. If we want to look at and enjoy Silent product, but are going to get tied up in knots over the prejudices some of the filmmakers had or inappropriate-to-modern-taste scenes, there are going to be a lot of films that WILL be left on the shelf. Unless they are only being viewed in a history class, instead of in our living rooms on any given Saturday night, some of us would end up apologizing and apologizing to friends for content that does not reflect our modern values. After a few modern cultural shocks, uninitiated people will just label the silent era as “racist and backward” and skip it all.

      2. The silent era WAS racist, there’s no point in denying it. Seven Chances (and many Arbuckle and Keaton comedies) contain racist material. African-Americans noticed racism in Hollywood films at the time and did protest. Modern viewers are allowed to consider the gag to be something that ruins the film for them, I am one of them. (Just as the scene would have ruined the film for some black filmgoers DURING THE SILENT ERA.) Lest I be accused to selected outrage, I also dislike the sexism in the film. I also feel that anybody who wants to watch the film should and anybody who enjoys the film is a perfectly nice person, they just have different red lines and taste. That’s okay. But the film is still sexist and racist and denying or ignoring it won’t change anything.

        Discussing racism, sexism, nationalism, jingoism and other -isms in silent films and opting to skip some titles isn’t ruining the era. The discussion is PART OF THE EXPERIENCE for me. This cute academic detachment may work for some people but it doesn’t work for me and I won’t do it. And, again, I would never presume to explain an era’s racism to somebody whose ancestors and near relatives would have possibly experienced it first-hand.

        People who prefer not to watch certain kinds of films are perfectly within their rights. “I’ll watch anything!” does not a superior viewer make. We all have our taste and our red lines. Chill and let people have their comfort zones. “YOU HAVE TO LIKE THIS THING!!!!!” is another odd hill to die on. There are plenty of young silent film fans, we’re not in peril of the silents being banned because of uninitiated people. They know how history works. Again, chill.

  5. I’m way too late to this party, but just wanted to add a couple of thoughts.

    When one brings “context” into the discussion of American films specifically with respect to the racial attitudes of the society that produced and watched the films, then one had better have an accurate understanding of those racial attitudes before making the “context” argument, regardless of how the context is used (whether to minimize the “offensive” material or grant some sort of “get-out-of-jail-free” card to the films and their makers, or simply to encourage others to view and study them).

    From my reading of your work for about seven or eight years, you have encountered many who don’t have a thorough understanding of the basis for the argument they are trying to make regarding the context of historical racial attitudes and you have tried and continue to try to educate with facts — facts that contradict what may be generally believed or accepted about historical racial attitudes.

    I am a firm believer that context is crucial to understanding history, and though I have not spent much time or effort with regard to historical context of race in early American film, I have made historical context the foundation of how I view, analyze and discuss these films with respect to how and why they were produced, distributed and exhibited. But “context” without the facts is worthless.

    P.S. I will testify that you are regularly dissing Stroheim and at least occasionally critical of Ford. 🙂

    1. Yes, I think my main problem with the calls for context is that they are placing the real deaths & mayhem endured by marginalized groups BELOW “I don’t wanna feel uncomfortable watching a movie.” Worse, this fear of discomfort leads them to demand that all discussions fit their definition of “context” i.e. no discussions of racism anywhere, ever.

      1. Yes and, unfortunately, you can’t get around the subject of race in American movies whether you are discussing the 1910s or the 2010s. The primary difference is that the obvious evidence of the early films, i.e., racial caricatures and stereotypes, became more subtle or were simply avoided by excluding minorities from the industry.

      2. Indeed. The excuses change but the overall goal for excuse-makers stays the same: not to allow any discussion of race that makes them feel uncomfortable. Instead of being told to look at context, we are told that including non-whites would be “historically inaccurate” (never mind that the movie/show/game is set in medieval Europe, which did indeed have non-white residents, and that it also includes dragons.)

  6. You comment immediately made me think of a movie of “medieval Europe” that I saw and loved as a kid … “The Long Ships” (1964) which pits Vikings and Richard Widmark against the Spanish Islamic armies led by …. wait for it …. Sidney Poitier! No dragons, but just about everything else. Despite the lead actors, it was not a product of Hollywood (big surprise), but a UK/Yugoslavia (!) production. Directed by the great British cinematographer Jack Cardiff.

    There has to be a “silent/sound” angle somewhere in this one!

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