Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew are at it again in this newly-discovered domestic comedy about a tattletale husband and the way the women in his life punish him for his snitching ways.
A huge thanks to Christopher Bird and Dino Everett for letting me see this! Diplomatic Henry is currently being restored by the Hugh M. Hefner Moving Image Archive.
The Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew comedy team is one of the unsung delights of the silent era. Sidney Drew was the uncle of the famous Barrymore siblings but he was famous in his own right for a series of domestic comedies he made with his wife, Lucille. (Lucille was actually the SECOND Mrs. Sidney Drew but we shall discuss the first at a later date, she said cryptically.)
The Drews brought a sparkling wit and subtle humor to everyday problems encountered in their May-December marriage. (Don’t ask me who is May and who is December, I never get it right. But Sidney was significantly older.) Their style of comedy would later be taken up by sitcoms but they were Lucy and Desi before Lucy and Desi were out of grammar school and short pants, respectively.
Diplomatic Henry is a particular treat because it was so very nearly lost forever. You can read about collector Christopher Bird’s discovery of a nitrate print in a rubbish bin here. It has since been screened at Pordenone and I was able to get a sneak peek.
(Chris just found another Drew comedy, not lost but very rare, called Lest We Forget on 28mm. Lucille is officially considered co-director and co-writer. Go, Lucy! Go, Lucy!)
Sidney Drew’s usual persona was as a fussy man-child who always manages to get himself into trouble with some silly scheme or other. In this case, he is a newlywed man named Henry who decides to jot down a letter to his beloved Aunt Becky (Florence Natol) explaining that his young wife, Anne (Mrs. Sidney Dew) is nice enough but she doesn’t keep house or sew like auntie. Oh, the pants Aunt Becky used to sew him!
Unfortunately for him, Anne finds the letter and adds her own post script: She keeps house and sews beautifully and she has no idea what the heck Henry is on about. And then she sets about crafting her revenge. Henry wants a perfect housekeeper? He shall have one!
When he returns home, Henry is greeted by a model of domestic efficiency. He is stalked by a maid who brushes every crumb of tobacco and speck of ash. Anne declares that his morning coffee is a fraction of a degree too cool and is unsafe for drinking.
Meanwhile, Aunt Becky receives the letter and sides with Anne. She also decides to teach Henry a lesson by giving him what he claims he wants: a new pair of pants.
Spoiler: They’re ill-fitting and plaid but Becky and Anne conspire to make him wear them in front of guests. Properly chastised, Henry repents.
Well, that was cute! The Drews were true collaborative partners in every sense and while Lucille is not credited as one here, she did act as co-writer and co-director with Sidney. In any case, I do sense a woman’s touch when it comes to domestic matters in this picture. Little details that I think a typical man of the period would have missed.
At the time, America was enthralled with the “scientific housekeeping” movement, the basic idea being that modern science could be used to create a perfectly healthy and hygienic home. Fun and tastiness were tossed out of the window in favor of ruthless scientific efficiency and weird things in jelly. (Untidiness was not even tolerated in the salad bowl and unruly leaves had to be encased in gelatin for maximum science.)
The central idea behind scientific housekeeping was for women to participate in modern STEM studies while still being properly domestic and it was seen as the perfect compromise. Everyone gets science, men get the prestige and women get to play with aspic at home. What could be fairer? The craze for this style of homemaking swept the country and you can be sure that quite a few women (dare I say, even professional women employed as actresses, screenwriters and directors) were judged as wanting for not participating in the thoroughly modern cult of tidying up.
If you want to read more about the scientific housekeeping movement and its roots, Perfection Salad by Laura Shapiro is a great, nerdy pick.
And now, my dears, I wish to talk about pants. Specifically, the terrible plaid pants that Henry is forced to wear as punishment.
I don’t know for sure but I think the use of plaid for the trousers was a play on Aunt Becky’s age. You see, due to newly-available fabric dying technology, garish plaid pants were something of a signature for men in the mid-nineteenth century, about the time when Becky would have been a young woman. Such style would have been immediately visible to any audience member the same way we can easily identify the basics of 1950s and 1960s fashion.
Considering the popularity of home sewing during this period, the way the pants are constructed is a gag in itself. Anyone can see they are ill-fitting but the way the plaid mismatches at the seams? Painful to any sewing aficionado! (Plaid is challenging to sew because you want the pattern to attractively flow together at the seams, not do what Henry’s pants did! Take a moment and look at a cheap plaid item vs. an expensive one and you will soon see that the proof is in the seams.)
I also enjoyed the fact that every single female character in the film (and they are all women except for Henry and Aunt Becky’s butler) unites to put the complaining fellow in his place. I was expecting Aunt Becky to be a terror and side with her nephew but she doesn’t! She backs Anne to the hilt and so do the servants, who seem to relish tormenting their fussy atmosphere. Long live the sisterhood! Long live well-matched plaids!
The Drews, as mentioned before, brought a light and sophisticated touch to their comedy. Very little slapstick and even less mugging. It’s all subtle gestures and funny situations. For example, when Anne finds Henry’s letter, she is dying of curiosity and so she gingerly runs her finger along the envelope’s seal. Her face tells the whole story: It opened? Well, fancy that. And since it’s open already.
For his part, Sidney Drew’s Henry may be a bit of a stinker but he loves his wife and as he dresses, he has their portraits face one another and eventually kiss. That’s really the key to the success of the Drews as a comedy team. They may be silly sometimes and they may get on one another’s nerves but they are truly in love and usually end up doing the right thing in the end. It’s sweet.
Diplomatic Henry is a darling little comedy with a rather pro-woman outlook and an 80% woman cast. It also has the kind of gentle humor that never fails to charm me. Here’s hoping it will be available to a wider audience soon.
Where can I see it?
Diplomatic Henry is currently being restored at USC but when it does become available, I will let you know!