The Lighter Side of a Pandemic: Rube Goldberg, Influenza and the Movies

The Influenza Pandemic of 1918 remains one of the deadliest in recent history. (2020 edit: bitter laughter) Millions lost their lives and as a precaution, moving picture studios temporarily halted operations.

When a disaster happens, all that’s left to do is laugh or cry and cartoonist Rube Goldberg opted to find humor in the small details. While not diminishing the severity of the situation, he found humor in it and this was likely welcomed by the readers of Photoplay Magazine.

The Vampire

The vampire craze was on the wane by this time but there was still humor to be found in the image of a wicked screen vixen as a devoted mum. The crack about an Egyptian princess is directed at the publicity rumors circulated by Fox about Theda Bara. Her name was an anagram for Arab Death! She was born in the shadow of the Sphinx! The suicide line is likely a reference to her breakout hit A Fool There Was in which Miss Bara’s scorned lovers off themselves at a remarkable rate.

By the way, Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand sent up expectations vs. reality in Mabel’s Dramatic Career.

The Cameraman

The sound of the barrel organ or street organ is often associated with carnivals and festivals but, yes, it would indeed be a suitable job for a cameraman in the days when cameras were hand-cranked. Monkey optional.

The Cowboy

I can see Hart doing this, actually.

The Star

Buying on payments and being caught by a money-draining disaster was another common gag in films of the period. Skinner’s Dress Suit revolves around it. A broke actor evading creditors was featured in Kean.


Now that’s a sad joke because it’s so true. Nitrate was and is maddeningly fragile.

The Comedian

I am reminded of the old myth that Ben Turpin had his eye insured against uncrossing.


  1. Marie Roget

    Rube Goldberg…there was nothing he wouldn’t skewer. These cartoon panels must have been truly welcome (as humor often is) during the darkest of circumstances. When you’ve already done a lot of crying about a situation, it’s good to find a way to have a few laughs at it, which gives you a sort of control over it. Goldberg understood that.

    [An Aside: my great grandmother died in the 1918 Flu Epidemic leaving twin infant girls behind her. Her name was Paula Bourque. She was 18. I wish there was a joke in here somewhere, but this bit of family history is pretty somber. Vaccinations for everything nowadays. Maybe cures for cancer and AIDS on the way in our lifetimes. Let us hope. ]

    1. Fritzi Kramer

      It was such an utter tragedy and I am so sorry to hear about your great grandmother. An elderly friend, who was perhaps seven or eight at the time, shared with us that the unmarried young women in their late teens and early twenties had a sleepover when the epidemic hit their town. Almost all of them passed away.

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