The Joke That Failed (1917) A Silent Film Review

A spot of British comedy from the Hepworth film company. The “joke” of the title is a fake robbery but things go awry when a 100% real burglar shows up to ransack the house at the same time.

Home Media Availability: Not yet available

Stick to exploding cigars

A huge thanks to Christopher Bird for sharing his personal copy of this rare film.

Britain’s Hepworth Pictures was one of the earliest film production companies in the world and their 1905 smash hit Rescued By Rover was a runaway bestseller at a time when exhibitors purchased film prints outright. It was so popular that its negative wore out due to the sheer number of copies produced and it had to be totally remade.

Are we ready for some burglary?

I didn’t realize until fairly recently that Hepworth continued as a going concern well into the 1920s. Now, later Hepworth products can be a bit difficult to find but I have been impressed with the ones I have been able to view. (I reviewed A Friend in Need some time back.)

The Joke That Failed doesn’t feature the cute animals that I always associate with the Hepworth brand but it is a zippy little comedy in the P.G. Wodehouse school and I certainly will never turn down one of those.

Here’s the setup:

The conspiracy.

The Finch sisters, Sybil (Miss Picard) and Betty (Chrissie White), along with Betty’s fiancé, Frank (Lionelle Howard), decide to play a practical joke on their dear old dad, Jack (John Butt). After reading a news item about a burglar targeting local homes, their father brags that he pities the thief who tries to rob him. So, the girls decide to test his resolve by having Frank disguise himself as a burglar and give him a scare.

Jack overhears the scheme and decides to turn it on the tricksters by giving Frank a thrashing during the “burglary.” The idea of a practical joke coming back to bite the jokester had been a constant theme in silent film comedy from the very beginning. The Lumière company had released L’Arroseur Arrosé in 1895, which showed a kid playing a joke with a garden hose and the gardener retaliating with a spanking. The British Bamforth studio made The Biter Bit in 1899, which was basically a remake of L’Arroseur Arrosé with the punishment being switched to a more tit-for-tat counterattack with the same garden hose.

Pretend the be a burglar, they said. It will be fun, they said.

The Joke That Failed is more sophisticated, of course, but the basic premise is the same. But then we get a second twist: while Frank is getting dressed in his burglar disguise, the real burglar creeps into the house. He quickly overpowers Frank, gags him and stuffs in him the closet. Meanwhile, Betty and Sybil are delighted by “Frank” and his authentic disguise and they merrily help him fill his bag with their jewelry.

Jack sees that the burglary is afoot and at the first opportunity, overpowers the burglar and delivers a spanking. (A character thinking a dangerous situation is actually a game is a classic comedy bit from Bringing Up Baby to Galaxy Quest.) Betty and Sybil rush to his defense but when Betty starts kissing him, the burglar unmasks himself, declares them all to be insane and storms off with his loot. The Finch family is too shocked to say a thing. If only they had a Jeeves help set matters right but alas…

The world’s most confused burglar.

So, let that be a lesson to all of you: if you’re going to fake a robbery in order to expose your father as a blowhard, make sure that you yourself can tell the real burglar from the phony one.

The biggest name in the film is Chrissie White. Apparently, her performance as the impish Betty was not far removed from reality. In his memoirs, company founder Cecil Hepworth described White as “thoroughly mischievous by nature” and “always charming.” She was a great favorite at the British box office and her marriage to director Henry Edwards created a post-WWI power couple.

Helping out with the robbery.

Unfortunately, the performer who played the real burglar is not credited but merely described as “The Star. Two Houses a Night.” It’s a pity because I enjoyed his growing exasperation as the residents of the home fail to take him seriously and then alternately attack him and pamper him. It’s enough to drive an honest man out of a life of crime, believe me.

In addition to playing with the “biter bit” comedy trope, The Joke That Failed also poked fun at the popular home invasion robbery plot. You couldn’t go five minutes in 1900s and early 1910s cinema without an armed burglar, usually sporting three days’ worth of beard, barging into a home and threatening the householders with theft, death and worse. Bonus points if the terrified residents telephone for help. (I discuss the origins and popularity of this remarkably specific trope in my review of Suspense.)

Weirdest. Robbery. Ever.

There’s no race to the rescue with telephone in The Joke That Failed but the comedy does show that the armed burglar was becoming steadily less menacing by this point in film history. (Two Broncho Billy Anderson films from 1915, His Regeneration and After Midnight, paint the burglar in question as downright cuddly.)

There aren’t really any high stakes here and it’s better that there aren’t because a real threat of danger would have spoiled the light mood. Everyone in the cast seems to be having a wonderful time and the mood is infectious.

Up to no good.

One interesting thing about the opening credits: Pre-1920 movies (and even a few after) did not necessarily credit producers and directors the way we would today. It’s not uncommon to see someone doing the job of a producer credited as a director and someone doing the job of a director credited as a producer! The latter is the case with this film as director Frank Wilson is given a “produced by” credit. It can get quite confusing if you aren’t careful. (I confirmed the director vs. producer credit by checking the British Film Catalog.)

The Joke That Failed is a really delightful little picture. It’s light and at ten minutes, it doesn’t wear out its welcome.

Where can I see it?

Not yet available on home media.


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