Young lovers are parted by the young lady’s father but they soon realize that their best chance to get together might just lie in a pot of red ink and a sign that says “Smallpox.”
Home Media Availability: Released for free and legal streaming.
A pox on both your houses
As I write this, my home state of California has been locked down to some degree for three months and cases of COVID-19 are on the rise. Since this pandemic spread to our shores, I have been asked many, many times about pictures related to the 1918 influenza epidemic. And the answer is that, other than a few flu gags, there doesn’t seem to be much.
That’s not to say that illness was ignored entirely, of course. The 1912 short The Sunbeam solves its romantic tangle with a fake measles quarantine. Food-borne illness brought tragedy in The Italian. The Black Death was the primary subject of The Plague of Florence. (I go more deeply into the 1918 epidemic and its cinematic coverage in that last review.)
And then we have Cupid in Quarantine, a Christie comedy released just as the second wave of the 1918 epidemic was revving up. The picture was released in September of 1918 and the deadly month of October was just around the corner so we can’t really say that it was released at the height of the disease but certainly in the midst of it. So that puts modern viewers in a unique position: is the humor in the short of the “too soon” variety or is it the sort of thing that was funny in 1918 and is still funny now?
I have ten minutes for a one-reeler so let’s find out!
Winnie (Elinor Field) only has eyes for Jack (Cullen Landis) but her father (Billy Bevan) hates the very sight of him. In fact, he hates him so much that when he hears that his daughter is planning a date while he’s out, he decides to hide in the bushes in order to clobber the lad with a club.
Winnie manages to warn Jack and once he is in the house, they settle on a plan. Winnie’s neighbor is a minister and he is under quarantine for smallpox. Winnie is in possession of some red ink. You see where this is going? Unfortunately, Father sees the duo getting all spotted up and decides to teach them a lesson by having the local policeman force them into quarantine for real—and claim that he is infected with the disease himself.
Winnie and Jack are naturally horrified at being exposed to the contagious policemen but once he leaves, they realize that there’s nothing stopping them from getting married. After all, the minister’s contagiousness is a bit of a moot point, so they ask him to come over and wed them. It all ends in a whirlwind of revelations (nobody actually has smallpox, as it turns out) and while the very end is missing footage, we still get the idea that everything ends well.
First, let’s talk about the reaction of 1918. The subject matter did not seem to upset anyone and the review I found mainly praised Elinor Field’s vivaciousness and even went so far as to say that the humor in the picture was contagious.
I have to agree with the review of Field’s performance. She is completely delightful and easily carries the film all by herself, though Landis and Bevan are also amusing in their own way. Field has a bubbly, upbeat manner and her dainty fluttering around the house produces the most laughs in the picture.
And what about the modern viewer’s perception of the disease and quarantine-based humor? Well, I have to say, Cupid in Quarantine could probably be remade right now with a few changes in symptoms and it would be as funny as ever. Considering the concern about false test results, the final mix-up would be particularly timely.
What really makes this comedy sing for me are the little humorous details. When Bevan has determined to bash Jack’s head in, he finds himself a suitable club and then pulls up a lawn chair so he can lie in wait in style. Later in the film, when Winnie decides that the wedding is on, she is able to improvise a bridal gown with bits of curtain, tablecloth, a flower arrangement and other things. I don’t know about you but that sounds positively modern to me.
I also appreciated the fact that while this is fairly broad comedy, the characters in the film follow sensible quarantine protocol. Winnie and Jack don’t even think of contacting the minister for a wedding ceremony until they believe they have been infected by the policeman and the minister doesn’t agree to come to the house until Winnie tells him that they also have smallpox. I wish more people in our modern world were so careful.
While it’s not about influenza, Cupid in Quarantine is an example of the type of humor that targeted infectious disease at the time and I think it holds up rather well. (Here’s a collection of editorial cartoons that skewer influenza through the decades.)
Cupid in Quarantine is cute, keeps its story simple and the skilled performers, particularly Field, are a pleasure to watch. It would be a fun comedy short in any year but in 2020, it’s a welcome bit of amusement that is newly fresh a century after its release.
Where can I see it?
Available for free and legal streaming courtesy of the National Film Preservation Foundation Screening Room. It is accompanied by a piano score by Stephen Horne.
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