Cinderella Cinders (1920) A Silent Film Review

Alice Howell plays an unemployed cook who jumps at the chance to work in a grand house. When the family’s house fancy house guests fail to show, Howell and the butler are dressed up as replacements. A few cops, a little spiked punch and chaos ensues.

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

Hire a union cook, they said. What could go wrong, they said.

It’s pretty safe to say that nobody with any sense takes claims that “women aren’t funny!” seriously these days. However, women are still quite underrepresented in silent slapstick and this is where Alice Howell enters the story. Her rambunctious screen persona and penchant for perfectly-timed physical comedy makes her every bit the equal of her male contemporaries.

Alice with her signature frizz.

Cinderella Cinders is one of her most popular films, a cute two-reel short that has relatively little Cinderella but a whole lot of everything else.

Howell plays a short order cook who spends her shift organizing a choir of soup slurpers, throwing pancakes at her patrons and trying to stop them from stealing doughnuts on the sly. Her pancake antics prove to be too much for her boss and she is fired. Fortunately, she is part of a union of domestic workers and she knows her worth and her rights and she won’t take a penny less than…

The race to the Doughbills.

The wealthy Doughbills find themselves short a cook just before their big dinner party and they call for a replacement. Union solidarity goes out the window as the cooks race to win the meager wage the Doughbills are offering and Howell wins the race.

(If you wanted to see an example of a comedy of domestic worker unionization from the other side of the political spectrum, the Soviet comedy The House on Trubnaya is highly recommended.)

Meet the Doughbills

Soon, Howell is fending off the advances of the randy Mr. Doughbill, dealing with the statuesque and demanding Mrs. Doughbill and having fun and games with the butler (Dick Smith).

The Doughbills have bigger problems than a domestic worker shortage. Their famous dinner guests, the Count and Countess de Bunco, are not coming. What to do, what to do? Well, obviously, the cook and the butler must pass as the de Buncos! Will the ruse work? Will the domestics be able to pull off their roles whilst imbibing in spiked punch? See Cinderella Cinders to find out!

What could go wrong?

The idea of a woman dressing up as an aristocrat or socialite is as old as fairy tales but during the silent era, the then-modern twist of “we’re short one guest, dress up the domestics!” was a popular one. Cecil B. DeMille used it in The Golden Chance and its remake-in-all-but-name Forbidden Fruit. (The latter has a see-through Cinderella sequence with reflective floors and it’s the only time the glass slipper has made sense. It’s pretty spectacular.) Of course, the more serious pictures usually had a pretty young starlet as Cinderella and the stated goal was for her to win the heart and hand of, I dunno, Wallace Reid.

(If it’s a man being dressed up as an aristocrat in a serious film, he’s often posing as the king and there’s a duel or two in the cards and romance takes a back seat to intrigue and adventure.)

At least she didn’t serve the salad without any dressing.

What’s interesting about Cinderella Cinders is that Howell’s role is most definitely the lead and not The Girl. Even when they were in slapstick roles, women in silent comedy were frequently given roles that were unmistakably, traditionally feminine, whether they were chasing the unwilling hero or serving as the object of everyone’s desire. In short, love and marriage were often an essential part of a slapstick comedienne’s schtick.

In contrast, Howell’s part was something that had been played by men before and would be played by men again. Stan Laurel’s cross-dressing turns as maids in Duck Soup, Another Fine Mess and A Chump at Oxford, just to start. The oafish new servant who manages to mess up the big society night for their horrified employers? Classic comedy setup. Is it any surprise that Laurel was a Howell fan?

Flirt!

That’s not to say that there is no silliness with sex. There’s winking and flirting and all the sorts of coquettish hijinks you would expect in a slapstick comedy. In particular, Mr. Doughbills is a lecherous coot, of course, but Dick Smith flirts with him at least as much as Howell does. The point is that these scenes could be eliminated without materially changing Howell’s character, which is not the case with The Girl roles.

While she did play traditional female slapstick roles as well, Howell’s ability to take over a part that would often be played by a man makes her comedies refreshing and fun. I don’t mind a funny take on traditional leading lady behaviors but it’s a treat to have a woman be purely clownish and divorced from the need for a successful or failed romance to make her routines work in this particular picture.

*hic!*

(Of course, in real life, co-star Dick Smith was the future Mr. Alice Howell. Truth is more romantic than fiction in this case.)

Howell was an experienced stage comic before she went into motion pictures and her comedy has the kind of polish that only comes from experience. There isn’t any wasted movement, every time she does something, it is specifically designed to be funny and the gags land with sharpshooter precision. Howell’s character is good-natured but not above stepping on a few heads (or cutting a few beards) to come out on top. She doesn’t reach for likability and is all the more likable as a result.

Howell in song.

Cinderella Cinders delivers exactly what it promises: it’s cute, it’s funny, you get to see Alice Howell cause chaos wherever she goes. Give it a shot, I think you’ll have a good time.

Where can I see it?

Released on DVD as part of the Undercrank Productions Alice Howell set. It has two full discs of Howell’s work, scored by Ben Model and is definitely recommended if you want to expand your knowledge of slapstick ladies.

☙❦❧

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