The Boys Think They Have One on Foxy Grandpa, but He Fools Them (1902) A Silent Film Review

The popular comic strip Foxy Grandpa was adapted into a stage play and then into a film from the Biograph Company. The title character is the target of practical jokes by his mischievous grandsons but he always manages to turn them around.

Home Media Availability: Stream from the Library of Congress

Um, spoiler warning?

New and unprecedented demand for motion pictures meant that new companies were cropping up left and right to answer that call. Audiences liked to see their favorites from other media on the big screen and so plays, books and comic strips were all being adapted at breakneck speed. Whole series of comic films popped up like mushrooms.

A typical Foxy Grandpa strip

No, it’s not the 2020s, it’s the 1900s. The motion picture business was bigger than ever and producers were desperately trying to keep up with demand. The American Mutoscope and Biograph Company had become of the big players in the market and they scored something of a coup when they were able to bring an authorized version of Foxy Grandpa to the filmgoing public.

Fans of older entertainment (or SpongeBob SquarePants) have probably heard “foxy grandpa” at some point. It was a wildly popular comic strip created by Carl E. Schultze a.k.a. Bunny. The strip was widely read and was adapted for the stage, radio, sheet music and even turned into a party game.

Practical joke-based entertainment from this period can be a bit on the mean-spirited side (glances at Peck’s Bad Boy), so Foxy Grandpa’s sweetness is refreshing. Grandpa has two grandsons, Chub and Bunt, who target him with reasonably harmless practical jokes. However, true to his nickname, Foxy Grandpa is always one step ahead and turns their jokes back onto them. All ends in laughter. Rinse, repeat.

Theatrical producer (and future film producer) William A. Brady adapted the strip to the stage as a musical snapshot, complete with tie-in sheet music, and the Biograph adaptations were filmed to coincide with the play’s run.

(By the way, Brady’s daughter, Alice, became a movie star in the silent films he produced and continued her career into the talkies as a beloved character actress in classics like My Man Godfrey and Gold Diggers of 1935, winning an Academy Award for In Old Chicago.)

In all, ten short films were made using the stage play’s cast. The Boys Think They Have One on Foxy Grandpa, but He Fools Them was the fifth in the series and follows the same simple plot of the comic strip.

What is… a banjo?

Foxy Grandpa (Joseph Hart) is handed a banjo by his grandsons and seems baffled by the instrument as they laugh at his expense. Soon, grandpa turns the tables as he actually can play the banjo like a pro. The boys are quickly swept up in the music and dance vigorously before grandpa takes the floor to perform his own dance.

Not exactly long on plot but the series is a valuable glimpse into how a multimedia approach was being adopted to market entertainment and how the opaque copyright laws of the time changed the way films were presented and preserved.

Can’t stop the music!

When The Boys Think They Have One on Foxy Grandpa, but He Fools Them was released, nobody was quite sure what to make of movies from a legal standpoint. Were they photos? Did each frame require a copyright? In order to cover themselves, film studios would deposit film reel-shaped photo paper copies of their films to prove ownership. Since paper is more stable than nitrate, these paper prints sometimes ended up as the only copies of certain motion pictures.

The Boys Think They Have One on Foxy Grandpa, but He Fools Them survives because it was among the motion pictures Biograph submitted for copyright protection. A close call with a happy ending.

But copyright laws also effected filmmaking when these pictures were new. The very first film in the Foxy Grandpa series, The Creators of Foxy Grandpa, featured an appearance by Charles E. Schultze, the strip’s creator. Author cameos remained popular in motion pictures well after copyright issues were resolved but a creator appearing on the screen during this period would also have added a much-desired seal of approval and proof of authenticity for the Biograph team. Further, a very recognizable Joseph Hart added additional respectability.

(In contrast, Kalem’s wildcat production of Ben-Hur was purported to use the original stage cast but, funny thing, the camera was so far back that nobody was at all recognizable. It’s almost like they weren’t there at all and someone at Kalem was fibbing. The unauthorized adaptation was taken to court and the subsequent ruling against Kalem helped establish film adaptation laws as we know them.)

Go, grandpa, go!

The Foxy Grandpa film series continued into 1903 and showcased the antics of grandpa and the kids. One of the other surviving films in the series, Foxy Grandpa and Polly in a Little Hilarity features Joseph Hart and Carrie de Mar, married in real life, showing off their hoofing skills in character.

These films were short, about a minute each, but they managed to capture the innocent and sweet spirit of the original comic strip. Were they the first comic adaptations? Well, there’s an argument that the 1895 Lumière comedy The Sprinkler Sprinkled can be considered a comic adaptation but no matter where you stand of the matter of firsts, Foxy Grandpa was certainly a trailblazer.

And grandpa plays on…

The Boys Think They Have One on Foxy Grandpa, but He Fools Them has the look and feel of a filmed play—it is what it is, in short—but it’s amusing and fascinating to see the funny papers come to life on the motion picture screen. It can also be considered a very early example of a film series. It’s cute, it’s fun, it’s short, what else could you want in an early film?

Where can I see it?

The Boys Think They Have One on Foxy Grandpa, but He Fools Them is available for free streaming courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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