Who’s Who (1910) A Silent Film Review

When a pair of railway travelers with the same initials cross paths, chaos ensues. You see, one gentleman is a minister, the other is a prizefighter and they both have the initials S.O.B. monogramed on their luggage.

Home Media Availability: Stream in the NFPF Screening Room.

That Son of a… Beach

Essanay is probably most famous today for its Broncho Billy series starring G.M. Anderson (the “Ay” in Essanay, George Spoor was the “ess”) and for its brief and tumultuous employment of Charlie Chaplin in 1915, which ended in lawsuits and considerable ill-will. The studio had a strong comedy game from the start, though, with hits like Mr. Flip (1909), starring Ben Turpin and often erroneously credited with containing the first cinematic pie in the face.

The first SOB…

Who’s Who was a split reel release, sharing the reel with the similarly-themed You Stole My Purse, which was about swapped handbags sparking accusations of adultery. Who’s Who is all about mistaken identity and identical suitcases.

The local church committee is preparing to host the congregation’s new minister, Mr. S. O’Binns, arriving by train. The plan is to meet him at the station and whisk him away for some tea, light refreshments and conversation at the home of the deacon.

And the second…

Meanwhile, the boys of the local athletic club are smuggling in prizefighter Spider O’Brien. At this point in history, boxing was outright banned in some locations and was at the very least viewed as a low and coarse activity by community leaders. So, the club has advised Spider to disguise himself as a clergymen when he arrives in town by train.

I think we can all see where this is going…

(Predictability and the giddy anticipation of the setup’s payoff are major factors in the pleasure of a farce. I cover that topic here.)

Dragging off the real minister…

So, poor O’Binns is dragged off to the boxing club for a few light socks to the breadbasket and the unfortunate Spider is taken to the deacon’s home, where he is forced to endure unspiked tea and polite conversation. The pugilist commits a shocking faux pas when he drinks tea from the saucer. (An 1888 etiquette manual by Florence Howe Hall states plainly that “It is not the Correct Thing [sic] to drink tea out of the saucer, or pour it into the saucer to cool.”) The minister, meanwhile, attacks his tormenters and escapes.

Both men flee in terror, run into one another, realize what has happened, then share a moment of commiseration over their terrible ordeals before departing to their proper destinations.

An unlikely friendship.

It’s a really cute ending with none of the cruelty that could have resulted from such a scenario. In fact, the sunshiny tone of the short is a major reason to recommend it. Nothing very dark or intense happens, if you don’t count Spider crushing the churchgoers’ hands as he greets them at tea. I was particularly charmed by the spur of the moment friendship struck up by Spider and O’Binns after they make their respective escapes. Their connection, despite their very different walks of life, gives hope that maybe the boxing club and the church committee will make peace eventually.

The split reel length, just six minutes for this transfer, keeps things moving along and the film never wears out its welcome. Well done, well done, indeed!

Kerrigan in the gent on the right standing between the two ladies.

I’m afraid that I am hopeless at identification, so I do not recognize the stars of this picture despite the excellent print I saw. (Though I certainly won’t stop anyone else from giving identification their best shot!) I did spot up-and-coming nickelodeon superstar J. Warren Kerrigan as the suitor of the deacon’s daughter. I’m terrible with faces but I would recognize that distinct coiffure anywhere!

Now, here’s something that gave me a giggle and I am sure I am not alone: both men have the initials S.O.B. boldly emblazoned on their suitcases. Modern viewers will, of course, immediately read that as Son of a… Gun. But would it have been read that way back in 1910?

The minister’s suitcase…

First, to be clear, sweary gags were wildly popular in cinema during this period. Edison scored a hit in 1905 with The Whole Dam Family and the Dam Dog (with characters like I.B. Dam and Hellen Dam) and animated swearing cards were used throughout the silent era. Those suitcases in Who’s Who were featured pretty prominently, doubly odd because the clerical garb of the characters surely got the point across.

So, when was S.O.B. introduced into the vernacular? Well, the full, specific mothercentric insult is actually quite old, with English language usage as far back as the 18th century. People were regularly calling one another sons of a you-know-what in the early 20th century, as shown by browsing court records, western stories and other “lower” forms of entertainment that would display the more common language of John Q. Public.

But S.O.B. Was that specific acronym understood to mean such a thing? Language shifts, after all.

Spider’s suitcase.

Well, a cursory search gave the date of 1918 as the first usage of the S.O.B. acronym in writing. It’s possible that it was in spoken use prior to this. Formal written language frequently lags behind spoken slang, after all.

But I didn’t want to leave it there, so I started digging through the dusty tomes myself. I wasn’t out to find the first use of S.O.B., I just wanted to find an instance of it being used prior to or around 1910. It seems to have not bled into polite society because the acronym was used for innocent purposes by jewelers and yachting clubs in the 1900s and 1910s. But that John Q. Public I was talking about? Whole different ballgame.

Interestingly, both the smoking guns I discovered were official United States Government publications. I found a reference to S.O.B. in a 1916 Report of Commission of Industrial Relations, which discusses a 1912 case of local government and a railroad company hiring a gunman to murder one Pete Peterson, who seems to have been involved in unionization efforts in Milford, Utah.

“Marshal Hedges brought the other gunman into the saloon where Peterson was playing cards and, pointing out Peterson, told the gunman to kill the S.O.B.”

(Unrelated but Peterson beat Hodges in a fistfight but was overpowered by the marshal’s cronies and was struck in the mouth, which angered the local citizens. Marshal Hodges was fined $25 for “ungentlemanly conduct in an officer” and anti-union gunmen continued to shoot up the town.)

Helping the minister into his coat.

Okay, so 1912. Close, very close.

The 1908 Congressional Record covers a shooting involving the shockingly racist Brownsville Affair of 1906. The citizens of the Texas town claimed that Black soldiers fired indiscriminately into a populated area. The soldiers stated that they were framed but they were discharged by President Theodore Roosevelt based on the testimony of the white town officials. The Army’s ruling was reversed after an investigation in 1972.

Now, this is obviously a deeply important subject but we are focused on the task at hand: the use of S.O.B. (Here is a link to an essay on the Brownsville Affair, if you want to further research this underreported topic.)

S.O.B.

Eyewitness Hale Odin was quoted as using the full insult, which was redacted for the record as “s—of a b—.” (Tellingly, no racial slurs are redacted in the document.) Helen Moore, on the other hand, said that she heard the soldiers say “Shoot him, the s—o—b—.” Moore, listed as age 43, was likely using the abbreviation as would be expected of someone her age and gender at the time.

Could this redaction have been on the part of the stenographer and not the words of Moore? Maybe but I think it highly unlikely that whoever was doing the redacting would have used two completely different redactions within pages of one another. This was legal testimony that was presented before Congress, not a time to get cute with language. The earlier use of “s—of a b—” makes a lot more sense as a redaction for such a document. In short, if it says S.O.B., she probably said just that. In any case, even if it was a clerical redaction, it still proves that the acronym was in use.

At the boxing club. Essanay was moving to California but the CUBS pennant at the top puts this squarely in Illinois.

So, we have someone from 1908 discussing an event of 1906 and using abbreviation S.O.B. (well, s—o—b—) in the modern context. We can safely conclude that the S.O.B. suitcases were likely to have been a naughty in-joke that working class viewers would have enjoyed but the genteeler uplift types, film censors, would possibly have missed. This mirrors the comedy’s theme of gentility clashing with earthy wildness rather nicely, I think.

Again, I must emphasize that I am not a linguist or anthropologist and I do not claim that these were the first uses of S.O.B. Rather, they neatly prove that such an acronym was in vogue in impolite society somewhere between 1906 and 1916, which is within the pop culture range of Who’s Who. In other words, giggling at the monogrammed suitcases is not anachronistic and that’s all I wanted to know.

Saucer drinking! Mr. Kerrigan is appalled.

Who’s Who is an absolute gem of a miniature comedy. The fact that the minister and the prizefighter are equally horrified at the company they are forced to keep is a real stroke of comedy genius and the farce-style approach is delightful. Don’t miss this little six-minute treasure. Now I want to see You Stole My Purse!

Where can I see it?

Watch it for free courtesy of EYE and the NFPF. It features a sprightly piano score by Michael D. Mortilla.

☙❦❧

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5 Comments

  1. Matt Berger

    My first thought upon seeing the suitcases was the same – that is too blatant to be an accident. WHO’S WHO’s creators could have chosen any three initials (ABC or POP or MOM or DAM), but they chose those three?

    Harrumph.

    Thank you, as always, for the deeper dive, for – wait for it – interrogating memory. 🙂

  2. Andrew Holliday

    What a great little film! They say comedy is all about reactions – and the reactions to the saucer slurping, and the real reverend going down for the count so soon are both brilliantly done.

    S.O.B. is definitely deliberate – as Matt points out, its just too blatant. In any event the term itself has been around for centuries. Popular entertainment is always winking at its audience to get past censors and/or codes of behaviour (think ‘rock and roll’ in the 1950s – everyone knew what it meant, no one would say it out loud, they just tried to ban the music!); or, closer to home, Keaton’s boat the Damfino).

    And, most enlightening for me, was your passing comment about the standing of boxing in that era – something I’d never known. 40 years of not really understanding all those films with secret backyard boxing rings suddenly becomes clear to me…..I’ll sleep better now, thank you.

    1. Movies Silently

      Yes, I would say that in the US, boxing could be compared to alcohol: it was widely popular among people of many classes but could aloo have a sordid reputation and there were active and unsuccessful attempts to stomp it out through bans and social shunning.

  3. Katrina Virts

    I discovered your site last fall and have been working my way through your archives. You have introduced me to so many wonderful films and actors, and I can’t thank you enough! One question for you: how do you find out when a new silent film has been found or restored? Is there a centralized place where I could find this information?

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