A country maiden is driven from pillar to post by her uncaring parents and a villainous conman. Fortunately, since this is a slapstick comedy, our little country maid fights back with firearms and artillery pieces.
Home Media Availability: Stream courtesy of the NFPF.
The Perils of Miss Spuds
The majority of all silent films are lost but the good news is that lost movies are being recovered every year. While big titles like Beyond the Rocks or the missing footage of Metropolis make the mainstream news, there has also been a steady stream of smaller, more obscure discoveries that are known in silent film circles but nowhere else.
Fox’s series of Sunshine Comedies have been described as the Holy Grail for comedy fans due to their quality and rarity. Fox, you may recall, lost much of its back catalog in a vault fire. While Theda Bara’s pictures are the most famous victims (the backups were lost in a MoMA fire), the gaping hole in film history swallowed up entire filmographies.
Her First Kiss was recovered in New Zealand, the last port of call for many prints and many were left there because shipping back to the states was prohibitive. Expensive postage is the unexpected hero of this tale.
The picture stars Ethel Teare as Mollie Spuds, a dingy, daffy country girl who merrily makes inedible rubber donuts while her parents, played by Laura La Varnie and Harry Booker, steal milk from the neighbors and skid on the edge of adultery.
Ma Spud has a thing for their boarder, Chester Hardy (Slim Summerville), an athlete with muscles of inflated rubber. When Mollie’s parents discover him lurking under her bed—her dog stole his shoe—they throw both of them out. Chester immediately rejects Mollie but changes his mind when he intercepts a telegram informing her that she is the heiress to a department store and begins to plot how he can rob her of her inheritance.
Her First Kiss was a two-reel release meant to accompany larger features, so fan magazines and the trade press kept their reviews brief. Wid’s Film Daily dismissed the picture as one that “doesn’t ring too many bells,” but it was in the minority. Moving Picture World felt that it “contains considerable new business of a funny sort,” and praised Teare’s acting and stunt work. A theater manager writing into The Exhibitors Herald said that the film “got a good deal of laughs and seemed to please.” Variety praised the picture as funny and appealing, though “no fearing of T.B.M.’s tiring their cranial organs following the plot.”
(T.B.M. referred to the “Tired Business Man,” playfully used as the lowest common denominator in the banal tastes of the general public. In 1919, Life Magazine stated, “The tired business man isn’t necessarily a bad lot. He’s really the man in the street. When he’s through with his dinner, whatever the dinner may be that the various food factories, called hotels and restaurants, supply to him, he wants to be entertained.”)
A different Variety review kept things brief and simply stated that Her First Kiss was “a peach.” Now that’s a review I can get behind because it is.
Slim Summerville is a familiar face to most silent movie fans but Ethel Teare was a new discovery and a revelation to me. Her take on the classic bumpkin maiden relies on contrasting her hyperbolic daintiness with her rough and tumble stunts. She comes off as zany but feminine through her ridiculous bangs and her wildly patterned underwear and then switches over to shooting pistols and cannons and driving hell for leather through a department store. Her gestures are exaggerated, as would be expected, but she doesn’t just make faces and expect to get laughs. Her intelligence and timing add considerably to the picture.
Besides Teare, elevates Her First Kiss is its awareness of slapstick tropes and the expectations of comedy viewers. Nearly everyone involved in the production had Keystone experience under their belts and they wield this knowledge to tease and deceive with glee.
When Summerville makes his appearance, he is decked out in fake muscles and a comically striped sweater. Now, anyone watching the film can see that the muscles are as phony but both mother and daughter fawn over the muscles. So, when the father marches over and pops the balloons used to bulk out Summerville, the gag lands beautifully because we had been lulled into at least partially accepting those biceps and pecs as an in-world reality along the lines of crepe mustaches and oversized shoes. Nobody sincerely believed Chester Conklin and Mack Swain were sporting their own facial hair, after all.
Later, the brokenhearted Ethel Teare decides to end it all by throwing herself off a bridge. The water is only rib-deep, of course, but a duck swims along and steals her shift, leaving her in her birthday suit and forced to slip home wearing a barrel. She conceals herself behind a sheet on the clothesline just as the barrel splits and then has to scurry to keep up with the sheet as her mother unwittingly pulls it away from her.
Teare’s silhouette behind the sheet tells the story but then the clothesline is pulled along again and it look like a censorable scene is about to take place… but it turns out that the angle of the light deceived us again and Teare is still modestly hidden from view.
Concealing nudity has always been a cinematic comedy staple, so there’s nothing new about the basic gag but the way it is presented is fresh, fun and playful despite the age of the joke.
The sequence in the department store in which Papa Spuds attempts to sneak into a ladies only swimwear fashion show is a bit more mundane and typical of what was featured in dozens of other comedies. However, even there, there is a nice bit of business with the models running from Spud and Mama Spud pursuing her husband in escalating chaos. Again, not particularly new but handled well, especially shots of the characters below the knees as the pursuit heats up.
There are also small, amusing details. Minnie overworks her dough, resulting in rubbery donuts and any baker cakes see that coming because she forms the rings like a slap bracelet around her wrist before twisting them off. I also appreciated the Spuds family’s predilection for loudly patterned underwear, as displayed by both Minnie and Pa Spud.
Alas, we may never know if Minnie recovered her inheritance. The last few minutes of Her First Kiss were not included in the only surviving print and magazine synopses, which have aided many a reconstruction, do not cover the plot in any detail. So, just when things are at a fever pitch and about to reach their conclusion, the plug is pulled on all the fun.
I’m obviously very sad about this but I also cannot imagine a better illustration for the frustration of lost silent films. It’s one of the great preventable artistic tragedies (safety film had been invented years before Her First Kiss was made) and we will never be able to fully grasp the enormity of what was lost. The missing few minutes of this film give us a hint.
Where can I see it?
Stream for free courtesy of the National Film Preservation Foundation.
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I only know Slim Summerville from CHARLIE CHAN IN RENO (1939), in which he plays the aptly-named Sheriff Tombstone. His comic timing was impeccable in RENO, so cool to learn he had a longer, zanier career.
Yes, I quite enjoy him wherever he shows up. Feel the same way about Clyde Cook.
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