Alice Howell

“EVERY ONE A HOWELL!”

1894 – 1960

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meet ALICE HOWELL, silent comedy’s forgotten comedienne…

 

Generally, the women of silent comedy are overlooked. Sure, Mabel Normand gets a mention, but other than that you could be forgiven for thinking that this was exclusively a man’s world save for the thankless role of leading lady. These sort of roles usually required little flair, the key specifications being a) ability to stand around looking pretty and b) willingness to embrace men with implausible facial hair.

That said, although opportunities for women were definitely limited (and particularly so before the mid-‘20s), if you dig a little deeper there were actually quite a lot of funny ladies who succeeded as comedy stars in their own right. Formidable types like Louise Carver, blimp-sized Kate Price and poor Dot Farley (billed as “the ugliest woman in pictures!”) achieved successful comic images, but were defined by a lack of femininity. More demure types like Dorothy Devore and Frances Lee were able to remain feminine, but were usually caught in funny situations rather than creating the comedy themselves. Between these two extremes, fewer in number, were the genuine funny girls, who retained their femininity while still plunging headlong into the madcap world of slapstick and sight gag. Of these, Mabel Normand is the most well-known, but there were others. Louise Fazenda radiated a charming gawkiness as a clueless country girl; Gale Henry, with her great dangling limbs and Olive Oyl droop, was successful in her own films, and when supporting Charley Chase. One of my personal favourites of the true comediennes is an unjustly obscure eccentric by the name of Alice Howell.

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Of Irish stock, Alice was red-haired and feisty. Her comic image resembled a sort of manic doll; a round, porcelain face was enhanced with giant eyes that expressed a joyously vacant dizziness. Underneath, a pair of painted lips enclosed an empty-headed smile, while topping off the image was a great, tottering cloud of her frizzy red hair. Piled up carelessly, probably the result of running late again, it was the perfect symbol for her scatty but carefree character. Shuffling obliviously around in her own world, she was the original quirky girl, an ancestor to Lucile Ball, Lisa Kudrow and Zoey Deschanel. Alice’s image and comic manner were both pleasingly original, and she was able to achieve great popularity, both with audiences and other comedians. When asked years later to name his top ten comediennes of all time, Stan Laurel fondly recalled Alice and the tagline for her comedies: “Every one a Howel!”.

Our girl had started her career in a vaudeville double act with her husband Dick Smith. When he became ill with pneumonia and was unable to continue on the stage, Alice became the breadwinner. They moved to the sunny Californian climes for Smith’s health and, like so many others at this time, Alice found work at Keystone. Whilst there, she mainly played in support of other comedians, typecast as cleaners and charwomen (although 1914’s ‘THE GREAT TOE MYSTERY’ casts her unusually as a straight leading lady). Most easily seen today are her roles supporting Charlie Chaplin, with whom she can be seen most prominently in ‘LAUGHING GAS’ (1914). Like Chaplin and many other Keystone personnel, she found greater prospects at other studios; there was only really room for one comedienne at Keystone, and Mabel Normand’s place was secure. When Keystone director Henry ‘Pathé’ Lehrman left the studio to start his own production of ‘Lehrman Knock-out Comedies’, (subsequently abbreviated to LKO) he needed a Mabel type to match comedian Billy Ritchie’s ersatz-Chaplin, and Alice joined him in 1916. Initially playing leading lady to Ritchie, Alice graduated to her own starring shorts under Lehrman’s direction. Lehrman’s style was fast, furious and often vicious slapstick but luckily, Alice seemed to be game for anything and threw herself into the slapstick of her films with wild abandon. Unfortunately, very few LKO films exist today so we have little to judge Alice’s developing style on. One recent discovery, ‘NEPTUNE’S NAUGHTY DAUGHTER’ (1917) is available to watch on the Danish Film Institute’s website, and a fragmented copy is also held at the BFI.

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In 1917, Alice jumped ship to Jack Blystone’s Century comedies, and 2 years later formed her own corporation, releasing through Reelcraft. Sadly, she seemed to have a knack of working for the studios with the worst survival rates and we can see very few of her starring films today. Worse still, some of the survivors are in pretty rough shape. In ‘LAUREL OR HARDY’, Rob Stone describes the sorry state of ‘DISTILLED LOVE’, a Howell film in which Oliver Hardy appears. The existing print was such a fragmented jumble that Mr Stone wasn’t even sure that all the scenes originally belonged in the same film! Other films are similarly fragmented and identified in archives; the BFI holds one that remains anonymous under the enigmatic title ‘FAT MAN IN KNOCKABOUT’. Seemingly from 1918, the film presents Alice as an enthusiastic member of the home front who practices defence with a bayonet and dresses as a man to join the army, while simultaneously trying to stop her husband (the eponymous fat man!) from running off to a poker game with another woman. Again, the surviving footage is so fragmented that the film becomes incoherent, but there are some great glimpses of Alice in action.

With such fragments inaccessible and hardly easy viewing, the crux of Alice’s comic reputation rests today on three gems that do survive complete, coherent and available to collectors. The first, ‘CINDERELLA CINDERS’, dates from her time at Reelcraft. Released in 1920, the film begins with Alice as eccentric short order cook in a diner where the customers slurp soup noisily. In a very Chaplinesque manner, she conducts their slurping as though she is in front of the Royal Philharmonic, and then flips pancakes in time to the racket. Her clumsiness eventually results in her being dismissed, but another job opportunity presents itself as maid for a rich couple. Racing to beat the other applicants by means of a runaway bike and on roller-skates, Alice shows her ability and willingness to do dangerous physical comedy of the Lehrman school. Hired by the couple, Alice proves inept at domestic tasks but when a visiting Count and countess fail to arrive for a dinner party, Alice and the butler are made to masquerade as them to save the couple’s social status. During the course of the evening, the punch bowl becomes spiked with bathtub gin, setting up a comic tour de force by Alice as she gradually becomes more and more intoxicated. Men are queuing up to dance with the “countess”, but she keeps making excuses to get away, enabling her to visit the punchbowl with a succession of larger and larger glasses. Alice’s look grows increasingly manic (shades of Harpo Marx!), and each time she returns to the dancefloor her moves become wilder and less co-ordinated. The sequence is far from subtle, but made hilarious by Alice’s wonderfully lively performance. In the end, the real Count and Countess turn up but turn out to be crooks. Alice and the Butler capture them and all ends happily.

‘CINDERELLA CINDERS’ seems to be the only one of the Reelcraft films to survive in any decent shape, but does seem to be a representative example of her style. A common formula seems to have been to place Alice in a dignified, serious situation that she could cause chaos in. In particular, ‘LUNATICS IN POLITICS’ won special praise for its satirical view of the suffragette movement. Alice’s husband Dick Smith was the director of this and the other films and also took supporting roles (he is the butler in ‘CINDERELLA CNDERS’). Smith evidently knew Alice’s strengths and his support must have been crucial in helping her become a leading comedienne at a time when it was no easy to do so.

The series ended in 1922 and Alice was headhunted by Irving Thalberg, the “boy wonder” producer soon to become the power behind MGM. At this time, Thalberg was at Universal, and was trying to start up a programme of shorts for the studio. Alice joined comedians Neely Edwards and Bert Roach in a triple threat combination for what proved to be her highest-profile series. The set up was a domestic one, with Edwards as husband, Howell his scatterbrained wife and Roach their inept butler. This situation remained roughly constant for the series’ many entries (one film every week for almost 2 years!), an unusual feature in silent comedies. Even in ‘Our Gang’, the kids changed homes, families and backgrounds in every film! As such, audiences could get to know the characters and their setting well and identify with them. Really these films were the first forerunners of the modern sit-com.

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Again, the survival rate is dismal; only two of the films seem to circulate today. ‘ONE WET NIGHT’ is the story of Neely and Alice entertaining Tiny Sandford and his wife on the eponymous evening. The roof begins to leak just as a huge storm blows in, causing the family and guests on a mad dash to find items to contain the water. Alice is given less to do in this film and takes more of a back seat, but her presence is nevertheless pleasing. She has a wonderful opening gag in which she uses the family dog’s paws to help her with her knitting, and her willingness to do anything for a laugh is seen in the scenes of her being soaked by the deluge. Although not a pure Alice Howell comedy, ‘ONE WET NIGHT’ is a very enjoyable blend of situation and slapstick. Incidentally, existing prints seem to be missing a final gag where the participants resign themselves to playing a game of bridge in their bathing suits.

 

Generally the series stayed with domestic situations; ‘TENTING OUT’ dealt with what became a sitcom staple, the disastrous camping holiday. Slightly more off the wall was Alice’s final surviving film, ‘UNDER A SPELL’. This time, a hypnotist convinces first the husband, and then the butler, that they are monkeys, leaving poor Alice in the middle of it all!

Remembering the hard years when her husband’s illness had left them penniless, Alice invested her earnings from film stardom wisely, and became quite a property baron. By the mid-20s she was doing well enough to retire from the screen. The Universal series ended in 1925, and after one final role in a Fox comedy, ‘MADAME X’, she bade farewell to movie stardom.

In interviews, Alice was philosophical about the lean times she had experienced and the hard work that had been necessary to earn a living, but doubtless she was glad to retire comfortably after the years of worry and toil. She would only make one more appearance, a mute role in a talkie, ‘BLACK ACES’ (1933). (Incidentally, Alice’s daughter Yvonne became an actress herself, appearing notably as Charley Bowers’ leading lady in ‘GOOFY BIRDS’ (1928). She married cameraman and future director George Stevens.

Alice Howell would enjoy a long, well-deserved retirement until her passing at the age of 76 in 1960. Her work may be mainly lost or mutilated, but Alice was an original who trod her own path and left us with at least a few glimpses of a genuine funny girl at work.

 

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