Alice Howell: Her Patchwork Comic Legacy
The historical record has not done justice to Alice Howell, and it never will. It cannot.
Not to her, nor to so many other pioneers of film.
More’s the pity, writes veteran early-film historian Anthony Slide in his She Could Be Chaplin: The Comedic Brilliance of Alice Howell, just out from University Press of Mississippi.
Slide presents Howell as an unusual kind of actor of her era. In contrast to glamorous stars whose legacy is assured, she was a physical comedienne who achieved brief but considerable popularity by “relying on humor created by her body language or her facial expressions, a comedic style associated more closely with a man that with a woman.”
That was her reputation to such a degree that she earned comparison with Charlie Chaplin.
Sadly, however, none of that gained her the kind of prominence that might have assured survival to her about 150 films, rather than to just 33. Even most of those survivors preserve her minor rather than starring roles. In most of her films she was an extra, often uncredited; in several she a key supporting roles to bigger stars; but in some she was a headliner.
Slide’s thesis is that film history has accorded Howell too little credit, but he struggles to subsantiate that claim, because little footage of her remains.
After six years in musical comedy and burlesque, Howell began her film career in 1913 in the Los Angeles studios of Mack Sennett, and had roles in six films that Charlie Chaplin directed at the Keystone Company including his first, Laughing Gas, of 1914.
At the Sennett studios and later at L-Ko and Century Comedies, Howell (1892-1961) emerged as “rather more mature and wholesome” than the bigger star Mabel Normand, in Slide’s judgment. She was, “neither as famous nor as popular as Mabel Normand, but she was every bit as acrobatic (if not more so),” he writes.
Howell made great use of her “large, round, expressive eyes,” often playing scrub ladies or “slaveys” while dressed in eccentric attire. Her willingness to rough it was key to what success she had, and she knew it. At the Sennett studios, she once said, “I threw myself into the thick of the fray. The other women drew back. We all had on evening gowns and the girls didn’t want to spoil them. I had no scruples.”
It was financial need, rather than artistic inclination, that drove her, she said: “I wanted the money so badly that I offered to wear any eccentric sort of make-up or take any chance so long as there was a pay check at the end of the week. I often felt then like the down-trodden, put upon, much abused slaveys that I struggle to portray humorously.”
Howell appeared in at least 150 films between 1914 and 1927, the great majority lost, and at the height of her popularity was one an admired actress in Hollywood. She came to notice under the direction of J.G. “Jack” Blystone, and within three years was talented enough, to “graduate from supporting player to leading lady, to star,” Slide writes. With her “balletic” use of body language and timing, “her natural male counterpart is Charlie Chaplin.”
Slide likens her, too, to bigger stars of the world of vaudeville that had reared her: her “facial expressions,” Slide writes, “are often contemptuous of society and all around her, reminiscent, if anything, of the attitude of vaudeville star Eva Tanguay, who was billed as ‘the I Don’t Care Girl.’”
Proof of Slide’s claims is that Howell became a star in her own right, as a comedian, rather than simply a leading lady alongside male stars. He compares her to such figures as Dorothy Devore, Fay Tincher, and Gale Henry who filled a narrower niche than the biggest stars, such as Gloria Swanson, whose roles were not primarily in comedy, which meant, primarily, slapstick. Howell, notes Slide, “neither attempted nor was apparently offered any other type of characterization.”
Throughout, she did something that was reputedly quite unusual among women aspiring to become stars of the emerging art of film: she didn’t sleep with producers or directors. She depended, instead, on her talent.
Also unusual was her goal, as a performer: not stardom, but wealth that she could invest in real estate. That explained why she moved in 1920, just when she was popular enough to make her fame persist, for years, to Chicago, a by-then former film-production location. There, her prominence faded, and never revived. Several of her roles there were directed by her hapless and reputedly odious husband Dick Smith.
He acted with her in some of the Chicago films, including Frederick J. Ireland’s 23-minute Cinderella Cinders, made in 1920, which survives. In it, Howell plays a prankster waitress who, after being fired, becomes a service-workers union leader, gets hired as a rich family’s cook, and is roped into playing the role of a countess to impress the family’s friends. She dances up a comic storm. And captures safebreakers, as she goes.
The film was not even reviewed, on its release, and Howell soon disappeared from the actors at its production company, Reelcraft. She reemerged in 1924 at Universal, including in the long-lost The Spring of 1964, which a trade paper of the day said was about “the woes of a family man forty years from now when the feminist movement will have reached its climax.”
In the mid-1920s, she appeared in supporting roles in two Fox films. By the coming of sound in films, she was done. And almost dusted. Indeed, Slide notes, she had played important supporting roles for Chaplin “and yet he makes no reference to her in My Autobiography.” Similarly, “critic Walter Kerr, in what is often described as the definitive text on [Chaplin], pays fond tribute to Mabel Normand but makes no reference to Alice Howell.”
That seemed rather too little notice for a woman Stan Laurel had hailed as “one of the ten greatest comediennes of all time.”
With little information available about Howell, Slide is at pains to stretch into a book of saleable length. Nineteen of his about 120 pages are given over to transcriptions of two interviews of Howell’s late daughter, Yvonne Stevens, who proves to have know relatively little about her mother, so that nor the interviews nor their inclusion offer much. That draws attention given that Slide lays claim at the beginning of She Could Be Chaplin to providing “the first major, and hopefully definitive, study” of Howell’s life and career.
Missing from the account, most obviously, are details of the persistence of Howell’s memory. A reader wonders: What can be said about the nature of that persisting renown? What substantiates it, now, if it really does or might persist?
It would, for example, have been helpful to learn something about the condition and availability of the surviving films in which Howell appeared. In a filmography, Slide notes the archives that hold the 30-odd remnants – most are in the US Library of Congress, some at the British Film Institute, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the UCLA Film and Television Archive, George Eastman Museum, and EYE Film Institute in the Netherlands – but he does not provide details of what shape those are in, or whether they have been restored, or are likely to be.
When few elements of early film survive, all hold interest. Their survival also provide a sense of the nature of persisting renown. In Howell’s case, one historical turn that might have been worth fleshing out receives only a fleeting mention, in Slide’s account: in the 1950s, a company called Blackhawk Films marketed silent films in 8mm and 16mm versions, for the collector and fan markets, and that was crucial in propagating the memory of Alice Howell – what little of it did persist, and reached alert enthusiasts like Anthony Slide. Yet he writes only, in reference to Cinderella Cinders, that Blackhawk made it available again in the 1950s, and “audience response was quite extraordinary, with Alice Howell being hailed as a major ‘lost’ talent.”
George Stevens Jr., the grandson of Alice Howell, writes in a foreword: “We hope that as a result of contemporary preservation efforts, and accessibility through new media, her surviving films will be increasingly available.”
Alice Howell’s memory certainly needs that, if it is to be what Slide claim for it. Some of the films are available in often-poor quality on Internet Archive (archive.org), Fandor, YouTube, and the like. Some have been commercially rereleased, such as Shot in the Excitement, on The Mack Sennett Collection, Vol. One. In that 1914 film, Slide notes, Howell “takes both facial and head punishment on a par with that experienced by any male comedy player of the period.” Howell appears fleetingly in the early Chaplin film Caught in the Rain, from 1914. She’s a bully’s wife in Mabel’s Married Life (1914) starring Chaplin and Mabel Normand. More substantially, she played the title role in Neptune’s Naughty Daughter, in 1917.
In a rare surviving title from the Century Comedy company, Hey Doctor! (1918), Howell plays a doctor’s receptionist who drums up business by dropping banana peels on a sidewalk.
From late in her career, One Wet Night, 1924, in which Howell appeared with Neely Edwards and Bert Roach, was made available in 2000 on a VHS tape, Slapstick Encyclopedia, Vol. 3 – Funny Girls: Genders and Their Benders. Howell plays the wife of Edwards. They are hosting a dinner party when storm water brings down their ceiling, whence antics ensue. But as for finding it on a now-more-useful format, who knows.
Something can be gleaned about Howell titles like Good Night Nurse, a Dick Smith film from 1920, from a production still, mostly that that lost film was probably more of the Smith, and Howell, standard fare.
— Peter Monaghan