All Aboard!: Week of December 4th, 1920

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley saw feature films whose annoyances ranged from “many holes in its logic” (The Master Mind) to “choppy and careless continuity” (West is West), but she could find no fault with the short she saw:

There’s a very delicious new type of comedy, to become a series I believe, called The Toonerville Trolley that Meets All Trains. It has an old rube driver of a funny suburban streetcar, who pulls teeth with the trolley, marries runaway couples, being also a justice of the peace, and is all-round handy man for the community. The very most delightful and novel idea the funmakers have produced in a long while.

Photo by Toonerville cameraman Portus Acheson, from the Betzwood Film Company Archive, Montgomery Community College Library

She was right: it did become a monthly series. Based on Fontaine Fox’s syndicated Toonerville Folks newspaper comic, the films starred veteran vaudevillian Dan Mason as the streetcar driver. While it wasn’t precisely innovative, gentle stories about daily life outside of cities were quite popular in the early 1920s; Tol’able David was to be a big hit in 1921.

Toonerville Folks (1917) by Fontaine Fox

What was particularly interesting about the Toonerville films is where they were made: the Betzwood Studios in West Norriton Township, Pennsylvania, twenty miles northwest of Philadelphia. Not all film production had moved to Hollywood yet! Betzwood was built by film pioneer Siegmund Lubin in 1912 and was bought by the Wolf Brothers in 1917 after creditors seized it. They made Westerns there until 1919. When less realistic Westerns made in the East became less profitable, they decided to try comedies. They hired Fontaine Fox and he wrote some scripts and came to Pennsylvania to supervise the filming. According to historian Joseph P. Eckhardt, the first Toonerville films were a critical and commercial success. However, it was hard to maintain their quality and competition in film comedy was fierce (they were up against people like Mack Sennett and Buster Keaton), so after seventeen films, the company folded. Only seven of them are known to survive and Meets All the Trains isn’t one of them.

Nevertheless, the company’s records have been preserved at the Montgomery County Community College Library. Eckhardt and his collaborators College Archivist Lawrence Greene, Emerging Technologies Librarian Jerry Yarnetsky and Film archivist Katherine Pourshariati have created an excellent website, where you can learn more about Lubin, tour the Betzwood Studios, and see one of the surviving Toonerville films (unfortunately, according the Eckhardt, it isn’t one of the best). Hooray for local historians and librarians!

Joseph P. Eckhardt, “Clatter, Sproing, Clunk, Went the Trolley,” Pennsylvania Heritage, Summer, 1992.

Joseph P. Eckhardt, “The Toonerville Trolley Films of the Betzwood Studio,” Griffithiana, May, 1995.

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