Say Goodbye to the Top Hat: Week of March 12, 1921

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reviewed Douglas Fairbanks’ latest movie. She didn’t know it, but the story of an inventor who, as the intertitle says, “invents things to please his girl, and then invents ways to get out of the trouble his inventions cause him,” was his last silent comedy. After some nut puns that I won’t inflict on you, she wrote:

There’s no doubt that The Nut will be a dough-nut for Doug. It’s bound to make money. One kind of nut Fairbanks never is and that’s a chestnut. And never was he further diverged from that species than in the picture which opened to crowds, both under shelter and in line out in the rain, at the California yesterday. The Nut has the freshest, most spontaneous, whimsical humor which Fairbanks has presented in a long time.

If Los Angeleans were willing to stand in the rain, they really must have wanted to see the movie! Fairbanks made The Nut before he knew what a huge success his most recent film, The Mark of Zorro, was. Kingsley didn’t compare that to this film, but reviewers who did liked The Nut much less than she did; Exhibitors’ Herald thought it didn’t measure up to Zorro and it was “a hodge-podge with much ado about nothing,” (March 26, 1921, p.64) while Film Daily thought it would disappoint fans after the swashbuckler, and it didn’t “provide the star with the sort of opportunities which allow him to employ his usual line of comedy stunts and certainly doesn’t tax his athletic ability.” (March 13, 1921, p.2)

There were enough good reviews for pull quotes in the trade ads, however

Fairbanks biographer Tracey Goessel defends the film, which is available on the Internet Archive. She writes that The Nut is neglected today, “which is a pity, for it represents an unusual genre in the silent era: a screwball comedy.” She also thinks it has “surrealism worthy of Buster Keaton,” especially when he’s trapped outside in his underwear, so he cuts out a suit from a billboard and tries to wear it home. She mentions that it made as much money as many of his other modern day comedies, but not nearly as much as Zorro. That, plus the critical response, must have helped Fairbanks to make his decision to make adventure films. His next one was The Three Musketeers.

The Nut might be neglected by most people now, but not by Ardman animator Nick Park. In Fairbanks’ film, the opening shows him using his own inventions to get him out of bed, drop him in his bath, and dress him. Park introduces his inventor in the same way in The Wrong Trousers (1993).

As an added bonus at the California Theater this week, Kingsley mentioned that the audience was treated to a musical number:

The record for song hits in picture houses was broken yesterday for the singing of “Becky from Babylon” stopped the show, applause continuing for 10 minutes.

The song came from a Broadway hit, The Passing Show of 1921. It was a nifty novelty song, but it’s not obvious why the audience loved it so much. Maybe the singer, not named in any of the ads, was particularly good at putting it over. Here are some lyrics:

Down at an oriental show
I saw a dancer there;
Her name was Princess “Oy-vay-is-meer”
And she was from the east somewhere.
When she removed all of her veils,
I recognized her face,
This Hindoo lady was a Yiddish baby.
And she came from a certain place–
She was

CHORUS
Becky from Babylon
(I know her mother, I know her brother)
Becky from Babylon,
(She’s got it over Madam Pavlowa)
She learned her oriental ways
As a waitress lifting trays,
She got her famous pose
From washing her mother’s clothes.
Becky, She fools with snakes
(Oh what a twister, you can’t resist her)
She’s full of tricks and fakes, Oh,
She’s no daughter of the Pyramids,
Her right name is Becky Bifkowitz,
Ev’ry one thinks
That she is a Sphinx,
But she’s Becky from Babylon (Long Island).

Doubling for Romeo (I’m not convinced that his legs are newsworthy)

Fairbanks also appeared in Kingsley’s column later this week. Will Rogers was shooting a dream sequence for his upcoming film, Doubling for Romeo, that was Fairbanks satire with an athletic sword fight set in the distant past. So after only one movie, that’s what Fairbanks was known for!

Rogers had to wear tights for the part, and Kingsley reported “there was quite a quota of the feminine Goldwyn contingent gathered about the set, with every fair one pronouncing Rogers’ legs very good to look at.” Rogers didn’t mind this a bit, saying, “Course I got good-looking legs. How else do you suppose I managed to stay in the Follies for four years?”

Gee, I wonder who leaked that news to Kingsley. Nevertheless, she also added an interesting bit of trivia: “That prince of make-up artists, Lon Chaney, made up Rogers for the part. Heretofore Rogers hasn’t bothered about make-up.” Who knew that Chaney helped out his fellow actors with their make-up?

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