The Twelve Shorts of Christmas #10: The Detectress (1919)

US / ~21 minutes / bw silent / Bull’s Eye, Reelcraft Dir: Gale Henry, Bruno C. Becker Cast: Gale Henry, Milbourne Moranti (i.e., Milburn Morante), Hap H. Ward, Eddie Baker, Richard C. Currier.

One of the few surviving movies made by a comedienne who was in her day enormously popular—she has sometimes been regarded as the inspiration for the animated character Olive Oyl—this is a slapstick parody of the kind of cops’n’robbers one-reelers that were at the time frequent contributors to a night out at the movies. Setting aside the racial stereotyping, which isn’t really malicious but nonetheless leaves an extremely unsavory taste in the mouth—all Chinese men are untrustworthy scoundrels and their food is vile—The Detectress can still be enjoyed today for its inventiveness and its knockabout farce.

Gale Henry as Lizzie

An elderly inventor (unknown actor)—“This antique old fossil,” as the intertitle describes him—has made an astonishing breakthrough: spectacles to enable eaters to determine the ingredients of a chop suey placed in front of them. His formula is stolen by the Chinese pickpocket Jip Yu (Baker) who, chased by a cop, puts it into what he thinks is a cunning hiding place but which is in fact the pocket of Lizzie (Henry), a trainee detective—or “ALMOST detectress,” according to the intertitle. Not realizing what’s in her pocket, Lizzie is despatched by her boss (Currier, I think) into Chinatown to recover the formula.

She pauses at the window of an opium den and, rather liking the smell of the smoke emanating therefrom, pauses a bit longer . . .

Milburn Morante as Milbourne Moranti, the cop

The rest of the plot needn’t bother us too much, since it’s mostly just an excuse to string together a lot of slapstick visual gags as Lizzie and lethargic cop Milbourne Moranti (Morante) chase Jip Yu and other members of the gang of desperadoes led by the notorious One Lung (Ward). These involve hidden doorways, trapdoors that drop unsuspecting victims through the floor into a miniature swimming pool, and so on. It can’t be a coincidence, I think, that I was often reminded, during Lizzie’s opium dream, of Winsor McCay’s newspaper comic strip Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, which ran from 1904 into the 1920s. Not only were the shenanigans comparable, so were the visuals. The echo was strongest during a longish sequence in which people plummet through that trapdoor into that pool: we stay in the lower room, our imaginations telling us what’s going on in the room above. The two rooms serve as, if you like, two vertically adjacent cartoon frames in one of McCay’s strips, with characters breaking through the horizontal frame boundary between the two—a trick McCay perfected. (Not so many years later, the Warner Bros. animators would make extensive use of similar techniques.)

Eddie Baker as Jip Yu, the pickpocket

There’s a long essay by Fritzi Kramer about this movie on the Movies Silently site that I’d strongly recommend. Interestingly, while I’m reminded of McCay’s strips, Kramer is reminded of video games like Super Mario Bros. In a sense it’s not so surprising: I’ve long felt that modern video game designers owe more to the techniques McCay developed than the public might realize.

At the time this movie was made, Gale Henry was married to her co-director, Bruno C. Becker, her second husband. The two created a string of comic featurettes like this before, after just a few years, divorcing. Henry’s third husband was Henry East, whose company East Kennels bred and trained dogs for the movies. Gale Henry was thus co-owner of the wire-haired terrier Skippy, better known as Asta in the THIN MAN movies.

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