Alice Howell – Comedy Creator

Usually, the baking mis-hap in a silent comedy film involves glue or cement or an explosive or carpet tacks etc. You know, the one where the person baking is distracted and an ingredient from a shelf above falls into the batter. The confection served in the next scene either has a life of its own, breaks the table or explodes. The iteration of this trope in Alice Howell’s A Convict’s Happy Bride (Reelcraft, 1920) goes a different way, and this stuck with me as I worked on the new DVD set of her comedies.

It’s one of my favorite gag sequences in the Reelcraft comedies Alice made in 1920-21. I’m not going to give it away here, but I can tell you it involves an actual baking ingredient. The confection served in a later scene, in A Convict’s Happy Bride, does have a funny surprise to it, one which goes in the opposite direction of the usual outcome, doesn’t put anyone’s life in peril and which instead leads to an entire gag sequence full of slapstick.

At first, my reaction was just that this was very inventive and that I’d never seen this gag before. But there were other gags and little moments in Howell’s films that stuck out for me, ones I hadn’t seen elsewhere, and for the same reason.

One of the things I’ve learned from working with physical comedians and clowns over the last several years, in participating in the weekly NYC Physical Comedy Lab and in working on shows by the physical comedy theatre company Parallel Exit, is that creating physical comedy gags and routines is a much more collaborative  process than you’d imagine. Even for someone who may be the main comedian in a gag, there’s input that comes from everyone involved in it, ideas that get tried out and enhanced or discarded until the gag begins to work or work better. 

Alice Howell had come to movies from touring in vaudeville and most probably would have been used to this process, and would certainly have had a participating hand in the comedy she did on film. I’d imagine this was the case at Keystone, as she’s doing slapstick gags that you don’t see other Keystone ladies doing. In Shot in the Excitement (Keystone, 1914) she takes falls, gets hit on the head by a large rock, etc.  It was her willingness to dive in an get herself dirtied up that got her the opportunities to do more physical stuff in the Keystone shorts, and even in the surviving L-KO ones where she’s supporting Billie Ritchie et al she’s doing more physical work than Gertrude Selby is. She’s an active participant in the gags, chasing people, attacking Billie Ritchie, etc.

There’s an ad for the series of comedies Alice Howell did for Century that mentions her “doping out” gags with director Jack Blystone. There isn’t a lot in the way of interviews with her in the trades, but this is a clue that supports what I know about creating physical comedy material.

Full page article about Alice Howell in the August 1917 issue of Photoplay magazine. Image sourced from the Media History Digital Library, (where you can also read the entire issue)

The cement/TNT-in-the-cake gag is a guy’s idea. The wrong ingredient in the batter seems like something that comes from the mind of someone who has spent more time baking than they have in a carpenter’s shop. There are other little moments or gags in Alice’s comedies like this, gags that you don’t usually see come out of a room of male gag-writers and which look like they come from the mind of a woman. You can discover these for yourself in the 12 comedies on The Alice Howell Collection 2-disc DVD.

The Alice Howell Collection 2-disc DVD set will be available on March 5, 2019 on Amazon, DeepDiscount, Shop TCM and other online retailers, and can be pre-ordered on those sites now.

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Joe Thompson
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I’m looking forward to watching your new release and learning more about Alice Howell. The few comedies of hers that I have seen do have a different flavor.