A Chaplin-esque Alice Howell Comedy

Trade ads proclaimed Alice Howell as a (or the) female Chaplin. I’d initially thought this was a parallel to Chaplin’s being the number one star. There are similar proclamations about Mabel Normand, and the analogy fits. Mabel was the top female comedy star of the silent era, and even made the move to features, although her films do not resemble Chaplin’s that much. Alice’s films do have a little more in common with Charlie’s, beyond her being a very popular star in comedy shorts.

Until 2015, nearly all of Alice Howell’s films made for Reelcraft in 1920 were lost. That is, until a large cache of 16mm home rental prints came into the archive at the Library of Congress. The films had originally been circulated in the 1920s and 1930s by the Mogull Brothers film library. Four of the Alice Howell Reelcraft comedies were in that collection, and were formerly not known to exist. 

One of them is Her Lucky Day (1920), filmed in Chicago and co-starring Alice’s husband Dick Smith and her little dog Coo-coo. Some of Howell’s other films have moments of personality, charm and even a little pathos, the way Chaplin’s do amidst the fray of slapstick. Her Lucky Day seems, to me, the closest relative to Chaplin’s late-teens two-reelers. 

Alice lives in a working class boarding house with her little dog, and is put out after being unable to make rent. She goes from singing in the streets to a job in a small restaurant, meeting up with and falling in love with Smith as well as along the way. There are other complications involving stolen jewelry and the ironic circumstance that the restaurant owner knew Alice’s landlord and now has designs on her. But it’s her adventure and she’s out there trying to get work and make ends meet, and not just fall in love so someone will marry and take care of her.

Alice Howell Her Lucky Day
Alice has just served a customer a “horse’s neck” in Her Lucky Day (1920, Reelcraft); it was a non-alcoholic drink that was popular at the beginning of Prohibition, but clearly Alice hadn’t gotten the memo…

But the film has more of an overall cohesive overall arc to it than some of the others do, feeling less like it’s hopping from one somewhat-connected gag sequence to another, and it has a nice callback gag at the end that wraps it up. Most people seem to find Distilled Love (shot in 1918 and released in 1920) to be their favorite on the Alice Howell Collection DVD set, but Her Lucky Day is one of my top picks.

I’ll be playing for a couple silent features at the annual Capitolfest in Rome NY this coming August. The organizers have graciously taken me up on my request to include an Alice Howell comedy during the festival, and I’m happy to say Her Lucky Day will be shown on Sunday, August 11th. Capitolfest attendees will be the second audience ever to see the film in a movie theater since its original release in 1920. (The first audience to see the new restoration was at the AFI Silver Theater in November 2018, where Steve Massa and I presented a program of Alice Howell comedies.)


  • The full schedule for Capitolfest 17, which runs from August 9 to 11 is available online here.
  • The Alice Howell Collection 2-disc DVD set is available on Amazon, the TCM Shop, DeepDiscount and several other online retailers, as well as internationally at Amazon UK, Amazon Canada, Amazon Australia and WowHD.
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