The Sunday Intertitle: We Firemen

Preparing for Origin Story, an illustrated lecture I will be giving at Edinburgh International Film Festival as part of POW!!! — our retrospective of live-action feature film adaptations from the sixties, seventies and early eighties. This talk will trace the pre-history of the field, right back to the origins of cinema itself (no lie!).

Despite very early short movie versions of The Happy Hooligan and the Katzenjammer Kids among many others, the first FEATURE-LENGTH comic book movie appears to be ELLA CINDERS, starring the delightful Colleen Moore, from 1926. If anyone can nominate an earlier example, I am all ears.

ELLA C. was a natural for the movies since it deals with a movie-crazy teen who wants to be a star. Better, it began as a movie pitch for a Bebe Daniels vehicle, which turned into a newspaper strip when Hollywood turned it down. This kind of cross-fertilisation was more common than you’d think.

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2 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: We Firemen”

  1. A particularly hoary cliche: starstruck hero/heroine is so inept, he/she accidentally becomes a comedy star. It probably predates “Merton of the Movies” (remade twice), figures in “Show People” and sort of in “The Circus.” Keaton’s talkie “Speak Easily” climaxes with sets collapsing to the audience’s delight. Jerry Lewis used it multiple times, often with characters obliged to talk about how brilliant he is.

    Most of the time, the “accidental” comedy is never so hilarious as the onscreen audience finds it.

    Ella Cinders goes to Hollywood because her photo makes people laugh, but she accidentally becomes a DRAMATIC star (panicked by an escaped lion, she displays genuine terror for a camera).

    I like to think they were consciously dodging the “natural comedian” schtick, perhaps even expecting the audience to catch and appreciate the twist on an already tired gimmick. Offhand I can’t think of anyone using Ella’s twist since, unless you count aloof intellectuals interpreting a fiasco as “modern art”.

  2. Re the art schtick –in Bill Forsyth’s debut, That Sinking Feeling, the thieves who are unable to sell their stolen plumbing fixtures finally offload them on an aloof intellectual who mistakes the pile of sinks for an installation. Bonus joke for Scots is that he’s played by genuine Edinburgh arts impresario Richard DeMarco, evidently a good sport.

    Walter Kerr is very critical of Chaplin’s premise in The Circus, saying the filmmaker must have known the idea was bogus. That goes double for Jerry Lewis, but Lewis seems insanely committed to ramming it down our throats regardless.

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