Friday, August 14, 2015

And This Blog Loves Mr. And Mrs. Sidney Drew by Paul F. Etcheverry

"Sidney Drew could open the heaven of laughter to a burdened soul." Grace Kingsley, Los Angeles Times

"They anticipate Edward Everett Horton in their delicacy and nuance." Joe Adamson

"Humorous action does not mean gross horseplay. It does not mean the characters are to dash madly into scenes, trip over matches and fall out of the scene again. In our own comedies, Mr. and Mrs. Drew and myself work to appeal to the mind as well as the eye, but to appeal to the mind through the eye." Sidney Drew, 1917 interview in Moving Picture World

"I believe she’d like to paint the furniture and make the costumes if she could.” Sidney, on his wife and collaborator, Lucille McVey Drew

"Too much credit cannot be given to [McVey], who thought out the ideas, wrote the scenarios, and did nearly all of the directing." Grace Kingsley

Our contribution to the Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon pays tribute to one of the greatest duos in comedy films - dashing, romantic, funny and also related to the Barrymores. They are among the few screen comedy teams that preceded Laurel & Hardy (no, this would not be the Mittenthal Film Company's "Heinie & Louie", Kalem's "Ham & Bud", Vim's "Pokes & Jabbs" or Universal's much more genteel team of Eddie Lyons & Lee Moran): the prolific and hilarious Mr. And Mrs. Sidney Drew, unsurpassed in the "witty and urbane" department until the teaming of William Powell and Myrna Loy two decades later.

The early days of American movies presented quite a different landscape than one might surmise: comedy wasn't dominated by knockabout - far from it. Although the perception remains that early cinema comedy is so rough-and-tumble as to make Moe, Larry & Shemp look like Noël Coward by comparison, most popular among the U.S. produced comedy series in 1910-1912 were the Vitagraph Pictures marital farces starring John Bunny and Flora Finch, known as Bunny-Finches.

The Vitagraph series, soon to be covered in detail by Tony Susnick's documentary on John Bunny, relied on situational humor and were the first popular comedy series in American movies, even preceding Essanay's Alkali Ike.

The Bunny-Finches represented an early gold standard in silver screen comedies, arguably only surpassed at the time by Parisian man-about-town Max Linder. The craggy and corpulent comedian played a cigar-smoking, card-playing Dickensian sort who was perpetually trying to put one over on his wife, for the most part unsuccessfully.

One of Drew's first appearances at Vitagraph was in a Bunny-Finch also featuring renowned Broadway star Josie Sadler (soon to be spun off into her own series) titled The Fuedists.

The death of John Bunny of Bright's Disease in 1915 corresponded with the rise of two styles of film humor: wild, anarchic slapstick (Mack Sennett at Keystone, Marshall "Mickey" Neilan at Kalem and especially Henry "Suicide" Lehrman at L-Ko) and a new breed of sophisticated domestic comedies, led by Sidney Drew.

Sidney Drew, uncle to John, Lionel and Ethel Barrymore (their mom's brother), toured the Broadway stage as a successful light comedian for 20+ years, teamed with his first wife, Gladys Rankin. The duo wrote and performed in plays together, billed as Mr and Mrs. Sidney Drew, starting in 1887.

They began their transition to movies in 1911 at Kalem. Gladys Rankin wrote scenarios for the series under the name of George Cameron, but did not appear as Mrs. Sidney Drew onscreen at Kalem and Vitagraph - Rose Tapley, Anita Stewart and briefly Clara Kimball Young did (in the following short, Jerry's Mother-In-Law) - when they began making films there in 1913.

By the time the first Mrs. Sidney Drew passed away at 40 on January 9, 1914, Vitagraph had specialized in farce and domestic comedies for quite some time.

Sidney Drew began collaborating with a scriptwriter at the studio, Lucille McVey, who had been performing under the name Jane Morrow.

Lucille McVey would eventually become the second Mrs. Drew and co-star with Sidney in over 150 films: first for Vitagraph, then as an independent producer releasing their Drew Comedies through Metro Pictures in 1916 and later the V.B.K. Film Corp. with distribution through Paramount Pictures. Though she did not receive screen credit at the time, Lucille McVey is now recognized as the co-director, producer and scenarist on the series and has her own page on the Women Film Pioneers Project website.

Sidney Drew did make the transition to five-reel featurettes and actually got his first one, A Florida Enchantment, starring Edith Storey. Film historians David Kalat and Bruce Calvert have reviewed A Florida Enchantment at length; this writer has, unfortunately, not seen it, but gets the general impression that film buffs who don their 1914 glasses and situate them properly will find a howlingly funny and truly gender-bending role reversal farce. Out in movie theaters four months before the December 1914 release of Mack Sennett's Tillie's Punctured Romance, it could also could be considered the first comedy feature film produced in America. The Drews followed this in 1915 at Vitagraph with a more dramatic feature, Playing Dead, as well as the 5-reel film they wrote and produced in 1918, Pay Day, in which they play screenwriters.

The Drews' smashing successes in filmmaking and comedy notwithstanding, the ending of this story, unfortunately, would not be a happy one; as the Van Dyke Parks lyric goes, "movies is magic, real life is tragic." Sidney's son, S. Rankin Drew, an actor and director in his own right, was killed in World War I. Sidney was crushed by this emotionally and spiritually. He passed away on April 9, 1919 at 55 years of age.

After Sidney's death, Mrs. Drew finished their contract by appearing in several short subjects, with Canadian actor John Cumberland playing the Mr. Drew parts - Bunkered, The Unconventional Maida Greenwood, The Charming Mrs. Chase, The Stimulating Mrs. Barton and The Emotional Mrs. Vaughan - for release by Pathé Exchange. She continued producing, directing and writing movies, with Vitagraph's 1921 Alice Joyce vehicle Cousin Kate remaining her best known film made after Sidney Drew's death. Lucille McVey passed away at 35 on November 3, 1925.

So the second Mrs. Sidney Drew joins the list of wonderful silent film comediennes - Madcap Mabel Normand, Alice Howell, Fay Tincher and Nilde Barrachi (the frequent co-star of "international mirth maker" Marcel Perez) - who did not appear in any talkies.

While the Drews did not continue their series into the 1920's, the influence of the Mr. And Mrs. Sidney Drew comedies lasted long after the premature passings of the two stars. Carrying on in their footsteps would be former dancer (and future assistant director to Charlie Chaplin) Carter DeHaven and his wife, Flora, starring in domestic comedies and farces. One of this series' directors was Charles Parrott a.k.a. Charley Chase. Another was former Denver fireman Robert McGowan. Both would be up to their eyelids in the next wave of great comedy at the Hal Roach Studio in the 1920's and 1930's.

While Leo McCarey never mentioned the Drews or the DeHavens specifically as an influence, his key collaborator at Roach was nothing other than Mr. Chase, and their specialty a more sophisticated approach to silent "sight gag" comedy. Thus, it is possible to draw a line from the Drews to Chase's situational and often farce-based "comedy of embarrassment" and then to McCarey's later work directing such features as Ruggles Of Red Gap and The Awful Truth - and also note a very likely influence upon Leo's fellow innovator in screwball comedy, Gregory LaCava.

In closing, there will be at least an attempt to answer the question, "where can we SEE any films starring Mr. And Mrs. Sidney Drew?" Here are two of their Vitagraph comedies, still clever, creative and funny after 100 years.

The next question, of course, is "where can we see MORE witty and charming films starring The Drews?" Well, due to the "nitrate won't wait" phenomenon, the answer would be not too many. . . the Mr. and Mrs Sidney Drew series, like a substantial percentage of silent movies that Charlie Chaplin did not star in, have a rather low survival rate.

The 1915 Vitagraph short By Might Of His Right is available for viewing on the National Film Preservation Foundation website. By Might Of His Right was preserved under the direction of George Eastman House from a tinted 35mm nitrate print found in 2010 at the New Zealand Film Archive.

Fox Trot Finesse is on the 5 DVD Slapstick Encyclopedia set. While one can find used copies of this on Amazon and from other online sellers, new copies tend to be on the pricey side.

The 1915 Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew comedy Wanted: A Nurse will be on the Accidentally Preserved volume 3 DVD of silent film rarities, to be released by Undercrank Productions on September 29, 2015.

After this posted on the night of August 14 (PST), I learned that A Florida Enchantment is actually up on YouTube in its entirety. Don't know who the print source was. While it's great to see it, the poster does not appear to be a film buff and the upload is accompanied by so little actual information that one wonders if the poster knew anything at all about the careers of Mr. And Mrs. Sidney Drew or silent movies in general.


Article about Mr. And Mrs. Sidney Drew and the aforementioned Vitagraph film By Might Of His Right by Dimitrious Pavlounis on the National Film Preservation Foundation website

The Luck Of The Drew by David Kalat for Movie Morlocks

Ben Model and Undercrank Productions

Domestic Comedy Of A Century Ago, from Greenbriar Picture Shows by John McElwee

Early Women Filmmakers by Anthony Slide

Internet Movie Database bios on Sidney Drew and Lucille McVey Drew penned by Arlene K. Witt

Library of Congress historian, silent film expert and author of Laurel Or Hardy: The Solo Films of Stan Laurel and Oliver "Babe" Hardy Rob Stone, whose Al Joy Fan Club blog is the only place among a gazillion classic movie websites featuring Mr and Mrs. Sidney Drew AND Mr. And Mrs. Carter DeHaven lobby cards.

Program notes by Steve Massa on the 1917 Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew comedy, A Professional Patient, which was screened at New York City MoMA in the Unsocialized Medicine: Health Care Comedies program on October 4, 2010 - as part of the Cruel and Unusual Comedy series there.

The New York Times review by Bruce Calvert

Stars Of Slapstick: Mr. And Mrs. Sidney Drew by Trav S.D.

Wikipedia entry on Mr. And Mrs. Sidney Drew by anonymous author

Women Film Pioneers Project at Columbia University

And, last but not least, kudos, bravos and huzzahs to Crystal of In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood for hosting the blogathon. As Ronald Colman would have said to Lionel, John or Ethel in dulcet tones, "good show!"


Silver Screenings said...

Ack! I can't believe I've never even heard of Mr & Mrs Drew before now!! They are BOSS! Those films you posted are charming and funny and so well done. I love these two!

That's the great things about blogathons – you always discover new treasures. Thanks so much for sharing these two with us.

Paul F. Etcheverry said...

Thanks - lots of good writers contributed to this blogathon!