The Smith Family Series by Brent E. Walker

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Brent Walker
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The Smith Family Series by Brent E. Walker

Postby Brent Walker » Thu Nov 05, 2009 2:12 pm

“The Smith Family Series” by Brent E. Walker

An excerpt from:
Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory:A History and Filmography of His Studio and His Keystone and Mack Sennett Comedies, with Biographies of Players and Personnel
by Brent E. Walker
coming from McFarland & Company in early 2010
http://www.mcfarlandpub.com/book-2.php? ... 864-3610-1

Mack Sennett said in a 1926 press release, “It has been one of my pet ideas for years to make a series of comedies depicting the average American family in all its humorous aspects.” This statement was made in conjunction with Sennett’s announcement heralding a new comedy series that represented something of a departure for him. The “Jimmy Smith” series, or “Smith Family” as it came to be known, would present the activities of a typical American family—a father, a mother, a baby daughter and their dog—who just naturally manage to get themselves into one predicament after another. Rather than go for broad laughs, these films would seek humor through the audience’s identification with the family’s all-too-familiar foibles. “These little domestic farces are intended to let us see ourselves as others see us,” Sennett continued. “I know the fans will like them because we Americans are gifted with the ability to laugh at ourselves wholeheartedly. Our comedy family is like thousands of other families in this country. Not much money, no social prominence to speak of, the most wonderful baby in the world and a pretty good dog. Their experiences are drawn from life and will be easily recognized.”

Sennett had previously attempted a family series with a quartet of 1920 shorts featuring Louise Fazenda, Billy Bevan, John Henry Jr. and Teddy, though these films went for the broader laughs associated with Sennett at the time. “The Smith Family,” however, would be the first real “series” Sennett would produce, in terms of a consistent core of actors playing the same characters from film to film under an umbrella series title.

Announced in January 1925 as a series to be directed by Eddie Cline and starring Raymond McKee in the story of “believable people,” the first Smith comedy had gone into production way back in the late spring of 1925. Raymond McKee and Ruth Hiatt, fresh from their leads in ISN’T LOVE CUCKOO, played Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Though McKee’s Mr. Smith was known as Jimmy, Hiatt’s Mrs. Smith—as if to emphasize her “wifeliness”—does not appear to have been graced with a first name throughout the entire two-and-a-half years of series production. At the time the series began, former Keystoner Charles Parrott had begun to gain popularity at Hal Roach—under the supervision of former Sennett director general F. Richard Jones—as a character named Charley Chase, a “regular fellow” who constantly found himself in embarrassing situations that earned immediate audience empathy. McKee had long been playing similar characters, so it is hard to know if the Roach Chase films had any influence, but Jimmy Smith certainly had some of the same elements in his character make-up. Though attempting to maintain a sense of decorum while registering frustration with his family’s foibles, Mr. Smith’s own blundering was often the cause of his downfall.

Hiatt, a natural brunette who dyed her hair blonde for the length of the series, played a woman who was frequently the voice of reason in her family. However, just as often she could be responsible for digging her family deeper and deeper into a troublesome hole with her antics. Mary Ann Jackson played their baby, most often known as Bubbles, whose cute Dutch bob and pretty white bonnet belied the devilish mischief she was capable of creating when left alone for a matter of minutes. The family was rounded out by a large dog, initially six-month old Cap (or Captain), who was in reality Teddy III—grandson of the legendary Sennett dog Teddy.

Prior to his assignment to the Alice Day series, Eddie Cline had directed the first three Smith films in the spring and early summer of 1925. SMITH’S BABY introduced the family, and in particular the antics of baby Bubbles as she torments her babysitting grandmother (Sunshine Hart), who in turn disrupts the Smith’s attempts for a rare peaceful night out at the movies.

The family takes to the road in the second outing, SMITH’S VACATION, which forgoes situation humor for a series of gag set pieces. The Smiths board a train for Yellowstone National Park, where Bubbles and Cap the dog annoy a fussy passenger (Joe Young in a funny supporting role). Bubbles further makes herself unwelcome on the train by throwing passengers’ shoes off the rear car.

Mary Ann Jackson, as the baby Bubbles, was quickly established in the series as an utter terror, capable of committing one outrageous action after another while her sometimes inattentive parents were almost completely incapable of stopping her. At Yellowstone, the family inadvertently pitches their tent on a geyser and has it blown into the air. Mr. Smith attempts to take a hot mud bath, but is chased by a bear and must hide behind a geyser when a tourist group appears until he can find other clothing (which turns out to be a woman’s dress).

The third production, SMITH’S LANDLORD (which wrapped in July 1925), introduced a Smith Family device that would become a staple: a landlord evicting the family over Bubbles’ antics, causing them to seek new quarters. Of course, no one is surprised when their “new” landlord (Joe Young) turns out to be none other than their old landlord! Mary Ann has a number of amusing scenes with animals, leading chickens, goats and cow inside the house and in a bizarre bit letting a goat drink from a cow’s udder. Though Cline directed the majority of this film and receives credit in the titles, Sennett records show that Gil Pratt replaced him at the end of this production, and would assume direction responsibilities on the next three Smith Family comedies.

At this point, three Smith Family comedies were completed, but Sennett showed no intention of rushing his new series into release for the fall 1925 Pathé schedule. Whether Sennett was allowing ample time for series pre-publicity or wanted to make sure everything was in place, the first Smith Family comedy, SMITH’S BABY, would not be released until July 25, 1926—some 13 months after its completion. In fact, by the time this initial Smith Family two-reeler was released, eight additional Smith comedies were already in the can. Due to this withholding of product, theater audiences’ first exposure to little Mary Ann Jackson came not as a “Smith,” but in several Alice Day, Ralph Graves and Billy Bevan comedies that were produced after but released prior to the first several Smith Family comedies. During its entire run, production of the Smith Family comedies would remain well ahead of the release schedule.

Curiously, after completion of the first three Smith family shorts, McKee and Hiatt were cast together in different roles in Del Lord’s LOVE’S LAST LAUGH. McKee is introduced as a distraught young man who determines to take his own life, leading to a series of humorously morbid failed suicide attempts. This includes a couple of gags lifted from Harold Lloyd’s HAUNTED SPOOKS six years earlier: a gun that turns out to be a water pistol, and a streetcar that changes tracks just before reaching McKee. He finally jumps off a bridge, but lands safely in the swimming pool of a passing cruise ship.

McKee meets Hiatt and a romance develops, which is sidetracked when diamond-hunting Russians kidnap Hiatt during the second reel. However, the light comedic style of McKee made a bizarre contrast to the slapstick direction that was a trademark of Lord. Thus, gags such as a baron (Kewpie Morgan) turning into a giant piece of cheese (through Hiatt’s mind’s eye, via animation that may have been the work of Pinto Colvig) and soap bubbles coming out of Barney Hellum’s mouth seem strangely out of place. (Having a human turn into a symbolic inanimate object as seen through the eyes of another individual—such as tough football player turning into a steamroller from the viewpoint of Harry Gribbon in THE HALF-BACK OF NOTRE DAME—was one of Lord’s favorite set-pieces.)

It seems odd that after finishing only three productions of a series yet to be released, there would be a determination to try two of the three Smith Family leads in a completely different setting under a different director. Perhaps this was an indication that Sennett wasn’t sure about his new series and its lighter comedy, which also could explain the long delay before the first release. Whatever the reason, the Smith unit was back in production in December 1925—now under Gil Pratt’s leadership.

SMITH’S VISITOR introduced a new element to the series: infidelity. Mrs. Smith’s college friend (Janet Royce) comes for a visit, but when Mrs. catches her in a misinterpreted situation with Mr. Smith she files for divorce before finding out the truth. SMITH’S SURPRISE reverses the jealousy to the part of Mr. Smith, while SMITH’S UNCLE introduces Andy Clyde (who would become a frequent Smith Family supporter) as Jimmy’s uncle. He almost falls prey to gold-digger Carmelita Geraghty before her equally shifty brother (Bud Jamison) exposes her.

After one additional short under Pratt, Lloyd Bacon took over the reins for SMITH’S CUSTOMER, which features Johnny Burke, the vaudeville star who had just been signed by Sennett. In a familiar plot, the Smiths argue over who has the tougher job and decide to switch places. However, when Mrs. Smith invites book agent Burke over for a business dinner to be cooked by her husband, Mr. Smith fumes with jealous rage about Burke’s attentions toward his wife.

Alf Goulding, the veteran Australian director whose work dated back to Harold Lloyd’s one-reel shorts for Rolin, was assigned to the Smith Family unit in April 1926, and would form a bond of stability by remaining for a full-year’s schedule of 12 consecutive pictures. SMITH’S PETS showed no letup in quality, with Clyde back as the short-fused landlord who objects to Bubbles’ baby pig disrupting his apartment building. In this film, Goulding makes interesting use of traveling shots to follow the antics of Mary Ann in the Smiths’ apartment. SMITH’S NEW HOME alters Clyde’s role into a man who sells the Smiths a house, which proceeds to have one problem after another. SMITH’S PICNIC was completed in August 1926 and jumped ahead of four other completed Smith shorts for a December 12 release; it told the tale of an “Optimist’s Club” beach picnic that turns very pessimistic because of the antics of the Smith Family.

The next production, SMITH’S KINDERGARTEN, was followed by SMITH’S FISHING TRIP—in which the Smiths go to visit rural relatives or acquaintances, enabling the family to engage in outdoor gags. SMITH’S CANDY SHOP gets a big assist by Anna May the elephant, who provides the best moments. Andy Clyde is a candy store proprietor who attempts to sabotage the Smiths’ competing business by substituting cement for the sugar to be used in their taffy, resulting in a very chewy time for customers all over town. In the finale, Anna May gets loose on the city streets, briefly shaves Andy Clyde in a barber shop, and pushes a procession of cars into a brick wall. In the end, all works out well for the Smiths, and Clyde is relegated to working as their chauffeur.

SMITH’S PONY was an above-average entry in the series, and featured more locations than were normally utilized in the Smith series. It also introduced a new actress in her first featured part at the studio, who would become an important Sennett performer over the next year and eventually a film superstar: Carole Lombard.

The Smith family takes a trip to San Francisco, which includes antics in a Chinatown restaurant. Attending a horse show with attractive riding teacher Lillian Saunders (Lombard), Mr. Smith decides to purchase one of the cute Shetland ponies bred by her as a present for daughter Bubbles, without telling her or Mrs. Smith (big mistake!). Saunders, who accompanies the Smiths’ back home by ship, has named the pony after herself, causing plenty of complications when Mrs. Smith overhears her husband talking to “Lillian” in his stateroom. At the same time, Mr. Smith must keep the pony’s presence a secret from a suspicious ship’s purser. All in all, SMITH’S PONY is a delightful demonstration of how the Smith Family series could derive big laughs from a succession of funny situations without resorting to broad slapstick.

SMITH’S COOK was unique in that the three series leads—McKee, Hiatt and Jackson—took a back seat to a trio of guest supporters: Polly Moran, Johnny Burke and Vernon Dent. After leaving Sennett for Fox Sunshine in 1918, Moran had worked for other short producers and freelanced in features. Shortly after SMITH’S COOK, she would sign a contract with M-G-M that would lead to a second career resurgence in key supporting roles, including a memorable series with Marie Dressler. In SMITH’S COOK, she plays the title character (yes, the same family previously evicted by landlords could now afford a culinary servant). Moran’s plans to wed Burke are thwarted by former flame Vernon Dent, a motorcycle cop who still carries a torch for Polly. Moran, Dent and Burke all give pleasing performances (the latter in what would be one of his best for Sennett) in this warm-hearted romp.

SMITH’S COUSIN, filmed in February 1927, opens shockingly with a physically violent argument between Mr. and Mrs. Smith over his sobriety. When little Bubbles sees them in this state, her bangs blow up into the air. However, it turns out that her parents are rehearsing a scene for a society vaudeville show in which they are participating. Then Cousin Egbert Hicks (Irving Bacon) arrives as a guest, sees them arguing (unaware it’s a rehearsal) and hits Mr. Smith over the head with a vase. Cousin Egbert, who soon proves quite annoying to Mr. Smith, operates a medicine show with a pack of trained dogs. After entertaining a group of society fops with his act, including a variation of the gag from DOLLARS AND SENSE of putting a dog in a sausage machine and getting links (then pulling the “dogs” out of someone’s coat), Egbert is invited to join the Smith’s charity event. Needless to say, the night of the vaudeville program turns into a shambles, with society matrons scared by mice while dogs deposit bones in their laps. One portion of the show features recreations of various famous statues, with Mr. Smith as the Tinker and Mary Ann (in skull cap) as “Psyche at the Well.” When a fly climbs up her leg and tickles her, she drops the $5000 Egyptian vase she is holding.

After the “entrepreneurial” entry, SMITH’S MODISTE SHOP, the series yielded SMITH’S ARMY LIFE, which presented the unlikely idea that a family could make a vacation out of the father’s enlistment in a civilian military camp. To meet regulations, Mr. Smith must pretend to be unmarried, which makes the “single” Mrs. Smith an object of attention for flirtatious Colonel Vernon Dent to Mr. Smith’s silent chagrin. Goulding apparently left Sennett just before production of this film concluded (he would soon be back), and Earle Rodney and writer Felix Adler performed uncredited completion work.

Also replacing Goulding as director of SMITH’S FARM DAYS (shot in May and June of 1927) was Phil Whitman, known as “Slim” to his co-workers long before the yodeling western crooner by the same name. Whitman was a former newspaperman who had joined Keystone as a writer, but somehow found himself detouring into a career as a Sennett photographer in the late 1910’s. He went on to become a respected trick-effects cinematographer on several major 1920’s features, but soon returned to his original career as a scribe. Unfortunately, his life and career would be cut short by alcoholism. Though later works would show that Whitman was no equal to an Alf Goulding or Harry Edwards as a director, there was no noticeable dip in quality on his eight Smith Family entries, which also included SMITH’S RESTAURANT, SMITH’S CATALINA ROWBOAT RACE, BABY’S BIRTHDAY, THE CHICKEN and THE BARGAIN HUNT.

Throughout the course of the Smith Family series, several similar looking dogs were used as the family pet: after eight films, possibly due to a contract dispute with owner Joseph E. Simkins, Cap was replaced in SMITH’S NEW HOME by Omar, a dog owned by Sennett production manager Lonnie F. Dorsa. After another eight Smith entries, Omar was replaced by Balto, who appeared in about six films. Later dogs included Jiggs and Nero, whose only appearance was in THE BURGLAR.

THE BURGLAR (1928) begins, in moody lighting, on the living room stairway. Mr. Smith, wearing a black turtleneck and a floppy cap, manages to get locked out of his own house. He tries to break in through a window, just when Gas Pipe McGook (Otto Fries), the notorious burglar terrorizing the neighborhood, approaches the house. Mistaking Smith for a rival, McGook tells him he has “dibs” on the house. McGook “allows” Smith to rob the house with him, but keeps a gun on him. Smith has to go along. Smith tries to get Nero to sic the burglar, but the dog ends up shaking hands with the bandit and helpfully fetching the house valuables. Smith is forced to tie up his own wife, an act that is watched by little Bubbles from another room. Bubbles then stubs her toe, which expands and contracts in a gag stylistically borrowed from Del Lord. Bubbles and Magnolia, the maid’s daughter, try to shoot the burglars with a big shotgun, but can’t pull trigger. The family then surrounds Smith, thinking he’s gone crazy, but the burglar appears to hold a gun on everybody. Just then, the string tied shotgun of Bubbles and Magnolia goes off and sends the burglar out the window, landing in front of a cop. He pulls a pistol on the cop, but the Smith dog bites his hand.

The next Smith outing under Whitman—UNCLE TOM—concerned a community production of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, and was a relatively expensive picture for the thrifty Smith Family series at a budget of $25,800. The series production schedule was rounded out with Alf Goulding’s THE RODEO and THE NEW AUNT, the latter a fitting end to the series which was started as director by Goulding and finished by Earle Rodney in early 1928, but not released until over a year later. In the meantime, the Smith Family spawned several inferior imitators, including the Universal-Stern Brothers comic strip-based series “The Newlyweds and their Baby” (which in some episodes featured Sennett graduate Joe Young playing the father).

Copyright 2009 by Brent E. Walker. All Rights Reserved.

Frank Flood
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Re: The Smith Family Series by Brent E. Walker

Postby Frank Flood » Thu Nov 05, 2009 4:08 pm

Bravo, Brent. Can't wait for the book.

Frank

Joe Moore
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Re: The Smith Family Series by Brent E. Walker

Postby Joe Moore » Fri Nov 06, 2009 9:26 am

Ditto, what Frank said Brent.

I've been a fan of the Smith Family series for some time so am really glad to get this chunk of the book as a sneak preview.

Joe Moore

Gary Johnson
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Re: The Smith Family Series by Brent E. Walker

Postby Gary Johnson » Fri Nov 06, 2009 1:02 pm

The only film from the series I've seen is on the Howdy Dowdy collection. From your description I'm assuming it's "Smith's Uncle".

I'm wondering how the series affected Sennett's outlook on comedy since it's a deviation from his typical slapstick style and is an obvious audience grab toward the more popular and sophisticated Roach style.
Did Roach feel comfortable contributing to the series or did he leave the filmmakers on their own?

Gary J.

Brent Walker
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Re: The Smith Family Series by Brent E. Walker

Postby Brent Walker » Fri Nov 06, 2009 3:45 pm

Gary Johnson wrote:The only film from the series I've seen is on the Howdy Dowdy collection. From your description I'm assuming it's "Smith's Uncle".

I'm wondering how the series affected Sennett's outlook on comedy since it's a deviation from his typical slapstick style and is an obvious audience grab toward the more popular and sophisticated Roach style.
Did Roach feel comfortable contributing to the series or did he leave the filmmakers on their own?

Gary J.


You will be able to read the details in my book, via memos, etc., but Sennett had been making strides to go in a more situational humor direction since the early 20's, spurred largely by F. Richard Jones, but seemed to get cold feet each time and go back to slapstick. (Jones had also unsuccessfully lobbied to get Sennett to start a series using "washed-up" dramatic actors, which he ultimately did at Roach as the All-Star series.) Once Jones got to Roach, he had a freer hand to do things his way and you see that in the change that happened at Roach in 1925-27 under Jones' watch. Roach was already somewhat headed in that direction under Charley Chase, but still with an emphasis on gags -- it wasn't until after Jones got there that you started to see a big stylistic change at Roach going from films in 1924 versus those in 1925-26. Jones was definitely one of the unsung geniuses of silent comedy and deserves to get more credit than he receives--his untimely death had a lot to do with that.

The Smith Family series was actually in the works from early 1925, but most of the films were delayed over a year from being released. I think it was the Sennett films made in 1926-27, such as the Harry Edwards-Billy Bevan-Vernon Dent films, the Sennett Girl comedies and the later Smith Family comedies, that really showed that Sennett was trying to play catch-up with the Roach style -- ironically, in part because Jones had more freedom under Roach than he had under Sennett.

Joe Moore
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Re: The Smith Family Series by Brent E. Walker

Postby Joe Moore » Sat Nov 07, 2009 5:31 am

Brent Walker wrote:Jones was definitely one of the unsung geniuses of silent comedy and deserves to get more credit than he receives--his untimely death had a lot to do with that.



Ditto Brent.

The more research I did on Roach the more I felt the same way about Jones. A very important figure behind the scenes on the direction that silent comedy took in the 1920s.

Joe Moore

Eric Cohen
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Re: The Smith Family Series by Brent E. Walker

Postby Eric Cohen » Sun Nov 02, 2014 2:33 pm

TCM is showing Smith's Pony (Sennett 1927) tonight after the premiere of Enchantment which rates no linked article. Smith's Pony does get a write-up (Lombard's in it) and the above Brent E. Walker post is credited. Unfortunately, this here website is incorrectly called silentmafia. Maybe one of the boys should pay them a friendly little visit.

Richard M Roberts
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Re: The Smith Family Series by Brent E. Walker

Postby Richard M Roberts » Sun Nov 02, 2014 4:42 pm

Eric Cohen wrote:TCM is showing Smith's Pony (Sennett 1927) tonight after the premiere of Enchantment which rates no linked article. Smith's Pony does get a write-up (Lombard's in it) and the above Brent E. Walker post is credited. Unfortunately, this here website is incorrectly called silentmafia. Maybe one of the boys should pay them a friendly little visit.


You're one of the mafiosi, you go have a talk with them.

Thats one of the Cinemuseum restorations that didn't make it to Volume One (from my print BTW), it's nice to see TCM is running a few more of those.

RICHARD M ROBERTS


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