Sunday, February 03, 2008

Restoring Bert Williams

The MoMA houses the archive of the Biograph Company, the early American film production company, which became the first studio home of D.W. Griffith. In a twist of fate, they were also the only studio to produce films with Bert Williams, the famed African-American Vaudevillian, who usually performed in blackface.

Williams was a phenomenal success in his day, and one of the first African-American entertainers to achieve crossover popularity, but has a surprisingly slim filmography. Williams made two silent comedies for Biograph in 1916, the two-reeler “A Natural Born Gambler” and the one-reel “Fish,” both of which have been fully restored by their film department. The MoMA also found the raw footage of an aborted feature film they are laboring to assemble into a proper narrative.

Both short films and scenes from the discovered feature were screened at the MoMA last night, with valuable historical perspective provided by biographer Camille F. Forbes, author of Presenting Bert Williams. There is no denying the great influence Williams had on Vaudeville, Tin Pan Alley, and early Broadway. While Williams tried to avoid the humor of racial stereotypes, his blackface appearance and “Jim Crow” persona is clearly dated and makes for uncomfortable viewing.

Or so I thought. However, last night I had the unusual experience of sitting in a theater packed with New Yorkers sporting “Bush Lied” buttons, laughing uproariously at blackface comedy. These films are historically significant and revealing in their way. Williams is respected today for his ability to effectively portray the humanity below the burnt cork. MoMA materials quoted W.C. Fields’ description of Williams as “the funniest man I ever saw and the saddest man I ever knew.”

Williams’ limited work on film brings to mind Charlie Chaplin, as both convey a strong sense of pathos. As a result, empathy with the men makes it hard to enjoy the humor of their circumstances. While New Yorkers laughed at Williams’ mugging, they were missing the inner sadness of the man.