Tonight we’re attending a screening of Bert Williams Lime Kiln Club Field Day at the Logan Center for the Arts on the campus of the University of Chicago. Filmed in 1913 but never released, the film was thought lost by the few who even knew of its existence, and it has taken decades to identify and put together the version now before us.
Seven unidentified reels of silent footage had sat in storage at New York’s Museum of Metropolitan Art (MoMA) since the museum’s first curator, Iris Barry, had obtained them in 1939 from Biograph in a hoard of 900 negatives—saved from sure destruction, as the company was just then going out of business. Rushes from the hoard were printed on safety film stock in the 1970s, and restoration began in the 1980s. Someone noticed the existence of a film portraying middle-class pleasures being enjoyed by an all-black cast—including legendary vaudeville star Bert Williams. The only reference to the film in print that has been found is a 1914 obituary of a crew member; fortunately, it’s a match.
MoMA’s curatorial team began assembling the film in 2004. They’ve taken the rushes (or what are often called “dailies,” the raw, unedited footage) and put them together, including some multiple takes, into a rough narrative. We get to see not only the genius of Williams and his acting peers from the Harlem arts circle of the early 1910s, but also—because of the rough nature of the product—the mechanics of early film-making, the subtleties of direction and acting, the humor and rapport among the cast members. Besides that, the subject matter—African-Americans depicted enjoying life carefree, independently, and intimately, with only a few stereotypes imposed on them—is a stunning revelation for its time. MoMA speculates that the film was never released because of the impact that D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation had both on race relations in America and characterizations of blacks in the cinema. That film “poisoned the well for progressive filmmakers,” reasons Ashley Clark, in an article that provides a good overview of the project. In a way, the historical record has been corrected, as the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry added Bert Williams Lime Kiln Club Field Day to its list last year.
As you can imagine, we feel somewhat proud of all this positive attention being paid to Bert Williams, as we reissued his complete works over three separate CDs. Anyone who loves those recordings probably feels he or she knows Bert personally. They are so warm, so inviting, displaying the man’s consummate skill in “putting over” his material even through a horn, faceless, into people’s living rooms and parlors 100 years ago. Since the film is silent, though, audiences who appreciate Williams’ gifts for physical comedy will go away not having heard Williams, which is too bad. It’s odd and somewhat unfortunate that film people often neglect early sound recordings and record people often neglect early film.
One other thing comes to mind. If you read some of the press out there about this film, you’ll notice a lot of writers clamming up awkwardly on the subject of Bert’s blackface. We’ve been living in this world (i.e., the world of vaudeville, “coon songs,” and rampant racism in the early recording industry) for nearly 20 years now, so we’ve had to become acclimated to the uglier parts of history. When you are familiar with the conventions (and indignities) Williams lived with, you get past them pretty quickly to discover him, not the trappings surrounding him. When this is all new to you, however, it’s nearly impossible to get beyond the obvious, inexcusable racism imposed upon the actors. We fear that may cause many people to turn away and not have a second—or third, or fourth—look at one of the most extraordinary performers ever to grace the American stage.