Thursday, March 22, 2018

My Wife's Relations - 1922 - Fish for Friday

My Wife's Relations (1922), starring Buster Keaton, who also co-wrote the script and co-directed with Edward F. Cline, is a jubilant reminder of when comedy was not just king, but a rough-and-tumble jester in a world without political correctness but with a kind of egalitarian substitute -- the view that all of society was made up of fools and everyone deserved his chance to be made ridiculous.

The plot is simple, but the gags are elaborate.  Buster lives in a polyglot neighborhood, where, in a mistaken melee with a postman, a window gets broken in the office of a local magistrate/justice of the peace.  This judge happens to be an emigrant from Poland.  Moments before, he has been contacted by a young Polish couple wanting to be married and desiring to have the ceremony performed in their language.  He assures them that he can do the job, as he speaks no other language but Polish anyway.

Having set the gag thusly, a window in the magistrate's office gets smashed in the fight with the postman, and Buster runs away, knocking down a stout Irishwoman named Kate.  She is furious with him, and hauls him before the Polish magistrate intending to rat on him for breaking the window.  Of course, the judge thinks they are the couple who just phoned him wanting to be married, so he marries them.

I love how the title cards for his speech are written in Polish. Irish and Poles make up a good chunk of my ancestry, so the comic premise of this movie is especially dear to me.  My Polish grandmother, or Babci, never learned much English, and in her first days as an immigrant to America before World War I, she loved silent movies because she could understand them.  Even the title cards in English were irrelevant to her, so clear was the pantomime.  Marie Dressler was her favorite actress.

Poor Buster looks like a Liliputian among the giants, but he uses his wits to stay alive.

This brings us to one of my favorite laugh-out-loud moments, though it is probably too subtle for any viewer who does not really relate to the joke.  There is a moment when dinner is served and the family says a quick grace, then the men stab large chunks of beef with their ready forks and take all the meat before Buster can have any.  Buster is hungry and dejected...until he notices the date on the wall calendar.  It's Thursday.  Aha!

Buster goes over to the calendar, rips the page off, and demonstrates to the family greedily gobbling their beef that it is really FRIDAY!

They are Irish.  We next assume they are Catholic, because they choke and sputter in horror at committing a sin, and Kate, not so delicately, spits out the meat.

Kate is played by Kate Price, who performed in an astounding number of movies from 1910 to 1937, something like 300.  She was also a writer of silent film scripts.  I hope to learn more of her career.

Kate and her relatives ashamedly return the uneaten portions of beef back to the platter, and Buster, evidently not playing a Catholic in this movie, helps himself to a solitary feast.

Today, the observance of fasting from meat on Fridays by Catholics is reserved only for the Lenten season, but before Vatican II, this fish-for-Friday rule was all the time.  Indeed, in my home growing up we never stopped having fish on Friday and still do to this day, I suppose because we are just creatures of habit and we like fish.  Friday's as good as any day to eat it.

My favorite gag in the movie, however, is when they gather for a family portrait and the photographer's camera tripod slips to the floor, causing the family to slide down to the floor as well.  That is genius, and one of funniest scenes in any silent film.

But it is Buster's prank on the boorish family, using their religious observance as a level to gain parity with them, that clearly pokes fun at Catholics in a way that is pointed and shrewd without being caustic.  Films from the silent era are not so innocent as they are unselfconscious, which is their great strength and value.  This movie, made in 1922, was at the end of a long and boisterous era of mass immigration to this country where if not everyone got along, there was certainly an entertaining period of adjustment.  Later in that decade, the welcome mat got pulled in, immigration was restricted, and home-terrorist organizations like the KKK, long dedicated to the persecution of African Americans, added Catholics to their list of hated targets, as we discussed a few weeks ago in the intro to our series on films of the 1920s.

Come back next Thursday when we conclude the Lenten season on a less silly note and celebrate Easter and Passover with two versions of Ben Hur - from 1925 and 1959.

Have a look here at My Wife's Relations:


Caftan Woman said...

Delightful film and a clear-eyed look at the time when it was created.

I am thinking about those days more often now because of your series. The comparisons with today are more fascinating as, much as I would like to avoid some of the more disturbing elements of our time, I am again reminded that people do not change all that much. It is our shame. Nonetheless, a good laugh can mean a lot and do a lot of good.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Well put, CW. I confess, I'm also, with some trepidation, looking over my shoulder at a couple of decades long ago for signposts to understand and even survive today's rampant evil. I hope to keep my wits, and my sense of humor. Buster helps.

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