Movie Of The Month by JB Kaufman

Andy's Stump Speech (1924)

September, 2013

Van Ronkel/Universal, 1924. Director: Norman Taurog. Based on Sidney Smith’s comic strip The Gumps. Cast: Joe Murphy, Fay Tincher, Jackie Morgan, James T. Kelley, Robert McKenzie, Broderick O’Farrell, Charles King.
            September 2013, when this post will appear, marks a happy occasion for film enthusiasts: the release of a new DVD by the National Film Preservation Foundation. Annette Melville and her talented team at the NFPF have been accomplishing miracles in film preservation for more than a decade now, and have been compounding their good deeds by sharing those cinematic riches with the rest of us on a series of DVDs. Treasures from American Film Archives (2000) and its successors have truly been treasures in their own right: bringing hundreds of the best recently-preserved films within reach of the home viewer, and, through the proceeds from disc sales, helping to fund even more of the same.
            Now we have Lost and Found: American Treasures from the New Zealand Film Archive, a compendium of highlights from that extraordinary cache of “lost” films rediscovered in the New Zealand vaults a few years ago. It’s true that this release is only a single disc—but it’s a disc that runs more than three hours, packed to overflowing with filmic gold. Like the earlier Treasures, this disc features gorgeous transfers from 35mm prints, excellent original music, and a generous bonus of program notes by Scott Simmon, one of the most brilliant film historians in the world today. Inevitably the standouts of the set will be Upstream (1927), the John Ford feature previously considered lost, and the partially recovered The White Shadow (1924), representing a young Alfred Hitchcock just on the threshold of his directorial career. Both films were celebrated in the press upon their initial discovery, and both are every bit as good as you’ve heard they are.
            But the set offers many other unexpected delights as well, including our present subject. It’s no secret that some of the most popular animated cartoons of the silent era were based on newspaper comic strips; less familiar are the live-action comedies also drawn from the funnies—in this case a popular series of two-reelers based on Sidney Smith’s equally popular comic strip The Gumps. Tall, gangly comedian Joe Murphy seemed born to play the series’ central character, Andy Gump, he of the bald dome, blank expression, monumental nose, and nonexistent chin. Andy’s Stump Speech finds this friendly gargoyle running for president of the United States.
            Over the years, many films have focused on the American political system, for comic or dramatic effect. Andy’s Stump Speech is not one of those films. Andy’s campaign difficulties here include a race with a speeding locomotive, a pair of hungry goats that eat his clothes while he’s in a swimming hole, and a bees’ nest dropped in his pants. In one scene, late for a campaign stop in a rural town, Andy and his family try to flag down an express train by parking their wagon on the railroad crossing. Instead the train roars straight through the crossing, smashing the wagon to smithereens, and the Gumps arrive at their destination riding on the front of the locomotive. Later, Andy insists on delivering his “stump” speech literally from a stump—not knowing that it’s about to be dynamited.
            In short, though this film was produced by an independent studio (released by Universal), it’s essentially a healthy serving of Sennett-style slapstick—propelled by that hallmark of the best Sennett films: an ebullient energy that cheerfully sweeps aside the rules of logic, the law of gravity, and any other obstacles in its path. Like so many other comedies of the 1920s, it’s peppered with wisecracking intertitles (“The annual dance contest was hotter than an old maid’s kiss”). There’s also a reliance on undercranking, to maintain the high-energy pace, and other modest camera tricks. In a rare moment of understatement, Andy, deprived of his clothes, climbs out of that swimming hole. As he rises from the water, a matte line rises with him from the bottom of the frame, discreetly covering his nakedness with an expanse of black screen, until only a sliver of image remains at the top of the frame. Only when he’s safely clothed is the full frame restored. It’s a nice moment, and one that surely owes something to Roscoe Arbuckle.
            For the silent comedy enthusiast, one pleasant bonus of the Gump comedies is the presence of Fay Tincher in the minor role of Andy’s wife Min. Tincher had demonstrated a great versatility in films of the 1910s, essaying roles that ran the gamut from the “other woman” in Griffith’s original production of The Battle of the Sexes (1914), to the gum-chewing secretary “Ethel” in a popular series of shorts, to the exuberant horseplay of Rowdy Ann (1919). Her role here as Min is a relatively undemanding one, to be sure, but she offers a subtly pleasing connection to other, unrelated American silents.
            To audiences of the 1920s, the appeal of this and the other Gump comedies was enhanced by the concurrent popularity of the comic strip. Scott Simmon, in his excellent note, points out an additional layer of context that is obscured today: this short was released on the eve of the real-life presidential election of 1924. American voters headed to the polls that November to choose between Calvin Coolidge, John W. Davis, and Progressive candidate Robert La Follette; but in the meantime Andy Gump announced his own candidacy in the funny papers. His “campaign” became a popular national diversion, and Andy’s Stump Speech was one more part of the joke. Today, of course, we miss all of that context. It doesn’t matter; today’s viewer can thoroughly enjoy this rough-and-tumble slapstick treat on its own merits. It’s a fresh reminder of the many rediscoveries still awaiting us in American film history—and of the heroic preservation work being performed by today’s archival community.

J.B. Kaufman