‘Little Cat Under an Umbrella’–who’d a thunk it?


            Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd were stars known the world over, “news” that should come as no bombshell. What is surprising, however, is how popular some of the lesser-known American silent comedians were in places remote in distance and culture from the United States. The films of Monty Banks received little coverage in country-of-origin trade magazines like The Moving Picture World, Motion Picture News and Exhibitors Herald, let alone recognition as cultural documents worthy of scholarly investigation. But such was not the case in the Soviet Union, where Vladimir Nedobrovo wrote the first (and likely only) monograph on Monty Banks written during his lifetime, published in 1927 by Kinopchat. Robert James Kiss found a copy of this pamphlet in a Lithuanian bookstore a decade ago, and generously shared this scan of the cover. But this was not the only serious Soviet recognition of the Monty Banks oeuvre. In pages 320-321of his book Les petits maîtres du burlesque américain 1909-1929 (CNRS editions, 2000), author Jean-Jacques Couderc discusses painter and theorist Casimir Malevitch’s seeming obsession with Monty Banks as a cultural figure back in the U.S.S.R., although the founder of “Suprematism” found Banks to be insufficiently revolutionary compared to Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov (translation from the French by Robert James Kiss):

            “[In] Racing Luck (Grand-Asher, 1924) . . . It goes without saying that Monty will triumph, but before that can happen he has to demonstrate all the courage and ingenuity of a true American pioneer; in this instance, this involves having to come first in an epic auto race. All of Banks‚ features produced in the United States are built on this same foundation, with Monty coming from nothing (or next to nothing), then showing off qualities that are highly prized in American society (a sense of competitiveness and enterprise, audacity, tenacity and dynamism) which, mixed in with a little good fortune, enable him to achieve wealth and happiness, while also succeeding in love . . . In this way, he realizes the dream of every newly arrived immigrant in the New World: a rapid and definitive social ascent.

            One can imagine the attractiveness of such a persona not merely for American audiences, but also international ones. The most unexpected example of this must surely be the success encountered by Monty Banks’ entire oeuvre in the U.S.S.R. Could his on-screen American-style ascent have caused audiences there, nostalgic for the ability to make a buck, to dream also? As a perceived representative of the petit bourgeois, or of empowered capitalists, Banks certainly became a counterfigure for certain Soviet intellectuals. In an article in the review Kino i Kultura (no.7/8, 1929) dedicated to Dziga Vertov (director of The Man with the Movie Camera (1929) and father of Kino-Glaz‚ or Cine-Eye), futurist painter Casimir Malevitch counterposes this avant-garde form of cinema with that of Monty Banks, to whom he refers not less than eight times in the space of a few pages: ‘If Dziga Vertov points the way ahead, then the Monty Bankses of cinema will not forgive him for it;’ or: ‘This is why I believe that to comprehend the dynamism of our current era of reconstruction, young workers should study [cubo-futurist arists such as Giacomo] Balla, [Umberto] Boccioni, [Luigi] Russolo, [composer Gaetano] Braga, etc., rather than Monty Banks or Pat and Patachon [character names of Danish screen comics Carl Schenstrøm and Harald Madsen];’ and even: ‘There is a greater sense of the present captured in any work by Russolo than in the entirety of Monty Banks Gets Married [Russian title of Wedding Bells (Grand-Asher, 1923)]. The greatest achievements of Monty Banks for the cinema are about equal to the greatest insights into painting that might be gleaned from a picture titled ‘Little Cat under an Umbrella.’ For [Casimir] Malevitch, clearly, Banks’‚ films represent the archetype of a traditional, inflexible cinema.”

            Of course, as Dinah Washington sang, “What A Difference A Day Makes,” and in this day and age silent comedy is often regarded as anarchic, liberated, surreal and scarcely inflexible by modern critics, even as the films of Vertov have come to be regarded as leading to a dead end rather than pointing to “the way ahead.”

3 thoughts on “‘Little Cat Under an Umbrella’–who’d a thunk it?”

    1. There is the once-over-lightly history you learn in school, and the ever so much more interesting “rest of the story,” as Paul Harvey used to say. I guest curated an exhibit at the Santa Barbara Historical Museum on the American Film Company Flying “A” studio that operated in that town from 1912-1921. At the opening, two patrons came up to the museum director and me to say they enjoyed the exhibit, “But it’s not history, you know,” I guess because it didn’t deal with Spaniards and padres and long -ago daring deeds. But history is how we got where we are, the people, famous, infamous, and forgotten–the events widely chronicled or lost to time.

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