Bert Williams: Lime Kiln Club Field Day

Directed by Edwin Middleton, T. Hayes Hunter, and Sam Corker Jr., USA, 1913
Cast Bert Williams, Odessa Warren Grey, Walker Thompson, Abbie Mitchell, J. Wesley Jenkins, Sam Lucas, Julius Glenn, J. Leubrie Hill, Emma Reed, Billy Harper, Sam Corker Jr., Tom Brown, and members of J. Leubrie Hill’s Darktown Follies stage company
Production Biograph Company Print Source Museum of Modern Art

Presented at SFSFF 2015
Live Musical Accompaniment by Donald Sosin

The rarest of films, Bert Williams: Lime Kiln Club Field Day is one of a handful of surviving silent films with an all-black cast. Produced in 1913, it features legendary entertainer Bert Williams and is based on a popular collection of stories known as Brother Gardner’s Lime Kiln Club, written by Charles M. Lewis (as “M. Quad”). The film follows three suitors competing for the hand of the local beauty and features one of the first examples of on-screen intimacy between a black man and a black woman—a kiss—along with scenes of middle-class leisure; story elements that challenged the mostly negative, sometimes evil, depictions of blacks in the majority of white-produced films, which reached a distressing nadir in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, released two years later.

Shot then abandoned, the seven unedited reels of film were kept at New York’s Museum of Modern Art after being acquired in 1938 along with everything else from the Biograph vaults. According to MoMA curator Ron Magliozzi, the reels of Lime Kiln Club Field Day were untitled, unidentified, unedited, and had never been released. No script, intertitles, or production credits survive. Examining the footage frame by frame, along with a lip reader to decipher the dialogue, MoMA curators reconstructed the film’s narrative, piecing together an “archive assembly” of the material.

Through an arrangement with New York theatrical producers Klaw and Erlanger, Bert Williams also produced, wrote, directed, and starred in two short films for Biograph, A Natural Born Gambler (1916) and Fish (1916). Produced by a black man for white audiences, they were groundbreaking, however, these films featured characters and storylines that still satisfied dominant racist stereotypes of black men—shiftless, superstitious, childlike—found in the era’s art, literature, and films. The footage from Lime Kiln Club Field Day stands in stark contrast to the artist’s short works by challenging the negative stereotypes of blacks with representations of middle-class life and adult relationships.

Lime Kiln Club features upwardly mobile partygoers dancing the famous “cakewalk,” and Williams and his costar Odessa Warren Grey dressed up for a date at a park, which includes riding on a merry-go-round. Much of the cast were members of J. Leubrie Hill’s uptown stage show known as Darktown Follies, a trailblazing dance musical that drew white audiences to Harlem. Along with Lime Kiln Club’s performed scenes, the surviving footage includes what would normally be outtakes, snippets of action that show the interracial cast and crew working and enjoying each other’s company. But despite Williams’s work in film, the popular entertainer was destined for the stage.

Born Egbert Austin Williams in Nassau, Bahamas, in 1874, he relocated with his family to the United States in 1885 as part of the mass Bahamian labor migration to Florida, and they later moved to southern California. Williams said that as a boy he sang in the Riverside Boys High School choir and entertained his classmates with jokes—demonstrating his performing skills from an early age. Interested in studying engineering at Stanford University, he joined a traveling minstrel show in order to raise money for tuition. When the tour was cancelled, Williams ended up in the lumberyards of northern California, eventually signing in 1893 with Martin and Selig’s Mastodon Minstrels, then passing through San Francisco where he met his future partner George Walker. As a team, Williams and Walker toured for sixteen years until Walker became too ill. He died in 1911 at age thirty-nine.

Williams and Walker performed mostly in medicine shows and “hootchy-kootchy” joints, with Williams playing the straight man and Walker the comic foil. Their experiences were sometimes harrowing, ranging from white vaudevillians refusing to perform with them to being chased out of venues by angry crowds. Once, Williams and Walker were stripped of their clothes at a Colorado mining camp because the white audience thought them too well-dressed. Williams, who was tall and fair-skinned, and Walker, who was short and dark-skinned, had vowed never to perform in blackface because “degradation had its limits,” according to the New Yorker’s Claudia Roth Pierpont. However, one night in Detroit, desperate for a “less deadly” experience, Williams took the bold step of applying blackface, and he and Walker began performing as “Two Real Coons” to huge audiences.

A black performer applying burnt cork was unusual. Most white vaudeville entertainers used blackface to mock black people and to connect with white audiences who supported segregation or simply looked down on blacks. While the mainstream white press gave Williams great reviews and many in the black community lauded him (Booker T. Washington was said to have been a huge fan), others, including the black press, criticized him for embracing what they considered taboo. Author Caryl Phillips, whose 2005 novel Dancing in the Dark is based on Williams’s life, once defended the performer’s choice: “Bert Williams was an outsider in all sorts of ways. He was Caribbean. He didn’t see himself to be fully a part of African-American traditions, so in a sense he didn’t quite understand the full implications of the blackface performance. He didn’t see it as demeaning. He saw it as part of his costume.” Donning blackface helped Williams “cross over,” as minstrel shows were a big hit with white audiences.

In 1910, Williams signed with the Ziegfeld Follies and, by 1912, he was the first black Broadway star. In addition to comedy sketches, Williams was a best-selling recording artist, known for singing “I’m a Jonah Man” and his own original compositions, including “That’s A-Plenty,” “Dat’s Harmony,” and what became his signature tune, “Nobody.” At one point in his career, Williams is said to have been making more money than the president of the United States. Wildly popular and financially secure, Williams still had to deal with segregation, which, while institutionalized in the South, was de facto in the North. Once, after being forced to ride a freight elevator to his hotel room, Williams remarked to fellow Ziegfeld star Eddie Cantor, ”It wouldn’t be so bad, Eddie, if I didn’t still hear the applause ringing in my ears.” Yet Williams persevered, continuing to perform until his death. While onstage in Detroit in 1922, he collapsed and died a week later at age forty seven. Thousands of mourners lined up in New York to view his casket.

Why producers abandoned Lime Kiln Club Field Day remains a mystery. The footage shows black Americans actually pursuing life, liberty, and happiness at a time when they were denied basic dignities on a daily basis. That Williams brought this cast and crew together at this time in American history offers a refreshing glimpse of how performance and creativity can foster harmony even while living through some of this country’s worst times. Perhaps media scholar Cara Caddoo says it best in her recent book Envisioning Freedom, about race movies and black audiences: “In short, both what we have lost and what we find are part of the longer history of American cinema.”

—Nsenga Burton

Project leader for the recovery of Bert Williams: Lime Kiln Club Field Day, MoMA film curator Ron Magliozzi gave a presentation explaining the film’s creation, 101-year disappearance, and ultimate resurrection.