Albert E. Smith’s memoir about the early days of film, Two Reels and a Crank is crammed with anecdotes about the meteoric rise of Vitagraph Studios during the fledgling days of filmmaking. The book gives plenty of space to the studio’s bold foray into newsreel footage. Smith, lugging his handmade camera, narrowly avoided bullets in Cuba during the Spanish-American war, filmed closeups of Theodore Roosevelt (although because his daughter, Alice, was off limits, Vitagraph found a suitable body double and faked some footage for the news-starved theaters), and travelled to South Africa for an eyewitness account of the Boer War. It’s also a book about fierce competition in a cutthroat industry, including shenanigans from Edison’s men and litigation from every upstart. The chapter about William Fox’s fight against the Motion Picture Patents Company, of which Vitagraph was one of the ten members, is explained with meticulous detail. Smith along with collaborator Phil A. Koury tell the story briskly, with just the right amount of technical detail. I enjoyed reading about the nuts and bolts of early film, but I was taken aback at how deadpan funny the book was. The chapter about some of their one-reel melodramas left me in stitches, in particular the description of 1910’s Drumsticks.
As far as I know, Drumsticks is unavailable for viewing. It is probably lost to time or to the unstable nature of nitrate film. In July of 1910, a smoldering cigar was tossed in a wastebasket at Vitagraph’s laboratory. Quick as a blink, the preceding year’s negatives—including that precious documentary footage—was reduced to ashes. Drumsticks was filmed after that unfortunate accident so there is hope that it survives. While we wait for a buried negative in a Romanian barn to be unearthed, Smith’s synopsis of this “Model T of melodrama” and a smattering of contemporaneous industry articles will be the kindling for our imagination’s fire. Here is my composite of the plot:
A young boy, Jack Pell, lives in poverty with his widowed mother. She had married against her family’s wishes and now her husband is gone. She provides for her boy, but he lacks the companions so important for a youth. One day, a farmer passes by and asks for a drink of water. While quenching his thirst, the boy takes notice of the farmer’s animals and takes a liking to a particular turkey. The farmer, so charmed by the boy’s frolicking with his new feathered friend, decides to leave the turkey as a present. The boy names his new companion Drumsticks. Who knew that a Turkey could be a boy’s best friend? If you could see Jack and Drumsticks together, any doubt would be swept from your mind.
Unfortunately, Jack wasn’t the only one who admired Drumsticks. The greedy old landlord admires Drumsticks, not for his conviviality but for his worth at market. The mother’s rent was nearing its due date and with Thanksgiving drawing near, Drumsticks was at peak value.
Mother has no choice but to let the landlord take Drumsticks. Before his friend is carried away, Jack ties a note to his wing. “To the person who bought Drumsticks—write to me to let me know if he was as tender as he was good. Yours, Jack Pell.”
By strange luck, Drumsticks is purchased by Jack’s estranged grandfather. He reads the note, recognizes the name, and is overcome with emotion. How could he have been so heartless to his kin? He immediately goes to his daughter’s home to ask for forgiveness and invite her and her boy over for a Thanksgiving feast. Drumsticks is brought out on a platter, roasted to a golden hue, and the reunited family merrily eats in the warm comfort of grandfather’s home.
Filmed in a single day, this 10-minute movie was strategically distributed to theaters across the country just prior to the fourth Thursday of November. Although a movie about eating a pet sounds a bit harsh, ballyhoo placed in The Film Index gushed that the opus was, “…something that everybody can be thankful for. Turkey is so filling and satisfying; so is Drumsticks; it fills the bill, fills us with joy and pleasure and satisfies our longings as nothing else will do.” Variety was satisfied as well: “A picture that grips. With the camera doing splendid work and a child doing some fine acting, this story, with true human heart interest, is bound to appeal to the young and old.”
That child actor was Kenneth Casey, known as “The Vitagraph Boy.” As early as 1906, The Brooklyn Times was promoting him: “Master Casey is well known in East New York and in other sections of Brooklyn and Long Island as an entertainer. Though only seven years old, his excellent voice and manly bearing have won for him the plaudits of many large audiences.” By 1909, he had joined Vitagraph and over the next four years appeared in nearly 50 movies. As much as audiences adored the moppet, The National Child Labor Committee was not so pleased. In 1912, Casey was taken to Children’s Court on the charge of “improper guardianship.” He had performed his own song, “The Moving Picture Boy,” in between films from the third row at the Princess Theater in Brooklyn thus violating child labor laws. Casey’s parents argued that the performance was impromptu, pointing out that the entire audience had joined in the chorus. England’s laws were less strict, so Casey sailed away to tour the stage circuit overseas. A notice in a 1917 issue of The Moving Picture World mentions that he would be returning to the screen in an Olga Petrova movie for Metro, whether this panned out is unknown. Casey would go on to become a band leader and, in 1925, penned the lyrics to “Sweet Georgia Brown.” If his name is ever printed today, it’s listed in the credits of this ubiquitous song—however, the song is best known as an instrumental.
Ralph Ince, the youngest of the three Ince boys, appears in Drumsticks although it’s not clear which role he plays. He donned beard and top hat to portray Abraham Lincoln for several Vitagraph films and comparing his look in those to a still of the farmer character in Drumsticks leads me to believe he had that smaller role.
Edith Storey plays the mother. Like so many actors of the era, it’s hard to assess her work due to unavailability. Before she suddenly retired in 1921, she was a headlining star. She appeared in a string of Tod Browning films including, The Eyes of Mystery, The Legion of Death, and Revenge. After her stealthy exit from the limelight, fans periodically wrote into magazines to inquire about her whereabouts. An August 1923 letter to Motion Picture Magazine plaintively states, “Every time I buy a magazine I just long to see an interview or some article about Miss Storey, but in vain. Now when it comes to acting, Edith Storey has the modern actresses beat a mile.”
As for Drumstick himself, The Moving Picture World noted in their review, “even the turkey acts his part satisfactorily, making his entrance in the third scene as if he knew his business.”
See Drumsticks at The Victor Theatre in Allentown, PA along with the comedy Love in Quarantine with Mack Sennett. Only the laughter will be contagious.