Thursday 29 November 2018

The Limejuice Mystery (1930)

Director: Jack Harrison

Here's a real curiosity for fans of Sherlockiana: a nine minute British Holmes spoof told entirely through the use of marionettes. It must be absolutely unique, right? Well, I'd have to add that there actually appear to be two separate but almost identical films from the same year of 1930 that were even made by the same company, Associated Sound Film Industries. There's this film, The Limejuice Mystery, starring Herlock Sholmes—a spoonerism, of course, for Sherlock Holmes—and Anna Went Wrong—a parody of the Chinese American actress Anna May Wong. Then there's Herlock Sholmes in Be-a-Live Crook, starring the title character, of course, and, well, Anna Went Wrong too! What are the odds? I'd suggest that they aren't good and these two films are surely one and the same, even if they happen to have different IMDb pages which list different two directors who went on to two different careers. The more I dig into the records, the more the two seem to become one, part of a set of short novelties featuring the Gorno Italian Marionettes.

But let's delve into that history later; let's delve into some other history first, because context is particularly important here; there are user reviews at IMDb that ably demonstrate that a lack of that context renders this film incomprehensibly strange. For a start, don't expect to find any lime juice anywhere; that's a reference to Limehouse, a district of London that's particularly known for its Chinese population and, a hundred years ago, was seen as a particularly dangerous place to go. This film unfolds, for instance, in an opium den, complete with drugged marionettes reclining in bays from which their opium smoke drifts. It's populated, of course, by orientals wearing the queue hairstyle which you'll probably recognise from period martial arts movies; the hair on top of the head is grown long and usually braided, while the front part of the head is shaved. Historically, it was imposed upon the Han population of China by the Qing dynasty as cultural imperialism, also allowing them to easily tell at a glance who was resisting their rule.

Given that, it's hardly surprising to find that The Limejuice Mystery is rather racist to modern sensibilities, with the queue being a prominent target for wildly inappropriate horseplay. If I'm understanding the melodrama properly, a Chinese gentleman drags a young lady into the opium den and the proprietor decides that he wants her. A scuffle ensues, in which the gentleman attacks the proprietor by pulling on his queue, but the latter wins by smashing a barrel over his head. So Anna Went Wrong went wrong, as it were, by becoming the de facto property of this criminal. This is depicted by her shifting into exotic dress, a nod to her costume in 1929's Piccadilly, and dancing to the accompaniment of enthusiastic marionette musicians drumming plates, strumming chairs and ruffling bamboo curtains like they were chimes. Unfortunately, a customer gets fresh with Anna and that sparks a fight. Gunshots are fired and the establishment is quickly turned into a bloodbath, albeit a clean one because these marionettes don't bleed.

It's worth mentioning, of course, that The Limejuice Mystery, as racist as it quite obviously is, is also spoofing the racism of the time. I'm intrigued as to how much of this is general, taking aim at the popular genre known as yellow peril, sourced as it was in fear that the mysterious and inscrutable east would conquer the west, albeit usually in the form of an exotic oriental mastermind like Dr. Fu Manchu attempting to take over the world in the novels of Sax Rohmer, and how much is more specific. It has to be said that Anna Went Wrong is spoofing the movies that Anna May Wong made in Hollywood, which had become annoyingly reluctant to give this beautiful and talented actress anything of any real substance to do; this approach was underpinned by anti-miscegenation laws in the US, which prohibited on screen relationships between the races. Instead, she had to travel to Europe in the late twenties to find worthwhile parts; perhaps her most notable and least stereotypical feature of the era was Piccadilly, made in the UK in 1929.
While Anna Went Wrong does survive the opium den massacre, it marks the point where the focus shifts over to Herlock Sholmes, the greatest detective in the land. The police are inept, of course, and the Flying Quod travels to 221B Baker Street to elicit his help. I should add that this particular brand of inept coppers isn't sourced from the Keystone Kops of silent films but the similarly inept British bobbies from the Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera, The Pirates of Penzance. The Flying Quod is a riff on the Flying Squad, the branch of the Metropolitan Police which investigates crime involving firearms; my generation remember them as The Sweeney on British television in the seventies, that nickname derived from Cockney rhyming slang: Sweeney Todd for Flying Squad. Anyway, Sholmes is serenading Watson with a poor rendition of There's No Place Like Home on the violin when the police arrive but he's soon convinced to take the case, wandering down a London street in a variety of disguises, including drag, for no apparent reason.

I'm sure there are all sorts of humorous references to be found on this street but the quality of the copy I'm watching doesn't allow me to dig that deep. I did see a shop selling Dr. Black's Pink Pills though, surely a nod to Dr. Williams' Pink Pills for Pale People, one of many quack medicines on prominent sale in England in the early 20th century; like most of them, the Pink Pills claimed to cure a variety of ailments, but especially St. Vitus' Dance, which Anna May Wong, perhaps coincidentally, once suffered from, though she was allegedly cured by traditional Chinese medicine. The best part of Sholmes's search, though, is showcased on a single intertitle, which made me laugh aloud. "Amazing development in murder mystery," it reads. "Sholmes expects to discover scene of crime any minute." To be fair, only part of it was the joke, which is undoubtedly funny, because part of it is surely the fact that the very best part of the film is subtly hidden within the second half of an intertitle. That doesn't happen too often!
Of course, Sholmes does soon stumble onto the opium den, dressed in his traditional garb of Inverness cape and deerstalker, to look past everything he sees through a large magnifying glass. The quality of the puppetry is variable throughout, but I have to say that I was impressed by the ability of a puppeteer in moving Sholmes around the crime scene just ahead of the wild and vicious attacks of the proprietor, presumably controlled by a second puppeteer. This hatchet man of a marionette is keen on knifing the blissfully unaware Sholmes in the back but, spoiler alert, he's eventually hoisted by his own petard, or in this particular instance his queue, which gets caught on the chandelier and strangles him to death. The appreciative cops arrive just in time to congratulate Sholmes, who still hasn't noticed a single thing. This presages the 'Sheer Luck' introduced in the 1975 Gene Wilder feature, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother, but there have been pastiches of Holmes almost since Conan Doyle created the character.

And so to the history of the film, which is spectacularly unclear. As it stands, The Limejuice Mystery and Be-a-Live Crook appear to be two separate shorts, directed by two different men who had their own careers: the former was the work of Jack Harrison, while the latter was directed by J. Elder Wills. I can't find a biography of Harrison, but 'Bunty' Wills is well documented, as he went on to be a key player at Hammer Film Productions: one of its first board members, the director of two of its early movies—Song of Freedom and Sporting Love—and a prolific art director from 1935's Phantom Ship to The Quatermass Xperiment in 1955. Ironically, he would also go on to direct Anna May Wong in 1934's Tiger Bay. Harrison and Wills are certainly different people but their names connect on short parody films featuring the Gorno Italian Marionettes, who were apparently prolific as the twenties became the thirties. Presumably these shorts were slotted into a day's entertainment at movie theatres alongside a newsreel, an episode of a serial, a cartoon, etc.
It seems to me from the evidence at hand that there were at least two sets of films featuring the Gorno marionettes. One was called Camera Cocktales and numbered maybe four shorts in 1928 and 1929, mostly musical in nature but including at least one film spoof, Dimples and Tears, a parody of singing sensation Al Jolson, directed by Jack Harrison and first released as Gorno's Italian Marionettes. Also carrying Harrison's name, long before the politically correct era, was a comedy titled Paleface and Redskin, or Handsome Men are Slightly Sunburned. The other set, from 1930, included six spoofs called Little People Burlesques. Tom Mixup clearly riffed on Tom Mix and Don Dougio Fairabanca is an obvious take on Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.'s swashbucklers. Kuster Beaton and Kerri Chearton in Jungle-Tungle both employ spoonerisms, referencing comedian Buster Keaton and Capt. Cherry Kearton respectively, the latter a pioneer in the worlds of animal photography and wildlife documentaries. What Our Dumb Friend was, I have no idea, but I'd love to know.

Now, all six of these Little People Burlesques, including the one at hand, Herlock Sholmes in Be-a-Live Crook, which was also re-released as Anna Went Wrong, were directed by J. Elder Wills, or so says IMDb. The BFI isn't convinced, listing him for two, John Grierson for another and nobody at all for the other three. Denis Gifford, in the first volume of his British Film Catalogue, lists all three directors for the series but neglects to break them down by title. adds information too. So, in the absence of firm evidence to the contrary, it seems likely to me that Be-a-Live Crook and The Limejuice Mystery are different titles for the same picture, directed by Jack Harrison as part of the Little People Burlesques series. If so, that just leaves one mystery still unsolved, namely the odd subtitle that was given to this version of the film: in entirety, it's The Limejuice Mystery or Who Spat in Grandfather's Porridge? How should we bring three bears into this? I have no idea at all. Perhaps it's time to call in Herlock Sholmes!

Denis Gifford - The British Film Catalogue: The Fiction Film
Philip Liebfried & Chei Mi Lane - Anna May Wong: A Complete Guide to Her Film, Stage, Radio and Television Work
Howard Maxford - Hammer Complete: The Films, the Personnel, the Company

The Limejuice Mystery can be watched for free on YouTube or downloaded from the Internet Archive.

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