A bunch of black men, clad in undershirts and old slacks, are dancing around on the porch of a shack while eating huge slices of watermelon. Suddenly two ghost pop out of two large watermelons in the patch. An old black man gets so scared he turns white and runs away. The two ghosts are two mischievous little girls who continue to tease “the black folk.” They are wearing pillowcases over their heads with faces drawn on. When they reveal themselves, the black people they were terrorizing all laugh and respond like “ah, you got me” and go back to dancing in front of the shack with the girls joining in.
And that is the opening scene in the comedy “Dixie Madcaps” starring the child comedy team of Jane and Katherine Lee.
After the opening scene, the girls then pull a goldfish out of its bowl and tickle “Old Mammy” until her head rears back and she opens her mouth to laugh, and then drop the fish into her mouth. She swallows it and starts coughing while the girls giggle merrily. Afterward she also reacts like “oh you mischievous kids.”
Title cards are written phonetically to offer “authentic” dialog:
“I’se gone join yo flock. I is done stealin’ watermelons!”
“Lawdy brotha, is you been baptized?”
As disturbing as the ideas are, there is a historical significance to the negative stereotyping in a comedy like this. This isn’t a case like the Italian vegetable man, the Jewish shopkeeper, or the jittery black comic character; this is a level that could almost be mistaken for a satire on such attitudes. It is so outrageous, so disturbing, it elicits more of a train wreck fascination than any remote appreciation.
The film eventually moves away from the racially motivated slapstick to a scene in an all-white church where the girls come in with their flea-infested dog. The fleas spread among the congregation and cause havoc. They place a pair of dice in the offering plate, and when the ushers go to count the offering, they begin playing with the dice.
This two-reel comedy is structured haphazardly and is only interesting because of its outrageous content and for being one of the surviving films of the sister comedy team of Jane and Katherine Lee. They made a few comedies from the late teens into the early twenties before growing out of their roles. The films were quite popular. The critics dismissed them, but audiences enjoyed the children’s antics. Usually their comedies concentrated on their mischief and the slapstick results, so on that level “Dixie Madcaps” is typical. I singled this one out to review because it adds another layer to its context by being perhaps the most outrageous stereotyping of smiling plantation “negroes” that I have ever seen.
In the 21st century, there is nothing entertaining about such attitudes. Nor is it worth giving much deep discussion to the obviousness of how repugnant a film like this seems in our more enlightened age. But from a historical perspective, “Dixie Madcaps,” can actually be somewhat instructional, can allow us to truly observe a depiction of black people within a comic context that is so extreme, one wonders how the actors responded to the direction (the amount of time it would take to apply full whiteface to the back man scared by the “ghosts” shows that this wasn’t improvisation, but carefully thought out). While there was some protest over D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” three years earlier, it appears “Dixie Madcaps” was far enough under the radar to not make much of a difference. That it remains available today and accessible on DVD allows us to see that there was a bad side to silent comedy along with all the wonderful classics, and to witness a depiction of negative stereotyping that might have been far more common 100 years ago.
As far as Jane and Katherine Lee are concerned, they are sort of the portent to later kid comedies, the most famous of which are Our Gang (The Little Rascals). They continued to star in vaudeville during their film career, where they could sing and dance (something not afforded to them in silent movies). They stopped working together by the 1930s, but each remained sporadically active in movies into the 1950s. Jane died in 1957. Katherine died in 1968.