A Centenary of Wodehouse in Silent Film

Four silent film adaptations of P.G. Wodehouse’s work mark their 100th anniversary in 2019, making this a fitting year to take a closer look at the Silent Films of P.G. Wodehouse.

‘…we’re hoping to have more good news for you at any moment. The movie end.’

It had never occurred to Cosmo that there was a movie end.

‘Our man in Hollywood seems sure it will. He’s been sending significant cables almost daily…’ 

Cocktail Time – P.G. Wodehouse

As a centennial celebration of Wodehouse silent film, this post arrives a little late — the first Wodehouse adaptation for cinema being A Gentleman of Leisure in 1915. But 1919 was a golden year for Wodehouse adaptation, with four silent film versions of P.G. Wodehouse works released.

Many of the films from this era are sadly lost to us and details of the silent Wodehouse adaptations can be difficult for the busy modern Wodehouse reader to put their finger on. I’ve just ordered a copy of Brian Taves’ book P. G. Wodehouse and Hollywood: Screenwriting, Satires and Adaptations so I’m confidently expecting to fill some of the gaping holes in my own knowledge. I really ought to have read it before bunging this piece together, but I didn’t want to hold up the centenary of silent film festivities at Plumtopia any longer.

So I’d like to mark the occasion with a preliminary toe-in-the-water introduction to the silent films of P.G. Wodehouse.

18 silent film adaptations 1915-1928

A Gentleman of Leisure (1915 & 1923)

Paramount Pictures’ release of A Gentleman of Leisure on 1 March 1915 was the first of many screen adaptations of Wodehouse’s work. The 5-reel 1915 film still survives, but not Paramount’s 1923 (also silent) remake.  

A Gentleman of Leisure (which began life in 1909 as The Gem Collector, and was revised in 1910 for the US and UK markets as The Intrusion of Jimmy and A Gentleman of Leisure respectively) was also the first Wodehouse story adapted for stage. It ran 76 performances on Broadway in 1911, starring Douglas Fairbanks, and was revived as A Thief for the Night in Chicago in 1913.

Uneasy Money (1918)

This silent film adaptation of Wodehouse’s 1916 novel Uneasy Money was released on 1 January 1918. If the film adaptation kept closely to the original novel, it may also have been the first film to feature bees and/or bee keeping. Sadly, no footage survives.

A Damsel in Distress (1919)

This silent film adaptation of the novel A Damsel in Distress (1919) was released on 12 October 1919 by Albert Capellani Productions. The story was adapted again as a musical comedy film vehicle for Fred Astaire, George Burns, Gracie Allen in 1937.   

Piccadilly Jim (1919)

The Selznick Pictures Corporation silent film released in November 1919 was the first of three adaptations of the excellent early Wodehouse novel, Piccadilly Jim. A 1936 MGM remake starred Robert Montgomery, and a 2004 adaptation starred Sam Rockwell and Frances O’Connor in the leading roles.

The Prince and Betty (1919)

The Prince and Betty is legendary among Wodehouse fans for its complicated publication history. As Wodehouse expert Tony Ring put it:

It would be a rash person who claimed that the discovery and publication in this book of A Prince for Hire would finally bring to a close one of the most complex bibliographical puzzles in Wodehouse, for it really represents Wodehouse’s fifth variation of a single story, previously known by the title The Prince and Betty.   

Tony Ring (introduction to A Prince for Hire, 2003)

Which version of the story did this silent film adaptation, released 21 December 1919, most closely resemble? We may never know, as sadly the film is now lost. A young Boris Karloff was included in the cast.  

Oh Boy! (1919)

This June 1919 silent film was an adaptation of Wodehouse, Guy Bolton and Jerome Kern’s Broadway hit musical, which ran for 463 performances between 1917-1919.  The film starred June Caprice and Creighton Hale, who also starred in the 1919 adaptation of A Damsel in Distress. Both films were produced by Albert Capellani.  

Oh, Lady, Lady (1920)

Released in November 1920 and neatly described by IMDb as a ‘silent film adaptation of the Kern-Bolton-Wodehouse “Princess Theatre” musical’. This lost silent film starred Harrison Ford. Not a younger Harrison Ford, but an earlier and altogether different Harrison Ford from the one we know and love today.

Their Mutual Child (1920)

Another lost silent film adaptation, released December 1920, produced by the American Film Company. It has been recorded for posterity as a comedy film, but the original novel (published in the UK as The Coming of Bill) was a straight novel, which Wodehouse had written to order for the editor of Munsey’s Magazine.

Golfing Stories (1924)

A series of British silent film adaptations of Wodehouse golfing stories, released in October 1924, included:

Three of the films featured in the 2017 British Silent Film Festival.

Der goldene Schmetterling (1926)

French poster for Der goldene Schmetterling (1926) via WikiCommons

Michael Curtiz is well known to cinema lovers as the director behind some of Hollywood’s greatest movies (Casablanca, Captain Blood, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Mildred Pearce). But did you know the celebrated Hungarian director’s last European film was an adaption of P.G. Wodehouse’s 1915 short story The Making of Mac’s (included in the 1917 collection The Man with Two Left Feet)? Well, you probably did, come to think of it (Plumtopia is read by dashed brainy coves, all sound on Wodehouse), but you might have told me!  

Released in July 1926, Der goldene Schmetterling (The Golden Butterfly) starred French actress Lili Damita, who also went on to a short but successful Hollywood career — before marrying Errol Flynn.

The Small Bachelor (1927)

This 7-reel silent film from Universal Pictures, based on the wonderful Wodehouse novel of the same name, was released on 6 November 1927. It appears to be the last silent film adaptation of a Wodehouse novel. The plot may have been familiar to cinema goers, as The Small Bachelor was adapted from the book of Oh, Lady, Lady, previously adapted for film in 1920.

Oh, Kay (1928)

This was a 6-reel silent film adaptation of the Gershwin musical Oh, Kay, for which Wodehouse had written the book with Guy Bolton. Released 26 August 1928, it included ‘Intertitles by P.G. Wodehouse’ according to Silent Era web database.

1928 Theatrical poster for Oh, Kay! via WikiCommons .

As preliminary* lists go, 18 silent film adaptations of Wodehouse’s work over a period of just 13 years — from 1915-1928 — is dashed impressive. It clearly demonstrates the contemporary appeal of Wodehouse’s early work, which modern readers are apt to disregard in favour of the Jeeves stories. But Jeeves, who appeared in his first short story in 1915, doesn’t feature in any of them. This shows, if there was ever any doubt, that Wodehouse was already ‘a name’ long before Bertie and Jeeves made their big move into novels with Thank You, Jeeves in 1934. 

You probably knew this already, but many modern readers think Jeeves is all Wodehouse has to offer so it’s a message worth repeating.

References

I’ve already mentioned Brian Taves’ book P. G. Wodehouse and Hollywood: Screenwriting, Satires and Adaptations . It comes highly recommended by Wodehouse experts and is a key reference cited by various websites, including Morten Arnesen’s Blandings and related Wikipedia entries (content has clearly been contributed by knowledgeable Wodehouseans).

You may find my work-in-progress IMDb list of Wodehouse adaptations useful and/or have other works to recommend for inclusion.

*IMDb contained some additional Wodehouse silent film credits, but I was unable to find any further verification of these in my preliminary research so I’ve left them off the list for now.

Images from Left to Right:

HP

9 thoughts on “A Centenary of Wodehouse in Silent Film

  1. sophiewestonauthor

    Oh I want to see The Small Bachelor. The police raid on the speakeasy alone would be worth it. Though I regret a silent J Hamilton Beamish.

      1. Paul Kent

        As always, concise and fascinating. Thanks so much.

        I think there’s going to be a rush on Brian’s book – I hope I can find one!

  2. sophiewestonauthor

    Sadly I never remember his English Pure. Only his raw cry of triumph: “Who’s the bozo with the big bean, then?” Shout it whenever I find a good plot wheeze or a neat phrase i.e. seldom. But heartfelt.

  3. Murray Hedgcock

    Having much enjoyed the golf films screened at BFI way back (20 years plus?), I must admit I don’t recall how true to PGW they actually turned out. But they were fun – and thanks HP for reminding us of these and alerting us to other silents. I am in your debt further, as I did not know of the Taves book, but was able to nab one at a reasonable price from the States. Something to look forward to indeed.

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