- Bert Williams: Lime Kiln Club Field Day (1913) movie review: Filmed and abandoned and long-forgotten, this historical curiosity is one of the rare early movies – made anywhere – about black people’s lives.
Rare, early 20th-century African-American film Bert Williams: Lime Kiln Club Field Day among San Francisco Silent Film Festival highlights
Directed by Edwin Middleton and T. Hayes Hunter, the Biograph Company’s Bert Williams: Lime Kiln Club Field Day (1913) was the film I most looked forward to at this year’s edition of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
One hundred years old, unfinished, and destined to be scrapped and tossed into the dustbin, Lime Kiln Club Field Day has risen from the ashes. Starring vaudeville and Broadway entertainer Bert Williams (Sally in Our Alley, Abyssinia), the movie has become a rare illustration of African-American life in the first years of the 20th century.
In the introduction to Lime Kiln Club Field Day, the audience was treated to a treasure trove of Black memorabilia: Stills, sheet music, promotional materials, and newspaper clippings that have survived.
The film’s production – for Broadway impresarios Marc Klaw and Abraham L. Erlanger (both of Dracula and Ben-Hur fame) – and its eventual abandonment were discussed in detail.
Disconcerting multiple takes
Taken from an incomplete project, the restoration of Lime Kiln Club Field Day tries hard to present a coherent account of the story: Three suitors (including Bert Williams) compete over who will take the lovely Lady (Odessa Warren Grey) to the annual picnic.
I’m going out on a limb here by saying I was a bit bored by the multiple takes. Trying to follow an already-fractured narrative while seeing the same scenes done over and over again was a bit disconcerting.
In my view, the restoration should have included just the best take of each scene; in other words, an edited version, instead of the unedited one.
Fantastic cakewalk dance
Having said that, Lime Kiln Club Field Day really comes to life in the sequences of the Field Day itself, when the cast parades down the town’s main street to a jaunty march that culminates in a fantastic cakewalk dance.
On the downside, I must admit being disturbed at the scenes of the attendees all gathering around a gin well.
If this was to be an example of Black American life minus the stereotypes, then these references of drunkenness should have been mentioned in the introduction. Especially since we were shown The Birth of a Nation clips where “crazed Negroes” are seen guzzling booze in the courthouse.
Lime Kiln Club Field Day / Bert Williams: Lime Kiln Club Field Day (1913)
Director: T. Hayes Hunter & Edwin Middleton.
Cast: Bert Williams. Odessa Warren Grey. Wes Jenkins. Sam Lucas. Abbie Mitchell. Sam Corker Jr. (also credited as assistant director).
“Bert Williams: Lime Kiln Club Field Day (1913) Movie Review” endnotes
Bert Williams was born in 1874 in Nassau, in the British West Indies (now the Bahamas). Lime Kiln Field Day was his only feature film appearance.
On Broadway, Williams was featured in several annual Ziegfeld Follies shows in the 1910s, along with Fanny Brice, Eddie Cantor, Will Rogers, and W.C. Fields.
Williams died at age 47 in 1922.
Bert Williams: Lime Kiln Club Field Day reviewed at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (website).
Odessa Warren Grey and Bert Williams Lime Kiln Field Day movie image: Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
“Bert Williams: Lime Kiln Club Field Day (1913): Rare Black Portrait” last updated in January 2022.