In recent years, the comediennes of the silent era have gotten more of their due. For too long, scholars operated under the assumptions of critics like Walter Kerr, who argued none of the funny ladies of this period ever became “truly important” and that these actresses couldn’t possibly be funny and pretty at the same time. Thank God this attitude is disappearing, especially as more silent films become available for viewing. Case in point: Blue Bottles, starring Elsa Lanchester.
The story of a hapless flapper caught up in the police raid of a criminal hideout, Blue Bottles was part of a series of shorts written by HG Wells—yes, THAT ONE—for Lanchester. It’s nothing like any Wells work I have ever read, replacing speculative fiction and social commentary with droll comedy. Lanchester’s character is not an exaggerated clown nor a pretty but passive damsel—rubber-limbed, she gets caught up in the shoot-out and essentially bumbles her way out of danger. It’s like she’s a character from a flapper comic strip that wandered into a gangster film. The funniest part of all might be the show of thanks she gets from the police department—there are no real gags exactly, but there’s a hilarious awkwardness from both Lanchester and the cops that’s hilarious to watch.
That being said, most of the more traditional gags are fun, the standout being when Lanchester blows a whistle, not realizing it’s meant to signal the police. What results is a montage of cops taking to the streets, quickly followed by stock footage of tanks, planes, and warships. I was reminded of a similar gag in Duck Soup.
One bit of fun trivia: the criminal taking shots at Lanchester from above is played by none other than Charles Laughton in an early movie role!