Did You Know Al Christie Invented the Sitcom?

If Christie is forgotten, his biographer argues, it may be because he was less flamboyant than his rivals, did not develop long-lasting stars, and was not as good at self-promotion as Hal Roach and Mack Sennett.

Exhibitors Herald via Wikimedia Commons
Al Christie with a DeVry potable projector, 1919. Exhibitors Herald via Wikimedia Commons

‘Al Christie: Hollywood’s Forgotten Film Pioneer’
By Mark Kearney
BearManor Media, 286 pages

In 1909, Al Christie (1881-1951) came to Hollywood from London, Ontario, by way of New York, setting up the first comedy-workshop studio, relying on young and veteran actors, some of whom became stars in their time even if they are now, like Christie, forgotten. Christie virtually invented what today is called situation comedy.

Christie did not usually engage in the Hal Roach-Mack Sennett kind of slapstick. In “Detective Dan Cupid,” (1914), which I’m watching on YouTube as I write this review, the humor is simple and effective — as it often is, Mark Kearney suggests, in the hundreds of films Christie produced over 30 years.

In “Detective Dan Cupid,” a preening detective is on the trail of a bag snatcher, a prankish young fellow who has wanted to get a lady’s attention and is now on the lam from the law. The primping detective keeps telling nearly everyone aboard ship that he is going to disguise himself in order to catch the criminal. Most of the action needs no explanation as the foolish detective wears a false beard identical to the thief’s.

The two beards come face-to-face and, well, you have to watch it. It will take you less than 10 minutes. This two-reeler, Christie’s metier, made the director and producer as good if not better than his competition, his devotees believe, and sometimes more entertaining than the feature films paired with his shorts.

Mr. Kearney has explored archives in this country and Canada to bring to life an important cultural force. If Christie is forgotten, his biographer argues, it may be because he was less flamboyant than his rivals, did not develop long-lasting stars, and was not as good at self-promotion as Roach and Sennett.

Although like other filmmakers of his time Christie engaged in stereotyping of Black people, making them objects of fun, he also gave Black actors opportunities they might otherwise not have enjoyed. Similarly, as Mr. Kearney points out, women in Christie films are often seen as independent and even outspoken—more so than what most moviegoers were used to being presented.  

Christie remained active even during the trying days of the Depression, though he went bankrupt and sold off his studio. I’m fond of his last film, “Half a Sinner” (1940), about a teacher who takes off her glasses, abandons her modest ways, and unwittingly gets involved in a life of crime, though it all works out in the end for her. It’s also available on YouTube.

Audiences could identify with characters who looked just like themselves and were in occupations similar to theirs, ordinary people suddenly encountering extraordinary circumstances that made many Christie films worth watching.

Christie’s comedy was often called “polite” and “clean,” and perhaps that is part of what contributed to the neglect of his work. Keaton, past his prime, worked for Christie, but the director had few zanies like Chaplin. Even so, it is remarkable how quickly Christie can build up tension and humor.

Mr. Kearney writes a form of biography that is out of fashion just now. It comes as high praise when a biography is said to read like a novel, as if the biographer tells a story that is seamless, when in fact that story, as the endnotes and acknowledgements show, is a stitched-together product of research and documentation. What Mr. Kearney does instead is name and comment on his sources in his narrative, telling us exactly where he got the information and how reliable it is and why other sources are not so dependable. In short, Mr. Kearney makes a story out of his investigations — as Amy Lowell did, say, in her biography of John Keats, published in 1925.  

So how good was Al Christie? The critical jury is split, with Mr. Kearney quoting those who believe Christie belongs on the level of Sennett and Roach and those who find him too often pedestrian. 

This even-handed and engaging biography opens up a world of filmmaking from the early silents to the talkies from a new perspective that enlarges our understanding of filmmaking as a business and an art, an understanding that would otherwise be narrowed to just nonpareils like Chaplin, Keaton, and Harold Lloyd.

Mr. Rollyson’s biography, “Ronald Colman: Hollywood’s Gentleman Hero,” will be published in June.

The New York Sun

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