Bert Williams (1874-1922) was the most popular black commedian of the ragtime era. In 1915 when Biograph signed him up, he was given complete control over two film projects, serving as his own writer, producer & director.
He stars in the one-reel comedy Natural Born Gambler (1916), which had the great Billy Bitzer behind the camera, & incorporated one of Bert's most popular vaudeville routines, the imaginary game of poker.
He broke many color barriers during his career & was an intelligent, decent man who wanted to make the world laugh. He always worked in blackface, which today seems absurd but black minstrel show comics invariably did so up to that time, & it was no odder than when white mime artists of the Parisian stage painted their faces white.
He was a great comic, whom W. C. Fields famously called, "The funniest man I ever saw, & the saddest." As time passed & some of his routines came to be an embarrassment to black pride, he was shunted aside, & only many decades after his death has he been reclaimed as a proud part of black history, assessed for his true genius for an era.
In Natural Born Gambler he certainly is playing the stereotype craps-playing, cards-addicted loser at life. But even here race pride pops up in the largely black cast, with one gentleman reading a "gambling is evil" editorial in the Weekly Bugle, then befriending Bert to try to stop his habit.
A hip wealthy young man, Cicero, has returned home from successes up north, & Bert gets a hand-out from him, only to squander it in no time in a game of poker.
The "village sleuth" is out & about looking for illegal gambling. He's the first white guy to pop up in the cast & all authority figures in the film will be white. No doubt the Biograph director never even thought what he was doing, & just cast it "rationally" with all black scoundrals & all white authority figures. But in retrospect it's hard not to see a political statement on white authority against the black community.
At any rate, when the Village Sleuth shows up, the gambling is quickly hidden & Bert leads a reading of the editorial on the evils of gambling, said gambling taken up anew, with plenty of cheating, when the village sleuth is gone.
Alas the sleuth was not fooled after all & soon returns with a whole slug of Irish cops, arresting everyone from well-off Cicero to down & out Bert. They're all dragged before a white judge with a white prosecutor. There is however a black attorney to try for justice, his legal fee being all the money that had been gambled.
Cicero's penalty is three days to get out of town. Bert gets ten days in jail. During his jail time, Bert has withdrawal symptoms & has to play imaginary games of poker with himself. But even in his imaginary games he can't win.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl