13 April 2006 | wmorrow59
Good night Miss La Plante, wherever you are
Despite the title there's no suggestion of jazz or any other music in this silent comedy short; Miss Jazz is our leading lady, Beatrice La Plante, and the name is meant to convey that she's lively, zippy, and thoroughly modern. I haven't been able to learn anything about this actress except that she made several short films for producer Hal Roach during 1919-21 and then vanished into obscurity. Based on the evidence at hand she was cute and perky but not an exceptional talent, although to be fair the material she has to work with in his instance wasn't exceptional, either.
Miss Jazz is an artist's model who lives in a boarding house. We know she's spunky because she pulls little pranks on her fellow lodgers at the dining table: when one brusque fellow puts multiple spoonfuls of sugar into his tea, she finally takes his cup, pours its contents into the sugar bowl, and hands it back to him. Her artist friend calls to invite her to the unveiling of his masterwork, "The Goddess of Rhubarb." She rushes over and greets him in a flirty way that suggests they are perhaps more than just friends. But when crooks steal the statue Miss Jazz herself must pose as The Goddess of Rhubarb (modestly draped in a filmy modern dancer's outfit), while visitors to the gallery look her over. Things get a little out of hand when an effusive art collector named Rubenstein insists on buying her and actually tries to tote her out of the studio.
Beatrice La Plante was petite, with big dark eyes she flashes at the camera at every opportunity. Her personality in this movie seems modeled on early Mabel Normand, but in appearance she's more angular, at times suggesting Janet Gaynor. She's not prissy -- Miss Jazz is an artist's model, after all -- but she doesn't engage in the kind of slapstick knockabout that was the male comics' stock in trade. She's a game gal, and yet it seems the filmmakers weren't entirely comfortable with a woman playing a comic lead; much of the comedy in the film's second half comes from the effusive performance of Jack Richardson as Rubenstein the art collector, a traditional Jewish stereotype right down to his reflexive hand-wringing. By the time the short is over you might wonder whether Miss Jazz or the comical Mr. Rubenstein was meant to be the star of the show.
Beyond that, the main drawback of Little Miss Jazz is that the central comic event, i.e. our heroine's impersonation of the Rhubarb Goddess, rests on the idea that the gallery visitors are so dumb they can't tell the difference between a person and a statue. I've seen variations of this routine where a comedian uses paint or chalk dust to disguise him- or herself as a statue, but here La Plante simply strikes a pose and freezes while the spectators poke at her, lean on her, and even hoist her into the air. And no, it appears they really can't tell the difference between a human being and a sculpture. For me, comedy needs to be grounded in reality, at least loosely, and when an extended comic routine is predicated entirely on a roomful of people acting like cretins, it misses the mark.
I'd like to see more comedies featuring Beatrice La Plante, to see if any of the others give a better indication of her abilities. Her work obviously didn't set the world on fire, but she was cute and charming. I hope life treated her well, after her retirement from the screen.