Cinema to Fiction, A Natural Born Gambler (1916)

This Pernicious Habit of Gambling

Based on the comic movie ‘A Natural Born Gambler’ by Bert Williams of 1916

written by/with Charlie.translate1

This pernicious habit of gambling must be squelched. The poker deck shunned as you would the serpent.’ I could hear Bert read the newspaper aloud while the sheriff was searching through the church for signs of poker. From behind my bar I grinned, not daring to laugh out loud. Bert just really has his way of making fun of the authorities and getting aw ay with it. They know he does it, we know he does it, but what evidence could you possibly get for it? For something you can only feel, but not point your finger at. He doesn’t say anything wrong and, whether the sheriff likes it or not, a feeling can’t be wrong, can it?

Unfortunately for Bert, one of the cards that he had quickly hidden inside of his shirt fell out during his hypocritical lecture. It landed right between his feet but he himself didn’t see it. He also was ignorant of the little carelessness of the Bible lying on the floor, with Bert’s top hat on it, and next to the hat, two decks of poker cards.
The sheriff knew enough now, smiled politely while giving Bert a pat on the back and left the building after greeting me in the brightest of moods I’ve ever seen him in.
I dried another of the glasses while I heard the game continue.

The pub of which I’m the barkeeper is the home base of the African-American community of this village. It’s only separated from our church by the typical torso-high swinging doors of a Western Saloon in order to optimize the traffic between the two. One of my favorite customers, although very badly paying, is Bert Williams, he always manages to put a smile on my face. Like everyone here, he is a member of both the church and the pub and is well known for his powerful gestures and expressive facial expressions. His long coat, his slightly too short, checkered, baggy pants, and worn off leather boots form, together with his black top hat, a curious mixture of silliness and elegance. When he walks, the heels of his boots often collide because the toes of his feet are always pointing towards opposite sides of the room. He prefers to wear his hat in his hands and only rarely wears it on his head, putting it down, putting it on, taking it off, his hat is always moving around.

The first thing Bert did while entering the pub this morning was taking off his hat and putting it on the bar in a very nonchalant manner, as if he personally owned the place, took a bottle and served himself. I went along with his urge for independence by letting him do the bookkeeping for the day by himself as well, although I must admit that I slightly doubted if he filled it out correctly. Anyway, if drinks were paid per laugh, I would probably owe him more money than he owes me, anyway. He walked into the church where rumors of prayer and preaching were mixing up with quarrels about Bert having to pay the money he had lost last time around with gambling. You must know that Pastor Peabody is strongly against gambling and never plays, but he likes to take the money at the end of the game. Bert naturally refused. In short: the usual kind of religious service. Nothing special about it.

Bert’s companion in gambling, his comrade if you will, is Limpy Jones, who wanted to go for a walk and jumped on Bert’s back in order to do so. Having broken his leg, he must take a lift whenever he wants to go somewhere, as walking with crutches is a much too tiresome business to him in his old age, he claims. However, ten minutes later Limpy Jones came running back inside of my pub, alone, with the devil on his heels, he said. Without his crutches! ‘Where did you leave Bert?’ I asked. ‘Well, when chased by the devil it’s each man on their own’, he said and went inside the church to tell everyone his story. Something about the graveyard and the devil saying ‘one for you and one for me.’ Then Bert had thrown him off his back and run away, Limpy Jones had grown wings suddenly and excelled Bert in running skills despite his age and broken leg, quite easily. It’s true that Bert has the strangest way of running I’ve ever seen, as if he puts in all his effort in running backwards instead of forwards really while in fact almost staying in the same place all the time. The mystery of the devil, however, was soon to be resolved by Bert coming in with some young criminals, they were carrying the two chickens in bags that they had been referring to while saying ‘one for you and one for me’. Eventually, the real chickens who were running away from the ‘devil’, now run off with that devil’s meal. I must say, I felt a bit sorry for them when they were thrown out of the pub. 


Talking of the devil, this morning’s newspaper that revealed the new ban on gambling called it ‘The Gambling Evil’ and a devil’s business as well. Much talk about nothing if you ask me. However, pastor Peabody was more than happy as to see strictly on the new law to be accepted. Although, after he had been chasing everybody away I saw him hesitating with some dice in his hands, putting those away then and taking the money on the table. That’s much like him. However, when gambling champion Cicero Sampson entered the room and showed all the money he had won while he was abroad there was no way to hold back Bert and Limpy Jones from challenging him. I put all the money there was in the cash deck in Bert’s top hat so he had something to gamble with and hoped for the best. Which is in general quite a stupid thing to do, as Bert has always been at the losing end of every game he’s been in, despite all his cheating behaviours. One of his tricks that is my personal favorite, I can’t get enough from watching it although I’ve seen it a thousand of times already, is in cooperation with Limpy. Bert and Limpy exchange information on which cards they both have and both need. Then, Limpy takes off the boot and sock of the foot that isn’t broken at the time, puts a card between his big toe and the one next to it and delivers it to Bert under the table. Bert takes the card and puts another card back between Limpy’s toes in their attempt to turn the tables around. It’s a good trick. Not because it works, as it doesn’t ever have the desired effect, but it’s very entertaining and very well performed. The way their gazes are trying to claim innocence is worth a million.

As for innocence. The sheriff came back with four extra cops to back him up and they entered the room while Cicero was offering to put his silver watch in and Bert was testing whether it was real silver by rubbing it over his pants. All of the people in the room came walking past my bar, one by one, and stepped into the police truck. All of them, except for Bert. I looked over the swinging doors to see what he was doing. I saw him pointing at his head where his hat was missing and pointing at the Bible on the floor, where his hat was sitting. The way he did that reminded me of a soccer player kicking someone to the floor claiming innocence by pointing at the other player. Except that in this case the other player was a top hat. I thought: I still have to meet the first hat that got caught gambling. However, the ban on gambling was all fresh and new, so I didn’t want to exclude anything at this stage. And I got my surprise. Bert walked slowly towards the hat, took it, turned around, walked, turned again, stood still, challenging the sheriff’s patience until the last bit. Then he put on his hat and a dozen of cards fell out of it, masking his face before they hit the floor. The sheriff now felt really irritated and started to push him outside. But while they passed me at the bar Bert stood still again because he needed a moment to cry over the thing. Now I really couldn’t help myself, I had to laugh, which made the sheriff even more angry and made me laugh even more and so on. It works like this, doesn’t it?


I followed them when they walked outside. All of the others were already sitting in that police vehicle,
waiting for him to arrive. But he had one final joke to spare. I expected some cat and mouse chase, I expected hi m to run away. I should have known better. As I told you, Bert is the worst of runners, even Limpy Jones is faster. Maybe he just is more a fast thinker than a fast runner. Because what he thought of was in all its stupidity quite brilliant I must say. With his hat in his right hand so it wouldn’t fall, he made himself completely stiff and let himself fall backwards. A gesture of trust, normally. He was surrounded by the cops and the sheriff and they did catch him, but then when they lifted him and carried him into the truck, it looked like they were carrying a dead body, paying it its last respects. He just turned everything around!

Ten days they send him to jail. Aren’t clowns always sent
ten days to jail, not longer, not shorter. Clowning is a serious crime, but not that serious, right? Ten days they gave me to think about him, to miss him, to appreciate him more when he’ll come back. Ten days they gave him to think about his behavior, to learn his lesson and to stop ‘this pernicious habit of gambling’.

He learned his lesson well. When he came back he told me that he used his time in jail to practice. Having got no cards to play with, he played every single game again in his imagination, every card he had played, every move his opponents had made and now he really has found the best strategy, he said, now he’ll surely win.
I don’t care much for the winning to be honest, but I can’t wait to see his new strategy.


Charlie.translate = a translation machine that translates early 20th century comic films from the medium of film to the medium of fiction. Charlie.translate is programmed to rewrite those parts of the original story that are based on racism, sexism and gender essentialism without actually deviating of the material.



In the process of making this:

Why would Bert Williams have to transcend his color? – A dialogue with Meredith Gordon

In the process of transforming the first movie that was acted, directed and written by a person of color, 'A Natural Born Gambler (1916) by Bert Williams, to a short illustrated story, I consulted Meredith Gordon on the topic of Bert Williams' use of the Blackface that was used at the time by minstrel performers (often white folks) to make fun of black people and earn an easy living with it. I've written on this topic on this blog before, here:

And Meredith has written about it on his blog here:

Here’s our conversation, pretty plainly as it was, just a bit edited for your convenience. The fictional story is finished, let me know if you’re interested to read it.

Fritz: Hey Meredith may I ask you a question please?

Meredith: of course...

Fritz: How do you feel about Bert Williams using black face make up and wearing gloves in his movies? I am working on transforming A Natural Born Gambler to an illustrated short story, but I have only been drawing feet so far, I struggle with the face...

Do you think it was a critical remark from his side or more like he didn’t have a choice?

Meredith: I don't know. Let me watch/rewatch that movie now. I'll let you know what I think.

Fritz: Ok! Thanks!

Meredith: I just watched a version of this on YouTube. I recognized that short clip of this was used in the Arthur, Jafa film, “Love is the message and the messages is death”. That film is actually streaming now in some museums.

Context is obviously huge. So you asked about his make up and gloves? I guess I’m not clear about what your question is.

Fritz: Ah thanks a lot for that tip, I just watched it, that scene where they get arrested and he falls back, stiff like a dead body so he would not step in to the police car deliberately but they have to carry him is indeed very powerful and impressive!

I guess my question is about whether his work/ this movie comes across to you as an empowerment or as reinforcement of stereotypes like you wrote about the movie ‘neighbors’ by Buster Keaton on your blog.

Here's a text about it:

Meredith: So you're asking me if it's empowerment or reinforcement of stereotypes. Good question. I think the answer is both. Context is everything in telling and retelling history like this. Being able to look up this film is great. The same is true with the link you shared with information. It's all history that should be remembered and noted. That said, some folks will reinforce stereotypes intentionally or not if their intentions are not clear.

As a clown, I like the aspect of being both ridiculous and virtuosic. Your link says he had this quality.

I also noted how people said his talent transcended his color. That's an interesting point in light of the black lives focus. I ask the question: Does his talent have to transcend his color?

Why not have his blackness be part of the transcendence.

Fritz: It's very interesting what you brought up about transcendence, as that sentence still takes whiteness as the norm that one has to live up to, instead of fully embracing diversity.

Meredith: What I find interesting when I read about him, is that he was born in the Bahamas.

Fritz: Why is that?

Meredith: Well, I’ve been touring there recently for Clowns Without Borders and I noticed that people of color there are a bit different than in the US where I live. They have had historically always had the idea that they could become everything they wanted really, as people of color around them did have all kinds of jobs, you had people of color who are advocates and doctors, went to university and so on. And also the people of color I know who migrated to the US are more self confident somehow. It does make a difference whether you have or don’t have a history of slavery in a culture. I wonder if that may influence your ideas on what you can become. President Obama does not come from the descendants of slaves. His mother was white from America, and his father was from Kenya. So he is in a way free from that as well, from the idea that there's only a certain amount of things you could become.

And I see that in Bert Williams as well, the idea that he could achieve anything he wanted really.

Fritz: Interesting, so do you think there’s a kind of ‘family heritage’ or ‘collective trauma’ in the US from that slavery history?

Meredith: It may be like a trauma yes. Bert Williams seems to think: ‘okay if you anyway want to make fun of us, I may as well use that myself and earn a lot of money with it ‘

Fritz: Did you know the movie, when you were just starting clowning?

Meredith: No, not really. I had read about this, done a bit of research about Blackface and so on, but you know, when I started clowning that was 20 years ago, it was before the youtube area, I would read and watch images but it wasn’t as easy as it is now to look at a movie… Like now, you wrote me and I can just go to youtube and I can see it you know, that actually changes a lot. I mean, I’m sure I could have gone to some library and get hold of the movie somehow, but anyway, no I didn’t. What is, if I may ask, the reason why you are interested in this?

Fritz: There are two things actually. One is an experience I had with a person of color who is in my eyes very clownish by nature, he’s always clowning around and showed a lot of interest in clowning so I tried to encourage him to come to a workshop but he said ‘That’s only for white people’, and I can understand his reaction because it’s true that there haven’t been any people of color really in any of the workshops I’ve attended.

Meredith: Yeah I know what you mean, I have got used to that, being the only person of color in the room.

Fritz: And then the other reason, is that I grew up in the Netherlands and so I’m brough up in this traditon of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) and I just feel so incredibly ashamed of all the FUN we used to have as kids, you know, only white kids in the village I come from, dressing up as Zwarte Piet and painting our faces black, not raising any questions… It’s just incredible to me now, how I could not raise any questions, and I really feel so sorry about it.

Meredith: I understand. You know, I think with this kind of thing it’s really difficult to see what’s actually going on because it’s all wrapped up in this joyful Christmas time feeling and it presents itself like a fairy tale really.

Fritz: Yeah I guess you’re right, it’s so tricky, racism wrapped up in candy papers and presents so the kids will like it…I’m happy that it’s finally changing now.

But do you experience watching Bert Williams as an empowerment despite the use of Black face?

Meredith: I do yes. It’s so important that it exists, and that we can watch at it, as a part of history. Also the thing about him being arrested… You know seen in the light of George Floyd and all the police violence against people of color it’s horrific to look at but in the context of comic movies of that time, in fact Chaplin and Keaton were chased at by the cops all the time, you know, it’s normal for a clown to end up in jail and get in and out of trouble all the time.

But the blackface and also the use of dialect in the intertitles, the misspelling of library and everything, that’s all there because otherwise white people at the time wouldn’t have wanted to look at it, they wouldn’t want to believe that a person of color could talk or write properly.

Fritz: Yes you’re right, that’s a good point about all of them being chased by the cops, that’s why I want to highlight the fact that he’s a clown and not the color of his skin and want to rewrite it in such way that it’s not about this Blackface, not in the sense of the make up, nor in the sense of the stereotype.