Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Banana Peel Update - Peels in Film, Song and Poetry

Banana Peel II – Update- An Even Older Banana Peel Film

In an earlier post, I laid out a history of “banana peel” (and orange peel) humor, extending back to the early 1800s.  Orange peel-slipping humor dates to at least 1817 and banana peel jokes to 1858.  Banana peel jokes were told on stage in 1890, and Vaudeville performers may have performed banana-slipping gags on stage in the early 1900s. [For a history of pies in the face, check here.]

When I wrote the earlier post, the earliest banana slipping gag on film that I found was from 1913.  As it turns out, however, the banana slipping gag was already so old and tired by 1912, that advice for aspiring screenwriters cautioned against using it for cheap laughs:

Be Concise.

Begin with the scene that starts the story and get the audience interested immediately.

Then after you get started hustle along to the finish.  Do not interrupt the narrative action to show how Bill steps on a banana peel and takes a tumble, or how Jim gets thrown off a street car because he has no nickel. . . . [U]nless the action is necessary to the telling of the story, it does not belong.

The Scenario Writer, Epes Winthrop Sargent, Moving Picture World, Volume 11, Number 4, January 17, 1912, page 294.

A banana peel gag was caught on film in 1905: 

Around New York in Fifteen Minutes
Scene 3. - The Shopping District and What a Banana Peel Will Do.

The New York Clipper, February 4, 1905, Volume 52, Number 50, page 1188.

Interestingly, other films listed in the same advertisement suggest that other film conventions are also nearly as old as the medium.  Trials and Troubles of an Automobilist, Automobile Chase Film is an early car chase film; and The Mishap of a Jew Glazier sounds as though it may feature one of those huge panes of glass that always gets broken.  The car chase and the glass-pane-breaking gimmick were perfected on the streets of San Francisco more than sixty years later; in 1968’s Bullitt (car chase) and 1972’s What’s Up Doc? (starting at 1:30).

One of the producers of the early banana peel film was one of the very first independent film-makers.  William Paley, of Paley & Steiner, built his own camera after giving up a career as an x-ray exhibitor, due to radiation sickness.  His camera infringed some of Thomas Edison’s patents, and he lost an infringement lawsuit brought by Edison.  But Edison gave him a license to operate a freelance photographer; free to make his own films, subject, presumably, to paying a license fee or royalty to the Edison Company.  The Edison Company sent Paley to Cuba to cover the Spanish-American War in 1898.  Perhaps he filmed someone slipping on a plantain skin (?).

Slipping on a banana peel was the subject of a song that was popular on both sides of the Atlantic in the late 1890s and early 1900s.  In 1893, Edward Paulton wrote a song entitled, “The Naughty Banana Peel.”[i] 

Ferris Hartman sang the song in San Francisco in 1904:

Ferris Hartman has a sure winner in “That Naughty Banana Peel” . . .

The Morning Call (San Francisco), January 4, 1894, page 3.

American singer and actress, Julie Mackey brought the song to England in 1896, where she made the song popular under the title, “Little Bit of Orange Peel”:[ii]

Some of the American songs that are reported having made an English success are “Naughty Banana Peel,” by Ed. Paulton, sung by Julie Mackey . . . .

The New York Clipper, November 28, 1896, page 616, column 4.

Julie Mackey is delighted with her successful American re entre at Koster & Bial’s.  The reception accorded her was very cordial.  She introduced her London success, “Little Bit of Orange Peel,” by Paulton, known here as “Naughty Banana Peel.”

The New York Clipper, February 19, 1898, page 842, column 3.

I guess orange peels continued to be funny in England long after banana peels stole the spotlight in the United States. 

I have not seen the lyrics for the song, so I do not know what was, “naughty,” about the banana peel.  My initial sense was that “naughty” may have had a double-meaning.  It was, after all, the age of “skirt dancers,” like Sylvia Gray and Lottie Collins.  Lottie Collins famously kicked up her skirts while singing “Ta-Ra-Ra Boom-de-ay” in 1892.  Perhaps someone kicked up their skirt when slipping on a banana peel. 

Lottie Collins, popularized Tra-ra-ra Boom-de-ay! in 1892.

Sylvia Gray, "Skirt Dancer" active in the 1890s.

But a tobacco card with an image of Julie Mackey singing, “That Little Bit of Orange-Peel,” makes it seem more like a cautionary tale.  In the image, a woman dressed in a full-length, black dress, as if in mourning, points accusingly at a piece of orange peel.  Did her husband die from slipping on an orange peel (or banana peel in the American version)?  

Julie Mackey was billed as a contralto, or woman baritone, so she may not have had the kind of voice suited to light comedy or naughty suggestiveness.  Most of the songs she sang, and for which I have seen sheet music for,[iii] tend towards the sentimental; “The Girl Behind the Man Behind the Gun,” “You’ll be With Me All the While,” “Why Don’t You Love Me in the Same Old Way,” “She’s Somebody’s Mother,” “The Widow’s Plea for Her Son,” “Those Wedding Bells Shall Not Ring Out,” and other such downers.  Perhaps the song was not as bawdy as I first imagined.

But when William F. Denny recorded the song on a wax-cylinder phonograph record for the Edison label in 1899, the List of Edison Records, for Fall, 1900, listed the song as, “comic.”   He may have had a new twist on the previously solemn song; or perhaps it had always been funny, despite Ms. Mackey's long black dress. 

List of Edison Records, Echo All Over the World, Form No. 150, Fall Season, 1900.

Peels in Poetry


A Tale.

An orange rind on the pavement
   Sent the Lawyer head over heel.
He split his doeskin trousers -
   He shook up his morning meal,
While the wreck of his new "Prince Albert"
   Wouldn't tempt a tramp to steal.
So he sadly said to his tailor:
   "I've lost a suit on appeal."

Life, Volume 3, Number 69, April 24, 1884, page 228.


Written for the New York Clipper, By J. Charles Davis,

Boy on street,
Near the walk,
With his chum
Having a talk;

Banana peel
The urchin spies
As it in the gutter lies.

They fish it out
With greatest care,
And silently place it where
It will catch a passing heel.
Treacherous banana peel!

Hats and gaiters fill the air,
“Helen Blazes,” hear him swear
At those boys who placed it there.

Ambulance and doctor come;
Boy and chum
On corner glum,
Chewing second-handed gum –
On the subject they are dumb.

Coast is clear.
Naught they fear,
As they readjust the peel
For another passing heel.

Boys are having lots of fun,
Sitting basking in the sun,
When they see a “cop” they run –
They’ll be angels “by-and-bye!”
For that time devoutly sigh.

The New York Clipper, October 17, 1885, page 492, column 3.


Funny Cuts (London), Volume 1, Number 1, July 12, 1890, page 7.

Funny Cuts (London), Volume 1, Number 24, December 20, 1890, page 188.

[i] The New York Clipper, October 7, 1893, page 506, column 1 (M. Witmark & sons are advertising “The Fisherman’s Bride,” “Naughty Banana Peel” and “You Gave Me Your Love.”).
[ii] Sheet music in the collection of Duke University Libraries lists both titles together; “A Piece of Orange Peel” and “Naughty Banana Peel.”
[iii] The New York Public Library Digital Gallery features sixteen pieces of sheet music said to have been sung by Julie Mackey.
Revised May 19, 2021, adding Orange Rind poem from Life Magazine.

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