The Still Alarm

The Still Alarm is a melodramatic play by Joseph Arthur that debuted in New York in 1887 and enjoyed great success, and was adapted to silent films in 1911, 1918, and 1926. Though never a favorite of critics, it achieved widespread popularity. It is best known for its climactic scene where fire wagons are pulled by horses to a blazing fire.[1]

The Still Alarm
Original cast advertisement
Written byJoseph Arthur, A.C. Wheeler
Date premiered30 September 1887
Place premieredFourteenth Street Theatre, New York
Original languageEnglish


The play debuted at the Fourteenth Street Theatre in New York City on August 30, 1887.[2][3][4][5] Harry Lacy played the lead role of Jack Manley.[6]

Though it ran only a few weeks in its initial engagement, the play returned in March 1888 and ran for over 100 more performances.[2][7][8][9] Its popularity was then well-secured. In September 1889, it re-appeared at the Grand Opera House.[10] It ran again at the Fourteenth for two weeks in 1891,[11] and returned to the Grand Opera House in 1892.[12]

The play was also successful in England, and ran for 100 nights at the Princess's Theatre in London in 1888.[13]

Critics noted its success with guarded bemusement. An August 1888 note on its London success reported that "the critics have come down rather severely on "The Still Alarm", but as this was not unexpected, the management does not worry. Meanwhile, Bucephalus and Pegasus, the two horses, have made a tremendous hit, and are drawing crowded houses. Next to them in order of merit, according to the critics, comes the dog."[14]

The Still Alarm was Joseph Arthur's first successful creation, but he enjoyed similar success with more melodramatic fare including Blue Jeans (1890) and The Cherry Pickers (1896).

On opening night of the play, Arthur announced that theatre critic Andrew Carpenter Wheeler, known as "Nym Crinkle," was his collaborator. Wheeler received a writing credit on the 1926 film version.[15]

Original New York cast

  • Jack Manley by Harry Lacy
  • John Bird alia Gorman by Nelson Wheatcroft
  • Willie Manley by Charles Dickson
  • Franklyn Fordham by Eugene A. Eberle
  • Doc Wilbur by Jacques Kruger
  • Jenkins by Thomas W. Ford
  • Nozzle by Joseph Doane
  • Elinore Fordham by Blanche Thorne
  • Cad. Wilbur by Blanche Vaughn
  • Mrs. Manley by Mrs. Selden Irwin
  • Pegasus, Bucephalaus .. The Twin Arabian horses

Film adaptations

The Still Alarm has been adapted to silent film three times, in 1911, 1918, and 1926.

A 1911 film version was directed by Francis Boggs and starred Robert Z. Leonard, Herbert Rawlinson, and Al Ernest Garcia. William Selig produced the film, which has been preserved by the Museum of Modern Art Department of Film.[16]

Selig produced a wholly new film version in 1918. This version starred Tom Santschi, Fritzi Brunette, and Bessie Eyton, directed by Colin Campbell, and distributed by Pioneer Film Corporation.[17][18][19][20][21]

The final silent film version of the film, from Universal, was released in 1926. It starred Helene Chadwick, William Russell, and Richard Travers, and was directed by Edward Laemmle.[22][23] Film archivist William K. Everson reviewed the film positively in 1956, noting that though it has "no reputation and is little known", it is "one of the very best" of the "fire-fighting thrillers" popular in the 1920s.[24]

Unrelated "Still Alarm" titles

A 1903 Edison short called The Still Alarm consists of footage of moving New York fire equipment and is not a film adaptation of the play.[25]

A 1930 Vitaphone short of the same title is a comedy skit by George S. Kaufman, where Fred Allen and Harold Moffet debate what to wear before exiting a burning hotel, later joined by similarly blase firemen, who play the violin. The sketch comes from The Little Show, a revue that opened on Broadway in 1929.[26]


Despite its roaring success as a play in New York, London and elsewhere, including repeated revivals and local productions mounted for many years,[27] the sensationalistic fame of The Still Alarm eventually had to ebb. In 1920, a feature in the New York Tribune about the phasing out of the use of horses for fire fighting still highlighted The Still Alarm as the quintessential firefighting example.[28] But Everson's observation in 1956 that it has "no reputation and is little known" (though he was only referring to the 1926 film version) fairly characterizes its lack of long-term staying power.[24]


  1. Rahill, Frank. The world of melodrama, p. 257 (1967) ("the greatest of all the fireman plays")
  2. Brown, Thomas Allston. A history of the New York stage, p. 495-96 (1887 original production), p. 498 (March 1888 return)
  3. (31 August 1887). Amusements - "The Still Alarm", The New York Times
  4. Burt, Daniel S. (ed.) The chronology of American literature, p. 271 (2004)
  5. (28 August 1887). Notes of the Week, The New York Times
  6. Advertisement, The Theatre (August 1887)
  7. Bordman, Gerald Martin. American theatre: a chronicle of comedy and drama, 1869-1914, p. 259 (1994)
  8. (27 March 1888). Musical and Dramatic Notes, The New York Times
  9. (17 June 1888). Amusements: Notes of the Week, The New York Times
  10. (3 September 1889). Notes of the Stage, The New York Times
  11. (30 August 1891). The Dancing Girl Is Here, The New York Times
  12. (5 April 1892). Notes of the Stage, The New York Times
  13. (11 September 1895). The Profit Too Large, The New York Times
  14. (5 August 1888). Old World News By Cable, The New York Times
  15. Wheeler, Andrew Carpenter (1835-1903), The Vault at Pfaff's, Retrieved 28 November 2018
  16. Still Alarm - 1911 Archived 2012-01-26 at the Wayback Machine, (listing for 1911 version of Still Alarm, preserved), Retrieved October 11, 2011
  17. Brownlow, Kevin. Behind the mask of innocence, p. 478 (1990)
  18. (31 August 1918). 'The Still Alarm' Great Picture At Orpheum Tomorrow, Ogden Standard
  19. (14 December 1918). Famous "Still Alarm" at Loew's Columbia, Washington Times
  20. (27 March 1919). You Can't Pass Up This Show Friday Night, Lodi Sentinel
  21. (25 August 1918). Exciting Well Played Fire Meller; Rather Poorly Assembled, Wid's Daily, p. 13-14
  22. The American Film Institute Catalog of Motion Pictures Produced in the United States: Feature Films, 1921-1930, p. 765 (1971)
  23. (17 April 1926). "The Still Alarm" Opens Sunday Night at Poli's, Meriden Record
  24. Everson, William K. Notes to December 18, 1956 film showing, William K. Everson Archive at, Retrieved October 11, 2011
  25. Niver, Kemp R. Motion Pictures From The Library of Congress Paper Print Collection 1894-1912, p. 316 (1967).
  26. Bordman, Gerald Martin. American musical theatre: a chronicle, p. 501 (3d ed. 2001).
  27. (18 May 1911). Theatrical: The Still Alarm, Flushing Daily Times (reporting on 1911 revival)
  28. Prince, Arnold D. (4 January 1920). The Fire Horse, First Aid to Melodrama, Will Soon Respond to His Last Alarm, New York Tribune, p. 3.
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