America is embroiled in war and there are German secret agents everywhere. “I must catch some spies,” Sambo Sam (Samuel Jacks) tells himself. “My country demands it of me.” Sam models himself as a sort of Sherlock Holmes, complete with a calabash pipe, and what he lacks in competence, he makes up for in enthusiasm.
On the street, he at once picks up some clues: a German language newspaper, a link of sausage, and the name Schwartz on a mailbox. This can only be one of the Kaiser’s agents. He enters the apartment building and waits outside Schwartz’s door, imagining what nefarious deeds the spy must be up to inside. As soon as the door opens, he claps a laundry bag over the man’s head and marches him to police headquarters. But Schwartz, it turns out, isn’t a German spy but “a respectable colored gentleman”.
Undeterred, Sam sets out to round up more spies. He spots a group of men carrying a cannon into a building. “I’ll get that gang,” he cries to his friends William and Molly before rushing home for his detective gear. The gang is actually William’s fraternity. He goes in to warn them of Sam and they’re ready for him when he walks through the clubhouse door.
Sam is surrounded by black-hooded men with skull and crossbones on their chests. A trapdoor is opened and a slide wheeled into place. Down the slide Sam goes, to a subterranean torture chamber. Another hooded figure lifts an axe ready to lop off Sam’s head, but just then, a knocking sound is heard and everyone freezes. It’s really a workman installing carpet upstairs, but the gang pretends it’s their god calling for them: “Brothers, the master is knocking for us, we will now make our departure from here.” Each man lifts a gun to his head and pulls the trigger before collapsing to the floor. “Good night!” Sam exclaims, running out the door. The gang gets up and pulls off their hoods, laughing uproariously at the prank they’ve just pulled.
Ebony Films was a short-lived Chicago-based studio that made “race films”. It was unusual at the time for white and black actors to appear on screen together. Not unheard of — Larry Semon and Spencer Bell worked alongside one another many times, for example — but certainly unusual. Black people might appear as background extras, but if a white character needed to interact with a black character, the black character was more often than not a white actor in blackface. Race films essentially inverted this arrangement, giving black actors most or all of the principal parts, and were targeted at largely black audiences.
Race films existed from the beginning of cinema. I have in my nitrate collection a race remake of the The May Irwin Kiss likely released sometime around 1899. Some race films were similarly “inspired” by existing movies — the plot of Ebony’s own Mercy, the Mummy Mumbled (1918) is lifted wholesale from Vitagraph’s The Egyptian Mummy (1914) — but there were original films, too.
Older books sometimes refer to Spying the Spy (1918) as a spoof of The Birth of a Nation (1915), and while that’s not true in the slightest, I can see where they got the idea. I’m not aware of Spying the Spy ever being released on video and prints are rare. Most commentators are just going off a handful of stills, which, out of context, do actually make the fraternity look like a parody of the Klan.
The stated goal of Ebony Films was to break from the old and offensive stereotypes then common to the stage and screen and present “real negro comedies with real negro players.” Their output — at least, what survives of it — isn’t exactly a model of progressiveness, but there is something to be said in their favor. Sambo Sam doesn’t speak in dialect nor do the other black characters. I won’t say Spying the Spy doesn’t play on any stereotypes (I mean, the main character’s name is Sambo Sam), but the film isn’t a minstrel show. The antics that Sam gets into are standard slapstick fair that would work just as well if he were white without changing anything.
I could see being disappointed by Spying the Spy. It’s not Oscar Micheaux; Spying the Spy doesn’t have a message and isn’t trying to say anything about race relations. It’s a broad, low-brow, slapstick comedy. Taken for what it is, it’s not a bad film. Jacks does a good job portraying the bungling amateur detective. The cinematography is unremarkable overall, but I did like how Sam’s fantasy sequences were handled.
My rating: I like it.
The HD remaster of the Sheldon Lewis Jekyll and Hyde won’t be ready for Halloween. The negative it’s sourced from is in pretty poor shape and requires a bit of work to make presentable. I didn’t want to rush it. It should be out by early November. After that will be something particularly exciting: I mentioned in my Timothy’s Quest (1922) writeup that I’d never seen any other silent films set and shot in rural, inland Maine. Well, I found another one, and I guarantee you’ve never heard of it.
If you read movie magazines from the early 1910s, you’ll find an almost universal theme coursing through every issue: will there be censorship? Motion Picture Story Magazine, in particular, had a long running series on the topic with interviews and guest articles by religious leaders of various stripes arguing the morals of the new medium. You’ll recall that the magazine was published by J. Stuart Blackton, co-founder of Vitagraph — who very, very coincidentally were at the height of production of their so-called Quality Films, as distinguished from those vile and corrupting pictures from other studios that played at the nickel theatres.
It’s often hard to reconcile the hyperbolic tone those “other” films are spoken of with the actual films themselves, which often come across as harmless and even quaint. With Blackbeard (1911), though, I kind of see what they’re talking about. I wouldn’t say it’s vile and corrupting, but it is graphically violent, and while the villainous Blackbeard is defeated at the end, he is — until them — more or less the main character. In other words, the story doesn’t focus on some hero out to stop the pirates — it focuses on the pirates.
Blackbeard (Sydney Ayres) and his men sack the island of Martinique. The Governor (Hobart Bosworth) and his household are carried away as prisoners. The Governor is forced to walk the plank, but his faithful maid Conchita (Bessie Eyton) dives in and swims him to safety at a nearby islet. With the other male captives similarly disposed of, the ladies are thrown into the hold where they’re menaced by Blackbeard until a pursuing British Man-O’-War is sighted. Blackbeard orders the hold be sealed and the prisoners suffocated with burning sulfur and they very nearly are until a lucky cannon shot blasts a hole through the deck to let in fresh air. The Man-O’-War overtakes the pirate ship, the British board them, and then it’s down to pistols and cutlasses. At last the pirates are defeated and Blackbeard is hanged from his own yardarm.
It’s gruesome stuff, especially the end, where it does not shy from showing the bodies swinging in the breeze.
Blackbeard was written and directed by Francis Boggs. It was one of his last works — he died the year of its release. I have prints of three of his films. The Cattle Rustlers (1908) is primitive even for the time, but he seems to have learned how to make a movie right quick — Blackbeard and Shipwrecked (1911) are both very well photographed and decently acted, at least in comparison to other films out in the early 1910s, and certainly compared to Vitagraph’s Quality Films. If I had any complaint, Blackbeard relies too heavily on titles to maintain the continuity, but that’s really just down to its length. To be told visually, either story would have to be simplified or the film would have to be a good deal longer than one reel.
My rating: I like it.
Claire McDowell is an actress who suffers a nervous breakdown and is sent to the country to recover. She’s accompanied by her boyfriend, Alan Hale (no, not the Skipper — that’s Alan Hale, Jr. This is the Skipper’s dad.) At the farm are a couple of sweethearts, Vola Smith and Victor Rottman. Vola expects Victor to propose any day now, but the arrival of the rusticated actress turns his head and he all but forgets about Vola.
The two girls concoct a plan: Vola will pretend to start courting Alan, which will make Victor jealous and refocus his attention back where it belongs. Alan is against the idea but at last Claire convinces him to play along. The plan works all too well: Victor does become jealous of his new rival, but on Claire’s last day at the farm, she finds a note from Alan proclaiming that he has really fallen in love with Vola and that the two have decided to elope (and we now learn that Alan Hale’s character is apparently named Charlie, but never mind that).
I’ve referenced the fall of the pioneering studios several times in the past. Biograph was already in steep decline when Cupid Entangled was released. Eleven months later, production would be halted. They simply couldn’t compete in the new market. I actually did a double-take on the release date when I started writing this; in terms of film making technique, Cupid Entangled looks more like it should have been made in 1910 rather than 1915. It’s only five years, but pre-war films exist in a different world. The acting, as well, is primitive. The actors are on a single plane, are always facing forward, and they address the camera more so than they do each other. Everything is a medium shot — no wides, no close-ups. Even the exteriors feel claustrophobic. Still, it isn’t badly written. I don’t know who did the screenplay, but it’s a fine sitcom plot.
My rating: Meh.
I don’t know what the next video will be. I’m working on a long film now that will hopefully be ready for Halloween, but I imagine something else will be out before then.
Wait a minute, you might be saying — I’ve already done a review of Station Content. Yes, I have, and I won’t be reviewing it again. This will be more of a textual reconstruction. The original, feature-length release of Station Content, as I’ve said before, is presumed to be lost. What survives is a roughly one-reel abridgment. So what is missing from the story? Not a lot, really. Station Content seems to have been a film that lent itself well to abridgment:
Kitty (Gloria Swanson) was originally from a large city (an eastern city, likely New York, but contemporary reviews are contradictory). She marries Jim Manning (Lee Hill), who’s the master of Cybar Station. Cybar is a remote, isolate place somewhere in the southwest. She’s too preoccupied to be culture shocked — she’s about to have a baby. The baby takes ill shortly after its birth and dies before the doctor arrives. Kitty is sure the baby would have lived if they weren’t so far out in the country.
Jim had promised her that he would soon be promoted to a more urban station, but months have passed and no promotion has materialized. Kitty’s resentment grows with each passing day. Her only friend is the conductor of the express that stops at the station. A train wreck ahead delays the express one day. Kitty and the conductor spend the time at the piano, where Kitty sings songs that remind her of happier days before she’d ever heard of Cybar. Aboard the delayed train was a theatrical manager (Ward Caulfield) who overhears Kitty singing and is impressed. He tells her that he’s casting a musical revue (or maybe an operetta — again, reviews are contradictory) and she’s got a place in it if she wants it. Kitty tries to discuss the matter with Jim, but he shoos her away, saying he’s too busy. That night he finds a letter on the table: Kitty has left him.
Some time later, Stephen Morton (Arthur Millett) attends Kitty’s show. After the curtain call, she finds him waiting for her backstage, come to ask her out to dinner. Morton is the president of the Pacific Railroad — Jim’s boss. Morton is also married, but he and his wife (Nellie Allen) are estranged. To quote one review, he proposes that Kitty might “fill the void”. Kitty is reluctant. No need to answer now — he’ll be at his ranch in San Francisco, he says. If Kitty decides in his favor, she need only knock at the door.
Kitty is tempted — very tempted — and goes so far as to book passage to San Francisco, but her train is delayed and she misses her connection at Lone Bridge. The station might as well be Cybar for how isolated it is, but the family there seem quite content with their lot (Fay McKenzie is the baby, I don’t know who the parents are). The husband, however, is ill from overwork. In the morning, the train to San Francisco pulls out of the station, but Kitty isn’t on it. She knows Morse code and has volunteered to take over for a few days so that he can recuperate.
Jim, meanwhile, has at last got his promotion — too late for it to make any difference. He boards the train for his new job in San Francisco. Also on the train is Stephen Morton on the way to his ranch. A great storm breaks out that night. The track-walker rushes to Lone Bridge Station with news that the bridge has been struck by lightning and destroyed. He tells them to telegraph Victorville to stop the train, but the train — Jim and Morton’s train — has already left. Kitty pleads with him to go out, cross the canyon, and warn the train, but he refuses — it would be certain death in this storm, he says. Kitty takes it on herself to do so.
Braving all the dangers, Kitty at last makes it across the canyon and flags down the train in time before collapsing from exhaustion. She’s carried on board. When she wakes, Jim is the first man she sees. She asks forgiveness, but Jim insists there’s nothing to forgive — the fault was his for ignoring her. Morton, realizing that he has his answer, feigns ignorance and Jim never knows what might have happened if Kitty hadn’t missed her connection.
Really, aside the opening sequence with the death of Kitty’s baby and Jim’s failed promise of promotion, the abridgment conveys the entire story at a fifth of the length of the original. Even the adultery subplot, which it never directly mentions, is pretty heavily implied, despite the addition of the “I know a director in California” business. The most curious change is shifting the Lone Bridge illness from the husband to the sister-in-law, although that does provide an easier and quicker excuse for why he disappears from the film.
There are a number of contemporary reviews, all favorable. Several report that the working title of the film was The Prodigal Wife and that it better suited the story than Station Content, but curiously, the review in Variety says it went the other way: that the working title was Station Content, but it was released as The Prodigal Wife. I would say the majority opinion is probably right, but the Variety review is very detailed in its plot summary, and at least for the footage that survives, it’s more accurate than any of the others. It’s obvious that the reviewer actually saw the film, which may seem like an odd thing to say, but many reviewers didn’t — they just went off the publicity information provided by the studios. So who knows?
Another big question is Diana Carrillo. Carrillo played a Native American woman. It’s a big enough role to make the cast list (the couple Kitty meets at the other station seem like major characters and they don’t make it), but not a single review mentions her and I don’t have any idea where she fits into the story. She’s briefly visible at the start of the abridgment, sitting in front of the station weaving a basket. She’s also featured on one of the film’s lobby cards doing the same.
Although it wasn’t my plan, five of the last six films I watched were about Mounties.
In The Heart of Doreon, Tom Santschi plays against his usual cowboy type as the titular French-Canadian trapper whose “heart is full of sunshine and laughter and love for Babette.” Babette (Ruth Stonehouse), however, favors bad-boy Blake (Guy Edward Hearn in an equally atypical role). Blake seems to have gotten into a bit of trouble and skips town. You might think Doreon would be pleased, but no — Babette’s distress is his distress and so he vows to find Blake for her.
Corporal King, of the Canadian Mounted Police (Jay Morley?), is after Blake as well. Babette’s beau is in quite a bit of trouble indeed — he’s wanted for bank robbery. Babette realizes she really does love Doreon and denounces Blake.
Doreon, with his keen trapper instincts, has meanwhile tracked down the fugitive. He tries to approach him but Blake sucker-punches him — “Take that, you frog!” — and reaches for his gun. Doreon draws quicker and shoots Blake right in the forehead at point-blank range (but don’t worry; he’s fine).
King arrives and takes custody of Blake (he was shot in the face, but seriously, he’s fine). Doreon learns of Babette’s reversal and rushes home. “Ma Cherie! Is it true you like this old fellow, Doreon?” They embrace as Doreon gives thanks that all has worked out in the end.
There aren’t many contemporary reviews of this short, but one I found was generally favorable while saying “Ruth Stonehouse is inclined to overact as the French girl”. Really? You say that about Stonehouse in a Tom Santschi vehicle? Doreon is a really likeable character and I enjoyed Santschi’s portrayal of him, but he is anything but subtle. I wouldn’t say anything of the rest of the cast is terribly remarkable, one way or the other. Certainly not the guy who walked off a bullet through his skull.
Ruth Stonehouse’s appearance is why I acquired the film in the first place. Alice Guy and Lois Weber have at last gained some recognition in recent years, but many women who worked behind-the-camera — directors, producers, screenwriters — remain obscure. Ruth Stonehouse, who was all of those, seems to be entirely forgotten. The survival rate of her work is actually pretty good, but not much of it is accessible.
She only acts in The Heart of Doreon, unfortunately. I thought she might have written it, but it turns out that it’s an adaption of Robert Walker’s Hard to Catch. Never heard of that book, never heard of that author, and five minutes on Google provided no elucidation, but that’s what the film’s release notice says. It’s possible she adapted the screenplay, of course, but there’s no evidence of that.
(And it’s “Doreon”, not “Dorean”, IMDb.)
My rating: I like it.
The next video release was going to be an HD remaster of Station Content (1918), but I’m not happy with part of the transfer and I’m going to scan it again. The original video was easier because I only had one print to draw from then. I’ve got multiple copies now, and as is often the case with old film, each one is a bit different. Now and then you’ll find entirely alternate scenes, but that’s not the case here — it’s the same sequence of shots, but the cuts are in slightly different places. Mostly it’s just a matter of a few frames more or less, but on the extreme side, one scene from one print is twelve seconds longer than the others. Editing them together requires getting the disparate quality images looking as similar as possible. The prints are all 80+ years old and some are pretty badly curled, which introduces fluttering in the transfer. Some flutter can’t be escaped, but the flutter in my first transfer was just unacceptable. I’ve been trying a new chemical treatment — a bath primarily composed of chloroform — and it worked wonders for Smashing Barriers, which was terribly curled when I got it. Hopefully it will work on Station Content as well.
Instead, the next video will be a new title. It’s a comedy I’ve written about here before. The score calls for Scottish and Oriental characteristics — there’s your hint.
Available from Harpodeon
Though a superstar in the 1910s, little of Theda Bara’s work survives today. What does survive is divided between her very early work and her very late work, after she had essentially become a self-parody, like so many iconic actors then and now. The celebrated films that she made in her prime are all gone. East Lynne (1916) is probably the nearest that we, as modern viewers, can get to Theda Bara at the peak of her career.
East Lynne is the only Theda Bara film known to survive that I don’t have a film print of, but I did pick up a video of it some little while ago from eBay or iOffer to some such place. It looks to be a bootleg of a MoMA screener. The transfer probably wasn’t all that good to begin with and my copy is several VHS generations removed from it, so you can imagine that the picture isn’t the greatest. The medium and close shots are okay, but the wides that comprise most of the film are so blurry that telling one character from another is a challenge. I watched it once or twice years ago, but I confess that, between the poor image and the byzantine plot, I couldn’t make heads or tails of what was going on.
The film is based on the Ellen Wood novel of the same name. I read it not too long ago. It’s trashy, make no mistake about it, but it was popular trash — it was one of the most widely read books of the Victorian era. Everyone read East Lynne, whether they’d admit to it or not. With the plot fresh in mind, I figured I could better tackle the film.
Speaking of the plot, I’m not going beyond a very rough summary here. There’s just too much of it to go into detail. Read my book summary if you’re interested; it goes into more depth. In brief, Lady Isabel marries Archibald Carlyle but comes to believe he’s unfaithful to her. She leaves him and is thought to have been killed in a train accident, but secretly Isabel assumed a new identity and is hired by Carlyle to be the governess of her own children.
Even knowing the plot — and it’s pretty clear that you’re expected to —the film is incredibly hard to follow. The major issue is pacing. East Lynne isn’t a long movie — five reels, something over an hour — but how it uses its runtime is just insane. It languidly ambles along then switches into high gear and powers through 500 pages of plot in ten minutes.
Levison, the man who instigates both the infidelity plot and the murder plot and whose capture is what resolves the entire story isn’t introduced until the third reel and really isn’t characterized at all, ever. The train wreck that Isabel is believed to have died in is literally the last scene of the fourth reel and it comes so abruptly that I laughed out loud. I don’t think Madame Vine, the governess alter ego Isabel assumes, even has five minutes of screentime — and that’s probably 75% of the book. It’s impossible to read what sort relationship exists between any of the characters. Barbara is just a cypher and Carlyle’s marriage to her comes out of nowhere. Her dislike of the children I assume is just meant to be taken for granted. Corny and Joyce seem to be rolled together, but it doesn’t matter since they don’t do anything. Afy has one line and then drops off the face of the earth. Levison’s undoing is pared down from what it is in the novel, which in itself could be fine, but again, the way the film handles it is just so abrupt and inexplicable that it plays like a farce. And speaking of farces…
It’s just as ridiculous as that.
If this is Theda Bara at her best, then we can only hope that no prints of Cleopatra or Salome ever turn up — I’m sure the disappointment would crush us all.
My rating: I don’t like it.
Can it be? Is it really finished? It doesn’t seem possible. The new reconstruction of The Juggernaut is done.
This review will probably be shorter than you might have thought. I’ve already said pretty much all there is to say about the history of the film in my Juggernauting series, and I don’t have much to add about the adventure it was reconstructing it either. I’m very happy with how it turned out, as I said before. I find The Juggernaut to be a fascinating film — I’ve said that before, too — but I don’t think I’ve ever commented on whether or not it’s a good film.
Let’s put it in a more modern context: it reminds me of Titanic (1997). I went to see Titanic when it came out. Somewhere at around hour 35 of the screening, the person I was there with leaned over and asked me when the boat was going to sink. I think a lot of people were leaning over to their neighbor and asking when the train was going to wreck when they went to see The Juggernaut in 1915. Like the iceberg, audiences knew the wreck was coming. It was all over the advertisements — it’s what the film was sold on, it’s what they were there to see.
It takes a long time to get to the train wreck.
The first reel starts off strong. After a brief introduction to our characters — Mr. and Mrs. Ballard, farmers; their son John (Earle Williams), who dreams of becoming a lawyer; rich railroad magnate James Hardin (Frank Currier) and his ne’er-do-well son Philip (William R. Dunn) — we get right into some action. On their way to market, the elder Ballards are struck at a railroad crossing and killed. John sells the farm and enrolls in law school, where he meets Philip and becomes his friend, despite blaming his father for his parents’ death. Philip is given to dissipation, and rather than meet John for a study session as planned, he joins a poker game with a gang of sharpers. A fight breaks out when he discovers he’s being cheated. He would be killed by one of them if not for the timely arrival of John, who smashes a chair on the hooligan’s head. End of reel one.
As for reel two… and three… and four… well, we’ll say it doesn’t keep up the momentum. A less charitable viewer might use the word “padding” to describe everything that happens after the fight and before the wreck.
John apparently killed the menacing gambler. Philip swears he’ll never reveal the secret. John and Viola Ruskin (Anita Stewart) meet on graduation day and fall in love, but Viola’s mother (Julia Swayne Gordon) has the Hardin fortune in mind and forces her to marry Philip. Viola dies giving birth to Louise, John and Philip drift apart.
Twenty years later, John is the District Attorney and brings a suit against Philip’s railroad, which has only gotten worse since he’s inherited it. Philip would blackmail John into dropping the case by threatening to reveal the murder, but Louise (also played by Anita Stewart) spoils it all by giving evidence to John that proves it wasn’t him — the sharper got into another fight later that same day and was killed then. The trial proceeds, Philip phones Louise to bring him some documents from his home safe, her car breaks down and she’s force to take… dun-dun-dun… the train.
We’re in the fifth reel now and have come to what everyone is waiting for. The train is speeding toward a bridge Philip knows is unsafe to cross, but he doesn’t discover until too late that his daughter is on board. He races out of the office and tries to head-off the train and warn them of the danger ahead, but he’s not fast enough. The bridge collapses and the train goes tumbling into the water.
Then the film forks in a couple directions. John has rushed to the scene as well. At the film’s premiere screening, he swims out to the wreckage and pulls out Louise, but the Juggernaut has claimed its victim — Louise is dead. Others got one of two alternate endings that vary in detail, but both end with Louise recovering and John professing his love to her.
The Juggernaut was a popular film — it played for 750 days and made an obscene amount of money. It’s interesting to see, as time goes on, how the ads for it change. Earle Williams is the star in 1915. In 1917, Anita Stewart and Earle Williams are both top billed. In 1920, Anita Stewart is the star.
I must say, Anita Stewart gives the only decent performance. Earle Williams’s idea of emoting is to just spike the camera. The intensity of his emotion can be gauged by how long he holds eye contact with you — romantic, pathetic, tensive, it doesn’t matter, spike the camera. Now Julia Swayne Gordon, she is acting. My word, does she chew the scenery. The thing is, I’ve seen Gordon in other films and she’s nowhere near as hammy as she is here, even in her very early work. I’m sure she was directed to act like that. I’m sure even in the final take just as she’s about to devour the set whole, Ralph Ince is just off-camera yelling “BIGGER!” I will give credit where it’s due, the man knew how to block a scene. The scene where John overhears Viola and her mother arguing about Philip in particular, I though that was expertly arranged. He just couldn’t direct actors for beans.
We’ve come down to the rating. The Juggernaut is a fascinating film, and it does deliver the promised full-scale train wreck, and it is thrilling for two or three scenes, but is it a good film? No, not at all. Not one bit. But would I recommend it? The narrative is weak and the acting is horrid, but it’s less a movie than it is a spectacle. Go in with that mindset, don’t trouble yourself with paying too close attention to the middle bits, and you’ll love it as I love it.
My rating: I like it.
I think I’m going to take a few days off, but I’ll give you a hint as to what the next video will be. I needed part of Wanted:- A Nurse (1915) for The Juggernaut and it didn’t make any sense not to go ahead and scan all of it. So that’s waiting on the hard drive for whenever I care to get around to it, but that won’t be the next video out. We released an HD remaster of The Victoria Cross (1912) not too long ago. Coming up next will be another before-he-was-famous Wallace Reid film. One more hint, just as in The Victoria Cross, he also plays a lieutenant in this one.
Available from Harpodeon
After at least reluctantly approving of the last couple of Larry Semon films I wrote about and worrying that I might be brain damaged for doing so, it feels good to be back to a Larry Semon film that’s unequivocally garbage.
Pietro Aramondo is out driving with his girlfriend Florence Curtis when his car breaks down. Larry Semon is… I don’t know who Larry Semon is, but he’s in the road and is hit by another motorist and thrown up into the air. He lands next to Florence and drives off with her, running over Pietro several times in the process. Pietro alerts the Big V Riot Squad who are an absolutely original creation and are in no way a knock-off of the Keystone Cops. And they are totally indoors and there is no shadow of a tree blowing in the wind on the back wall. Three squad cars are sent out in pursuit, which is a great way to pad out the runtime since now the film can repeat every gag three times. I suppose there’s more, but it doesn’t matter — I’m done. There’s no plot, there are no characters, the gags were terrible the first time around and don’t improve with repetition. Literally the only interesting thing about this short is how flagrantly it pilfers from Keystone.
There’s obviously four or five minutes of material missing. It begins in media res and doesn’t end so much as it just stops. The footage is missing in the pre-print, though. There’s only one physical splice in the print and it’s just to mend a film break — no more than a frame or two is missing around it. The splices joining the title and end cards are on the negative. I also suspect this is from a reissue with new titles added. They make a Flying Finn joke and I somehow don’t think Paavo Nurmi would have been a household name in America before his 1920 Olympics win.
I misspoke before, this isn’t a Kodascope, but it is a very similar amber-tinted show-at-home released in 1924. Sharp focus, dense image, obviously a print-down struck directly from the camera negative — it looks great. It’s a shame the film is so awful, but it does look beautiful.
My rating: I don’t like it.
Available from Harpodeon
Original posters for silent films are rare. The films themselves were seen as disposable once they’d finished their run, the ephemera connected to them were valued even less. Most that still exist survive by accident. Rarer still are the posters that hung in the offices of distributors that advertised posters to exhibitors. I’ve got one of those for the 1919 serial Smashing Barriers. It shows all the styles of posters available and explains which will catch attention at a distance and which are better for up-close inspection. The latter one is great because it’s just a collage of every cliff-hanging moment from all fifteen episodes. I look at it quite often — it hangs in my bedroom — and I always seem to spot something new in it. All I had were those pictures, because the serial itself was believed to be lost.
Several years ago, probably 2003 or 2004, I had the opportunity to buy a reel of Smashing Barriers. Which of the thirty reels it was, I don’t know. It was in very bad shape. The inner part of the reel was at stage five (terminal) decomposition, much of the remainder was at stage four. Perhaps only the first dozen feet was salvageable at all — not even a minute’s worth of footage. I passed on it and I’ve kicked myself for passing on it ever since. Even if was only a few seconds, I wanted to see those few seconds.
In 1923, Vitagraph re-worked the footage into a single feature-length film, abridging it down from something like 30,000 feet to 5,600 feet. This, too, is presumed to be lost aside from perhaps a fragment. It was even further abridged, down to just a single reel, in 1932. That version I can now say is not lost because it arrived on my doorstep this morning and I just confirmed that the faded handwriting on the label is correct — it is Smashing Barriers.
From contemporary reviews, I already knew that the only reason anyone watched Smashing Barriers was for the action — the plot was, by all accounts, mind-numbingly incoherent. I imagine it was similar to A Woman in Grey (1920) in that you sat through half an hour of boring nonsense because the last few moments made up for it in excitement. This abridgment of Smashing Barriers is composed of nothing but those last few moments, one after the other, and it is glorious. It’s like the poster on my bedroom wall come to life.
The story, such as it is, is dispensed with quickly: Helen Cole (Edith Johnson) owns a logging operation in the Rocky Mountains. A band of outlaws kidnaps her for ransom. Dan Stevens (William Duncan) must rescue her. It’s a lot like The Timber Queen (1922).
There aren’t many other characters identified. The chief bandit, “Wirenail” Hedges, is Joe Ryan. The man who lassos Helen looks a great deal like Guillermo Calles, who I know did work with Duncan on several films.
Helen has a sort of MacGyver-ish ingenuity for getting out of danger and Dan is a brave lunkhead kind of guy. There are fights and shoot-outs and lassoings, horse chases, boat chases, wagons going off cliffs, diving from a fifty foot dam into the water, burning cabins and collapsing barns, Dan slides on a zipline down a mountain clutching Helen between his legs… it’s non-stop action from beginning to end. It’s everything I could have hoped for and more. I love it.
I’m still working on Tough Luck and Tin Lizzies and there’s another film in the scanner right now (a remaster of an old title), but Smashing Barriers is definitely coming to video soon.
My rating: I like it.
Available from Harpodeon