Monthly Archives: November 2012
Crown Prince Alexis (Reginald Denny) desperately needs to recover some letters between himself and the former lover he jilted for the throne before they can be used to blackmail him. Sherlock Holmes (John Barrymore) takes the case when some preliminary investigation suggests his old nemesis Professor Moriarty (Gustav von Seyffertitz) is also after them.
If there’s one thing Sherlock Holmes is known for, it’s for using his power of deduction to solve otherwise unsolvable mysteries. Oddly, outside of one entirely inconsequential scene where Holmes deduces that Dr. Watson (Roland Young) moved his dressing table to the other side of his bedroom, there is no deduction in this film. For that matter, there’s not really a mystery to be solved, either. It’s all very straight-forward, very obvious, and without the slightest hint of suspense.
Barrymore looks the part of Holmes, I’ll give him that, and after having seen his performance in Raffles, the Amateur Cracksman (1917), I’m sure he could act it as well, but this film simply gives him nothing to work with. The story is an adaptation of a popular stage play by William Gillette. I’ve never seen the play – I’m curious to know if its characters are as lifeless and bland as the ones here.
The languid pace, abundance of intertitles, and frankly boring scenario make Sherlock Holmes (1922) a chore to watch. There’s not even the saving grace of good cinematography – large parts of the movie are too dark to even make out.
For many years, Sherlock Holmes was presumed lost, but in the mid 1970s, a cache of jumbled workprints and unedited negatives were found that, if re-assembled, would represent most of the picture. Its director, Albert Parker, was thankfully still alive and helped to edit the raw footage and put the film back together as close to how he remembered it went as possible. It’s certainly a good thing to add one more silent to the survivors list, but I can’t help thinking what a shame it is that it isn’t a better one.
My rating: I don’t like it.
Available from Kino
Heaven Will Protect a Woiking Goil (Vogue, 1916)
Directed by John Francis Dillon
Starring Priscilla Dean and Russ Powell
I cannot begin to describe how much I love this film, and given that I’m not usually much of a fan of short comedies, that must mean something.
Moviegoers of 1916 saw themselves as a quite sophisticated bunch well beyond the old “flickers” that once graced the screen only a few years before. Heaven Will Protect a Woiking Goil is a parody of those early film (and stage) melodramas. It’s hardly original – Goodness Gracious; or, Movies as They Shouldn’t Be (1914) covered much the same ground two years earlier – but whereas Goodness Gracious often veers a little far into the wacky for my taste, Woiking Goil is played mostly straight. Mostly.
The plot is cobbled together from elements and situations lifted from countless potboiler melodramas: Nell, a simple, good-hearted country girl (Priscilla Dean), travels alone to the heartless big city to find her drunken father and bring him back home to her poor, downtrodden mother. Meanwhile, the lecherous manager of a clothing store (Arthur Moon) fires a sales girl (Louise Owen) when she refuses his demand “Kiss me, proud beauty!” Needing a new clerk, he spots Nell and offers her the position… and his attentions. When Nell flees from his embrace, he and a crooked cop (Paddy McQuire) give chase and eventually catch her and her flamboyantly gay boyfriend (Russ Powell) and tie them to the railroad tracks as a train speedily approaches. As luck should have it, the drunken hobo loitering nearby is none other than Nell’s drunken father and he rescues the couple with less than a second to spare.
And that’s only the main plot – I’ve said nothing about the miserly landlord and the suicidal tenant, or the railroad officer and would-be train hopper, or the plight of street beggars. In the span of twelve minutes, this short manages to cram in every single cliché imaginable.
I’m not sure how well the film would play to someone less familiar with the tropes it’s spoofing or with the contemporary memes it constantly alludes to (I was crying from laughter when “And the villains still pursued her.” pops up), but I adore Heaven Will Protect a Woiking Goil and would heartily recommend it to anyone the least bit interested in silent parodies.
My rating: I like it.
Available from Harpodeon
There are films that are poorly written or acted, there are films made by incompetent cinematographers, there are films where it’s obvious the director and producer had very different ideas in mind, and there are films that were hastily re-edited into some kind of Frankenstein’s monster after production, but it’s rare that a film fails on absolutely every level. Writer-director J. Charles Haydon’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920) is just such a film.
If you’ve ever read Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, you know how difficult it would be to do it justice on film. It’s structured very much like a mystery, and with the story being so deeply ingrained in popular culture as it is, the shocking reveal at the end that the murderer and the victim were one and the same would come as a shock to nobody. Most adaptations instead focus on minor or wholly invented characters to provide some other conflict for Dr. Jekyll – usually a love interest – and altogether drop Edward Utterson, the detective-like character that narrates the novella. Haydon’s Jekyll and Hyde takes a strange middle road. The story is still structured like a mystery, except the solution is reveled immediately; and Utterson is retained, except he doesn’t do any investigating.
The story is set in the present day. Dr. Henry Jekyll (Sheldon Lewis) is engaged to Bernice Lanyon (Gladys Field), the daughter Dr. Lanyon (Alexander Shannon). Lanyon is Jekyll’s friend, but thoroughly disapproves of his methods and his atheistic leanings. You see, while Haydon has added a love interest with Bernice, that isn’t what this film is about. The film is about Dr. Jekyll attempting to show that human nature is simultaneously both good and evil, which would prove that there is no god… somehow. I’m not sure I follow the logic, but he seems confident on that point.
Dr. Jekyll inadvertently creates Mr. Hyde, who goes on a crime spree that mostly involves stock-footage arson and petty theft. Bernice, grown tired of Jekyll’s godless ways, dumps him for Danvers Carew (Leslie Austin), who is actually an important character in the novella, but here serves only as a replacement fiancé. Enraged, Jekyll transforms into Hyde like David Banner does to the Hulk. He kills Carew, which proves to be his demise. The police finally track him down, he’s summarily tried, and sentenced to death in the electric chair. Then… the groan-inducing twist at the end. I won’t spoil it – it’s the sort of thing you’ll have to experience for yourself – but suffice to say that Jekyll finds Jesus and everyone lives happily ever after.
Stevenson’s novella was always popular for adaptation, but 1920 was a banner year. Three Jekyll and Hyde films were released: the John Barrymore version, considered by many to be the definitive silent adaptation; F.W. Murnau’s Der Januskopf, now sadly lost; and this monstrosity, which was shot and released a scant month after the Barrymore film. That it was hoping to cash-in on the success of the other productions goes without saying.
Haydon’s vision was apparently much different from what ended up on film. His scenario stuck truer to the novella and didn’t take as many liberties with the characters. Producer Louis Meyer (not to be confused with Louis Mayer, head of MGM, but he often used the similarity to his advantage in the marketing of his films) is to blame for moving the story to the present day and twisting the characters almost beyond recognition. He had an idea – probably not unfounded – that if his company released a straight adaption of Jekyll and Hyde while the Barrymore film was still playing in many theatres, they could expect a lawsuit from Famous Players that his low-budget Pioneer studio had no hope of defending. After seeing the finished product, Haydon reportedly wanted his name taken off the credits. I can’t say I blame him.
Haydon’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a train wreck of a film that fails entirely at what it sets out to be, but at the same time, I have to recommend it for its unintentional comedy. The production is so slapdash and many scenes obviously assembled from outtakes that hardly a minute goes by that there isn’t something to laugh at. I doubt there was a script at all – the actors seem to be taking direction from off-screen throughout the film. Occasionally from on-screen as well: the camera isn’t aimed quite right in one scene and Haydon and his megaphone are just visible at the edge of the frame, telling the actors what to do.
The version of Haydon’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that’s commonly in circulation is truncated (I don’t say edited) to four reels and the abrupt jump makes the story impossible to follow, but the print I watched was much closer to being intact. All five reels are present, with only a minute or two missing from the head or tail of each. I don’t know if it’s an improvement, but at least the whole, ridiculous plot comes across clearly.
My rating: I don’t like it.
Available from Harpodeon