Monthly Archives: December 2012

The Explosive (Gaumont?, 1913?)

Frames from The ExplosiveThe Explosive (Gaumont?, 1913?)

This is a recent addition to my nitrate collection and I honestly know very little about it. I have no idea at all who the actors are or who directed the film. I can find no mention of The Explosive in any film list. It’s printed on Gaumont stock and the intertitles bear the Gaumont British logo, but the film ends with a Pathé rooster. The letters shown in the film are both dated May, 1913 and the style of cinematography is very early teens, so it seems reasonable that that’s near the release date. “1913” is also scribbled on the leader, but that might not mean anything.

 

Mary Jennings is a spy or secret agent of some sort in England working for a foreign power. She has a long-lost brother, Fred, and she’s just learned that, for as long as her brother lives, she’s entitled to an annuity of £10,000. Meanwhile, William Garratt, a retired officer in the British army, has completed his work on a new type of bomb and is trying to pitch it to the government. Jennings is tasked with getting the plans for this bomb.

Jennings learns from her underlings that the government has arranged for a demonstration of the bomb to be held at an out-of-the-way location at midnight. She orders one of her accomplices to follow Garratt, intercept his satchel, and rendezvous with her someplace out in the country.

The accomplice (who doesn’t have a name) trails Garratt as he enters a private compartment on an express train. He climbs atop the moving train and drops chloroform down the ventilation shaft of Garratt’s compartment, knocking him out. The accomplice then grabs the satchel, jumps off the train, and runs off into the darkness.

What Jennings didn’t know, although the audience does, is that along with the plans, Garratt put the bomb itself in the satchel as well. What she may or may not have known, but again, the audience definitely does, is that the bomb is a time bomb set to go off at midnight exactly. On the way to the rendezvous – indeed, when Jennings is almost within sight – the satchel and the accomplice carrying it explode in a spectacular manner.

Mary Jennings rushes to the body and discovers dog tags around his neck that reveal the accomplice’s name. He was – quelle surprise! – Fred Jennings.

 

Who? Oh right, the long-lost brother. I suppose it’s a decent twist. I didn’t see it coming, but only because I had forgotten about the whole annuity subplot by that point. The only time it’s mentioned is in a single letter that we see within the first minute of the film. But the bomb heist story that follows it is so well executed and suspenseful that, despite the short run time, the opening scenes had completely faded from my memory.

The bulk of The Explosive, as I said, was great, and it would have made perfect sense had Mary herself blown up or had Fred been the main character instead, but I’m just not sure what the annuity or estranged siblings had to do with it. Maybe if more had been done with the subplot it might seem like it’s actually part of the story, but as it is, it’s literally two lines of text that are never referenced again until the very end of the film and it just feels shoehorned in.

I wonder if this is an episode of a serial. I could see a secret agent serial with Mary Jennings as the star, and being needed for the next episode would explain why she couldn’t die at the end. Even while watching it, I couldn’t shake the feeling that The Explosive plays very much like an episode of The Perils of Pauline or The Exploits of Elaine, but then again, all the characters are introduced like we’ve never seen them before and there doesn’t seem to be any overarching story.  It’s such a mystery.

Anyway, my rating: I like it.

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The Outlaw (Kalem, 1912)

The Outlaw ScreenshotThe Outlaw (Kalem, 1912)
Starring Carlyle Blackwell, William H. West, and Alice Joyce

Jim (Carlyle Blackwell) discovers a man dying of thirst while he’s out prospecting (William H. West). He brings him back to his cabin and nurses him back to health. Jim finds it odd that, after the stranger recovers his strength, the first thing he wants to do is to shave off his beard. Nevertheless, the two go out prospecting together and the stranger meets Jim’s girlfriend, Jenny (Alice Joyce). She becomes infatuated with the mysterious man.

The sheriff (Paul Hurst) stops by Jim’s cabin to ask if he’s seen the wanted outlaw Black Pete, who’s hiding somewhere in the area. After glancing the stranger leave the cabin, the sheriff is suspicious of him, but Jim asserts that he can’t be Black Pete. In the wanted poster the sheriff brought, Black Pete has a full beard, and Jim’s stranger is clean-shaven.

When the sheriff leaves, Jim goes to join the stranger, but discovers him and Jenny in an embrace. He then checks his pans and realizes that the stranger has been stealing gold from his claim. Jim decides to take revenge. That night, while the stranger sleeps, Jim pulls out a knife. He stands over the bed, but just as he rears back to stab, he sees his murderous reflection in the mirror and drops the knife.

The following day, the stranger is out mining at the base of a hill. The sheriff patrols the top of the ridge and inadvertently starts a landslide that catches the stranger. Jim hears the stranger’s cries and he and Jenny go to rescue him, but they arrive too late. They pull the mortally wounded stranger from the rubble and he dies in Jim’s arms.

The sheriff returns, evidently now convinced that the stranger was Black Pete, and demands that Jim reveal where he is. Jim tells him only that “the stranger has gone”.

I don’t know why the film wasn’t called The Stranger instead of The Outlaw. “The stranger” is the name the mysterious man is consistently called throughout the story and calling him an outlaw in the title kills the suspense. Imagine if The Lodger (1927) were instead called The Victim’s Brother.

Even for 1912, Blackwell’s acting is over-the-top. He doesn’t so much play to the back row as he plays to the next town over. But where I might fault the acting, I have to commend the direction and cinematography. The final scene, in particular, was expertly done. We see Jim, who in the previous scene refused even to look at the stranger, rush to the landslide and begin digging him out with his bare hands. After he’s freed, there’s an axial cut to a medium-close shot of Jim cradling the stranger – affirming a connection between them while simultaneously breaking the action of the previous shot in a way that, to me, suggests breathlessness. Jim calls for Jenny, who moves to the stranger’s head, and as he dies, the stranger reclines into her lap. The Jenny’s eyes meet the stranger’s lovingly, then slowly become more vacant and downcast as they move to Jim’s. It’s extremely well choreographed and coveys all that needs to be said while at the same time never feeling staged – it plays entirely natural.

The Outlaw (1912) is rough in spots and would have benefited greatly had it another reel to spend expanding on the friendship between Jim and the stranger before the latter was uncovered as Black Pete, but the good parts outweigh the bad in my opinion.

My rating: I like it.


Available from Harpodeon

The Captive God (Kay-Bee, 1916)

The Captive God PosterThe Captive God (Kay-Bee, 1916)
Directed by Charles Swickard
Starring William S. Hart

I thought I should dig through the collection for a Mayan-themed film to watch, what with the Mayan apocalypse approaching and all. I only turned up one: The Captive God (1916).

In pre-conquest Mexico, a young Spanish child is the only survivor of a shipwreck and is found washed ashore by the Maya. They call him Chiapa (or Tonga in my print, in some other prints he’s called Chiapato – William S. Hart) and regard him almost as a god.

The Aztecs are at war with the Maya. During a raid, the commander of the Aztec army (P. Dempsey Tabler) captures several Mayas, presumably for sacrifice. Chiapa follows them back to their capital, but is spotted and shot by an Aztec archer.

Meanwhile, the victorious commander, Mexitli (or Matho), has an audience with Montezuma (Robert McKim). Montezuma, greatly pleased with the results of the raid, says that whatever Mexitli wants will be immediately given to him. Mexitli asks for the hand of Montezuma’s daughter, Princess Lolomi (or Tacki – Enid Markey), in marriage.

Lolomi “would rather die than marry that man”, she says, as she storms off into the palace garden. There, she discovers the wounded Chiapa. Lolomi takes pity on him and hides him in an out of the way house. Mexitli follows Ohanita, Lolomi’s maid, as she’s bringing food and discovers Lolomi and Chiapa together. In a jealous rage, he rushes in and would kill Chiapa, but to spare him – at least, temporarily – Lolomi reveals that he’s a captive Maya and, as such, his fate lies solely in the hands of Montezuma.

Chiapa is taken before Montezuma and is, unsurprising, sentenced to be sacrificed. To add insult to injury, he’s to be sacrificed at Lolomi and Mexitli’s wedding. Lolomi bribes the prison guard to see him one last time shortly before his execution. Chiapa takes the cross from around his neck (…that he was evidently found wearing after the shipwreck) and tells her that, if it could somehow be got back to the Maya, they would know the Aztecs held him captive. Lolomi gives it to Cassio, Ohanita’s husband, who rushes away with it.

Now is the point you should stop reading if you don’t want the ending spoiled, but given how difficult it is to obtain copies of this film, I’ll finish the story:

Chiapa is led up the pyramid and stretched across the altar. Just as the priest lifts the dagger in the air, a horde of Maya warriors come streaming over the hillside and generally bust up the ceremony. In the confusion, Chiapa grabs the dagger from the priest and runs down the pyramid and into the palace. He finds Lolomi, cowering from Mexitli, and “the two rivals” duke it out. After a brief but spirited struggle, Chiapa succeeds in flinging Mexitli from the window to his death. He sweeps Lolomi up off her feet and goes to join the Maya invaders, who receive him jubilantly. The film ends with the Maya marching away in triumph “to give praise to their sacred gods, guarded in their granite temples”.

 

Hart didn’t mince words when it came to this picture. He thought it was by far the worst film he’d ever appeared in. And it does show in his performance. Hart was never one to emote – indeed, his whole gimmick was his unchanging, ambiguous expression that at once could be read as tender or as threatening depending on the context of the scene – but it’s evident how much he despises the role and how little effort he’s putting into it. Markey and Tabler give it their all, but while I wouldn’t go as far as Hart, I will agree that there isn’t much depth to any of the characters and even the enthusiastic actors had their work cut out for them.

The costumes are great and even look vaguely authentic. Chiapa has a recognizably jaguar warrior look going for him. Montezuma’s dress is clearly modeled on how he was depicted in the Codex Mendoza. I can’t say much for the rank-and-file, who mostly just wore short shorts and little else, but all in all, I was impressed.

The sets are decent, but suffer from their small scale. The pyramid, for example, exists only as a section of steps and as the altar at the top. You never see a shot of the whole thing at once. All of the palace scenes appear to be filmed in different corners of the same room, and the garden is literally just a wall with a few plants in front of it. Still, by Kay-Bee standards, they’re well-dressed and suit the story.

I’m going to disagree with Hart in my assessment. The Captive God is far from a masterpiece and is a bit frustrating because you get the feeling that, with a little more time spent fleshing out the story, and with a little more money and effort put into the production, it could have been a very good film. But even as it is, I still enjoyed it and would recommend seeing it. It’s something different from Hart’s usual fare.

My rating: I like it.

Trumpet Island (Vitagraph, 1920)

Trumpet Island PosterTrumpet Island (Vitagraph, 1920)
Directed by Tom Terriss
Starring Wallace MacDonald and Marguerite de la Motte

“Strange things are shaken down from the tree of life by winds of destiny” begins the ad copy for this “tangled romance … that acknowledges no formula”. Trumpet Island (1920) is based on the short story On Trumpet Island, by Gouverneur Morris – a name you might recognize from the two great Lon Chaney thrillers sourced from his work: The Penalty (1920) and The Ace of Hearts (1921).

Richard Bedell (Wallace MacDonald) and Eve de Merincourt (Marguerite de la Motte) have fallen in love. Eve’s father, Jacques de Merincourt (Joseph Swickard), is teetering on the brink of ruin after his investments prove to be disastrous. When his globetrotting friend Henry Caron (Arthur Hoyt) returns to town with intensions of settling down, he forces Eve to abandon Richard and marry Henry for his millions. Dejected, Richard buys a remote, uninhabited island where he can live “apart from mankind”. Departing for their honeymoon, Eve and Henry are caught in a freak hurricane and their plane crashes – where else? – on Richard’s island. When Richard finds the wreck, Henry is missing and he presumes dead, and Eve has lost her memory. There’s also a subplot about pirates and/or bandits that doesn’t really go anywhere except to provide some tiny foundation for the deus ex machina ending required after Richard discovers that – surprise! – Henry isn’t dead.

I wanted to like this film – I really did – and there are parts of it I do like. It’s very well shot, with camera work that’s creative and expressive but, at the same time, never draws so much attention to itself that it distracts from the action. The special effects and model work used for the hurricane and plane crash are superb and thoroughly believable. The acting and direction are decent enough, if unspectacular. It’s the story where things fall apart. It’s contrived to the point of ridiculousness, and no matter how much belief you’re willing to suspend, you can’t ever take it seriously.

Now, the version of the film I’m watching is not the full, feature-length one from 1920, but a significantly abridged copy found in Buenos Aires, where it had been given the new title of El Destino Manda, or The Hand of Fate, and re-released in 1929. Perhaps with five and a half more reels to work with, the story wouldn’t play out so comically… but I doubt it. Having read On Trumpet Island, I know that the film has been streamlined, but virtually nothing crucial to the plot is missing. Certainly nothing that would make it more believable. The short version at least moves briskly and doesn’t give you much time to realize how preposterous it is until the very end.

From a technical standpoint, I’m sure you’d like Trumpet Island for the effects and creative cinematography, but if you’re in the mood for the dramatic romance it promises to be, I’d look elsewhere.

My rating: Meh.


Available from Harpodeon

Black Beauty (Vitagraph, 1921)

Black Beauty PosterBlack Beauty (Vitagraph, 1921)
Directed by David Smith
Starring Jean Paige

“Better than the book” the poster proudly boasts, and while I can’t echo that claim – largely because the film has precious little to do with the book beyond borrowing a few situations and character names – I have to say, taken on its own terms, I was surprised at how good Black Beauty (1921) actually is.

Anna Sewell’s “autobiography of a horse” is hiding somewhere in the background, but the thrust of story deals with a corrupt and menacing “adventurer” named Jack Beckett (George Webb) who attempts to frame recently deceased George Gordon (Colin Kenny) with the theft of a large amount of money in an effort to blackmail George’s sister, Jessie Gordon (Jean Paige), into marrying him.

The acting is universally good, but George Webb steals the show with his portrayal of Jack Beckett. On the surface, he’s suave and self-assured, but underneath is a dark and oppressive nature that leaves little doubt that he would stop at nothing to see his scheme through.

Although not as freewheeling as it was in the 1910s, film grammar had still yet to be rigidly codified in 1921 and Black Beauty tells its story in an unusual way. The film takes on the conceit of a stage play – complete with a curtain that opens and closes on each act. In any other film, it could come across as little more than a gimmick, but here, the technique is fully exploited to heighten the drama of the film’s conclusion, when we go from the claustrophobic, stage-like sets where Beckett had imposed himself on Jessie, and break into a sweeping, cinematic chase scene with a highly mobile camera as Beckett’s scheme begins to crumble. And it works – I was on the edge of my seat from the start of the last act to the very end.

As long as you don’t go in expecting to see something that more than slightly resembles the book, I guarantee you will not be disappointed by this film.

My rating: I like it.


Available from Harpodeon