Black Beauty (Vitagraph, 1921)
“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