Monthly Archives: July 2013
Kitty Manning (Gloria Swanson) is the wife of Jim (Lee Hill), master of the Cybar train station. Cybar is a nothing town nestled deep “amid the desolate southwestern plains” and Kitty, who had been used to big city life before marriage, is suffering from an extreme case of ennui. A theatre agent (Ward Caulfield) overhears her singing one day and, impressed by her vocal talent, offers to find her a job. Kitty is excited at the prospect and eager to talk it over with Jim, but Jim ignores her – his life is focused on his railroad/telegraph duties to the exclusion of everything else. That night, Jim finds a note on the table – Kitty has left him.
She meets with success and becomes a chorus girl in a small revue, but at least one person thinks she should aspire to greater heights. That would be Stephen Morton (Arthur Millett), the president of the Pacific Railroad. He’s friends with the director of a major theatre in San Francisco and wants to establish Kitty there, which, after some hesitation, she agrees to.
Kitty misses a connecting train on the way to San Francisco and is forced to spend some time at Hell’s Station – a place even more isolated than the station she escaped from. It’s also manned by a married couple, but the wife here suffers from none of Kitty’s listlessness and Kitty begins to envy their happiness together.
Meanwhile, Jim is relocated to a new station and leaves for Victorville. A violent storm destroys the Hell’s Canyon bridge, over which Jim’s train is bound. Kitty, ignorant that Jim is on board but knowing that the train is doomed if it isn’t warned in time, takes it upon herself to brave the storm and “certain death” danger of crossing the canyon to stop the train.
Gloria Swanson’s filmography is usually divided into two periods: her early work at Keystone, where she starred opposite Bobby Vernon in a series of one- and two-reel slapstick comedies; and her later work at Famous Players, after she became Cecil B. DeMille’s go-to dramatic leading lady. Almost forgotten is the year she spent at Triangle between those two epochs, even though it’s the pivotal part of Swanson’s career.
The Keystone shorts are inane in general and Swanson’s character in them is essentially undefined. The only identifying trait I can think of is recklessness, and that’s hardly unique in slapstick. She was upstaged by a dog more than once. (Seriously, Teddy the Dog was a bigger name than either Swanson or Vernon at the time.) The high melodrama of her Triangle pictures were a great change of pace and really allowed Swanson to test her mettle as an actress and make a name for herself in the process. Roles like Marcia Grey in Shifting Sands (1918) and Kitty Manning here in Station Content (1918) were what led to her becoming a favorite of DeMille and achieving super-stardom in the 1920s. It’s unfortunate that so little from this transitional period in Swanson’s oeuvre survives.
On that note, most seem to think Station Content is a lost film, too. They’re not entirely wrong – what survives is an abridged copy, not the film DeMille was so impressed by in 1918. We lose out on some of the more salacious subplots, like Stephen Morton being Jim’s boss and Kitty having an affair with him. It’s just sidelong glances and a vague suggestion of things unsaid now. What saddens me is that we don’t get to see more of the action set pieces; I’m very impressed by the camera work in those that do survive. Arthur Hoyt was primarily an actor. If you’ve read my other reviews, you might remember him as Henry Caron from Trumpet Island (1920). He only directed one film before Station Content and quit directing immediately after. I can’t imagine why. There’s something about the simple composition of his shots that’s perfectly effective at conveying the characters’ emotions. Particularly striking is the scene with Kitty standing on the tracks in front of the train as the rain beats down, her arms outstretched as if crucified, with the headlight from the train morphing into a halo over her head. It’s an image of contrition and the hope of redemption.
I’ll admit that I’m a sucker for sentimental melodrama, but I think I’d like Station Content even if I weren’t. I give a strong recommendation for it.
Side note: it’s usually the case that the entire cast and crew of all the films I watch are long dead, but I can’t say that of Station Content. The baby in the Hell’s Station sequence is Fay McKenzie, and at least as of my writing this, she’s still alive at the age of 95.
My rating: I like it.
Available from Harpodeon
To close out the gay-themed silent films review series, I’ve decided to take a look at a film that doesn’t feature any gay characters, but does star a notable gay actor: J. Warren Kerrigan.
Great God Kerrigan, as he was known, was one of the first major movie stars and appeared in well over a hundred short westerns in the first half of the 1910s. He principally worked for the American Film Manufacturing Company – or the Flying “A” – under the direction of Allan Dwan. Very, very few of those early shorts survive. I’ll be looking at one of them: Three Million Dollars (1911).
Joseph Close (George Periolat) receives a letter from the lawyer of his wealthy and recently deceased brother informing him that his daughter Estella (Pauline Bush) stands to inherit $3,000,000 on the condition that she marries before the end of the month, but “the girl refuses to get married because nobody loves her”. Joe isn’t about to let $3,000,000 slip through his fingers over so minor an issue. He offers a thousand dollars apiece to a group of cowboys to abduct his daughter, find and abduct a suitable husband for her, and then bring them before the Justice of the Peace.
The unwitting groom is Arthur White (J. Warren Kerrigan). He’s taken, tied and blindfolded, to the feed lot, where they already have Estella waiting, similarly encumbered. Before the Justice of the Peace arrives, Arthur wiggles free. He unties Estella, the two steal a horse, and they make their escape into the desert.
As they flee from their kidnappers, Arthur and Estella fall in love and decide to go back. They tie themselves up again and wait for the Justice of the Peace, who marries them on the spot. Joe, so pleased with the outcome, kisses both Estella and Arthur – the latter making quite a show of spitting and rubbing his face afterward.
Three Million Dollars is a silly film, but I don’t know if that’s intentional. It was billed as a western romance, but it strikes me as more of a comedy. The romance doesn’t exist – after a frantic escape across the desert, they climb a rock and Arthur says “Let’s go back and get married”. That’s the extent of the romance between the two leads. Apart from that, though, I have to say that I was very impressed by Pauline Bush. She acted extremely well during the abduction and escape. Kerrigan was hamming it up and not taking his role at all seriously, but I can’t say I blame him.
What happened to Kerrigan’s stardom? There were a few factors at play. The studio line was that he lost his audience’s favor by refusing to enlist in the First World War, which was true. It’s also true that he made some rather unfortunate remarks in that regard, to the effect that it was a good thing so many plebes were going over to be cannon fodder that a star like him could stay safe at home. It was said jokingly, but it didn’t make him any friends.
The other and probably more significant reason was Kerrigan’s refusal to marry and his disregard for secrecy. In the early days, it didn’t matter. The industry was small and insular, and when it came to the performers’ personal lives, audiences were only spoon-fed whatever lies the studio thought it best for them to hear. By the end of the 1910s, it had got too big and the stars lived too much in the public’s eye. The studio may not care whether or not an actor was gay, so long as they kept selling tickets, but they had to shield themselves from the moral crusaders crying for censorship and government oversight, and overtly gay actors were a liability. Others, like Alla Nazimova and Charles Bryant, entered “lavender marriages” – where a gay actor and a lesbian actress marry, show themselves off together in public, and give a few interviews about how married they are – but Kerrigan wouldn’t do that. Kerrigan also had a tendency of being a little too catty in interviews. In one famous example, his usual reply to the “Why aren’t you married?” question – “I have my mother to take care of” – wasn’t good enough and the interviewer kept doggedly approaching it from different angles until at last asking point-blank if he even liked girls. Kerrigan replied: “I like them just fine, when they leave me alone.”
Kerrigan never entirely vanished, but his days of being a star were over. He attempted a come-back in the mid-1920s, with films like The Covered Wagon (1923) and Captain Blood (1924), but his career didn’t revive and he retired from the screen. When he died in 1947, he was survived by his boyfriend of nearly forty years, James Vincent, who he met on set when he was just starting out at the Flying “A” in 1910.
How do I rate the Three Million Dollars? As a pure romance, it’s laughable, but taken as a comedy, it’s not bad – far from good, but not bad. That can only mean…
My rating: Meh.
Available from Harpodeon
My look at silent films with gay themes continues with a “farcical fantasy” released in the summer of 1914:
Lillian Travers (Edith Storey) is a New York heiress whose fortune has just been turned over to her. Seeing nothing left to stand in the way, she jumps on the train to Florida to surprise her fiancée and begin arrangements for their wedding. His name is Fred Cassadene (Sidney Drew); he’s the house doctor at the exclusive Hotel Ponce de Leon in St. Augustine. Staying at the hotel is a flirtatious young widow, Stella Lovejoy (Ada Gifford), who delights in feigning illness for the doctor’s attention. When Lilly arrives, unannounced, she’s furious to find Fred and Stella apparently hand-in-hand in the hotel courtyard. Fred explains and Lily is placated… for the moment… but it seems something keeps coming up between Fred and Stella and Lilly’s suspicions heighten.
While all this is playing out, Lilly is staying with her spinster aunt, Constancia Oglethorpe (Grace Stevens). Connie is of old Southern stock and she tells Lilly the story of one of her ancestors, Captain Hauser Oglethorpe. It seems he was shipwrecked off the coast of Africa (the implication is that he was a slaver, although that isn’t explicitly said) and came away with a mystery: a box, now on display in Connie’s parlor, containing an enigmatic note that reads “In the duplicate of this casket, whereabouts unknown, lies a secret for all women who suffer.”
Lilly goes out with Bessie (Jane Morrow), the daughter of Connie’s widower neighbor Major Horton (Charles Kent), to hit up the local antique stores. She finds a box that looks just like her aunt’s, with a tag that claims it was found washed ashore a century ago. Lilly buys it and, from its contents, learns the rest of old Oglethorpe’s history: after the captain was shipwrecked, he was rescued by an African tribe that was curiously all male. The chief of this tribe, Quasi, told him that they recruited their numbers from the women of neighboring tribes. These women they fed a particular seed, which instantly changed them into men. Quasi gave Oglethorpe four of these seeds as a parting gift – Lilly finds the vial containing them in the box.
After the final straw breaks Lilly’s trust in Fred’s fidelity, she swallows one of the seeds. She grasps at her throat as it begins to take hold then, after a moment’s pause, stands up, hurls away the chair, grabs the box and remaining three seeds, dashes Fred’s flowers to the ground, and marches out of the room.
Lilly spurns Fred at the ball and begins courting Bessie. After a while, she gives a seed to her maid and the two return to New York to complete their transformation: Lillian Travers becomes Lawrence Talbot and Jane the Maid becomes Jack the Valet. Lawrence again visits Florida, this time to ask for Bessie’s hand in marriage…
A Florida Enchantment (1914) was adapted from a Broadway play of the same name, which in turn had been adapted from a novel by Archibald Clavering Gunter. The film is more popular now than it was when it premiered – audiences and critics alike panned it for being too absurd. In truth, it was never intended to be a hit in America. Like many of Sidney Drew’s “sophisticated comedies”, Vitagraph was banking on its assured success in France to buoy lackluster domestic returns, but unfortunately the First World War broke out during production and that market was cut-off. Enchantment lost Vitagraph a fair bit of money.
It’s interesting to see the dichotomy of reactions the film shows between same-sex attractions. When Lilly (still outwardly female) openly flirts with Bessie, Connie is a bit scandalized and Fred looks on in confusion, but there is no uproar. No one attempts to stop her, nor is she so much as criticized for her actions. When later in the film Fred swallows a seed and begins to act femininely, and angry mob literally chases him off the end of a pier and into a watery grave. It’s played for laughs in Enchantment, but you’ll see it repeated in serious dramas as well: gay women might get off lightly, but gay men have to die. Paul Körner, Claude Zoret, Franz Sommer – I can’t think of a single lead character who breaks this trend.
I like A Florida Enchantment a great deal. It was actually the movie that got me interesting in releasing my film collection on video and it became my first DVD. I’m presently working on it again and hope to have a new version out for its hundredth anniversary next year (and maybe a theatrical screening or two – we’ll see what the card’s hold). It’s a better transfer and the restoration software I’m using is much improved. There’s still a long way to go, but I’m already proud of it. Here’s a sneak peak of the new video:
My rating: I like it.
Available (old version now, new one sometime next year) from Harpodeon
What with it being a book about adultery, abortion, venereal disease, and homosexuality, Michael Arlen’s controversial 1924 novel The Green Hat was an odd choice for a screen adaptation. A Woman of Affairs (1928) does its best to sanitize the story and it changes some significant details that both lessen its impact and make the mystery rather farfetched (more on that later), but it couldn’t completely bowdlerize it.
I chose this to be the third installment in my series of reviews of gay-themed silents because of the Jeffry character (called Gerald in the novel – everyone’s got a new name in the film). He’s quite a long way from the laughing sissy stock character of The Soilers. He’s a morose, withdrawing young man, given to drink, whose only joy in life seems to be a man named David.
Since childhood, Diana Merrick (Greta Garbo) had been in love with Neville Holderness (John Gilbert). Neville loves Diana as well, but his father, Sir Morton (Hobart Bosworth), thoroughly disapproves of the Merricks and does everything in his power to keep the two apart. Sir Morton secures a job in Egypt for Neville and hopes that, in the two years he’s away, he’ll have moved on from Diana.
Neville isn’t Diana’s only admirer. David Furness (John Mack Brown), star of the rowing team, thrills to be near her, just as Diana’s brother Jeffry (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) thrills to be near him. Jeffry’s reliance on alcohol, always an issue for him, becomes more pronounced when David’s attention is monopolized by his sister.
It seems Diana couldn’t wait and she marries David while Neville is in Egypt. On their honeymoon in Deauville, two men appear at their hotel room door demanding to see David. One holds a pair of handcuffs. On seeing them, David leaps to his death from the window. At the inquest, Dr. Hugh Trevelyan (Lewis Stone), David’s doctor and an old friend of the Merricks, wants to declare it an accident, but Jeffry, drunk and highly agitated, forces Diana to admit that it was suicide. She won’t say why he killed himself, only that he did so “for decency”.
The film continues from there. Sir Morton, interpreting Diana’s words to mean that David killed himself for her decency, suggests that she not return to England. She stays on the Continent, moving from one affair to another with a countless number of men. Neville marries the acceptable Constance (Dorothy Sebastian), although he never loses his love for Diana. Jeffry shuts himself up in his apartment and slowly drinks himself to death.
The book is not ambiguous and makes Gerald’s motivation clear, but in the movie, Jeffry’s love of David is more subtextual. A less observant watcher may see it as simple idolization (David was the star of the rowing team, etc.) and be left to think that Jeffry wildly overreacts to David’s marriage to Diana and subsequent death, but an observant one will see it – it is there. For example, I’ve mentioned Jeffry’s drinking when separated from David, but notice how the exact same scene is repeated later in the film when Neville leaves Diana to return to his lie of a marriage.
The movie’s changes and glossing-over of details do make some segments perplexing to someone unfamiliar with the source. Diana is hospitalized for some sudden and mysterious malady – it goes unsaid that she’s recovering from an abortion; she became pregnant the night she allowed herself to “fall” with Neville. Dr. Trevelyan knows the reason for David’s suicide and keeps it a secret for Diana’s sake. Why? I won’t spoil either the book or movie, but it’s very clear why he knows in the former, but not at all in the latter. Changing David’s reason from being a personal to a public vice also asks the question why it didn’t come up at the inquest – even if Diana kept quiet about the two men who came to their room, surely they were seen by others at the hotel.
Compared to Garbo’s other silents, A Woman of Affairs isn’t that well remembered. The story definitely has its faults, but what can’t be denied is that it’s beautifully shot. Clarence Brown was mostly thought of as a “woman’s film” (a contemporary term roughly analogous to today’s “chick flicks”) director and I don’t think he gets the credit he deserves as a filmmaker. I especially love his long tracking shots, which he makes frequent use of here.
As I said, it isn’t a flawless work nor would I call it Garbo’s best, but with some reservation, I’d recommend A Woman of Affairs. I would suggest reading The Green Hat first, though.
My rating: I like it.
I continue my look at silent films with gay themes:
The sissy is a stock character, common in silents, although he neither began nor ended there. Very rarely he gets to be the star, but usually the sissy is in a supporting comic relief role. He’s flamboyant, has stereotypically gay mannerisms, dress, and speech, and is assuredly meant to be read as gay, but how his sexuality is addressed varies from film to film. Most of the time, it simply isn’t mentioned at all. Sometimes he’ll be given a nominal female love interest – sometimes in addition to a less overt male one, letting those in the audience choose to see what they want to see. What’s uncommon is a film where the sissy is explicitly and undeniably gay, but The Soilers (1923) is just such a film.
In the early 1920s, Stan Laurel acted in a series of spoofs of popular films (Mud and Sand, When Knights Were Cold, Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pryde, etc.), most shot and released only months after the originals hit the screen. The Soilers is a spoof of The Spoilers, first a novel by Rex Beach, twice adapted for the silent screen in 1914 and 1923.
In The Spoilers, Roy Glenister stakes a claim during the Alaskan gold rush that proves to be immensely valuable. The government and law enforcement are both corrupt and under the control of Alexander McNamara, who abuses the courts to steal Glenister’s claim. I can’t say for sure about the book, because I’ve never read it, or about the ’23 film, because I’ve never seen it, but in the ’14 version at least, the story culminates with a knock-down-drag-out fight between Glenister and McNamara that lasts so long and gets so violent that it’s ludicrous. The Soilers broadly covers the same ground: Bob Canister (Stan Laurel) strikes it rich, Smacknamara (James Finlayson) jumps his claim, and it ends with an even more cartoonishly violent, prolonged flight.
But the topic of this review is gay characters. In The Spoilers, a woman named Cherry Malotte is in unrequited love with Glenister. In The Soilers, the Malotte equivalent is a sissy. He doesn’t have a name, so I’ll give him what in the 1920s was considered a stereotypically gay name, Clarence.
We first see Clarence shortly after the fight breaks out. Canister and Smacknamara are brawling across the table when Clarence walks in from the back room. He shows not the slightest care for the fight, but walks up to the table, moves Canister’s head aside, and carefully selects one of the papers. He then turns and strolls out, much to the amazement of the fighters, who’ve paused to watch him leave. They’re interrupted several more times in a similar manner. Eventually, the fight makes its way to the back room, where we see Clarence calmly filing his nails as Canister and Smacknamara try to kill each other.
The fight drags on and winds up downstairs in the saloon. Canister, at last, is victorious, but no one seems to care much – not his mining partners and certainly not Helen (Ena Gregory), whom Canister had been in love with. One person is impressed, however. From the window, Clarence clasps his hands at his heart and cries “My hero!” Canister shrugs him off. Clarence picks up the potted flower from the windowsill, gives it a smell, and then drops the pot on Canister’s head. Canister goes down and the street cleaners toss him in the back of the garbage truck.
The Soilers was originally a two-reeler, but that version isn’t in circulation today. I’m not sure if it even survives. I’ve seen the commonly available one-reel cut-down several times and have multiple copies of it in my collection. It’s focused on the fight – the lead-up is trimmed almost to nothing. A while ago, I obtained a copy of the international release, which is also a one-reel cut-down, but it’s a different cut – one that preserves considerably more of the pre-fight sequences. I never really liked The Soilers before, but the additional footage greatly improves the film. Who knew that it actually had a plot after all?
The fight is overly long, and while I’m sure that’s on purpose and part of the parody, it’s still the weakest part of the short. There’s one cut scene that I found funnier: Canister visits the town of Ping-Pong for the first time, which we’re told “is a peaceful place… you might be indiscriminately massacred in the streets, but in perfect tranquility”. There’s a shoot-out going on between everyone and everyone else, with Canister strolling down the center of it all, casually stepping over bodies. It’s very simple, but it’s a good spoof of the original film and the humor flows naturally from it. The fight sequence just tries too hard, in my opinion.
My rating: Meh.
Available from Harpodeon
I think I might do a series of reviews of silent films with gay themes, focusing on those not covered as much as the big three that everyone talks about – Different From the Others (1919), Michael (1924), and Sex in Chains (1928). This obscure Tom Mix short seems like a good starting place.
A lot of cowboy movies are homoerotic, but for what’s ostensibly a story about two men trying to woo the same woman, Roping a Bride (1915) is one of the gayest films I’ve ever seen.
The film opens with Tom (Tom Mix) and Dick (Sid Jordan) sitting together on the grass. Tom helps himself to a cigarette from Dick’s pocket, Dick remarks how over the years they’ve “naturally got to like everything jest about the same”, and they both have a good laugh at nothing in particular.
Next, we meet Vera (Goldie Colwell), the only eligible woman in Snake Hollow (population: twelve). She’s looking for a husband and the obvious choice is either Tom or Dick, but she simply can’t decide between the two. Possibly because they’re inseparable. The pair arrive for a date of sorts with Vera on her front porch and they stay all night and into the next morning, but it’s mostly just the two of them – Vera greets them both and they talk a little, but then she goes inside for an indeterminate amount of time (returning “much later”, the title says). When Vera says she has to get breakfast going (I read it as a more polite “get the hell off my porch”), the two ride off together, side-by-side, Dick’s white horse in step with Tom’s black horse.
With Vera still undecided, an arbiter is appointed to choose a husband for her: Bill Bush (or maybe his name is Sile Burton – the intertitle introducing him and the signature on his letter disagree – played by Roy Watson). His first suggestion is a duel between Tom and Dick, but they immediately reject that option. He’s all out of ideas until, sometime later, he stumbles upon Tom and Dick both tossing a lasso around pole and laughing at nothing in particular. He writes a letter to Vera outlining his plan: she’s to stand on the road, and 400 yards away, Tom and Dick will wait on horseback. When she hears a gunshot, she’s to start running while the two men race toward her as each tries to catch her with his lasso.
Tom and Dick begin practicing – together, of course. Vera watches them from a distance as they lasso a donkey and a calf, kiss them on the snout, and deliver lines like “You’re the cream of my wheat, the sugar of my rhubarb, and the light of my lantern! Let’s you an’ me get hitched!” She finds it quite amusing.
The day of the competition arrives and all goes according to plan. Tom beats Dick to Vera and tosses his rope around her. He dismounts and kneels before her, but unlike the practice donkey, Vera slaps him on the face and screams “I wouldn’t marry either one of you, unless I were a calf – or a donkey! I’m going to marry a human being!”
Tom and Dick sit by the side of a barn, looking sternly away, but slowly they turn to face each other and a smile creeps across their faces. Tom grabs Dick’s hand and says “I’m powerful glad WE didn’t marry her” (his emphasis). Dick lights Tom’s cigarette and the two laugh as the scene fades out.
I’m never entirely sure if I’m reading too much into a film and finding subtext where there is none, but I showed Roping a Bride to my mother without any context and the first thing she asked after it ended was if that was the silent Brokeback Mountain, so at least I’m not the only one to get that impression.
When I think of Selig, I think of intriguing if crudely made films, but Roping a Bride is very well put together. It’s well written, well paced, and there are no major gaps in the narrative. It’s nicely shot, and although it could have used some close-ups, good use is made of medium-close shots. Most of all, the actors really breathe life into their characters – with minor gestures from Tom and Dick suggesting much that isn’t explicitly said. I would heartily recommend it.
My rating: I like it.
Available from Harpodeon