Monthly Archives: October 2013

The Pit and the Pendulum (Solax, 1913)

The Pit and the Pendulum adThe Pit and the Pendulum (Solax, 1913)
Directed by Alice Guy-Blaché
Starring Darwin Karr and Fraunie Fraunholz

Alice Guy, through her Solax company, mostly produced shorts. In her later years, she did release one feature-length film, The Ocean Waif (1916), but in the Solax heyday, one-reelers were the rule. That makes this 1913 adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Pit and the Pendulum all the more remarkable, because it was three reels long. Stress on the “was”. Most of the film is now lost. What survives is around half of the first reel, which unfortunately ends just before Poe’s story begins.

Unlike Poe’s work – a sort of Kafka-before-Kafka tale in which the unnamed protagonist doesn’t know where he is, doesn’t know why he’s there, doesn’t know what’s going to happen to him, and is only certain that the men who arrested and convicted him are entirely unconcerned with his ever finding out – Guy’s adaptation is quite definite when it comes to what’s going on and why:

Alonzo (Darwin Karr) and Pedro (Fraunie Fraunholz) are both in love with the same woman (Blanche Cornwall). Things come to a head when a knife fight breaks out between them. Alonzo wins and he and the woman marry. Some time passes. Alonzo becomes an herbalist doctor to “treat the poor of Toledo”. “The revengeful Pedro” joins the Spanish Inquisition and begins to plot Alonzo’s downfall. He steals a jewel-encrusted reliquary from the monastery and hides it in Alonzo’s house. When it’s discovered missing, he intimates to the abbot that Alonzo might be a witch (what with all his strange herbs and practices) and that maybe he used sorcery to steal the reliquary. Pedro leads a number of men to Alonzo house, where they discover the missing reliquary and wait to apprehend Alonzo on his return.

The surviving fragment ends just as Alonzo enters the room. A couple production stills from the more exciting parts – Alonzo strapped to a table as the pendulum swings closer, the walls closing in and threatening to force him into the pit – can be seen in period advertisements. The concept of “spoilers” being a very recent one, we can also turn to turn to contemporary reviews to learn how the film ends:

Alonzo and the girl escape from Pedro’s men and a chase ensues. They board a boat and nearly make it out of a Spain, but Pedro waylays them in a boat of his own. They’re taken before the Inquisition and Alonzo is tortured, but only after Pedro threatens to torture the girl will he confess to the theft. After that, Poe’s Pit and the Pendulum is retold fairly faithfully, right up to the point that Alonzo is in danger of falling into the pit.

In her imprisonment, a British soldier learns from the girl what happened to Alonzo. He frees her and sets out in search of her husband. After being misled by the monks several times, he finds the torture chamber and saves Alonzo from the pit. Also, unlike Poe’s story, where whatever the protagonist saw at the bottom was too horrible to record, Alonzo saw a pile of bones with snakes crawling in and out of human skulls.

The film is very careful to distance the Inquisition from the Catholic Church, which requires some mental gymnastics but probably put it in a much more favorable light at the Church-dominated New York board of censorship. It’s unusual that French-born Alice Guy changed the nationality of the rescuers from French to British. I can’t think of anything going on at the time that would have made that change expedient.

When it comes to Poe adaptations, it’s par for the course to greatly elaborate on the story to pad-out the film and make it more visually interesting. It seldom works. What I love about Pit and the Pendulum is how nothing is explained. The protagonist is simply caught up in machinations beyond his grasp or appeal. Who he is is incidental, why he’s there is incidental. Even his rescue is incidental – the French army just happened to invade Toledo that day, Napoleon surely no more knew of the protagonist’s existence than the reader knows his name. Films never seem comfortable letting so much go undefined or letting the plot progress without reason. I’m not sure why. Meaningless torture and death is infinitely more frightening than a jilted lover’s revenge.

My rating: Meh.

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As a Boy Dreams (IMP, 1911)

As a Boy Dreams screenshotAs a Boy Dreams (IMP, 1911)
Directed by Thomas H. Ince
Starring Jack and Mary Pickford

In the early days of cinema, actors were never credited. There were two reasons for that: On the one side, most actors came from a live theatre background, and while many theatre actors would happily accept a paycheck for appearing in a movie, very few would ever admit to doing so. On the other side, studios feared that if audiences knew who acted in their films that a fan base would develop around those actors, which would give them the high ground in contract negotiations. Still, moviegoers had their favorites, even if they didn’t know their names. Vitagraph had “The Vitagraph Girl” (Florence Turner), Biograph had “The Biograph Girl” (Florence Lawrence), and then there was “The Girl with the Curls” (Gladys Smith at the time, better known as Mary Pickford).

The fact that they had fans was not lost on these actresses, and by the beginning of the 1910s, they were more than willing to claim their film performances, regardless of what the theatre community might say. Being credited by name became a point of contention – one that the studios had not the slightness inclination to yield to. Enter Carl Laemmle.

Now, Laemmle started out on the exhibition end of the film industry. He knew very well that people cared little for who produced a film, who wrote it, or often even what it was about; they came to see their favorite actors on screen. In 1909, Laemmle founded the Independent Moving Pictures Company (or IMP – their logo was a cute pitchfork-wielding devil) with the expressed purpose of not only crediting the actors that appeared in their films, but advertising films based on who acted in them. It was a strategy that lured in many popular actors, Mary Pickford included.

As a Boy Dreams (1911) was one of Pickford’s IMP productions.

The Boy (Jack Pickford) is a cabin boy on a ship full of jerks. They alternate between being jerks and looking intently at a map that shows the way to Treasure Island. The Boy, tired of their jerkiness, steals the map and shows it to The Girl (Mary Pickford). The Girl is The Captain’s daughter… I guess? Anyway, the two of them show the map to someone who might be The Captain, which incites a mutiny or something, that results in The Boy and The Girl escaping in a dinghy. The jerks win the mutiny with such violence that they nearly knock over the flimsy backdrop they’re standing in front of.

It turns out they didn’t need the map, since their aimlessly drifting boat took them right to Treasure Island. Unfortunately, they’re captured by pirates in a matter of seconds. It also turns out that the jerks didn’t need the map either, since they’re hot on The Boy and Girl’s heels in a dinghy of their own. Somehow, the jerks beat them to the treasure, but since the pirates are, you know, pirates, they just murder them and steal it.

Teleport to the ship where The Boy rescues The Captain… from the jerks… who the pirates killed… okay, I don’t really know. Back on the island, the pirates have vanished and The Captain and… some other people… claim the treasure. The Boy and The Girl then get married and apparently The Boy’s name was Mr. Howard.

“Gee! But that was a great dream”…

…yeah, everything was a dream. The Boy was asleep and in his mind had acted out the plot of a penny dreadful book that he’d been reading when he was supposed to be chopping wood. His father is not pleased.

If my synopsis made the film sound like a horrible, confused mess, then I do it too much justice. It’s a far cry from the caliber of work Pickford played in at Biograph.

IMP didn’t last long. In 1912, it merged with a number of other, smaller studios to form Universal Pictures. Pickford thankfully returned to Biograph, but by that time, the cat was out of the bag. Laemmle had created the star system that would come to dominate the movie industry, and there was no brighter star than Mary Pickford. Just as the early studios feared, her popularity meant that she could dictate whatever salary she chose and she quickly became the highest paid actress in the world.

I would not recommend As a Boy Dreams. Occasionally there’s some unintentional humor, but it’s mostly bad-bad, not funny-bad.

My rating: I don’t like it.

The Great Outdoors (Hal Roach, 1923)

The Great Outdoors slideThe Great Outdoors (Hal Roach, 1923)
Directed by Fred Guiol
Starring Frank Butler, Laura Roessing, and Sidney D’Albrook

The Spat family – that is, J. Tewksbury Spat (Frank Butler), his wife Mrs. J. Tewksbury Spat (Laura Roessing), and her brother Ambrose (Sidney D’Albrook) – are out camping. None of them being entirely on the ball, they neglected to bring fishing poles. When hunger sets in, they jump in the river and try to catch trout by hand. This… doesn’t go well. All they succeed in doing is getting soaking wet, and that’s when they realize they didn’t bring anything else to wear. They had better work something out before the sun sets and they freeze to death. Tewksbury’s starts a fire and Ambrose rigs up a clothesline to dry off their things. Trouble is, the clothesline runs directly over the fire, which they don’t notice until they’ve burned every last stitch of clothing they have.

As chance would have it, camping nearby is group of outlaws – three of them, in fact: two men and a woman (Katherine Grant, George Rowe, Jules Mendel). Tewks gets an idea: he goes near their camp, just out of sight, and tosses a rock in the river, loudly exclaiming “There goes all our money!” The outlaws strip down to their underwear and jump in after the supposed loot. The Spats then help themselves to their discarded clothes. Unfortunately, they were a bit too slow and the outlaws see them as they’re getting away. Commence the chase.

The chase leads to the railroad tracks, where the Spats have several misadventures with the pursuing outlaws and with a railroad bull who doesn’t take kindly to them hopping on his train. At the end of the line is “the final disaster”: a cop spots the Spats climbing down off a boxcar and, given their dress, takes them for the wanted outlaws. Fade to black as they’re lead away in handcuffs.

 

The Great Outdoors (1923) is the fourth installment of the 24-part Spat Family Comedies series. How many Spat Comedies survive, I don’t know. Including this one, I’ve seen three. All seem to follow the same basic formula, which I can most easily describe by saying Tewks is the Skipper, Mrs. Spat is Mary Ann, and Ambrose is Gilligan.

I enjoyed Great Outdoors up until the train sequence, when the film seemed to lose focus. There were some good scenes there, and some scary-looking stunts, but they just didn’t fit in with the camping theme. I thought the ending was decent, even if I guessed that was the direction it was headed as soon as the switching clothes gimmick was introduced. All in all, I suppose the good outweighs the bad in this short, so it has my recommendation.

My rating: I like it.

The Doll-House Mystery (Reliance, 1915)

The Doll-House Mystery screenshotThe Doll-House Mystery (Reliance, 1915)
Directed by Chester and Sidney Franklin
Starring Charles Gorman, Jack Hull, and Ben Lewis

John Grant (Charles Gorman), a wealthy man, has just brought home a stack of bonds. He has a young daughter, Carmen (Carmen De Rue), who sees him put the bonds away and is instantly enthralled by their “pretty colors”. That night, she tiptoes downstairs and quietly removes them from the desk drawer. She and her friend, Georgie (Georgie Stone), use them to wallpaper their playhouse.

When John discovers the bonds are missing, he calls a detective (Ben Lewis) to investigate. The detective thinks it must be an inside job and so devises a ruse to trap the culprit: John will return home the next day with a new stack of bonds and will put them in the same desk drawer. The detective will sit out in the hall all night, waiting to catch the thief when he makes his move. All goes according to plan, until the detective gets a little too involved smoking his cigar and doesn’t notice Carmen make off with the bait.

Georgie comes over to play the next morning and Carmen gives him a few of the bonds. As he’s leaving, the detective spots him carrying the bonds and follows him home. He discovers that Georgie’s father is Jim Morley (Jack Hull), a convicted thief recently out of jail. Georgie shows his father the bonds and Jim doesn’t know what to do. He can’t return them – he’d be blamed for their theft and nobody would believe his denials.

After Jim goes to work, the detective approaches the house and gets Georgie to let him in. He tells Georgie that his father sent him for the bonds. Georgie at first believes him and hands them over, but after a while begins to think he’s made a mistake and runs to go tell his father what happened. Jim, realizing the police will be coming for him any second, takes Georgie and flees.

Meanwhile, Carmen shows her mother (Marguerite Marsh) the redecorating she and Georgie have been doing to their playhouse and it’s quickly discovered who actually took the bonds. John goes to the station to call off the search, but learns that a manhunt is out for Jim – who’s presumed armed and dangerous. He’ll have to stop the detective and his posse before a tragedy occurs.

I’ve read someone else’s review of this film and they focused on the cultural difference it captures between the society of 1915 and that of today – namely, that it would be taken for granted in 1915 that the poor man would be presumed guilty if he attempted to return the bonds. I don’t see it; I think he would be presumed guilty today, too. The intent of the film is unclear, in my opinion. Had it not been immediately revealed that Carmen took the bonds, it would have placed the audience in the same position as the detective: left to assume the ex-con’s guilt. When Mother discovers the bonds in the playhouse, it would then have had a much greater impact – revealing to the audience their own prejudice. If the picture was going for an anti-profiling message, it’s a huge missed opportunity. As it is, I’m not sure what the moral is.

That sounds highly critical and you might think I disliked the film, but you’d be wrong. I loved the cinematography. When Georgie first shows Jim the bonds, we see him in tight close-up. With each successive scene, the camera pulls further and further back. In the end, when Jim is on the lam and holed-up in a remote shack, the camera must be a quarter mile away, looking down on this tiny, fragile building lost in an empty expanse of barren ground. It really captures the growing hopelessness of the situation.

I would recommend it for that alone, but story is engaging enough, too – even if the underlying idea is difficult to suss out.

My rating: I like it.