Monthly Archives: September 2014
Bob (Harry Benham) is a college boy who’s “squandered [his] fortune”. He goes to his guardian (Riley Chamberlin) in search of fresh funds. Mr. Southwick is a businessman of some sort and it’s quite plain that he has little faith in his charge’s financial acumen. All the same, he makes Bob the offer that he’ll give him a position next week with a salary equal to whatever money he can make elsewhere this week.
Southwick’s stenographer, Betty (Mignon Anderson), is sweet on Bob and lets him in on a secret: although Mr. Southwick is the boss of the company, Mrs. Southwick (Ethel Stevens) is the boss of the money. She’s just come in to draw $500 for beauty treatments to recover her “youthful charm”.
Bob poses as Madame Blanche the Beauty Doctor and launches a targeted ad campaign (targeted at Mrs. Southwick, that is) promising to make any woman look younger than her daughter and claiming to be endorsed by all the crowned heads of Europe. When Mrs. Southwick arrives at Madame Blanche’s parlor, another client is ahead of her in line. She watches the ancient looking woman step behind the curtain. Out of view, Betty takes off the wig and old-age makeup. When Mrs. Southwick sees her again, she looks 40 years younger. Once it’s her turn, Mrs. Southwick readily consents to Madame Blanche’s fee.
Next week, Bob returns to the office and tells Mr. Southwick that he’s ready to take the job for $500 a week.
I first saw Madame Blanche, Beauty Doctor (1915) theatrically at a film festival, and although it was over a decade ago, I remember it being a very light 35mm print — light to the point that the image was so blown out that it was barely possible to discern what was going on. The Thanhouser video, though looking like a VHS transfer, is a great improvement quality-wise. This time around, I found the cinematography to be quite impressive for a 1915 short comedy. It effectively mixes medium shots with close-ups and makes good use of shallow focus for the inserts that draw the eye to the intended subject. I particularly liked how the waiting room scene was handled: Mrs. Southwick needs to be present, and the audience needs to see Betty colluding with Bob, but Mrs. Southwick shouldn’t see Betty until after the “treatment” is finished. To fulfill all three requirements without resorting to a stagey-looking aside, the scene is shot with Mrs. Southwick sitting in front of a mirror. She’s looking in a different direction, but from our angle, we see Betty and Bob.
As far as the actors go, I wasn’t feeling Harry Benham in the role of Madame Blanche. Benham can’t pull off being a woman, and further, he can’t pull off being young (if IMDb is to be believed, the guy was only 31, but it’s a hard 31). Mrs. Southwick would have to be blind to fall for the disguise. I also didn’t care for his constant mugging for the camera, especially when compared to the much more subdued performances turned in by the rest of the cast.
On the whole, though, I enjoyed the film and would recommend it.
My rating: I like it.
Available from Thanhouser
The Light in the Dark was a seven reel (about 90 minute) feature released in 1922 starring Hope Hampton. In a supporting role was one Lon Chaney, whose name — unlike Hope Hampton’s — you might actually recognize. In 1927, the film was re-released in an edited form to capitalize on Chaney’s appearance. The Light of Faith, as it was titled, re-worked the original footage to make Chaney into the main character. That could not have been an easy task, considering two thirds of the film had to be cut to accomplish it — The Light of Faith is barely more than half an hour long. Today, the original release of The Light in the Dark is lost, but The Light of Faith version still survives.
Tony Pantelli (Lon Chaney) is a boarder at a rooming house. He’s a crook… I guess? The film isn’t terribly clear on that point. At any rate, he’s there when a new boarder arrives — a pretty girl named Bessie (Hope Hampton). She spends her last dollar on the room and the next day sets out in search of work. After some time passes, Tony finds Bessie collapsed on the stairs. The doctor is called and she’s diagnosed with “break-down”. In her delirium, she calls for someone named Warburton.
Meanwhile, J. Warburton Ashe (E.K. Lincoln) is trying to “forget that he is an unhappy man”, and that means hunting in rural England. His dog leads him into a ruined abbey where he digs up an ancient chalice. Back at the pub, some guy suggests it’s the Holy Grail (spoilers: it is).
Tony brings Bessie the newspaper and she reads about Warburton’s discovery. Tony is unfamiliar with the Grail story, so Bessie briefly recounts the tale of Sir Galahad. This is, hands down, the best part of the film. She tells Tony that the Grail has miraculous healing powers and that’s cue enough — Tony goes to Warburton, punches him right in the face, and runs off with the cup.
Bessie is healed by the power of the Grail, but Tony, unfortunately, finds himself arrested for assault and robbery. At the trial, as Bessie gazes at Warburton, “the misunderstanding that caused her to flee melts away like mist in the sun”. The… the what? There was a misunderstanding? Anyway, Bessie apparently forgives Warburton for something and Warburton refuses to identify Tony as the culprit because that follows, I guess. The end.
Much of the confused plot is obviously the result of cutting 60 minutes from the picture. E.K. Lincoln, who was second billed in The Light in the Dark, barely exists in this version. I’m sure “the misunderstanding” at least got a mention in the original, I’m sure that there was some characterization of Bessie and Warburton, and I’m sure that the plot had some kind of logical progression — but that isn’t the case here.
Abridgements can be done well if handled by a skillful editor, but The Light of Faith was not well edited. For example, at the trial, Warburton is being questioned about the crime when the judge asks to examine the Grail in the dark. The bailiff switches off the lights, the Grail begins to glow, the clouds part, and a beam of sunlight streams through the window like a spotlight on the cup… then the questioning proceeds as if nothing happened. What should be the big, emotional climax is rendered absurd.
However, the Sir Galahad sequence still stands out. In the original release, it was hand-colored — which must have made it even more impressive — but even simply tinted, it’s wonderful.
I’m going to recommend this film. Bessie’s telling of the Grail story is legitimately good, and the rest of the film is the funny kind of bad, which can be just as entertaining.
My rating: I like it.
Okay, so I’ve read a press sheet and a few contemporary reviews, and I can fill in some of the details cut from the story in The Light of Faith:
Bessie is a poor girl from Vermont who travels to New York to find work. She gets a job in the cloakroom of a hotel. While walking home from work one day, she’s accidentally run over in the street. The woman driving the car is a wealthy socialite who afterwards takes a fancy to Bessie and decides to make a project of her. The woman lives with her several siblings, one of which being Warburton. Bessie falls in love with him and he leads her on. She later sees him wooing another girl of his own class and, heartbroken, runs away. In her absence, Warburton realizes he did indeed love Bessie, but all his efforts to find her fail and, to escape from unpleasant memories, flees to England. During his sojourn, he finds an old silver chalice in a ruined abbey, which he brings back with him when he returns to New York.
At the boarding house, Bessie’s savings run out and she begins to starve. Tony, a gangster, at first sees Bessie as a mark, but after finding her unconscious in the stairwell (and after rifling through her purse and finding it empty), he takes pity on her, gives her food, and calls for a doctor. He finds Warburton’s calling card and puts two and two together. He goes to find him and offers to betray the location of Bessie if his price is met. Warburton refuses. Tony knocks him out and robs him of the cup, which he pawns.
Warburton recovers the cup from the pawnbroker. That night, the servants see it glowing on the mantle and begin to believe that it’s the Holy Grail. The story finds its way to the papers. Bessie hears about it and recounts the story of the Grail to Tony, who decides to steal it again. He gives it to Bessie, who is convinced of its authenticity and believes to have been healed by it herself. She takes it around the slum, healing the sick.
The police trace the crime to Tony and he’s arrested. At the trial, the pawnbroker explains that the cup glows because he accidentally broke a vial of radium on it. Bessie forgives Warburton, and Warburton forgives Tony for his part in bringing them back together. The cup, meanwhile, has mysteriously vanished from the courtroom.