Monthly Archives: October 2014

The Egyptian Mummy (Vitagraph, 1914)

The Egyptian Mummy screenshotThe Egyptian Mummy (Vitagraph, 1914)
Directed by Lee Beggs
Starring Lee Beggs, Billy Quirk, and Constance Talmadge

Dick (Billy Quirk) is in love with Florence (Constance Talmadge), but her father, Professor Hicks (Lee Beggs), won’t see his daughter married to some penniless schlub. Besides, he’s too intent on his current scientific project: resurrecting the dead.

Dick doesn’t respond well. He takes the pipe — literally. He goes to his bedroom, sticks one end of a tube into the gaslight, the other end in his mouth, and he lays down to sleep, expecting never to wake up. He does wake up, though; the gas meter is coin operated and he was only paid up for a quarter’s worth.

Meanwhile, the Professor has made a breakthrough. In one of his books, he finds a formula for a drug that promises to restore life even to an ancient Egyptian mummy. Naturally, that’s just the test subject he needs. The Professor places an ad: $5,000 for whoever brings him a mummy. When Dick reads the paper, he knows exactly what to do — and it’s so simple, too: find a filthy old bum (Joel Day), bribe him with liquor to lie still, and present him to the Professor.

Dick immediately takes his newfound $5,000 to the stockbroker. The Professor begins preparing the drug. The “mummy”, starting to dry out, is getting antsy. No sooner does the Professor administer the drug than the mummy jumps to his feet and starts ransacking the office in search of booze. Terrified, the Professor flees.

Dick’s investments pay out — $5,000 has turned to $50,000 — and he returns to see the Professor as a man more suitable to marry his daughter. The Professor is busy throwing his books and experiments out the window, but takes a moment to toss Dick and Florence together with implicit approval of the match.

This was a delightful little comedy perfectly suited to Quirk’s style of acting. Beggs was no slouch, either. Vitagraph had recently acquired both from Solax, where they had worked together on great, similarly themed films like Canned Harmony (1912). At Solax, Quirk was usually paired with Blanche Cornwall, but at Vitagraph, his love interest was wet-behind-the-ears Constance Talmadge. She was still an unknown at the time — don’t quote me on it, but The Egyptian Mummy may well be her earliest surviving work — but she would soon become a major star, disdaining short comedies for serious dramatic roles and features. It was comedy’s loss. Films like The Egyptian Mummy and Billy the Bear Tamer (1915) show how adept she was at being funny.

My rating: I like it, unreservedly.

The Last Cartridge (Vitagraph, 1908)

The Last Cartridge screenshotThe Last Cartridge, an Incident of the Sepoy Rebellion in India (Vitagraph, 1908)
Directed either by J. Stuart Blackton or Albert E. Smith

A sepoy, during the British rule of India, was a term for a native Indian solider. In 1857, there was a large scale mutiny of sepoys, called by some the First War of Indian Independence. I don’t believe that the “incident” portrayed in The Last Cartridge is any particular real-life event — it’s vaguely similar to the Siege of Cawnpore, but if that’s what they were going for, the ending is entirely ahistoric.

We start with a group of British officers and their wives having a party in front of a grass hut. Another officer runs into the shot and raises the alarm. The soldiers retreat inside the fortress, where they’re laid siege to by the mutineers.

A cartoonish round bomb with a burning fuse rolls onto set. One of the British soldiers, who I’m going to call “Tom” just to make things easier, picks it up and tosses it into a bucket of water. “Bob”, the major, commends Tom for his valor and sends him on a mission to go get reinforcements. “Sally”, Bob’s wife, is in fits of histrionic terror. (The BFI says Sally is Florence Turner, but I don’t think so — there’s a resemblance, but the nose is wrong.)

The mutineers raise the white flag. Sally is overjoyed, but not everyone is so easily misled. One man peeks over the gate and sees that it was only a ruse and that an ambush is waiting for them.

The siege continues for two days. The British force is severely depleted and even Sally has been called on to take up a gun. The mutineers start a fire in front of the gate, and since it’s only made of painted canvas, it’s now a matter of time for the British. Bob takes his pistol and readies to shoot his wife lest the mutineers take her, but just then, Tom triumphantly returns — presumably with the reinforcements, although we never see them.

I generally give films of this vintage a lot more leeway than those even a few years younger, but even by the loosest standard, The Last Cartridge is still a bit lacking. It’s not that it’s badly written — it’s got a strong scenario. The cinematography and editing are also very good, with an advanced use of crosscutting between both sides of the gate that shows the invaders’ and the defenders’ actions while maintaining a sense of separation between them. I joke about the unconvincing sets, but honestly, they were nicely constructed, even if of canvas. No, it’s main failing was in the acting. There’s no real main character, but Sally has the most screentime, and 90% of the time she’s flailing her arms in the air and running in circles — screaming, I’m sure. It’s hard to get a count, but there can’t be more than fifteen extras on either side of the conflict. There was precisely one horse. It looks absolutely barren, particularly when we cut to the more spacious shots given to the invaders away from the fortress.

But cast aside, I liked the film more than I didn’t, mostly for its technical proficiency, but also because I thought it was an entertaining and exciting story.

My rating: I like it.

 

Edit:

After rewatching the film, I realize that I’ve got some things wrong in this review. In my defense, I wrote it directly after my first screening of the print, which I had only just acquired. I of course went through it on the rewinds to make sure it was in projectable condition, but still, I keep a close eye on film I’ve never projected before to make sure it’s running smoothly. Although this print isn’t particularly old (struck in 1972) and there was no reason to suspect a shrinkage issue, I was nevertheless paying more attention to the loop than the screen for the first minute or so and I missed a crucial bit of the plot: Sally isn’t Bob’s wife, she’s his daughter. She’s in love with Tom, but Bob disapproves of him for whatever reason. Tom’s ride for reinforcements isn’t just to save the regiment, but to save his chances with Sally. I missed the love story angle, which is almost identical to the one Vitagraph would later use in the war drama The Victoria Cross (1912).

Also, Bob is played by Charles Kent. I noticed that the first time around, but I neglected to mention it. I still strongly doubt that Sally is Florence Turner.


Available from Harpodeon

Vingarne (Swedish Biograph, 1916)

Vingarne screenshotVingarne (Swedish Biograph, 1916)
Directed by Mauritz Stiller
Starring Lars Hanson and Egil Eide

Herman Bang was something of the Danish equivalent of Oscar Wilde; he wrote with a gay sensibility veiled just enough to avoid condemnation. The veil on his 1902 novel Mikaël is surely the sheerest. The story was twice adapted for the screen, the second, 1924 adaptation by Carl Theodore Dryer being better remembered today. The first was made in 1916 by Mauritz Stiller. It had been lost for many decades before a somewhat abridged print turned up in Norway, which might explain why it was forgotten. It also didn’t help that it’s honestly pretty bad.

In Stiller’s film, “Vingarne” (or “The Wings”) is a sculpture by Claude Zoret, an artist who’s generally styled “The Master” (Egil Eide). It’s a depiction of Icarus with his wings melting away, just before his fall back to earth. (Actually, it’s Zeus adducting Ganymede — Vingarne is a real sculpture by Carl Milles, you can see it at the National Museum in Stockholm). Icarus is modeled on a young man named Michael (Lars Hanson), who becomes a favorite of the Master.

The Master adopts Michael and they had been living together for four years when Princess Zamikow (Lili Bech) appears. Zamikow is well known for her extravagance, which is leading her ever closer to bankruptcy. She commissions a portrait from the Master, evidently hoping to seduce the wealthy artist, but on that mission she fails. She does, however, capture Michael’s attention, and through him, sees an alternate way to the Master’s pocketbook.

It’s the gossip of the town, but the Master himself remains oblivious. It isn’t until Michael sells The Wings to pay Zamikow’s debts that it really hits home. The Master visits Zamikow and begs her not to take Michael away from him. She replies, “you’re too old, Claude Zoret, to understand love…”

The Master falls ill. One night, he becomes delirious. He stumbles out of the house and to the base of The Wings, where, gazing up at Icarus, he grabs his heart and dies away. In his will, he’s left everything to Michael. Zamikow, with her pay day in sight, tries to make love to Michael, but — evidently in realization — he rejects her advances and leaves her.

In Carl Theodore Dryer’s 1924 adaptation (titled Michael), although the word “homosexual” is never actually used, it quite ably makes it clear what sort of relationship exists between the artist and his model. Stiller’s adaptation is a lot murkier. The summary may make it sound more pronounced than it is; watching the actual film, while there are hints, few are strong enough to notice if you weren’t looking for them. There’s very little affection shown between the leads, and Zoret’s adoption of Michael does not read as a stand-in for marriage, as it plainly does in Dryer’s version. Vingarne also excises the parallel Adelsskjold subplot. (In Micahel, Adelsskjold is a friend of Zoret. Adelsskjold’s wife cheats on him and eventually leaves him for Duke Monthieu. It’s the mirror that Zoret, and the audience, looks into to understand what’s happened between him and Michael.)

What’s most memorable about Vingarne is its bizarre framing story. The film doesn’t actually begin with the Master and Michael. It starts with Mauritz Stiller (playing himself) in search of inspiration for a new film. He sees a sculpture called “The Wings”, and from this, gets the idea for Vingarne. He writes the script, basing it on Herman Bang’s novel Mikaël, and then goes about casting the characters. Nils Asther (himself) applies for the role of Michael, but is passed over in favor of Lars Hanson (himself).

When the film is finished, Asther attends the premiere. And then the title card appears, after an entire reel’s worth of this very weird cold open.

We reach “The End” and the picture fades out… then right back up again, returning to the theatre at the film’s premiere. Asther wonders aloud how anyone could abandon Lili Bech. He goes to see her at her real-life home and declares that the reason he didn’t get the job of Michael is clearly because he can’t live without her. Egil Eide (as himself) appears and chides him for his youthful foolishness. And as if this framing story wasn’t meta enough, it then goes another level deeper with Eide addressing the viewer with the words “thank God this film is over at last”. Blackout.

It’s played quite comic and jarringly contrasts with the serious tone of the main story. It seems primarily to exist as an assurance to the audience that Vingarne is a work of fiction and does not reflect the real lives of its actors. 1916 was not 1924, and Sweden was not Germany. Sweden’s censors were quite strict in those days, and it makes sense to read the framing story as a very elaborate “no homo”.

My rating: …you know, it’s not a good film taken on its own, and it’s vastly inferior when compared to Michael, but the presentation is just so bizarre, it’s something you have to witness. Meh.