Monthly Archives: March 2015

Juggernauting, Part 1

Juggernaut reel 2 screenshot 1Juggernauting
Part 1

There are a handful of films that, for whatever reason, I’m intensely attracted to. I spend years trying to track down as much material relating to them as I possibly can. The Juggernaut (Vitagraph, 1915) is one of those films. This post is the first of what will probably be a short and sporadically updated series I’ve decided to call “Juggernauting” detailing the present state of my obsession.

The Juggernaut — “a story of modern life” about greed, corruption, betrayal, and retribution (and a full-scale train wreck!) — was one of the biggest films of 1915. In terms of box office receipts, only The Birth of a Nation was more successful. It played to sold-out houses for weeks on end in its first run, and was re-released twice, in 1917 and 1920.

Today, The Juggernaut only partially survives. Some time ago, I made a reconstruction using the intact fifth part, a fragment of the fourth part, and several production stills from the other three parts. I was rather pleased with it, and to date, the DVD has been one of our top-ten sellers. It’s outdated now. I’ve got many more stills, I’ve got an exhibitor’s handbook that details every scene and quotes many of the titles (previously, I knew the story in outline, but had to make “educated guesses” about the specifics), and the most exciting development of all, I’ve obtained a complete copy of the second part.

The 2012 reconstruction ran for almost 30 minutes exactly. I haven’t begun another yet — I’m still in what I call the “amassing stage” — but I now have 31 minutes of actual footage from the film alone, never mind all the stills I have to use in recreating missing scenes. For the next reconstruction (let’s tentatively call it the 2016 version), I anticipate a new running time of around 50 minutes, which is not far off the film’s original length of 65 minutes.

A Severe Test (Solax, 1913)

A Severe Test screenshotA Severe Test (Solax, 1913)
Directed by Alice Guy-Blaché
Starring Marian Swayne and Vinnie Burns

Daisy (Marian Swayne) and Frank (Vinnie Burns) have been married for a year. Daisy begins to notice that Frank doesn’t seem to be showing her the same degree of affection he did when they were newlyweds. To test his love, she fakes her own death. She writes to her friend Ella to explain her plan, and to Frank, she writes a teary suicide note, but she accidentally mixes up the letters and the envelopes — Frank get’s the explanation and Ella gets the suicide note.

Frank decides to play along. At the pier where Daisy met her supposed watery death, Frank is all smiles and flings her discarded coat and suitcase into the lake. Daisy — watching from the sidelines — is hurt and declares that she’ll never live with that “brute” again. But Frank isn’t finished: he has a wedding announcement printed for him and a fictional girl named Lucy Smith. It was only supposed to be a card, but it’s accidentally published in the newspaper. When Daisy reads it, her pain turns to fury. She looks up a real Lucy Smith in the phone book and sets off to “scratch her eyes out”.

Frank is also searching for Lucy, to apologize for the announcement. Frank and Daisy meet at the Smiths’ house, where they discover that Lucy is actually the fat, black cook (she’s a white person in blackface, and I’m fairly certain she’s also a man in drag). Laughs all around as Frank and Daisy reconcile.

The print of A Severe Test (1913) in our collection is perhaps the only one in existence. At least, no archive has a copy, I’m not personally aware of any in private hands besides our own, and, in the past 15 years, I’ve never seen another print turn up on the market. I reticent to label any film “lost” — in the past, you’ll notice I usually hedge my bets with “presumed lost” — but others aren’t so hopeful.

A Severe Test film clipAlison McMahan, one of the foremost scholars on Alice Guy, lists the film as “not extant” in her 2013 article on Women Film Pioneers Project. We’d held our print for nearly a decade by that point, and it had been readily available on video for two or three years. A simple search on Google or YouTube would have revealed it, or you could check the distributors listed on IMDb to see if it had been recently released. I don’t mean to call out McMahan specifically here; I just want to comment on this tunnel vision that pervades the work of most film historians — where if a film doesn’t exist in a major archive, then it doesn’t exist at all. Around 40 years ago, Anthony Slide said that 75% of the silent era was lost. Even he would later admit that this was a bit sensationalized — an off-the-cuff remark without any real data behind it but nevertheless a good sound bite — but damned if that comment didn’t have legs. It seems to be near gospel nowadays. Sometimes I’ve even heard it claimed 85% or 95% of pre-1930 cinema is lost. I take a more optimistic view. There’s a great deal more out there if you’re willing to take your academic blinders off to see it.

As I said, we’ve released Severe on video before (IMDb says it was back in 2011, but by my records, the DVD came out in 2010 — the downloadable may have been 2011), but that transfer is… let’s say it’s looking long in the tooth. It’s in need of a re-do anyway, amd since there’s been some interest in it lately for use in an upcoming Alice Guy documentary, there’s no better time than the present.

The print is physically in very good shape, but the picture is exceedingly dark. The levels can be adjusted easily enough, but brightening alone is a poor fix. When the shadows are too dark, brightening them doesn’t reveal more detail in the picture, it only brings out a noisy gray blob. What we need is an image with an extremely high dynamic range, where there’s enough information to work with even in the darkest areas. And we can do that by merging several scans under varying intensity lights, but oh boy, does it take time. Our film scanner can usually capture a frame in 15 to 30 seconds. To get the quality we need for a decent transfer of Severe, it took upwards of 2 minutes. Keep in mind, there are over 15,000 frames to scan.

For example, here’s a frame grab from the old transfer:

A Severe Test old transfer

 

The pier is probably rough wood, but as it is, it just looks like murky gray streaked with black. Daisy’s lower body vanishes into the darkness — where does her dress end and the pier begin? What’s going on in the distance, beyond the water?

And here’s the same frame in the new transfer:

A Severe Test new transfer

 

The most remarkable improvement is the pier. Now we can see each board and even begin to get an impression of the texture of the wood. There’s a clear boundary between Daisy’s dress and the board she’s sitting on, and now we can see that there’s a valise in the foreground. Across the water, there appears to be a wooded hill dotted with several houses. Overall, it’s still much darker than the original release would have been, but at least now the image is clear enough to distinguish everything that’s in it.

And now it comes to what I think of the film: it’s just awful. It doesn’t do enough with the swapped envelopes gimmick. There could have been a whole B-plot built around Ella believing Daisy to be dead to offset Frank’s scheme, but instead, she finds out the truth from Frank almost immediately and for the rest of the film they’re in cahoots for some reason. And the “joke” they play on Daisy is just too mean-spirited to be funny. The cinematography is pretty good, I’ll give it that, and I liked Marian Swayne’s performance well enough, but I did not enjoy watching this film at all.

My rating: I don’t like it.


Available from Harpodeon

Lady Godiva (Vitagraph, 1911)

LadLady Godiva ady Godiva (Vitagraph, 1911)
Directed by J. Stuart Blackton
Starring Julia Swayne Gordon

Like The Victoria Cross (1912), which I’ve written about before, Lady Godiva (1911) is another example of that short-lived genre known at Vitagraph as the Quality Film. Elsewhere, they were termed variously De-Luxe Films or High-Art Films, but we might allow Vitagraph naming rights as they were the chief producers of the genre. Also like The Victoria Cross, Lady Godiva is based on two culturally revered subjects: history (or at least legend) and poetry (Tennyson in both films).

Lady Godiva (Julia Swayne Gordon) is the wife of Earl Leofric (Robert Gaillard), who has imposed a ruinous new tax on his townspeople that threatens to drive them to starvation. She begs he lift the tax, but the Earl’s heart is “as rough as Esau’s hand” and he’ll only agree to do so on the condition that she ride naked through town.

Warned by a herald of her approach, all the townspeople go inside and shut their windows, except for “one low churl” (Harold Wilson) who watches through a peephole. As she passes, he’s blinded by the sight — “his eyes were shrivell’d into darkness”.

The task complete, she returns to the Earl, who repeals the tax, and so Lady Godiva’s fame becomes “everlasting”.

All of the titles are “quotes” from Tennyson’s poem Godiva. I scare-quote the word because, while the text is presented as direct excerpts, it’s awfully mangled. That’s not at all unexpected. The target audience for Quality Films was not well educated and probably didn’t have a firm grasp of English. They may know of Shakespeare or Tennyson, but it’s highly unlikely that they ever read either. Their familiarity with the great English poets came mostly from places like postcards illustrating famous lines, which were often condensed for space and modified to be both more stand-alone and also to be more marketable — to be able to serve as an advertisement for some product or other. For the Quality Film producers, when the choice came down to a quote that’s right or a quote that’s familiar, one always erred on the side of familiarity. There are some common misquotes persisting today that, while they didn’t originate in early film, early film helped to cement in popular culture — lines like “Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well”.

Lady Godiva screenshotThe set is the same Ye Olde England lot that can be seen in several Vitagraph films from this period, consisting of three half-timbered building façades and a painted backdrop. They vary the angles and move around the set dressing from scene to scene to make it appear larger than it is. There’s attention to detail shown in matching the painted shadows to the actual ones, and in keeping the actors from casting shadows on the backdrop. I don’t recognize the castle (or the gate of the castle, rather — that’s all we see). It may have been built specially. I count about sixteen extras, which reasonably fills out the crowd scenes. One of them is Kate Price, who’s pretty easy to spot. Clara Kimball Young is apparently in there, too, but I couldn’t pinpoint her.

The nude ride is as absolutely sexless as can be, and not only because of the bodystocking and strategically placed hair. Julia Swayne Gordon plays Godiva as you might a saint. But the moral of the story is to not be a Peeping Tom — indeed, the Lady Godiva legend is the origin of the term Peeping Tom. You might recognize Tom — or Harold Wilson — as Silverstein from The Awakening of Bianca (1912). His performance here is kind of the same, only now his handwringing is meant to suggest lasciviousness, and in Bianca, it was meant to look Jewish.

Quality Films are interesting in an abstract, film history kind of way, but can often be on the dull side. The Victoria Cross had the saving grace of an exciting battle scene and the novel conceit of the binoculars, which served the practical purpose of masking the small number of extras, but also looked cool and gave Edith Storey some welcome screentime. In comparison, Lady Godiva doesn’t have much going for it. I didn’t dislike it, but it’s just sort there and it feels all its length.

My rating: Meh.

The Borrowed Flat (American, 1911)

The Borrowed Flat screenshotThe Borrowed Flat (American, 1911)
Directed by Allan Dwan (maybe?)
Starring J. Warren Kerrigan

A true chamber drama, in the sense that it takes place entirely on a single set with a principle cast of just two players. Further, the whole film appears to have been done in one continuous take (there are actually a few cuts, but most are masked by title cards and the one that isn’t is so seamless that I had to step over it frame-by-frame to find it).

Percy Pigeon (J. Warren Kerrigan) arrives home to find a “Kick Me” sign on his back — it’s April Fool’s day, the calendar reveals. He’s expecting his aunt to visit later and, as he hopes to be well remembered in her will, he wants to make a good impression. This involves replacing the artwork on the walls with signs reading “Love Your Relatives” and “What is Home Without an Aunt?”

Bobby, Percy’s friend, appears and asks to borrow his apartment to meet his fiancée. Percy agrees. Bobby writes to Dolly to come at once and they’ll be married right away, then leaves to get dressed. Once he’s gone, Percy decides to play a joke of his own. He takes Bobby’s letter and readdresses it to Bridget O’Rafferty, their washerwoman. Later, when Bobby is waiting in the apartment alone, Bridget shows up ready to get hitched and isn’t eager to take ‘no’ for an answer.

After Bridget’s exit (pushed out the window), Bobby notices the letter from Percy’s aunt on the table and, returning tit for tat, takes a dress and wig from the closet (why does Percy have these?) and impersonates her. Percy is surprised. It seems like there should be more to the ending, but the original end card is intact on my print and it runs all of its advertised 420 feet, so I don’t think anything is missing. It just very abruptly stops with Percy on the floor searching for a dropped ring (?) while Bobby as Auntie stands over him.

Technically speaking, this is not an advanced film (aside from that impressively concealed cut while Bobby is fiddling with the latch on the trunk), but even if the technique wasn’t pioneering, the story is well enough presented. “It fulfills its purpose”, to quote Moving Picture World. They didn’t seem to care for it much. While all the other films got a paragraph synopsis, The Borrowed Flat has just “A comedy presenting what happened in a borrowed flat”. I wouldn’t be so dismissive, though. I personally found it entertaining.

My rating: I like it.


Available from Harpodeon

The Man Hunt (Selig?, 1915?)

The Man Hunt screenshot 1The Man Hunt (Selig?, 1915?)
Starring Tom Mix

Lionel Strongheart (Tom Mix) is out on a hunting vacation in the hills. He stumbles across a couple of moonshiners — Joe and Jeff — who shoot him. When they discover he’s just a hapless tourist, they take him back to their cabin where Nellie nurses him to health. Nellie is Joe’s daughter and Jeff is in love with her, although she turns down his marriage proposal. Joe promises to plead his partner’s case, but that’s sidetracked when Sheriff Jim comes with a warrant for Jeff’s arrest. Meanwhile, Nellie and Lionel have fallen in love and decide to marry.

There’s something about this film that doesn’t sit right with me. Several things, actually: it doesn’t look or play like the sort of films Tom Mix was making at Selig in 1915; I can find no release notices for a Selig film by the name “Man Hunt” — not in that year or at any other date — nor any newspaper ads or reviews; it looks most natural at around 22fps and not the 16-18fps Selig films usually run at; Mix looks noticeably older than he does in, say, Sage Brush Tom (1915), which I happened to watch immediately before running The Man Hunt; and the plot is awfully intricate for the film’s run time, and it strikes me as an abridgement of a longer work.

What I have is a 16mm print released by Castle Films — I’m not sure when, but the edge code of the film stock dates it to 1964. The titles are replacements. It names Tom Mix (and him alone), but it doesn’t suggest that it’s a Selig production or that it was originally released in 1915. The only place I can find making those claims is IMDb, and IMDb is… not exactly the most reliable resource.

The Man Hunt screenshot 2I don’t think it is a 1915 Selig one-reeler. I think it’s probably a cut-down of one of Mix’s later Fox releases, either feature length or at least two or three reels long, and that “The Man Hunt” is simply the title Castle assigned it and not what it was originally called. Now I could be wrong, but that’s my impression. With that said, I can’t really criticize the film’s abruptness, pacing issues, or its weak character development — as what’s here may not be representative of what might have been intended.

So what can I say? Well, I can say that none of the cast is acting with even the slightest conviction. It’s good that the film tells us that Jeff is in love with Nellie, or that Nellie doesn’t care for the man, or that her father inexplicably does — because none of that comes across otherwise. The titular manhunt, which is introduced dramatically with “THE MAN HUNT IS ON!”, is an oddly sedate affair. The sheriff and I suppose deputy ride slowly up to the still and simply slip the handcuffs on Jeff without any real struggle or urgency and the film just fizzles out afterward. Father’s involvement with the moonshining operation seems to be forgotten, as does the attempted murder.

What’s here isn’t good, and I can’t imagine what isn’t here was very good either. In short…

My rating: I don’t like it.