Monthly Archives: June 2015

Polishing Up (Vitagraph, 1914)

Polishing Up screenshot 1Polishing Up (Vitagraph, 1914)
Directed by George D. Baker
Starring John Bunny and Flora Finch

John Bunny was one of the first internationally renowned film comedians. His fame wasn’t the only thing that was big about him — he weighed around 250 pounds at the start of his career and 300 at his untimely death in 1915. He was largely responsible for the “fatty” subgenre that would remain popular in silent comedy into the 1920s. His first couple years at Vitagraph saw him paired with several actresses, but Flora Finch would become his regular co-star. The two made well over 200 “Bunnyfinches” together, and Polishing Up (1914) is one of them:

At dinner one night, John (John Bunny) tells his wife Flora (Flora Finch) that she looks like an old hag. Later that night, Flora writes to her sister: “I am going to a sea-side resort and polish up a bit.”

John also gets to thinking about his own appearance and decides he could do better. The next day, after his wife has gone to ‘visit her sister’, he takes a stroll down the street in his best suit. John makes the acquaintance of two young ladies (Phyllis Grey, Emily Hayes) vacationing on the coast, who invite him back to their hotel.

Meanwhile, Vivian Astor (née Flora) checks-in at the resort. She’s no sooner shown to her room than she sprains her ankle. Presuming her to be a wealthy widow, Dr. Reynolds (William Humphrey) is openly flirtatious while treating her, and she’s quite flattered by his attention.

Polishing Up screenshot 2Next door, John and the two ladies are about to settle in when they meet the doctor in the hallway. After learning about the accident, the two women go to visit ‘Vivian’ and the three get to gossiping about the conquests they’ve made. A little double-date dinner party is arranged for that evening.

And so “the widow” meets “the bachelor”. The others back off as John and Flora stare each other down. The tension is palpable. And then… they both start laughing. John gives a toast as the party gets started: “Here’s to our wives and sweethearts; may they never meet.”

Of the several Bunnyfinches I’ve seen, this one is my favorite. I really enjoyed this film. I don’t know if I agree with the sentiment, but I’ve heard it said that, for all the fame he won during his lifetime, Bunny’s comedy is all but inaccessible to modern audiences because it relies so much on the novelty of an obese man. I can sort of see it for his non-starring roles — like his comic-relief role in Vanity Fair (1911), which really is not much more than “look at that fat guy” — but with the Bunnyfinches at least, his weight isn’t the focus. It’s true that he does little, if any, physical comedy, but he had a remarkably expressive face and could convey a great deal of humor just in his look. Surely, in Polishing Up, the comedy stems from the awkward situation and is carried by the actors’ performances. The size of Bunny’s character is never even mentioned.

Vitagraph spotting: the hotel lobby is the exact same set used in John Rance, Gentleman (1914). Later, it would be transformed into the ballroom seen in A Florida Enchantment (1914).

My rating: I like it.

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Juggernauting, Part 2

The Juggernaut reel 2 screenshot 1Juggernauting
Part 2

Continuing the disorganized musings on The Juggernaut (1915) I began in Part 1:

There are three different descriptions of the film’s ending: there’s the downer ending, in which Louise dies; there’s the long happy ending, in which Louise slips into a coma and is hospitalized but eventually recovers; and there’s the short happy ending, in which Louise briefly loses consciousness but wakes up moments after being dragged ashore.

It’s almost certain that the New York premiere had the downer ending. The synopses provided by the producers to trade magazines didn’t always correspond in every detail to what was actually released, but the downer ending as described is well attested by contemporary reviews. The other two endings — those are more questionable.

The long happy ending is the one the novelization in Motion Picture Magazine uses. Now, as was the case for all of their novelizations, this was written well before the film was actually completed (perhaps before filming even began) so that it could be released concurrently. It was more or less loosely based on the script, rearranging things and adding more dialogue to make it a better read. It could be that the long happy ending never existed outside of this novelization — except for the fact that it’s alluded to in some reviews of the film. It’s my assumption that the long happy ending did exist and that both it and the downer ending played at the same time in different markets (urban/rural? domestic/international?).

Of the three, the short happy ending is the least attested. Indeed, I haven’t actually seen any reviews that reference it at all. I’d be more tempted to doubt its existence, if it weren’t for the fact that it’s the only one that survives.

The Juggernaut reel 2 screenshot 2Every print that exists today of what’s ostensibly the fifth and final reel of The Juggernaut originates from the same nitrate source — that’s quite clear from the identical decomp visible in the pre-print. I say “ostensibly” because, while I don’t deny that it’s the last reel, I don’t think it’s the fifth reel. I think the footage that survives comes from either the 1917 or the 1920 re-release versions, which were shortened to four reels and may have been edited in other ways as well… say, a new ending. It does show some evidence of condensing — at the start, we see the tail end of the trial scene, which should have been contained entirely in reel four. There are also a number of shots that seem to be abbreviated. The shot when then car pulls up to the dock, for example, is something like 15 frames long and cuts just as the car door begins to open. Without slowing it down, it’s impossible to even tell what’s going on. While I imagine this was always a quick shot, I suspect it originally showed more of the car’s approach and the two men actually getting out of it, which would establish continuity for the next shot.

The reviews of the long happy ending are critical of it needlessly prolonging the film beyond the climax instead of going out while the audience was still hot. It’s my theory that, if this footage is from a re-release, then it shows that the producers heeded the critics’ opinion and the short happy ending was created as a response. And it would explain the general absence of the short happy ending from reviews. When they existed at all, reviews were quite cursory for re-released films that had already been reviewed at length during their original run.

Assuming I’m right, then the question is was the short happy ending assembled from footage that had already been shot or was it filmed later? I can’t say, other than, given the editing, it’s quite possible that some time had elapsed between the shot of John pulling Louise out of the boat and the shot of him laying her on the ground. The background extras don’t appear to carry over between those two shots. The only featured players in the final scene are Earle Williams and Anita Stewart. Williams was still with Vitagraph in 1920. Stewart was not, but she was in 1917. Was the short happy ending filmed in 1917 for the that year’s re-release?

Holy Smoke (Educational, 1921)

Holy Smoke adHoly Smoke (Educational, 1921)
Directed by Jack White
Starring Jimmie Adams

The first half of the film has an interesting set piece: It’s an elevator in hotel lobby with a manual counterweight — that is, a bellboy on the ground floor gauges how heavy the guest is and another bellboy upstairs piles on the enough weights to lift the guest without rocketing him through the ceiling. It serves for several decent gags, but after we see the thin guy, the fat guy, and the guy who of course gets crushed by the counterweight, it does start to get a bit repetitive.

The second half is improved by introducing an actual plot. The hotelier’s daughter (Elinor Lynn) has run up a big bill at the dressmaker’s and her father has to hand over his fire insurance policy to pay for it. Quite angry at this turn, he pulls out a caveman club and threatens to strike her. The bellboy (Jimmie Adams) steps forward: “If you must hit someone, hit me!” Father takes him up on that offer.

Fired, he takes a job at the blacksmith shop adjacent to the hotel. He does not get along well with the blacksmith, and after a fight, finds himself crashing through the wall of the hotel and into a guest room just as its occupant has left. The late occupant was the dressmaker, who, hoping to claim the insurance money, has left a bomb in the room. Jimmie throws the bomb out the window, but it lands in a chimney pot and roles down the pipe into the woodstove.

Bang!

The fire fighters, naturally, are much too incompetent to get even a bucketful of water onto the blaze. The hotel is reduced to ashes. The hotelier is lamenting his ruin when Jimmie appears holding the insurance policy, which he found in the room just before the blast. All is forgiven and Jimmie wins the girl.

I must say, the film never slackened the pace of its jokes, even if I thought the elevator gags started to get stale. Like Lige Conley’s Educational two-reelers, the first half of Holy Smoke (1921) has precious little to do with the second and could have been cut entirely without much narrative damage. But just as cutting the pointless department store scenes from Fast and Furious (1924) would have meant losing the impressive stop-motion sequence, dropping the first reel here would mean no elevator — and it was an interesting enough physical comedy prop.

Slapstick isn’t really my style, but I’ll grant this was a pretty good, zany short comedy.

My rating: I like it.

The Ring (Crystal, 1914)

The Ring screenshot 1The Ring (Crystal, 1914)
Directed by Phillips Smalley
Starring Pearl White and Chester Barnett

It’s time to close out my little series of Crystal reviews with the film I’ve saved for last. If The Hallroom Girls (1913) was the best comedy, The Ring (1914) was surely the best drama. But whereas Hallroom really only stood out in comparison to its very weak competitors, I thought Ring was a decent short drama taken on its own merits.

The opening scene cuts back and forth between Mrs. Gray (Pearl White) throwing a lavish party, being attended by liveried servants, and wearing a dress dripping with pearls; and her husband, Arnold Gray (Chester Barnett), who sits in his office looking worried, eagerly awaiting but simultaneously dreading the arrival of some important business correspondence. At last it arrives, and the news isn’t good: the Grays are bankrupt.

“After the catastrophe”, we find Pearl and Arnie at breakfast in a simple, cheaply furnished room, where Pearl has to clear away the dishes herself. Before Arnie leaves to go to his new clerical job, he kisses his wife, but she seems cold and distant.

Arnie’s boss is Alfred Norman, a snide-faced man who wears a top hat and white gloves and a mustache that I kept waiting for him to twirl. Alf doesn’t stay at the office long, though. He leaves to attend a party at Mrs. Allen’s.

The Ring screenshot 2Mrs. Allen is one of Pearl’s friends from the old days, and distressed conditions or no, Pearl is still welcome at her functions. In fact, she’s already at the party when Alf arrives. They meet and he’s taken by her at once, and she’s not a little taken by him as well. Back at home with Arnie at the end of the day, Pearl seems even more aloof.

Some time later, Alf sends a gift to Pearl — a diamond ring.

A note about the cinematography: The intercutting of the first scene is nicely handled, but after that, the filmmaking technique settles into an adequate but unremarkable style. Except this scene. Here, we intercut between Arnie toiling at his desk and Alf in his private office with the ring — a sort of reverse cut, suggesting that they sit on either side of a frosted glass wall. But it’s very, very obvious that it’s the exact same backdrop and they’ve just swapped the furniture around. We cut from Arnie to Alf several times and it’s never not distracting.

Anyway, the diamond ring. Pearl tries it on and instantly adores it, but when she reads the notes and sees the name of the sender, she knows she can’t accept the gift. She’s still wearing it when Arnie returns home. Startled, she says the first thing that comes to mind: “I found this ring”. You’re not fooling anyone, Pearl.

The next day, while Arnie is at work, Pearl takes the ring to Mrs. Allen, who she hopes will act as an intercessor between herself and Alf — Pearl determined not to see him again. Coincidentally, I suppose, Alf leaves the office to call on Mrs. Allen as well. Arnie, suspicious, trails him.

The Ring screenshot 3Pearl flees into the back room as Alf enters. Arnie appears moments later, sees Pearl’s hat on the sofa, and becomes enraged. He pulls out a gun, a struggle ensues, the gun goes off, Pearl — standing just on the other side of the door — is hit.

Mrs. Allen breaks up the fight. Alf runs off. Arnie goes to Pearl, but it’s clear enough that he’s assumed the worst and is through with her. As he’s about to leave, Mrs. Allen shows him the note Pearl had asked her to give Alf. “I am a married woman”, it reads. “I cannot … accept your gift.” Arnie, realizing the mistake he made, returns to Pearl, who accepts him back.

I really liked this film. It plays at just the right pace and doesn’t show anything more or less than it needs to. It gets a little bit silly with Arnie clinging to the back of Alf’s car and the clichéd gun-going-off-in-a-struggle, but the story on the whole was well done. It successfully gets the audience to side with the husband at the start, and since we identify with him, we’re taken along the same mistaken journey he is — but it does so without having to reduce Pearl to an outright villain, which would have made the reversal at the end much less believable and would have sapped away the impact of Arnie’s almost leaving her.

Moving Picture World’s review praised White’s performance, and I would concur both with that and with their implicitly saying the other performances weren’t particularly praiseworthy. Barnett is acceptable, but he plays it broad. The Alfred Norman character, as I’ve already suggested, is one mustache-twirl away from being a full-on parody of a lecherous fat cat. The other characters are so minor, it hardly matters how they act.

But still, questionable acting and one poorly constructed scene aside, I really enjoyed this film.

My rating: I like it.