Monthly Archives: September 2015
(None of the characters are named, so I’m just going to refer to them by their actor’s name)
Blanche Sweet and her boyfriend, Guy Hedlund, are sitting in the front row at the playhouse, eagerly awaiting the performance of a traveling theatrical troupe. The curtain rises on a masher (Donald Crisp) assaulting a woman (Claire McDowell). Dell Henderson appears and separates them, probably saying something like ‘away with you, foul cur!’ The audience bursts into rapturous applause.
Later, at a dance, Blanche meets Dell, and to say that they hit it off is an understatement. Her boyfriend is understandably put-out. When he sees them together at the train station, he rushes to tell her father (William J. Butler). Father appears just as Dell leans-in for a goodbye kiss. He frogmarches Blanche home.
Blanche runs away. She finds Dell in his hotel room and, direct to the point, asks him “will you marry me?” For a moment, Dell is staggered by the question, but is in the middle of gladly accepting her proposal just as they hear a knock at the door. Guy Hedlund, who’s pretty firmly veered into stalker territory at this point, has been trailing her with Father in tow.
They give him the slip, and within the hour, they’ve got a marriage certificate in hand. Back at the hotel, they meet their pursuers, who have now also involved the police. It would seem that perhaps Blanche hasn’t been entirely forthright with Dell: she’s actually just fifteen years old. This is excellent casting, as Blanche Sweet — the actress herself, I mean — was indeed only fifteen years old at the time, but she legitimately does look several years older.
Back at home, Father presents Blanche to her little sisters as the very model of damnation. Big brother (Edwin August?), who would be a Bible-thumper if he could ever put down his Bible long enough to thump it, sermonizes her before proudly strutting off with his nose in the air. Meanwhile, at the hotel, the other actors try to make light of the situation, but Dell is deeply disturbed by the turn of events. It seems that he might know something that’s as yet a secret to everyone else…
Blanche runs away once again, this time leaving a letter that “tells the tragic story”. (If you haven’t picked up on the not terribly subtle clues, she’s pregnant.) It’s just after Father reads this note that Dell appears at the door. He’s come to reason with him, but all Father has to say is “My daughter is dead. Get out of my house.”
Shortly afterward, Blanche returns to beg her father’s forgiveness, but she finds him dead from a heart attack. Brother appears and immediately lays into Blanche. After he’s done berating her, he, too, discovers that his father is dead. Blaming her, he expels her from the house. The editing is a bit sloppy in this scene. When brother enters, he’s shockingly without his Bible, but at some point it magically reappears.
Some time later (evidently, given that Blanche has a baby now), we find a slumlord hassling Blanche for the rent, only to leave empty-handed. Blanche picks up a newspaper and reads… something. I’m not watching a release print of this film. What I’ve got is either a work print or, more likely, an answer print. Plainly, there was supposed to be an insert shot of a newspaper, but instead, all that’s there is just a single-frame slug with “news paper” scratched onto it to mark where the shot should be spliced in. It’s pretty easy to guess, though, that what she saw was an advertisement that the theatre troupe would be coming back to town.
We cut to the theatre just as Dell is bowing to an even more enraptured audience (and look, there’s Mabel Normand clapping her heart out a scant six weeks after being dropped from Vitagraph for not being star material — will her career ever recover?), but it’s plain that Dell has a heavy heart. Backstage, he’s greeted by a ghost. A ghost with a baby. “Reunited at last” — Dell embraces Blanche, who is turns out isn’t as dead as he thought; and Blanche embraces Dell, who didn’t abandon her after all.
I’m a sucker for maudlin melodramas (and not on some ironically-detached level, I really get invested in them — it’s rare that I’m not teary-eyed by the end), but even I tend to find Griffith’s Biograph shorts to be mawkish and overly sentimental. The Making of a Man (1911) isn’t entirely free of Griffith’s heavy hand, but the cast goes a long way toward making it work. I’ve already mentioned Blanche Sweet being ideal for the role, but I haven’t mentioned Dell Henderson’s wonderfully subtle performance. The film was his to lose, but he manages to perfectly convey the conflicted position he’s in without ever resorting to the sort of white knight histrionics employed by his character in the stageplay-within-the-photoplay. Take the scene when Father tells him that Blanche is dead. Imagine Carlyle Blackwell in the role: he’d stagger back a few steps, the back of his hand would shoot to his forehead, his mouth agape, lips quivering. Henderson does none of that. With his brows downcast, he stares for a moment into the middle distance. He absently passes his hat from one hand to the other. At the garden gate, he pauses just for an instant and steadies himself on the fence post before walking away, slumping slightly, but as if making an effort to hold himself together. It’s beautifully acted by the entire cast, really, except for the brother. I have to give the actor some slack because he’s playing a caricature and there wasn’t much else he could do, but still, he comes across entirely too comic. I’ll ignore how heavily the corpse breathes.
My rating: I like it.
I vaguely recalled once reading about this film in Motion Picture Story Magazine (which I’ve got a pretty large collection of), so I pulled out a few from around its release, and sure enough, it was novelized in the November 1911 issue. According to it, the newspaper read: “Wanted:- A woman with infant. Apply at Grand Theater, after matinée today.” Also, it names Blanche Sweet’s character Ruth Merritt and Dell Henderson’s Morton Travers. So there you go.
Before they began producing their own films, Vitagraph exhibited Edison pictures. The very first they presented publicly was The Black Diamond Express (1896). It’s a simple actuality — nothing more than a train approaching the camera — but it was wildly popular. Difficult to imagine today, but then, trains were the modern marvel. Also difficult to imagine are smashups — a kind of carnival sideshow common at the turn of the 20th century, where antiquated railroad engines were purposefully wrecked for the audience’s entertainment.
Filming a smashup wasn’t a novel idea — witness Edison’s The Railroad Smashup (1904) — but incorporating one into a feature-length narrative film was.
Vitagraph had purchased four decommissioned engines from the Long Island Railroad and several old passenger cars. Each train was destined to be destroyed in some manner. The first two met in a head-on collision, in standard smashup fashion, in The Wreck (1914). The fourth speeds into a forest fire in The Ninety and Nine (1916). The third, retired Long Island Railroad Engine #56, would find itself plunged into the icy depths at the climax of The Juggernaut (1915).
The train wreck was filmed on September 27th, 1914. On the northern edge of the Hercules chemical plant in Sayreville, New Jersey is a large man-made lagoon locally called Duck Nest Pond. Running hard beside it are Raritan River Railroad tracks. Vitagraph constructed a short spur line off these, which made a wide turn onto a trestle that spanned half-way across the pond.
In the story, the railroad has been dangerously neglected. The bridge, we find out only too late, is unsafe to cross. At first, the wobbly piers support the train’s weight, but then — crash!
The passenger cars were filled with dummies. The only live human aboard was the engineer, who jumped off some distance away after wiring the throttle down. The train was meant to cross the trestle at around 15 miles per hour, but between the engineer’s departure and the train reaching the spur, the wire had worked itself loose. Unlike the ersatz dereliction of the bridge, the engine was legitimately in disrepair and the throttle dropped into full open. I’ve heard it said the train topped-out at anywhere from 30 to 60 miles an hour before it reached the trestle. From the footage, I might believe 30. It’s a bit over-cranked, which makes it seem to move slower than it is, but there’s simply no way that train is moving anywhere near 60mph.
The piers were rigged with explosives to ensure that the bridge failed on cue, but the train was moving so fast that, even as the center of the bridge was collapsing, it still managed to cross it and go sailing off the end — narrowly missing one of the camera towers. It was expected that the boiler would explode when it hit the cold water, but it didn’t. Pyrotechnician Herman Rogers assisted it with a couple sticks of dynamite.
Once the dust settled, the dummies were replaced by living extras, to be filmed struggling out of the wreckage and swimming ashore. Easier said than done. There were lifeguards stationed, but it wasn’t always easy to differentiate those who were pretending to drown from those who actually were drowning. There were no major injuries, but several people had to be rescued.
Most attributed their cramps to the chill of the water, but the temperature is the least of Duck Nest Pond’s problems. The Hercules plant was a major producer of nitrocellulose, among other chemicals. Indeed, the film The Juggernaut was shot on may have come from Hercules. But they kept their waste on-site in unlined landfills, which leached into the groundwater. The area surrounding the plant is highly contaminated with tertiary-butyl alcohol, carbon tetrachloride, and chloroform. The place was and is toxic. Today, it’s an EPA Superfund site.
A century later and much of the scene is still there down in Sayreville. Vitagraph just abandoned everything when filming wrapped. The spur is gone, but the main tracks are still there. The pond is still there. Rows of stumps soldier off into the water — the remnants of the piers that made up the trestle — they’re still there. Even the wreck itself was left to rust away for decades — it wasn’t until 1938 that it was pulled out for scrap iron.
Unrelated to this post or The Juggernaut, a new video will be going up soon. Not going to say what it is, but it’s a personal favorite that I’ve written about before. Maybe you can guess.