The Firing of the Patchwork Quilt (Vitagraph, 1911)
Mother McCoy’s (Mary Maurice) son (Robert Gaillard) is an engineer. He’s out one night during a storm. Between flashes of lightning, Mother sees that the trestle his train is about to cross has been struck and destroyed. She douses her quilt in kerosene and sets it ablaze on the track, warning him of the danger ahead just in time to avert disaster.
It’s a simple but effective story. The screenplay was written by Hazel Neason, who was mostly known for her acting but she also worked as a scenarist. She’s credited as a writer on a handful of films, but she largely wrote anonymously. In an interview with Motion Picture Story Magazine, she mentions this and also brings up a couple of her favorites: The First Violin (1912) and The Patchwork Quilt (1911). It’s generally a good idea to take these interviews with a grain of salt and assume that they’re heavily edited, if not entirely concocted, by studio publicists, but in this case it’s probably true. Those are both Vitagraph productions and by the time of this interview, Neason had left Vitagraph and was under contract with Kalem — there’s no reason for Kalem to push them.
We’ve released this title on video before — it was an extra on the old Juggernaut disc, since it’s so thematically similar and I always thought of it as the obvious inspiration — but I’ve never done a great deal of research on it. Now that I have, I begin to question the received facts about the short. Or, at least, I question IMDb.
First, IMDb says it was released on February 28th, 1912. After trawling release notices in the trade magazines, I see it was actually out on December 26th, 1911. That isn’t a big deal — it can be surprisingly hard to pinpoint an exact release date sometimes, and it varies depending on what you mean by “release”. In the silent era, the modern concept of a general release didn’t really exist — in the absence of internegatives, there were never enough release prints available to reach the thousands of cinemas across the country simultaneously. When you say “release”, you really need to qualify it with “where”.
The second issue is the title, which IMDb says is A Mother’s Devotion; or, the Firing of the Patchwork Quilt. It was released in 1911 as The Patchwork Quilt. It’s referred to exclusively by that name until February of the next year, when it picks up The Firing of… Perhaps this was to distinguish it from the several other films called “Patchwork Quilt”, particularly the higher-profile Edison picture that was then in production. At any rate, this is surely where IMDb got mixed-up with its release date. If they were searching for the keyword “firing”, the earlier release wouldn’t have shown up. I do wish I had my copy of The Big V at hand — I’m curious to see when Anthony Slide said it was released.
American magazines and newspapers only go so far. They’re invaluable for information about a film’s initial release, but as ephemeral as cinema was back then, titles quickly drop from notice and aren’t ever mentioned again. It helps to also check “end-of-the-line” locations where films would eventually wind up after playing for months or sometimes even years in other markets. That’s where Trove, the National Library of Australia’s online newspaper archive, comes in handy. Again, it was initially released there as The Patchwork Quilt, and it only became [The] Firing [of] the Patchwork Quilt on July 12th, 1912. After the film ended its run there, it disappears from the record for several decades.
But whither “A Mother’s Devotion”? Nobody has called it that so far, nor have any of its two or three reviews used the line, nor did Hazel Neason bring it up in her interview. The intertitles on the surviving print use only the name The Firing of the Patchwork Quilt (from a later release, evidently). Where did “A Mother’s Devotion” come from? Blackhawk, I think. The film was released on 8mm and 16mm by Blackhawk sometime in the early ‘60s. I haven’t got a catalogue, which could give an exact year, but I do have two prints of this release in my collection and the edge code on the earlier one dates it to 1961. On their replacement title, Blackhawk calls the film A Mother’s Devotion. And so, IMDb reconciles that information with its previous information and goes with the title A Mother’s Devotion; or, the Firing of the Patchwork Quilt. And Harpodeon blindly parroted that title and falsely legitimized it. Our bad. The future video release (probably out sometime in the next two weeks) will use the more historically attested title The Firing of the Patchwork Quilt.
As I said, it’s a strong, if simple, scenario. I actually prefer it when short dramas keep the story simple and allow some space for the characters to breathe. The acting is good. I hesitate to even name Robert Gaillard as a co-star; he’s hardly in the film. This is really a one-woman show, and Mary Maurice carries it admirably. You know, this could legitimately be termed an action film, and I can’t think of many other actioners with an elderly woman as the hero. It’s well photographed, especially the very realistic lightning effects. There’s almost nothing not to recommend it.
My rating: I like it.
Available from Harpodeon