Category Archives: Don’t like it

East Lynne (Fox, 1916)

East Lynne (Fox, 1916)
Directed by Bertram Bracken
Starring Theda Bara

Though a superstar in the 1910s, little of Theda Bara’s work survives today. What does survive is divided between her very early work and her very late work, after she had essentially become a self-parody, like so many iconic actors then and now. The celebrated films that she made in her prime are all gone. East Lynne (1916) is probably the nearest that we, as modern viewers, can get to Theda Bara at the peak of her career.

East Lynne is the only Theda Bara film known to survive that I don’t have a film print of, but I did pick up a video of it some little while ago from eBay or iOffer to some such place. It looks to be a bootleg of a MoMA screener. The transfer probably wasn’t all that good to begin with and my copy is several VHS generations removed from it, so you can imagine that the picture isn’t the greatest. The medium and close shots are okay, but the wides that comprise most of the film are so blurry that telling one character from another is a challenge. I watched it once or twice years ago, but I confess that, between the poor image and the byzantine plot, I couldn’t make heads or tails of what was going on.

The film is based on the Ellen Wood novel of the same name. I read it not too long ago. It’s trashy, make no mistake about it, but it was popular trash — it was one of the most widely read books of the Victorian era. Everyone read East Lynne, whether they’d admit to it or not. With the plot fresh in mind, I figured I could better tackle the film.

Speaking of the plot, I’m not going beyond a very rough summary here. There’s just too much of it to go into detail. Read my book summary if you’re interested; it goes into more depth. In brief, Lady Isabel marries Archibald Carlyle but comes to believe he’s unfaithful to her. She leaves him and is thought to have been killed in a train accident, but secretly Isabel assumed a new identity and is hired by Carlyle to be the governess of her own children.

Even knowing the plot — and it’s pretty clear that you’re expected to —the film is incredibly hard to follow. The major issue is pacing. East Lynne isn’t a long movie — five reels, something over an hour — but how it uses its runtime is just insane. It languidly ambles along then switches into high gear and powers through 500 pages of plot in ten minutes.

Levison, the man who instigates both the infidelity plot and the murder plot and whose capture is what resolves the entire story isn’t introduced until the third reel and really isn’t characterized at all, ever. The train wreck that Isabel is believed to have died in is literally the last scene of the fourth reel and it comes so abruptly that I laughed out loud. I don’t think Madame Vine, the governess alter ego Isabel assumes, even has five minutes of screentime — and that’s probably 75% of the book. It’s impossible to read what sort relationship exists between any of the characters. Barbara is just a cypher and Carlyle’s marriage to her comes out of nowhere. Her dislike of the children I assume is just meant to be taken for granted. Corny and Joyce seem to be rolled together, but it doesn’t matter since they don’t do anything. Afy has one line and then drops off the face of the earth. Levison’s undoing is pared down from what it is in the novel, which in itself could be fine, but again, the way the film handles it is just so abrupt and inexplicable that it plays like a farce. And speaking of farces…

How can I disguise myself so that even my husband and children won’t recognize me?

They’ll never know!

It’s just as ridiculous as that.

If this is Theda Bara at her best, then we can only hope that no prints of Cleopatra or Salome ever turn up — I’m sure the disappointment would crush us all.

My rating: I don’t like it.

Tough Luck and Tin Lizzies (Vitagraph, 1917)

Tough Luck and Tin Lizzies (Vitagraph, 1917)
Directed by Larry Semon
Starring Larry Semon

After at least reluctantly approving of the last couple of Larry Semon films I wrote about and worrying that I might be brain damaged for doing so, it feels good to be back to a Larry Semon film that’s unequivocally garbage.

Pietro Aramondo is out driving with his girlfriend Florence Curtis when his car breaks down. Larry Semon is… I don’t know who Larry Semon is, but he’s in the road and is hit by another motorist and thrown up into the air. He lands next to Florence and drives off with her, running over Pietro several times in the process. Pietro alerts the Big V Riot Squad who are an absolutely original creation and are in no way a knock-off of the Keystone Cops. And they are totally indoors and there is no shadow of a tree blowing in the wind on the back wall. Three squad cars are sent out in pursuit, which is a great way to pad out the runtime since now the film can repeat every gag three times. I suppose there’s more, but it doesn’t matter — I’m done. There’s no plot, there are no characters, the gags were terrible the first time around and don’t improve with repetition. Literally the only interesting thing about this short is how flagrantly it pilfers from Keystone.

There’s obviously four or five minutes of material missing. It begins in media res and doesn’t end so much as it just stops. The footage is missing in the pre-print, though. There’s only one physical splice in the print and it’s just to mend a film break — no more than a frame or two is missing around it. The splices joining the title and end cards are on the negative. I also suspect this is from a reissue with new titles added. They make a Flying Finn joke and I somehow don’t think Paavo Nurmi would have been a household name in America before his 1920 Olympics win.

I misspoke before, this isn’t a Kodascope, but it is a very similar amber-tinted show-at-home released in 1924. Sharp focus, dense image, obviously a print-down struck directly from the camera negative — it looks great. It’s a shame the film is so awful, but it does look beautiful.

My rating: I don’t like it.


Available from Harpodeon

Be Honest (Hal Roach, 1923)

be-honest-screenshot-1Be Honest (Hal Roach, 1923)
Directed by Len Powers
Starring the Dippy-Doo-Dads

Like Lampblack, Amateur Detective, this is another film that I had no idea what was until I transferred it, as it was a retitled Pathé Baby release in French without any clues in the catalogue description as to what its original title might have been. Unlike Lampblack, this didn’t turn out to be an excerpt or an abridgment — it’s a complete and unedited copy of Be Honest (1923).

Be Honest is an early (third episode, I think) installment of the Dippy-Doo-Dads series. These are live action films with an all-animal cast that are meant to be funny although they come across as more horrifying than anything else. And that isn’t just me looking back at them with modern eyes — check out some of the contemporary protests lodged by the American Animal Defense League against abusive animal pictures in general and the Dippy-Doo-Dads in particular. These “animals are undoubted cruelly treated”, they allege, and I doubt any sane viewer would disagree. The monkey who plays Siki looks positively terrified in every scene he’s in.

Hal Roach went all-out for the later releases and built a whole town at miniature scale for the Dippy-Doo-Dads, but Be Honest and earlier films were just shot at some dilapidated farm.

be-honest-screenshot-2Latude has been caged for thirty-five days (weirdly high-brow reference for this sort of film) and has grown bored and hungry. He provokes a nearby horse into kicking open the cage. Once he escapes, Latude goes on a feeding frenzy — stealing all the eggs from the farm. Siki, astride his canine mount Toto, assumes the role of policeman in bringing Latude to justice, but Latude is a wily fugitive, and even after Siki seems to have drowned him in a sack at the bottom of the lake, he effects one more “legendary escape” and lives to see another day.

My print spent the last fifty years in a puddle of standing water. Once the video is released (which it will be soon), try to guess which two bobbins were on the bottom of the stack; I don’t think the answer will surprise you. One is bad, but the third bobbin was so warped and rusted, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get the film out. Despite the humidity, the two bobbins that weren’t in actual contact with the water — two and four — are in nearly perfect condition.

It sometimes takes effort to sufficiently divorce yourself from the content of a film that you can come to appreciate it for what it is. It’s not a matter of liking it; I can appreciate films that I find thoroughly unpleasant. But then there comes a film like Broken China, which is just insurmountably racist, or this, which revels in abusing animals. These are films I don’t think I can ever appreciate, let alone like.

My rating: I don’t like it.


Available from Harpodeon

Polidor Has Stolen a Goose (Pasquali, 1912)

polidor-has-stolen-a-goose-screenshot-1Polidor Has Stolen a Goose (Pasquali, 1912)
Starring Polidor

When you think of Italian cinema in the silent era, you think of historical epics on a grand scale like Cabiria or Quo Vadis?, but of course that wasn’t all they did. The Italians also released much less lavish productions dealing with modern themes, including short slapstick comedies like this one.

Our star is Ferdinand Guillaume. Guillaume was a lithe and acrobatic Frenchman who came from a circus family, which no doubt had a great influence on his work as an actor. When he was with the Cines company, he was better known by the stage name Tontolini, but at Pasquali, he was Polidor. Guillaume featured in hundreds of movies, starting in the 1910s and continuing well into the ’60s in films like Fellini’s La Dolce Vita.

Polidor Has Stolen a Goose is a rather high-concept picture — after you’ve read the title, you’ve got a pretty solid idea of the plot. A young lady has sat her goose down by the side of the road to canoodle with a young man. Polidor comespolidor-has-stolen-a-goose-screenshot-2 by and swaps his laundry bag for the bird. The real trouble comes when he absconds into the city and is caught up in a wedding party. It’s quite a challenge for Polidor to keep it together at the banquet table with a live goose under his shirt. After some mildly comic antics, Polidor is chased from the house with the bird on his back. The goose takes flight and Polidor finds himself clinging to a streetlamp at the end of the film.

I have to say that Goose has a stronger ending than the only other Polidor film I’ve seen — Polidor’s First Duel — but I’m not sure if that’s enough to recommend it. Guillaume is sometimes compared to Chaplin, and from his physical performance I can see why, but this is weaker than even the most minor Chaplin title. I imagine that given the right subject mater Guillaume could impress, but the material he’s got to work with here is just not very good at all.

My rating: I don’t like it.

Romeo and Juliet (Thanhouser, 1911)

Romeo and Juliet screenshot 1Romeo and Juliet (Thanhouser, 1911)
Directed by Barry O’Neil
Starring George Lessey and Julia M. Taylor

I’m aware of three extant prints of Romeo and Juliet, Part Two: the Folger Shakespeare Library has a copy, the British Film Institute has a copy, and we have a copy. There may well be countless others, of course, but again, those I know. Where ours came from, who can say? I got it years and years ago from eBay as part of an unidentified lot of films. The seller, I understand, got it from an estate sale in California and was reselling it sight-unseen. It’s a 16mm reduction print on diacetate stock that the edge code dates to 1932. That’s all I know.

As for Part One, there are no known copies. Romeo and Juliet is often called a two-reeler, but that’s not true — it’s two one-reelers. The distinction is important. The ad copy stresses to exhibitors that each is a stand-alone picture and needn’t necessarily be shown with the other. Indeed, for its first run that would have been quite impossible, as part two was released a week after part one. A cue sheet survives that outlines each scene and title card and I at first intended to reconstruct Part One based on it. I did come up with something, but I’m just not very happy with it and decided not to use it. If I had more stills, perhaps it could work, but as it stands, it’s not much more than a string of title cards. For those interested, here it is. It’s unscored — play de Koven’s Oh, Promise Me under it if you like, the cue sheet suggests that for the climax.

Romeo and Juliet screenshot 2Speaking of the score, I’m having a devilishly hard time scoring Part Two. As I’ve said, there is a period cue sheet available. It has eighteen cues. For a fifteen minute short. Eighteen cues. Some scenes (none of which are longer than two minutes, including the title) have three different cues. The average piece of photoplay music is about three minutes long. Now, photoplay music is written specifically to be adaptable, and most pieces can be stretched or compressed considerably, but it’s quite a demand to shorten one to just eight seconds. And the pieces they suggest! Harvest Moon is the friar’s theme, and that’s… that’s just awful. Juliet’s death theme is Heart’s Ease (Lertz’s or Lange’s? The cue sheet doesn’t specify, but it hardly matters as both are ludicrously inappropriate). The only decent suggestion is the intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana, which is a very nice love theme, but when using classical music, you generally want to avoid such recognizable pieces — you don’t want to draw attention away from the picture, which you surely will the moment you make your audience think “where have I heard that before?”

But even disregarding the cue sheet, successfully scoring Romeo and Juliet is hampered by the film having no rhythm at all. Silent films, despite being silent, are very musical in their construction. The action should have a definite and Romeo and Juliet screenshot 3regular beat. This film doesn’t. It’s similar to the difficulty one encounters with poorly done abridgements, where the editor didn’t take care to cut on the beat and the flow of the action is disrupted, but this doesn’t have the excuse of being abridged. It was made like this. I think that’s why there are so many cues for such a short film. There’s so little hope of the music naturally staying in synch with the picture that it becomes necessary to stop and restart so frequently.

I had a similar problem with the closing sequence of Across the Mexican Line, but for a different reason. Beyond the fact that the first scene is missing entirely, the rest of the film also is somewhat fragmentary. There are a few frames missing here, a few there, and most aren’t an issue, but just after Dolores is shot there’s a jump of three or four seconds that just destroys the rhythm of what had been until then a well-paced action scene. Imagine you’re counting out the rhythm — one two three one two three one two three… — and then suddenly it skips — …one two three one tw-one two three one two three… I was sorely tempted to cut out a bit more to at least bring it back to time. In the end, I just awkwardly ad-libbed a bit to skip directly to the end of the repeat.

Romeo and Juliet screenshot 4And what’s more about the film’s construction, there’s the question of when to cue the music. It’s different for late silents, but the general rule for the era of filmmaking I generally deal with is that you cue on action. Say you have one scene, a title card, then another scene. You play one piece under the first scene and through the title card. You don’t start the next piece until the second scene begins. The more I work with Romeo and Juliet, the more I think cueing on action is simply impracticable for this film. I think I’m going to scrap what I’ve done so far (which isn’t much) and try again cueing on title. Romeo and Juliet is weird because the film tries to have it both ways: in some cases, dialogue titles are in-lined — that is, the character begins speaking, the title appears, and after the title we return to the character speaking; but in other cases, the film uses the earlier convention of pre-pending the dialogue — the title appears first, then we see the character speak. One or the other, fine, but mixing them confuses me.

As for the quality of the print, the picture is fine but I at first thought the titles had been replaced by black leader for some reason, but in one or two, you can just barely discern lettering on them, and I found that if you boost the contrast to an insane degree, text does start to appear. Example: here’s a frame directly from the scanner:

Romeo and Juliet title originalLooks black, yes? But if we stretch it, we get this:

Romeo and Juliet title enhancedIt’s still certainly of nowhere near useable quality, but it’s good enough to use as a guide for replicating the title:

Romeo and Juliet title recreatedI should warn those playing at home that you shouldn’t expect to get anything near so legible from the above frame grab, as that’s a compressed 8-bit JPEG. I’m actually working with uncompressed 16-bit TIFs, which have 256 times more dynamic range.

I realize I’ve done nothing so far but gripe and haven’t even mentioned the plot at all, but for Romeo and Juliet, do I really need to? Part Two begins with a strange little scene involving the nurse talking to the camera and waving her finger. It’s as enigmatic as the lantern man in Phantom of the Opera and I always assumed it was just a fragment and the film actually began in some other way, or at least with a title card to explain what the hell that’s all about, but according the cue sheet, nope — that’s exactly how it’s supposed to go. It evidently calls for a misterioso, so I guess the cue sheet was of some help. (I went with Otto Langey’s Misterioso Irresoluto to suggest that the story as continued from part one is still unfinished.) After that, we get Romeo breaking the edict against dueling and the rest plays out like a highly compressed version of the stage play.

Romeo and Juliet screenshot 5The acting isn’t bad — quite broad, but acceptable overall. I rather liked Julia M. Taylor’s Juliet. Robert Halt as the friar and Mary Walters as the nurse are far and away the worst actors here. Halt, especially, is far too animated for the part. George Lessey’s Romeo has his share of wild gesticulations, to be sure, but they suit the character — young, impetuous, self-absorbed, and grandiose. Interesting anecdote I read in Moving Picture News, apparently Walters had a long-lost brother who recognized her after seeing Romeo and Juliet, reuniting them after some twenty years apart. True or not, it’s a colorful story.

As for the cinematography, I suppose it gets the job done. To its favor, I will say that they weren’t afraid of getting the camera in close to the action. There’s the old story of conservative producers saying audiences pay to see the whole actor, feet and all, and it is certainly true that many films from this era tend to be framed as such. There are a couple nice medium-close shots here, like Romeo climbing from the balcony and Juliet hiding from her nurse. The editing is mostly episodic — each scene composed of a single continuous shot — but do notice the axial cut in the balcony scene.

Do I like Romeo and Juliet? I can’t say that I do, but I think that’s largely because of how frustrating it is in re scoring. But beyond that, it’s pretty ordinary fair. Quality Films as a genre interest me, but like I said about Lady Godiva, there’s often not much interesting about them taken on their own.

My rating: I don’t like it.

 

Edit: Well, the scoring is done reasonably to satisfaction. I even managed to keep it cued on action through some creative tempo changes that I hope aren’t too noticeable (there’s nothing abrupt — just gradually speeding up or slowing down to stay more or less in synch with the picture). Ten cues overall, which is less than eighteen but considerably more than I’d usually use for a film of this length.


Available from Harpodeon

Everett True Breaks into the Movies (ABC, 1916)

Everett True screenshot 1Everett True Breaks into the Movies (ABC, 1916)
Starring Robert Bolder
Directed by John E. Willis (probably)

Everett True Breaks into the Movies (1916)… I don’t know — the kids seem to like it. We released it on video years ago and the denizens of 4chan’s comics message board very occasionally rediscover it and suddenly daily traffic spike into the thousands. Personally, I don’t get it. It’s kind of just The Masquerader (1914) with a popular newspaper comic strip character shoe-horned in. And, while he looks reasonably similar (aside from the terrible bald cap), Robert Bolder’s acting doesn’t capture Everett True at all. But whatever interests young people in silent film can’t be all bad, and I’ve got a nice new print (“new” as in new to me, but it is relatively new at 40-some years old) to make a 2K transfer of.

Breaks into the Movies is (perhaps) the first installment in a series of short comedies based on the perennially favorite comic strip The Outbursts of Everett True. In the funny pages, Everett True is a short-tempered fat man who deals with rude and inconsiderate people by beating them up. That’s about it. Simple as that plotline is, the movie doesn’t care to follow it. Instead, Everett (Robert Bolder) reads a want-ad for film actors in his morning paper. He heads down to the studio, where he cuts in front of a poor Arbuckle impersonator and a slightly better Chaplin one, and declares to the studio boss that the job is his. He then inserts himself into some sort of domestic melodrama as the heroic lead, which ends in a love scene. An actress (Elizabeth Erwin) tattles on him to his wife (Paula Reinbold), Everett True screenshot 2who rushes to the studio on the warpath. After a chase that leaves the studio in a shambles, Everett is marched home, only to be followed by the director with a check for a million dollars — the best actor he’s ever had, the director says.

Very weird, incidentally, seeing Bolder in this. I’m more familiar with him as a dramatic actor at Vitagraph.

There’s remarkably little information available about this ostensible series or the studio that produced it. About all I can turn up is this: the American Bioscope Company was incorporated in Chicago in September of 1915, but it appears to have actually begun operations late in the previous year. It seems to evaporate after the departure of its president and general manager, John E. Willis, in June of 1919 — or at least it completely drops from the radar, with no new films announced after that. It doesn’t look like they made much headway into the movie business at all. Certainly, none of their films were widely released. They seemed to have bet heavily on Everett True and it doesn’t look like it paid off.

Everett True Breaks Into the Movies, originally titled How Everett True Broke Into the Movies, premiered at the Elite Theatre in Kalamazoo, Michigan on July 8th, 1916 (or possibly a week earlier — July 1st). There’s only one brief article I can find that mentions the event, and it claims that the film smashed all records by selling 4,800 tickets for the evening and matinee screenings. That’s quite impressive, considering the theatre sat 900.

Everett True screenshot 3ABC ran small text ads in nearly every issue of Motion Picture News and Moving Picture World in 1917, all pushing Everett True, which it describes vaguely as one or more single-reel short comedies. (They also want you to know that the studio is available for rent). But I can’t find any convincing evidence that the film played again until September, 1917 — over a year after the premier — odd for a film evidently in such wild demand.

In 1925, Acme Film seems to have acquired ABC’s Everett True movie(s). The single ad that I found says that it was a ten-part series of one-reelers — they were selling them off as states rights releases. However, Breaks/Broke Into the Movies is the only one that seems to have a title and is the only one that I can find evidence of. Maybe there were nine other Everett True films, but if so, they have vanished into the ether and left not a single trace of ever being exhibited.

If I were to describe this film, Everett True Breaks Into the Movies, in two words, those words would be cheap and slapdash. Everything about the production is cheap. It’s interesting when you pull the camera back to reveal the lights and the edges of the sets — to break the magic, so to speak — when you’re showing the films-within-the-film being shot, but it breaks a bit too much of the magic when those same sets and props are re-used in what you’re pretending are the real-life linking segments. Everett True doesn’t do many Everett True-like things. The nearest he comes to his comic strip persona is to bash a studio grip that gets in his way with an umbrella. Everett True screenshot 4Even then, the grip wasn’t doing anything that particularly warranted Everett’s wrath. What I’m saying is, the plot of this film has nothing at all to do with Everett True.

I wasn’t joking when I said it was popular with a certain contingent of comic fans online — it’s amazingly so for a film that doesn’t even have an IMDb page — but I think the fondness is due entirely to its relation to the Everett True comic strip character and has little to do with the film itself. I certainly can’t recommend it on its own merit.

My rating: I don’t like it.


Available from Harpodeon

The Canyon of Missing Men (Syndicate, 1930)

TThe Canyon of Missing Men screenshot 1he Canyon of Missing Men (Syndicate, 1930)
Directed by J.P. McGowan
Starring Tom Tyler and Sheila LeGay

The Missing Men are a gang of cattle rustlers. Their headquarters is in a canyon that can only be entered by an almost invisible cave, and so far, the law has yet to discover it. Among the gang is Dave Brandon (Tom Tyler). He’s just returned from Mexico, where the gang resells their stolen cattle, and aboard the train, he met Inez Sepulveda (Sheila LeGay) and the two part on friendly terms at the station.

To the gang’s eyes, this is a bit awkward, since her father, Juan Sepulveda, is the rancher they steal from. One of the gang in particular is eager to see the relationship quenched — that being Peg (Arden Ellis), because she’s in love with Dave herself. And so they plan to kidnap Inez. I’m not sure how exactly that’s going to help, but there it is.

For reasons that are beyond me, the gang tells Dave of their plan, which prompts the first utterance of Dave’s catchphrase, “That’s one thing I won’t do”. No matter, Slug (Bud Osborne) and Brill (Cliff Lyons) will do it themselves.

I’m not really clear what happens next. I think Slug and Brill attempt to kidnap Inez, but Dave follows them and a fight breaks out during which Inez escapes. Now, my confusion isn’t entirely the film’s problem — it’s mostly because my print has very poor contrast and night scenes like this one are almost unwatchable. At any rate, Dave winds up injured and is carried into the Sepulveda hacienda.

After recovering, Dave makes a full confession of his dastardly past to Inez, who forgives him. He then turns himself in to the sheriff, who wants Dave to reveal the entrance to the canyon, but that’s one thing he’ll not do. While they argue in the police station, a second kidnapping attempt successfully carries off Inez.

Juan pays the ransom money, but stealthily trails Slug and Brill back to the canyon when they come to collect. How did no one ever think to do this before? Juan penetrates into the secret canyon, but an accident exposes him and the gang kidnaps him as well. It becomes clear at this point that the gang’s plot might not be very well thought-out and that they have no end game planned at all. In a panic, they decide to dynamite the cave and leave the Sepulvedas trapped in the canyon.

The Canyon of Missing Men screenshot 2Meanwhile, Dave, having learned of the kidnapping, escapes from jail to rescue Inez. Meanwhile meanwhile, some guy in a plaid shirt (there’s only one other name in the credits, so he must be Gimpy Lamb (Bobby Dunn)) frees the Sepulvedas for some reason. I imagine he’s the gang’s cook, and being just a hireling, has no allegiance to the gang itself and doesn’t want to leave two innocents for dead. I imagine that, but as far as his actual portrayal in the film goes, he’s just some guy who does something for some reason.

Now there’s a confusing scene that can’t be excused by the print quality. I can see it perfectly well, but after watching it twice, I’m still not sure what happened. The gang is setting the explosive, Dave is watching from higher up the cliff (I don’t get how, as the gang would have to be simultaneously inside and outside the cave for him to see what he sees from his vantage point), then there’s something about a rope? I don’t know what, but the film takes pains to establish that there’s a rope. Suddenly the sheriff is there — I don’t know where he came from, since only Dave knows where the cave is. Then Juan and Inez are standing next to Dave. Abruptly cut to town, where a posse arrests… some people… I guess gang members… they can’t be Slug and Brill — how could that possibly work? Finally, several silhouettes — I assume Dave and the Sepulvedas, but they might be anybody at all — walk out of the cave as the scene fades to black.

Some time later, the sheriff brings Dave to the Sepulveda hacienda. He’s being released on probation, he says, if Inez will agree to take custody of him. It takes a moment for Juan figure out the meaning, but once he does, he smiles and shakes Dave’s hand. Dave and Inez kiss.

The Canyon of Missing Men screenshot 3There’s always something a bit sad with late silent films. The Canyon of Missing Men (1930) seems to have been received with very little fanfare on its premier. The only review I’ve spotted is in the March 23rd, 1930 issue of The Film Daily. They described it as “passably satisfying” — not exactly glowing praise. Had it been released two or three years earlier, it may have done well, but by 1930, even the best silent features would be relegated to B-picture status or only run by small, rural theatres that had yet to install a sound system. Even in the The Film Daily’s review, they note that all it could really hope for would be to fill out the second half of a double bill.

Missing Men was Tom Tyler’s last silent picture. I wonder if it was intended to be a talkie. As a silent, the film often struggles being coherent and in a few places fails entirely, but with the way the film is structured, I could imagine spoken dialogue might have helped.

My rating: I don’t like it.

A Night in Town (Crystal, 1913)

A Night in Town screenshotA Night in Town (Crystal, 1913)
Starring Pearl White and Chester Barnett
Directed by Phillips Smalley

Tom makes a visit to his nephew Dick to meet his new wife, but the newlyweds aren’t there — they left on a short trip of their own, leaving the house entrusted to their maid (Pearl White) and butler (Chester Barnett). When the cat’s away, the mice will play: the servants invite several friends over and are in the midst of a raucous party when Tom arrives.

The maid, who has helped herself to her mistress’s clothes, is mistaken for Dick’s wife. Tom leads her away to a private alcove to get to know her better, which incurs the butler’s jealousy. A fight breaks out that leads to Tom getting thrown from the window. He lands on a cop, who arrests him for assaulting an officer.

In the morning, the newlyweds return from their trip and Tom is released from jail. He makes a second visit to the house and discovers the true identities of the woman he flirted with and the man who attacked him, but nothing really comes of it. I watched several Crystal films the same night I screened A Night in Town (I’ll probably write something about two or three of them), and while all of them suffered a bit from this problem, it’s clear that the writer started with idea for a premise that he had no idea at all how to end. Really, after Tom mistakes the maid for his nephew’s wife, the story is over and the rest of the film is just killing time. Personally, I’d have padded out the set up a bit more and ended it with the arrest — leave it to the audience’s imagination what happens next, rather than disappoint them with the… it’s not even half-hearted, “quarter-hearted” next-day scene.

My rating: I don’t like it.

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

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.