Category Archives: Like it

Smashing Barriers (Vitagraph, 1919)

Smashing Barriers (Vitagraph, 1919)
Directed by William Duncan
Starring William Duncan and Edith Johnson

Original posters for silent films are rare. The films themselves were seen as disposable once they’d finished their run, the ephemera connected to them were valued even less. Most that still exist survive by accident. Rarer still are the posters that hung in the offices of distributors that advertised posters to exhibitors. I’ve got one of those for the 1919 serial Smashing Barriers. It shows all the styles of posters available and explains which will catch attention at a distance and which are better for up-close inspection. The latter one is great because it’s just a collage of every cliff-hanging moment from all fifteen episodes. I look at it quite often — it hangs in my bedroom — and I always seem to spot something new in it. All I had were those pictures, because the serial itself was believed to be lost.

Several years ago, probably 2003 or 2004, I had the opportunity to buy a reel of Smashing Barriers. Which of the thirty reels it was, I don’t know. It was in very bad shape. The inner part of the reel was at stage five (terminal) decomposition, much of the remainder was at stage four. Perhaps only the first dozen feet was salvageable at all — not even a minute’s worth of footage. I passed on it and I’ve kicked myself for passing on it ever since. Even if was only a few seconds, I wanted to see those few seconds.

In 1923, Vitagraph re-worked the footage into a single feature-length film, abridging it down from something like 30,000 feet to 5,600 feet. This, too, is presumed to be lost aside from perhaps a fragment. It was even further abridged, down to just a single reel, in 1932. That version I can now say is not lost because it arrived on my doorstep this morning and I just confirmed that the faded handwriting on the label is correct — it is Smashing Barriers.

From contemporary reviews, I already knew that the only reason anyone watched Smashing Barriers was for the action — the plot was, by all accounts, mind-numbingly incoherent. I imagine it was similar to A Woman in Grey (1920) in that you sat through half an hour of boring nonsense because the last few moments made up for it in excitement. This abridgment of Smashing Barriers is composed of nothing but those last few moments, one after the other, and it is glorious. It’s like the poster on my bedroom wall come to life.

The story, such as it is, is dispensed with quickly: Helen Cole (Edith Johnson) owns a logging operation in the Rocky Mountains. A band of outlaws kidnaps her for ransom. Dan Stevens (William Duncan) must rescue her. It’s a lot like The Timber Queen (1922).

Helen has a sort of MacGyver-ish ingenuity for getting out of danger and Dan is a brave lunkhead kind of guy. There are fights and shoot-outs and lassoings, horse chases, boat chases, wagons going off cliffs, diving from a fifty foot dam into the water, burning cabins and collapsing barns, Dan slides on a zipline down a mountain clutching Helen between his legs… it’s non-stop action from beginning to end. It’s everything I could have hoped for and more. I love it.

I’m still working on Tough Luck and Tin Lizzies and there’s another film in the scanner right now (a remaster of an old title), but Smashing Barriers is definitely coming to video soon.

My rating: I like it.

Satan Town (Pathé, 1926)

satan-town-screenshot-1Satan Town (Pathé, 1926)
Directed by Edmund Mortimer
Starring Harry Carey and Kathleen Collins

Ladies and gentlemen, I feel that I need to apologize. I don’t often watch videos. Usually when I watch something, I’m screening a film print. When I’m running something that I’ve half a mind to write about, I’ll have a video camera off to the side vaguely pointed at the screen so that I’ve got a file to pull screenshots from. It’s sometimes out of focus and poorly exposed, and maybe the top or bottom of the frame is cropped off, and the picture is always horribly skewed, but everything went wrong with today’s screenshots. I am sorry.

Satan Town — “The Wickedest Place in the World – Tourists Welcome”, so says the banner across main street. Bill Scott (Harry Carey) rides into the city looking for adventure. At the Palace Hotel, the wickedest place in Satan Town, Sue (Kathleen Collins) of the Salvation Army strives to reach one or two of the drunks, gamblers, and prostitutes that throng the saloon.

Malamute (Ben Hendricks), the bouncer at the bar, never shies from a fight, and what’s more, he’s never lost one. Sue, to her misfortune, has gotten on his nerves. Bill enters just in time to get between Malamute and Sue. After a brief but spirited battle, Malamute is bested.

satan-town-screenshot-2It doesn’t end there, of course. Malamute attempts revenge several times and is repelled by Bill at each turn. The direct approach not working, Malamute tries a more indirect route. Sue gets a letter from Pearl, a prostitute at the Palace, saying that she’s ill. When Sue gets to room 16, however, she’s met only by Frisco Bob (Charles Delaney), the band leader. Bob is in cahoots with Malamute to ruin Sue’s reputation and thus drive her out of town. As Bob approaches menacingly, Sue picks up a convenient gun that was left on the table. Bob is undeterred. When he’s almost on her, she fires. Bob is not hit. The girl standing in the doorway, however, is. Pearl crumples to the floor, dead.

The evidence is against her and Sue is arrested. On the way to jail, Bob rides in and sweeps up Sue. A mob forms to retake her, but just then, a woman appears (I don’t know who it is — doesn’t really matter) and tells them that Pearl isn’t really dead. All of it was staged to frame Sue — Pearl and Bob are laughing it up at the bar this minute. Malamute, who’s been in the background all along, sees his plans unraveling before his eyes. He pulls his gun to shoot Sue, but Bill’s quicker and shoots him first.

The worm begins to turn. The mob rather suddenly switches sides. “Let’s wipe out the whole rotten town!” a woman cries. The way it’s acted and blocked, the scene plays out very much like the False Maria inciting the workers scene in Metropolis, so much so that, if it weren’t for the fact that this film is a year older, I’d say it was ripped off from it. As it is… well, I wonder if Fritz Lang was a fan of westerns.

satan-town-screenshot-3Bill and Sue embrace in the middle of the road, the town literally in flames around them as a crazed torch-wielding mob races about in a frenzy of destruction, left “to a life of peace and happiness”.

I liked it. The film’s kinda hokey, its plot’s a little thin and what plot it has is well-worn, Carey is very much taking his cues from William S. Hart’s good bad man shtick and the whole story bears more than a passing resemblance to Hell’s Hinges (1916), but for all that, I liked it. It helps that it’s easy to look at, being very well acted and expertly shot (though the screenshots may not seem so). And the title is great; how could anything called Satan Town be bad?

The only questionable things are a couple of weird tonal shifts. The film was advertised as a western drama and nothing else. For everything between the first scene and the last, I wouldn’t argue that. It is, on the whole, a melodrama that’s played completely straight, but the satire is so in your face at the open and close that I can’t believe it was unintentional. I’m not sure what they were going for with that.

My rating: I like it.

The next video out will be an HD remaster of The Victoria Cross (1912). After that, I’m not so sure, but I’m leaning toward The Doll-House Mystery (1915) or maybe The Dancer (1916).

Bathing Beauties and Big Boobs (Vitagraph, 1918)

bathing-beauties-and-big-boobs-screenshot-1Bathing Beauties and Big Boobs (Vitagraph, 1918)
Directed by Larry Semon
Starring Larry Semon and Madge Kirby

You don’t have to hang around long with a group of silent comedy enthusiasts before at least a few of them will make sure you know of their vehement hatred of Larry Semon. I wonder how much of that is because of his adaption of The Wizard of Oz (1925). Oz is a film so terrible I don’t think even his defenders would pretend to like it, but unfortunately for Semon, it’s probably the work he’s most known for today.

Certainly, his work is formulaic. In my review of The Sawmill (1922), I gave a rundown of features common to pretty much every Larry Semon film — and the film I’ll be presently getting to, Bathing Beauties and Big Boobs, is no exception — but in his day, Semon was rather popular. I think the similarity of his films worked in his favor. You know exactly what you’re going to get, and if his shtick is the kind of thing you’re into, well, you know you won’t be disappointed no matter what title is playing.

I just acquired a new print of Bathing Beauties a few weeks ago that’s of infinitely better quality than any of my other ones. It shouldn’t matter — theoretically, a good film should be able to shine through a muddy picture — but of course, bathing-beauties-and-big-boobs-screenshot-2quality does matter. You, me, and everyone else is going to give a fairer shake to whichever print looks the prettiest. Going back to The Sawmill, I recall that I had to re-evaluate my opinion of it after screening an original Kodascope.

Larry Semon is at the beach and falls in love with Madge Kirby (I’m just going to call them that—they’re not characters enough to have names), but her father disapproves. Naturally, the only course of action is for Larry and his rotund friend Frank Alexander to stage a robbery which Larry can then foil and thus win over the old man. Unfortunately, there’s also of pair of actual robbers running about to be contended with. Cue the chase and the inexplicable tower that must be jumped from several times. The robbers caught and the swag retrieved, Larry goes to claim his girl only to see her and Frank hand-in-hand — “I owe everything to this stout young man,” her father says approvingly.

It’s… not bad? Yes, there’s the unfortunate scene where Larry confuses the maid for Madge — “Man, yo’ sho’ am a fast worker!” “You’re tanned up a bit too much for me!” — but that aside, I’ve seen much worse slapstick comedies. Yes, it ticks every box on the Larry Semon Checklist of Plot Points, and yes, the requisite tower comes out of nowhere, but still… it kind of works.

I think I’ve seen too many Larry Semon pictures. I’m developing Stockholm Syndrome.

My rating: I like it.

Timothy’s Quest (Dirigo, 1922)

timothys-quest-screenshot-1Timothy’s Quest (Dirigo, 1922)
Directed by Sidney Olcott
Starring Joseph Depew and Helen Roland

10 year old Timothy (Joseph Depew) and his 4 year old sister Gay (Helen Roland) are orphans. They’re fundamentally good kids, but the slum they live in is in a rough and violent part of the city (Boston? New York? It doesn’t really matter — it’s the city). Their only ray of hope comes from Miss Dora, the “Angel of the Alley” (Gladys Leslie). She’s a social worker or something of that nature. Timothy’s entire world is confined to this slum and he knows nothing else. Dora suggests he make a “picture prayer”, which she describes as thinking about a wish long enough that the wish comes true. I think Oprah called it “The Secret”. Anyway, Timothy’s picture prayer is of a white house in the country where there lives a kindly lady who wants to adopt them.

The occasional money the kids received from some anonymous source has dried up and the two drunks who keep them have decided to give Gay to the Ladies’ Relief Home and send Timothy to the state orphanage. With no desire to be split up, Timothy, Gay, and their dog (Rags) slip away under cover of darkness and hop a north-bound freight train — trusting in the picture prayer to see them through.

timothys-quest-screenshot-2The morning finds them overlooking a small cluster of houses built around a church nestled in the rolling hills of rural Maine. They continue on foot until they reach the envisioned house, although its owner is rather older than Timothy imagined, and of the several appellations that might be given her, “kindly” isn’t one of them. Avilda Cummins (Marie Day) dislikes the children from the start and wouldn’t have suffered them to stay a moment were it not for Samantha’s (Margaret Seddon) intervention. Samantha at some point in the distant past might have been termed a maid, but now “companion” is more fitting.

And so Timothy and Gay tentatively remain at White Farm. Everyone is enamored by them — everyone but Vilda. The boy reminds her “of something in the past”, she says, and she “can’t stand to have [him] about”. To cut to the chase, Timothy and Gay were her sister’s children. She had gotten “in trouble” and was run out of town. And Vilda is angry: angry at her sister Martha, angry at the “good orthodox Christians” who turned their backs when Martha needed them most, and angry at herself for not supporting her.

timothys-quest-screenshot-3Vilda at last relents and adopts Timothy and Gay, and in doing so, comes to terms with the past.

I’m from Maine. I know I’ve mentioned that on my book blog, but I don’t think it’s ever come up on this one. There are several films set in Maine, some pretty well known, but rarely were they actually filmed here. Way Down East (1920) didn’t get any nearer than Connecticut. At least that’s New England — Shadows (1922) was shot entirely in California. Timothy’s Quest (1922), the only production ever released by Dirigo Films, aside from being set in Maine was filmed here too. It was shot in and around Hollis, which is in the southern part of the state, not terribly far from Portland. It’s doubly interesting since most Maine films (silent and sound) focus on the coastal fishing and shipping centers rather than inland farming communities like Hollis. In fact, I can’t actually think of another example beyond Timothy’s Quest. I have to say, more than anything else, that’s what attracted me to the film when I saw it on Amazon. Maine is old and slow to change — for much of the state, 1922 is recent enough to be yesterday — and I hoped to see something familiar. I was not disappointed. The first view of town Timothy catches is, for the world, what I see going up route 4 on my way home. There’s nothing fake about the Maine of this film — it all rings perfectly true.

timothys-quest-screenshot-4Aside from my delight at the setting, it’s all around a good film. There’s hardly a weak performance — Depew and Day turn in particularly strong work. You might notice that Vivia Ogden reprises her role from Way Down East as the town gossip. It’s a fun callback, and the character suits her well. If I had any complaints, it’s that the story may be stretched a little thin at seven reels. It wouldn’t lose anything were it tightened up a bit, notably in the back half.

I watched the recent Flicker Alley BD-R, which looks great aside from the mistimed tinting (the color changes consistently about half a second before the scene changes) and the tints maybe being a bit too strong. Although I rather think I have a 16mm print in my collection. If I do, I’ve never examined it and I’m not sure if it’s complete. If I remember after writing this, I must check.

My rating: I like it.

Available from Flicker Alley

Edit: Hey, I remembered, and hey, I do. In need of a thorough cleaning, but otherwise in good shape.timothys-quest-print

Somebody Lied (Victor, 1917)

Somebody Lied screenshot 1Somebody Lied (Victor, 1917)
Directed by Ben Wilson
Starring Priscilla Dean and Harry Carter

It’s been a while but I’ll break my four month hiatus with a review of a Priscilla Dean two reel comedy-drama I recently saw. If I’m not mistaken, the last time I spoke of Dean was way back in 2012 with the slapstick parody Heaven Will Protect a Woiking Goil (1916).

No longer with Vogue, Dean is now headlining a Victor film. The Victor Film Company was founded by the Biograph Girl herself, Florence Lawrence, as a subsidiary of IMP. I’ve already covered IMP and the establishment of the star system in my review of As a Boy Dreams (1911), so I’ll leave it at that. I should say, Somebody Lied (1917) was only nominally produced by Victor. For all intents and purposes, Victor ceased to exist in 1913 when the studio was absorbed by Universal, but the branding continued to be used for several years after that, in much the same way that Warner Bros. continued releasing “Vitagraph” films in the late ’20s.

Dolly (Priscilla Dean) has been married to Willie (Harry Carter) for just a month, and in her newlywed eyes, her husband is still a “flawless, blue-white diamond, sparkling in a setting of twenty-two carat gold”. When she Somebody Lied screenshot 2looks at him, she literally sees a halo ‘round his head. Her friend Evelyn (Virginia Lee) invites them to a costume party, but there are four things Willie never does: in his words, “I never smoke, I never drink, I never dance, and I never attend mask balls!” He’s not opposed to Dolly going, though. He’ll be content spending a quiet evening at home with his books.

At the ball, Dolly as Marie Antoinette meets a Pierrot (Earle Page). There’s a bit of flirting, it must be confessed, but it’s innocent enough and Dolly flees home the moment the clown gets too fresh. She tiptoes to bed so as not to disturb Willie in his study.

She needn’t have bothered; her angel isn’t at home. Willie is “where no saint ever comes — and wouldn’t be admitted if he did”. Namely, he’s at an underground casino, smoking and boozing it up. The night still young, the deserted Pierrot drops in to partake in a few spins of the roulette wheel. Unfortunately for both, the police also have a mind to visit. Willie and the clown barricade themselves in the back room. “She thinks I’m an angel,” Willie moans. If he’s arrested, his “wife will lose all faith” in him. The police didn’t see Pierrot, so he offers Willie his costume and shoves him through the trapdoor to the roof.

Somebody Lied screenshot 3After a daring escape, Willie makes it home. As she sees the clown enter her bedroom, Dolly recoils: “Please go — I was wrong to flirt with you at the ball!” She’s not long in suspense. Willie at once whips off the mask and demands to know who she’s been flirting with. He’s so angry that it isn’t until the roulette chips fly out of his pockets and spill on the ground that he remembers his own transgression. Silenced, he slumps on the bed. “Then you’re not a perfect angel, are you?” “No, not perfect, but…” Willie needn’t say more. Dolly reaches over and pulls him in for a kiss.

I liked this film quite a bit. Dramedies can be hard to get right, but Somebody Lied rode the line well. The humor here, at least, always seemed intentional and didn’t feel incongruous to the otherwise straight drama. To Ben Wilson’s credit, more celebrated directors than him have failed at that. Frank Borzage’s The Circle (1925), in my opinion, is a particularly bad example of a film that lurches from serious to comic without doing justice to either.

My rating: I like it.


Available Harpodeon

The Fatherhood of Buck McGee (Vitagraph, 1912)

The Fatherhood of Buck McGee screenshot 1The Fatherhood of Buck McGee (Vitagraph, 1912)
Directed by Rollin S. Sturgeon
Starring Robert Thornby

Pete gets word that his wife and daughter are coming out west to see him. The news is received with little relish by his mining partner Buck McGee (Robert Thornby), who has no patience for children. Misfortune follows misfortune for little Nellie: first her father is killed in a blasting accident, then her mother dies in an Indian attack. Buck writes to his sister, begging her to take the kid off his hands, but she’s his responsibility in the meantime.

Nellie tries in vain to make friends with Buck and doesn’t complain when, again and again, she’s met with nothing but a cold shoulder. At last, Buck returns home to find a note. Since Buck doesn’t want her, Nellie says, she’s gone up the mountain to be with her mama. Buck sets out to find her and arrives just in time to see Nellie hurl herself off a cliff.

It was quite a fall, but Buck manages to revive her. The Sheriff arrives the next day, come to take Nellie to Buck’s sister, but Buck tells him he’d rather adopt Nellie himself.

The Fatherhood of Buck McGee screenshot 2A good film, if a bit rushed. Westerns are usually thought of as rough-and-tumble, action-packed affairs, but films like this and A Man’s Calling (1912) show that the setting can just as well be used for more personal, character-driven works. The Fatherhood of Buck McGee is a small-scale drama with no pretensions to being an action film, so I don’t fault it too much for this, but I have to say that the Indian attack was a bit pathetic. “The battle”, as it’s grandly described, consists of a few horsemen circling a wagon train and firing into the air for about fifteen seconds. Nellie’s mother is dispatched off-screen via title. That aside, the camerawork itself is quite commendable. Even the battle is a nice, wide, overhead shot that I’m sure would look incredible if they had ten or twenty times more Indians and enough wagons that they could circle them rather than triangle them. To the film’s credit, the exteriors do look like they were actually filmed somewhere in the southwest and not just on an outdoor set in New Jersey.

The girl, who’s probably between six and eight years old, is the weak link as far as the acting goes, but she handles the role well enough. In the year following the film’s release, the “Answers to Inquires” column in Motion Picture Story Magazine was written to no fewer than three times asking who played Nellie, and they simply didn’t know. She wasn’t a contract player and apparently nobody knew her — just someone off the street answering a casting call.

My rating: I like it.

David Harum (Famous Players, 1915)

David Harum screenshot 2David Harum (Famous Players, 1915)
Directed by Allan Dwan
Starring William H. Crane

I read the novel this film is based on a couple years ago. David Harum, the book, isn’t about David Harum. The main character is John Lenox and the story follows him as he struggles to get ahead in life, hoping to one day be wealthy enough to make a suitable husband for the rich Mary Blake. While traces of that are here in David Harum, the film, this David Harum very much is the focus of the story, with John fading quite into the background. I’ll say upfront, I don’t fault the film for that. Novels and movies are two different media, and what works in one may not work in the other. A faithful David Harum adaptation would be terribly dull, just by nature of how the book is written.

David Harum (William H. Crane) is a successful banker in the small town of Homeville, New York. His cashier, Chet Timson (Hal Clarendon), is a slimy fellow who thinks he’s a great deal more essential to the running of the bank than he actually is. It comes as quite a shock when he finds himself fired and a new man, John Lenox (Harold Lockwood), at his place behind the counter.

David Harum screenshot 1John is in Homeville following the suicide of his father, who had gotten himself into some particularly dire financial straits that have left John virtually penniless. All he has left is a worthless tract of wasteland, which he would sell but David has a hunch that it may turn out to be of some value.

Chet is involved in a counterfeiting operation. He had been taking the counterfeit bills from some nefarious character and exchanging them for real currency at the bank. Now it seems to have caught up with him and the Feds are in town investigating. Chet is sweet on the schoolmarm, Mary Blake (May Allison), who plainly favors John over him. Seeing a chance to kill two birds with one stone, he plants the counterfeits on John and alerts the authorities.

John is arrested, but David suspects a set-up. He finds the other man involved in the counterfeiting plot and forces him to confess. Unmasked, Chet finds himself persona non grata and the whole town gathers to ride him out on a rail. Incidentally, the engineering report that David had been waiting for finally arrives: that wasteland of John’s sits atop an enormous oil reserve worth untold fortunes.

David Harum screenshot 3It’s quite a departure from the novel’s plot. The counterfeiting operation, the federal investigation, the love triangle, Mary being a teacher (or even being in Homeville at all) — those are all inventions of the film. There were some counterfeit bills in the book, but they weren’t even a subplot, much less the central conflict. They were just a minor incident in John’s apprenticeship — David testing his integrity. No, if you were expecting to see the book put to screen, you’d come away from David Harum disappointed. Taken on its own, however, David Harum is an enjoyable film. The story holds together and doesn’t drag, with a good mix of exciting and tender moments and occasional comic relief, but even disregarding that, you have to commend the film for its faultless cinematography. I especially liked the tracking shots that take you down the street to the bank — you get a good feel for Homeville, both as it’s physically arranged and, more abstractly, the way that it all converges on David Harum.

Side note, we can be pretty sure that filming wrapped by May 7th, 1915 at the latest, since the ship they’re on is the Lusitania.

My rating: I like it.

Available from Televista. I’d usually link directly to the distributor’s website, but I just can’t get it to work, so have an Amazon link instead.

The 100 to 1 Shot; or, A Run of Luck (Vitagraph, 1906)

The 100 to 1 Shot screenshot 1The 100 to 1 Shot; or, A Run of Luck (Vitagraph, 1906)

A farmer is behind on his mortgage and a heartless creditor has come demanding payment. His daughter’s boyfriend pawns his watch for $50 and heads to the racetrack, where he picks up a hot tip. Literally, he picks it up — a “plunger” had dropped a note telling him to “Play Tommy Foster, STRAIGHT”. Boyfriend stakes it all on the long shot, and in an instant, $50 turns into $5,000. He races back to the farm, where the bailiffs have been called and even now are threatening to evict the old man. He arrives just in time. The farm is saved with money to spare.

If you’ve read… well, any book on film editing, you’ve probably heard about The 100 to 1 Shot (1906). After the boyfriend’s big win, he jumps in a taxi and speeds back to the farm, where the eviction is being carried out. The two events are occurring simultaneously, and to show that, the film cuts back and forth between the speeding taxi and the bailiffs manhandling the farmer. 100 to 1 may be the earliest example of cross-cutting, and if it isn’t, then at least it’s earliest example that both The 100 to 1 Shot screenshot 2survives and is more or less readily available to watch. It marks a dramatic departure from the stage-bound, episodic form earlier films took — where every scene consisted of a single shot, usually including the actors entering the frame at the start and exiting it at the end, just as if on stage. Cutting was seen as analogous to closing the curtain, and when it was used, it tended to denoted elapsed time. There was a huge concern that cuts within scenes would disorient viewers. There’s no stage analogue to a camera angle change, and certainly not to cross-cutting between two locations. To a film historian, 100 to 1 marks the beginning of the modern concept of cinematic continuity.

It didn’t seem to be so well respected by its contemporaries, however. Most bemoaned the immorality of the subject — rewarding a gambler, how sinful! Why, these “movies” will be the downfall of America! You know what sort goes to see them and how impressionable those people are.

The 100 to 1 Shot screenshot 3I do think it was the holier-than-thou backlash against films like 100 to 1 that prompted Vitagraph’s heavy investment in Quality Films a few years later — to legitimize itself and the medium in the eyes of the middle and upper class. Speaking of that, the binoculars gimmick that I thought worked so well in The Victoria Cross (1912) is also used here: Boyfriend has a pair that he watches the race through. It’s not as effective, but I thought it was an interesting connection.

My rating: I like it.

The Firing of the Patchwork Quilt (Vitagraph, 1911)

The Firing of the Patchwork Quilt screenshot 1The Firing of the Patchwork Quilt (Vitagraph, 1911)
Starring Mary Maurice and Robert Gaillard.

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.

The Firing of the Patchwork Quilt screenshot 2We’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 gotThe Firing of the Patchwork Quilt screenshot 3 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 theirThe Firing of the Patchwork Quilt screenshot 4 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

The Making of a Man (Biograph, 1911)

The Making of a Man screenshot 1The Making of a Man (Biograph, 1911)
Directed by D.W. Griffith
Starring Dell Henderson and Blanche Sweet

(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 The Making of a Man screenshot 2presents 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.

The Making of a Man screenshot 3We 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.

 

Edit:

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.

The Making of a Man magazine