Category Archives: Like it

Spying the Spy (Ebony, 1918)

Spying the Spy (Ebony, 1918)
Directed by R.W. Phillips (or R.G., he went by both)
Starring Samuel Jacks

America is embroiled in war and there are German secret agents everywhere. “I must catch some spies,” Sambo Sam (Samuel Jacks) tells himself. “My country demands it of me.” Sam models himself as a sort of Sherlock Holmes, complete with a calabash pipe, and what he lacks in competence, he makes up for in enthusiasm.

On the street, he at once picks up some clues: a German language newspaper, a link of sausage, and the name Schwartz on a mailbox. This can only be one of the Kaiser’s agents. He enters the apartment building and waits outside Schwartz’s door, imagining what nefarious deeds the spy must be up to inside. As soon as the door opens, he claps a laundry bag over the man’s head and marches him to police headquarters. But Schwartz, it turns out, isn’t a German spy but “a respectable colored gentleman”.

Undeterred, Sam sets out to round up more spies. He spots a group of men carrying a cannon into a building. “I’ll get that gang,” he cries to his friends William and Molly before rushing home for his detective gear. The gang is actually William’s fraternity. He goes in to warn them of Sam and they’re ready for him when he walks through the clubhouse door.

Sam is surrounded by black-hooded men with skull and crossbones on their chests. A trapdoor is opened and a slide wheeled into place. Down the slide Sam goes, to a subterranean torture chamber. Another hooded figure lifts an axe ready to lop off Sam’s head, but just then, a knocking sound is heard and everyone freezes. It’s really a workman installing carpet upstairs, but the gang pretends it’s their god calling for them: “Brothers, the master is knocking for us, we will now make our departure from here.” Each man lifts a gun to his head and pulls the trigger before collapsing to the floor. “Good night!” Sam exclaims, running out the door. The gang gets up and pulls off their hoods, laughing uproariously at the prank they’ve just pulled.

Ebony Films was a short-lived Chicago-based studio that made “race films”. It was unusual at the time for white and black actors to appear on screen together. Not unheard of — Larry Semon and Spencer Bell worked alongside one another many times, for example — but certainly unusual. Black people might appear as background extras, but if a white character needed to interact with a black character, the black character was more often than not a white actor in blackface. Race films essentially inverted this arrangement, giving black actors most or all of the principal parts, and were targeted at largely black audiences.

Race films existed from the beginning of cinema. I have in my nitrate collection a race remake of the The May Irwin Kiss likely released sometime around 1899. Some race films were similarly “inspired” by existing movies — the plot of Ebony’s own Mercy, the Mummy Mumbled (1918) is lifted wholesale from Vitagraph’s The Egyptian Mummy (1914) — but there were original films, too.

Older books sometimes refer to Spying the Spy (1918) as a spoof of The Birth of a Nation (1915), and while that’s not true in the slightest, I can see where they got the idea. I’m not aware of Spying the Spy ever being released on video and prints are rare. Most commentators are just going off a handful of stills, which, out of context, do actually make the fraternity look like a parody of the Klan.

The stated goal of Ebony Films was to break from the old and offensive stereotypes then common to the stage and screen and present “real negro comedies with real negro players.” Their output — at least, what survives of it — isn’t exactly a model of progressiveness, but there is something to be said in their favor. Sambo Sam doesn’t speak in dialect nor do the other black characters. I won’t say Spying the Spy doesn’t play on any stereotypes (I mean, the main character’s name is Sambo Sam), but the film isn’t a minstrel show. The antics that Sam gets into are standard slapstick fair that would work just as well if he were white without changing anything.

I could see being disappointed by Spying the Spy. It’s not Oscar Micheaux; Spying the Spy doesn’t have a message and isn’t trying to say anything about race relations. It’s a broad, low-brow, slapstick comedy. Taken for what it is, it’s not a bad film. Jacks does a good job portraying the bungling amateur detective. The cinematography is unremarkable overall, but I did like how Sam’s fantasy sequences were handled.

My rating: I like it.

The HD remaster of the Sheldon Lewis Jekyll and Hyde won’t be ready for Halloween. The negative it’s sourced from is in pretty poor shape and requires a bit of work to make presentable. I didn’t want to rush it. It should be out by early November. After that will be something particularly exciting: I mentioned in my Timothy’s Quest (1922) writeup that I’d never seen any other silent films set and shot in rural, inland Maine. Well, I found another one, and I guarantee you’ve never heard of it.

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Blackbeard (Selig, 1911)

Blackbeard (Selig, 1911)
Directed by Francis Boggs
Starring Sydney Ayres

If you read movie magazines from the early 1910s, you’ll find an almost universal theme coursing through every issue: will there be censorship? Motion Picture Story Magazine, in particular, had a long running series on the topic with interviews and guest articles by religious leaders of various stripes arguing the morals of the new medium. You’ll recall that the magazine was published by J. Stuart Blackton, co-founder of Vitagraph — who very, very coincidentally were at the height of production of their so-called Quality Films, as distinguished from those vile and corrupting pictures from other studios that played at the nickel theatres.

It’s often hard to reconcile the hyperbolic tone those “other” films are spoken of with the actual films themselves, which often come across as harmless and even quaint. With Blackbeard (1911), though, I kind of see what they’re talking about. I wouldn’t say it’s vile and corrupting, but it is graphically violent, and while the villainous Blackbeard is defeated at the end, he is — until them — more or less the main character. In other words, the story doesn’t focus on some hero out to stop the pirates — it focuses on the pirates.

Blackbeard (Sydney Ayres) and his men sack the island of Martinique. The Governor (Hobart Bosworth) and his household are carried away as prisoners. The Governor is forced to walk the plank, but his faithful maid Conchita (Bessie Eyton) dives in and swims him to safety at a nearby islet. With the other male captives similarly disposed of, the ladies are thrown into the hold where they’re menaced by Blackbeard until a pursuing British Man-O’-War is sighted. Blackbeard orders the hold be sealed and the prisoners suffocated with burning sulfur and they very nearly are until a lucky cannon shot blasts a hole through the deck to let in fresh air. The Man-O’-War overtakes the pirate ship, the British board them, and then it’s down to pistols and cutlasses. At last the pirates are defeated and Blackbeard is hanged from his own yardarm.

It’s gruesome stuff, especially the end, where it does not shy from showing the bodies swinging in the breeze.

Blackbeard was written and directed by Francis Boggs. It was one of his last works — he died the year of its release. I have prints of three of his films. The Cattle Rustlers (1908) is primitive even for the time, but he seems to have learned how to make a movie right quick — Blackbeard and Shipwrecked (1911) are both very well photographed and decently acted, at least in comparison to other films out in the early 1910s, and certainly compared to Vitagraph’s Quality Films. If I had any complaint, Blackbeard relies too heavily on titles to maintain the continuity, but that’s really just down to its length. To be told visually, either story would have to be simplified or the film would have to be a good deal longer than one reel.

My rating: I like it.

The Heart of Doreon (Cyrus J. Williams, 1921)

The Heart of Doreon (Cyrus J. Williams, 1921)
Directed by Robert N. Bradbury
Starring Tom Santschi

Although it wasn’t my plan, five of the last six films I watched were about Mounties.

In The Heart of Doreon, Tom Santschi plays against his usual cowboy type as the titular French-Canadian trapper whose “heart is full of sunshine and laughter and love for Babette.” Babette (Ruth Stonehouse), however, favors bad-boy Blake (Guy Edward Hearn in an equally atypical role). Blake seems to have gotten into a bit of trouble and skips town. You might think Doreon would be pleased, but no — Babette’s distress is his distress and so he vows to find Blake for her.

Corporal King, of the Canadian Mounted Police (Jay Morley?), is after Blake as well. Babette’s beau is in quite a bit of trouble indeed — he’s wanted for bank robbery. Babette realizes she really does love Doreon and denounces Blake.

Doreon, with his keen trapper instincts, has meanwhile tracked down the fugitive. He tries to approach him but Blake sucker-punches him — “Take that, you frog!” — and reaches for his gun. Doreon draws quicker and shoots Blake right in the forehead at point-blank range (but don’t worry; he’s fine).

King arrives and takes custody of Blake (he was shot in the face, but seriously, he’s fine). Doreon learns of Babette’s reversal and rushes home. “Ma Cherie! Is it true you like this old fellow, Doreon?” They embrace as Doreon gives thanks that all has worked out in the end.

There aren’t many contemporary reviews of this short, but one I found was generally favorable while saying “Ruth Stonehouse is inclined to overact as the French girl”. Really? You say that about Stonehouse in a Tom Santschi vehicle? Doreon is a really likeable character and I enjoyed Santschi’s portrayal of him, but he is anything but subtle. I wouldn’t say anything of the rest of the cast is terribly remarkable, one way or the other. Certainly not the guy who walked off a bullet through his skull.

Ruth Stonehouse’s appearance is why I acquired the film in the first place. Alice Guy and Lois Weber have at last gained some recognition in recent years, but many women who worked behind-the-camera — directors, producers, screenwriters — remain obscure. Ruth Stonehouse, who was all of those, seems to be entirely forgotten. The survival rate of her work is actually pretty good, but not much of it is accessible.

She only acts in The Heart of Doreon, unfortunately. I thought she might have written it, but it turns out that it’s an adaption of Robert Walker’s Hard to Catch. Never heard of that book, never heard of that author, and five minutes on Google provided no elucidation, but that’s what the film’s release notice says. It’s possible she adapted the screenplay, of course, but there’s no evidence of that.

(And it’s “Doreon”, not “Dorean”, IMDb.)

My rating: I like it.

 

The next video release was going to be an HD remaster of Station Content (1918), but I’m not happy with part of the transfer and I’m going to scan it again. The original video was easier because I only had one print to draw from then. I’ve got multiple copies now, and as is often the case with old film, each one is a bit different. Now and then you’ll find entirely alternate scenes, but that’s not the case here — it’s the same sequence of shots, but the cuts are in slightly different places. Mostly it’s just a matter of a few frames more or less, but on the extreme side, one scene from one print is twelve seconds longer than the others. Editing them together requires getting the disparate quality images looking as similar as possible. The prints are all 80+ years old and some are pretty badly curled, which introduces fluttering in the transfer. Some flutter can’t be escaped, but the flutter in my first transfer was just unacceptable. I’ve been trying a new chemical treatment — a bath primarily composed of chloroform — and it worked wonders for Smashing Barriers, which was terribly curled when I got it. Hopefully it will work on Station Content as well.

Instead, the next video will be a new title. It’s a comedy I’ve written about here before. The score calls for Scottish and Oriental characteristics — there’s your hint.

Available from Harpodeon

The Juggernaut (Vitagraph, 1915)

The Juggernaut (Vitagraph, 1915)
Directed by Ralph W. Ince
Starring Earle Williams and Anita Stewart

Can it be? Is it really finished? It doesn’t seem possible. The new reconstruction of The Juggernaut is done.

This review will probably be  shorter than you might have thought. I’ve already said pretty much all there is to say about the history of the film in my Juggernauting series, and I don’t have much to add about the adventure it was reconstructing it either. I’m very happy with how it turned out, as I said before. I find The Juggernaut to be a fascinating film — I’ve said that before, too — but I don’t think I’ve ever commented on whether or not it’s a good film.

Let’s put it in a more modern context: it reminds me of Titanic (1997). I went to see Titanic when it came out. Somewhere at around hour 35 of the screening, the person I was there with leaned over and asked me when the boat was going to sink. I think a lot of people were leaning over to their neighbor and asking when the train was going to wreck when they went to see The Juggernaut in 1915. Like the iceberg, audiences knew the wreck was coming. It was all over the advertisements — it’s what the film was sold on, it’s what they were there to see.

It takes a long time to get to the train wreck.

The first reel starts off strong. After a brief introduction to our characters — Mr. and Mrs. Ballard, farmers; their son John (Earle Williams), who dreams of becoming a lawyer; rich railroad magnate James Hardin (Frank Currier) and his ne’er-do-well son Philip (William R. Dunn) — we get right into some action. On their way to market, the elder Ballards are struck at a railroad crossing and killed. John sells the farm and enrolls in law school, where he meets Philip and becomes his friend, despite blaming his father for his parents’ death. Philip is given to dissipation, and rather than meet John for a study session as planned, he joins a poker game with a gang of sharpers. A fight breaks out when he discovers he’s being cheated. He would be killed by one of them if not for the timely arrival of John, who smashes a chair on the hooligan’s head. End of reel one.

As for reel two… and three… and four… well, we’ll say it doesn’t keep up the momentum. A less charitable viewer might use the word “padding” to describe everything that happens after the fight and before the wreck.

John apparently killed the menacing gambler. Philip swears he’ll never reveal the secret. John and Viola Ruskin (Anita Stewart) meet on graduation day and fall in love, but Viola’s mother (Julia Swayne Gordon) has the Hardin fortune in mind and forces her to marry Philip. Viola dies giving birth to Louise, John and Philip drift apart.

Twenty years later, John is the District Attorney and brings a suit against Philip’s railroad, which has only gotten worse since he’s inherited it. Philip would blackmail John into dropping the case by threatening to reveal the murder, but Louise (also played by Anita Stewart) spoils it all by giving evidence to John that proves it wasn’t him — the sharper got into another fight later that same day and was killed then. The trial proceeds, Philip phones Louise to bring him some documents from his home safe, her car breaks down and she’s force to take… dun-dun-dun… the train.

We’re in the fifth reel now and have come to what everyone is waiting for. The train is speeding toward a bridge Philip knows is unsafe to cross, but he doesn’t discover until too late that his daughter is on board. He races out of the office and tries to head-off the train and warn them of the danger ahead, but he’s not fast enough. The bridge collapses and the train goes tumbling into the water.

Then the film forks in a couple directions. John has rushed to the scene as well. At the film’s premiere screening, he swims out to the wreckage and pulls out Louise, but the Juggernaut has claimed its victim — Louise is dead. Others got one of two alternate endings that vary in detail, but both end with Louise recovering and John professing his love to her.

The Juggernaut was a popular film — it played for 750 days and made an obscene amount of money. It’s interesting to see, as time goes on, how the ads for it change. Earle Williams is the star in 1915. In 1917, Anita Stewart and Earle Williams are both top billed. In 1920, Anita Stewart is the star.

I must say, Anita Stewart gives the only decent performance. Earle Williams’s idea of emoting is to just spike the camera. The intensity of his emotion can be gauged by how long he holds eye contact with you — romantic, pathetic, tensive, it doesn’t matter, spike the camera. Now Julia Swayne Gordon, she is acting. My word, does she chew the scenery. The thing is, I’ve seen Gordon in other films and she’s nowhere near as hammy as she is here, even in her very early work. I’m sure she was directed to act like that. I’m sure even in the final take just as she’s about to devour the set whole, Ralph Ince is just off-camera yelling “BIGGER!” I will give credit where it’s due, the man knew how to block a scene. The scene where John overhears Viola and her mother arguing about Philip in particular, I though that was expertly arranged. He just couldn’t direct actors for beans.

We’ve come down to the rating. The Juggernaut is a fascinating film, and it does deliver the promised full-scale train wreck, and it is thrilling for two or three scenes, but is it a good film? No, not at all. Not one bit. But would I recommend it? The narrative is weak and the acting is horrid, but it’s less a movie than it is a spectacle. Go in with that mindset, don’t trouble yourself with paying too close attention to the middle bits, and you’ll love it as I love it.

My rating: I like it.

I think I’m going to take a few days off, but I’ll give you a hint as to what the next video will be. I needed part of Wanted:- A Nurse (1915) for The Juggernaut and it didn’t make any sense not to go ahead and scan all of it. So that’s waiting on the hard drive for whenever I care to get around to it, but that won’t be the next video out. We released an HD remaster of The Victoria Cross (1912) not too long ago. Coming up next will be another before-he-was-famous Wallace Reid film. One more hint, just as in The Victoria Cross, he also plays a lieutenant in this one.

 

Available from Harpodeon

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).

There aren’t many other characters identified. The chief bandit, “Wirenail” Hedges, is Joe Ryan. The man who lassos Helen looks a great deal like Guillermo Calles, who I know did work with Duncan on several films.

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.

Available from Harpodeon

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.