Category Archives: Meh
Like The Victoria Cross (1912), which I’ve written about before, Lady Godiva (1911) is another example of that short-lived genre known at Vitagraph as the Quality Film. Elsewhere, they were termed variously De-Luxe Films or High-Art Films, but we might allow Vitagraph naming rights as they were the chief producers of the genre. Also like The Victoria Cross, Lady Godiva is based on two culturally revered subjects: history (or at least legend) and poetry (Tennyson in both films).
Lady Godiva (Julia Swayne Gordon) is the wife of Earl Leofric (Robert Gaillard), who has imposed a ruinous new tax on his townspeople that threatens to drive them to starvation. She begs he lift the tax, but the Earl’s heart is “as rough as Esau’s hand” and he’ll only agree to do so on the condition that she ride naked through town.
Warned by a herald of her approach, all the townspeople go inside and shut their windows, except for “one low churl” (Harold Wilson) who watches through a peephole. As she passes, he’s blinded by the sight — “his eyes were shrivell’d into darkness”.
The task complete, she returns to the Earl, who repeals the tax, and so Lady Godiva’s fame becomes “everlasting”.
All of the titles are “quotes” from Tennyson’s poem Godiva. I scare-quote the word because, while the text is presented as direct excerpts, it’s awfully mangled. That’s not at all unexpected. The target audience for Quality Films was not well educated and probably didn’t have a firm grasp of English. They may know of Shakespeare or Tennyson, but it’s highly unlikely that they ever read either. Their familiarity with the great English poets came mostly from places like postcards illustrating famous lines, which were often condensed for space and modified to be both more stand-alone and also to be more marketable — to be able to serve as an advertisement for some product or other. For the Quality Film producers, when the choice came down to a quote that’s right or a quote that’s familiar, one always erred on the side of familiarity. There are some common misquotes persisting today that, while they didn’t originate in early film, early film helped to cement in popular culture — lines like “Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well”.
The set is the same Ye Olde England lot that can be seen in several Vitagraph films from this period, consisting of three half-timbered building façades and a painted backdrop. They vary the angles and move around the set dressing from scene to scene to make it appear larger than it is. There’s attention to detail shown in matching the painted shadows to the actual ones, and in keeping the actors from casting shadows on the backdrop. I don’t recognize the castle (or the gate of the castle, rather — that’s all we see). It may have been built specially. I count about sixteen extras, which reasonably fills out the crowd scenes. One of them is Kate Price, who’s pretty easy to spot. Clara Kimball Young is apparently in there, too, but I couldn’t pinpoint her.
The nude ride is as absolutely sexless as can be, and not only because of the bodystocking and strategically placed hair. Julia Swayne Gordon plays Godiva as you might a saint. But the moral of the story is to not be a Peeping Tom — indeed, the Lady Godiva legend is the origin of the term Peeping Tom. You might recognize Tom — or Harold Wilson — as Silverstein from The Awakening of Bianca (1912). His performance here is kind of the same, only now his handwringing is meant to suggest lasciviousness, and in Bianca, it was meant to look Jewish.
Quality Films are interesting in an abstract, film history kind of way, but can often be on the dull side. The Victoria Cross had the saving grace of an exciting battle scene and the novel conceit of the binoculars, which served the practical purpose of masking the small number of extras, but also looked cool and gave Edith Storey some welcome screentime. In comparison, Lady Godiva doesn’t have much going for it. I didn’t dislike it, but it’s just sort there and it feels all its length.
My rating: Meh.
Ethel Marsham (Norma Talmadge) lives in a state of “genteel poverty” with her parents. She’s in love with Cyril Moffat (Frank O’Neil), but he’s a poor man himself and her parents (James Lackaye and Florence Radinoff) are depending on Ethel marrying into wealth.
(I’m much more used to seeing Frank O’Neil in blackface. I didn’t recognize him at all with his natural skin tone and hair.)
James Greythorne (Van Dyke Brooke), Father’s old schoolmaster, has made a fortune abroad and is returning to America with the aim of settling down. He’s just the man Ethel’s parents are looking for. Ethel reluctantly agrees to marry him, but Greythorne isn’t blind and he realizes that her heart belongs to another.
Greythorne declares to Father that, on second thought, he’s much too old to marry his daughter, but he hopes that he’ll look favorably on his recently (very recently) adopted son and heir instead. He ushers him in and who should it be but Cyril.
The scenario is credited to W.A. Tremayne, who wrote for a large number of Vitagraph films as well as for the stage, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that the story seemed familiar as I was watching it. And then it hit me: Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1846 novel Lucretia. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s based on Lucretia, not even loosely, but it borrows some of its larger themes and a few specific situations, particularly the female lead hiding a message for her forbidden lover in the hollow of a tree at the edge of her parent’s land, which is lifted wholesale from Bulwer-Lytton.
Of all the pioneering studios, I like the films of Vitagraph most of all and I’ve seen a large number of them. When watching one, I like to play a little side game of connecting the props it uses to other Vitagraph films. In An Old Man’s Love Story, I noticed that the pergola in the Marsham’s backyard was previously used as the entrance to Vauxhall in Vanity Fair (1911), the rustic outdoor seating was used again in A Florida Enchantment (1914), and the tea set I believe is the same one seen in Fox Trot Finesse (1915).
The editing is crude and jumpy. There’s too much reliance on titles to move the plot. The lighting in the interiors is all overhead carbon arc or mercury vapor lamps, which is quite unflattering to the actors, but the outdoor scenes shot in natural light are much nicer. The set decoration is the usual for Vitagraph films of this vintage — namely, if one chair is good, then a dozen are surely better. It’s amazing the cast could navigate the maze of furniture squeezed onto every set. I don’t know who the cinematographer was, but they seemed to have an aversion to wide-angle lenses. Even for the exteriors, there’s nothing wider than a medium shot. Perhaps the aim was to make the story seem more intimate, but to me, it just feels claustrophobic.
Did I like it? Eh… my first impression was favorable, but after rewatching it to write this review and paying closer attention to the details, I have to say that it’s overall quite crudely put together. It’s a good story and well acted, Van Dyke Brooke’s performance being the stand-out, but I don’t think that’s enough to raise it any higher than…
My rating: Meh.
To address the question marks, rather than posting in my standard form, I’ve decided to first take you on a little journey:
I mentioned before that I’m in the process of moving and I don’t have most of the film collection at hand. However, quite accidentally one title was left out and it’s been sitting on my make-shift desk for the last three months. It’s on four 60-foot bobbins of 9.5mm film. The title given on the bobbins is Noir-de-Fumée, détective amateur. It appears in the 1931 Pathé-Baby catalogue, item #3032.
But Baby releases were almost always re-titled, so what is this film really? Sometimes the catalogue listing will be of help: it might give the name of the star, or of the director, or rarely it will even reveal the original title. No such luck with Noir-de-Fumée, but there are a few clues. It’s in the children’s film section and is listed as a comedy. Also, it names one of the characters “Dollie”.
My first thought, based solely on this information, was that it’s a Baby Marie Osborne film. Pathé always called Osborne’s characters Dolly or Dollie, regardless of what the characters’ names were originally. The three screenshots are too small to tell who the actors might be, but one of them includes a black boy and that bears out the Osborne theory — Ernest Morrison frequently featured in her films. Trouble is, the description given didn’t match any of the Osborne films I was aware of, and after a quick scan of contemporary release notices and reviews available at lantern.mediahist.org for all of Osborne’s small oeuvre, none of them at all looked like contenders.
So, even if Osborne is out, maybe Morrison is still in. Pathé’s character naming might be an attempt to tie one of Morrison’s later works into his earlier output with Osborne. A Sunshine Sammy film, maybe? I know of them, but I’ve never seen one and I’m not familiar with their plots. Just glancing through a title list, it could be Rich Man, Poor Man (1922) or The Sleuth (1922). Those sound like appropriate titles for a film matching Pathé’s description.
I was leaning towards the Sunshine Sammy idea rather than what Morrison is most remembered for — Our Gang — simply because Noir-de-Fumée doesn’t fit at all with the sort of titles Pathé usually gave Our Gang films. Had it mentioned Négritina or Enfants, then yes, surely Our Gang, but it didn’t.
You might be asking why am I making this so difficult for myself — why don’t I just look up the item number in the Pathéscope catalogue at pathefilm.uk? That would list the original title along with Pathé’s. That works for earlier films, back when French Pathé-Baby releases and English Pathéscope releases were both printed at the same factory and shared the same item numbers, but not for films of this vintage. Further, Pathéscope mirrored most of Pathé-Baby’s output, but not all of it, and I could find nothing resembling an English version of this title.
Well, that’s as far as I could get without biting the bullet and actually watching the film. Not that I didn’t care to see it, mind, but it was the difficulty of accomplishing this that I was avoiding. As for projecting it, I had my Gem with me, but that’s only for 9.5mm on reels — Noir-de-Fumée, as I said, is in bobbins and my Babies are boxed up. That left transferring it to video. It’s true that the components of my film scanner are here, but setting it up on the two banquet tables squeezed into this small apartment bedroom that I’m calling an office would be a challenge.
I avoided that challenge, as I said, for three months before curiosity won out over laziness. After transferring it, I saw at once that the male lead of the film was indeed Ernest Morrison. He plays Noir-de-Fumée (let’s call him Lampblack instead). The female lead character was called Boby (Bobbie). The Dollie (Dolly) that featured so heavily in the description doesn’t actually feature that heavily in the film. She’s kidnapped almost at once, and after that, she’s just a MacGuffin for Lampblack and Bobbie to rescue. (That’s an anachronism by the way — MacGuffin, I mean. The term more commonly in use in the silent era was weenie.) Dolly certainly isn’t Marie Osborne. Bobbie might have been — kids so young that they’re still chubby with baby fat are hard to tell apart — but I was reasonably sure Bobbie was played by Mary Kornman. That’s two Little Rascals (three actually, but I didn’t right away recognize Dolly as Peggy Cartwright). The Sunshine Sammy theory is looking shaky. The kidnappers are indistinct. A couple of them are in Snub Pollard getups but neither really looked like him otherwise. Paul Parrott was not to be seen, but there is a mule who I bet is named Dinah. The theory falls flat on its face.
Okay, so it’s an Our Gang film. Which one? Not so hard to find: “our gang” + “kidnap” = Young Sherlocks (1922), directed by Robert F. McGowan and Tom McNamara. Young Sherlocks was a very early entry to the Our Gang canon. Indeed, it was one of the first filmed. It was a two-reeler and Noir-de-Fumée is the equivalent of one reel, but the latter doesn’t seem to be severely edited because it’s actually just excerpting the imaginary sequence from Young Sherlocks with only minor edits and presenting it as a stand-alone film. That also explains the absence of the rest of the gang and probably why Pathé downplayed the connection to the series. It wasn’t released by Pathéscope because, in a way, it already had been. Pathéscope turned Young Sherlocks into three separate, much shorter films — Kidnapped, Comrades of the Crimson Clan, and Fun in Freetown — rather than release it in a single, longer form.
Maybe that was more than a “little” journey, but at any rate, we’ve arrived at our destination, so now let me talk about the film:
Dolly (Peggy Cartwright) is playing on the front lawn with her pony, Spinach, and an unnamed dog. A gang of bandits (Ed Brandenburg, Dick Gilbert, William Gillespie, Wallace Howe, and Mark Jones) appear and kidnap her, expecting to get $100,000 ransom from her rich papa (Charley Young). Across the street, Lampblack (Ernest Morrison) and his little friend Bobbie (Mary Kornman) witness the abduction and decide to intervene.
Lampblack and Bobbie follow the getaway car on their mule, Seventy-Five (Dinah). Spinach, who we’re told is a great friend of Dolly, follows as well, independent of the others, and catches up with the bandits first. They send him back with a note to Papa telling him where to bring the money. I imagine this took several takes and I also imagine why, given how cautiously the bandit gives the pony the note and how careful he is not to get his fingers anywhere near his mouth. Papa and Mama (Dot Farley) get the message and speed away in their car, stopping at the bank to withdraw a $100,000, which they seem to consider mere pocket change.
Meanwhile, Lampblack and Bobbie approach the hideout, but suddenly two bandits emerge and now they have to hide themselves. Bobbie squeezes down the barrel of a cannon (the bandits are prepared, we’re told) and Lampblack hides in a stack of cannon balls, his head sticking out the top but perfectly invisible (because he’s black and so are the cannon balls, you see). The bandits have come outside to smoke (polite of them). One tosses his still-lit match inside the cannon, where it lands square on the seat of Bobbie’s pants. As soon as they go back inside, she shimmies out and runs pell-mell across the countryside.
Lampblack sees Dolly tied to a tree, lackadaisically guarded by a bandit who seems to be more interested in the handsome man he sees gazing back at him in his looking glass. Lampblack picks up a shotgun and fires at the bandit, attracting the attention of the others. The kickback launches him into the air, landing on and knocking down one of the other bandits. He shoots again and likewise catapults himself into another.
Bobbie runs to a gas station and sits in a bucket of water. Papa and Mama are there refueling. Dripping wet, she walks over and lets them know where Dolly is being held. They pick her up into the car and speed off without even paying for their gas.
Back at the hideout, the bandits have got the upper hand on Lampblack. He’s backed up against a telegraph pole and they’re throwing swords at him. Every one narrowly misses Lampblack and strikes the pole, eventually causing it to snap in half and come tumbling down on them. Seventy-Five appears to lend assistance, kicking cannon balls at the bandits (he has remarkable aim, you know).
The day is won and Lampblack unties Dolly. Just then, Papa, Mama, and Bobbie pull up. Papa, so pleased with the kids’ efforts, gives them the $100,000, and golly gee, what candy we could buy wit’ all dis dough.
I’m not big on child comedies, mostly because they star child actors. Mary Kornman doesn’t do much besides stand around and squint. Peggy Cartwright, as I said, is hardly in the film. In the few scenes where she’s not tied up, she does moderately well exhibiting the correct emotion, but her timing is atrocious. I will say, however, that Ernest Morrison is a natural. He acts believably as the kid who starts out on an adventure half-playing pretend and then finds himself in over his head when it gets real (it’s a slapstick comedy, yes, but he does manage to mix in some pathos — he’s the only one who does, in fact, including the adult actors).
My rating: Without Morrison, I would say dislike, but he elevates it to a solid meh.
Available from Harpodeon
Herman Bang was something of the Danish equivalent of Oscar Wilde; he wrote with a gay sensibility veiled just enough to avoid condemnation. The veil on his 1902 novel Mikaël is surely the sheerest. The story was twice adapted for the screen, the second, 1924 adaptation by Carl Theodore Dryer being better remembered today. The first was made in 1916 by Mauritz Stiller. It had been lost for many decades before a somewhat abridged print turned up in Norway, which might explain why it was forgotten. It also didn’t help that it’s honestly pretty bad.
In Stiller’s film, “Vingarne” (or “The Wings”) is a sculpture by Claude Zoret, an artist who’s generally styled “The Master” (Egil Eide). It’s a depiction of Icarus with his wings melting away, just before his fall back to earth. (Actually, it’s Zeus adducting Ganymede — Vingarne is a real sculpture by Carl Milles, you can see it at the National Museum in Stockholm). Icarus is modeled on a young man named Michael (Lars Hanson), who becomes a favorite of the Master.
The Master adopts Michael and they had been living together for four years when Princess Zamikow (Lili Bech) appears. Zamikow is well known for her extravagance, which is leading her ever closer to bankruptcy. She commissions a portrait from the Master, evidently hoping to seduce the wealthy artist, but on that mission she fails. She does, however, capture Michael’s attention, and through him, sees an alternate way to the Master’s pocketbook.
It’s the gossip of the town, but the Master himself remains oblivious. It isn’t until Michael sells The Wings to pay Zamikow’s debts that it really hits home. The Master visits Zamikow and begs her not to take Michael away from him. She replies, “you’re too old, Claude Zoret, to understand love…”
The Master falls ill. One night, he becomes delirious. He stumbles out of the house and to the base of The Wings, where, gazing up at Icarus, he grabs his heart and dies away. In his will, he’s left everything to Michael. Zamikow, with her pay day in sight, tries to make love to Michael, but — evidently in realization — he rejects her advances and leaves her.
In Carl Theodore Dryer’s 1924 adaptation (titled Michael), although the word “homosexual” is never actually used, it quite ably makes it clear what sort of relationship exists between the artist and his model. Stiller’s adaptation is a lot murkier. The summary may make it sound more pronounced than it is; watching the actual film, while there are hints, few are strong enough to notice if you weren’t looking for them. There’s very little affection shown between the leads, and Zoret’s adoption of Michael does not read as a stand-in for marriage, as it plainly does in Dryer’s version. Vingarne also excises the parallel Adelsskjold subplot. (In Micahel, Adelsskjold is a friend of Zoret. Adelsskjold’s wife cheats on him and eventually leaves him for Duke Monthieu. It’s the mirror that Zoret, and the audience, looks into to understand what’s happened between him and Michael.)
What’s most memorable about Vingarne is its bizarre framing story. The film doesn’t actually begin with the Master and Michael. It starts with Mauritz Stiller (playing himself) in search of inspiration for a new film. He sees a sculpture called “The Wings”, and from this, gets the idea for Vingarne. He writes the script, basing it on Herman Bang’s novel Mikaël, and then goes about casting the characters. Nils Asther (himself) applies for the role of Michael, but is passed over in favor of Lars Hanson (himself).
When the film is finished, Asther attends the premiere. And then the title card appears, after an entire reel’s worth of this very weird cold open.
We reach “The End” and the picture fades out… then right back up again, returning to the theatre at the film’s premiere. Asther wonders aloud how anyone could abandon Lili Bech. He goes to see her at her real-life home and declares that the reason he didn’t get the job of Michael is clearly because he can’t live without her. Egil Eide (as himself) appears and chides him for his youthful foolishness. And as if this framing story wasn’t meta enough, it then goes another level deeper with Eide addressing the viewer with the words “thank God this film is over at last”. Blackout.
It’s played quite comic and jarringly contrasts with the serious tone of the main story. It seems primarily to exist as an assurance to the audience that Vingarne is a work of fiction and does not reflect the real lives of its actors. 1916 was not 1924, and Sweden was not Germany. Sweden’s censors were quite strict in those days, and it makes sense to read the framing story as a very elaborate “no homo”.
My rating: …you know, it’s not a good film taken on its own, and it’s vastly inferior when compared to Michael, but the presentation is just so bizarre, it’s something you have to witness. Meh.
Just after her birth, Iolanthe (Maude Fealy) is engaged to Tristan (Harry Benham) as a political alliance between her father, King René (Robert Broderick), and his father, Count de Vaudemont (Leland Benham?). Shortly thereafter, a fire breaks out in the palace. Iolanthe is rescued, but is for whatever reason now blind. Ebn Jahia (David H. Thompson), Moorish mystic, divines her future and says that, so long as she never knows that she cannot see, her vision will return on her sixteenth birthday.
Iolanthe is raised in isolation, hidden away in a small cottage inside a walled garden. She and Tristan have never met. As the scheduled wedding date approaches, Tristan — “hating the woman he has never seen” — runs away. He finds his way into the garden and discovers Iolanthe without realizing who she is. Tristan falls in love with Iolanthe and begs King René to break the engagement to his daughter so that he might marry her. King René reveals that Iolanthe is his daughter.
Iolanthe’s nurse (Mrs. Lawrence Marston) is worried that Tristan gave away Iolanthe’s blindness and that now she will never see again. Tristan did figure it out after Iolanthe was unable to distinguish a white rose from a red one, but he also figured out that Iolanthe apparently didn’t know that she couldn’t see and did not say anything about it. At the end of day on her sixteenth birthday, Iolanthe recovers her vision and everyone lives happily ever after.
There are subplots I’m not super clear on and details that seem to be relevant but damned if I can tell you why. The film is based on Henrik Heri’s then-popular stage play Iolanthe (unrelated to the Gilbert and Sullivan opera of the same title). Contemporary audiences would probably have been more familiar with the source material than I am and would know the answers to some of my questions, like is Ebn Jahia a villain? and is there some conspiracy to keep Iolanthe blind? and wait, who’s that other guy with the beard?
It’s shot on the same locations as the earlier Thanhouser film Romeo and Juliette (1911) and also shares some of its sets, but they’re still impressive here. The costumes are splendid taken on their own merit, but if I didn’t know the film was set in France, I would have guessed from the clothes that we were in Scotland. Almost the whole film is composed of medium-close shots that, compositionally, aren’t too interesting, but it’s decently edited together. The first reel is rather drawn-out, but the pacing improves tremendously in the second and third.
I don’t know. It isn’t bad, and I wouldn’t avoid watching it again, but I don’t think I’d strongly recommend it.
My rating: Meh.
There’s an accident on the street and Helen Worth (Jane Morrow), a nurse, attends to the injured man. J. Robert Orr (Sidney Drew) was walking by at the time and stops to see what’s going on. Robert falls in love with Helen at first sight and can only look on stupefied as she leaves in the ambulance – which is unfortunate for Robert, as he neglected to get her name.
Back at his club, Robert suddenly realizes what to do. He feigns madness and his friends haul him to the hospital. It would be a workable plan, except Helen isn’t there – she’s out on a house call. There are other nurses, however, whose care threaten to actually drive Robert insane.
Sidney Drew and Lucille McVey were real life husband and wife. They married in 1914, shortly after the death of Gladys Rankin, Sidney Drew’s first wife. Rankin, under the name George Cameron, was a screen and stage writer. Rankin’s play Agnes was adapted into Vitagraph’s first big, feature-length drama, A Million Bid (1914). McVey – who used the stage name Jane Morrow, and later, Mrs. Sidney Drew – in addition to being an actress was also a scenarist. She wrote the majority of the “domestic comedies” that became the Drews’ trademark style. They are, for the most part, quite a bit more sedate than the action-packed slapstick films more associated with silent comedy today. They tend to focus on a single situation and are often comedy of manners.
Wanted:- A Nurse (1915) isn’t one of the Drews’ best. In most of their comedies, the leads are A) fairly recently married, and B) solidly middle class, but aspiring to greater financial and/or social heights. This picture strays from both halves of the formula. It doesn’t feel grounded in reality, which is my biggest complaint. In films like Auntie’s Portrait (1915), their characters are exaggerated, but are based on a type of person that actually exists. J. Robert Orr does not exist outside of the movies.
I do like the little touches that don’t really enter into the plot, but give the film some color – like the suggestion that the hospital superintendent is a drunk or that Robert could be a miser. Also, watch out for Ethel Lee, who you might remember as Auntie from the aforementioned Auntie’s Portrait (1915). Although uncredited, she plays the nurse who’s not taking any of Robert’s nonsense and seems to push him over the edge. Wanted:- A Nurse is a slight recommend, just for her.
My rating: Meh.
Available from Harpodeon
Alice Guy, through her Solax company, mostly produced shorts. In her later years, she did release one feature-length film, The Ocean Waif (1916), but in the Solax heyday, one-reelers were the rule. That makes this 1913 adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Pit and the Pendulum all the more remarkable, because it was three reels long. Stress on the “was”. Most of the film is now lost. What survives is around half of the first reel, which unfortunately ends just before Poe’s story begins.
Unlike Poe’s work – a sort of Kafka-before-Kafka tale in which the unnamed protagonist doesn’t know where he is, doesn’t know why he’s there, doesn’t know what’s going to happen to him, and is only certain that the men who arrested and convicted him are entirely unconcerned with his ever finding out – Guy’s adaptation is quite definite when it comes to what’s going on and why:
Alonzo (Darwin Karr) and Pedro (Fraunie Fraunholz) are both in love with the same woman (Blanche Cornwall). Things come to a head when a knife fight breaks out between them. Alonzo wins and he and the woman marry. Some time passes. Alonzo becomes an herbalist doctor to “treat the poor of Toledo”. “The revengeful Pedro” joins the Spanish Inquisition and begins to plot Alonzo’s downfall. He steals a jewel-encrusted reliquary from the monastery and hides it in Alonzo’s house. When it’s discovered missing, he intimates to the abbot that Alonzo might be a witch (what with all his strange herbs and practices) and that maybe he used sorcery to steal the reliquary. Pedro leads a number of men to Alonzo house, where they discover the missing reliquary and wait to apprehend Alonzo on his return.
The surviving fragment ends just as Alonzo enters the room. A couple production stills from the more exciting parts – Alonzo strapped to a table as the pendulum swings closer, the walls closing in and threatening to force him into the pit – can be seen in period advertisements. The concept of “spoilers” being a very recent one, we can also turn to turn to contemporary reviews to learn how the film ends:
Alonzo and the girl escape from Pedro’s men and a chase ensues. They board a boat and nearly make it out of a Spain, but Pedro waylays them in a boat of his own. They’re taken before the Inquisition and Alonzo is tortured, but only after Pedro threatens to torture the girl will he confess to the theft. After that, Poe’s Pit and the Pendulum is retold fairly faithfully, right up to the point that Alonzo is in danger of falling into the pit.
In her imprisonment, a British soldier learns from the girl what happened to Alonzo. He frees her and sets out in search of her husband. After being misled by the monks several times, he finds the torture chamber and saves Alonzo from the pit. Also, unlike Poe’s story, where whatever the protagonist saw at the bottom was too horrible to record, Alonzo saw a pile of bones with snakes crawling in and out of human skulls.
The film is very careful to distance the Inquisition from the Catholic Church, which requires some mental gymnastics but probably put it in a much more favorable light at the Church-dominated New York board of censorship. It’s unusual that French-born Alice Guy changed the nationality of the rescuers from French to British. I can’t think of anything going on at the time that would have made that change expedient.
When it comes to Poe adaptations, it’s par for the course to greatly elaborate on the story to pad-out the film and make it more visually interesting. It seldom works. What I love about Pit and the Pendulum is how nothing is explained. The protagonist is simply caught up in machinations beyond his grasp or appeal. Who he is is incidental, why he’s there is incidental. Even his rescue is incidental – the French army just happened to invade Toledo that day, Napoleon surely no more knew of the protagonist’s existence than the reader knows his name. Films never seem comfortable letting so much go undefined or letting the plot progress without reason. I’m not sure why. Meaningless torture and death is infinitely more frightening than a jilted lover’s revenge.
My rating: Meh.
A screenwriter (Vernon Dent) is trying to pitch a new screenplay to Mack Sennett (himself), who tells him that he’ll make the picture on the condition that the right child actor can be found to play the lead. They find a four or five year old kid playing baseball who somehow manages to lose his pants on the field, hide inside a barrel, and then lose the barrel (Jackie Lucas). He’s just the ticket, they agree, as they rush back to Mack Sennett Studios to get a contract drawn up. A spy from a rival studio (Billy Bevan) is in the room when they return and learns of their hot new discovery. What ensues is a race between the Sennett man and the spy, each hoping to reach the boy’s father (Charles Murray) first and get the kid signed on. Also, a big rolling boulder – at one point, they’re chased by a big, rolling boulder.
It isn’t my style of comedy, but the film is a great behind-the-scenes look at Mack Sennett Studios, including the cyclorama used to shoot cartoon-style chase scenes, where the actors run on what’s essentially a treadmill while a giant circular mural spins behind them. I found it interesting in that regard. Sennett’s world-weary nonchalance, not even batting an eye when a lion enters the room and jumps on his desk, was really the only thing I found funny as far as the narrative goes.
My rating: Meh.
To close out the gay-themed silent films review series, I’ve decided to take a look at a film that doesn’t feature any gay characters, but does star a notable gay actor: J. Warren Kerrigan.
Great God Kerrigan, as he was known, was one of the first major movie stars and appeared in well over a hundred short westerns in the first half of the 1910s. He principally worked for the American Film Manufacturing Company – or the Flying “A” – under the direction of Allan Dwan. Very, very few of those early shorts survive. I’ll be looking at one of them: Three Million Dollars (1911).
Joseph Close (George Periolat) receives a letter from the lawyer of his wealthy and recently deceased brother informing him that his daughter Estella (Pauline Bush) stands to inherit $3,000,000 on the condition that she marries before the end of the month, but “the girl refuses to get married because nobody loves her”. Joe isn’t about to let $3,000,000 slip through his fingers over so minor an issue. He offers a thousand dollars apiece to a group of cowboys to abduct his daughter, find and abduct a suitable husband for her, and then bring them before the Justice of the Peace.
The unwitting groom is Arthur White (J. Warren Kerrigan). He’s taken, tied and blindfolded, to the feed lot, where they already have Estella waiting, similarly encumbered. Before the Justice of the Peace arrives, Arthur wiggles free. He unties Estella, the two steal a horse, and they make their escape into the desert.
As they flee from their kidnappers, Arthur and Estella fall in love and decide to go back. They tie themselves up again and wait for the Justice of the Peace, who marries them on the spot. Joe, so pleased with the outcome, kisses both Estella and Arthur – the latter making quite a show of spitting and rubbing his face afterward.
Three Million Dollars is a silly film, but I don’t know if that’s intentional. It was billed as a western romance, but it strikes me as more of a comedy. The romance doesn’t exist – after a frantic escape across the desert, they climb a rock and Arthur says “Let’s go back and get married”. That’s the extent of the romance between the two leads. Apart from that, though, I have to say that I was very impressed by Pauline Bush. She acted extremely well during the abduction and escape. Kerrigan was hamming it up and not taking his role at all seriously, but I can’t say I blame him.
What happened to Kerrigan’s stardom? There were a few factors at play. The studio line was that he lost his audience’s favor by refusing to enlist in the First World War, which was true. It’s also true that he made some rather unfortunate remarks in that regard, to the effect that it was a good thing so many plebes were going over to be cannon fodder that a star like him could stay safe at home. It was said jokingly, but it didn’t make him any friends.
The other and probably more significant reason was Kerrigan’s refusal to marry and his disregard for secrecy. In the early days, it didn’t matter. The industry was small and insular, and when it came to the performers’ personal lives, audiences were only spoon-fed whatever lies the studio thought it best for them to hear. By the end of the 1910s, it had got too big and the stars lived too much in the public’s eye. The studio may not care whether or not an actor was gay, so long as they kept selling tickets, but they had to shield themselves from the moral crusaders crying for censorship and government oversight, and overtly gay actors were a liability. Others, like Alla Nazimova and Charles Bryant, entered “lavender marriages” – where a gay actor and a lesbian actress marry, show themselves off together in public, and give a few interviews about how married they are – but Kerrigan wouldn’t do that. Kerrigan also had a tendency of being a little too catty in interviews. In one famous example, his usual reply to the “Why aren’t you married?” question – “I have my mother to take care of” – wasn’t good enough and the interviewer kept doggedly approaching it from different angles until at last asking point-blank if he even liked girls. Kerrigan replied: “I like them just fine, when they leave me alone.”
Kerrigan never entirely vanished, but his days of being a star were over. He attempted a come-back in the mid-1920s, with films like The Covered Wagon (1923) and Captain Blood (1924), but his career didn’t revive and he retired from the screen. When he died in 1947, he was survived by his boyfriend of nearly forty years, James Vincent, who he met on set when he was just starting out at the Flying “A” in 1910.
How do I rate the Three Million Dollars? As a pure romance, it’s laughable, but taken as a comedy, it’s not bad – far from good, but not bad. That can only mean…
My rating: Meh.
Available from Harpodeon
I continue my look at silent films with gay themes:
The sissy is a stock character, common in silents, although he neither began nor ended there. Very rarely he gets to be the star, but usually the sissy is in a supporting comic relief role. He’s flamboyant, has stereotypically gay mannerisms, dress, and speech, and is assuredly meant to be read as gay, but how his sexuality is addressed varies from film to film. Most of the time, it simply isn’t mentioned at all. Sometimes he’ll be given a nominal female love interest – sometimes in addition to a less overt male one, letting those in the audience choose to see what they want to see. What’s uncommon is a film where the sissy is explicitly and undeniably gay, but The Soilers (1923) is just such a film.
In the early 1920s, Stan Laurel acted in a series of spoofs of popular films (Mud and Sand, When Knights Were Cold, Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pryde, etc.), most shot and released only months after the originals hit the screen. The Soilers is a spoof of The Spoilers, first a novel by Rex Beach, twice adapted for the silent screen in 1914 and 1923.
In The Spoilers, Roy Glenister stakes a claim during the Alaskan gold rush that proves to be immensely valuable. The government and law enforcement are both corrupt and under the control of Alexander McNamara, who abuses the courts to steal Glenister’s claim. I can’t say for sure about the book, because I’ve never read it, or about the ’23 film, because I’ve never seen it, but in the ’14 version at least, the story culminates with a knock-down-drag-out fight between Glenister and McNamara that lasts so long and gets so violent that it’s ludicrous. The Soilers broadly covers the same ground: Bob Canister (Stan Laurel) strikes it rich, Smacknamara (James Finlayson) jumps his claim, and it ends with an even more cartoonishly violent, prolonged flight.
But the topic of this review is gay characters. In The Spoilers, a woman named Cherry Malotte is in unrequited love with Glenister. In The Soilers, the Malotte equivalent is a sissy. He doesn’t have a name, so I’ll give him what in the 1920s was considered a stereotypically gay name, Clarence.
We first see Clarence shortly after the fight breaks out. Canister and Smacknamara are brawling across the table when Clarence walks in from the back room. He shows not the slightest care for the fight, but walks up to the table, moves Canister’s head aside, and carefully selects one of the papers. He then turns and strolls out, much to the amazement of the fighters, who’ve paused to watch him leave. They’re interrupted several more times in a similar manner. Eventually, the fight makes its way to the back room, where we see Clarence calmly filing his nails as Canister and Smacknamara try to kill each other.
The fight drags on and winds up downstairs in the saloon. Canister, at last, is victorious, but no one seems to care much – not his mining partners and certainly not Helen (Ena Gregory), whom Canister had been in love with. One person is impressed, however. From the window, Clarence clasps his hands at his heart and cries “My hero!” Canister shrugs him off. Clarence picks up the potted flower from the windowsill, gives it a smell, and then drops the pot on Canister’s head. Canister goes down and the street cleaners toss him in the back of the garbage truck.
The Soilers was originally a two-reeler, but that version isn’t in circulation today. I’m not sure if it even survives. I’ve seen the commonly available one-reel cut-down several times and have multiple copies of it in my collection. It’s focused on the fight – the lead-up is trimmed almost to nothing. A while ago, I obtained a copy of the international release, which is also a one-reel cut-down, but it’s a different cut – one that preserves considerably more of the pre-fight sequences. I never really liked The Soilers before, but the additional footage greatly improves the film. Who knew that it actually had a plot after all?
The fight is overly long, and while I’m sure that’s on purpose and part of the parody, it’s still the weakest part of the short. There’s one cut scene that I found funnier: Canister visits the town of Ping-Pong for the first time, which we’re told “is a peaceful place… you might be indiscriminately massacred in the streets, but in perfect tranquility”. There’s a shoot-out going on between everyone and everyone else, with Canister strolling down the center of it all, casually stepping over bodies. It’s very simple, but it’s a good spoof of the original film and the humor flows naturally from it. The fight sequence just tries too hard, in my opinion.
My rating: Meh.
Available from Harpodeon