Category Archives: Reviews

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.

East Lynne (Fox, 1916)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They’ll never know!

It’s just as ridiculous as that.

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

My rating: I don’t like it.

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 scene, 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 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

Tough Luck and Tin Lizzies (Vitagraph, 1917)

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: I don’t like it.


Available from Harpodeon

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

William Tells (FBO, 1924)

William Tells (FBO, 1924)
Directed by Malcolm St. Clair
Starring Alberta Vaughn

William Tells (1924) is the sixth episode in The Telephone Girl series. It, along with all the other episodes, was originally a two-reeler, but my print is not complete. What I’ve got seems to be most of the first reel minus the main title, then a big jump, then the final few minutes of the second reel minus the end card. Who knows why it’s cut like that, but I’ve also got a print of Laughing Gas (1924) from the same source that’s similarly edited. It’s an original 35mm nitrate print.

Gladys (Alberta Vaughn) and Hazel (Gertrude Short), formerly switchboard operators at the St. Moe Hotel in New York, have been lured to Paris by Julius de Haven (Arthur Rankin), a movie producer who promised to make them stars. Stardom, however, seems not to be forthcoming and the two girls are holed-up in their hotel room until they find some way back to the States.

After them are Jerry (Albert Cooke) and Jimmie (Kit Guard), the former being St. Moe’s house detective and the latter its bellhop. They’re on the train from Beauvais. In the same compartment is a gendarme. It seems like they might already be acquainted but they certainly are after the trio gets into some mishaps with a live turkey and some butter-throwing shenanigans.

Skipping a bit and the girls are attempting to order breakfast at a Parisian cafe — attempting, I say, because even with their phrasebook they can’t do much better than ask “mushoo” to “bringez” them “la hammo and eggo”. At a nearby table is William Van Cleve II (Mario Carillo), who pays close attention to the girls. What his intent is can only be guessed by his motto “Sheik and Ye Shall Find”, because now we skip to the end:

It’s night time at the bustling Cafe Oo-La-La. The girls are there, as are Jerry and Jimmie, who are still trying to duck the police. Gladys and Hazel are accompanied by Van Cleve, who carries himself with quite an aristocratic bearing. It’s a slight embarrassment when the waiter recognizes him as a man of his own profession and demands repayment of a three-dollar loan he made him. Just then, the gendarme appears and moves to arrest Jerry and Jimmie. They get away in confusion when the scuffle between Van Cleve and the waiter breaks into an enormous fight that engulfs the entire restaurant.

I think my summary makes the film sound more slapstick than it is. Most of the humor comes from the very jokey and referential titles (it namechecks A Woman of Paris and The Sheik).

If I remember from the research I did when I acquired the print back in 2009, The Telephone Girl is an orphaned work — meaning, it’s still under copyright, but who exactly owns it isn’t clear. Robertson-Cole became FBO became RKO, which finally went kaput in 1957. The library was split up mostly between United Artists and MBP. MGM took over most of MBP’s holdings, and in turn were taken over by Turner. That’s just U.S. video rights — international rights are scattered to the four winds and theatrical rights, now that’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish. All that can safely be said is that the copyright on the series was renewed on January 10th, 1952 and is therefore still in force.

I’m only aware of one other extant episode — episode four, Sherlock’s Home, survives on 16mm.

I suppose William Tells is all right. Not terribly funny, but not a groaner either. Some of the titles are cute — I’m particularly fond of Hazel being “sorry to hear Napoleon is dead. She didn’t even know he was sick.”

My rating: Meh.

In other news, The Doll-House Mystery should have already been out, but I’ve had a minor illness and am running behind. It shouldn’t take much longer, I hope. The next video, a lovely Kodascope of Tough Luck and Tin Lizzies, is already scanned and waiting in the wings.

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.

Be Honest (Hal Roach, 1923)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: I don’t like it.


Available from Harpodeon

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