Category Archives: Reviews
In the past, I’ve briefly touched on 9.5mm home movie abridgments sometimes representing all that’s known to survive of a film and how these abridgments are by and large ignored. It was the policy of some archives until rather recently to dispose of all their holdings of a film if any part of it showed decomposition — it’s little wonder these abridgments that are, by nature, incomplete would be beneath notice.
Some films are represented in an even more slight degree. Expensive crowd scenes may have been cannibalized in the sound era for stock footage — a bit of The Battle Cry of Peace survives for that reason — or they may have been lampooned in shorts like the Fractured Flickers series. To the transitional generation, who lived through the talkie revolution, silents were not only old hat — they were embarrassments — things that were only suffered to exist that they might be mocked.
About two and a half minutes of The Dust of Egypt survives by way of The Movie Album, a 1931 Vitaphone short. The Movie Album wasn’t as entirely derisive of its subject material as Fractured Flickers — not entirely. The clip actually represents a few fragments as the excerpt snips out quite a bit of material within itself, but all are from the climax, just before the ‘it was all a dream’ reveal.
Geoffrey Lascelles (Antonio Moreno) has just proposed to Violet Manning (Naomi Childers) and she’s accepted. After a night of celebration, Geoffrey stumbles back home to sleep off his intoxication. Enter Simpson (Charles Brown), Professor Johnson’s assistant. The Professor is on a dig in Egypt and sends back a mummy, but the museum is closed and Simpson wants to leave it with Geoffrey until morning.
In his dreams, Geoffrey envisions Ameuset (Edith Storey), a princess of Egypt. She’s bored with life. Her magician, Ani (Edward Elkas), offers her a love potion that cannot fail, but the Princess demands something new. He instead presents a potion that will transmit her through time — thousands of years into the future — to an age entirely unlike their own. She’ll find love there, he promises, and kiss but once, for the second kiss will make her “as the dust of Egypt”.
Startled awake by a sound in the sitting room, Geoffrey goes to investigate. He finds the mummy quite alive and it is the very princess of his dreams. She at first believes he is a magician like her own Ani, in that he commands light at the flick of his finger, but she soon finds amusement with modern technology — the seltzer bottle, especially, entertains her to no end.
Afraid of what it would look like to be found alone with a strange woman late at night, Geoffrey does the first thing that comes to mind and calls the Mannings. Violet is put out. Geoffrey’s tale of five thousand year old Egyptian princesses does not strike her as terribly credible, and as he has no other explanation for Ameuset, she returns his ring.
Violet provokes a rather extreme degree of jealousy in Ameuset. Geoffrey might not love her, but she’s surely taken to him. Suddenly she recalls Ani’s love potion and dumps it in Geoffrey’s glass. True to the sorcerer’s word, Geoffrey at once falls passionately in love with the Egyptian princess. The second kiss — —
Benson (Jack Brawn), Geoffrey’s butler, startles his master. He’s sorry to wake him so early, but a gust of wind tipped over the sarcophagus (or “the blooming mummy case”). Geoffrey inspects it to find it contains nothing but a desiccated mummy quickly turning to dust.
I have so much fun with reconstructions. I didn’t do a full one with The Dust of Egypt partly because there’s so little surviving footage and partly because I was working from an extremely limited number of stills. Most came from the novelization in Motion Picture Magazine, a couple from trade magazines, and a couple more from lobby cards I have. They were just about enough to present the story in a condensed form not much more elaborate than the summary above — to provide context to the surviving fragments and not strive far beyond that.
I can’t in good conscience give a rating. I can hardly tell what sort of a film it was from two and a half minutes of footage and a handful of stills. As it reads, the plot is pretty well bog standard for a mummy come to life comedy, but a well tread plot doesn’t mean the film couldn’t have tread it well. I like Edith Storey — I’ll say that.
Available from Harpodeon.
I believe I have referenced The Timber Queen (1922) before when speaking of Smashing Barriers (1919) in that the two serials share rather similar plots.
Ruth Reading (Ruth Roland) has just inherited the Reading Timber Tract, a valuable forest in the Far West, subsequent to her father’s death. Her cousin, James Cluxton (Val Paul), is in need of funds and wants to claim the forest for himself. His “evil genius”, Bull Joyce (Leo Willis), is instrumental in the plot, in that it’s him who attempts to murder Ruth several times. Don Mackay (Bruce Gordon), a wealthy young man who’s taken a job in the timberlands for the adventure of it, has fallen in love with Ruth and it’s crucial that she die before they marry, when the will declares that Ruth has inherited the forest for good.
Like Smashing Barriers, The Timber Queen is largely lost, but not so largely. UCLA has a handful of intact or intact-ish episodes, and another was abridged for home release — our video, episode twelve, “The Abyss”.
I have four 9.5mm releases of “The Abyss”. The first I obtained was a Spanish Pathé Baby release from 1926. The old SD video was sourced solely from this print. Next I obtained a British Pathescope release from 1927, a French Pathé Baby release from 1926, and an American Pathex release from 1929. All of them are different. The differences are slight between the Spanish and French prints — a frame or two more or less, but the exact same series of shots. The Pathescope is cut more noticeably different, but again, it’s the same shots. The Pathex occasionally has overlapping footage, but for the most part, it diverges entirely from all those that came before. Some shots are shorter than their corresponding Pathé Baby versions, but others are longer, and many are alternate takes altogether.
The Spanish and British titles are plainly translated from the French translation, excepting the character names, which are all over the place. The only commonality there is that the main character is called Ruth. I don’t know Spanish and can’t comment on how well it reads, but the English text sounds like a French person who isn’t entirely fluent in English wrote it. I understand French okay enough to see that it’s written like French, just using English words. The American titles do not come from the French. If they’re not original, they at least read more like a native English speaker wrote them. There are some discrepancies in re the character names — James Cluxton is named James Claxton, for instance — but they are, for the most part, correct.
The Pathescope’s image quality is rather poor. The French and Spanish Baby’s are about equal and I would say are good to very good, if a little soft. The Pathex I think edges out all of them in terms of sharpness and contrast, but it is badly cropped.
All of the abridgments are in two sixty foot bobbins — running about six minutes, give or take for projection speed and how long you linger on the titles, but taking all the unique footage and joining it together, it comes out to more than ten minutes. That’s still about half the length of the original episode, but that’s not bad as abridgments go.
The opening title sequence is based on The Haunted Valley, another Ruth Roland serial from the same period. I also modeled the font on The Haunted Valley’s. “Patheserial”, I call it. Pathé latterly used Pastel, which there’s no need to re-create when Silentina’s already available, but Pastel was created in 1924. Fonts are often an instant give-away that the titles are replacements from a later release — that’s how I knew the titles in the surviving print of The Inside of the White Slave Traffic could not very well have been made in 1913 when the font they use is a decade younger than that. I don’t think the original “Patheserial” was an actual font — I think it was hand drawn like Vitagraph’s lettering — but it’s more or less consistent in The Haunted Valley. Gaudy, but consistent. I suppose Vitagraph’s is gaudy, too, but I’m just so used to it, I don’t notice. With the contrast boosted, you can actually see the faint pencil lines drawn on Vitagraph title cards to keep the text straight. (And read “typeface” where I say “font” if you want to be pedantic, but I don’t care — it’s a font so far as I’m concerned.)
You know, it’s funny how, until quite recently, these 9.5mm abridgments were wholly disregarded. it was just me and a couple others who acknowledged that they were a thing and actually do represent surviving footage, which is weird given how fragmentary even “intact” films are — most are missing a more or less significant amount of footage — and the fact that there is no definitive version of any silent film. Multiple negatives were assembled from different takes to strike prints to be sent hither and yon, and those were all cut severely by every censor whose hands they crossed. I really don’t think it was until the Cagliostro (1929) release that abridgments hit the mainstream — if there is such a thing as mainstream in the silent film world. Cagliostro was a bit forward in its claims of being a rediscovered film. The home movie abridgment it was 95% sourced from has never been unavailable since its release in ‘31.
I like it. Ruth isn’t as strong or as satisfying a character as Helen in Smashing Barriers, but the stunt work on the runaway boxcar is top notch and the finale — Don swinging on the lasso and catching Ruth just before the car goes off the edge of the cliff — had to have taken a lot of preparation and planning.
My rating: I like it.
Available from Harpodeon
So here’s a film that I wasn’t entirely aware that I had. I was looking through some early Vitagraph shorts to see if any included Edith Storey in an uncredited role and stumbled upon The Men Haters Club (1910). I’m not sure she’s in it — certainly not in any major capacity and I’m not convinced she’s in the background either — but it’s an interesting short nonetheless.
A man and a woman are out walking. The man pulls out his handkerchief and letter falls out with it. Seeing that it’s from another girl, the woman takes off her engagement ring and storms away. She runs into her friends — eight or ten of them — and tells all. Thus the foundation of the Men Haters Club is laid.
The M.H.C. plan an island camping trip. On the dock, they’re overheard by their various spurned beaux. The boys form the F.G.C. — the Follow the Girls Club — and set up camp about a mile further down the coast. That night, while the M.H.C. sleeps, the F.G.C. infiltrates their camp, pokes a hole in their tent, and dangles in a rubber spider. In the confusion that follows, the M.H.C. tent is knocked down and the women have to spend the night outside, where they’re beset by negative scratches that I at first thought was a highly localized and out of season snow storm, but on second thought are probably supposed to be mosquitoes.
In the morning, the F.G.C. comes to render aid, but are disappointed. The M.H.C. have already paid an old coot (a random fisherman, maybe? I seriously have no idea who this guy is) to re-establish their camp. The F.G.C. wanders off with its tails between its legs.
That evening, while the M.H.C. is eating their dinner, a couple of tramps appear. The women duck into the tent while the tramps eat their food. When they’ve had their fill, they start to approach the tent. “Help! Help!” The F.G.C., never very far away, rushes to the scene, grab the offending hobos, and chuck them into the sea. In the morning, the two clubs decide to merge into the M.A. — the Matrimonial Alliance.
I suppose that moral of the story is that infidelity followed by stalking and juvenile pranks don’t matter at all if you’re on hand to dunk a random menacing bum. I don’t remember that one from Aesop. I said the film was interesting, not good. Despite the entire film being set outdoors, every scene feels claustrophobic. It’s all medium shots and the actors have to stand shoulder to shoulder to fit in. Zero use of depth — whoever directed this must have simply told the actors to stand in a line and gesticulate. I’ve no idea who directed it or who the actors are. One of the ladies is perhaps Florence Turner, but I won’t be sure of that until I scan it at a high resolution and can really see her face clearly. I’m even holding out hope that one of the several friends — the one in the big, flat topped hat with a black feather — could be Edith Storey.
My rating: I don’t like it.
Jack (William Duncan) is in college on an economics degree. He evidently isn’t studying too hard since he’s blown all his cash going out with his friends, singing college songs badly out of tune. He writes to his father for more. It’s the high cost of living, he says, but dear old dad knows it’s really the cost of high living.
Dad writes to Jack’s sister Grace (Corinne Griffith), who lives near the college, and tells her it’s high time Jack settled down. Introduce him to some girl, he says. Corinne calls up her friend Helen (Carmen Phillips) and invites Jack over. He ditches the instant he figures out what’s up to go party with his friends.
At the restaurant, after downing bottle after bottle of liquor, they get to singing. One of Jack’s friends, infuriated that Jack’s ruining their harmony, rips up the tablecloth and wraps it around Jack’s head. “Help — help!” he cries. The new cop on the beat hears the commotion and comes to investigate. Too inebriated to deal with the law, the gang scatters. Jack ducks into a swanky mansion. “Are you the new butler?”
He is now. The cop is still prowling around outside, precluding any escape for our unmusical drunkard. Jack’s not a very good butler, what with spilling the food tray, trampling on feet, and openly flirting with his employer’s attractive daughter. The cook (Anne Schaefer) is sweet on the new cop and invites him into the kitchen. A brief but spirited tussle ensues when he spots Jack. Grace, who’s come to visit her friend Helen — for, of course, Jack had to duck into Helen’s house — intervenes: Jack is there for some real-world experience in his study of kitchen economies. That’s pretty much the end, but it doesn’t seem like Jack will flee from Helen this time.
Another boozy Vitagraph short, but unlike Bingles Mends the Clock, it doesn’t try to mine comedy from child abuse. Jack singing off-key when in his cups is rather less off-putting. The humor certainly goes down easier.
Duncan had been a contract player at Selig and featured in quite a few western shorts before making the move to Vitagraph. The Cost of High Living comes from his somewhat awkward transitory period before A Fight for Millions established him as a serial superstar. In the long run, that really worked against him as the serial format shifted away from serious drama and more into kiddy fare in the late ‘20s and into the talkie era. It was character roles of diminishing prominence for Duncan from then on out.
My rating: I like it.
Pioneer Trails has been available online for a couple weeks. The Blu-Ray and DVD are now available on Amazon. We’ll sell the DVD directly at some indefinite future date, but if you want a Blu-Ray, go ahead and get it from Amazon — we probably won’t ever sell it. The smallest number of Blu-Rays I can economically have made is 25, and like I was telling someone about the Juggernaut disc, I’ll probably still be working through those 25 for the next five years. Outside of collectors, DVD as a medium is dying fast and Blu-Ray never even lived. We don’t move much physical inventory anymore. DVD is a lot cheaper and I can get smaller quantifies, so we’ll probably only ever stock Pioneer Trails on that. We usually keep five discs on hand, although the recent J. Warren Kerrigan set sold better than was anticipated and I had to get another ten to keep pace with orders.
What’s the next video out? I don’t know — it will be an HD remaster of something. What’s on the horizon, though, is something I announced, like, five years ago, but then we switched to HD and my old source wasn’t good enough. It’s coming straight from 35mm now. On an entirely, entirely unrelated note, I pulled a magic lantern slide out of my collection. This one shows the construction of a building in Boston in 1914 and there’s nothing at all phantasic about it:
It’s never a good sign when you’re uncertain whether a film is meant to be a comedy, but I’m assured that’s what this is.
Martha (Flora Finch) notices the clock has stopped and tells her husband Bingles (James Lackaye) to have it repaired. The clockmaker says it will cost five dollars. Outrageous, Bingles exclaims. He’ll fix it himself.
He shoos his wife and children out of the living room so he can work on the clock in peace, but then finds he’s out of machine oil. He heads to the hardware store for some lubricant, but on the road meets some friends (one of them is Harry T. Morey) and decides to get some lubricant for himself. Back at home, drunk as a skunk, he picks a fight with Martha and beats his children.
“There, I’ve saved five dollars!” Bingles cries, throwing open the door — but there’s no one there to hear. Martha’s note says it all: “You have been drinking. I am going to mother’s never to return. It will be useless to follow.” Bingles looks up to see the clock’s hands spinning backwards.
My rating: I don’t like it.
You know what I do like? The Women Film Pioneers Project. As a film collector, you get pretty jaded. There was a bit in one of the Metropolis documentaries about the difficulty those that discovered the complete film in Argentina had of getting the Murnau-Stiftung to acknowledge them, but as any collector would tell you, that’s par for the course. If a film is proclaimed lost, then it is, now and forever. Should you have a copy of it, expect to be ignored, and if you should have the fortune of someone listening to you and even watching it, you might perhaps garner a few comments, but then the film will continue to be lost — even to those that just saw it. It gets to the point that you don’t even bother anymore. It’s so refreshing to find people who actually care, and the WFPP does. I think all the Flora Finch films they have marked “PC” (private collection) are mine.
I was so excited to finally obtain a copy of this rarity that I was running it not five minutes after opening the box and I’m writing this within the hour.
EYE thinks they have a brief fragment of it and you can see it online, but it’s misattributed. I don’t know what film that is, but only the title card at the start is from Bella Butts — the rest is something else. It doesn’t even look like a Vitagraph production. I don’t recognize any of the actors. It’s probably spliced-together projection booth clippings. When film got damaged and the projectionist needed to snip a bit out and make a splice, those clippings tended to wind up on the projection booth floor. Whenever they got around to it and swept up, they were collected together and may or may not have been saved. I’ve certainly got a box full. The clips might vary from only a few frames long to a couple of feet or more, if there was a length of sprocket-hole damage. There was a market for them. Companies like Pordell Projector bought them, cut them into individual frames, and sold them as slides. Movielets did the same. They were sold in random little collections stuffed in tins like Altoids — I’ve got several of those as well. You can play around with the clippings, find similar looking material, try to piece together some sort of narrative, but it’s all a tremendous amount of guesswork. I’ve put together what might be 30 second-ish fragment of Liberty, A Daughter of the USA (1916), but I can really only be sure that the two titles are from Liberty. The film sold by Pordell and Movielets is generally too far gone to salvage — the tins seal fairly air-tight and nitrate decomposes rapidly when it isn’t allowed to off-gas — but if you find loose projection booth floor sweepings, they’re usually fine.
That was a long digression. Anyway, I’ve just acquired a copy that, minus just a brief bit of no consequence at the start, is complete and really is The Smoking Out of Bella Butts.
Bella Butts (Flora Finch), anti-smoking campaigner, arrives in the town of Hicksville to spread the word. At the Ladies Aid Society, she proves how injurious smoking is by giving the women cigars — promptly causing dizziness, headaches, and nausea. Among the afflicted is the mayor’s wife (Betty Gray), who demands that her husband ban smoking or else she’ll divorce him.
His back to the wall, the mayor (Hugie Mack) complies. All the town’s tobacco products are seized and burned in a great bonfire. This does not win the mayor many friends among the menfolk, who soon start trying to smoke corn silk to feed their habits. When a cigar salesman (Jay Dwiggins) arrives, all the men — the mayor included — hide out in a basement to chain-smoke away his samples.
The woman of the house (it’s either Florence Radinoff or Edwina Robbins — hard to tell. That’s the drawback of the first minute or two being missing — there’s no cast list and you just have to recognize the actors) sees smoke pouring from the window and thinks it’s on fire. The fire department is called and start blasting water into the basement. Forced out by the deluge, the men are caught red-handed. Butts is on hand to demand the sheriff arrest the mayor. The mayor hands him a cigar and he forgets all his duties.
Butts gets her bag and “leaves Hicksville to its doom” while the mayor watches, smoking on the porch.
Flora Finch was most known for starring opposite John Bunny in more than a hundred “Bunnyfinches” — domestic sitcoms somewhat similar in style to those of Sidney Drew. Bunny shot his last film with Finch in 1914 before starting on a live stage tour that no one knew he would not return from. (The Jarrs Visit Arcadia was posthumously released in 1915.) Finch continued the act solo, to greater or lesser effect.
In terms of theme, Bella Butts is not unlike the Red Seal film I reviewed a thousand years ago, ‘Morning, Judge (1926), in which Flora Finch enacts a ban on a can-can dancing. ‘Morning, Judge even ended with bungling firefighters as well. But the difference is that Bella Butts wasn’t awful. The jokes are less bottom of the barrel slapstick, which helps, but mainly it’s because the plot was followed through to its conclusion and the filmmakers didn’t just abruptly drop storylines as they became inconvenient. Including the main storyline.
My rating: I like it. I may just postpone the next film I’d intended on scanning and scan Bella Butts instead.
I think I must have referenced Auntie’s Portrait at least two or three times when talking about other Sidney Drew films, but I’ve never spoken about it directly. I should rectify that.
Auntie’s Portrait is usually cast as a “rare” film, but for all it’s supposed rarity, I’ve got five prints of it. The old standard definition video was sourced from the best print I had at the time, which still wasn’t very good — a bit soft and more than a bit dark. The new high definition remaster comes from the last print I obtained, which is just all around gorgeous. I’m very happy to have it as Auntie’s Portrait is my favorite Drew short.
Mr. and Mrs. Honeypet (Sidney Drew and Jane Morrow) are newlyweds. They receive a gift from Mrs. Honeypet’s wealthy aunt Flora (Ethel Lee). They dig into the box eager to see what it contains only to find a hideous portrait of Auntie herself. The Honeypets are obviously middle class, but they’ve got pretensions and this picture would disgrace their carefully curated walls. Not expecting Auntie to visit anytime soon, they decide to worry about it later. In the meantime, the portrait is consigned to the attic.
The next day, who should drop by but Auntie Flora, every bit as harsh and mean-looking as her picture. And about that picture — no sooner does she take off her hat and coat than the lorgnette comes out and she begins scanning the walls for it. Mr. Honeypet retrieves the portrait from the attic and tries to quickly hang it, but they don’t have a big place — just a few rooms downstairs — and he keeps being interrupted by Auntie. It seems like all is lost when he drops the picture and the frame breaks, but then inspiration strikes and Mr. Honeypet rushes out the back door.
Auntie, having gone round the house several times, has determined that her portrait is nowhere to be found. “I shall leave this house and never return,” she tells her niece, “and I’ll leave you out of my will, too!” She’s almost out the door when Mr. Honeypet barges in. “We sent it away to have this beautiful frame put on it,” he explains, showing her the picture with a new, elaborate gilt frame. “We wanted to surprise you!”
I tend to bring up Auntie’s Portrait when talking about Drew films because I really consider it the gold standard of their formula: newlyweds that are pretentious social climbers and probably a bit insufferable to be around, but not so bad that you want to see them fail. It’s not too confining as formulas go and there’s a lot that can be mined from it. There’s nothing wacky about the Drews’ better domestic comedies. Their world is really only a slightly heightened version of our own. You probably know people in real life not too unlike the Honeypets.
My rating: I like it.
Available from Harpodeon
And now, unless you enjoy my continued ramblings about Amazon, you can stop reading and I’ll think nothing less of you for it.
Spartacus is fairly common as far as silent Italian epics go. You’ve more likely as not already seen it. Alpha released it on DVD and there are any number of other sellers that carry it (all of them likely sourced from the Alpha DVD). The Alpha release has a lot of problems and the image quality is none too good. Spartacus is a film I’ve always wanted to do myself because I think I could do it better. I wasn’t going to just rip Alpha’s DVD, though. I wanted it on film. Issue is, there’s only one print known to survive of Spartacus (the English-language Kleine release of it, anyway — perhaps there are prints of the original Italian release, but I’ve neither seen nor heard of one). That limited my chances, but I always trust in the simple truth that all things come to those who wait. The Spartacus print has been bought and sold many times but it has always been in private hands. And, at long last, now it’s in mine.
It took so long because I have some hard limits when it comes to film acquisition — the chief limit being that no single film is worth more than $750. I don’t care what the title is, who acted in it, who directed it. I don’t care how rare or even unique the print is. I don’t care what condition it’s in. I don’t care how very much I want it. No single film is worth more than $750. Most aren’t worth even a tenth of that. I didn’t break my $750 limit in buying Spartacus, but I came awfully near it. I’ve got some desirable films, but Spartacus is probably the most expensive print in my whole collection.
Looking at the print, a lot of the weirdness of the Alpha DVD makes more sense. The first three reels appear to be from one print and are in black-and-white. The last three are color tinted and I think (from the general appearance of the image and repeated footage) that they’re assembled from at least two different prints. The black-and-white footage has full running titles while the color elements mostly have flash titles. All are in the same style and I have no reason to doubt that they’re the original titles from the Kleine release. Reels four and five are reversed (as they are on the Alpha DVD as well). They also use the wrong color leader. The projector doesn’t care, of course, but convention dictates that the leader should be green and the trailer red. That way, you can see at a glance if a reel is wound heads-out or tails-out. It’s backwards here.
It’s all printed on Agfa stock, which is difficult to date. Some manufacturers, like Kodak, print a series of symbols on the edge of the film that aren’t too dissimilar to silver hallmarks. They’ll tell you what kind of film it is, what factory it came from, and most usefully when it was manufactured. (Note that: it tells you when the film stock itself was manufactured, not when it was exposed or developed. If the edge code says 1928 then the film can’t be any older than that, but it may be younger if the lab was printing on stock they had lying around for some time. Common mistake.) Agfa does not have any such markings. It’s really only possible to roughly date Agfa film based on the font used in the logo. The Spartacus print is from the early ‘30s, my guess. Between the wars, anyway. Decent shape for its age — a bit stiff, but not brittle or shrunken. After a little lubrication and splice repair, it ran just fine.
I was just going to do this as an off-topic post, but why not, let’s make this into a terrible review. Spartacus (Mario Ausonia) is a gladiator who rises up and leads a slave rebellion against Rome. The plot is substantially different from that of the Kubrick film, but that’s hardly unusual. Spartacus was a real person, but historical records of him and his rebellion are sparse and inconsistent. Any telling of the Spartacus story is going to require a great, great deal of embellishment. I liked this one. I liked it enough, at least, to stalk the print for the better part of a decade.
My rating: I like it.
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.
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.