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

An Accidental Champion (Educational, 1920) (?)

an-accidental-champion-screenshot-1An Accidental Champion (?) (Educational?, 1920?)
Starring Jimmie Adams

I have no memory at all of buying this film. I must have — it arrived a few days ago, it’s in my eBay history — but I honestly do not recall even looking at the listing. My only guess is that I must have been sleepwalking. And I say all that because I don’t know why I would buy it. It’s a 9.5mm film called An Accidental Champion, which of course is just a Pathescope re-title. What it’s actually supposed to be is the 1922 Hall Room Boys short High and Dry, and unless it was going for cheap, that really wouldn’t interest me.

Maybe my unconscious mind saw that something was up before I did when the picture first flashed on the screen and I didn’t see the Hall Room Boys. This is a Jimmie Adams film, although I’m not sure which. There are some clues I intend to follow up on, but for now I’ll be content with calling it An Accidental Champion, circa 1920.

Jimmie (Jimmie Adams) is down on his luck. A companion in his troubles is a stray hound (Buddy the Dog), who helps Jimmie steal food from street vendors. Buddy runs off with ten yards of sausage from a hot dog man who, unfortunately, also happens to be a dog catcher. A chase ensues which leads to the beach, where a pole-vaulting competition is being held. Jimmie, in his flight, accidentally wins.

an-accidental-champion-screenshot-2Champion Jimmie catches the attention of Lilian, the Mayor’s daughter, and he soon finds himself a welcome guest at the mayoral mansion. Joey Springer is not terribly pleased with these developments, what with him being in love with Lilian himself. The maid, Melba Marblehead, is also jealous — she has her eye on Jimmie.

In the garden one afternoon, Jimmie and Joey sit at either side of Lilian. Under the table, they both take what they assume is her hand. Joey slides an engagement ring onto a finger, but it isn’t one of the girl’s. Jimmy takes his new ring and gives it to Lilian, who is greatly pleased.

Just before the wedding, Melba sees her chance. She locks Lilian in the closet and puts on the gown herself, pulling the veil down so that no one is the wiser. Joey, meanwhile, has reached a new level of desperation. He bursts into the wedding ceremony with two guns drawn and demands that the preacher marry him to the bride.

Just after Joey has carried away his new wife, Lilian breaks out and the real wedding proceeds.

The first half of the film, with Jimmie and the dog, is much stronger than the second. an-accidental-champion-screenshot-3Neither act is about to win a prize for originality, but I enjoyed the dog antics and Jimmie’s acrobatics during the chase. The love-quadraleteral of the second half is comparatively dull, and while the boardwalk and beach scenes were plainly filmed at some real location, the mayoral mansion is a set that falls very short of being convincing. An Accidental Champion is a film that starts with promise but ends with a fizzle.

My rating: Meh.

I’m working on two films now: Somebody Lied (1917) and Lady Godiva (1911). I don’t know which will be released first, but it’s looking like Lied at the moment. After that will be an HD remaster of an old title, then I think I’m going to go ahead and transfer Pioneer Trails (1923) and maybe score it as well, just for me personally. Pioneer Trails is one of several “lost” films that I have a print of but can’t do anything with as it’s still under copyright. Assuming U.S. copyrights aren’t extended again — which is a big assumption — I can’t publicly release it until September 14th, 2018.

The Dancer (American, 1916)

the-dancer-screenshot-1The Dancer (American, 1916)
Directed by Carl M. Leviness
Starring King Clark and Vivian Rich

Farmer boy Johnny Madden (King Clark) travels to the city and falls in love with Capella (Vivian Rich), a dancer at a musical review. The two are soon wed and rather happily so. Johnny’s mother, Mrs. Madden (Louise Lester), is heartbroken both at her beloved son flying the nest and that the wife he’s flown to is “a common actress” and not a respectable woman… like, say, Daisy Brown (Marguerite Nichols).

Daisy is their neighbor and Mrs. Madden has long considered her and her son’s engagement a forgone conclusion, despite Johnny making no bones about how little he cares for the vain and self-centered girl. Unbeknownst to Johnny, his mother begins putting the screws to Capella, pressuring her to leave her husband so that he’ll come back to the farm and Daisy. And eventually Capella relents: Johnny returns home one day to find his wife gone and a letter urging him to “go to the farm and your mother and forget”.

the-dancer-screenshot-2He does go back to the farm, but he doesn’t forget. Daisy abandons whatever hopes she still held for winning Johnny and Mrs. Madden, seeing what she’s done to her son, realizes that her actions were not, as she had believed, “for the best”. It comes to a head when Johnny discovers the letter Capella sent his mother, when she conceded defeat and agreed to leave. Mrs. Madden begs her son’s forgiveness and shows him Capella’s most recent letter, in which she says that she’s fallen ill and desperately wants to see Johnny.

“Out of the shadow”. Mother and son both rush to the hospital and Capella’s side. Her illness turns out to be pregnancy. Mrs. Madden kisses Capella as she holds her new grandchild.

The story, of course, is just a modern-day retelling of La Dame aux Camélias given a happy ending. There are shades of Sawdust and Salome as well, but then you wouldn’t be wrong in saying Sawdust itself is just a looser adaptation of Camélias.

the-dancer-screenshot-3Nearly all of the American films I’ve seen have been from the heyday of the company’s early years and I was interested to see how well they kept up with the rapid changes in the film industry. The Dancer is a late American production (quite late — the company would be out of business not a year after its release), but aside from a few interesting close shots here and there, you really wouldn’t know it. Their cinematographic style in 1916 seems not to have changed all that much from what it had been five or six years earlier. Not that I’m surprised; with the singular exception of Vitagraph, none of the pioneers lived to see the end of the 1910s. American wasn’t a pioneer, but it did get in the game early enough to calcify before the war and the dissolution of the Patents Trust completely upset how movies were made and distributed in the US. I brought up Sawdust and Salome earlier because, despite The Dancer coming out two years after that film, it feels more primitive in comparison.

That said, the film isn’t that bad for what it is. Unless you’ve somehow managed to avoid every single take on this story for the last 168 years, you can predict the exact course of the picture from frame one, but again, as adaptations go, it isn’t that bad.

My rating: Meh.

 

And now, a sneak preview of our upcoming video. We’ve released the title before, but this isn’t simply an HD remaster — it’s from a new print entirely different from the version in common circulation. That’s your hint.

Polidor Has Stolen a Goose (Pasquali, 1912)

polidor-has-stolen-a-goose-screenshot-1Polidor Has Stolen a Goose (Pasquali, 1912)
Starring Polidor

When you think of Italian cinema in the silent era, you think of historical epics on a grand scale like Cabiria or Quo Vadis?, but of course that wasn’t all they did. The Italians also released much less lavish productions dealing with modern themes, including short slapstick comedies like this one.

Our star is Ferdinand Guillaume. Guillaume was a lithe and acrobatic Frenchman who came from a circus family, which no doubt had a great influence on his work as an actor. When he was with the Cines company, he was better known by the stage name Tontolini, but at Pasquali, he was Polidor. Guillaume featured in hundreds of movies, starting in the 1910s and continuing well into the ’60s in films like Fellini’s La Dolce Vita.

Polidor Has Stolen a Goose is a rather high-concept picture — after you’ve read the title, you’ve got a pretty solid idea of the plot. A young lady has sat her goose down by the side of the road to canoodle with a young man. Polidor comespolidor-has-stolen-a-goose-screenshot-2 by and swaps his laundry bag for the bird. The real trouble comes when he absconds into the city and is caught up in a wedding party. It’s quite a challenge for Polidor to keep it together at the banquet table with a live goose under his shirt. After some mildly comic antics, Polidor is chased from the house with the bird on his back. The goose takes flight and Polidor finds himself clinging to a streetlamp at the end of the film.

I have to say that Goose has a stronger ending than the only other Polidor film I’ve seen — Polidor’s First Duel — but I’m not sure if that’s enough to recommend it. Guillaume is sometimes compared to Chaplin, and from his physical performance I can see why, but this is weaker than even the most minor Chaplin title. I imagine that given the right subject mater Guillaume could impress, but the material he’s got to work with here is just not very good at all.

My rating: I don’t like it.

The Little Country Mouse (Majestic, 1914)

The Little Country Mouse screenshot 1The Little Country Mouse (Majestic, 1914)
Directed by Donald Crisp
Starring Blanche Sweet

Mabel (Mary Alden) invites her cousin May (Blanche Sweet) to a house party. May is a shy country girl and a weekend in the big city with her flashy cousin is an exciting prospect.

It’s love at first sight for Lieutenant Deering (Wallace Reid) when May steps out of the car. Captain Stiles (R.A. Walsh) has a baser attraction to the naïve girl. All the guests, save Deering, sit down for a game of cards. It isn’t until Mabel presents May with a $250 bill that she realizes they were gambling. “Why, I didn’t know it was for money!” she exclaims.

Stiles, “the wealthy roue”, sees his chance. He offers to loan May the money, which she’s in no position to reject. Deering, watching from another room, sees Stiles handThe Little Country Mouse screenshot 2 May a check and assumes that she must have been the winner. I think he disapproves? Maybe? Since he sat out the game, it would make sense that he didn’t care for gamblers, but the film doesn’t make this clear and the situation is diffused immediately when Deering confronts Stiles and learns that he loaned May $250.

Of course, the Captain’s loan did not come without an expectation of repayment. The next day, when May is out walking her dog, Stiles corners her and tries to force a kiss. Deering intercedes. Stiles, his money not having bought him what he wanted, demands a refund. Deering talks to Mabel, who agrees to forgive May’s debt. Deering takes the check back to Stiles and tears it up in front of him.

The party ends and everyone departs. Later, “the country mouse” back “in her home nest”, is visited by Lieutenant Deering. Her father leaves them to make moon eyes at each other, safely chaperoned by the dog.

The Little Country Mouse screenshot 3I feel my summary doesn’t adequately reflect the experience of watching The Little Country Mouse (1914). This is a film that exists almost entirely by inference. It isn’t like The Secret of the Palm — the story isn’t incomprehensible; it’s that there really isn’t any story. If I were to summarize what actually happens on screen, it would be: a girl goes to a party, loses a card game, then goes home. Everything else is left for the audience to deduce from vague clues and from knowing how these sort of stories usually go.

I wouldn’t say it’s a bad film. In an odd way, I actually kind of liked it. It’s the sort of film that requires the active participation of the viewer, and in a very literal way, it’s only as good or bad as you imagine it to be.

My rating: Meh.

Somebody Lied (Victor, 1917)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: I like it.


Available Harpodeon

J’accuse (Pathé, 1919)

Jaccuse screenshot 1J’accuse (Pathé, 1919)
Directed by Abel Gance
Starring Romuald Joubé

This isn’t a review, but I know I haven’t posted much recently (for various reasons neither here nor there) so I thought I’d just comment on something exciting to me.

Around nine years ago, I bought four bobbins of the 9.5mm Pathé Baby version of J’accuse (1919). Since then, I’ve been picking up more when and where ever I could find them. At last, I’ve assembled the entire film. Actually, with the duplicates resulting from buying so many incomplete sets, I’ve got nearly two copies.

At 840 feet, it’s considerably abridged from the theatrical release (which wasn’t even available on video when I started the collection). If it was run straight, 840 feet works out to around 28 minutes, but J’accuse has notched titles so it’s actually a bit longer than that. The original Pathé Baby projector could only handle a 30 foot film bobbin, which is just a minute of footage. Even if a film only Jaccuse screenshot 2has two or three intertitles, text would quickly eat up almost all the runtime. To save film, the Baby had a unique system whereby a little arm feels along the edge of the film as it passes through the projector. When it encounters a notch, it stops advancing the film for a few seconds — holding the picture on the screen. This way, titles could be reduced from several feet down to just a couple frames. Later Babies doubled the max capacity to 60 feet, and at last Pathé ditched bobbins for conventional reels that could handle several hundred feet of film, but J’accuse is an early release. 30 feet with notched titles generally becomes 50 feet with running titles, so it’s probably closer to 45 minutes long.

The whole notch system was a trade-off. With notched titles, the projector by necessity could only use weak lamps that threw small, dim pictures. More powerful lamps burned too hot and would melt the film if it was held in the gate for longer than a fraction of a second. The Baby’s lamphouse is really not much more than a flashlight.

Jaccuse screenshot 3There is an edit of the film that cuts out the whole ghost sequence at the end (before the 2008 DVD was released, I believe it was the most commonly available version on video), but the Baby edition retains it. I haven’t done a side-by-side comparison, but it seems like most of the Baby’s severest abridging is towards the start of the film.

Abel Gance and George Lucas have a bit in common — both being rather notorious for continually revising their films. It’s difficult to say what the “definitive” version of J’accuse would even look like. It’s certainly not the Baby release, but even the DVD is still missing as much as six reels’ worth of footage if by “original” you mean Gance’s earliest cuts of the film. The Baby version at least retains the three-epoch structure of the theatrical release, which the pre-2008 video didn’t.

Of all the Gance films I’ve seen, J’accuse remains my favorite. It may be heresy for me to say so, but Napoleon requires rather more patience than I’m willing to give. It has some spectacular and expertly constructed sequences, Napoleon does, but the road between them is a slog.

 

Jaccuse screenshot 4As for the delay in releasing a new video: the film scanner broke after transferring An Old Man’s Love Story. It was an easy fix, but I had to wait for a replacement part to arrive from Singapore, which took over a month. The primary scanner broke, I should say — I have four. The print I’m scanning now is a bit too shrunken to run through a standard movement, and the machine I’m talking about is one I built myself specifically to handle shrunken and badly damaged film. Here’s a hint for what’s coming out next. It’s an HD remaster of a very old title in the catalogue involving a washerwoman who gets stiffed by one of her customers.

 

Other news that may or may not be of interest: we’re trial-running putting the “now playing” video on YouTube as well on the homepage of our website. If it goes well, we’ll keep doing it. If it goes really well (viz., if the ad revenue matches the sale price), then maybe the now playing videos will cease to be a limited, one-at-a-time thing and the entire now playing catalogue will be made available.

The Fatherhood of Buck McGee (Vitagraph, 1912)

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: I like it.

David Harum (Famous Players, 1915)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: I like it.

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

Romeo and Juliet (Thanhouser, 1911)

Romeo and Juliet screenshot 1Romeo and Juliet (Thanhouser, 1911)
Directed by Barry O’Neil
Starring George Lessey and Julia M. Taylor

I’m aware of three extant prints of Romeo and Juliet, Part Two: the Folger Shakespeare Library has a copy, the British Film Institute has a copy, and we have a copy. There may well be countless others, of course, but again, those I know. Where ours came from, who can say? I got it years and years ago from eBay as part of an unidentified lot of films. The seller, I understand, got it from an estate sale in California and was reselling it sight-unseen. It’s a 16mm reduction print on diacetate stock that the edge code dates to 1932. That’s all I know.

As for Part One, there are no known copies. Romeo and Juliet is often called a two-reeler, but that’s not true — it’s two one-reelers. The distinction is important. The ad copy stresses to exhibitors that each is a stand-alone picture and needn’t necessarily be shown with the other. Indeed, for its first run that would have been quite impossible, as part two was released a week after part one. A cue sheet survives that outlines each scene and title card and I at first intended to reconstruct Part One based on it. I did come up with something, but I’m just not very happy with it and decided not to use it. If I had more stills, perhaps it could work, but as it stands, it’s not much more than a string of title cards. For those interested, here it is. It’s unscored — play de Koven’s Oh, Promise Me under it if you like, the cue sheet suggests that for the climax.

Romeo and Juliet screenshot 2Speaking of the score, I’m having a devilishly hard time scoring Part Two. As I’ve said, there is a period cue sheet available. It has eighteen cues. For a fifteen minute short. Eighteen cues. Some scenes (none of which are longer than two minutes, including the title) have three different cues. The average piece of photoplay music is about three minutes long. Now, photoplay music is written specifically to be adaptable, and most pieces can be stretched or compressed considerably, but it’s quite a demand to shorten one to just eight seconds. And the pieces they suggest! Harvest Moon is the friar’s theme, and that’s… that’s just awful. Juliet’s death theme is Heart’s Ease (Lertz’s or Lange’s? The cue sheet doesn’t specify, but it hardly matters as both are ludicrously inappropriate). The only decent suggestion is the intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana, which is a very nice love theme, but when using classical music, you generally want to avoid such recognizable pieces — you don’t want to draw attention away from the picture, which you surely will the moment you make your audience think “where have I heard that before?”

But even disregarding the cue sheet, successfully scoring Romeo and Juliet is hampered by the film having no rhythm at all. Silent films, despite being silent, are very musical in their construction. The action should have a definite and Romeo and Juliet screenshot 3regular beat. This film doesn’t. It’s similar to the difficulty one encounters with poorly done abridgements, where the editor didn’t take care to cut on the beat and the flow of the action is disrupted, but this doesn’t have the excuse of being abridged. It was made like this. I think that’s why there are so many cues for such a short film. There’s so little hope of the music naturally staying in synch with the picture that it becomes necessary to stop and restart so frequently.

I had a similar problem with the closing sequence of Across the Mexican Line, but for a different reason. Beyond the fact that the first scene is missing entirely, the rest of the film also is somewhat fragmentary. There are a few frames missing here, a few there, and most aren’t an issue, but just after Dolores is shot there’s a jump of three or four seconds that just destroys the rhythm of what had been until then a well-paced action scene. Imagine you’re counting out the rhythm — one two three one two three one two three… — and then suddenly it skips — …one two three one tw-one two three one two three… I was sorely tempted to cut out a bit more to at least bring it back to time. In the end, I just awkwardly ad-libbed a bit to skip directly to the end of the repeat.

Romeo and Juliet screenshot 4And what’s more about the film’s construction, there’s the question of when to cue the music. It’s different for late silents, but the general rule for the era of filmmaking I generally deal with is that you cue on action. Say you have one scene, a title card, then another scene. You play one piece under the first scene and through the title card. You don’t start the next piece until the second scene begins. The more I work with Romeo and Juliet, the more I think cueing on action is simply impracticable for this film. I think I’m going to scrap what I’ve done so far (which isn’t much) and try again cueing on title. Romeo and Juliet is weird because the film tries to have it both ways: in some cases, dialogue titles are in-lined — that is, the character begins speaking, the title appears, and after the title we return to the character speaking; but in other cases, the film uses the earlier convention of pre-pending the dialogue — the title appears first, then we see the character speak. One or the other, fine, but mixing them confuses me.

As for the quality of the print, the picture is fine but I at first thought the titles had been replaced by black leader for some reason, but in one or two, you can just barely discern lettering on them, and I found that if you boost the contrast to an insane degree, text does start to appear. Example: here’s a frame directly from the scanner:

Romeo and Juliet title originalLooks black, yes? But if we stretch it, we get this:

Romeo and Juliet title enhancedIt’s still certainly of nowhere near useable quality, but it’s good enough to use as a guide for replicating the title:

Romeo and Juliet title recreatedI should warn those playing at home that you shouldn’t expect to get anything near so legible from the above frame grab, as that’s a compressed 8-bit JPEG. I’m actually working with uncompressed 16-bit TIFs, which have 256 times more dynamic range.

I realize I’ve done nothing so far but gripe and haven’t even mentioned the plot at all, but for Romeo and Juliet, do I really need to? Part Two begins with a strange little scene involving the nurse talking to the camera and waving her finger. It’s as enigmatic as the lantern man in Phantom of the Opera and I always assumed it was just a fragment and the film actually began in some other way, or at least with a title card to explain what the hell that’s all about, but according the cue sheet, nope — that’s exactly how it’s supposed to go. It evidently calls for a misterioso, so I guess the cue sheet was of some help. (I went with Otto Langey’s Misterioso Irresoluto to suggest that the story as continued from part one is still unfinished.) After that, we get Romeo breaking the edict against dueling and the rest plays out like a highly compressed version of the stage play.

Romeo and Juliet screenshot 5The acting isn’t bad — quite broad, but acceptable overall. I rather liked Julia M. Taylor’s Juliet. Robert Halt as the friar and Mary Walters as the nurse are far and away the worst actors here. Halt, especially, is far too animated for the part. George Lessey’s Romeo has his share of wild gesticulations, to be sure, but they suit the character — young, impetuous, self-absorbed, and grandiose. Interesting anecdote I read in Moving Picture News, apparently Walters had a long-lost brother who recognized her after seeing Romeo and Juliet, reuniting them after some twenty years apart. True or not, it’s a colorful story.

As for the cinematography, I suppose it gets the job done. To its favor, I will say that they weren’t afraid of getting the camera in close to the action. There’s the old story of conservative producers saying audiences pay to see the whole actor, feet and all, and it is certainly true that many films from this era tend to be framed as such. There are a couple nice medium-close shots here, like Romeo climbing from the balcony and Juliet hiding from her nurse. The editing is mostly episodic — each scene composed of a single continuous shot — but do notice the axial cut in the balcony scene.

Do I like Romeo and Juliet? I can’t say that I do, but I think that’s largely because of how frustrating it is in re scoring. But beyond that, it’s pretty ordinary fair. Quality Films as a genre interest me, but like I said about Lady Godiva, there’s often not much interesting about them taken on their own.

My rating: I don’t like it.

 

Edit: Well, the scoring is done reasonably to satisfaction. I even managed to keep it cued on action through some creative tempo changes that I hope aren’t too noticeable (there’s nothing abrupt — just gradually speeding up or slowing down to stay more or less in synch with the picture). Ten cues overall, which is less than eighteen but considerably more than I’d usually use for a film of this length.


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