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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.


Available from Harpodeon

The Firing of the Patchwork Quilt (Vitagraph, 1911)

The Firing of the Patchwork Quilt screenshot 1The Firing of the Patchwork Quilt (Vitagraph, 1911)
Starring Mary Maurice and Robert Gaillard.

Mother McCoy’s (Mary Maurice) son (Robert Gaillard) is an engineer. He’s out one night during a storm. Between flashes of lightning, Mother sees that the trestle his train is about to cross has been struck and destroyed. She douses her quilt in kerosene and sets it ablaze on the track, warning him of the danger ahead just in time to avert disaster.

It’s a simple but effective story. The screenplay was written by Hazel Neason, who was mostly known for her acting but she also worked as a scenarist. She’s credited as a writer on a handful of films, but she largely wrote anonymously. In an interview with Motion Picture Story Magazine, she mentions this and also brings up a couple of her favorites: The First Violin (1912) and The Patchwork Quilt (1911). It’s generally a good idea to take these interviews with a grain of salt and assume that they’re heavily edited, if not entirely concocted, by studio publicists, but in this case it’s probably true. Those are both Vitagraph productions and by the time of this interview, Neason had left Vitagraph and was under contract with Kalem — there’s no reason for Kalem to push them.

The Firing of the Patchwork Quilt screenshot 2We’ve released this title on video before — it was an extra on the old Juggernaut disc, since it’s so thematically similar and I always thought of it as the obvious inspiration — but I’ve never done a great deal of research on it. Now that I have, I begin to question the received facts about the short. Or, at least, I question IMDb.

First, IMDb says it was released on February 28th, 1912. After trawling release notices in the trade magazines, I see it was actually out on December 26th, 1911. That isn’t a big deal — it can be surprisingly hard to pinpoint an exact release date sometimes, and it varies depending on what you mean by “release”. In the silent era, the modern concept of a general release didn’t really exist — in the absence of internegatives, there were never enough release prints available to reach the thousands of cinemas across the country simultaneously. When you say “release”, you really need to qualify it with “where”.

The second issue is the title, which IMDb says is A Mother’s Devotion; or, the Firing of the Patchwork Quilt. It was released in 1911 as The Patchwork Quilt. It’s referred to exclusively by that name until February of the next year, when it picks up The Firing of… Perhaps this was to distinguish it from the several other films called “Patchwork Quilt”, particularly the higher-profile Edison picture that was then in production. At any rate, this is surely where IMDb gotThe Firing of the Patchwork Quilt screenshot 3 mixed-up with its release date. If they were searching for the keyword “firing”, the earlier release wouldn’t have shown up. I do wish I had my copy of The Big V at hand — I’m curious to see when Anthony Slide said it was released.

American magazines and newspapers only go so far. They’re invaluable for information about a film’s initial release, but as ephemeral as cinema was back then, titles quickly drop from notice and aren’t ever mentioned again. It helps to also check “end-of-the-line” locations where films would eventually wind up after playing for months or sometimes even years in other markets. That’s where Trove, the National Library of Australia’s online newspaper archive, comes in handy. Again, it was initially released there as The Patchwork Quilt, and it only became [The] Firing [of] the Patchwork Quilt on July 12th, 1912. After the film ended its run there, it disappears from the record for several decades.

But whither “A Mother’s Devotion”? Nobody has called it that so far, nor have any of its two or three reviews used the line, nor did Hazel Neason bring it up in her interview. The intertitles on the surviving print use only the name The Firing of the Patchwork Quilt (from a later release, evidently). Where did “A Mother’s Devotion” come from? Blackhawk, I think. The film was released on 8mm and 16mm by Blackhawk sometime in the early ‘60s. I haven’t got a catalogue, which could give an exact year, but I do have two prints of this release in my collection and the edge code on the earlier one dates it to 1961. On theirThe Firing of the Patchwork Quilt screenshot 4 replacement title, Blackhawk calls the film A Mother’s Devotion. And so, IMDb reconciles that information with its previous information and goes with the title A Mother’s Devotion; or, the Firing of the Patchwork Quilt. And Harpodeon blindly parroted that title and falsely legitimized it. Our bad. The future video release (probably out sometime in the next two weeks) will use the more historically attested title The Firing of the Patchwork Quilt.

As I said, it’s a strong, if simple, scenario. I actually prefer it when short dramas keep the story simple and allow some space for the characters to breathe. The acting is good. I hesitate to even name Robert Gaillard as a co-star; he’s hardly in the film. This is really a one-woman show, and Mary Maurice carries it admirably. You know, this could legitimately be termed an action film, and I can’t think of many other actioners with an elderly woman as the hero. It’s well photographed, especially the very realistic lightning effects. There’s almost nothing not to recommend it.

My rating: I like it.


Available from Harpodeon

The Making of a Man (Biograph, 1911)

The Making of a Man screenshot 1The Making of a Man (Biograph, 1911)
Directed by D.W. Griffith
Starring Dell Henderson and Blanche Sweet

(None of the characters are named, so I’m just going to refer to them by their actor’s name)

Blanche Sweet and her boyfriend, Guy Hedlund, are sitting in the front row at the playhouse, eagerly awaiting the performance of a traveling theatrical troupe. The curtain rises on a masher (Donald Crisp) assaulting a woman (Claire McDowell). Dell Henderson appears and separates them, probably saying something like ‘away with you, foul cur!’ The audience bursts into rapturous applause.

Later, at a dance, Blanche meets Dell, and to say that they hit it off is an understatement. Her boyfriend is understandably put-out. When he sees them together at the train station, he rushes to tell her father (William J. Butler). Father appears just as Dell leans-in for a goodbye kiss. He frogmarches Blanche home.

Blanche runs away. She finds Dell in his hotel room and, direct to the point, asks him “will you marry me?” For a moment, Dell is staggered by the question, but is in the middle of gladly accepting her proposal just as they hear a knock at the door. Guy Hedlund, who’s pretty firmly veered into stalker territory at this point, has been trailing her with Father in tow.

They give him the slip, and within the hour, they’ve got a marriage certificate in hand. Back at the hotel, they meet their pursuers, who have now also involved the police. It would seem that perhaps Blanche hasn’t been entirely forthright with Dell: she’s actually just fifteen years old. This is excellent casting, as Blanche Sweet — the actress herself, I mean — was indeed only fifteen years old at the time, but she legitimately does look several years older.

Back at home, Father The Making of a Man screenshot 2presents Blanche to her little sisters as the very model of damnation. Big brother (Edwin August?), who would be a Bible-thumper if he could ever put down his Bible long enough to thump it, sermonizes her before proudly strutting off with his nose in the air. Meanwhile, at the hotel, the other actors try to make light of the situation, but Dell is deeply disturbed by the turn of events. It seems that he might know something that’s as yet a secret to everyone else…

Blanche runs away once again, this time leaving a letter that “tells the tragic story”. (If you haven’t picked up on the not terribly subtle clues, she’s pregnant.) It’s just after Father reads this note that Dell appears at the door. He’s come to reason with him, but all Father has to say is “My daughter is dead. Get out of my house.”

Shortly afterward, Blanche returns to beg her father’s forgiveness, but she finds him dead from a heart attack. Brother appears and immediately lays into Blanche. After he’s done berating her, he, too, discovers that his father is dead. Blaming her, he expels her from the house. The editing is a bit sloppy in this scene. When brother enters, he’s shockingly without his Bible, but at some point it magically reappears.

Some time later (evidently, given that Blanche has a baby now), we find a slumlord hassling Blanche for the rent, only to leave empty-handed. Blanche picks up a newspaper and reads… something. I’m not watching a release print of this film. What I’ve got is either a work print or, more likely, an answer print. Plainly, there was supposed to be an insert shot of a newspaper, but instead, all that’s there is just a single-frame slug with “news paper” scratched onto it to mark where the shot should be spliced in. It’s pretty easy to guess, though, that what she saw was an advertisement that the theatre troupe would be coming back to town.

The Making of a Man screenshot 3We cut to the theatre just as Dell is bowing to an even more enraptured audience (and look, there’s Mabel Normand clapping her heart out a scant six weeks after being dropped from Vitagraph for not being star material — will her career ever recover?), but it’s plain that Dell has a heavy heart. Backstage, he’s greeted by a ghost. A ghost with a baby. “Reunited at last” — Dell embraces Blanche, who is turns out isn’t as dead as he thought; and Blanche embraces Dell, who didn’t abandon her after all.

I’m a sucker for maudlin melodramas (and not on some ironically-detached level, I really get invested in them — it’s rare that I’m not teary-eyed by the end), but even I tend to find Griffith’s Biograph shorts to be mawkish and overly sentimental. The Making of a Man (1911) isn’t entirely free of Griffith’s heavy hand, but the cast goes a long way toward making it work. I’ve already mentioned Blanche Sweet being ideal for the role, but I haven’t mentioned Dell Henderson’s wonderfully subtle performance. The film was his to lose, but he manages to perfectly convey the conflicted position he’s in without ever resorting to the sort of white knight histrionics employed by his character in the stageplay-within-the-photoplay. Take the scene when Father tells him that Blanche is dead. Imagine Carlyle Blackwell in the role: he’d stagger back a few steps, the back of his hand would shoot to his forehead, his mouth agape, lips quivering. Henderson does none of that. With his brows downcast, he stares for a moment into the middle distance. He absently passes his hat from one hand to the other. At the garden gate, he pauses just for an instant and steadies himself on the fence post before walking away, slumping slightly, but as if making an effort to hold himself together. It’s beautifully acted by the entire cast, really, except for the brother. I have to give the actor some slack because he’s playing a caricature and there wasn’t much else he could do, but still, he comes across entirely too comic. I’ll ignore how heavily the corpse breathes.

My rating: I like it.

 

Edit:

I vaguely recalled once reading about this film in Motion Picture Story Magazine (which I’ve got a pretty large collection of), so I pulled out a few from around its release, and sure enough, it was novelized in the November 1911 issue. According to it, the newspaper read: “Wanted:- A woman with infant. Apply at Grand Theater, after matinée today.” Also, it names Blanche Sweet’s character Ruth Merritt and Dell Henderson’s Morton Travers. So there you go.

The Making of a Man magazine

Lady Godiva (Vitagraph, 1911)

LadLady Godiva ady Godiva (Vitagraph, 1911)
Directed by J. Stuart Blackton
Starring Julia Swayne Gordon

Like The Victoria Cross (1912), which I’ve written about before, Lady Godiva (1911) is another example of that short-lived genre known at Vitagraph as the Quality Film. Elsewhere, they were termed variously De-Luxe Films or High-Art Films, but we might allow Vitagraph naming rights as they were the chief producers of the genre. Also like The Victoria Cross, Lady Godiva is based on two culturally revered subjects: history (or at least legend) and poetry (Tennyson in both films).

Lady Godiva (Julia Swayne Gordon) is the wife of Earl Leofric (Robert Gaillard), who has imposed a ruinous new tax on his townspeople that threatens to drive them to starvation. She begs he lift the tax, but the Earl’s heart is “as rough as Esau’s hand” and he’ll only agree to do so on the condition that she ride naked through town.

Warned by a herald of her approach, all the townspeople go inside and shut their windows, except for “one low churl” (Harold Wilson) who watches through a peephole. As she passes, he’s blinded by the sight — “his eyes were shrivell’d into darkness”.

The task complete, she returns to the Earl, who repeals the tax, and so Lady Godiva’s fame becomes “everlasting”.

All of the titles are “quotes” from Tennyson’s poem Godiva. I scare-quote the word because, while the text is presented as direct excerpts, it’s awfully mangled. That’s not at all unexpected. The target audience for Quality Films was not well educated and probably didn’t have a firm grasp of English. They may know of Shakespeare or Tennyson, but it’s highly unlikely that they ever read either. Their familiarity with the great English poets came mostly from places like postcards illustrating famous lines, which were often condensed for space and modified to be both more stand-alone and also to be more marketable — to be able to serve as an advertisement for some product or other. For the Quality Film producers, when the choice came down to a quote that’s right or a quote that’s familiar, one always erred on the side of familiarity. There are some common misquotes persisting today that, while they didn’t originate in early film, early film helped to cement in popular culture — lines like “Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well”.

Lady Godiva screenshotThe set is the same Ye Olde England lot that can be seen in several Vitagraph films from this period, consisting of three half-timbered building façades and a painted backdrop. They vary the angles and move around the set dressing from scene to scene to make it appear larger than it is. There’s attention to detail shown in matching the painted shadows to the actual ones, and in keeping the actors from casting shadows on the backdrop. I don’t recognize the castle (or the gate of the castle, rather — that’s all we see). It may have been built specially. I count about sixteen extras, which reasonably fills out the crowd scenes. One of them is Kate Price, who’s pretty easy to spot. Clara Kimball Young is apparently in there, too, but I couldn’t pinpoint her.

The nude ride is as absolutely sexless as can be, and not only because of the bodystocking and strategically placed hair. Julia Swayne Gordon plays Godiva as you might a saint. But the moral of the story is to not be a Peeping Tom — indeed, the Lady Godiva legend is the origin of the term Peeping Tom. You might recognize Tom — or Harold Wilson — as Silverstein from The Awakening of Bianca (1912). His performance here is kind of the same, only now his handwringing is meant to suggest lasciviousness, and in Bianca, it was meant to look Jewish.

Quality Films are interesting in an abstract, film history kind of way, but can often be on the dull side. The Victoria Cross had the saving grace of an exciting battle scene and the novel conceit of the binoculars, which served the practical purpose of masking the small number of extras, but also looked cool and gave Edith Storey some welcome screentime. In comparison, Lady Godiva doesn’t have much going for it. I didn’t dislike it, but it’s just sort there and it feels all its length.

My rating: Meh.

The Borrowed Flat (American, 1911)

The Borrowed Flat screenshotThe Borrowed Flat (American, 1911)
Directed by Allan Dwan (maybe?)
Starring J. Warren Kerrigan

A true chamber drama, in the sense that it takes place entirely on a single set with a principle cast of just two players. Further, the whole film appears to have been done in one continuous take (there are actually a few cuts, but most are masked by title cards and the one that isn’t is so seamless that I had to step over it frame-by-frame to find it).

Percy Pigeon (J. Warren Kerrigan) arrives home to find a “Kick Me” sign on his back — it’s April Fool’s day, the calendar reveals. He’s expecting his aunt to visit later and, as he hopes to be well remembered in her will, he wants to make a good impression. This involves replacing the artwork on the walls with signs reading “Love Your Relatives” and “What is Home Without an Aunt?”

Bobby, Percy’s friend, appears and asks to borrow his apartment to meet his fiancée. Percy agrees. Bobby writes to Dolly to come at once and they’ll be married right away, then leaves to get dressed. Once he’s gone, Percy decides to play a joke of his own. He takes Bobby’s letter and readdresses it to Bridget O’Rafferty, their washerwoman. Later, when Bobby is waiting in the apartment alone, Bridget shows up ready to get hitched and isn’t eager to take ‘no’ for an answer.

After Bridget’s exit (pushed out the window), Bobby notices the letter from Percy’s aunt on the table and, returning tit for tat, takes a dress and wig from the closet (why does Percy have these?) and impersonates her. Percy is surprised. It seems like there should be more to the ending, but the original end card is intact on my print and it runs all of its advertised 420 feet, so I don’t think anything is missing. It just very abruptly stops with Percy on the floor searching for a dropped ring (?) while Bobby as Auntie stands over him.

Technically speaking, this is not an advanced film (aside from that impressively concealed cut while Bobby is fiddling with the latch on the trunk), but even if the technique wasn’t pioneering, the story is well enough presented. “It fulfills its purpose”, to quote Moving Picture World. They didn’t seem to care for it much. While all the other films got a paragraph synopsis, The Borrowed Flat has just “A comedy presenting what happened in a borrowed flat”. I wouldn’t be so dismissive, though. I personally found it entertaining.

My rating: I like it.


Available from Harpodeon

The Secret of the Palm (IMP, 1911)

The Secret of the Palm screenshotThe Secret of the Palm (IMP, 1911)
Directed by Joseph Smiley
Starring Joseph Smiley and King Baggot

After the first viewing, I found The Secret of the Palm (1911) to be completely incomprehensible. I had no idea what it was even about, much less what was going on in the plot. I immediately watched it a second time, but was no less confused. I set the film aside for a while and came back later with fresh eyes, and still all I got from it was that seemingly unrelated things happen for no reason to people I have no idea who are, then some guy falls out of a palm tree and the film is over.

To Moving Picture News!

All right, IMP published a synopsis of their film in the trade journals to bamboozle entice exhibitors into booking it. According to their synopsis, the film is about a Spaniard named Don Alvarez (Joseph Smiley) who is sent to work on a fruit ranch in Cuba owned by Canby, a man his mother was school friends with. Canby’s daughter, Edna, is in love with Cecil Abbott (King Baggot), the ranch foreman. Don is “smitten by her charms” and jealous of the attention she shows to Cecil, so when Cecil goes into town to get the mail, Don stealthily steals the mail pouch and hides it at the top of a palm tree. Cecil is accused of the theft and is fired. Don is promoted to foreman. On the next mail day, Don gets a letter from his mother that said she sent him money in her last letter. Don scrambles up the tree to retrieve it, but falls afterward. He’s found by Cecil, who takes him back to the ranch, where he exonerates Cecil before dying.

I defy you to get any of that from the picture — even one single line. I’ve seen my share of incoherent films before, but I don’t think I’ve ever encountered such a nonsensical assemblage of scenes amounting to absolutely nothing. This makes As a Boy Dreams (1911) look like a masterpiece of filmmaking that’s brilliance will never be topped.

My rating: I don’t like it.

Across the Mexican Line (Solax, 1911)

Across the Mexican Line posterAcross the Mexican Line (Solax, 1911)
Directed by Alice Guy-Blaché

I’ve had this 16mm reduction negative for some little time but paid little attention to it since, based on the title scribbled on the leader, I already had a copy of the film and had already transferred it to video. Still, eventually I got around to examining the reel and I quickly realized that it did not contain the film I thought it did. It was, in fact, a copy of Across the Mexican Line (1911), which is interesting because that film was presumed to be lost after the last known print of it was discovered to be unsalvageably deteriorated. I think any collector would say that it’s always a bit of a thrill to think that the film you’re holding is the only one in existence.

Across the Mexican Line was the first of Solax’s “Big Military Features” series of films. The release was “very timely” and “heartily” received by audiences, Moving Picture News reported in their film chart for April 29th, 1911. The picture was created to capitalize on the Mexican Revolution, which had just broken out the year before, and evidently it succeeded.

The film begins with Castro, a popular Mexican entertainer who sympathizes with the guerrillas’ cause, meeting with the commander of a detachment of Mexican troops. The commander needs intelligence of the American troop movements. Castro suggests that they use a female spy.

Dolores, the spy, ingratiates herself with Lieutenant Harvey and gains access to the telegraph room. Harvey even teaches her Morse code and shows her how the equipment works. Unfortunately for the Mexicans, Dolores fails in learning the information the commander wants. Castro tries a different, more direct approach: bribing Harvey. When that doesn’t work, he kidnaps him and takes him to the commander, who threatens the lieutenant with death unless he divulges the information.

Dolores, who has fallen in love with the man she was sent to spy on, sneaks out of the camp on a stolen horse and rides to the telegraph wires. She climbs a pole and taps into the wire, frantically messaging the American headquarters. The pursuing guerrillas shoot at her and she’s hit in the right hand, but continues tapping out the code with her left.

The Americans receive the message and a counterattack is launched. Just as Harvey is about to be shot by the firing squad, the Americans rush in and tear down the guerrilla fighters. Harvey embraces Dolores and the two kiss as the film ends.

Across the Mexican Line negativeSolax, in their ad copy, stated that they intended their Big Military Features to mark “a departure from the studio productions” that had dominated the screen and to instead be “big, lively, outdoor pictures, full of vigorous, active incidents”. Across the Mexican Line gets there, eventually, but the cramped, crowded sets of the first half are, to all appearances, very much a “studio production”. The editing style also adapts itself as the film progresses, from the long, continuous shots of the opening scenes to the short, staccato takes of the climax that rapidly cut between several simultaneous plot lines. It’s a dramatic change — going from shots that last around a minute and a half at the start of the film to just ten seconds at the end — and creates a feeling of heightening tension and of time running out.

Across the Mexican Line reverses the common damsel in distress trope. Harvey is the helpless one here, and it’s Dolores who must save him. Challenging gender roles was a common theme in Guy’s work, just as Guy herself challenged them in life. Even today, female directors are uncommon and are woefully underappreciated. When Guy began directing, she was quite literally the only one.

I liked Across the Mexican Line, but I will say that, until I read a contemporary plot synopsis, many of the details of the film were lost on me. It’s easy enough to get the gist from the picture alone — that Dolores is a spy, that Harvey is somehow important to Castro, and that Castro has some connection to the guy in the military costume — but everything else was nigh incomprehensible. It doesn’t help that the first scene, which the synopsis says introduced the military guy, is missing from my negative.

My rating: I like it.


Available from Harpodeon

As a Boy Dreams (IMP, 1911)

As a Boy Dreams screenshotAs a Boy Dreams (IMP, 1911)
Directed by Thomas H. Ince
Starring Jack and Mary Pickford

In the early days of cinema, actors were never credited. There were two reasons for that: On the one side, most actors came from a live theatre background, and while many theatre actors would happily accept a paycheck for appearing in a movie, very few would ever admit to doing so. On the other side, studios feared that if audiences knew who acted in their films that a fan base would develop around those actors, which would give them the high ground in contract negotiations. Still, moviegoers had their favorites, even if they didn’t know their names. Vitagraph had “The Vitagraph Girl” (Florence Turner), Biograph had “The Biograph Girl” (Florence Lawrence), and then there was “The Girl with the Curls” (Gladys Smith at the time, better known as Mary Pickford).

The fact that they had fans was not lost on these actresses, and by the beginning of the 1910s, they were more than willing to claim their film performances, regardless of what the theatre community might say. Being credited by name became a point of contention – one that the studios had not the slightness inclination to yield to. Enter Carl Laemmle.

Now, Laemmle started out on the exhibition end of the film industry. He knew very well that people cared little for who produced a film, who wrote it, or often even what it was about; they came to see their favorite actors on screen. In 1909, Laemmle founded the Independent Moving Pictures Company (or IMP – their logo was a cute pitchfork-wielding devil) with the expressed purpose of not only crediting the actors that appeared in their films, but advertising films based on who acted in them. It was a strategy that lured in many popular actors, Mary Pickford included.

As a Boy Dreams (1911) was one of Pickford’s IMP productions.

The Boy (Jack Pickford) is a cabin boy on a ship full of jerks. They alternate between being jerks and looking intently at a map that shows the way to Treasure Island. The Boy, tired of their jerkiness, steals the map and shows it to The Girl (Mary Pickford). The Girl is The Captain’s daughter… I guess? Anyway, the two of them show the map to someone who might be The Captain, which incites a mutiny or something, that results in The Boy and The Girl escaping in a dinghy. The jerks win the mutiny with such violence that they nearly knock over the flimsy backdrop they’re standing in front of.

It turns out they didn’t need the map, since their aimlessly drifting boat took them right to Treasure Island. Unfortunately, they’re captured by pirates in a matter of seconds. It also turns out that the jerks didn’t need the map either, since they’re hot on The Boy and Girl’s heels in a dinghy of their own. Somehow, the jerks beat them to the treasure, but since the pirates are, you know, pirates, they just murder them and steal it.

Teleport to the ship where The Boy rescues The Captain… from the jerks… who the pirates killed… okay, I don’t really know. Back on the island, the pirates have vanished and The Captain and… some other people… claim the treasure. The Boy and The Girl then get married and apparently The Boy’s name was Mr. Howard.

“Gee! But that was a great dream”…

…yeah, everything was a dream. The Boy was asleep and in his mind had acted out the plot of a penny dreadful book that he’d been reading when he was supposed to be chopping wood. His father is not pleased.

If my synopsis made the film sound like a horrible, confused mess, then I do it too much justice. It’s a far cry from the caliber of work Pickford played in at Biograph.

IMP didn’t last long. In 1912, it merged with a number of other, smaller studios to form Universal Pictures. Pickford thankfully returned to Biograph, but by that time, the cat was out of the bag. Laemmle had created the star system that would come to dominate the movie industry, and there was no brighter star than Mary Pickford. Just as the early studios feared, her popularity meant that she could dictate whatever salary she chose and she quickly became the highest paid actress in the world.

I would not recommend As a Boy Dreams. Occasionally there’s some unintentional humor, but it’s mostly bad-bad, not funny-bad.

My rating: I don’t like it.

Three Million Dollars (American, 1911)

J. Warren KerriganThree Million Dollars (American, 1911)
Directed by Allan Dwan
Starring J. Warren Kerrigan and Pauline Bush

To close out the gay-themed silent films review series, I’ve decided to take a look at a film that doesn’t feature any gay characters, but does star a notable gay actor: J. Warren Kerrigan.

Great God Kerrigan, as he was known, was one of the first major movie stars and appeared in well over a hundred short westerns in the first half of the 1910s. He principally worked for the American Film Manufacturing Company – or the Flying “A” – under the direction of Allan Dwan. Very, very few of those early shorts survive. I’ll be looking at one of them: Three Million Dollars (1911).

 

Joseph Close (George Periolat) receives a letter from the lawyer of his wealthy and recently deceased brother informing him that his daughter Estella (Pauline Bush) stands to inherit $3,000,000 on the condition that she marries before the end of the month, but “the girl refuses to get married because nobody loves her”. Joe isn’t about to let $3,000,000 slip through his fingers over so minor an issue. He offers a thousand dollars apiece to a group of cowboys to abduct his daughter, find and abduct a suitable husband for her, and then bring them before the Justice of the Peace.

The unwitting groom is Arthur White (J. Warren Kerrigan). He’s taken, tied and blindfolded, to the feed lot, where they already have Estella waiting, similarly encumbered. Before the Justice of the Peace arrives, Arthur wiggles free. He unties Estella, the two steal a horse, and they make their escape into the desert.

As they flee from their kidnappers, Arthur and Estella fall in love and decide to go back. They tie themselves up again and wait for the Justice of the Peace, who marries them on the spot. Joe, so pleased with the outcome, kisses both Estella and Arthur – the latter making quite a show of spitting and rubbing his face afterward.

 

Three Million Dollars is a silly film, but I don’t know if that’s intentional. It was billed as a western romance, but it strikes me as more of a comedy. The romance doesn’t exist – after a frantic escape across the desert, they climb a rock and Arthur says “Let’s go back and get married”. That’s the extent of the romance between the two leads. Apart from that, though, I have to say that I was very impressed by Pauline Bush. She acted extremely well during the abduction and escape. Kerrigan was hamming it up and not taking his role at all seriously, but I can’t say I blame him.

What happened to Kerrigan’s stardom? There were a few factors at play. The studio line was that he lost his audience’s favor by refusing to enlist in the First World War, which was true. It’s also true that he made some rather unfortunate remarks in that regard, to the effect that it was a good thing so many plebes were going over to be cannon fodder that a star like him could stay safe at home. It was said jokingly, but it didn’t make him any friends.

The other and probably more significant reason was Kerrigan’s refusal to marry and his disregard for secrecy. In the early days, it didn’t matter. The industry was small and insular, and when it came to the performers’ personal lives, audiences were only spoon-fed whatever lies the studio thought it best for them to hear. By the end of the 1910s, it had got too big and the stars lived too much in the public’s eye. The studio may not care whether or not an actor was gay, so long as they kept selling tickets, but they had to shield themselves from the moral crusaders crying for censorship and government oversight, and overtly gay actors were a liability. Others, like Alla Nazimova and Charles Bryant, entered “lavender marriages” – where a gay actor and a lesbian actress marry, show themselves off together in public, and give a few interviews about how married they are – but Kerrigan wouldn’t do that. Kerrigan also had a tendency of being a little too catty in interviews. In one famous example, his usual reply to the “Why aren’t you married?” question – “I have my mother to take care of” – wasn’t good enough and the interviewer kept doggedly approaching it from different angles until at last asking point-blank if he even liked girls. Kerrigan replied: “I like them just fine, when they leave me alone.”

Kerrigan never entirely vanished, but his days of being a star were over. He attempted a come-back in the mid-1920s, with films like The Covered Wagon (1923) and Captain Blood (1924), but his career didn’t revive and he retired from the screen. When he died in 1947, he was survived by his boyfriend of nearly forty years, James Vincent, who he met on set when he was just starting out at the Flying “A” in 1910.

How do I rate the Three Million Dollars? As a pure romance, it’s laughable, but taken as a comedy, it’s not bad – far from good, but not bad. That can only mean…

My rating: Meh.


Available from Harpodeon

When the Tables Turned (Star Film, 1911)

When the Tables Turned screenshotWhen the Tables Turned (Star Film, 1911)
Directed by William F. Haddock
Starring Edith Storey and Francis Ford

Ethel Kirby (Edith Storey) is a New York actress on vacation in Texas. On the train to Lariat, she meets Florence Halley, who’s also on her way to Lariat to visit her aunt (Eleanor Blanchard). Halley had often lamented to her aunt how the days of the Wild West were over and the cowboys had been tamed, so as a surprise, her aunt has arranged a little reenactment of the old days for her return. The ranch foreman (Francis Ford) has organized his ranch hands into a posse and intends on kidnapping Halley from the stagecoach, but they mistakenly take Kirby instead. Kirby is locked in a barn and at first believes she’s actually being held hostage, but then she overhears the ranchers talking about how well the show is going and realizes that it’s all an act. She decides not only to play along, but to use her superior acting skills to outfox her pretended captors.

The premise, that of a civilized, modern West play-acting its wilder past, would become a very common trope in the later 1910s (there’s even an episode of The Perils of Pauline (1914) that starts out with exactly the same faux-kidnapping setup seen here), but When the Tables Turned (1911) is certainly the earliest film example I know of it.

Edith Storey, as always, is excellent in her performance. She’s a remarkably versatile actress, quite capable of playing one role, then taking on another with entirely opposing characteristics, and managing to portray both with equal conviction and believability. It’s a quality essential to making Kirby work here, as she has to go from a damsel in distress to an apparent madwoman to what I can only describe as a vindictive puppetmaster in the span of a few minutes. A lesser actress I don’t think could pull it off at all, much less make it seem as natural as Storey does.

I enjoyed the film and would recommend it.

My rating: I like it.

Available (sometimes) from Texas Guinan