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
Based on Alexandre Dumas Jr.’s much adapted novel The Lady of the Camellias, Camille (1911) follows Marguerite Gautier (Sarah Bernhardt), a “courtisane” (or high-class prostitute) who falls in love with Armand Duval (Lou Tellegen) and decides to give up her former life to marry him. Armand’s father (Georges Charmeroy?), scandalized by his son’s association with Marguerite, forbids her from seeing him. Marguerite abandons Armand and returns to her old ways, much affected by her loss and in declining health. Time passes and eventually Armand’s father relents. Armand goes to Marguerite, but reaches her just in time to witness her death.
Coming in at not even three reels, the story is obviously condensed greatly. It includes the familiar scenes of the meeting between Marguerite and Armand’s father, of Armand finding the note, the scene at the gambling party, and Marguerite’s death. There’s little linking these vignettes together besides intertitles, but the plot is still comprehensible even going in cold. That said, a working knowledge of the story the film is based on certainly helps to fill in the gaps.
This is the only multi-reel Bernhardt film I’ve seen aside from Queen Elizabeth (1912) and I couldn’t help but mentally compare the two while I was watching. Both films are stagey, but Camille is exceptionally unadventurous. Elizabeth at least varies the angles now and then and does some intercutting between shots to show simultaneous action when not all the characters are on screen together. Camille is all medium-long shots, straight on, and without cuts. Cinematography had progressed beyond that in 1911. I can only assume that they wanted to capture, as faithfully as possible, the experience of seeing Bernhardt perform the play on stage – Marguerite was her most famous role and she was known the world over for it – but from a movie-goer’s perspective, Elizabeth is certainly more exciting to watch.
Bernhardt – “the Divine Sarah” – was regarded as one of the finest actresses that ever lived, but from Camille and the handful of other films I’ve seen of her, that simply doesn’t come through. Honestly, she doesn’t stand out at all in this adaptation. I would say it’s a matter of changing styles in acting, but compare Bernhardt to her only slightly less famous contemporary Eleonora Duse. Watch Duse in Cenera (1916) and tell me she wasn’t a gifted actress.
For someone interested in Bernhardt, of course you’ll want to see Camille, but if you’re just in the mood for a good adaptation of Lady of the Camellias, I’d recommend the 1921 version starring Alla Nazimova and Rudolph Valentino.
My rating: I don’t like it.
Available from TheGreatStars.com