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 comes 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.
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.
A 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.
The Talisman is around 450 pages long. Richard the Lion-Hearted (1912)*, which is an adaptation of Scott’s novel, is sixteen minutes. I wrote about Man’s Calling (1912) in the past and praised it for being very wise in its handling of the single-reel drama format — that is, it kept the plot very simple and instead devoted most of its short runtime to developing the characters. Richard doesn’t take that route. It tries to condense the entirety of Talisman into 1070 feet. The story is understandably stripped to the bone, presenting nothing more than the barest minimum to keep the narrative moving. You can forget about anything but the most perfunctory characters.
During King Richard’s illness, his enemies Duke Montserrat and the Templar raise the Austrian flag over the crusaders’ camp. Richard, incensed, has the flag removed and orders his favorite knight, Sir Kenneth, to keep guard over the English flag. Edith is in love with Sir Kenneth, but the Queen doubts his constancy. She forges a letter from Edith demanding an immediate meeting. Sir Kenneth rushes away to see Edith. During his absence, the flag is stolen. Montserrat confesses to taking it. The matter must be settled by mortal combat between Sir Kenneth and Montserrat, Richard decrees. Montserrat is badly wounded and is carried to his tent. When the Templar is alone with him, he hastens the Duke’s death at a dagger point, fearing that Montserrat would have otherwise betrayed him. Meanwhile, Richard proclaims that Sir Kenneth is secretly the heir-apparent to the throne of Scotland. Sir Kenneth and Edith are engaged. The Templar is arrested.
For all its over-stuffed action, Richard the Lion-Hearted looks very good. The Italians were masters of period dramas in early film. Compared to the staginess of the chariot race in Kalem’s Ben Hur (1907), the sets, costumes, and choreography seen in the joust sequence here look at least a real as something you’d see at a Renfair. Not only that, but the cinematography is leaps and bounds ahead of Ben Hur’s static camerawork. It begins with a pan that follows the two horsemen as they enter the field, cuts to a medium-close shot of the king overseeing the rules being read out, then to a wide-angle of the field as Sir Kenneth and Montserrat tilt at each other, and finally a medium-close shot of Montserrat being carried away.
That’s the most impressive scene, but none of them are bad. There’s another, more subdued example earlier in the film: We see Montserrat and the Templar exit Richard’s tent. Richard’s tent is in the foreground. There are two more tents in the near background and another five in the distance. The background tents aren’t a matte painting as they surely would be if this were an American production. All of them are real and they all have costumed extras milling around them.
I’m torn about how to rate this. The story plays much too fast — much, much too fast. But everything else is masterfully put together, so much so that I think it just manages to overcome the pace.
My rating: I like it.
* The film was originally titled Il Talismano. Richard the Lion-Hearted is the name Kleine gave it for its US release, which is what my print is from.
In California, a “religious old mountaineer” (George Periolat) intends that he son (J. Warren Kerrigan) should become a friar. He’s sent to the mission, but before reaching it, he meets a girl (Jessalyn Van Trump) and falls in love. After several days, he decides to abandon the cloth and marry her.
A year passes, and at its end, the son returns home to visit his father. The father, who all the while has thought that his son had entered the priesthood, is surprised to see him. “I heeded the call of love”, he explains. His father rejects him, not angrily but in crushing disappointment. The son calls his wife over. At the sight of her and of the newborn child she carries, the father yields and embraces them both.
The announcement for Man’s Calling in the trade magazine Moving Picture World somewhat grandiloquently calls it a drama “dealing with the psychology of the soul”. That doesn’t actually say much about what the film might be, but it does suggest what it isn’t. One reel dramas can often feel more or less rushed because they try to maintain a sense of constant action and try to cover too much material than they can do justice, but Man’s Calling keeps the plot remarkably simple and staid, and in doing so, it really gives itself some room to breathe and allows the cast to act with deliberation and conviction. Regardless of whether it succeeds in revealing the “psychology of the soul”, it does manage to use its thirteen minutes to establish believable characters that appear to act with real emotion.
My rating: I like it.
Alice Guy was one of the pioneers of cinema. She began as a director at Gaumont shortly after it opened in 1895; produced some of the first, if not the first narrative films; and directed the first film with a big-budget, La vie du Christ (1906). In 1907, she moved from France to the US and in 1910 founded her own production company, Solax. Over her quarter century career, she made some 400 films, few of which survive today. I’ll be looking at one of her Solax short dramas, The Girl in the Arm-Chair (1912).
Peggy Wilson (Blanche Cornwall) has recently become an orphan and a ward of the Waston family. She’s also inherited the late Robert Wilson’s vast fortune, which puts her very much in Mr. Waston’s favor. He would like his son, Frank (Mace Greenleaf), to marry Peggy, but Peggy “is not his style” and “her money is no inducement”.
Frank falls in with a bad crowd. After a night of drinking and poker, he finds himself $500 in debt to one of his new friends. Unable to pay, he’s forced to borrow “five hundred dollars at five hundred percent interest” from a stereotypical Jewish money lender. When the money lender comes to the Waston house a week later, Frank is still unable to pay. The money lender becomes very threatening. They argue in what I suppose is Mr. Waston’s study, where he keeps his safe, the door to which happens to be ajar. Frank, scared by what the money lender might do, steals money from the safe to repay his loan.
What the two of them didn’t know was that they weren’t alone in the room. Peggy was curled up in the armchair napping when the two came in and awoke when the shouting began, just in time to witness the theft. Although Frank doesn’t care for Peggy, Peggy has already fallen in love with him. She decides to cover for Frank, leaving a note claiming that she took the money and enclosing a check to replace it.
That night, Frank has a nightmare which prompts him to confess everything to his father the next day. Mr. Waston, who bought Peggy’s ruse and wasn’t aware that anything was amiss, realizes Peggy must know and be covering for Frank. He insists that Frank marry her, which he agrees to do.
It amazes me that this film is from 1912; its crafting is remarkably advanced. It’s unusual to see such a three dimensional use of space in a film of this era. In the first scene, it’s established that the study set is divided roughly into three planes, and that the plane nearest the camera (where the armchair sits) is visible to the audience, but isn’t visible to the characters occupying the planes behind it. Later, it uses that spatial division as part of the story – Peggy witnessing the crime without Frank knowing.
I do have some issues with the filmmaking. The way the film is structured, it isn’t entirely clear what Peggy did until well after Frank’s confession. Honestly, the whole second half is rather confusing on the first watch. Some of the scenes could be re-ordered, and something you’ll rarely hear me say, it could have used some more intertitles. It’s an awfully talky film to be silent, and only once are we told what’s said. That was Guy’s style, though, and it isn’t particular to Arm-Chair.
I love the nightmare sequence. It uses some elaborate special effects for the time – double and triple exposures and lap dissolves – to show a swirl of cards circling Frank’s bed and ghostly gamblers making bets over his headboard. Very effective and interesting to watch.
I liked The Girl in the Arm-Chair. I have varying opinions of the Solax comedies I have in my collection, but I’ve so far been impressed by all the dramas I’ve seen.
My rating: I like it.
Available from Harpodeon
Lieutenant Cholmodeley (Wallace Reid) is in love with the Colonel’s daughter, Ellen (Edith Storey), and wants to marry her, but her father (Tefft Johnson) won’t allow it until Cholmodeley has “earned his spurs”. War has just been declared between Britain and Russia and the Lieutenant and Colonel are called to the Crimea. To be nearer her love, Ellen joins Florence Nightingale (Julia Swayne Gordon) and follows the troops as a front-line nurse. There, she witnesses the charge of the Light Brigade, where Cholmodeley distinguishes himself by rescuing a fallen comrade and fighting off several Russians in the process. Back in England, he’s awarded the Victoria Cross by the Queen (Rose Tapley) and the Colonel gives him his consent to marry Ellen.
The Victoria Cross (1912) is an excellent example of a “quality film”, a curious genre that emerged and disappeared in the early 1910s. Describing what a quality film is and why they came into being could fill whole books (and, indeed, it has), but in the briefest terms, a quality film is a movie with a historical, biographical, or literary nature viewed through an American moral lens intended to be watched by recent “undesirable” immigrants (Jews, Italians, Poles, etc.) as a means of uplifting and Americanizing them. Further, although they were never the target audience, the mere existence of quality films acted to legitimize motion pictures in the eyes of the upper classes, who until that time looked at them with xenophobic suspicion (cinema tickets were affordable even for the lowest rungs of society and the silent drama does not require one to understand English, you see). Nearly all the major studios made at least a couple, but Vitagraph was the undisputed champion of the quality film. The Victoria Cross ticks all the right boxes and would have met with the approval of the “uplifters”, but what’s slightly unusual for the genre, it’s a pretty well-made and entertaining film, too.
One thing that impressed me was how it handled the charge of the Light Brigade itself. Rather than portray the charge directly, it’s shown from Ellen’s perspective, back at camp through binoculars. It’s a novel device that allows the film to focus on individual snapshots of the battle, making it seem like they must be taken from a much larger picture. The film already has a large cast, with 80-100 extras and half as many horses, but only seeing them in close-up through the binoculars, it seems truly massive. It’s easy to believe that you’re actually watching 600 mounted men charge against the cannons. Compare The Victoria Cross to something more conventionally staged, like The Battle (1911), and you’ll see what I mean.
And it’s just super fun in an action movie sort of way. When Cholmodeley charges in to save his fallen comrade on the field, he’s rushed by three enemy soldiers that he fights off with his sword. The last he lifts up in the air, over his head, and then slams into the ground. We cut back to Ellen, and when we return, there’s a whole pile of bodies at his feet. I will say that the film starts off a bit slow, but once the battle is underway, it’s incredibly entertaining.
My rating: I like it.
Available from Harpodeon
Jim (Carlyle Blackwell) discovers a man dying of thirst while he’s out prospecting (William H. West). He brings him back to his cabin and nurses him back to health. Jim finds it odd that, after the stranger recovers his strength, the first thing he wants to do is to shave off his beard. Nevertheless, the two go out prospecting together and the stranger meets Jim’s girlfriend, Jenny (Alice Joyce). She becomes infatuated with the mysterious man.
The sheriff (Paul Hurst) stops by Jim’s cabin to ask if he’s seen the wanted outlaw Black Pete, who’s hiding somewhere in the area. After glancing the stranger leave the cabin, the sheriff is suspicious of him, but Jim asserts that he can’t be Black Pete. In the wanted poster the sheriff brought, Black Pete has a full beard, and Jim’s stranger is clean-shaven.
When the sheriff leaves, Jim goes to join the stranger, but discovers him and Jenny in an embrace. He then checks his pans and realizes that the stranger has been stealing gold from his claim. Jim decides to take revenge. That night, while the stranger sleeps, Jim pulls out a knife. He stands over the bed, but just as he rears back to stab, he sees his murderous reflection in the mirror and drops the knife.
The following day, the stranger is out mining at the base of a hill. The sheriff patrols the top of the ridge and inadvertently starts a landslide that catches the stranger. Jim hears the stranger’s cries and he and Jenny go to rescue him, but they arrive too late. They pull the mortally wounded stranger from the rubble and he dies in Jim’s arms.
The sheriff returns, evidently now convinced that the stranger was Black Pete, and demands that Jim reveal where he is. Jim tells him only that “the stranger has gone”.
I don’t know why the film wasn’t called The Stranger instead of The Outlaw. “The stranger” is the name the mysterious man is consistently called throughout the story and calling him an outlaw in the title kills the suspense. Imagine if The Lodger (1927) were instead called The Victim’s Brother.
Even for 1912, Blackwell’s acting is over-the-top. He doesn’t so much play to the back row as he plays to the next town over. But where I might fault the acting, I have to commend the direction and cinematography. The final scene, in particular, was expertly done. We see Jim, who in the previous scene refused even to look at the stranger, rush to the landslide and begin digging him out with his bare hands. After he’s freed, there’s an axial cut to a medium-close shot of Jim cradling the stranger – affirming a connection between them while simultaneously breaking the action of the previous shot in a way that, to me, suggests breathlessness. Jim calls for Jenny, who moves to the stranger’s head, and as he dies, the stranger reclines into her lap. The Jenny’s eyes meet the stranger’s lovingly, then slowly become more vacant and downcast as they move to Jim’s. It’s extremely well choreographed and coveys all that needs to be said while at the same time never feeling staged – it plays entirely natural.
The Outlaw (1912) is rough in spots and would have benefited greatly had it another reel to spend expanding on the friendship between Jim and the stranger before the latter was uncovered as Black Pete, but the good parts outweigh the bad in my opinion.
My rating: I like it.
Available from Harpodeon