Spartacus is fairly common as far as silent Italian epics go. You’ve more likely as not already seen it. Alpha released it on DVD and there are any number of other sellers that carry it (all of them likely sourced from the Alpha DVD). The Alpha release has a lot of problems and the image quality is none too good. Spartacus is a film I’ve always wanted to do myself because I think I could do it better. I wasn’t going to just rip Alpha’s DVD, though. I wanted it on film. Issue is, there’s only one print known to survive of Spartacus (the English-language Kleine release of it, anyway — perhaps there are prints of the original Italian release, but I’ve neither seen nor heard of one). That limited my chances, but I always trust in the simple truth that all things come to those who wait. The Spartacus print has been bought and sold many times but it has always been in private hands. And, at long last, now it’s in mine.
It took so long because I have some hard limits when it comes to film acquisition — the chief limit being that no single film is worth more than $750. I don’t care what the title is, who acted in it, who directed it. I don’t care how rare or even unique the print is. I don’t care what condition it’s in. I don’t care how very much I want it. No single film is worth more than $750. Most aren’t worth even a tenth of that. I didn’t break my $750 limit in buying Spartacus, but I came awfully near it. I’ve got some desirable films, but Spartacus is probably the most expensive print in my whole collection.
Looking at the print, a lot of the weirdness of the Alpha DVD makes more sense. The first three reels appear to be from one print and are in black-and-white. The last three are color tinted and I think (from the general appearance of the image and repeated footage) that they’re assembled from at least two different prints. The black-and-white footage has full running titles while the color elements mostly have flash titles. All are in the same style and I have no reason to doubt that they’re the original titles from the Kleine release. Reels four and five are reversed (as they are on the Alpha DVD as well). They also use the wrong color leader. The projector doesn’t care, of course, but convention dictates that the leader should be green and the trailer red. That way, you can see at a glance if a reel is wound heads-out or tails-out. It’s backwards here.
It’s all printed on Agfa stock, which is difficult to date. Some manufacturers, like Kodak, print a series of symbols on the edge of the film that aren’t too dissimilar to silver hallmarks. They’ll tell you what kind of film it is, what factory it came from, and most usefully when it was manufactured. (Note that: it tells you when the film stock itself was manufactured, not when it was exposed or developed. If the edge code says 1928 then the film can’t be any older than that, but it may be younger if the lab was printing on stock they had lying around for some time. Common mistake.) Agfa does not have any such markings. It’s really only possible to roughly date Agfa film based on the font used in the logo. The Spartacus print is from the early ‘30s, my guess. Between the wars, anyway. Decent shape for its age — a bit stiff, but not brittle or shrunken. After a little lubrication and splice repair, it ran just fine.
I was just going to do this as an off-topic post, but why not, let’s make this into a terrible review. Spartacus (Mario Ausonia) is a gladiator who rises up and leads a slave rebellion against Rome. The plot is substantially different from that of the Kubrick film, but that’s hardly unusual. Spartacus was a real person, but historical records of him and his rebellion are sparse and inconsistent. Any telling of the Spartacus story is going to require a great, great deal of embellishment. I liked this one. I liked it enough, at least, to stalk the print for the better part of a decade.
My rating: I like it.
Pearl (Pearl White) and Katie (Vivian Prescott?) share a cheap studio apartment. Between them, they have one decent dress. Likewise, roommates Chester (Chester Barnett) and Shorty Smith (Baldy Belmont) have but a single good suit. A ball is being held, to which Chester invites Pearl and Shorty invites Katie… and I think by now you know exactly what happens next. It ends with fights breaking out between both parties that leave the clothes ruined.
As hoary a plot as it is in sitcoms today, so it was in 1913 as well. That said, even if no one would accuse it of bringing anything new to the table, The Hallroom Girls isn’t badly put together. At least the arc makes logical sense, it isn’t needlessly padded out, and the ending follows from the beginning — which puts it above most of the other Crystal shorts I watched.
Calling it the best of the bunch isn’t exactly a recommendation, though. Comedy lives or dies by being funny, and as predictable as this film is, there’s not much to laugh at.
My rating: Meh.
On the way to deliver a diamond and sapphire necklace to rich Mrs. H.B. Collingwood, Dick Halstead stops over at his friend Tom Barry’s (Chester Barnett) house to meet his new wife Pearl (Pearl White). Tom deposits the necklace in his bedroom safe and the three go downstairs to dinner. It comes out in conversation that the necklace is worth $6,200. While Tom and Dick are smoking, Pearl slips back upstairs to try it on.
She’s interrupted when she hears Tom on the steps and quickly puts it back. That night, however, with her “sub-conscious mind” focused on the necklace, she sleepwalks to the safe, withdraws the necklace, takes it into the backyard, and slips it in the hollow of a tree.
In the morning, the necklace is found missing. A detective is called, the maid is strongly suspected, but in the end — no necklace. Tom pledges to pay for it, which means mortgaging the house. A year later, we find Tom writing to John Baring, begging for a loan to stave off eminent foreclosure. (Who is John Baring? No idea). That night, Pearl sleepwalks again. She returns to the tree and finds the necklace where she dropped it. Tom discovers her with it and startles her awake. She’s evidently unaware of how she came to have it, and Tom seems very angry.
There’s the germ of a story here, but it needed more working out. It makes sense that, if Pearl were interrupted while trying on the necklace, she might later try it on again in her sleep, but nothing prompts her then hiding it in a tree. I believe they were trying to foreshadow something in an earlier scene when Pearl and the maid were making room in the safe by moving some silverware into a hutch, but if there is some connection intended, it’s way too vague to work. And I could see it taking another crisis for Pearl’s subconscious to return to the necklace, but again, there’s no adequate parallel established in the waking-world that would explain Pearl’s dream actions.
Dick is a non-entity whose only purpose is to introduce the necklace and disappear directly afterward, which I don’t suppose is too much of a problem since the time constraints of a single reel mean details must be limited, but at the same time, the film isn’t shy of wasting time on other details of no consequence — like the entire detective subplot or the bank scene.
I suppose it might be a bit hypocritical of me right after saying that A Night in Town (1913) would have benefited from a more open ending, but I think Lost in the Night (1913) is a bit too open. What happens next? Is the foreclosure averted? (Recovering the necklace doesn’t necessarily mean recovering its value, especially since a year’s passed and the original buyer has been compensated.) Do Tom and Pearl reconcile? (From the last scene, I wouldn’t bet on it.) For that matter, is Pearl accused of stealing the necklace?
There is something here, I won’t deny that, but it’s too half-baked to recommend.
My rating: Meh.
Tom makes a visit to his nephew Dick to meet his new wife, but the newlyweds aren’t there — they left on a short trip of their own, leaving the house entrusted to their maid (Pearl White) and butler (Chester Barnett). When the cat’s away, the mice will play: the servants invite several friends over and are in the midst of a raucous party when Tom arrives.
The maid, who has helped herself to her mistress’s clothes, is mistaken for Dick’s wife. Tom leads her away to a private alcove to get to know her better, which incurs the butler’s jealousy. A fight breaks out that leads to Tom getting thrown from the window. He lands on a cop, who arrests him for assaulting an officer.
In the morning, the newlyweds return from their trip and Tom is released from jail. He makes a second visit to the house and discovers the true identities of the woman he flirted with and the man who attacked him, but nothing really comes of it. I watched several Crystal films the same night I screened A Night in Town (I’ll probably write something about two or three of them), and while all of them suffered a bit from this problem, it’s clear that the writer started with idea for a premise that he had no idea at all how to end. Really, after Tom mistakes the maid for his nephew’s wife, the story is over and the rest of the film is just killing time. Personally, I’d have padded out the set up a bit more and ended it with the arrest — leave it to the audience’s imagination what happens next, rather than disappoint them with the… it’s not even half-hearted, “quarter-hearted” next-day scene.
My rating: I don’t like it.
Daisy (Marian Swayne) and Frank (Vinnie Burns) have been married for a year. Daisy begins to notice that Frank doesn’t seem to be showing her the same degree of affection he did when they were newlyweds. To test his love, she fakes her own death. She writes to her friend Ella to explain her plan, and to Frank, she writes a teary suicide note, but she accidentally mixes up the letters and the envelopes — Frank get’s the explanation and Ella gets the suicide note.
Frank decides to play along. At the pier where Daisy met her supposed watery death, Frank is all smiles and flings her discarded coat and suitcase into the lake. Daisy — watching from the sidelines — is hurt and declares that she’ll never live with that “brute” again. But Frank isn’t finished: he has a wedding announcement printed for him and a fictional girl named Lucy Smith. It was only supposed to be a card, but it’s accidentally published in the newspaper. When Daisy reads it, her pain turns to fury. She looks up a real Lucy Smith in the phone book and sets off to “scratch her eyes out”.
Frank is also searching for Lucy, to apologize for the announcement. Frank and Daisy meet at the Smiths’ house, where they discover that Lucy is actually the fat, black cook (she’s a white person in blackface, and I’m fairly certain she’s also a man in drag). Laughs all around as Frank and Daisy reconcile.
The print of A Severe Test (1913) in our collection is perhaps the only one in existence. At least, no archive has a copy, I’m not personally aware of any in private hands besides our own, and, in the past 15 years, I’ve never seen another print turn up on the market. I reticent to label any film “lost” — in the past, you’ll notice I usually hedge my bets with “presumed lost” — but others aren’t so hopeful.
Alison McMahan, one of the foremost scholars on Alice Guy, lists the film as “not extant” in her 2013 article on Women Film Pioneers Project. We’d held our print for nearly a decade by that point, and it had been readily available on video for two or three years. A simple search on Google or YouTube would have revealed it, or you could check the distributors listed on IMDb to see if it had been recently released. I don’t mean to call out McMahan specifically here; I just want to comment on this tunnel vision that pervades the work of most film historians — where if a film doesn’t exist in a major archive, then it doesn’t exist at all. Around 40 years ago, Anthony Slide said that 75% of the silent era was lost. Even he would later admit that this was a bit sensationalized — an off-the-cuff remark without any real data behind it but nevertheless a good sound bite — but damned if that comment didn’t have legs. It seems to be near gospel nowadays. Sometimes I’ve even heard it claimed 85% or 95% of pre-1930 cinema is lost. I take a more optimistic view. There’s a great deal more out there if you’re willing to take your academic blinders off to see it.
As I said, we’ve released Severe on video before (IMDb says it was back in 2011, but by my records, the DVD came out in 2010 — the downloadable may have been 2011), but that transfer is… let’s say it’s looking long in the tooth. It’s in need of a re-do anyway, amd since there’s been some interest in it lately for use in an upcoming Alice Guy documentary, there’s no better time than the present.
The print is physically in very good shape, but the picture is exceedingly dark. The levels can be adjusted easily enough, but brightening alone is a poor fix. When the shadows are too dark, brightening them doesn’t reveal more detail in the picture, it only brings out a noisy gray blob. What we need is an image with an extremely high dynamic range, where there’s enough information to work with even in the darkest areas. And we can do that by merging several scans under varying intensity lights, but oh boy, does it take time. Our film scanner can usually capture a frame in 15 to 30 seconds. To get the quality we need for a decent transfer of Severe, it took upwards of 2 minutes. Keep in mind, there are over 15,000 frames to scan.
For example, here’s a frame grab from the old transfer:
The pier is probably rough wood, but as it is, it just looks like murky gray streaked with black. Daisy’s lower body vanishes into the darkness — where does her dress end and the pier begin? What’s going on in the distance, beyond the water?
And here’s the same frame in the new transfer:
The most remarkable improvement is the pier. Now we can see each board and even begin to get an impression of the texture of the wood. There’s a clear boundary between Daisy’s dress and the board she’s sitting on, and now we can see that there’s a valise in the foreground. Across the water, there appears to be a wooded hill dotted with several houses. Overall, it’s still much darker than the original release would have been, but at least now the image is clear enough to distinguish everything that’s in it.
And now it comes to what I think of the film: it’s just awful. It doesn’t do enough with the swapped envelopes gimmick. There could have been a whole B-plot built around Ella believing Daisy to be dead to offset Frank’s scheme, but instead, she finds out the truth from Frank almost immediately and for the rest of the film they’re in cahoots for some reason. And the “joke” they play on Daisy is just too mean-spirited to be funny. The cinematography is pretty good, I’ll give it that, and I liked Marian Swayne’s performance well enough, but I did not enjoy watching this film at all.
My rating: I don’t like it.
Available from Harpodeon
When she’s co-starring alongside John Bunny, Flora Finch plays fairly grounded characters — generally the shrewish wife — but when she’s with other actors or flying solo, things can get pretty weird. An Unsusual Honeymoon is an intensely weird little film.
Newlyweds Mary (Flora Finch) and Tammas (Charlie Edwards) are on their honeymoon at the fair. From the numerous kilts and bagpipes (both of which Tammas sports), I can only assume we’re in Scotland. The two take in all the sights, including the wine tasting tent, where they get plastered. There’s a gas balloon tethered on the fairgrounds that Mary finds intriguing, climbing into the gondola to get a better look. Tammas follows her lead, and because he “desires adventure”, he cuts the tether. The couple sail away into the air.
Over a South Sea island, the balloon develops a leak for plot reasons and crashes to the ground. The natives look something like a cross between Zulus and Vikings. They swarm Mary and Tammas, but back away in terror as the latter begins playing on the pipes.
“They think we are gods”, Tammas says, his bagpipes in hand and his foot planted on the back of one of the prostrate Zukings. Not exactly — they actually think it’s the bagpipes that are enchanted. The King, frustrated that his subjects no longer heed his music (he’s got two great femurs that he swings around), decides to steal the pipes while the newlyweds sleep.
Without the protection of the enchanted bagpipes, Mary and Tammas are at the mercy of the increasingly hostile Zukings. They escape by throwing snuff into the air, which causes the natives to sneeze uncontrollably. They reach the shore and are picked up by a patrol boat, where their adventure ends.
This may be an unusual comparison, but this short reminded me of a late-series episode of The Simpsons, in that even if nothing else can be said in its favor, watching it is always a surprise because you can never tell where the plot is going. It isn’t totally random — it does operate on a certain logic — but at any moment, the slightest little thing could segue the setting and action into something totally unexpected. I had no idea what was going to happen next in An Unsusual Honeymoon and it was entertaining to watch unfold.
Written by Rose Tapley, who evidently was also an extra in the film, but I failed to spot her.
My rating: I like it.
Available from Harpodeon
Ethel Marsham (Norma Talmadge) lives in a state of “genteel poverty” with her parents. She’s in love with Cyril Moffat (Frank O’Neil), but he’s a poor man himself and her parents (James Lackaye and Florence Radinoff) are depending on Ethel marrying into wealth.
(I’m much more used to seeing Frank O’Neil in blackface. I didn’t recognize him at all with his natural skin tone and hair.)
James Greythorne (Van Dyke Brooke), Father’s old schoolmaster, has made a fortune abroad and is returning to America with the aim of settling down. He’s just the man Ethel’s parents are looking for. Ethel reluctantly agrees to marry him, but Greythorne isn’t blind and he realizes that her heart belongs to another.
Greythorne declares to Father that, on second thought, he’s much too old to marry his daughter, but he hopes that he’ll look favorably on his recently (very recently) adopted son and heir instead. He ushers him in and who should it be but Cyril.
The scenario is credited to W.A. Tremayne, who wrote for a large number of Vitagraph films as well as for the stage, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that the story seemed familiar as I was watching it. And then it hit me: Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1846 novel Lucretia. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s based on Lucretia, not even loosely, but it borrows some of its larger themes and a few specific situations, particularly the female lead hiding a message for her forbidden lover in the hollow of a tree at the edge of her parent’s land, which is lifted wholesale from Bulwer-Lytton.
Of all the pioneering studios, I like the films of Vitagraph most of all and I’ve seen a large number of them. When watching one, I like to play a little side game of connecting the props it uses to other Vitagraph films. In An Old Man’s Love Story, I noticed that the pergola in the Marsham’s backyard was previously used as the entrance to Vauxhall in Vanity Fair (1911), the rustic outdoor seating was used again in A Florida Enchantment (1914), and the tea set I believe is the same one seen in Fox Trot Finesse (1915).
The editing is crude and jumpy. There’s too much reliance on titles to move the plot. The lighting in the interiors is all overhead carbon arc or mercury vapor lamps, which is quite unflattering to the actors, but the outdoor scenes shot in natural light are much nicer. The set decoration is the usual for Vitagraph films of this vintage — namely, if one chair is good, then a dozen are surely better. It’s amazing the cast could navigate the maze of furniture squeezed onto every set. I don’t know who the cinematographer was, but they seemed to have an aversion to wide-angle lenses. Even for the exteriors, there’s nothing wider than a medium shot. Perhaps the aim was to make the story seem more intimate, but to me, it just feels claustrophobic.
Did I like it? Eh… my first impression was favorable, but after rewatching it to write this review and paying closer attention to the details, I have to say that it’s overall quite crudely put together. It’s a good story and well acted, Van Dyke Brooke’s performance being the stand-out, but I don’t think that’s enough to raise it any higher than…
My rating: Meh.
A Message from Mars (1913) is essentially A Christmas Carol with aliens instead of ghosts.
Horace Parker (Charles Hawtrey) is a very selfish man. He walks off without paying after watching a Punch and Judy show, he ignores a poor man who begs him for a job, he feigns illness to avoid going to a party with his fiancée (Crissie Bell), and he seems positively giddy when she consequently breaks their engagement. In fact, the God of Mars proclaims him to be “the most selfish of mortals”. Ramiel (E. Holman Clark), a Martian, has been banished from the planet for breaking the law of Mars and will not be allowed to return until he has redeemed himself by showing Horace the error of his ways.
On Earth, Ramiel appears to Horace and uses his Martian magic to force him to perform a couple good deeds, but those don’t count as Horace was not acting of his own accord. So Ramiel transforms Horace’s fine clothes into rags and Horace soon finds himself alongside a tramp (Hubert Willis) begging for change from the attendees of the very party he skipped out on.
Horace is unsuccessful with the party goers. The tramp, weak from hunger, collapses. Ramiel tells Horace to look in his pocket and he discovers a sovereign, which he offers to split with the tramp. With that unselfish act, Horace is transformed to his old self and Ramiel disappears back to Mars.
It doesn’t stop there, though. Through their magic crystal ball, Ramiel and the other Martians watch what happens next: Horace takes the tramp home and gives him food and drink. Nearby, a tenement catches fire and Horace runs in to rescue two children. He takes in the displaced family, and when the son is caught trying to nick a clock off the mantel, Horace resists the urge to have him arrested. Minnie, Horace’s recent fiancée, gets the strange feeling that maybe she misjudged Horace and decides to give him a second chance.
A Message from Mars is considered to be Britain’s first feature-length sci-fi film. It’s never been lost, but none of the three surviving prints are entirely intact. The BFI recently released a new restoration of the film that combines all three sources into a substantially complete picture. The results are admirable. I will say, though, that the transfer is much too slow. I have a feeling they really wanted it to be at least an hour long and they just kept dropping the frame rate until it was.
The film itself was very well made, too. The picture was well composed and the editing was tight — I never felt that any scene was beginning to drag. I can fault none of the actors, who were all convincing in their portrayals. The sets were nicely decorated, although it is unusual that the Martians wear Venus-symbol pendants rather than the Mars symbols you’d expect them to have. The film has an overall serious tone, but there are a couple scenes — particularly the scene on the street when Horace finds himself compelled to walk backwards — that tiptoe a little closer to comedy than I think was intended. But those are niggling complaints, I thoroughly enjoyed the film.
My rating: I like it.
Available from BBC Arts
P.S. I’ve never pretended to keep to any kind of schedule, but if you thought it seems like I’ve recently been posting less and less, you aren’t mistaken. I’m in the process of moving and almost all of my film collection is in storage. As that’s most of what I watch (I strongly prefer film to video), you might guess why I’ve been silent as of late.
Just after her birth, Iolanthe (Maude Fealy) is engaged to Tristan (Harry Benham) as a political alliance between her father, King René (Robert Broderick), and his father, Count de Vaudemont (Leland Benham?). Shortly thereafter, a fire breaks out in the palace. Iolanthe is rescued, but is for whatever reason now blind. Ebn Jahia (David H. Thompson), Moorish mystic, divines her future and says that, so long as she never knows that she cannot see, her vision will return on her sixteenth birthday.
Iolanthe is raised in isolation, hidden away in a small cottage inside a walled garden. She and Tristan have never met. As the scheduled wedding date approaches, Tristan — “hating the woman he has never seen” — runs away. He finds his way into the garden and discovers Iolanthe without realizing who she is. Tristan falls in love with Iolanthe and begs King René to break the engagement to his daughter so that he might marry her. King René reveals that Iolanthe is his daughter.
Iolanthe’s nurse (Mrs. Lawrence Marston) is worried that Tristan gave away Iolanthe’s blindness and that now she will never see again. Tristan did figure it out after Iolanthe was unable to distinguish a white rose from a red one, but he also figured out that Iolanthe apparently didn’t know that she couldn’t see and did not say anything about it. At the end of day on her sixteenth birthday, Iolanthe recovers her vision and everyone lives happily ever after.
There are subplots I’m not super clear on and details that seem to be relevant but damned if I can tell you why. The film is based on Henrik Heri’s then-popular stage play Iolanthe (unrelated to the Gilbert and Sullivan opera of the same title). Contemporary audiences would probably have been more familiar with the source material than I am and would know the answers to some of my questions, like is Ebn Jahia a villain? and is there some conspiracy to keep Iolanthe blind? and wait, who’s that other guy with the beard?
It’s shot on the same locations as the earlier Thanhouser film Romeo and Juliette (1911) and also shares some of its sets, but they’re still impressive here. The costumes are splendid taken on their own merit, but if I didn’t know the film was set in France, I would have guessed from the clothes that we were in Scotland. Almost the whole film is composed of medium-close shots that, compositionally, aren’t too interesting, but it’s decently edited together. The first reel is rather drawn-out, but the pacing improves tremendously in the second and third.
I don’t know. It isn’t bad, and I wouldn’t avoid watching it again, but I don’t think I’d strongly recommend it.
My rating: Meh.
Alice (Pearl White) has two suitors: George Clements (Chester Barnett) and Eugene Raynor (Joseph Belmont). Alice obviously prefers George and this is not lost on Eugene, so at the next garden party, Eugene has his sister attempt to seduce George. Alice becomes jealous and so starts to favor Eugene. A brief fight breaks out between the two rivals, putting an end to the party.
Alice coldly sends George away. He returns a few moments later only to find her and Eugene apparently in an intimate conference. He doesn’t stay long enough to see that she is actually in the process of dismissing him as well.
Eugene goes home, depressed at losing Alice – suicidally depressed, in fact. He’s just signed his suicide letter when a friend interrupts him. They speak for a few minutes until Eugene finds a way to get rid of him. As he’s walking away, the friend sees George enter Eugene’s house behind him.
George confronts Eugene. The gun comes out and a struggle ensues, ending in George being disarmed and sent away. Finally alone, Eugene can prepare for his suicide, but his plans are destined for failure, as when he drops the gun on the floor, it accidentally goes off and shoots him through the heart. Adding insult to injury, a gust of wind carries the letter out the window.
The police arrive and George is arrested for murdering Eugene. It looks bad at the trial – a known motive, witnessed at the crime scene, his recently fired gun found on the floor.
Meanwhile, Alice had been teaching her younger sister how to make paper dolls. Alice has been, naturally, affected by the recent events, and so to cheer her up, Sister shows her some of the dolls she’s made from scraps of found paper. Alice discovers that one has writing on it. After realizing what it is, she rushes to the court just in time to give the suicide letter to the judge, thus clearing George of the murder charge.
The film stumbles at bit at the start, jumping into the action without defining the characters sufficiently to tell them apart. Baldy Belmont is more comfortable in comedy – “Joseph Belmont” here struggles with being believably dramatic. Other than that, I rather liked it. It was nicely shot and competently edited. The paper dolls are setup well in advance of the pay off, so it doesn’t feel as contrived as it otherwise might. On the whole, the story hangs together and plays out naturally enough.
My rating: I like it.