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The Paper Doll (Crystal, 1913)

The Paper Doll screenshotThe Paper Doll (Crystal, 1913)
Directed by Phillips Smalley
Starring Pearl White and Chester Barnett

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.

The Pit and the Pendulum (Solax, 1913)

The Pit and the Pendulum adThe Pit and the Pendulum (Solax, 1913)
Directed by Alice Guy-Blaché
Starring Darwin Karr and Fraunie Fraunholz

Alice Guy, through her Solax company, mostly produced shorts. In her later years, she did release one feature-length film, The Ocean Waif (1916), but in the Solax heyday, one-reelers were the rule. That makes this 1913 adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story The Pit and the Pendulum all the more remarkable, because it was three reels long. Stress on the “was”. Most of the film is now lost. What survives is around half of the first reel, which unfortunately ends just before Poe’s story begins.

Unlike Poe’s work – a sort of Kafka-before-Kafka tale in which the unnamed protagonist doesn’t know where he is, doesn’t know why he’s there, doesn’t know what’s going to happen to him, and is only certain that the men who arrested and convicted him are entirely unconcerned with his ever finding out – Guy’s adaptation is quite definite when it comes to what’s going on and why:

Alonzo (Darwin Karr) and Pedro (Fraunie Fraunholz) are both in love with the same woman (Blanche Cornwall). Things come to a head when a knife fight breaks out between them. Alonzo wins and he and the woman marry. Some time passes. Alonzo becomes an herbalist doctor to “treat the poor of Toledo”. “The revengeful Pedro” joins the Spanish Inquisition and begins to plot Alonzo’s downfall. He steals a jewel-encrusted reliquary from the monastery and hides it in Alonzo’s house. When it’s discovered missing, he intimates to the abbot that Alonzo might be a witch (what with all his strange herbs and practices) and that maybe he used sorcery to steal the reliquary. Pedro leads a number of men to Alonzo house, where they discover the missing reliquary and wait to apprehend Alonzo on his return.

The surviving fragment ends just as Alonzo enters the room. A couple production stills from the more exciting parts – Alonzo strapped to a table as the pendulum swings closer, the walls closing in and threatening to force him into the pit – can be seen in period advertisements. The concept of “spoilers” being a very recent one, we can also turn to turn to contemporary reviews to learn how the film ends:

Alonzo and the girl escape from Pedro’s men and a chase ensues. They board a boat and nearly make it out of a Spain, but Pedro waylays them in a boat of his own. They’re taken before the Inquisition and Alonzo is tortured, but only after Pedro threatens to torture the girl will he confess to the theft. After that, Poe’s Pit and the Pendulum is retold fairly faithfully, right up to the point that Alonzo is in danger of falling into the pit.

In her imprisonment, a British soldier learns from the girl what happened to Alonzo. He frees her and sets out in search of her husband. After being misled by the monks several times, he finds the torture chamber and saves Alonzo from the pit. Also, unlike Poe’s story, where whatever the protagonist saw at the bottom was too horrible to record, Alonzo saw a pile of bones with snakes crawling in and out of human skulls.

The film is very careful to distance the Inquisition from the Catholic Church, which requires some mental gymnastics but probably put it in a much more favorable light at the Church-dominated New York board of censorship. It’s unusual that French-born Alice Guy changed the nationality of the rescuers from French to British. I can’t think of anything going on at the time that would have made that change expedient.

When it comes to Poe adaptations, it’s par for the course to greatly elaborate on the story to pad-out the film and make it more visually interesting. It seldom works. What I love about Pit and the Pendulum is how nothing is explained. The protagonist is simply caught up in machinations beyond his grasp or appeal. Who he is is incidental, why he’s there is incidental. Even his rescue is incidental – the French army just happened to invade Toledo that day, Napoleon surely no more knew of the protagonist’s existence than the reader knows his name. Films never seem comfortable letting so much go undefined or letting the plot progress without reason. I’m not sure why. Meaningless torture and death is infinitely more frightening than a jilted lover’s revenge.

My rating: Meh.

The Inside of the White Slave Traffic (Moral, 1913)

The Inside of the White Slave Traffic posterThe Inside of the White Slave Traffic (Moral, 1913)
Directed by Frank Beal
Starring Virginia Mann? and Edwin Carewe?

“White slavery” was a term quite familiar to audiences of the 1910s, but for the benefit of everyone else, let me explain. It was first used by Christian Evangelical magazines in the early 19th century in reference to European women being abducted by Muslims and forced to serve in the Sultan’s harem as concubines. Whether that ever actually happened didn’t matter much, the concept captured the public’s attention either way. By the 20th century, a few details had changed – Chinese brothels had largely supplanted Muslim harems and working-class Americans and recent immigrants had taken the place of European beauties – but the practice of white slavery was still rampant as far as most were concerned. It was the talk of all the moral crusaders and it led to several new laws being passed. Chief of those new laws was the Mann Act (1910), which was intended to curtail interstate transport of women for the purpose of prostitution, but was mostly used to harass mixed-race couples. White slavery as the crusaders knew it turned out to be nothing more than a moral panic. White slavery in reality was just a mix of racism and xenophobia.

In addition to the flood of books, pamphlets, and articles on the subject, several films about white slavery were released in the 1910s. The most successful of these was Traffic in Souls (1913), a pseudo-documentary chronicling a naïve Swedish immigrant being whisked away by white slavers and the efforts of her sister to rescue her. The Inside of the White Slave Traffic (1913), released a scant month after Traffic in Souls, is clearly trying to ride on its coattails.

The Inside of the White Slave Traffic was made with the assistance of a bevy of sociologists and lawmakers, including former Assistant U.S. Attorney General Henry J. Dannenbaun. It proclaims that it’s a genuine “pictorial report” of white slavery presented “without any exaggeration or fictional indulgence”.

Of the four reels that made up the original release, the middle two are lost and the others show evidence of scissor-happy censors. It makes for a disjointed viewing, but since the film doesn’t show a single plot but rather several “episodes” in white slavery, some stories are more complete than others.

The most intact story follows Annie (Virginia Mann?), a good girl who lives with her parents and works at a textile factory. After her shift is over, she accepts a date with George Fisher. Fisher slips something into Annie’s drink and she passes-out. When she comes-to hours later, she’s in Fisher’s apartment and looks disheveled. She runs home, but her father, who subscribes to “the ‘out of my house’ policy”, throws her out after learning what happened.

Fisher promises to marry her and they visit a preacher, but the ceremony is a “shaker” – a sham. The film likes to use “authentic” trafficker slang and throws-up a glossary whenever it does to translate. After a couple weeks, Fisher tells Annie that he has to travel out of town to find work and leaves her in the care of his friend, Felix Keefer (Edwin Carewe?). Fisher sends a letter saying that he has no intention of ever coming back and that Annie is on her own. Keefer tells Annie that he can take her to New Orleans, where she can get an easy divorce. Distraught, she agrees.

Once in New Orleans, Keefer tells Annie the score – that she’s to be a prostitute now and had better get used to it. Annie makes a “break” (runs away) from the “schmeiser” (trafficker). Wherever she goes, “the system” follows, and she has to keep moving. In Houston, after “dropping” (pawning) all her belongings, she spends her last dollar on a “crib” and awaits the inevitable. She’s found and returned to Keefer, forced to “slave for him again”.

Annie slumps in a chair with her head in her hands and remembers the happy days when she lived with her parents. How does it end? We’re shown an unmarked mass grave and told “she was laid away an outcast in Potter’s Field”.

There are a few other episodes, including one about an immigrant girl and another about police busts and “smiled” police (crooked cops on the take), but these are much more fragmentary and hard to follow.

Traffic in Souls, the inspiration for The Inside of the White Slave Traffic, wasn’t a particularly well-made film. It’s obviously low-budget and the filmmakers weren’t terribly skilled in their craft, but it was successful thanks to its strong, well-paced story, and because, despite presenting itself as a documentary, it wasn’t adverse to a bit of theatricality here and there to drive the narrative. White Slave Traffic is just as unskilled and even lower budget, and although its story is more compelling on paper, the dry, unemotional, documentary style of delivery it strictly adheres to makes it tiresome to watch. The lost episodes may have been different, but it’s doubtful. Contemporary reviews tend to focus on the Annie story, so it was likely the best one.

On a technical level, the production is so cheap that it took several viewings before I could actually tell the characters and sets apart. The hotels and apartments were all very, very obviously the same room with the furniture moved around and I think all of the women shared a single costume. The locations shots look authentic, but that’s just because much of the film was shot guerrilla-style in real stores and restaurants – which resulted in more than one lawsuit against the producers by business owners who didn’t like their establishments being painted as fronts for a nefarious international pimp guild known as “The System”.

I can’t see anyone enjoying the film based on its own merits, but if you’re interested in the controversy surrounding it (and there was a lot of controversy – it was outright banned in many locations) or in early exploitation films in general, you might want to give it a go.

My rating: I don’t like it.

 

Update:

What I reviewed above was a print of the film as it commonly exists in circulation. It’s highly fragmentary (as noted) and the scenes that do survive are rather jumbled up (which I didn’t mention, but I did re-arrange some things in the plot synopsis to make more sense). Going by the typeface and style of some of the replacement titles, I would guess the print was probably assembled in the mid to late 1920s (post ’24, surely) out of whatever material was still extant from the film’s original release, with very little regard for how it was pieced together or whether the final product was at all comprehensible.

In the several months since this review was written, and after study of contemporary documentation, I have a much firmer grasp of the Annie story as as well as the other three episodes, and I also know more or less how the surviving scenes were originally arranged. I’ve released a reconstruction of the film with explanatory text inserted wherever so much material is missing that the plot can’t be followed.

As far as my opinion of the film goes, that has not changed. It’s still awful. Watch Traffic in Souls.


Available from Harpodeon

What a Change of Clothes Did (Vitagraph, 1913)

What a Change of Clothes Did screenshotWhat a Change of Clothes Did (Vitagraph, 1913)
Directed by Maurice Costello
Starring Maurice Costello and Clara Kimball Young

John Mason (Maurice Costello), a wealthy New York socialite, has grown tired of being sought after and fawned over only for his money. He takes a trip to the country to get away from it all and go fishing. Meanwhile, Joe (Herbert Barry), a man wrongly accused of bank robbery, has escaped from jail and is on the lam. As he’s fleeing, he notices John lazing by the riverbank. Joe grabs a tree branch, quietly sneaks up behind him, and conks John on the back of the head. When John regains consciousness, he discovers his clothes are gone and he’s left with convict stripes.

John, still woozy from the blow, finds his way to the nearest house, which just happens to be Joe’s sister’s (Clara Kimball Young). She knows Joe has escaped and quickly figures out what became of John’s clothes. She offers him some of Joe’s old things, which he gladly accepts. John, not one to take it slow, asks her out on a date, which she gladly accepts.

Joe’s sister doesn’t know anything about John and John isn’t volunteering any information. As far as she knows, he’s a penniless fisherman. Be that as it may, the two hit it off and are married in the next scene. Only then does John reveal his wealth, saying that he was waiting for someone interested in him and not his money.

Oh, and Joe apparently tracked the bank robbers down, followed them to Buenos Aires, and brought them to justice, thus exonerating himself and allowing him to return a free man, but all that happens off-screen.

What a Change of Clothes Did (1913) isn’t an awful film, but it’s about as subtle as being conked on the head with a tree branch. I don’t care for the reliance on incredible coincidences – it’s a sure thing for drawing me out of a story – and I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt and say there’s some time compression going on, but it really does seem like John and Sister just skip over to the Justice of the Peace at the end of their very first date.

On the other hand, I did like all the location shots. This was entering the period when Vitagraph was investing heavily into location-centric films actually shot on the locations they take place in. They had teams going all over the world shooting pictures. Change of Clothes was filmed on Long Island – in Brooklyn-based Vitagraph’s backyard, essentially – but it still feels like they’re making a showcase of the rural backdrop. I also like how the studio interiors actually look like they belong to the location exteriors.

The acting is unremarkable, and I say that as a Costello fan. Again, it isn’t bad, just… perfunctory. It’s surprising, really, given that Costello directed the film himself; I would have thought he would be more invested in it. My favorite character was actually the butler (Richard Leslie), who’s only in two scenes, but he provided a nice, subtle bit of comic relief that made me smile.

In summation…

My rating: Meh.


Available from Harpodeon

The Quakeress (Broncho, 1913)

The Quakeress Poster

The Quakeress (Broncho, 1913)
Directed by Raymond B. West
Starring Louise Glaum and Charles Ray

Priscilla (Louise Glaum) is a Quaker living among Puritans in a colonial-era New England village. She takes in boarders to support herself and her sick mother. The latest is the town’s new schoolmaster, John Hart (Charles Ray). Over time, John comes to love Priscilla, and on her mother’s deathbed, promises to take care of her.

The spiritual leader of the town is the Reverend Cole (William Desmond Taylor), who very much despises “the heretic” and forces through new legislation compelling all townspeople to attend Puritan services and forbidding anyone from giving food or lodging to non-Puritans. Priscilla is arrested, tortured, and banished. John follows her and they set out for a Quaker settlement somewhere in Pennsylvania, but on the way, they come across a hostile Indian tribe preparing to assault the Puritans. The question is then whether to return and warn them of the danger or to leave them to their fate.

 

In 1913, Charles Ray was just beginning his assent to his fleeting stardom, which peaked around 1915 and vanished almost before the year was out. The basic plot of The Quakeress mirrors what I would consider his seminal film, The Coward (1915). In The Coward, Ray plays a young man who deserts the Confederate army, accidentally learns of vital Union war plans while in hiding, and then must decide whether to save himself or save the army.

The Coward conveys the idea of torn allegiances significantly better than does The Quakeress, but that isn’t to say the latter is a bad film. I quite enjoyed it. Glaum’s Priscilla, Ray’s John, and Taylor’s Cole are all well acted – it’s a testament to how well acted they are in that the characters feel like they have some depth to them, despite the film never actually revealing anything about them beyond what’s necessary to advance the plot. I also must commend the film for never once becoming mawkish, given how easily the story could lend itself to that. I can only imagine how it would have turned out had this been a Biograph picture with Griffith at the helm.

I won’t be adding The Quakeress to my list of favorites, but it’s a solid film that I enjoyed watching and would recommend.

My rating: I like it.

The Explosive (Gaumont?, 1913?)

Frames from The ExplosiveThe Explosive (Gaumont?, 1913?)

This is a recent addition to my nitrate collection and I honestly know very little about it. I have no idea at all who the actors are or who directed the film. I can find no mention of The Explosive in any film list. It’s printed on Gaumont stock and the intertitles bear the Gaumont British logo, but the film ends with a Pathé rooster. The letters shown in the film are both dated May, 1913 and the style of cinematography is very early teens, so it seems reasonable that that’s near the release date. “1913” is also scribbled on the leader, but that might not mean anything.

 

Mary Jennings is a spy or secret agent of some sort in England working for a foreign power. She has a long-lost brother, Fred, and she’s just learned that, for as long as her brother lives, she’s entitled to an annuity of £10,000. Meanwhile, William Garratt, a retired officer in the British army, has completed his work on a new type of bomb and is trying to pitch it to the government. Jennings is tasked with getting the plans for this bomb.

Jennings learns from her underlings that the government has arranged for a demonstration of the bomb to be held at an out-of-the-way location at midnight. She orders one of her accomplices to follow Garratt, intercept his satchel, and rendezvous with her someplace out in the country.

The accomplice (who doesn’t have a name) trails Garratt as he enters a private compartment on an express train. He climbs atop the moving train and drops chloroform down the ventilation shaft of Garratt’s compartment, knocking him out. The accomplice then grabs the satchel, jumps off the train, and runs off into the darkness.

What Jennings didn’t know, although the audience does, is that along with the plans, Garratt put the bomb itself in the satchel as well. What she may or may not have known, but again, the audience definitely does, is that the bomb is a time bomb set to go off at midnight exactly. On the way to the rendezvous – indeed, when Jennings is almost within sight – the satchel and the accomplice carrying it explode in a spectacular manner.

Mary Jennings rushes to the body and discovers dog tags around his neck that reveal the accomplice’s name. He was – quelle surprise! – Fred Jennings.

 

Who? Oh right, the long-lost brother. I suppose it’s a decent twist. I didn’t see it coming, but only because I had forgotten about the whole annuity subplot by that point. The only time it’s mentioned is in a single letter that we see within the first minute of the film. But the bomb heist story that follows it is so well executed and suspenseful that, despite the short run time, the opening scenes had completely faded from my memory.

The bulk of The Explosive, as I said, was great, and it would have made perfect sense had Mary herself blown up or had Fred been the main character instead, but I’m just not sure what the annuity or estranged siblings had to do with it. Maybe if more had been done with the subplot it might seem like it’s actually part of the story, but as it is, it’s literally two lines of text that are never referenced again until the very end of the film and it just feels shoehorned in.

I wonder if this is an episode of a serial. I could see a secret agent serial with Mary Jennings as the star, and being needed for the next episode would explain why she couldn’t die at the end. Even while watching it, I couldn’t shake the feeling that The Explosive plays very much like an episode of The Perils of Pauline or The Exploits of Elaine, but then again, all the characters are introduced like we’ve never seen them before and there doesn’t seem to be any overarching story.  It’s such a mystery.

Anyway, my rating: I like it.