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The Little Country Mouse (Majestic, 1914)

The Little Country Mouse screenshot 1The Little Country Mouse (Majestic, 1914)
Directed by Donald Crisp
Starring Blanche Sweet

Mabel (Mary Alden) invites her cousin May (Blanche Sweet) to a house party. May is a shy country girl and a weekend in the big city with her flashy cousin is an exciting prospect.

It’s love at first sight for Lieutenant Deering (Wallace Reid) when May steps out of the car. Captain Stiles (R.A. Walsh) has a baser attraction to the naïve girl. All the guests, save Deering, sit down for a game of cards. It isn’t until Mabel presents May with a $250 bill that she realizes they were gambling. “Why, I didn’t know it was for money!” she exclaims.

Stiles, “the wealthy roue”, sees his chance. He offers to loan May the money, which she’s in no position to reject. Deering, watching from another room, sees Stiles handThe Little Country Mouse screenshot 2 May a check and assumes that she must have been the winner. I think he disapproves? Maybe? Since he sat out the game, it would make sense that he didn’t care for gamblers, but the film doesn’t make this clear and the situation is diffused immediately when Deering confronts Stiles and learns that he loaned May $250.

Of course, the Captain’s loan did not come without an expectation of repayment. The next day, when May is out walking her dog, Stiles corners her and tries to force a kiss. Deering intercedes. Stiles, his money not having bought him what he wanted, demands a refund. Deering talks to Mabel, who agrees to forgive May’s debt. Deering takes the check back to Stiles and tears it up in front of him.

The party ends and everyone departs. Later, “the country mouse” back “in her home nest”, is visited by Lieutenant Deering. Her father leaves them to make moon eyes at each other, safely chaperoned by the dog.

The Little Country Mouse screenshot 3I feel my summary doesn’t adequately reflect the experience of watching The Little Country Mouse (1914). This is a film that exists almost entirely by inference. It isn’t like The Secret of the Palm — the story isn’t incomprehensible; it’s that there really isn’t any story. If I were to summarize what actually happens on screen, it would be: a girl goes to a party, loses a card game, then goes home. Everything else is left for the audience to deduce from vague clues and from knowing how these sort of stories usually go.

I wouldn’t say it’s a bad film. In an odd way, I actually kind of liked it. It’s the sort of film that requires the active participation of the viewer, and in a very literal way, it’s only as good or bad as you imagine it to be.

My rating: Meh.

Polishing Up (Vitagraph, 1914)

Polishing Up screenshot 1Polishing Up (Vitagraph, 1914)
Directed by George D. Baker
Starring John Bunny and Flora Finch

John Bunny was one of the first internationally renowned film comedians. His fame wasn’t the only thing that was big about him — he weighed around 250 pounds at the start of his career and 300 at his untimely death in 1915. He was largely responsible for the “fatty” subgenre that would remain popular in silent comedy into the 1920s. His first couple years at Vitagraph saw him paired with several actresses, but Flora Finch would become his regular co-star. The two made well over 200 “Bunnyfinches” together, and Polishing Up (1914) is one of them:

At dinner one night, John (John Bunny) tells his wife Flora (Flora Finch) that she looks like an old hag. Later that night, Flora writes to her sister: “I am going to a sea-side resort and polish up a bit.”

John also gets to thinking about his own appearance and decides he could do better. The next day, after his wife has gone to ‘visit her sister’, he takes a stroll down the street in his best suit. John makes the acquaintance of two young ladies (Phyllis Grey, Emily Hayes) vacationing on the coast, who invite him back to their hotel.

Meanwhile, Vivian Astor (née Flora) checks-in at the resort. She’s no sooner shown to her room than she sprains her ankle. Presuming her to be a wealthy widow, Dr. Reynolds (William Humphrey) is openly flirtatious while treating her, and she’s quite flattered by his attention.

Polishing Up screenshot 2Next door, John and the two ladies are about to settle in when they meet the doctor in the hallway. After learning about the accident, the two women go to visit ‘Vivian’ and the three get to gossiping about the conquests they’ve made. A little double-date dinner party is arranged for that evening.

And so “the widow” meets “the bachelor”. The others back off as John and Flora stare each other down. The tension is palpable. And then… they both start laughing. John gives a toast as the party gets started: “Here’s to our wives and sweethearts; may they never meet.”

Of the several Bunnyfinches I’ve seen, this one is my favorite. I really enjoyed this film. I don’t know if I agree with the sentiment, but I’ve heard it said that, for all the fame he won during his lifetime, Bunny’s comedy is all but inaccessible to modern audiences because it relies so much on the novelty of an obese man. I can sort of see it for his non-starring roles — like his comic-relief role in Vanity Fair (1911), which really is not much more than “look at that fat guy” — but with the Bunnyfinches at least, his weight isn’t the focus. It’s true that he does little, if any, physical comedy, but he had a remarkably expressive face and could convey a great deal of humor just in his look. Surely, in Polishing Up, the comedy stems from the awkward situation and is carried by the actors’ performances. The size of Bunny’s character is never even mentioned.

Vitagraph spotting: the hotel lobby is the exact same set used in John Rance, Gentleman (1914). Later, it would be transformed into the ballroom seen in A Florida Enchantment (1914).

My rating: I like it.

The Ring (Crystal, 1914)

The Ring screenshot 1The Ring (Crystal, 1914)
Directed by Phillips Smalley
Starring Pearl White and Chester Barnett

It’s time to close out my little series of Crystal reviews with the film I’ve saved for last. If The Hallroom Girls (1913) was the best comedy, The Ring (1914) was surely the best drama. But whereas Hallroom really only stood out in comparison to its very weak competitors, I thought Ring was a decent short drama taken on its own merits.

The opening scene cuts back and forth between Mrs. Gray (Pearl White) throwing a lavish party, being attended by liveried servants, and wearing a dress dripping with pearls; and her husband, Arnold Gray (Chester Barnett), who sits in his office looking worried, eagerly awaiting but simultaneously dreading the arrival of some important business correspondence. At last it arrives, and the news isn’t good: the Grays are bankrupt.

“After the catastrophe”, we find Pearl and Arnie at breakfast in a simple, cheaply furnished room, where Pearl has to clear away the dishes herself. Before Arnie leaves to go to his new clerical job, he kisses his wife, but she seems cold and distant.

Arnie’s boss is Alfred Norman, a snide-faced man who wears a top hat and white gloves and a mustache that I kept waiting for him to twirl. Alf doesn’t stay at the office long, though. He leaves to attend a party at Mrs. Allen’s.

The Ring screenshot 2Mrs. Allen is one of Pearl’s friends from the old days, and distressed conditions or no, Pearl is still welcome at her functions. In fact, she’s already at the party when Alf arrives. They meet and he’s taken by her at once, and she’s not a little taken by him as well. Back at home with Arnie at the end of the day, Pearl seems even more aloof.

Some time later, Alf sends a gift to Pearl — a diamond ring.

A note about the cinematography: The intercutting of the first scene is nicely handled, but after that, the filmmaking technique settles into an adequate but unremarkable style. Except this scene. Here, we intercut between Arnie toiling at his desk and Alf in his private office with the ring — a sort of reverse cut, suggesting that they sit on either side of a frosted glass wall. But it’s very, very obvious that it’s the exact same backdrop and they’ve just swapped the furniture around. We cut from Arnie to Alf several times and it’s never not distracting.

Anyway, the diamond ring. Pearl tries it on and instantly adores it, but when she reads the notes and sees the name of the sender, she knows she can’t accept the gift. She’s still wearing it when Arnie returns home. Startled, she says the first thing that comes to mind: “I found this ring”. You’re not fooling anyone, Pearl.

The next day, while Arnie is at work, Pearl takes the ring to Mrs. Allen, who she hopes will act as an intercessor between herself and Alf — Pearl determined not to see him again. Coincidentally, I suppose, Alf leaves the office to call on Mrs. Allen as well. Arnie, suspicious, trails him.

The Ring screenshot 3Pearl flees into the back room as Alf enters. Arnie appears moments later, sees Pearl’s hat on the sofa, and becomes enraged. He pulls out a gun, a struggle ensues, the gun goes off, Pearl — standing just on the other side of the door — is hit.

Mrs. Allen breaks up the fight. Alf runs off. Arnie goes to Pearl, but it’s clear enough that he’s assumed the worst and is through with her. As he’s about to leave, Mrs. Allen shows him the note Pearl had asked her to give Alf. “I am a married woman”, it reads. “I cannot … accept your gift.” Arnie, realizing the mistake he made, returns to Pearl, who accepts him back.

I really liked this film. It plays at just the right pace and doesn’t show anything more or less than it needs to. It gets a little bit silly with Arnie clinging to the back of Alf’s car and the clichéd gun-going-off-in-a-struggle, but the story on the whole was well done. It successfully gets the audience to side with the husband at the start, and since we identify with him, we’re taken along the same mistaken journey he is — but it does so without having to reduce Pearl to an outright villain, which would have made the reversal at the end much less believable and would have sapped away the impact of Arnie’s almost leaving her.

Moving Picture World’s review praised White’s performance, and I would concur both with that and with their implicitly saying the other performances weren’t particularly praiseworthy. Barnett is acceptable, but he plays it broad. The Alfred Norman character, as I’ve already suggested, is one mustache-twirl away from being a full-on parody of a lecherous fat cat. The other characters are so minor, it hardly matters how they act.

But still, questionable acting and one poorly constructed scene aside, I really enjoyed this film.

My rating: I like it.

The Egyptian Mummy (Vitagraph, 1914)

The Egyptian Mummy screenshotThe Egyptian Mummy (Vitagraph, 1914)
Directed by Lee Beggs
Starring Lee Beggs, Billy Quirk, and Constance Talmadge

Dick (Billy Quirk) is in love with Florence (Constance Talmadge), but her father, Professor Hicks (Lee Beggs), won’t see his daughter married to some penniless schlub. Besides, he’s too intent on his current scientific project: resurrecting the dead.

Dick doesn’t respond well. He takes the pipe — literally. He goes to his bedroom, sticks one end of a tube into the gaslight, the other end in his mouth, and he lays down to sleep, expecting never to wake up. He does wake up, though; the gas meter is coin operated and he was only paid up for a quarter’s worth.

Meanwhile, the Professor has made a breakthrough. In one of his books, he finds a formula for a drug that promises to restore life even to an ancient Egyptian mummy. Naturally, that’s just the test subject he needs. The Professor places an ad: $5,000 for whoever brings him a mummy. When Dick reads the paper, he knows exactly what to do — and it’s so simple, too: find a filthy old bum (Joel Day), bribe him with liquor to lie still, and present him to the Professor.

Dick immediately takes his newfound $5,000 to the stockbroker. The Professor begins preparing the drug. The “mummy”, starting to dry out, is getting antsy. No sooner does the Professor administer the drug than the mummy jumps to his feet and starts ransacking the office in search of booze. Terrified, the Professor flees.

Dick’s investments pay out — $5,000 has turned to $50,000 — and he returns to see the Professor as a man more suitable to marry his daughter. The Professor is busy throwing his books and experiments out the window, but takes a moment to toss Dick and Florence together with implicit approval of the match.

This was a delightful little comedy perfectly suited to Quirk’s style of acting. Beggs was no slouch, either. Vitagraph had recently acquired both from Solax, where they had worked together on great, similarly themed films like Canned Harmony (1912). At Solax, Quirk was usually paired with Blanche Cornwall, but at Vitagraph, his love interest was wet-behind-the-ears Constance Talmadge. She was still an unknown at the time — don’t quote me on it, but The Egyptian Mummy may well be her earliest surviving work — but she would soon become a major star, disdaining short comedies for serious dramatic roles and features. It was comedy’s loss. Films like The Egyptian Mummy and Billy the Bear Tamer (1915) show how adept she was at being funny.

My rating: I like it, unreservedly.

The Professor’s Romance (Vitagraph, 1914)

The Professors Romance screenshotThe Professor’s Romance (Vitagraph, 1914)
Directed by Sidney Drew
Starring Sidney Drew and Jane Morrow

Professor Cameron (Sidney Drew) is hard at work on his “great literary masterpiece” when Mrs. Merrileigh (Jane Morrow) moves into the neighboring house. She’s a widow with two young children — “Mother’s angels”, she calls them (Helen and Bobby Connelly). Cameron is smitten by Merrileigh at first sight and is hardly able to work without imagining the woman next door.

Likewise, the two hellions immediately declare war on the Professor. Their offensive escalates from putting firecrackers under his chair and drenching his romantic picnic with the garden hose to stealing his manuscript and burning it in the front yard. But the children’s efforts are self-defeating. Merrileigh, after learning what happened, goes to console Cameron. The Professor admits that maybe his book didn’t mean “more than anything else in the world” to him, and that maybe there was one thing that meant more.

Cameron and Merrileigh are embracing when the kids come bounding in with the news that what they burned wasn’t actually the manuscript. It was all pretend and the real papers were safely hidden all along.

As a one-reeler, it plays a bit too fast. There’s not enough material for a feature, but it could easily have filled two reels, and I’d have liked to have seen more of the budding romance and the children’s efforts to undermine it.

The characters are grounded in reality and their actions, though exaggerated, are entirely believable. They’re a much better fit for the Drews’ usual style of domestic comedy than the last Drew film I wrote about, Wanted:- A Nurse (1915). Only Cameron’s mischievous housekeeper, played by Ethel Lee, seems to act without purpose.

I enjoyed The Professor’s Romance (1914). It still doesn’t top Auntie’s Portrait (1915) as my favorite Drew short, but it is definitely one of the better ones.

My rating: I like it.

Tess of the Storm Country (1914, 1922)

Tess of the Storm Country posterTess of the Storm Country (Famous Players, 1914)
Directed by Edwin S. Porter
Starring Mary Pickford

…and…

Tess of the Storm Country (United Artists, 1922)
Directed by John S. Robertson
Starring Mary Pickford

Mary Pickford said that her character in Tess of the Storm Country was her favorite out of all the characters she portrayed. It must have been, since she did it twice: once in 1914, and again, reprising the role for the 1922 remake.

Both adaptations take varying liberties with the source material, so I’ll first give a brief summary of the book and then mention the plot difference in the movies:

In Ithaca, New York, on a hill overlooking Cayuga Lake, sits the stately country home of Elias Graves (1914: William Walters / 1922: David Torrence), the minister of the largest church in the city. His daughter Teola (Olive Golden / Gloria Hope) lives with him, his son Frederick (Harold Lockwood / Lloyd Hughes) is away at Cornell University. The view over the water is blighted by a crude village of desperately poor fishermen squatting on the bank of the lake. Graves owns the land and wants nothing more than to tear down every last shanty, but squatter’s law prevents him from evicting the fishermen. Among the squatters are Tessibel Skinner (Mary Pickford) and her father Orn (David Hartford / Forrest Robinson), Ezra Longman (Eugene Walter / Danny Hoy), and Ben Letts (Richard Garrick / Jean Hersholt). Ben was once the boyfriend of Ezra’s sister Myra, but more or less abandoned her when she became pregnant.

Graves uses his influence to enact a ban on net fishing in the lake – hoping to starve out the squatters. Forced into poaching to survive, the men wait until nightfall to haul in their nets. The game warden anticipated this, however, and sweeps in to confiscate the catch. Ben takes Orn’s rifle and shoots the warden dead. Orn hears the shot and discovers the body. He’s examining it when the police arrive. Orn is arrested for the murder of the game warden.

Meanwhile, Frederick is home for vacation. He meets and falls in love with Tess, although the animosity between his father and the squatters limits their interaction. With him is his friend Dan Jordan (Jack Henry / Robert Russell), who has a fling with Fred’s sister Teola. He had hinted at marriage without any immediate plans before, but toward the end of winter break, Teola presses him to set a date as quickly as possible. Dan, oblivious that Teola might be pregnant, brushes her off with the same vague promise.

An accident occurs at the university and Dan is killed. Teola, realizing now that she has no hope of saving her honor, goes to the cliffs with suicidal intent. She’s found by Tess, who talks her out of it and takes her back to the Skinner shack. Teola gives birth to a premature baby boy, who Tess promises to take care of, not expecting him to live long. Some days later, Teola is with Tess and the baby when Fred comes for an unexpected visit. He intends on asking Tess to marry him, but assumes the worst when he discovers her with a baby. Tess looks to Teola, hoping she’ll confess, but Teola remains silent. Tess keeps her secret, but not without anger.

Orn Skinner is found guilty and sentenced to death. There’s a moving scene in the courthouse, where Tess appeals to the audience and very nearly walks out with her father as they sit in stunned silence, but the Minister breaks the spell and demands he be returned to his cell to await execution.

The Minister had been away for several weeks, during which time Teola supplied Tess with food for the baby, but on his return, the baby is left with what scant supplies are available in the village. His health rapidly declines, and when it becomes obvious to Tess that death will occur in a matter of hours, she takes the baby to the Minister’s church to have him baptized.

The Minister categorically refuses to baptize the dying baby, believing him not only to be a bastard, but worse, a squatter bastard. Tess goes to the font and, to the best of her ability, baptizes the baby herself. Teola, unable to keep silent, rushes forward and claims the now dead baby as her own.

Fred begs for Tess’s forgiveness and renews his offer of marriage. Ezra confesses to Orn’s lawyer that he was there when the shooting occurred and witnessed Ben pull the trigger. A retrial is held and Orn is acquitted. The Minister, humbled by what he’s done, deeds the lakefront to the squatter village.

Tess of the Storm Country slideI’ve left out some subplots, but that’s the main story. Neither film adaptation was so bold as to make the villain a minister. In the 1914 version, Graves is at least a deacon of the church. In the 1922 version, he’s just a member of the congregation. The change undercuts the depth of his villainy – not only wanting his own grandson dead, but personally damning him to Hell. Dan is also whitewashed in the ’22 version. In it, he wants to marry Teola, but her father won’t allow it. He becomes Graves’s accomplice, hoping to win his favor. That change works, I think – it adds depth to the character and it turns him into an excellent foil for Fred, who always opposed his father’s treatment of the squatters. It does lose the parallel between Dan and Ben, but then neither film spends as much time establishing Ben as does the book, so the parallel would be lost anyway.

Apart from changing the minister into a deacon, the 1914 version omits very little of the book – the Bill Hopkins subplot, what happens to Ben after the confession… really, that’s about it. To squeeze all that material into five reels is quite a feat. Some scenes move along so fast you hardly see them. With its breakneck speed, the film sometimes neglects to introduce characters when it should. We see Teola and the setup for her arc long before we know who she is or what her name might be. Ezra, who appears early and frequently in the film and is central to the resolution of the main plot, is never actually identified until the very end.

Tess of the Storm Country (1914) was one of the last films directed by Edwin S. Porter, the pioneering filmmaker most known for his landmark Edison works Life of an American Fireman (1903) and The Great Train Robbery (1903). Like so many other pioneers, Porter didn’t seem to be able to keep up with the rapid advances in cinematography in the decades that followed. Other than its length, if you told me Tess of the Storm Country had actually been filmed in 1904, I’d have no reason to disbelieve you. With hardly any exception, all the scenes are shot in a very flat, staid tableau style. It does work – the narrative never becomes incomprehensible – but it’s insanely antiquated for 1914.

The 1922 remake begins with a forward stating its reason for existence. It acknowledges the 1914 version and explains that this “re-creation” was made “under the improved conditions of modern photoplay production”. The conditions certainly are improved. Compositionally speaking alone, there’s artistry in every shot. The pacing issues of the original are all more than corrected, and the pared-down story would surely be much easier to follow for someone unfamiliar with the source. That said, completely removing Graves’s position in the church – while likely a necessity to be passed by the National Board of Review, to say nothing of the church-dominated New York censorship board – destroys what should be the emotional finale. That is the one area in which I think the 1914 version is unequivocally superior.

I’d recommend both, but see the ’22 version first.

My rating: I like them.


1922 version available from Image Entertainment

A Florida Enchantment (Vitagraph, 1914)

A Florida Enchantment heraldA Florida Enchantment (Vitagraph, 1914)
Directed by Sidney Drew
Starring Edith Storey and Sidney Drew

My look at silent films with gay themes continues with a “farcical fantasy” released in the summer of 1914:

Lillian Travers (Edith Storey) is a New York heiress whose fortune has just been turned over to her. Seeing nothing left to stand in the way, she jumps on the train to Florida to surprise her fiancée and begin arrangements for their wedding. His name is Fred Cassadene (Sidney Drew); he’s the house doctor at the exclusive Hotel Ponce de Leon in St. Augustine. Staying at the hotel is a flirtatious young widow, Stella Lovejoy (Ada Gifford), who delights in feigning illness for the doctor’s attention. When Lilly arrives, unannounced, she’s furious to find Fred and Stella apparently hand-in-hand in the hotel courtyard. Fred explains and Lily is placated… for the moment… but it seems something keeps coming up between Fred and Stella and Lilly’s suspicions heighten.

While all this is playing out, Lilly is staying with her spinster aunt, Constancia Oglethorpe (Grace Stevens). Connie is of old Southern stock and she tells Lilly the story of one of her ancestors, Captain Hauser Oglethorpe. It seems he was shipwrecked off the coast of Africa (the implication is that he was a slaver, although that isn’t explicitly said) and came away with a mystery: a box, now on display in Connie’s parlor, containing an enigmatic note that reads “In the duplicate of this casket, whereabouts unknown, lies a secret for all women who suffer.”

Lilly goes out with Bessie (Jane Morrow), the daughter of Connie’s widower neighbor Major Horton (Charles Kent), to hit up the local antique stores. She finds a box that looks just like her aunt’s, with a tag that claims it was found washed ashore a century ago. Lilly buys it and, from its contents, learns the rest of old Oglethorpe’s history: after the captain was shipwrecked, he was rescued by an African tribe that was curiously all male. The chief of this tribe, Quasi, told him that they recruited their numbers from the women of neighboring tribes. These women they fed a particular seed, which instantly changed them into men. Quasi gave Oglethorpe four of these seeds as a parting gift – Lilly finds the vial containing them in the box.

After the final straw breaks Lilly’s trust in Fred’s fidelity, she swallows one of the seeds. She grasps at her throat as it begins to take hold then, after a moment’s pause, stands up, hurls away the chair, grabs the box and remaining three seeds, dashes Fred’s flowers to the ground, and marches out of the room.

Lilly spurns Fred at the ball and begins courting Bessie. After a while, she gives a seed to her maid and the two return to New York to complete their transformation: Lillian Travers becomes Lawrence Talbot and Jane the Maid becomes Jack the Valet. Lawrence again visits Florida, this time to ask for Bessie’s hand in marriage…

 

A Florida Enchantment (1914) was adapted from a Broadway play of the same name, which in turn had been adapted from a novel by Archibald Clavering Gunter. The film is more popular now than it was when it premiered – audiences and critics alike panned it for being too absurd. In truth, it was never intended to be a hit in America. Like many of Sidney Drew’s “sophisticated comedies”, Vitagraph was banking on its assured success in France to buoy lackluster domestic returns, but unfortunately the First World War broke out during production and that market was cut-off. Enchantment lost Vitagraph a fair bit of money.

It’s interesting to see the dichotomy of reactions the film shows between same-sex attractions. When Lilly (still outwardly female) openly flirts with Bessie, Connie is a bit scandalized and Fred looks on in confusion, but there is no uproar. No one attempts to stop her, nor is she so much as criticized for her actions. When later in the film Fred swallows a seed and begins to act femininely, and angry mob literally chases him off the end of a pier and into a watery grave. It’s played for laughs in Enchantment, but you’ll see it repeated in serious dramas as well: gay women might get off lightly, but gay men have to die. Paul Körner, Claude Zoret, Franz Sommer – I can’t think of a single lead character who breaks this trend.

I like A Florida Enchantment a great deal. It was actually the movie that got me interesting in releasing my film collection on video and it became my first DVD. I’m presently working on it again and hope to have a new version out for its hundredth anniversary next year (and maybe a theatrical screening or two – we’ll see what the card’s hold). It’s a better transfer and the restoration software I’m using is much improved. There’s still a long way to go, but I’m already proud of it. Here’s a sneak peak of the new video:

My rating: I like it.

Available (old version now, new one sometime next year) from Harpodeon

A Pair of Birds (Crystal, 1914)

A Pair of Birds screenshotA Pair of Birds (Crystal, 1914)
Directed by Phillips Smalley
Starring Charles De Forrest and Vivian Prescott

Mr. Bird (Charles De Forrest) has to go away on a business trip for a few days. As it’s the maid’s vacation, Mrs. Bird (Vivian Prescott) decides to visit her mother rather than stay in the house alone. Mr. Bird’s trip is cut short and he returns a day earlier than expected. Mrs. Bird also comes home early, not minutes after her husband let himself in. Mrs. Bird hears someone moving around in the kitchen, and as the house is supposed to be empty, she assumes it’s a burglar and runs upstairs to get her gun. Mr. Bird hears someone rifling through the bedroom drawers, and since he knows his wife is out, he concludes it must be a burglar. He arms himself with a butcher knife and slowly climbs the stairs.

It’s a well-worn plot and A Pair of Birds (1914) doesn’t do much new with it. De Forrest didn’t impress me. His acting is nothing more than alternately looking surprised and then mugging for the camera. I did like the character of Mrs. Bird. She’s always on the offensive and her trigger-happy antics were worth a chuckle. All in all, it wasn’t a bad film, but there’s nothing memorable about it and little to recommend it.

I bought this film, little more than a week ago, for two reasons: The first and foremost reason was that it’s nitrate and I buy all the nitrate offered me that I can fool myself into thinking I can afford. The second reason was that it’s from Crystal Films and looked to be from around 1914, which meant it had to star one of two comedy duos: Pearl White and Chester Barnett, or Charles De Forrest and Vivian Prescott. I was hoping it was White and Barnett, because that would take me one step closer to completing my collection of all of White’s surviving films, but I’m not disappointed that it turned out to be De Forrest and Prescott. I like the lesser knowns, and compared to Pearl White, Charlie and Vivian are entirely forgotten.

My rating: Meh.

The Mysterious Black Box (Selig, 1914)

Frame from The Mysterious Black BoxThe Mysterious Black Box (Selig, 1914)
Directed by Norval MacGregor
Starring John Lancaster and Sidney Smith

Bill (Sidney Smith) is in love with Mr. Fogg’s daughter, Betty (Elsie Greeson), and wants to marry her. Mr. Fogg (John Lancaster) does not exactly approve of the match, and as he just so happens to be Bill’s boss, he fires him. Bill, hoping to persuade Fogg to give him his job back, goes up to the boss’s office and discovers Fogg and his secretary in a rather compromising situation. Bill rushes away, but not before Fogg notices him holding what looks like a camera under his arm. Fogg must prevent that picture from reaching his wife at all costs.

The Mysterious Black Box (1914) is one of those films that straddles the line between drama and comedy, and like many other such films, it doesn’t really succeed at either. The infidelity story, clichéd as it is, does start out strong thanks in large part to John Lancaster’s performance, but that same performance hinders the comedy elements. Lancaster plays his part as straight as an arrow, but Sidney Smith and especially Lillian Leighton (Fogg’s wife) act as if they’re in a broad slapstick regardless of the scene. When the three come together, it feels almost as if two entirely separate movies have crashed into one another.

Selig films fascinate me for reasons I can’t quite articulate and I’m happy to have seen another of the rare surviving few, but The Mysterious Black Box isn’t a film I wouldn’t recommend to anyone.

My rating: I don’t like it.