I think I must have referenced Auntie’s Portrait at least two or three times when talking about other Sidney Drew films, but I’ve never spoken about it directly. I should rectify that.
Auntie’s Portrait is usually cast as a “rare” film, but for all it’s supposed rarity, I’ve got five prints of it. The old standard definition video was sourced from the best print I had at the time, which still wasn’t very good — a bit soft and more than a bit dark. The new high definition remaster comes from the last print I obtained, which is just all around gorgeous. I’m very happy to have it as Auntie’s Portrait is my favorite Drew short.
Mr. and Mrs. Honeypet (Sidney Drew and Jane Morrow) are newlyweds. They receive a gift from Mrs. Honeypet’s wealthy aunt Flora (Ethel Lee). They dig into the box eager to see what it contains only to find a hideous portrait of Auntie herself. The Honeypets are obviously middle class, but they’ve got pretensions and this picture would disgrace their carefully curated walls. Not expecting Auntie to visit anytime soon, they decide to worry about it later. In the meantime, the portrait is consigned to the attic.
The next day, who should drop by but Auntie Flora, every bit as harsh and mean-looking as her picture. And about that picture — no sooner does she take off her hat and coat than the lorgnette comes out and she begins scanning the walls for it. Mr. Honeypet retrieves the portrait from the attic and tries to quickly hang it, but they don’t have a big place — just a few rooms downstairs — and he keeps being interrupted by Auntie. It seems like all is lost when he drops the picture and the frame breaks, but then inspiration strikes and Mr. Honeypet rushes out the back door.
Auntie, having gone round the house several times, has determined that her portrait is nowhere to be found. “I shall leave this house and never return,” she tells her niece, “and I’ll leave you out of my will, too!” She’s almost out the door when Mr. Honeypet barges in. “We sent it away to have this beautiful frame put on it,” he explains, showing her the picture with a new, elaborate gilt frame. “We wanted to surprise you!”
I tend to bring up Auntie’s Portrait when talking about Drew films because I really consider it the gold standard of their formula: newlyweds that are pretentious social climbers and probably a bit insufferable to be around, but not so bad that you want to see them fail. It’s not too confining as formulas go and there’s a lot that can be mined from it. There’s nothing wacky about the Drews’ better domestic comedies. Their world is really only a slightly heightened version of our own. You probably know people in real life not too unlike the Honeypets.
My rating: I like it.
Available from Harpodeon
And now, unless you enjoy my continued ramblings about Amazon, you can stop reading and I’ll think nothing less of you for it.
Claire McDowell is an actress who suffers a nervous breakdown and is sent to the country to recover. She’s accompanied by her boyfriend, Alan Hale (no, not the Skipper — that’s Alan Hale, Jr. This is the Skipper’s dad.) At the farm are a couple of sweethearts, Vola Smith and Victor Rottman. Vola expects Victor to propose any day now, but the arrival of the rusticated actress turns his head and he all but forgets about Vola.
The two girls concoct a plan: Vola will pretend to start courting Alan, which will make Victor jealous and refocus his attention back where it belongs. Alan is against the idea but at last Claire convinces him to play along. The plan works all too well: Victor does become jealous of his new rival, but on Claire’s last day at the farm, she finds a note from Alan proclaiming that he has really fallen in love with Vola and that the two have decided to elope (and we now learn that Alan Hale’s character is apparently named Charlie, but never mind that).
I’ve referenced the fall of the pioneering studios several times in the past. Biograph was already in steep decline when Cupid Entangled was released. Eleven months later, production would be halted. They simply couldn’t compete in the new market. I actually did a double-take on the release date when I started writing this; in terms of film making technique, Cupid Entangled looks more like it should have been made in 1910 rather than 1915. It’s only five years, but pre-war films exist in a different world. The acting, as well, is primitive. The actors are on a single plane, are always facing forward, and they address the camera more so than they do each other. Everything is a medium shot — no wides, no close-ups. Even the exteriors feel claustrophobic. Still, it isn’t badly written. I don’t know who did the screenplay, but it’s a fine sitcom plot.
My rating: Meh.
I don’t know what the next video will be. I’m working on a long film now that will hopefully be ready for Halloween, but I imagine something else will be out before then.
Can it be? Is it really finished? It doesn’t seem possible. The new reconstruction of The Juggernaut is done.
This review will probably be shorter than you might have thought. I’ve already said pretty much all there is to say about the history of the film in my Juggernauting series, and I don’t have much to add about the adventure it was reconstructing it either. I’m very happy with how it turned out, as I said before. I find The Juggernaut to be a fascinating film — I’ve said that before, too — but I don’t think I’ve ever commented on whether or not it’s a good film.
Let’s put it in a more modern context: it reminds me of Titanic (1997). I went to see Titanic when it came out. Somewhere at around hour 35 of the screening, the person I was there with leaned over and asked me when the boat was going to sink. I think a lot of people were leaning over to their neighbor and asking when the train was going to wreck when they went to see The Juggernaut in 1915. Like the iceberg, audiences knew the wreck was coming. It was all over the advertisements — it’s what the film was sold on, it’s what they were there to see.
It takes a long time to get to the train wreck.
The first reel starts off strong. After a brief introduction to our characters — Mr. and Mrs. Ballard, farmers; their son John (Earle Williams), who dreams of becoming a lawyer; rich railroad magnate James Hardin (Frank Currier) and his ne’er-do-well son Philip (William R. Dunn) — we get right into some action. On their way to market, the elder Ballards are struck at a railroad crossing and killed. John sells the farm and enrolls in law school, where he meets Philip and becomes his friend, despite blaming his father for his parents’ death. Philip is given to dissipation, and rather than meet John for a study session as planned, he joins a poker game with a gang of sharpers. A fight breaks out when he discovers he’s being cheated. He would be killed by one of them if not for the timely arrival of John, who smashes a chair on the hooligan’s head. End of reel one.
As for reel two… and three… and four… well, we’ll say it doesn’t keep up the momentum. A less charitable viewer might use the word “padding” to describe everything that happens after the fight and before the wreck.
John apparently killed the menacing gambler. Philip swears he’ll never reveal the secret. John and Viola Ruskin (Anita Stewart) meet on graduation day and fall in love, but Viola’s mother (Julia Swayne Gordon) has the Hardin fortune in mind and forces her to marry Philip. Viola dies giving birth to Louise, John and Philip drift apart.
Twenty years later, John is the District Attorney and brings a suit against Philip’s railroad, which has only gotten worse since he’s inherited it. Philip would blackmail John into dropping the case by threatening to reveal the murder, but Louise (also played by Anita Stewart) spoils it all by giving evidence to John that proves it wasn’t him — the sharper got into another fight later that same day and was killed then. The trial proceeds, Philip phones Louise to bring him some documents from his home safe, her car breaks down and she’s force to take… dun-dun-dun… the train.
We’re in the fifth reel now and have come to what everyone is waiting for. The train is speeding toward a bridge Philip knows is unsafe to cross, but he doesn’t discover until too late that his daughter is on board. He races out of the office and tries to head-off the train and warn them of the danger ahead, but he’s not fast enough. The bridge collapses and the train goes tumbling into the water.
Then the film forks in a couple directions. John has rushed to the scene as well. At the film’s premiere screening, he swims out to the wreckage and pulls out Louise, but the Juggernaut has claimed its victim — Louise is dead. Others got one of two alternate endings that vary in detail, but both end with Louise recovering and John professing his love to her.
The Juggernaut was a popular film — it played for 750 days and made an obscene amount of money. It’s interesting to see, as time goes on, how the ads for it change. Earle Williams is the star in 1915. In 1917, Anita Stewart and Earle Williams are both top billed. In 1920, Anita Stewart is the star.
I must say, Anita Stewart gives the only decent performance. Earle Williams’s idea of emoting is to just spike the camera. The intensity of his emotion can be gauged by how long he holds eye contact with you — romantic, pathetic, tensive, it doesn’t matter, spike the camera. Now Julia Swayne Gordon, she is acting. My word, does she chew the scenery. The thing is, I’ve seen Gordon in other films and she’s nowhere near as hammy as she is here, even in her very early work. I’m sure she was directed to act like that. I’m sure even in the final take just as she’s about to devour the set whole, Ralph Ince is just off-camera yelling “BIGGER!” I will give credit where it’s due, the man knew how to block a scene. The scene where John overhears Viola and her mother arguing about Philip in particular, I though that was expertly arranged. He just couldn’t direct actors for beans.
We’ve come down to the rating. The Juggernaut is a fascinating film, and it does deliver the promised full-scale train wreck, and it is thrilling for two or three scenes, but is it a good film? No, not at all. Not one bit. But would I recommend it? The narrative is weak and the acting is horrid, but it’s less a movie than it is a spectacle. Go in with that mindset, don’t trouble yourself with paying too close attention to the middle bits, and you’ll love it as I love it.
My rating: I like it.
I think I’m going to take a few days off, but I’ll give you a hint as to what the next video will be. I needed part of Wanted:- A Nurse (1915) for The Juggernaut and it didn’t make any sense not to go ahead and scan all of it. So that’s waiting on the hard drive for whenever I care to get around to it, but that won’t be the next video out. We released an HD remaster of The Victoria Cross (1912) not too long ago. Coming up next will be another before-he-was-famous Wallace Reid film. One more hint, just as in The Victoria Cross, he also plays a lieutenant in this one.
Available from Harpodeon
I read the novel this film is based on a couple years ago. David Harum, the book, isn’t about David Harum. The main character is John Lenox and the story follows him as he struggles to get ahead in life, hoping to one day be wealthy enough to make a suitable husband for the rich Mary Blake. While traces of that are here in David Harum, the film, this David Harum very much is the focus of the story, with John fading quite into the background. I’ll say upfront, I don’t fault the film for that. Novels and movies are two different media, and what works in one may not work in the other. A faithful David Harum adaptation would be terribly dull, just by nature of how the book is written.
David Harum (William H. Crane) is a successful banker in the small town of Homeville, New York. His cashier, Chet Timson (Hal Clarendon), is a slimy fellow who thinks he’s a great deal more essential to the running of the bank than he actually is. It comes as quite a shock when he finds himself fired and a new man, John Lenox (Harold Lockwood), at his place behind the counter.
John is in Homeville following the suicide of his father, who had gotten himself into some particularly dire financial straits that have left John virtually penniless. All he has left is a worthless tract of wasteland, which he would sell but David has a hunch that it may turn out to be of some value.
Chet is involved in a counterfeiting operation. He had been taking the counterfeit bills from some nefarious character and exchanging them for real currency at the bank. Now it seems to have caught up with him and the Feds are in town investigating. Chet is sweet on the schoolmarm, Mary Blake (May Allison), who plainly favors John over him. Seeing a chance to kill two birds with one stone, he plants the counterfeits on John and alerts the authorities.
John is arrested, but David suspects a set-up. He finds the other man involved in the counterfeiting plot and forces him to confess. Unmasked, Chet finds himself persona non grata and the whole town gathers to ride him out on a rail. Incidentally, the engineering report that David had been waiting for finally arrives: that wasteland of John’s sits atop an enormous oil reserve worth untold fortunes.
It’s quite a departure from the novel’s plot. The counterfeiting operation, the federal investigation, the love triangle, Mary being a teacher (or even being in Homeville at all) — those are all inventions of the film. There were some counterfeit bills in the book, but they weren’t even a subplot, much less the central conflict. They were just a minor incident in John’s apprenticeship — David testing his integrity. No, if you were expecting to see the book put to screen, you’d come away from David Harum disappointed. Taken on its own, however, David Harum is an enjoyable film. The story holds together and doesn’t drag, with a good mix of exciting and tender moments and occasional comic relief, but even disregarding that, you have to commend the film for its faultless cinematography. I especially liked the tracking shots that take you down the street to the bank — you get a good feel for Homeville, both as it’s physically arranged and, more abstractly, the way that it all converges on David Harum.
Side note, we can be pretty sure that filming wrapped by May 7th, 1915 at the latest, since the ship they’re on is the Lusitania.
My rating: I like it.
Available from Televista. I’d usually link directly to the distributor’s website, but I just can’t get it to work, so have an Amazon link instead.
Lionel Strongheart (Tom Mix) is out on a hunting vacation in the hills. He stumbles across a couple of moonshiners — Joe and Jeff — who shoot him. When they discover he’s just a hapless tourist, they take him back to their cabin where Nellie nurses him to health. Nellie is Joe’s daughter and Jeff is in love with her, although she turns down his marriage proposal. Joe promises to plead his partner’s case, but that’s sidetracked when Sheriff Jim comes with a warrant for Jeff’s arrest. Meanwhile, Nellie and Lionel have fallen in love and decide to marry.
There’s something about this film that doesn’t sit right with me. Several things, actually: it doesn’t look or play like the sort of films Tom Mix was making at Selig in 1915; I can find no release notices for a Selig film by the name “Man Hunt” — not in that year or at any other date — nor any newspaper ads or reviews; it looks most natural at around 22fps and not the 16-18fps Selig films usually run at; Mix looks noticeably older than he does in, say, Sage Brush Tom (1915), which I happened to watch immediately before running The Man Hunt; and the plot is awfully intricate for the film’s run time, and it strikes me as an abridgement of a longer work.
What I have is a 16mm print released by Castle Films — I’m not sure when, but the edge code of the film stock dates it to 1964. The titles are replacements. It names Tom Mix (and him alone), but it doesn’t suggest that it’s a Selig production or that it was originally released in 1915. The only place I can find making those claims is IMDb, and IMDb is… not exactly the most reliable resource.
I don’t think it is a 1915 Selig one-reeler. I think it’s probably a cut-down of one of Mix’s later Fox releases, either feature length or at least two or three reels long, and that “The Man Hunt” is simply the title Castle assigned it and not what it was originally called. Now I could be wrong, but that’s my impression. With that said, I can’t really criticize the film’s abruptness, pacing issues, or its weak character development — as what’s here may not be representative of what might have been intended.
So what can I say? Well, I can say that none of the cast is acting with even the slightest conviction. It’s good that the film tells us that Jeff is in love with Nellie, or that Nellie doesn’t care for the man, or that her father inexplicably does — because none of that comes across otherwise. The titular manhunt, which is introduced dramatically with “THE MAN HUNT IS ON!”, is an oddly sedate affair. The sheriff and I suppose deputy ride slowly up to the still and simply slip the handcuffs on Jeff without any real struggle or urgency and the film just fizzles out afterward. Father’s involvement with the moonshining operation seems to be forgotten, as does the attempted murder.
What’s here isn’t good, and I can’t imagine what isn’t here was very good either. In short…
My rating: I don’t like it.
Another splendid jungle adventure from our old pal Colonel Selig.
Charles Clancy (Earle Foxe), a representative of the Great American Circus, is in Africa trapping exotic animals — mostly large cats, but also a zebra, a rhino, and an elephant. He meets John Gladding (Fred Hearn), a trader who lives in the jungle with his daughter Kate (Vivian Reed). John is sick with the plague. Charles offers to stay with them, but John insists that his daughter will see him through.
The very instant that Charles leaves, John dies. The native servants, evidently frightened by the plague (and I don’t see why they shouldn’t be), refuse to stay in the cabin and all but one flee. Kate is left alone with Wamba (Walter Beckwith). She sends him out with a message to Charles.
The very instant that Wamba leaves, a lion pounces on him and he’s killed. Unlike in The Last Man (1924), where the menacing puma was just a dummy, a very real lion jumps on the stunt man here and falls on top of him when they hit the ground. This is happening literally steps from the door, but Kate doesn’t seem to hear it. She’s in the cabin with a couple of tame leopards. She’s holding a stick and doing some kind of circus act with them while her father’s corpse is presumably in the corner of the room… you know, this is a really weird scene. Anyway, she evidently decides that she needs some air.
The very instant that Kate leaves, a growling tiger rushes for her. She runs back inside. The tiger paces in front of the door. She reaches for the pistol at her hip, but that won’t do. She instead takes an elephant gun from the wall and loads a cartridge. She shoots through the window, but I guess she was aiming at the lion? I don’t know, but the tiger doesn’t care and I guess she doesn’t have any more bullets. She opens the door and commands the leopards to attack… and they do. They kill the tiger (or rather, they roll around with a tiger puppet for a while) and Kate calls them back inside.
A year passes. Charles is back in the jungle, or maybe he never left, but at any rate he finds the sun-bleached skeleton of Wamba, and on that faithful lost messenger, he finds Kate’s cry for help. He rushes to the cabin but it’s not so much a rescue as Kate and her leopards seem to be perfectly fine. Back at the boat (there’s a boat evidently), someone named Tom writes to Charles that they’re ready to leave and he’d better come aboard. Charles writes back that he’s staying with his new wife.
The story is nutty and I love it. I expected that, but what I wasn’t expecting was how well shot the film is. It looks much, much better than it has any right to, with some creative framing, well-timed cuts, and appropriate reaction inserts. I think that the legitimately good cinematography coupled with the supremely kitschy storyline really elevates the film to something special. It’s different from The Last Man, which really only works on a so bad it’s good level. This is an unusual but entertaining mix of good-bad meets good-good.
My rating: I like it.
Bob (Harry Benham) is a college boy who’s “squandered [his] fortune”. He goes to his guardian (Riley Chamberlin) in search of fresh funds. Mr. Southwick is a businessman of some sort and it’s quite plain that he has little faith in his charge’s financial acumen. All the same, he makes Bob the offer that he’ll give him a position next week with a salary equal to whatever money he can make elsewhere this week.
Southwick’s stenographer, Betty (Mignon Anderson), is sweet on Bob and lets him in on a secret: although Mr. Southwick is the boss of the company, Mrs. Southwick (Ethel Stevens) is the boss of the money. She’s just come in to draw $500 for beauty treatments to recover her “youthful charm”.
Bob poses as Madame Blanche the Beauty Doctor and launches a targeted ad campaign (targeted at Mrs. Southwick, that is) promising to make any woman look younger than her daughter and claiming to be endorsed by all the crowned heads of Europe. When Mrs. Southwick arrives at Madame Blanche’s parlor, another client is ahead of her in line. She watches the ancient looking woman step behind the curtain. Out of view, Betty takes off the wig and old-age makeup. When Mrs. Southwick sees her again, she looks 40 years younger. Once it’s her turn, Mrs. Southwick readily consents to Madame Blanche’s fee.
Next week, Bob returns to the office and tells Mr. Southwick that he’s ready to take the job for $500 a week.
I first saw Madame Blanche, Beauty Doctor (1915) theatrically at a film festival, and although it was over a decade ago, I remember it being a very light 35mm print — light to the point that the image was so blown out that it was barely possible to discern what was going on. The Thanhouser video, though looking like a VHS transfer, is a great improvement quality-wise. This time around, I found the cinematography to be quite impressive for a 1915 short comedy. It effectively mixes medium shots with close-ups and makes good use of shallow focus for the inserts that draw the eye to the intended subject. I particularly liked how the waiting room scene was handled: Mrs. Southwick needs to be present, and the audience needs to see Betty colluding with Bob, but Mrs. Southwick shouldn’t see Betty until after the “treatment” is finished. To fulfill all three requirements without resorting to a stagey-looking aside, the scene is shot with Mrs. Southwick sitting in front of a mirror. She’s looking in a different direction, but from our angle, we see Betty and Bob.
As far as the actors go, I wasn’t feeling Harry Benham in the role of Madame Blanche. Benham can’t pull off being a woman, and further, he can’t pull off being young (if IMDb is to be believed, the guy was only 31, but it’s a hard 31). Mrs. Southwick would have to be blind to fall for the disguise. I also didn’t care for his constant mugging for the camera, especially when compared to the much more subdued performances turned in by the rest of the cast.
On the whole, though, I enjoyed the film and would recommend it.
My rating: I like it.
Available from Thanhouser
There’s an accident on the street and Helen Worth (Jane Morrow), a nurse, attends to the injured man. J. Robert Orr (Sidney Drew) was walking by at the time and stops to see what’s going on. Robert falls in love with Helen at first sight and can only look on stupefied as she leaves in the ambulance – which is unfortunate for Robert, as he neglected to get her name.
Back at his club, Robert suddenly realizes what to do. He feigns madness and his friends haul him to the hospital. It would be a workable plan, except Helen isn’t there – she’s out on a house call. There are other nurses, however, whose care threaten to actually drive Robert insane.
Sidney Drew and Lucille McVey were real life husband and wife. They married in 1914, shortly after the death of Gladys Rankin, Sidney Drew’s first wife. Rankin, under the name George Cameron, was a screen and stage writer. Rankin’s play Agnes was adapted into Vitagraph’s first big, feature-length drama, A Million Bid (1914). McVey – who used the stage name Jane Morrow, and later, Mrs. Sidney Drew – in addition to being an actress was also a scenarist. She wrote the majority of the “domestic comedies” that became the Drews’ trademark style. They are, for the most part, quite a bit more sedate than the action-packed slapstick films more associated with silent comedy today. They tend to focus on a single situation and are often comedy of manners.
Wanted:- A Nurse (1915) isn’t one of the Drews’ best. In most of their comedies, the leads are A) fairly recently married, and B) solidly middle class, but aspiring to greater financial and/or social heights. This picture strays from both halves of the formula. It doesn’t feel grounded in reality, which is my biggest complaint. In films like Auntie’s Portrait (1915), their characters are exaggerated, but are based on a type of person that actually exists. J. Robert Orr does not exist outside of the movies.
I do like the little touches that don’t really enter into the plot, but give the film some color – like the suggestion that the hospital superintendent is a drunk or that Robert could be a miser. Also, watch out for Ethel Lee, who you might remember as Auntie from the aforementioned Auntie’s Portrait (1915). Although uncredited, she plays the nurse who’s not taking any of Robert’s nonsense and seems to push him over the edge. Wanted:- A Nurse is a slight recommend, just for her.
My rating: Meh.
Available from Harpodeon
John Grant (Charles Gorman), a wealthy man, has just brought home a stack of bonds. He has a young daughter, Carmen (Carmen De Rue), who sees him put the bonds away and is instantly enthralled by their “pretty colors”. That night, she tiptoes downstairs and quietly removes them from the desk drawer. She and her friend, Georgie (Georgie Stone), use them to wallpaper their playhouse.
When John discovers the bonds are missing, he calls a detective (Ben Lewis) to investigate. The detective thinks it must be an inside job and so devises a ruse to trap the culprit: John will return home the next day with a new stack of bonds and will put them in the same desk drawer. The detective will sit out in the hall all night, waiting to catch the thief when he makes his move. All goes according to plan, until the detective gets a little too involved smoking his cigar and doesn’t notice Carmen make off with the bait.
Georgie comes over to play the next morning and Carmen gives him a few of the bonds. As he’s leaving, the detective spots him carrying the bonds and follows him home. He discovers that Georgie’s father is Jim Morley (Jack Hull), a convicted thief recently out of jail. Georgie shows his father the bonds and Jim doesn’t know what to do. He can’t return them – he’d be blamed for their theft and nobody would believe his denials.
After Jim goes to work, the detective approaches the house and gets Georgie to let him in. He tells Georgie that his father sent him for the bonds. Georgie at first believes him and hands them over, but after a while begins to think he’s made a mistake and runs to go tell his father what happened. Jim, realizing the police will be coming for him any second, takes Georgie and flees.
Meanwhile, Carmen shows her mother (Marguerite Marsh) the redecorating she and Georgie have been doing to their playhouse and it’s quickly discovered who actually took the bonds. John goes to the station to call off the search, but learns that a manhunt is out for Jim – who’s presumed armed and dangerous. He’ll have to stop the detective and his posse before a tragedy occurs.
I’ve read someone else’s review of this film and they focused on the cultural difference it captures between the society of 1915 and that of today – namely, that it would be taken for granted in 1915 that the poor man would be presumed guilty if he attempted to return the bonds. I don’t see it; I think he would be presumed guilty today, too. The intent of the film is unclear, in my opinion. Had it not been immediately revealed that Carmen took the bonds, it would have placed the audience in the same position as the detective: left to assume the ex-con’s guilt. When Mother discovers the bonds in the playhouse, it would then have had a much greater impact – revealing to the audience their own prejudice. If the picture was going for an anti-profiling message, it’s a huge missed opportunity. As it is, I’m not sure what the moral is.
That sounds highly critical and you might think I disliked the film, but you’d be wrong. I loved the cinematography. When Georgie first shows Jim the bonds, we see him in tight close-up. With each successive scene, the camera pulls further and further back. In the end, when Jim is on the lam and holed-up in a remote shack, the camera must be a quarter mile away, looking down on this tiny, fragile building lost in an empty expanse of barren ground. It really captures the growing hopelessness of the situation.
I would recommend it for that alone, but story is engaging enough, too – even if the underlying idea is difficult to suss out.
My rating: I like it.
I think I might do a series of reviews of silent films with gay themes, focusing on those not covered as much as the big three that everyone talks about – Different From the Others (1919), Michael (1924), and Sex in Chains (1928). This obscure Tom Mix short seems like a good starting place.
A lot of cowboy movies are homoerotic, but for what’s ostensibly a story about two men trying to woo the same woman, Roping a Bride (1915) is one of the gayest films I’ve ever seen.
The film opens with Tom (Tom Mix) and Dick (Sid Jordan) sitting together on the grass. Tom helps himself to a cigarette from Dick’s pocket, Dick remarks how over the years they’ve “naturally got to like everything jest about the same”, and they both have a good laugh at nothing in particular.
Next, we meet Vera (Goldie Colwell), the only eligible woman in Snake Hollow (population: twelve). She’s looking for a husband and the obvious choice is either Tom or Dick, but she simply can’t decide between the two. Possibly because they’re inseparable. The pair arrive for a date of sorts with Vera on her front porch and they stay all night and into the next morning, but it’s mostly just the two of them – Vera greets them both and they talk a little, but then she goes inside for an indeterminate amount of time (returning “much later”, the title says). When Vera says she has to get breakfast going (I read it as a more polite “get the hell off my porch”), the two ride off together, side-by-side, Dick’s white horse in step with Tom’s black horse.
With Vera still undecided, an arbiter is appointed to choose a husband for her: Bill Bush (or maybe his name is Sile Burton – the intertitle introducing him and the signature on his letter disagree – played by Roy Watson). His first suggestion is a duel between Tom and Dick, but they immediately reject that option. He’s all out of ideas until, sometime later, he stumbles upon Tom and Dick both tossing a lasso around pole and laughing at nothing in particular. He writes a letter to Vera outlining his plan: she’s to stand on the road, and 400 yards away, Tom and Dick will wait on horseback. When she hears a gunshot, she’s to start running while the two men race toward her as each tries to catch her with his lasso.
Tom and Dick begin practicing – together, of course. Vera watches them from a distance as they lasso a donkey and a calf, kiss them on the snout, and deliver lines like “You’re the cream of my wheat, the sugar of my rhubarb, and the light of my lantern! Let’s you an’ me get hitched!” She finds it quite amusing.
The day of the competition arrives and all goes according to plan. Tom beats Dick to Vera and tosses his rope around her. He dismounts and kneels before her, but unlike the practice donkey, Vera slaps him on the face and screams “I wouldn’t marry either one of you, unless I were a calf – or a donkey! I’m going to marry a human being!”
Tom and Dick sit by the side of a barn, looking sternly away, but slowly they turn to face each other and a smile creeps across their faces. Tom grabs Dick’s hand and says “I’m powerful glad WE didn’t marry her” (his emphasis). Dick lights Tom’s cigarette and the two laugh as the scene fades out.
I’m never entirely sure if I’m reading too much into a film and finding subtext where there is none, but I showed Roping a Bride to my mother without any context and the first thing she asked after it ended was if that was the silent Brokeback Mountain, so at least I’m not the only one to get that impression.
When I think of Selig, I think of intriguing if crudely made films, but Roping a Bride is very well put together. It’s well written, well paced, and there are no major gaps in the narrative. It’s nicely shot, and although it could have used some close-ups, good use is made of medium-close shots. Most of all, the actors really breathe life into their characters – with minor gestures from Tom and Dick suggesting much that isn’t explicitly said. I would heartily recommend it.
My rating: I like it.
Available from Harpodeon