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The Cost of High Living (Vitagraph, 1916)

The Cost of High Living (Vitagraph, 1916)
Directed by William Wolbert
Starring William Duncan

Jack (William Duncan) is in college on an economics degree. He evidently isn’t studying too hard since he’s blown all his cash going out with his friends, singing college songs badly out of tune. He writes to his father for more. It’s the high cost of living, he says, but dear old dad knows it’s really the cost of high living.

Dad writes to Jack’s sister Grace (Corinne Griffith), who lives near the college, and tells her it’s high time Jack settled down. Introduce him to some girl, he says. Corinne calls up her friend Helen (Carmen Phillips) and invites Jack over. He ditches the instant he figures out what’s up to go party with his friends.

At the restaurant, after downing bottle after bottle of liquor, they get to singing. One of Jack’s friends, infuriated that Jack’s ruining their harmony, rips up the tablecloth and wraps it around Jack’s head. “Help — help!” he cries. The new cop on the beat hears the commotion and comes to investigate. Too inebriated to deal with the law, the gang scatters. Jack ducks into a swanky mansion. “Are you the new butler?”

He is now. The cop is still prowling around outside, precluding any escape for our unmusical drunkard. Jack’s not a very good butler, what with spilling the food tray, trampling on feet, and openly flirting with his employer’s attractive daughter. The cook (Anne Schaefer) is sweet on the new cop and invites him into the kitchen. A brief but spirited tussle ensues when he spots Jack. Grace, who’s come to visit her friend Helen — for, of course, Jack had to duck into Helen’s house — intervenes: Jack is there for some real-world experience in his study of kitchen economies. That’s pretty much the end, but it doesn’t seem like Jack will flee from Helen this time.

Another boozy Vitagraph short, but unlike Bingles Mends the Clock, it doesn’t try to mine comedy from child abuse. Jack singing off-key when in his cups is rather less off-putting. The humor certainly goes down easier.

Duncan had been a contract player at Selig and featured in quite a few western shorts before making the move to Vitagraph. The Cost of High Living comes from his somewhat awkward transitory period before A Fight for Millions established him as a serial superstar. In the long run, that really worked against him as the serial format shifted away from serious drama and more into kiddy fare in the late ‘20s and into the talkie era. It was character roles of diminishing prominence for Duncan from then on out.

It may be from an awkward period — it certainly isn’t the William Duncan you’re used to seeing and he’s not wholly suited to comedic acting — but The Cost of High Living is funny enough.

My rating: I like it.


Pioneer Trails has been available online for a couple weeks. The Blu-Ray and DVD are now available on Amazon. We’ll sell the DVD directly at some indefinite future date, but if you want a Blu-Ray, go ahead and get it from Amazon — we probably won’t ever sell it. The smallest number of Blu-Rays I can economically have made is 25, and like I was telling someone about the Juggernaut disc, I’ll probably still be working through those 25 for the next five years. Outside of collectors, DVD as a medium is dying fast and Blu-Ray never even lived. We don’t move much physical inventory anymore. DVD is a lot cheaper and I can get smaller quantifies, so we’ll probably only ever stock Pioneer Trails on that. We usually keep five discs on hand, although the recent J. Warren Kerrigan set sold better than was anticipated and I had to get another ten to keep pace with orders.

What’s the next video out? I don’t know — it will be an HD remaster of something. What’s on the horizon, though, is something I announced, like, five years ago, but then we switched to HD and my old source wasn’t good enough. It’s coming straight from 35mm now. On an entirely, entirely unrelated note, I pulled a magic lantern slide out of my collection. This one shows the construction of a building in Boston in 1914 and there’s nothing at all phantasic about it:

East Lynne (Fox, 1916)

East Lynne (Fox, 1916)
Directed by Bertram Bracken
Starring Theda Bara

Though a superstar in the 1910s, little of Theda Bara’s work survives today. What does survive is divided between her very early work and her very late work, after she had essentially become a self-parody, like so many iconic actors then and now. The celebrated films that she made in her prime are all gone. East Lynne (1916) is probably the nearest that we, as modern viewers, can get to Theda Bara at the peak of her career.

East Lynne is the only Theda Bara film known to survive that I don’t have a film print of, but I did pick up a video of it some little while ago from eBay or iOffer to some such place. It looks to be a bootleg of a MoMA screener. The transfer probably wasn’t all that good to begin with and my copy is several VHS generations removed from it, so you can imagine that the picture isn’t the greatest. The medium and close shots are okay, but the wides that comprise most of the film are so blurry that telling one character from another is a challenge. I watched it once or twice years ago, but I confess that, between the poor image and the byzantine plot, I couldn’t make heads or tails of what was going on.

The film is based on the Ellen Wood novel of the same name. I read it not too long ago. It’s trashy, make no mistake about it, but it was popular trash — it was one of the most widely read books of the Victorian era. Everyone read East Lynne, whether they’d admit to it or not. With the plot fresh in mind, I figured I could better tackle the film.

Speaking of the plot, I’m not going beyond a very rough summary here. There’s just too much of it to go into detail. Read my book summary if you’re interested; it goes into more depth. In brief, Lady Isabel marries Archibald Carlyle but comes to believe he’s unfaithful to her. She leaves him and is thought to have been killed in a train accident, but secretly Isabel assumed a new identity and is hired by Carlyle to be the governess of her own children.

Even knowing the plot — and it’s pretty clear that you’re expected to —the film is incredibly hard to follow. The major issue is pacing. East Lynne isn’t a long movie — five reels, something over an hour — but how it uses its runtime is just insane. It languidly ambles along then switches into high gear and powers through 500 pages of plot in ten minutes.

Levison, the man who instigates both the infidelity plot and the murder plot and whose capture is what resolves the entire story isn’t introduced until the third reel and really isn’t characterized at all, ever. The train wreck that Isabel is believed to have died in is literally the last scene of the fourth reel and it comes so abruptly that I laughed out loud. I don’t think Madame Vine, the governess alter ego Isabel assumes, even has five minutes of screentime — and that’s probably 75% of the book. It’s impossible to read what sort relationship exists between any of the characters. Barbara is just a cypher and Carlyle’s marriage to her comes out of nowhere. Her dislike of the children I assume is just meant to be taken for granted. Corny and Joyce seem to be rolled together, but it doesn’t matter since they don’t do anything. Afy has one line and then drops off the face of the earth. Levison’s undoing is pared down from what it is in the novel, which in itself could be fine, but again, the way the film handles it is just so abrupt and inexplicable that it plays like a farce. And speaking of farces…

How can I disguise myself so that even my husband and children won’t recognize me?

They’ll never know!

It’s just as ridiculous as that.

If this is Theda Bara at her best, then we can only hope that no prints of Cleopatra or Salome ever turn up — I’m sure the disappointment would crush us all.

My rating: I don’t like it.

The Dancer (American, 1916)

the-dancer-screenshot-1The Dancer (American, 1916)
Directed by Carl M. Leviness
Starring King Clark and Vivian Rich

Farmer boy Johnny Madden (King Clark) travels to the city and falls in love with Capella (Vivian Rich), a dancer at a musical review. The two are soon wed and rather happily so. Johnny’s mother, Mrs. Madden (Louise Lester), is heartbroken both at her beloved son flying the nest and that the wife he’s flown to is “a common actress” and not a respectable woman… like, say, Daisy Brown (Marguerite Nichols).

Daisy is their neighbor and Mrs. Madden has long considered her and her son’s engagement a forgone conclusion, despite Johnny making no bones about how little he cares for the vain and self-centered girl. Unbeknownst to Johnny, his mother begins putting the screws to Capella, pressuring her to leave her husband so that he’ll come back to the farm and Daisy. And eventually Capella relents: Johnny returns home one day to find his wife gone and a letter urging him to “go to the farm and your mother and forget”.

the-dancer-screenshot-2He does go back to the farm, but he doesn’t forget. Daisy abandons whatever hopes she still held for winning Johnny and Mrs. Madden, seeing what she’s done to her son, realizes that her actions were not, as she had believed, “for the best”. It comes to a head when Johnny discovers the letter Capella sent his mother, when she conceded defeat and agreed to leave. Mrs. Madden begs her son’s forgiveness and shows him Capella’s most recent letter, in which she says that she’s fallen ill and desperately wants to see Johnny.

“Out of the shadow”. Mother and son both rush to the hospital and Capella’s side. Her illness turns out to be pregnancy. Mrs. Madden kisses Capella as she holds her new grandchild.

The story, of course, is just a modern-day retelling of La Dame aux Camélias given a happy ending. There are shades of Sawdust and Salome as well, but then you wouldn’t be wrong in saying Sawdust itself is just a looser adaptation of Camélias.

the-dancer-screenshot-3Nearly all of the American films I’ve seen have been from the heyday of the company’s early years and I was interested to see how well they kept up with the rapid changes in the film industry. The Dancer is a late American production (quite late — the company would be out of business not a year after its release), but aside from a few interesting close shots here and there, you really wouldn’t know it. Their cinematographic style in 1916 seems not to have changed all that much from what it had been five or six years earlier. Not that I’m surprised; with the singular exception of Vitagraph, none of the pioneers lived to see the end of the 1910s. American wasn’t a pioneer, but it did get in the game early enough to calcify before the war and the dissolution of the Patents Trust completely upset how movies were made and distributed in the US. I brought up Sawdust and Salome earlier because, despite The Dancer coming out two years after that film, it feels more primitive in comparison.

That said, the film isn’t that bad for what it is. Unless you’ve somehow managed to avoid every single take on this story for the last 168 years, you can predict the exact course of the picture from frame one, but again, as adaptations go, it isn’t that bad.

My rating: Meh.


And now, a sneak preview of our upcoming video. We’ve released the title before, but this isn’t simply an HD remaster — it’s from a new print entirely different from the version in common circulation. That’s your hint.

Everett True Breaks into the Movies (ABC, 1916)

Everett True screenshot 1Everett True Breaks into the Movies (ABC, 1916)
Starring Robert Bolder
Directed by John E. Willis (probably)

Everett True Breaks into the Movies (1916)… I don’t know — the kids seem to like it. We released it on video years ago and the denizens of 4chan’s comics message board very occasionally rediscover it and suddenly daily traffic spike into the thousands. Personally, I don’t get it. It’s kind of just The Masquerader (1914) with a popular newspaper comic strip character shoe-horned in. And, while he looks reasonably similar (aside from the terrible bald cap), Robert Bolder’s acting doesn’t capture Everett True at all. But whatever interests young people in silent film can’t be all bad, and I’ve got a nice new print (“new” as in new to me, but it is relatively new at 40-some years old) to make a 2K transfer of.

Breaks into the Movies is (perhaps) the first installment in a series of short comedies based on the perennially favorite comic strip The Outbursts of Everett True. In the funny pages, Everett True is a short-tempered fat man who deals with rude and inconsiderate people by beating them up. That’s about it. Simple as that plotline is, the movie doesn’t care to follow it. Instead, Everett (Robert Bolder) reads a want-ad for film actors in his morning paper. He heads down to the studio, where he cuts in front of a poor Arbuckle impersonator and a slightly better Chaplin one, and declares to the studio boss that the job is his. He then inserts himself into some sort of domestic melodrama as the heroic lead, which ends in a love scene. An actress (Elizabeth Erwin) tattles on him to his wife (Paula Reinbold), Everett True screenshot 2who rushes to the studio on the warpath. After a chase that leaves the studio in a shambles, Everett is marched home, only to be followed by the director with a check for a million dollars — the best actor he’s ever had, the director says.

Very weird, incidentally, seeing Bolder in this. I’m more familiar with him as a dramatic actor at Vitagraph.

There’s remarkably little information available about this ostensible series or the studio that produced it. About all I can turn up is this: the American Bioscope Company was incorporated in Chicago in September of 1915, but it appears to have actually begun operations late in the previous year. It seems to evaporate after the departure of its president and general manager, John E. Willis, in June of 1919 — or at least it completely drops from the radar, with no new films announced after that. It doesn’t look like they made much headway into the movie business at all. Certainly, none of their films were widely released. They seemed to have bet heavily on Everett True and it doesn’t look like it paid off.

Everett True Breaks Into the Movies, originally titled How Everett True Broke Into the Movies, premiered at the Elite Theatre in Kalamazoo, Michigan on July 8th, 1916 (or possibly a week earlier — July 1st). There’s only one brief article I can find that mentions the event, and it claims that the film smashed all records by selling 4,800 tickets for the evening and matinee screenings. That’s quite impressive, considering the theatre sat 900.

Everett True screenshot 3ABC ran small text ads in nearly every issue of Motion Picture News and Moving Picture World in 1917, all pushing Everett True, which it describes vaguely as one or more single-reel short comedies. (They also want you to know that the studio is available for rent). But I can’t find any convincing evidence that the film played again until September, 1917 — over a year after the premier — odd for a film evidently in such wild demand.

In 1925, Acme Film seems to have acquired ABC’s Everett True movie(s). The single ad that I found says that it was a ten-part series of one-reelers — they were selling them off as states rights releases. However, Breaks/Broke Into the Movies is the only one that seems to have a title and is the only one that I can find evidence of. Maybe there were nine other Everett True films, but if so, they have vanished into the ether and left not a single trace of ever being exhibited.

If I were to describe this film, Everett True Breaks Into the Movies, in two words, those words would be cheap and slapdash. Everything about the production is cheap. It’s interesting when you pull the camera back to reveal the lights and the edges of the sets — to break the magic, so to speak — when you’re showing the films-within-the-film being shot, but it breaks a bit too much of the magic when those same sets and props are re-used in what you’re pretending are the real-life linking segments. Everett True doesn’t do many Everett True-like things. The nearest he comes to his comic strip persona is to bash a studio grip that gets in his way with an umbrella. Everett True screenshot 4Even then, the grip wasn’t doing anything that particularly warranted Everett’s wrath. What I’m saying is, the plot of this film has nothing at all to do with Everett True.

I wasn’t joking when I said it was popular with a certain contingent of comic fans online — it’s amazingly so for a film that doesn’t even have an IMDb page — but I think the fondness is due entirely to its relation to the Everett True comic strip character and has little to do with the film itself. I certainly can’t recommend it on its own merit.

My rating: I don’t like it.

Available from Harpodeon

Vingarne (Swedish Biograph, 1916)

Vingarne screenshotVingarne (Swedish Biograph, 1916)
Directed by Mauritz Stiller
Starring Lars Hanson and Egil Eide

Herman Bang was something of the Danish equivalent of Oscar Wilde; he wrote with a gay sensibility veiled just enough to avoid condemnation. The veil on his 1902 novel Mikaël is surely the sheerest. The story was twice adapted for the screen, the second, 1924 adaptation by Carl Theodore Dryer being better remembered today. The first was made in 1916 by Mauritz Stiller. It had been lost for many decades before a somewhat abridged print turned up in Norway, which might explain why it was forgotten. It also didn’t help that it’s honestly pretty bad.

In Stiller’s film, “Vingarne” (or “The Wings”) is a sculpture by Claude Zoret, an artist who’s generally styled “The Master” (Egil Eide). It’s a depiction of Icarus with his wings melting away, just before his fall back to earth. (Actually, it’s Zeus adducting Ganymede — Vingarne is a real sculpture by Carl Milles, you can see it at the National Museum in Stockholm). Icarus is modeled on a young man named Michael (Lars Hanson), who becomes a favorite of the Master.

The Master adopts Michael and they had been living together for four years when Princess Zamikow (Lili Bech) appears. Zamikow is well known for her extravagance, which is leading her ever closer to bankruptcy. She commissions a portrait from the Master, evidently hoping to seduce the wealthy artist, but on that mission she fails. She does, however, capture Michael’s attention, and through him, sees an alternate way to the Master’s pocketbook.

It’s the gossip of the town, but the Master himself remains oblivious. It isn’t until Michael sells The Wings to pay Zamikow’s debts that it really hits home. The Master visits Zamikow and begs her not to take Michael away from him. She replies, “you’re too old, Claude Zoret, to understand love…”

The Master falls ill. One night, he becomes delirious. He stumbles out of the house and to the base of The Wings, where, gazing up at Icarus, he grabs his heart and dies away. In his will, he’s left everything to Michael. Zamikow, with her pay day in sight, tries to make love to Michael, but — evidently in realization — he rejects her advances and leaves her.

In Carl Theodore Dryer’s 1924 adaptation (titled Michael), although the word “homosexual” is never actually used, it quite ably makes it clear what sort of relationship exists between the artist and his model. Stiller’s adaptation is a lot murkier. The summary may make it sound more pronounced than it is; watching the actual film, while there are hints, few are strong enough to notice if you weren’t looking for them. There’s very little affection shown between the leads, and Zoret’s adoption of Michael does not read as a stand-in for marriage, as it plainly does in Dryer’s version. Vingarne also excises the parallel Adelsskjold subplot. (In Micahel, Adelsskjold is a friend of Zoret. Adelsskjold’s wife cheats on him and eventually leaves him for Duke Monthieu. It’s the mirror that Zoret, and the audience, looks into to understand what’s happened between him and Michael.)

What’s most memorable about Vingarne is its bizarre framing story. The film doesn’t actually begin with the Master and Michael. It starts with Mauritz Stiller (playing himself) in search of inspiration for a new film. He sees a sculpture called “The Wings”, and from this, gets the idea for Vingarne. He writes the script, basing it on Herman Bang’s novel Mikaël, and then goes about casting the characters. Nils Asther (himself) applies for the role of Michael, but is passed over in favor of Lars Hanson (himself).

When the film is finished, Asther attends the premiere. And then the title card appears, after an entire reel’s worth of this very weird cold open.

We reach “The End” and the picture fades out… then right back up again, returning to the theatre at the film’s premiere. Asther wonders aloud how anyone could abandon Lili Bech. He goes to see her at her real-life home and declares that the reason he didn’t get the job of Michael is clearly because he can’t live without her. Egil Eide (as himself) appears and chides him for his youthful foolishness. And as if this framing story wasn’t meta enough, it then goes another level deeper with Eide addressing the viewer with the words “thank God this film is over at last”. Blackout.

It’s played quite comic and jarringly contrasts with the serious tone of the main story. It seems primarily to exist as an assurance to the audience that Vingarne is a work of fiction and does not reflect the real lives of its actors. 1916 was not 1924, and Sweden was not Germany. Sweden’s censors were quite strict in those days, and it makes sense to read the framing story as a very elaborate “no homo”.

My rating: …you know, it’s not a good film taken on its own, and it’s vastly inferior when compared to Michael, but the presentation is just so bizarre, it’s something you have to witness. Meh.

The Ocean Waif (International, 1916)

The Ocean Waif adThe Ocean Waif (International, 1916)
Directed by Alice Guy-Blaché
Starring Carlyle Blackwell and Doris Kenyon

An orphan girl (Doris Kenyon) is taken in by a brutish fisherman (William Morris), who abuses her continually. She runs away and makes a residence in the attic of an abandoned mansion. Meanwhile, a writer (Carlyle Blackwell) is searching for inspiration. He rents the mansion and intends to stay there while writing his ghost story. For a period, it seems that the house actually is haunted, but the identity of the ghost is eventually discovered.

The writer and girl are quite happy together, until the writer’s fiancée shows up (Lyn Donelson). The girl leaves the mansion and returns to her foster father – who receives her with overtly sexual intentions. Her foster brother/sort-of-boyfriend (Fraunie Fraunholz) sees the struggle and shoots his father dead.

The writer is accused of the murder. I think the brother intends for the writer to take the rap so that he can marry the girl himself, I’m not sure, but eventually he confesses to the crime. The writer is released and the brother kills himself. The writer’s prior engagement is broken and he marries the girl.


There are obvious jumps in the narrative where several scenes must be missing. What’s on video is around three reels’ worth of footage, which means two reels are lost. It seems unfair to criticize the editing and flow of the narrative, then. However, even in sequences that appear to be intact, the film is very poorly assembled and there seems to be an almost complete disregard for continuity.

Tonally, the film is all over the place. The drama, the romance, the comedy, and the horror all uncomfortably jostle each other for attention.

Carlyle Blackwell is an awful actor. How he was ever a major name or how he came to star in this picture, I will never know. Especially how he came to star in this picture. Blackwell’s acting is the sort that’s parodied nowadays when people reference silent film – comically animated and over-the-top, no matter the seriousness of the scene. In Guy’s studio, a massive banner spread from wall to wall behind the camera that read “BE NATURAL”. She was a big proponent of using understated, naturalistic acting on screen. Big performances made sense on stage, since you had to make yourself seen even to the back row of the audience, but on screen, the no one is sitting any further away than the camera.

The Ocean Waif (1916) is Guy’s only surviving feature-length film and it’s of interest because of that, but purely on its own merits, I can’t recommend watching it.

My rating: I don’t like it.

Available from Kino

Pearl of the Army: The Silent Enemy Unmasked! (Astra Film, 1916)

Pearl of the Army posterPearl of the Army (Astra Film, 1916)
Episode 10: The Silent Enemy Unmasked!
Directed by Edward José
Starring Pearl White, Ralph Kellard, and Marie Wayne

I don’t normally watch individual episodes of a serial separate from the serial as a whole, but as Pearl of the Army (1916) is largely lost, I don’t have much choice in the matter. Being as this is episode ten of fifteen, a great deal has already happened that the audience is presumed to be familiar with, but as I’m not, my plot summary will be a bit disjointed and full of guesswork.

Before that, though, a note about the print I watched. Title-less negatives for the whole serial survived intact until they were lost in a vault fire in the 1960s. Prints of five or so of the thirty reels are known to still exist, mostly coming from the film cache discovered in Dawson City back in the 1970s, comprising parts of episodes one, six, and fourteen. My print of episode ten isn’t unique, but no one seems to know much about it. It was struck in 1940, according to the edge code, and the titles are obvious replacements. That leads me to strongly suspect it was sourced from the negative when it was still extant.

We join the story in progress. There are three plots running more or less concurrently in this episode, aside from the general overarching plot of the serial, that being the hunt for the Silent Menace, a mysterious German operative working to sabotage the U.S. war effort (Pearl of the Army is a World War I propaganda series, if you were unable to guess).

The first plotline follows Pearl Date (Pearl White) and Captain Ralph Payne (Ralph Kellard – my print calls him Adams, but I’m reasonably sure this is an error), who, I assume after a cliffhanger in episode nine, find themselves captives of the Silent Menace and his gang at the start of this episode. Ralph appears to be something of an analogue to Harry Marvin in The Perils of Pauline (1914) – in love with Pearl and wanting to marry her, but she’ll have none of it until she’s had her fill of adventure.

The second plotline follows the Lieutenant in an Arm Sling (I think he’s played by Floyd Buckley, but I don’t know the character’s name), who is under suspicion of “duplicity in the matter of the secret Canal Defense Plans” and is about to be court martialed. I give him the name Arm Sling because his left arm is in one. Arm Sling is also in love with Pearl, but is much less involved in her adventures.

The third and least developed plotline follows a woman who I can only assume to be Bertha Bonn (Marie Wayne). She is an agent for the Army (I guess) and has been tasked with keeping tabs on the Menace’s movements (I guess). She’s in love with Arm Sling? Maybe? Or perhaps he’s her brother? In any event, there’s some strong connection between them.

Much of the film, as you might expect, is devoted to finding and unmasking the Silent Menace, which falls entirely to Pearl. Seriously, you’d think the army couldn’t care less about apprehending him going by how much legwork she puts in compared to their actions. Unlike White’s characters in Perils or Exploits, Pearl here isn’t thrown into much danger that she didn’t actively seek out herself. She takes multiple punches to the face and is knocked several stories down a fire escape, but after all that, she still manages to tackle the fleeing suspect and throw him to his death over the side of a tall building.

There is a mystery involved in the Menace’s identity and how the ancillary characters are connected, but from this single, late episode, it all comes across as very confusing. There’s a flashback to a train wreck that may have occurred in an earlier episode, where a bearded-man plants a document on the body of one of the victims, and this apparently implicates Arm Sling so strongly in something that he kills himself to avoid being questioned. Ralph was apparently undercover at some point? Maybe that’s how he came to be captured by the Menace at the end of episode nine? A ghost of a woman appears to Pearl when she’s trying to puzzle out the identity of the Menace and seems to beckon to her – who she is and what that’s all about, I have no idea. A man in the hospital tries to confess to crimes he committed as part of the Menace’s gang, but they’re so incredible, he’s dismissed as being delirious. Before he names who his boss is, two shifty-eyed orderlies give him something “to steady his nerves” and he says no more.

I will say, confusing as it could be, The Silent Enemy Unmasked! certainly held my attention. The cinematography is much improved from White’s earlier serials. I particularly liked the train wreck flashback, which is entirely black and we only see brief snatches of action when the scene is lit up by lightning. Pearl wracking her brain to identify the Menace was handled in an effective, if surreal, way, with him appearing as a phantom that turns into a shadow that turns into a giant question mark.

I would definitely recommend Pearl of the Army and I’d love to see more of it myself.

My rating: I like it.

The Captive God (Kay-Bee, 1916)

The Captive God PosterThe Captive God (Kay-Bee, 1916)
Directed by Charles Swickard
Starring William S. Hart

I thought I should dig through the collection for a Mayan-themed film to watch, what with the Mayan apocalypse approaching and all. I only turned up one: The Captive God (1916).

In pre-conquest Mexico, a young Spanish child is the only survivor of a shipwreck and is found washed ashore by the Maya. They call him Chiapa (or Tonga in my print, in some other prints he’s called Chiapato – William S. Hart) and regard him almost as a god.

The Aztecs are at war with the Maya. During a raid, the commander of the Aztec army (P. Dempsey Tabler) captures several Mayas, presumably for sacrifice. Chiapa follows them back to their capital, but is spotted and shot by an Aztec archer.

Meanwhile, the victorious commander, Mexitli (or Matho), has an audience with Montezuma (Robert McKim). Montezuma, greatly pleased with the results of the raid, says that whatever Mexitli wants will be immediately given to him. Mexitli asks for the hand of Montezuma’s daughter, Princess Lolomi (or Tacki – Enid Markey), in marriage.

Lolomi “would rather die than marry that man”, she says, as she storms off into the palace garden. There, she discovers the wounded Chiapa. Lolomi takes pity on him and hides him in an out of the way house. Mexitli follows Ohanita, Lolomi’s maid, as she’s bringing food and discovers Lolomi and Chiapa together. In a jealous rage, he rushes in and would kill Chiapa, but to spare him – at least, temporarily – Lolomi reveals that he’s a captive Maya and, as such, his fate lies solely in the hands of Montezuma.

Chiapa is taken before Montezuma and is, unsurprising, sentenced to be sacrificed. To add insult to injury, he’s to be sacrificed at Lolomi and Mexitli’s wedding. Lolomi bribes the prison guard to see him one last time shortly before his execution. Chiapa takes the cross from around his neck (…that he was evidently found wearing after the shipwreck) and tells her that, if it could somehow be got back to the Maya, they would know the Aztecs held him captive. Lolomi gives it to Cassio, Ohanita’s husband, who rushes away with it.

Now is the point you should stop reading if you don’t want the ending spoiled, but given how difficult it is to obtain copies of this film, I’ll finish the story:

Chiapa is led up the pyramid and stretched across the altar. Just as the priest lifts the dagger in the air, a horde of Maya warriors come streaming over the hillside and generally bust up the ceremony. In the confusion, Chiapa grabs the dagger from the priest and runs down the pyramid and into the palace. He finds Lolomi, cowering from Mexitli, and “the two rivals” duke it out. After a brief but spirited struggle, Chiapa succeeds in flinging Mexitli from the window to his death. He sweeps Lolomi up off her feet and goes to join the Maya invaders, who receive him jubilantly. The film ends with the Maya marching away in triumph “to give praise to their sacred gods, guarded in their granite temples”.


Hart didn’t mince words when it came to this picture. He thought it was by far the worst film he’d ever appeared in. And it does show in his performance. Hart was never one to emote – indeed, his whole gimmick was his unchanging, ambiguous expression that at once could be read as tender or as threatening depending on the context of the scene – but it’s evident how much he despises the role and how little effort he’s putting into it. Markey and Tabler give it their all, but while I wouldn’t go as far as Hart, I will agree that there isn’t much depth to any of the characters and even the enthusiastic actors had their work cut out for them.

The costumes are great and even look vaguely authentic. Chiapa has a recognizably jaguar warrior look going for him. Montezuma’s dress is clearly modeled on how he was depicted in the Codex Mendoza. I can’t say much for the rank-and-file, who mostly just wore short shorts and little else, but all in all, I was impressed.

The sets are decent, but suffer from their small scale. The pyramid, for example, exists only as a section of steps and as the altar at the top. You never see a shot of the whole thing at once. All of the palace scenes appear to be filmed in different corners of the same room, and the garden is literally just a wall with a few plants in front of it. Still, by Kay-Bee standards, they’re well-dressed and suit the story.

I’m going to disagree with Hart in my assessment. The Captive God is far from a masterpiece and is a bit frustrating because you get the feeling that, with a little more time spent fleshing out the story, and with a little more money and effort put into the production, it could have been a very good film. But even as it is, I still enjoyed it and would recommend seeing it. It’s something different from Hart’s usual fare.

My rating: I like it.

Heaven Will Protect a Woiking Goil (Vogue, 1916)

Heaven Will Protect a Woiking Goil (Vogue, 1916)
Directed by John Francis Dillon
Starring Priscilla Dean and Russ Powell

And the Villian Still Pursues Her Postcard

I cannot begin to describe how much I love this film, and given that I’m not usually much of a fan of short comedies, that must mean something.

Moviegoers of 1916 saw themselves as a quite sophisticated bunch well beyond the old “flickers” that once graced the screen only a few years before. Heaven Will Protect a Woiking Goil is a parody of those early film (and stage) melodramas. It’s hardly original – Goodness Gracious; or, Movies as They Shouldn’t Be (1914) covered much the same ground two years earlier – but whereas Goodness Gracious often veers a little far into the wacky for my taste, Woiking Goil is played mostly straight. Mostly.

The plot is cobbled together from elements and situations lifted from countless potboiler melodramas: Nell, a simple, good-hearted country girl (Priscilla Dean), travels alone to the heartless big city to find her drunken father and bring him back home to her poor, downtrodden mother. Meanwhile, the lecherous manager of a clothing store (Arthur Moon) fires a sales girl (Louise Owen) when she refuses his demand “Kiss me, proud beauty!” Needing a new clerk, he spots Nell and offers her the position… and his attentions. When Nell flees from his embrace, he and a crooked cop (Paddy McQuire) give chase and eventually catch her and her flamboyantly gay boyfriend (Russ Powell) and tie them to the railroad tracks as a train speedily approaches. As luck should have it, the drunken hobo loitering nearby is none other than Nell’s drunken father and he rescues the couple with less than a second to spare.

And that’s only the main plot – I’ve said nothing about the miserly landlord and the suicidal tenant, or the railroad officer and would-be train hopper, or the plight of street beggars. In the span of twelve minutes, this short manages to cram in every single cliché imaginable.

I’m not sure how well the film would play to someone less familiar with the tropes it’s spoofing or with the contemporary memes it constantly alludes to (I was crying from laughter when “And the villains still pursued her.” pops up), but I adore Heaven Will Protect a Woiking Goil and would heartily recommend it to anyone the least bit interested in silent parodies.

My rating: I like it.

Available from Harpodeon