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Tough Luck and Tin Lizzies (Vitagraph, 1917)

Tough Luck and Tin Lizzies (Vitagraph, 1917)
Directed by Larry Semon
Starring Larry Semon

After at least reluctantly approving of the last couple of Larry Semon films I wrote about and worrying that I might be brain damaged for doing so, it feels good to be back to a Larry Semon film that’s unequivocally garbage.

Pietro Aramondo is out driving with his girlfriend Florence Curtis when his car breaks down. Larry Semon is… I don’t know who Larry Semon is, but he’s in the road and is hit by another motorist and thrown up into the air. He lands next to Florence and drives off with her, running over Pietro several times in the process. Pietro alerts the Big V Riot Squad who are an absolutely original creation and are in no way a knock-off of the Keystone Cops. And they are totally indoors and there is no shadow of a tree blowing in the wind on the back wall. Three squad cars are sent out in pursuit, which is a great way to pad out the runtime since now the film can repeat every gag three times. I suppose there’s more, but it doesn’t matter — I’m done. There’s no plot, there are no characters, the gags were terrible the first time around and don’t improve with repetition. Literally the only interesting thing about this short is how flagrantly it pilfers from Keystone.

There’s obviously four or five minutes of material missing. It begins in media res and doesn’t end so much as it just stops. The footage is missing in the pre-print, though. There’s only one physical splice in the print and it’s just to mend a film break — no more than a frame or two is missing around it. The splices joining the title and end cards are on the negative. I also suspect this is from a reissue with new titles added. They make a Flying Finn joke and I somehow don’t think Paavo Nurmi would have been a household name in America before his 1920 Olympics win.

I misspoke before, this isn’t a Kodascope, but it is a very similar amber-tinted show-at-home released in 1924. Sharp focus, dense image, obviously a print-down struck directly from the camera negative — it looks great. It’s a shame the film is so awful, but it does look beautiful.

My rating: I don’t like it.


Available from Harpodeon

Somebody Lied (Victor, 1917)

Somebody Lied screenshot 1Somebody Lied (Victor, 1917)
Directed by Ben Wilson
Starring Priscilla Dean and Harry Carter

It’s been a while but I’ll break my four month hiatus with a review of a Priscilla Dean two reel comedy-drama I recently saw. If I’m not mistaken, the last time I spoke of Dean was way back in 2012 with the slapstick parody Heaven Will Protect a Woiking Goil (1916).

No longer with Vogue, Dean is now headlining a Victor film. The Victor Film Company was founded by the Biograph Girl herself, Florence Lawrence, as a subsidiary of IMP. I’ve already covered IMP and the establishment of the star system in my review of As a Boy Dreams (1911), so I’ll leave it at that. I should say, Somebody Lied (1917) was only nominally produced by Victor. For all intents and purposes, Victor ceased to exist in 1913 when the studio was absorbed by Universal, but the branding continued to be used for several years after that, in much the same way that Warner Bros. continued releasing “Vitagraph” films in the late ’20s.

Dolly (Priscilla Dean) has been married to Willie (Harry Carter) for just a month, and in her newlywed eyes, her husband is still a “flawless, blue-white diamond, sparkling in a setting of twenty-two carat gold”. When she Somebody Lied screenshot 2looks at him, she literally sees a halo ‘round his head. Her friend Evelyn (Virginia Lee) invites them to a costume party, but there are four things Willie never does: in his words, “I never smoke, I never drink, I never dance, and I never attend mask balls!” He’s not opposed to Dolly going, though. He’ll be content spending a quiet evening at home with his books.

At the ball, Dolly as Marie Antoinette meets a Pierrot (Earle Page). There’s a bit of flirting, it must be confessed, but it’s innocent enough and Dolly flees home the moment the clown gets too fresh. She tiptoes to bed so as not to disturb Willie in his study.

She needn’t have bothered; her angel isn’t at home. Willie is “where no saint ever comes — and wouldn’t be admitted if he did”. Namely, he’s at an underground casino, smoking and boozing it up. The night still young, the deserted Pierrot drops in to partake in a few spins of the roulette wheel. Unfortunately for both, the police also have a mind to visit. Willie and the clown barricade themselves in the back room. “She thinks I’m an angel,” Willie moans. If he’s arrested, his “wife will lose all faith” in him. The police didn’t see Pierrot, so he offers Willie his costume and shoves him through the trapdoor to the roof.

Somebody Lied screenshot 3After a daring escape, Willie makes it home. As she sees the clown enter her bedroom, Dolly recoils: “Please go — I was wrong to flirt with you at the ball!” She’s not long in suspense. Willie at once whips off the mask and demands to know who she’s been flirting with. He’s so angry that it isn’t until the roulette chips fly out of his pockets and spill on the ground that he remembers his own transgression. Silenced, he slumps on the bed. “Then you’re not a perfect angel, are you?” “No, not perfect, but…” Willie needn’t say more. Dolly reaches over and pulls him in for a kiss.

I liked this film quite a bit. Dramedies can be hard to get right, but Somebody Lied rode the line well. The humor here, at least, always seemed intentional and didn’t feel incongruous to the otherwise straight drama. To Ben Wilson’s credit, more celebrated directors than him have failed at that. Frank Borzage’s The Circle (1925), in my opinion, is a particularly bad example of a film that lurches from serious to comic without doing justice to either.

My rating: I like it.


Available Harpodeon

The Gun Fighter (Triangle, 1917)

The Gun Fighter posterThe Gun Fighter (Triangle, 1917)
Directed by and starring William S. Hart

Bad guy turns good guy to save innocent woman. Boiled down, that’s the plot of The Gun Fighter (1917) and of 90% of William S. Hart’s filmography. He played the part well, his films remained popular, and with few exceptions, neither he nor the studio (Triangle-Kay Bee, in this case) saw the need to deviate from the formula.

Cliff Hudspeth (William S. Hart) is an outlaw in the goldfields of Arizona. A rival band, lead by a bandito known as El Salvator (Roy Laidlaw), tells him that he’s claimed the town of Desert Pass and that his band had better clear out. As a reply, Cliff kills one of El Salvator’s tough-talking men. The town milliner, Norma Wright (Margery Wilson), witnesses the murder and is disgusted by it.

The town is being ravaged by El Salvator, and Colonel Ellis Lawton (J.P. Lockney) knows that, outlaw or not, Cliff is the only man who can take him on. Cliff agrees to lead an attack, but the plans are overheard and El Salvator strikes first. Norma is kidnapped during the raid. Cliff promises her little brother Jimmy (Georgie Stone) that he’ll rescue his sister.

Cliff peers through the hideout window and sees Norma being menaced by El Salvator. Cleverly, he shoots out the exterior light so that he’s invisible from inside, then aims and takes out El Salvator. Norma escapes. Cliff, who had been injured during the raid, watches her ride off across the desert before collapsing.

 

Child actor Georgie Stone, a couple years older since his performance in The Doll-House Mystery (1915), turns in a more nuanced performance as Jimmy. J.J. Dowling’s active Ace High character here is quite a departure from the serene Patriarch in The Miracle Man (1919). William S. Hart is, as ever, William S. Hart – stonefaced and showing little emotion, very serious – entirely the opposite of his rival Tom Mix over at Selig studio (and later Fox). The only performance that really didn’t work was Roy Laidlaw’s El Salvator. The character is much too absurd to take seriously. He would feel more at home in a Speedy Gonzales cartoon.

Hart films did occasionally show a little variation (recall The Captive God (1916)), but the plot here is your standard good-bad-man. It’s a decent example. The Gun Fighter was written by the rather prolific scenarist Monte M. Katterjohn, and Hart, who also directed the film, had this style of story down to a science.

I wouldn’t suggest watching too many Hart films at a go – they kind of all blend together – but The Gun Fighter is well made and entertaining enough to recommend.

My rating: I like it.


Available from Harpodeon

The Missing Millionaire (Triangle, 1917)

The Matrimaniac slideThe Missing Millionaire (Triangle, 1917)
Directed by Paul Powell
Starring Douglas Fairbanks

Having acted on the stage for over a decade, Douglas Fairbanks broke into pictures by joining the Triangle Film Corporation in 1915. Audiences immediately took to his handsome looks and lively acting. As a rising star, he quickly outgrew Triangle and left for greener pastures in 1916. Not wanting to lose out on the profits that a film headlined by Fairbanks would bring in, Triangle took one of the last movies he made while he was still under their employ – the 1916 five-reeler The Matrimaniac – and used it along with some outtakes to assemble a new two-reeler that they released under the guise of a completely new Fairbanks picture in 1917: The Missing Millionaire.

If you’ve seen The Matrimaniac, you’ll surely recognize the footage, but not the story, as The Missing Millionaire follows an entirely different plot.

It starts with quite a cold opening – an old man in a bathtub, a couple of people standing around looking suspicious, Douglas Fairbanks slashing somebody’s tires – and it’s actually about five minutes in before we’re given the slightest clue what’s going on, but it turns out that the story isn’t too complex. Jonas Byng (Fred Warren), a seller of patent medicines and a hypochondriac himself, has just inherited a million dollars. His cousin Zeke (Clyde E. Hopkins) is eager to get his hands on the money, which he plans on doing by having Joe declared insane and naming himself the executor of his estate. Jim Lawton (Douglas Fairbanks), a shoe-salesman, is in love with Joe’s daughter Mildred (Constance Talmadge) and very much wants to prevent Zeke from robbing her and her father of their fortune. The bulk of the film (and by bulk, I mean all) is a race to the judge, with Jim and Joe on the one side and Zeke and Mildred (who he’s taken hostage, I guess) on the other.

Fairbanks gives an acrobatic performance as Jim – scaling walls, running on rooftops, tightrope-walking on telephone lines, clinging to the underside of a moving train – and Warren plays the doddering, absent-minded old man convincingly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, the characters’ actions made a great deal more sense in The Matrimaniac. Even as simple as they’ve tried to keep the plot, the movie still feels like it’s about to come apart at the seams any minute. It’s an obvious cut-and-paste job that only barely stays coherent.

The film ends with an abrupt twist that I’ll admit was unexpected, but it’s the sort of twist that the film treats as a resolution, but when you stop to think about the situation even for a moment, you realize it doesn’t resolve anything at all. At the conclusion of the film, pretty much all of the main characters, with the exception of maybe Mildred, should be in prison given all the laws they’ve broken up to that point.

It has the elements of a good film (and I mean that literally), but The Missing Millionaire isn’t a good film itself. I don’t recommend it, apart from as an oddity owing to its curious creation.

Incidentally, The Missing Millionaire wasn’t the only re-edit of The Matrimaniac: the one-reeler A Telephone Marriage (1926) was also edited from it. All three films survive. It’s interesting watching them back to back to see all the different takes on the same footage.

My rating: I don’t like it.

The Woman in White (Thanhouser, 1917)

Ad slide for The Woman in WhiteThe Woman in White (Thanhouser, 1917)
Directed by Ernest C. Warde
Starring Florence La Badie

Laura (Florence La Badie), an orphan, lives with her half-sister Marian (Gertrude Dallas) at the estate of their uncle, Frederic Fairlie (J.H. Gilmour). Laura has been taking painting lessons and has fallen in love with her instructor (Wayne Arey), but before her father’s death, he made it known that he wished her to marry Sir Percival Glyde (Richard R. Neill) once she came of age. Laura tries to break the engagement, but Sir Percival is insistent. Meanwhile, a woman has escaped from a nearby insane asylum and finds her way to the Fairlie estate. This unnamed “woman in white” appears on a few occasions to cryptically warn Laura that Sir Percival is not who he seems to be.

I’ll say right now that I adored The Woman in White (1917). The story was intriguing, the characters well developed, the mystery unraveled in a believable way and at a good pace, and above all, the film was superbly shot. The use of harsh light and shadow give it a very proto-Noir feel that makes it seem a great deal more recent than you’d expect of a film from 1917.

I struggle to find anything critical to say. There is one title near the beginning that says a little too much regarding the mystery that surrounds Sir Percival, but not enough to spoil it. What is finally revealed in the final sequence is surprising and unexpected, but it doesn’t come out of the blue as it does in some poorly written works – it flows very naturally from the build-up and fits like the last piece of a puzzle. I’ve never read the novel the film is based on, but in that regard, the film felt to me like a Mary Roberts Rinehart Had-I-But-Known mystery. If you enjoy that style of storytelling, you will undoubtedly like The Woman in White.

My rating: I like it.

Available from Thanhouser