You don’t have to hang around long with a group of silent comedy enthusiasts before at least a few of them will make sure you know of their vehement hatred of Larry Semon. I wonder how much of that is because of his adaption of The Wizard of Oz (1925). Oz is a film so terrible I don’t think even his defenders would pretend to like it, but unfortunately for Semon, it’s probably the work he’s most known for today.
Certainly, his work is formulaic. In my review of The Sawmill (1922), I gave a rundown of features common to pretty much every Larry Semon film — and the film I’ll be presently getting to, Bathing Beauties and Big Boobs, is no exception — but in his day, Semon was rather popular. I think the similarity of his films worked in his favor. You know exactly what you’re going to get, and if his shtick is the kind of thing you’re into, well, you know you won’t be disappointed no matter what title is playing.
I just acquired a new print of Bathing Beauties a few weeks ago that’s of infinitely better quality than any of my other ones. It shouldn’t matter — theoretically, a good film should be able to shine through a muddy picture — but of course, quality does matter. You, me, and everyone else is going to give a fairer shake to whichever print looks the prettiest. Going back to The Sawmill, I recall that I had to re-evaluate my opinion of it after screening an original Kodascope.
Larry Semon is at the beach and falls in love with Madge Kirby (I’m just going to call them that—they’re not characters enough to have names), but her father disapproves. Naturally, the only course of action is for Larry and his rotund friend Frank Alexander to stage a robbery which Larry can then foil and thus win over the old man. Unfortunately, there’s also of pair of actual robbers running about to be contended with. Cue the chase and the inexplicable tower that must be jumped from several times. The robbers caught and the swag retrieved, Larry goes to claim his girl only to see her and Frank hand-in-hand — “I owe everything to this stout young man,” her father says approvingly.
It’s… not bad? Yes, there’s the unfortunate scene where Larry confuses the maid for Madge — “Man, yo’ sho’ am a fast worker!” “You’re tanned up a bit too much for me!” — but that aside, I’ve seen much worse slapstick comedies. Yes, it ticks every box on the Larry Semon Checklist of Plot Points, and yes, the requisite tower comes out of nowhere, but still… it kind of works.
I think I’ve seen too many Larry Semon pictures. I’m developing Stockholm Syndrome.
My rating: I like it.
Kitty Manning (Gloria Swanson) is the wife of Jim (Lee Hill), master of the Cybar train station. Cybar is a nothing town nestled deep “amid the desolate southwestern plains” and Kitty, who had been used to big city life before marriage, is suffering from an extreme case of ennui. A theatre agent (Ward Caulfield) overhears her singing one day and, impressed by her vocal talent, offers to find her a job. Kitty is excited at the prospect and eager to talk it over with Jim, but Jim ignores her – his life is focused on his railroad/telegraph duties to the exclusion of everything else. That night, Jim finds a note on the table – Kitty has left him.
She meets with success and becomes a chorus girl in a small revue, but at least one person thinks she should aspire to greater heights. That would be Stephen Morton (Arthur Millett), the president of the Pacific Railroad. He’s friends with the director of a major theatre in San Francisco and wants to establish Kitty there, which, after some hesitation, she agrees to.
Kitty misses a connecting train on the way to San Francisco and is forced to spend some time at Hell’s Station – a place even more isolated than the station she escaped from. It’s also manned by a married couple, but the wife here suffers from none of Kitty’s listlessness and Kitty begins to envy their happiness together.
Meanwhile, Jim is relocated to a new station and leaves for Victorville. A violent storm destroys the Hell’s Canyon bridge, over which Jim’s train is bound. Kitty, ignorant that Jim is on board but knowing that the train is doomed if it isn’t warned in time, takes it upon herself to brave the storm and “certain death” danger of crossing the canyon to stop the train.
Gloria Swanson’s filmography is usually divided into two periods: her early work at Keystone, where she starred opposite Bobby Vernon in a series of one- and two-reel slapstick comedies; and her later work at Famous Players, after she became Cecil B. DeMille’s go-to dramatic leading lady. Almost forgotten is the year she spent at Triangle between those two epochs, even though it’s the pivotal part of Swanson’s career.
The Keystone shorts are inane in general and Swanson’s character in them is essentially undefined. The only identifying trait I can think of is recklessness, and that’s hardly unique in slapstick. She was upstaged by a dog more than once. (Seriously, Teddy the Dog was a bigger name than either Swanson or Vernon at the time.) The high melodrama of her Triangle pictures were a great change of pace and really allowed Swanson to test her mettle as an actress and make a name for herself in the process. Roles like Marcia Grey in Shifting Sands (1918) and Kitty Manning here in Station Content (1918) were what led to her becoming a favorite of DeMille and achieving super-stardom in the 1920s. It’s unfortunate that so little from this transitional period in Swanson’s oeuvre survives.
On that note, most seem to think Station Content is a lost film, too. They’re not entirely wrong – what survives is an abridged copy, not the film DeMille was so impressed by in 1918. We lose out on some of the more salacious subplots, like Stephen Morton being Jim’s boss and Kitty having an affair with him. It’s just sidelong glances and a vague suggestion of things unsaid now. What saddens me is that we don’t get to see more of the action set pieces; I’m very impressed by the camera work in those that do survive. Arthur Hoyt was primarily an actor. If you’ve read my other reviews, you might remember him as Henry Caron from Trumpet Island (1920). He only directed one film before Station Content and quit directing immediately after. I can’t imagine why. There’s something about the simple composition of his shots that’s perfectly effective at conveying the characters’ emotions. Particularly striking is the scene with Kitty standing on the tracks in front of the train as the rain beats down, her arms outstretched as if crucified, with the headlight from the train morphing into a halo over her head. It’s an image of contrition and the hope of redemption.
I’ll admit that I’m a sucker for sentimental melodrama, but I think I’d like Station Content even if I weren’t. I give a strong recommendation for it.
Side note: it’s usually the case that the entire cast and crew of all the films I watch are long dead, but I can’t say that of Station Content. The baby in the Hell’s Station sequence is Fay McKenzie, and at least as of my writing this, she’s still alive at the age of 95.
My rating: I like it.
Available from Harpodeon
I had heard of the Johnsons long before I saw any of their films. When much of the world was still relatively unexplored, this husband and wife pair traveled to the interior of Africa and to remote tropical islands photographing the natives and wildlife. A fair number of their later documentaries survive, but little remains of their early work. Around four minutes of miscellaneous clips thought to be taken from one of their first films, Among the Cannibal Isles of the South Pacific (1918), was all that was believed to survive of the footage that they shot during their exploration of the New Hebrides (present day Vanuatu).
A few years ago, I acquired a print of a silent documentary that was definitely about cannibals and was likely a complete copy of Among the Cannibal Isles of the South Pacific. The trouble was that it’s a 16mm safety print, made probably in 1930, and is in a severely advanced stage of decomposition. When I got it, the first dozen feet were a crumpled mess and so brittle that it would disintegrate if any attempt was made to flatten it. The rest could not be removed from the reel at all – the film base, as it broke down and shrank, became stuck to the emulsion of the film beneath it and the whole reel had essentially fused into a solid block of cellulose diacetate.
By any conventional measure, the film was unsalvageable, but I wasn’t ready to give up. I began soaking the film in naphtha to improve its flexibility. It stayed in its bath for two years before the film base was pliable enough to unwind without breaking. Then began the slow process of separating the film where it had become fused together. This was done manually, with the aid of a thin blade and a lot of patience. A year later and the film was off the reel, and so long as it stayed submerged in naphtha, it was in a stable enough state to be scanned. And scanned it was. Some sections look like you’re watching the film reflected on a shattered funhouse mirror, but not an inch was a total loss.
The film follows Osa and Martin Johnson as they travel through the “Cannibal Isles” (Melanesia is the preferred term nowadays) in search of Nagapate, the chief of the Big Numbers tribe (so the film calls the Big Nambas tribe). They say that two years before, on their previous expedition, they were taken captive by Nagapate’s headhunters and were only saved by the timely arrival of a British patrol boat. Along the way, they meet several other tribes, including pygmies (probably the Kiai) and one where the natives mold the heads of their babies into cone shapes (surely the Small Nambas). Eventually, they find Nagapate, who remembers their previous visit and greets them hospitably. The Big Numbers tribe begin a traditional dance – undoubtedly to frenzy themselves in preparation for a headhunt, the Johnsons say – and the filmmakers take that as their cue to leave. They’ve pre-arranged for the governor of the New Hebridies, Merton King, to meet them in his boat and he arrives right on time.
Robert Flaherty, the Johnsons are not. They’re adventurers in the classical sense, not ethnographers. As a documentary, Cannibal Isles is not overly concerned with the natives’ cultures or traditions and it doesn’t hide the fact that it’s all staged. The Johnsons are more interested in dragging natives (sometimes literally) in front of the camera and presenting them with some bit of Western culture to see how they’ll react to it. Much fun is made of the two men who try to eat a proffered cigarette.
Is it a good film? No, but it is an interesting one. Beneath the surface, there are some fascinating glimpses of Melanesian culture from a time when they actually were headhunters and did still practice ritual cannibalism. Based on that alone, I’m going to have to say…
My rating: I like it.
Available from Harpodeon