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Spying the Spy (Ebony, 1918)

Spying the Spy (Ebony, 1918)
Directed by R.W. Phillips (or R.G., he went by both)
Starring Samuel Jacks

America is embroiled in war and there are German secret agents everywhere. “I must catch some spies,” Sambo Sam (Samuel Jacks) tells himself. “My country demands it of me.” Sam models himself as a sort of Sherlock Holmes, complete with a calabash pipe, and what he lacks in competence, he makes up for in enthusiasm.

On the street, he at once picks up some clues: a German language newspaper, a link of sausage, and the name Schwartz on a mailbox. This can only be one of the Kaiser’s agents. He enters the apartment building and waits outside Schwartz’s door, imagining what nefarious deeds the spy must be up to inside. As soon as the door opens, he claps a laundry bag over the man’s head and marches him to police headquarters. But Schwartz, it turns out, isn’t a German spy but “a respectable colored gentleman”.

Undeterred, Sam sets out to round up more spies. He spots a group of men carrying a cannon into a building. “I’ll get that gang,” he cries to his friends William and Molly before rushing home for his detective gear. The gang is actually William’s fraternity. He goes in to warn them of Sam and they’re ready for him when he walks through the clubhouse door.

Sam is surrounded by black-hooded men with skull and crossbones on their chests. A trapdoor is opened and a slide wheeled into place. Down the slide Sam goes, to a subterranean torture chamber. Another hooded figure lifts an axe ready to lop off Sam’s head, but just then, a knocking sound is heard and everyone freezes. It’s really a workman installing carpet upstairs, but the gang pretends it’s their god calling for them: “Brothers, the master is knocking for us, we will now make our departure from here.” Each man lifts a gun to his head and pulls the trigger before collapsing to the floor. “Good night!” Sam exclaims, running out the door. The gang gets up and pulls off their hoods, laughing uproariously at the prank they’ve just pulled.

Ebony Films was a short-lived Chicago-based studio that made “race films”. It was unusual at the time for white and black actors to appear on screen together. Not unheard of — Larry Semon and Spencer Bell worked alongside one another many times, for example — but certainly unusual. Black people might appear as background extras, but if a white character needed to interact with a black character, the black character was more often than not a white actor in blackface. Race films essentially inverted this arrangement, giving black actors most or all of the principal parts, and were targeted at largely black audiences.

Race films existed from the beginning of cinema. I have in my nitrate collection a race remake of the The May Irwin Kiss likely released sometime around 1899. Some race films were similarly “inspired” by existing movies — the plot of Ebony’s own Mercy, the Mummy Mumbled (1918) is lifted wholesale from Vitagraph’s The Egyptian Mummy (1914) — but there were original films, too.

Older books sometimes refer to Spying the Spy (1918) as a spoof of The Birth of a Nation (1915), and while that’s not true in the slightest, I can see where they got the idea. I’m not aware of Spying the Spy ever being released on video and prints are rare. Most commentators are just going off a handful of stills, which, out of context, do actually make the fraternity look like a parody of the Klan.

The stated goal of Ebony Films was to break from the old and offensive stereotypes then common to the stage and screen and present “real negro comedies with real negro players.” Their output — at least, what survives of it — isn’t exactly a model of progressiveness, but there is something to be said in their favor. Sambo Sam doesn’t speak in dialect nor do the other black characters. I won’t say Spying the Spy doesn’t play on any stereotypes (I mean, the main character’s name is Sambo Sam), but the film isn’t a minstrel show. The antics that Sam gets into are standard slapstick fair that would work just as well if he were white without changing anything.

I could see being disappointed by Spying the Spy. It’s not Oscar Micheaux; Spying the Spy doesn’t have a message and isn’t trying to say anything about race relations. It’s a broad, low-brow, slapstick comedy. Taken for what it is, it’s not a bad film. Jacks does a good job portraying the bungling amateur detective. The cinematography is unremarkable overall, but I did like how Sam’s fantasy sequences were handled.

My rating: I like it.

The HD remaster of the Sheldon Lewis Jekyll and Hyde won’t be ready for Halloween. The negative it’s sourced from is in pretty poor shape and requires a bit of work to make presentable. I didn’t want to rush it. It should be out by early November. After that will be something particularly exciting: I mentioned in my Timothy’s Quest (1922) writeup that I’d never seen any other silent films set and shot in rural, inland Maine. Well, I found another one, and I guarantee you’ve never heard of it.

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Station Content (Triangle, 1918)

Station Content (Triangle, 1918)
Directed by Arthur Hoyt
Starring Gloria Swanson

Wait a minute, you might be saying — I’ve already done a review of Station Content. Yes, I have, and I won’t be reviewing it again. This will be more of a textual reconstruction. The original, feature-length release of Station Content, as I’ve said before, is presumed to be lost. What survives is a roughly one-reel abridgment. So what is missing from the story? Not a lot, really. Station Content seems to have been a film that lent itself well to abridgment:

Kitty (Gloria Swanson) was originally from a large city (an eastern city, likely New York, but contemporary reviews are contradictory). She marries Jim Manning (Lee Hill), who’s the master of Cybar Station. Cybar is a remote, isolate place somewhere in the southwest. She’s too preoccupied to be culture shocked — she’s about to have a baby. The baby takes ill shortly after its birth and dies before the doctor arrives. Kitty is sure the baby would have lived if they weren’t so far out in the country.

Jim had promised her that he would soon be promoted to a more urban station, but months have passed and no promotion has materialized. Kitty’s resentment grows with each passing day. Her only friend is the conductor of the express that stops at the station. A train wreck ahead delays the express one day. Kitty and the conductor spend the time at the piano, where Kitty sings songs that remind her of happier days before she’d ever heard of Cybar. Aboard the delayed train was a theatrical manager (Ward Caulfield) who overhears Kitty singing and is impressed. He tells her that he’s casting a musical revue (or maybe an operetta — again, reviews are contradictory) and she’s got a place in it if she wants it. Kitty tries to discuss the matter with Jim, but he shoos her away, saying he’s too busy. That night he finds a letter on the table: Kitty has left him.

Some time later, Stephen Morton (Arthur Millett) attends Kitty’s show. After the curtain call, she finds him waiting for her backstage, come to ask her out to dinner. Morton is the president of the Pacific Railroad — Jim’s boss. Morton is also married, but he and his wife (Nellie Allen) are estranged. To quote one review, he proposes that Kitty might “fill the void”. Kitty is reluctant. No need to answer now — he’ll be at his ranch in San Francisco, he says. If Kitty decides in his favor, she need only knock at the door.

Kitty is tempted — very tempted — and goes so far as to book passage to San Francisco, but her train is delayed and she misses her connection at Lone Bridge. The station might as well be Cybar for how isolated it is, but the family there seem quite content with their lot (Fay McKenzie is the baby, I don’t know who the parents are). The husband, however, is ill from overwork. In the morning, the train to San Francisco pulls out of the station, but Kitty isn’t on it. She knows Morse code and has volunteered to take over for a few days so that he can recuperate.

Jim, meanwhile, has at last got his promotion — too late for it to make any difference. He boards the train for his new job in San Francisco. Also on the train is Stephen Morton on the way to his ranch. A great storm breaks out that night. The track-walker rushes to Lone Bridge Station with news that the bridge has been struck by lightning and destroyed. He tells them to telegraph Victorville to stop the train, but the train — Jim and Morton’s train — has already left. Kitty pleads with him to go out, cross the canyon, and warn the train, but he refuses — it would be certain death in this storm, he says. Kitty takes it on herself to do so.

Braving all the dangers, Kitty at last makes it across the canyon and flags down the train in time before collapsing from exhaustion. She’s carried on board. When she wakes, Jim is the first man she sees. She asks forgiveness, but Jim insists there’s nothing to forgive — the fault was his for ignoring her. Morton, realizing that he has his answer, feigns ignorance and Jim never knows what might have happened if Kitty hadn’t missed her connection.

Really, aside the opening sequence with the death of Kitty’s baby and Jim’s failed promise of promotion, the abridgment conveys the entire story at a fifth of the length of the original. Even the adultery subplot, which it never directly mentions, is pretty heavily implied, despite the addition of the “I know a director in California” business. The most curious change is shifting the Lone Bridge illness from the husband to the sister-in-law, although that does provide an easier and quicker excuse for why he disappears from the film.

There are a number of contemporary reviews, all favorable. Several report that the working title of the film was The Prodigal Wife and that it better suited the story than Station Content, but curiously, the review in Variety says it went the other way: that the working title was Station Content, but it was released as The Prodigal Wife. I would say the majority opinion is probably right, but the Variety review is very detailed in its plot summary, and at least for the footage that survives, it’s more accurate than any of the others. It’s obvious that the reviewer actually saw the film, which may seem like an odd thing to say, but many reviewers didn’t — they just went off the publicity information provided by the studios. So who knows?

Another big question is Diana Carrillo. Carrillo played a Native American woman. It’s a big enough role to make the cast list (the couple Kitty meets at the other station seem like major characters and they don’t make it), but not a single review mentions her and I don’t have any idea where she fits into the story. She’s briefly visible at the start of the abridgment, sitting in front of the station weaving a basket. She’s also featured on one of the film’s lobby cards doing the same.

Bathing Beauties and Big Boobs (Vitagraph, 1918)

bathing-beauties-and-big-boobs-screenshot-1Bathing Beauties and Big Boobs (Vitagraph, 1918)
Directed by Larry Semon
Starring Larry Semon and Madge Kirby

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, bathing-beauties-and-big-boobs-screenshot-2quality 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.

Station Content (Triangle, 1918)

Station Content screenshotStation Content (Triangle, 1918)
Directed by Arthur Hoyt
Starring Gloria Swanson

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

Among the Cannibal Isles of the South Pacific (Robertson-Cole, 1918)

Among the Cannibal Isles of the South Pacific screenshotAmong the Cannibal Isles of the South Pacific (Robertson-Cole, 1918)
Directed by Martin Johnson
Hosted by Osa and Martin Johnson

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.

Cannibal Isles scanBy 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