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Smashing Barriers (Vitagraph, 1919)

Smashing Barriers (Vitagraph, 1919)
Directed by William Duncan
Starring William Duncan and Edith Johnson

Original posters for silent films are rare. The films themselves were seen as disposable once they’d finished their run, the ephemera connected to them were valued even less. Most that still exist survive by accident. Rarer still are the posters that hung in the offices of distributors that advertised posters to exhibitors. I’ve got one of those for the 1919 serial Smashing Barriers. It shows all the styles of posters available and explains which will catch attention at a distance and which are better for up-close inspection. The latter one is great because it’s just a collage of every cliff-hanging moment from all fifteen episodes. I look at it quite often — it hangs in my bedroom — and I always seem to spot something new in it. All I had were those pictures, because the serial itself was believed to be lost.

Several years ago, probably 2003 or 2004, I had the opportunity to buy a reel of Smashing Barriers. Which of the thirty reels it was, I don’t know. It was in very bad shape. The inner part of the reel was at stage five (terminal) decomposition, much of the remainder was at stage four. Perhaps only the first dozen feet was salvageable at all — not even a minute’s worth of footage. I passed on it and I’ve kicked myself for passing on it ever since. Even if was only a few seconds, I wanted to see those few seconds.

In 1923, Vitagraph re-worked the footage into a single feature-length film, abridging it down from something like 30,000 feet to 5,600 feet. This, too, is presumed to be lost aside from perhaps a fragment. It was even further abridged, down to just a single reel, in 1932. That version I can now say is not lost because it arrived on my doorstep this morning and I just confirmed that the faded handwriting on the label is correct — it is Smashing Barriers.

From contemporary reviews, I already knew that the only reason anyone watched Smashing Barriers was for the action — the plot was, by all accounts, mind-numbingly incoherent. I imagine it was similar to A Woman in Grey (1920) in that you sat through half an hour of boring nonsense because the last few moments made up for it in excitement. This abridgment of Smashing Barriers is composed of nothing but those last few moments, one after the other, and it is glorious. It’s like the poster on my bedroom wall come to life.

The story, such as it is, is dispensed with quickly: Helen Cole (Edith Johnson) owns a logging operation in the Rocky Mountains. A band of outlaws kidnaps her for ransom. Dan Stevens (William Duncan) must rescue her. It’s a lot like The Timber Queen (1922).

Helen has a sort of MacGyver-ish ingenuity for getting out of danger and Dan is a brave lunkhead kind of guy. There are fights and shoot-outs and lassoings, horse chases, boat chases, wagons going off cliffs, diving from a fifty foot dam into the water, burning cabins and collapsing barns, Dan slides on a zipline down a mountain clutching Helen between his legs… it’s non-stop action from beginning to end. It’s everything I could have hoped for and more. I love it.

I’m still working on Tough Luck and Tin Lizzies and there’s another film in the scanner right now (a remaster of an old title), but Smashing Barriers is definitely coming to video soon.

My rating: I like it.

J’accuse (Pathé, 1919)

Jaccuse screenshot 1J’accuse (Pathé, 1919)
Directed by Abel Gance
Starring Romuald Joubé

This isn’t a review, but I know I haven’t posted much recently (for various reasons neither here nor there) so I thought I’d just comment on something exciting to me.

Around nine years ago, I bought four bobbins of the 9.5mm Pathé Baby version of J’accuse (1919). Since then, I’ve been picking up more when and where ever I could find them. At last, I’ve assembled the entire film. Actually, with the duplicates resulting from buying so many incomplete sets, I’ve got nearly two copies.

At 840 feet, it’s considerably abridged from the theatrical release (which wasn’t even available on video when I started the collection). If it was run straight, 840 feet works out to around 28 minutes, but J’accuse has notched titles so it’s actually a bit longer than that. The original Pathé Baby projector could only handle a 30 foot film bobbin, which is just a minute of footage. Even if a film only Jaccuse screenshot 2has two or three intertitles, text would quickly eat up almost all the runtime. To save film, the Baby had a unique system whereby a little arm feels along the edge of the film as it passes through the projector. When it encounters a notch, it stops advancing the film for a few seconds — holding the picture on the screen. This way, titles could be reduced from several feet down to just a couple frames. Later Babies doubled the max capacity to 60 feet, and at last Pathé ditched bobbins for conventional reels that could handle several hundred feet of film, but J’accuse is an early release. 30 feet with notched titles generally becomes 50 feet with running titles, so it’s probably closer to 45 minutes long.

The whole notch system was a trade-off. With notched titles, the projector by necessity could only use weak lamps that threw small, dim pictures. More powerful lamps burned too hot and would melt the film if it was held in the gate for longer than a fraction of a second. The Baby’s lamphouse is really not much more than a flashlight.

Jaccuse screenshot 3There is an edit of the film that cuts out the whole ghost sequence at the end (before the 2008 DVD was released, I believe it was the most commonly available version on video), but the Baby edition retains it. I haven’t done a side-by-side comparison, but it seems like most of the Baby’s severest abridging is towards the start of the film.

Abel Gance and George Lucas have a bit in common — both being rather notorious for continually revising their films. It’s difficult to say what the “definitive” version of J’accuse would even look like. It’s certainly not the Baby release, but even the DVD is still missing as much as six reels’ worth of footage if by “original” you mean Gance’s earliest cuts of the film. The Baby version at least retains the three-epoch structure of the theatrical release, which the pre-2008 video didn’t.

Of all the Gance films I’ve seen, J’accuse remains my favorite. It may be heresy for me to say so, but Napoleon requires rather more patience than I’m willing to give. It has some spectacular and expertly constructed sequences, Napoleon does, but the road between them is a slog.

 

Jaccuse screenshot 4As for the delay in releasing a new video: the film scanner broke after transferring An Old Man’s Love Story. It was an easy fix, but I had to wait for a replacement part to arrive from Singapore, which took over a month. The primary scanner broke, I should say — I have four. The print I’m scanning now is a bit too shrunken to run through a standard movement, and the machine I’m talking about is one I built myself specifically to handle shrunken and badly damaged film. Here’s a hint for what’s coming out next. It’s an HD remaster of a very old title in the catalogue involving a washerwoman who gets stiffed by one of her customers.

 

Other news that may or may not be of interest: we’re trial-running putting the “now playing” video on YouTube as well on the homepage of our website. If it goes well, we’ll keep doing it. If it goes really well (viz., if the ad revenue matches the sale price), then maybe the now playing videos will cease to be a limited, one-at-a-time thing and the entire now playing catalogue will be made available.

The Roaring Road (Paramount, 1919)

The Roaring Road screenshot 1The Roaring Road (Paramount, 1919)
Directed by James Cruze
Starring Wallace Reid

Toodles Walden (Wallace Reid) is a sales agent at Darco Motors but he aspires to being a racecar driver. His boss, J.D. Ward (Theodore Roberts), won’t give him a break. When a shipment of Darco racers are destroyed in a trainwreck, Toodles and his mechanic friend (Guy Oliver) buy the scrap pieces and assemble a Frankenstein Darco that they enter in the race themselves. Toodles wins, which pleases J.D., but not enough that he’ll consent to Toodles marrying his daughter (Ann Little).

Toodles gets into a bit of a funk, which he works through by secretly trying to beat the San Francisco-Los Angeles speed record — currently held by Darco’s arch nemesis, Rexton. As the window for beating the record closes, it becomes imperative that Toodles succeeds, or else Darco will be the laughing stock of Gasoline Row. To provide some motivation, J.D. lets it slip that he intends to take his daughter back east for a year — they leave on the eight o’clock train tonight. If Toodles hopes to see her, he’ll have to beat the train — and the record.

The Roaring Road screenshot 2Between the two racing set pieces, there’s really not much to this film. The love story angle is slight and the Darco-Rexton rivalry is slighter still — it’s literally nothing more than a couple throw-away lines. In this genre, though, that wouldn’t matter at all if the racing sequences landed.

The second one does. Toodles is speeding through town and countryside over good and bad roads, which provides variety. The race is also mostly at night, with some interesting light effects. The train lends a sense of urgency, particularly when the tracks and the road briefly run side-by-side and Toodles has to beat the train to the crossing. Given that Toodles is such a static character, we wisely cut back and forth between the car and the train, to see the increasing excitement of the passengers and J.D.’s growing approval. I should say now, Wallace Reid might be first billed, but Theodore Roberts is the real star of the film. Roberts is an enormous character that completely overshadows Reid whenever they share the stage.

The first race… it’s so boring. I don’t suppose there are that many ways to shoot a car speeding around an oval track, but there surely must be more than the handful of angles we get here. They just go round and round for ten long minutes. And the cars themselves are so nondescript, if it weren’t for periodically cutting back to the scoreboard, you’d have no idea who was winning. Even J.D. doesn’t do much to buoy the excitement. It isn’t until the race is over and Toodles has won that he stops sulkily chomping on his cigar.

The Roaring Road screenshot 3The Roaring Road isn’t Reid’s only racing film. He did several — indeed, he was particularly known for them. Roaring Road was released in 1919, which was the same year that Reid was involved in a trainwreck. It left him pretty banged-up and in considerable pain. To keep working, he was kept pumped full of morphine on set — leading to his becoming addicted to it. I don’t know if Roaring Road came before or after that, but it would explain his acting.

Theodore Roberts is excellent, but it’s never a good sign when a supporting character consistently and thoroughly upstages your lead. The San Francisco-Los Angeles race is exciting and well photographed, but it’s the last reel in a five reel picture. It rarely feels interminable, but the movie does drag for much of its runtime. I know why they didn’t — in 1919, the shorts market had all but dried up — but with such a threadbare story, they should have just jettisoned all the padding and fluff and released a two-reeler.

I’m not sure. I certainly don’t “like it”, but I think that — if taken in parts — there are enough good bits to elevate it out of “don’t like it”.

My rating: Meh.

The Miracle Man (Paramount, 1919, 1932)

The MiThe Miracle Man 1919 adracle Man (Paramount, 1919)
Directed by George Loane Tucker
Starring Thomas Meighan, Betty Compson, and Lon Chaney

…and…

The Miracle Man (Paramount, 1932)
Directed by Norman Z. McLeod
Starring Chester Morris, Sylvia Sidney, and John Wray

The Miracle Man (1919) is, unfortunately, almost entirely lost. Clips from two scenes were included in Movie Milestones (1935), these being the part of the Chinatown segment in which Tom outlines his scam to his accomplices, and a portion of the healing segment, beginning with the Frog’s approach and ending with Jack running to the Patriarch. The latter clip was also used in The House That Shadows Built (1931). These two clips, totaling two minutes and twenty seconds at sound speed, are all that survives of The Miracle Man today insofar as moving images are concerned, at least. There are quite a large number of stills.

The last film I attempted a photo reconstruction of was The Juggernaut (1915). It had considerably more surviving footage to build around, but only a handful of production stills to use in recreating the missing sequences. Conversely, I had nearly sixty stills to work with from The Miracle Man, with almost every lost scene represented by at least one photo. I also had the benefit of a scene-by-scene plot synopsis and quotes from many of the original intertitles.

 

The story of The Miracle Man began as a book, then was adapted into a stage play, then into a silent film, and then remade as a talkie. The 1919 adaptation was critically acclaimed and wildly popular with audiences, making instant stars of its lead actors. It credits the play as a source, but is based more on the book — although it does make some significant changes I’ll discus in a moment.

Tom Burke (Thomas Meighan) is the ringleader of a gang of con artists working in New York’s Chinatown. Their primary game is running scams on slumming tourists, but when Tom learns of a faith healer in a small Maine town, he concludes that the real money is in fleecing gullible believers.

Tom goes to scope it out. This miracle man, called the Patriarch (Joseph J. Dowling), is blind, deaf, and dumb. He’s no longer able to care for himself and the townspeople are searching for his niece, who none have ever met before, in the hopes that she’ll come to attend him. Tom’s plan is for his girlfriend and accomplice Rosie Vale (Betty Compson) to assume the role the Patriarch’s niece, then the Frog (Lon Chaney) will enter the scene. The Frog, a skilled contortionist, will pretend to be a mangled cripple that gets miraculously cured by the Patriarch. News will spread and pilgrims will follow, bringing tens of thousands of dollars in donations, all of which must go through Rosie.

Everything goes according to plan, until the Frog’s pretended cure is followed by two real ones — Jack Andrews (Frankie Lee) and Claire King (Elinor Fair). Tom’s accomplices — Rosie, the Frog, and a cokehead called the Dope (J.M. Dumont) — are shaken and begin to doubt whether they should keep up the scam.

Claire’s brother, Dick (W. Lawson Butt), is a wealthy asbestos magnate who at once donates $50,000 and wishes to provide further funding for the Patriarch. Tom is interested in Rosie courting Dick’s money, but becomes jealous when it appears the two are falling in love. Things come to a head when Rosie stays out all night with Dick (quite innocent – their boat was stuck on a sandbar and they had to wait until the tide came in to float off). Tom intends on killing Dick, but at the last moment stays his hand.

Realizing the error of his ways, Tom apologizes to Rosie, who forgives him and accepts his marriage proposal. The two go to the Patriarch to thank him, but find him dead.

 

The Miracle Man 1932 posterThe most immediately obvious difference from the novel is also the least important: all the character names are different. More significant are Claire and Richard King. In the film, they’re siblings, Claire has been paralyzed since infancy, and Dick is supportive of anything that might help his sister, however slim the chance. In the book, Naida and Robert Thornton are married, Naida has only been wheelchair bound for a number of years, Robert is dismissive of her ever being cured and has grown rather tired of her, and he plots adultery even if he never actually commits it. Most significant, the novel hints that the Patriarch isn’t actually a miracle worker at all. It either suggests or outright postulates that both Naida Thornton’s and the Holmes boy’s (Jack Andrews in the film) paralysis is caused by a nervous disorder, and that it was their belief in the Patriarch that cured them rather than the Patriarch himself. Now, the last line of the 1919 film does leave some opening for this interpretation, but until that point, the miracles are presented as being nothing but real.

In the novel, the last chapter flashes forward several years to see where the gang went with their lives after the Patriarch’s death. The Flopper (the Frog) married a local girl and works at the general store. Pale Face Harry (the Dope) moved out west and became a farmer. Helena Smith (Rosie Vale) and Doc Madison (Tom Burke) are married and have a young son — the book ends with them visiting the Patriarch’s grave and retelling the story to the boy. It’s not really necessary and I think it’s for the best that the film ends where it does.

 

The silent Miracle Man was a record-breaking film and extremely successful from a financial standpoint — making back its budget nearly 24 times over. Of course it was remade, as a talkie, in 1932. The remake starred Chester Morris, Sylvia Sidney, and John Wray and is still extant, although it never has officially been released on video (bootlegs are readily available). It adopts some of the changes made in 1919 version — Margaret and Robert Thornton (aka, Claire and Richard King; aka, Naida and Robert Thornton) are still siblings, for instance — but on the whole, it follows the play more so than it does either the book or previous film. The most noticeable difference and the one that most changes the dynamic of the story (to its detriment, I would say) is that the Patriarch isn’t mute.

The remake was designed as a vehicle for John Wray and Paramount had hoped to would launch him as the new incarnation of Lon Chaney, but it did not, nor was the film itself very well received. If it’s remembered at all today, it’s for Boris Karloff’s rather small role as Nikko. Nikko is roughly equivalent to Tong-Fou (Kisaburo Kurihara) in the 1919 film. Tong-Fou is only in one scene and is not particularly relevant to the plot — he’s a Chinese man occasionally paid off by Tom to take care of the police. Nikko is Madison’s Chinatown landlord. Madison catches him spying on Helena undress and grievously injures if not kills him. That’s the reason why he leaves New York — not because he plans on exploiting the Patriarch, but to evade arrest.

 

It had its moments, but I didn’t think the remake was very good overall. The book I liked, but not as much as other Frank Packard novels I’ve read. The original film, of course, is hard to judge. So little footage survives and stills only give an idea of how it may have looked. I can say that it has the tightest plot of the three, and in a contest between Lon Chaney and John Wray, there can be no doubt who the winner is. It was surely better than its remake and may have edged out the book as well. I don’t know.

 


Available from Harpodeon

Cissy’s Funnymoon (Cissy Fitzgerald, 1919)

Cissys Funnymoon screenshotCissy’s Funnymoon (Cissy Fitzgerald, 1919)
Starring Cissy Fitzgerald and Bertie Stanley?

Cecelia “Cissy” Fitzgerald was a successful stage actress in the 1880s and ‘90s. She was particularly famous for her signature wink, which landed Cissy her first screen credit in the 1896 Edison short See Cissy Wink. She left the stage in 1913 and signed with the Vitagraph Company, where she made several comedies, both shorts and features. The Win(k)some Widow (1914) is probably the best remembered of her Vitagraph films today.

There were many comedians working at Vitagraph – Wally Van, Hughie Mack, Lillian Walker, just to name a few – but the three biggies were John Bunny, Sidney Drew, and Larry Semon. Semon made rough-and-tumble slapstick films, whereas Bunny and Drew’s films were much slower-paced and the comedy was more situational than physical. When Bunny died in 1915 and Drew in 1919, Cissy saw a vacuum that she hoped to fill.

She formed her own production company, Cissy Fitzgerald Productions, and began pumping out a series of two-reel sitcoms. The first of these was Cissy’s Funnymoon in 1919. Just like Sidney Drew’s films, Cissy’s starred a husband and wife team: Cissy and Bertie. Exactly how many Cissy and Bertie shorts there were, I can’t tell. Cissy Fitzgerald Productions operated for a few years and made at the very least eight films and probably several times that number. I don’t believe anything survives of the series aside from what’s in my collection, which is the second reel of Funnymoon.

It seems that Cissy (Cissy Fitzgerald) and Bertie Sweet (Bertie Stanley?) are on their honeymoon at the Cupid Hotel. What I surmise must have happened in the missing first reel is that both intended on surprising the other by sneaking into the room by the fire escape, but accidentally got the wrong window. Bertie probably found a woman in bed who he took to be Cissy. When he realized his mistake, he tried to get out, but the woman, coquettishly, detained him.

Reel two begins with Cissy entering through the sitting-room window of an empty hotel suite. She’s surprised that Bertie isn’t there, but decides to make herself comfortable and wait for his return. She goes into the bedroom and starts to undress.

Meanwhile, one floor up, Bertie sits very uncomfortably as a woman in a nightgown hangs on his neck and whispers in his ear. Her husband is next door with another woman. As near as I can tell, he sees his wife’s coat draped on the chair and realizes she must be nearby. He crosses the fire escape into the neighboring room and finds her with Bertie. The scene begins with the suggestion of a jealous husband, but quickly turns into something else: “So! She’s ruined your life too!” he says, “you can have her!”

Back to Cissy, who’s now in her underwear. She begins putting her things away in the dresser when she notices the strange clothes already there. She’s examining them when another man enters the room, gun drawn. “Hands up! What are you doing here?”

It looks like a fight is about to break out when Bertie tells the other woman’s husband that he doesn’t want her – he’s sure his wife Cissy would object.

Cissy tries to explain, but the gunman will have none of it. He’s caught a burglar, probably none other than the infamous “Frisco Fannie”. He calls the police, who tell him they’re on their way and to make sure she doesn’t escape. Cissy, realizing that the man can’t be reasoned with, tries a different tack and attempts to seduce him.

The other woman cajoles her husband into dropping Bertie. As the two are distracted cozying up to one another, Bertie sees his chance and slips out the window and down the fire escape. One floor below and he hears a familiar voice…

“If Bertie could only see me now!” – a voice comes from behind the curtains: “Cissy!” – Cissy wheels around and sees Bertie’s comically disembodied head as he peers through the window: “Bertie!”

Just at that moment, the police, accompanied by the hotel manager, walk through the door. The gunman’s sure he has Frisco Fannie and her accomplice who was “waiting outside for the swag”, but the manager intervenes, identifies Mr. and Mrs. Sweet to the police, and both Cissy and Bertie’s respective disasters are averted.

It’s plain to see that Cissy’s Funnymoon is taking its cues from Sidney Drew’s Vitagraph shorts – the structure is very reminiscent as are the characters – but Funnymoon’s situations are far more risqué than anything Drew’s character ever found himself in. And I have to say, I like it. I thought this reel was hilarious and am only disappointed that I don’t have the other reel. One has to wonder why Cissy and Bertie weren’t more popular. I imagine they didn’t make a hit with the censors – there were censors in the U.S. back then, at the state and local levels; some locales were more permissive than others – but I just can’t believe how little contemporary publicity this series got.

My rating: I like it.