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An Accidental Champion (Educational, 1920) (?)

an-accidental-champion-screenshot-1An Accidental Champion (?) (Educational?, 1920?)
Starring Jimmie Adams

I have no memory at all of buying this film. I must have — it arrived a few days ago, it’s in my eBay history — but I honestly do not recall even looking at the listing. My only guess is that I must have been sleepwalking. And I say all that because I don’t know why I would buy it. It’s a 9.5mm film called An Accidental Champion, which of course is just a Pathescope re-title. What it’s actually supposed to be is the 1922 Hall Room Boys short High and Dry, and unless it was going for cheap, that really wouldn’t interest me.

Maybe my unconscious mind saw that something was up before I did when the picture first flashed on the screen and I didn’t see the Hall Room Boys. This is a Jimmie Adams film, although I’m not sure which. There are some clues I intend to follow up on, but for now I’ll be content with calling it An Accidental Champion, circa 1920.

Jimmie (Jimmie Adams) is down on his luck. A companion in his troubles is a stray hound (Buddy the Dog), who helps Jimmie steal food from street vendors. Buddy runs off with ten yards of sausage from a hot dog man who, unfortunately, also happens to be a dog catcher. A chase ensues which leads to the beach, where a pole-vaulting competition is being held. Jimmie, in his flight, accidentally wins.

an-accidental-champion-screenshot-2Champion Jimmie catches the attention of Lilian, the Mayor’s daughter, and he soon finds himself a welcome guest at the mayoral mansion. Joey Springer is not terribly pleased with these developments, what with him being in love with Lilian himself. The maid, Melba Marblehead, is also jealous — she has her eye on Jimmie.

In the garden one afternoon, Jimmie and Joey sit at either side of Lilian. Under the table, they both take what they assume is her hand. Joey slides an engagement ring onto a finger, but it isn’t one of the girl’s. Jimmy takes his new ring and gives it to Lilian, who is greatly pleased.

Just before the wedding, Melba sees her chance. She locks Lilian in the closet and puts on the gown herself, pulling the veil down so that no one is the wiser. Joey, meanwhile, has reached a new level of desperation. He bursts into the wedding ceremony with two guns drawn and demands that the preacher marry him to the bride.

Just after Joey has carried away his new wife, Lilian breaks out and the real wedding proceeds.

The first half of the film, with Jimmie and the dog, is much stronger than the second. an-accidental-champion-screenshot-3Neither act is about to win a prize for originality, but I enjoyed the dog antics and Jimmie’s acrobatics during the chase. The love-quadraleteral of the second half is comparatively dull, and while the boardwalk and beach scenes were plainly filmed at some real location, the mayoral mansion is a set that falls very short of being convincing. An Accidental Champion is a film that starts with promise but ends with a fizzle.

My rating: Meh.

I’m working on two films now: Somebody Lied (1917) and Lady Godiva (1911). I don’t know which will be released first, but it’s looking like Lied at the moment. After that will be an HD remaster of an old title, then I think I’m going to go ahead and transfer Pioneer Trails (1923) and maybe score it as well, just for me personally. Pioneer Trails is one of several “lost” films that I have a print of but can’t do anything with as it’s still under copyright. Assuming U.S. copyrights aren’t extended again — which is a big assumption — I can’t publicly release it until September 14th, 2018.

The Woman in the Suitcase (Paramount, 1920)

The Woman in the Suitcase screenshotThe Woman in the Suitcase (Paramount, 1920)
Directed by Fred Niblo
Starring Enid Bennet

The Woman in the Suitcase (1920) is a very intriguing title for a not very intriguing film.

Mary Moreland (Enid Bennett) is the daughter of a wealthy lawyer (William Conklin) who has been neglecting his wife (Claire McDowell) and staying out late. He claims it’s a business matter – his daughter discovers her name is Dolly (Dorcas Matthews). Mary tries to get to the bottom of the affair, rescue her father, and preserve her mother’s happiness.

There might be enough material here for a two-reeler, but this meager story is spread awfully thin over six reels. Apart from a subplot involving a man Mary hires to pose as her boyfriend to get nearer to Dolly, not much is omitted from the synopsis above.

The film is well photographed, I’ll give it that. Fred Niblo was a prolific director in the silent era, with titles including some of my personal favorites like The Mysterious Lady (1928), with Greta Garbo; Blood and Sand (1922), with Rudolph Valentino; and The Red Lily (1924), with Ramon Novarro and the star of this film, Enid Bennett.

Bennett and Niblo were married and frequently worked together. Overall, the acting is quite good in the film, and I would say that Bennett has a particularly strong grip on her character. There are a few scenes where her motivation seems to turn on a dime, but I attribute that more to poor writing and can’t imagine anyone else could make it more believable. The Woman in the Suitcase has the sort of plot that hinges on happenstance and would be resolved immediately if anyone ever said anything to anyone – but of course, then there’d be no movie.

I don’t think I can say it better than Wid’s Daily did when the film premiered: “the title is a good one” but the production “seldom reaches the entertainment point”.

Side note: with as well established as that puppy is at the start of the film, I was shocked that he doesn’t figure into the ending. I must also give credit for the attractive art titles the film sports, some of them animated.

My rating: I don’t like it.

Trumpet Island (Vitagraph, 1920)

Trumpet Island PosterTrumpet Island (Vitagraph, 1920)
Directed by Tom Terriss
Starring Wallace MacDonald and Marguerite de la Motte

“Strange things are shaken down from the tree of life by winds of destiny” begins the ad copy for this “tangled romance … that acknowledges no formula”. Trumpet Island (1920) is based on the short story On Trumpet Island, by Gouverneur Morris – a name you might recognize from the two great Lon Chaney thrillers sourced from his work: The Penalty (1920) and The Ace of Hearts (1921).

Richard Bedell (Wallace MacDonald) and Eve de Merincourt (Marguerite de la Motte) have fallen in love. Eve’s father, Jacques de Merincourt (Joseph Swickard), is teetering on the brink of ruin after his investments prove to be disastrous. When his globetrotting friend Henry Caron (Arthur Hoyt) returns to town with intensions of settling down, he forces Eve to abandon Richard and marry Henry for his millions. Dejected, Richard buys a remote, uninhabited island where he can live “apart from mankind”. Departing for their honeymoon, Eve and Henry are caught in a freak hurricane and their plane crashes – where else? – on Richard’s island. When Richard finds the wreck, Henry is missing and he presumes dead, and Eve has lost her memory. There’s also a subplot about pirates and/or bandits that doesn’t really go anywhere except to provide some tiny foundation for the deus ex machina ending required after Richard discovers that – surprise! – Henry isn’t dead.

I wanted to like this film – I really did – and there are parts of it I do like. It’s very well shot, with camera work that’s creative and expressive but, at the same time, never draws so much attention to itself that it distracts from the action. The special effects and model work used for the hurricane and plane crash are superb and thoroughly believable. The acting and direction are decent enough, if unspectacular. It’s the story where things fall apart. It’s contrived to the point of ridiculousness, and no matter how much belief you’re willing to suspend, you can’t ever take it seriously.

Now, the version of the film I’m watching is not the full, feature-length one from 1920, but a significantly abridged copy found in Buenos Aires, where it had been given the new title of El Destino Manda, or The Hand of Fate, and re-released in 1929. Perhaps with five and a half more reels to work with, the story wouldn’t play out so comically… but I doubt it. Having read On Trumpet Island, I know that the film has been streamlined, but virtually nothing crucial to the plot is missing. Certainly nothing that would make it more believable. The short version at least moves briskly and doesn’t give you much time to realize how preposterous it is until the very end.

From a technical standpoint, I’m sure you’d like Trumpet Island for the effects and creative cinematography, but if you’re in the mood for the dramatic romance it promises to be, I’d look elsewhere.

My rating: Meh.

Available from Harpodeon

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Pioneer, 1920)

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde PosterDr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Pioneer, 1920)
Directed by J. Charles Haydon
Starring Sheldon Lewis

There are films that are poorly written or acted, there are films made by incompetent cinematographers, there are films where it’s obvious the director and producer had very different ideas in mind, and there are films that were hastily re-edited into some kind of Frankenstein’s monster after production, but it’s rare that a film fails on absolutely every level. Writer-director J. Charles Haydon’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920) is just such a film.

If you’ve ever read Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, you know how difficult it would be to do it justice on film. It’s structured very much like a mystery, and with the story being so deeply ingrained in popular culture as it is, the shocking reveal at the end that the murderer and the victim were one and the same would come as a shock to nobody. Most adaptations instead focus on minor or wholly invented characters to provide some other conflict for Dr. Jekyll – usually a love interest – and altogether drop Edward Utterson, the detective-like character that narrates the novella. Haydon’s Jekyll and Hyde takes a strange middle road. The story is still structured like a mystery, except the solution is reveled immediately; and Utterson is retained, except he doesn’t do any investigating.

The story is set in the present day. Dr. Henry Jekyll (Sheldon Lewis) is engaged to Bernice Lanyon (Gladys Field), the daughter Dr. Lanyon (Alexander Shannon). Lanyon is Jekyll’s friend, but thoroughly disapproves of his methods and his atheistic leanings. You see, while Haydon has added a love interest with Bernice, that isn’t what this film is about. The film is about Dr. Jekyll attempting to show that human nature is simultaneously both good and evil, which would prove that there is no god… somehow. I’m not sure I follow the logic, but he seems confident on that point.

Dr. Jekyll inadvertently creates Mr. Hyde, who goes on a crime spree that mostly involves stock-footage arson and petty theft. Bernice, grown tired of Jekyll’s godless ways, dumps him for Danvers Carew (Leslie Austin), who is actually an important character in the novella, but here serves only as a replacement fiancé. Enraged, Jekyll transforms into Hyde like David Banner does to the Hulk. He kills Carew, which proves to be his demise. The police finally track him down, he’s summarily tried, and sentenced to death in the electric chair. Then… the groan-inducing twist at the end. I won’t spoil it – it’s the sort of thing you’ll have to experience for yourself – but suffice to say that Jekyll finds Jesus and everyone lives happily ever after.

Stevenson’s novella was always popular for adaptation, but 1920 was a banner year. Three Jekyll and Hyde films were released: the John Barrymore version, considered by many to be the definitive silent adaptation; F.W. Murnau’s Der Januskopf, now sadly lost; and this monstrosity, which was shot and released a scant month after the Barrymore film. That it was hoping to cash-in on the success of the other productions goes without saying.

Haydon’s vision was apparently much different from what ended up on film. His scenario stuck truer to the novella and didn’t take as many liberties with the characters. Producer Louis Meyer (not to be confused with Louis Mayer, head of MGM, but he often used the similarity to his advantage in the marketing of his films) is to blame for moving the story to the present day and twisting the characters almost beyond recognition. He had an idea – probably not unfounded – that if his company released a straight adaption of Jekyll and Hyde while the Barrymore film was still playing in many theatres, they could expect a lawsuit from Famous Players that his low-budget Pioneer studio had no hope of defending. After seeing the finished product, Haydon reportedly wanted his name taken off the credits. I can’t say I blame him.

Haydon’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a train wreck of a film that fails entirely at what it sets out to be, but at the same time, I have to recommend it for its unintentional comedy. The production is so slapdash and many scenes obviously assembled from outtakes that hardly a minute goes by that there isn’t something to laugh at. I doubt there was a script at all – the actors seem to be taking direction from off-screen throughout the film. Occasionally from on-screen as well: the camera isn’t aimed quite right in one scene and Haydon and his megaphone are just visible at the edge of the frame, telling the actors what to do.

The version of Haydon’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that’s commonly in circulation is truncated (I don’t say edited) to four reels and the abrupt jump makes the story impossible to follow, but the print I watched was much closer to being intact. All five reels are present, with only a minute or two missing from the head or tail of each. I don’t know if it’s an improvement, but at least the whole, ridiculous plot comes across clearly.

My rating: I don’t like it.

Available from Harpodeon