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Holy Smoke (Educational, 1921)

Holy Smoke adHoly Smoke (Educational, 1921)
Directed by Jack White
Starring Jimmie Adams

The first half of the film has an interesting set piece: It’s an elevator in hotel lobby with a manual counterweight — that is, a bellboy on the ground floor gauges how heavy the guest is and another bellboy upstairs piles on the enough weights to lift the guest without rocketing him through the ceiling. It serves for several decent gags, but after we see the thin guy, the fat guy, and the guy who of course gets crushed by the counterweight, it does start to get a bit repetitive.

The second half is improved by introducing an actual plot. The hotelier’s daughter (Elinor Lynn) has run up a big bill at the dressmaker’s and her father has to hand over his fire insurance policy to pay for it. Quite angry at this turn, he pulls out a caveman club and threatens to strike her. The bellboy (Jimmie Adams) steps forward: “If you must hit someone, hit me!” Father takes him up on that offer.

Fired, he takes a job at the blacksmith shop adjacent to the hotel. He does not get along well with the blacksmith, and after a fight, finds himself crashing through the wall of the hotel and into a guest room just as its occupant has left. The late occupant was the dressmaker, who, hoping to claim the insurance money, has left a bomb in the room. Jimmie throws the bomb out the window, but it lands in a chimney pot and roles down the pipe into the woodstove.

Bang!

The fire fighters, naturally, are much too incompetent to get even a bucketful of water onto the blaze. The hotel is reduced to ashes. The hotelier is lamenting his ruin when Jimmie appears holding the insurance policy, which he found in the room just before the blast. All is forgiven and Jimmie wins the girl.

I must say, the film never slackened the pace of its jokes, even if I thought the elevator gags started to get stale. Like Lige Conley’s Educational two-reelers, the first half of Holy Smoke (1921) has precious little to do with the second and could have been cut entirely without much narrative damage. But just as cutting the pointless department store scenes from Fast and Furious (1924) would have meant losing the impressive stop-motion sequence, dropping the first reel here would mean no elevator — and it was an interesting enough physical comedy prop.

Slapstick isn’t really my style, but I’ll grant this was a pretty good, zany short comedy.

My rating: I like it.

Black Beauty (Vitagraph, 1921)

Black Beauty PosterBlack Beauty (Vitagraph, 1921)
Directed by David Smith
Starring Jean Paige

“Better than the book” the poster proudly boasts, and while I can’t echo that claim – largely because the film has precious little to do with the book beyond borrowing a few situations and character names – I have to say, taken on its own terms, I was surprised at how good Black Beauty (1921) actually is.

Anna Sewell’s “autobiography of a horse” is hiding somewhere in the background, but the thrust of story deals with a corrupt and menacing “adventurer” named Jack Beckett (George Webb) who attempts to frame recently deceased George Gordon (Colin Kenny) with the theft of a large amount of money in an effort to blackmail George’s sister, Jessie Gordon (Jean Paige), into marrying him.

The acting is universally good, but George Webb steals the show with his portrayal of Jack Beckett. On the surface, he’s suave and self-assured, but underneath is a dark and oppressive nature that leaves little doubt that he would stop at nothing to see his scheme through.

Although not as freewheeling as it was in the 1910s, film grammar had still yet to be rigidly codified in 1921 and Black Beauty tells its story in an unusual way. The film takes on the conceit of a stage play – complete with a curtain that opens and closes on each act. In any other film, it could come across as little more than a gimmick, but here, the technique is fully exploited to heighten the drama of the film’s conclusion, when we go from the claustrophobic, stage-like sets where Beckett had imposed himself on Jessie, and break into a sweeping, cinematic chase scene with a highly mobile camera as Beckett’s scheme begins to crumble. And it works – I was on the edge of my seat from the start of the last act to the very end.

As long as you don’t go in expecting to see something that more than slightly resembles the book, I guarantee you will not be disappointed by this film.

My rating: I like it.


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