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Be Honest (Hal Roach, 1923)

be-honest-screenshot-1Be Honest (Hal Roach, 1923)
Directed by Len Powers
Starring the Dippy-Doo-Dads

Like Lampblack, Amateur Detective, this is another film that I had no idea what was until I transferred it, as it was a retitled Pathé Baby release in French without any clues in the catalogue description as to what its original title might have been. Unlike Lampblack, this didn’t turn out to be an excerpt or an abridgment — it’s a complete and unedited copy of Be Honest (1923).

Be Honest is an early (third episode, I think) installment of the Dippy-Doo-Dads series. These are live action films with an all-animal cast that are meant to be funny although they come across as more horrifying than anything else. And that isn’t just me looking back at them with modern eyes — check out some of the contemporary protests lodged by the American Animal Defense League against abusive animal pictures in general and the Dippy-Doo-Dads in particular. These “animals are undoubted cruelly treated”, they allege, and I doubt any sane viewer would disagree. The monkey who plays Siki looks positively terrified in every scene he’s in.

Hal Roach went all-out for the later releases and built a whole town at miniature scale for the Dippy-Doo-Dads, but Be Honest and earlier films were just shot at some dilapidated farm.

be-honest-screenshot-2Latude has been caged for thirty-five days (weirdly high-brow reference for this sort of film) and has grown bored and hungry. He provokes a nearby horse into kicking open the cage. Once he escapes, Latude goes on a feeding frenzy — stealing all the eggs from the farm. Siki, astride his canine mount Toto, assumes the role of policeman in bringing Latude to justice, but Latude is a wily fugitive, and even after Siki seems to have drowned him in a sack at the bottom of the lake, he effects one more “legendary escape” and lives to see another day.

My print spent the last fifty years in a puddle of standing water. Once the video is released (which it will be soon), try to guess which two bobbins were on the bottom of the stack; I don’t think the answer will surprise you. One is bad, but the third bobbin was so warped and rusted, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get the film out. Despite the humidity, the two bobbins that weren’t in actual contact with the water — two and four — are in nearly perfect condition.

It sometimes takes effort to sufficiently divorce yourself from the content of a film that you can come to appreciate it for what it is. It’s not a matter of liking it; I can appreciate films that I find thoroughly unpleasant. But then there comes a film like Broken China, which is just insurmountably racist, or this, which revels in abusing animals. These are films I don’t think I can ever appreciate, let alone like.

My rating: I don’t like it.


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Der Verlorene Shuch (UFA, 1923)

Cinderella screenshotDer Verlorene Shuch (UFA, 1923)
Directed by Ludwig Berger
Starring Helga Thomas and Paul Hartmann

This German production was originally titled Der Verlorene Shuch (“The Lost Shoe”), but my print is from a British release that calls it simply Cinderella.

There are several more ghosts in this telling than in the version I’m more familiar with, and the fairy godmother here is a lot less… airy. I think she might keep a residence in the catacombs under the Paris Opera House. She even plays the organ and stands on the roof with a flowing cape. I also don’t recall there being any explosions in Cinderella.

Cinderella (Helga Thomas) learns from her fairy godmother’s (Frida Richard) magic mirror that her widower father is going to marry a wealthy but cruel woman (Lucie Höflich) with two vain daughters (Mady Christians, Olga Tschechowa), which he does. The day they move in, Cinderalla meets three homeless beggars outside Stepmother’s mansion. She invites them in and gives them her dinner. Stepmother discovers this, snatches away the soup bowl, and smashes it on the floor – “There will be no beggars in my house!” They leave and evidently starve to death.

King Kindheart (Leonhard Haskel) gets out of his Olympic-sized bathtub and decides that it’s high-time that his son, Prince Charming (Paul Hartmann), got married. A ball is announced to which everyone is invited, but of course, Stepmother disallows Cinderella from attending. After her stepmother and stepsisters leave, the ghosts of the three beggars appear to Cinderella, give her a key to the cemetery, and tell her to go pray over her mother’s grave.

There, a flurry of rose petals shower down on Cinderella and her rags are transformed into an elegant ball gown. Fairy Godmother climbs down from her wizard’s tower and ushers Cinderella into a magical carriage – warning her that both it and her gown will vanish at the stroke of midnight.

Meanwhile, Prince Charming is trying to pick out the most beautiful girl at the ball, but none take his fancy. Cinderella arrives, along with Fairy Godmother (she’s evidently been engaged to provide the music). Prince Charming falls in love with Cinderella at first sight. They dance until a late supper is announced, when Cinderella realizes midnight is only minutes away. Running toward the door, her gown turns back into rags and her coach turns, not into a pumpkin, but into a chiming clock. She keeps running. Prince Charming gives chase, but thanks to Fairy Godmother’s interference, fails to catch Cinderella. He does find one of her shoes, however, which she lost in her flight.

Prince Charming falls deathly ill – lovesick for the unknown woman he danced with the night of the ball. One of his attendants thinks the shoe he continues to clutch is the source of his sickness and tries to take it away. Fairy Godmother counters by literally reducing the attendant to a bubbling pile of goo.

It’s announced that Prince Charming will marry whoever’s foot fits the lost shoe. Fairy Godmother gives Cinderella a basket of fruit and tells her to deliver it to the palace. She somehow manages to get in, but is taken for a “gipsy” and soon chased out, losing a shoe in the process. Prince Charming realizes it matches the other shoe and runs after Cinderella.

Cinderella stumbles through the fields and woods on the way to her fairy godmother’s wizard’s tower, which explodes in a great fireball and reassembles into a tiny palace. Prince Charming catches up with Cinderella and finds that the shoe has transformed into a crown. He places it on Cinderella’s head as the ghosts watch from the palace windows.

 

It’s still a kids’ film, but it’s a lot darker than most kids’ films, and has some downright scary scenes – particularly those dealing with the witch-like fairy godmother and the ghost beggars. All the same, it’s a charming picture with great set design and cinematography. The story, aside from being based on the Cinderella fairy tale, is as far as I can tell original. It successfully plays with and expands on the source material without losing its heart in the process, which is quite hard to do. Der Verlorene Shuch (1923) is a thoroughly enjoyable watch.

My rating: I like it.

The Great Outdoors (Hal Roach, 1923)

The Great Outdoors slideThe Great Outdoors (Hal Roach, 1923)
Directed by Fred Guiol
Starring Frank Butler, Laura Roessing, and Sidney D’Albrook

The Spat family – that is, J. Tewksbury Spat (Frank Butler), his wife Mrs. J. Tewksbury Spat (Laura Roessing), and her brother Ambrose (Sidney D’Albrook) – are out camping. None of them being entirely on the ball, they neglected to bring fishing poles. When hunger sets in, they jump in the river and try to catch trout by hand. This… doesn’t go well. All they succeed in doing is getting soaking wet, and that’s when they realize they didn’t bring anything else to wear. They had better work something out before the sun sets and they freeze to death. Tewksbury’s starts a fire and Ambrose rigs up a clothesline to dry off their things. Trouble is, the clothesline runs directly over the fire, which they don’t notice until they’ve burned every last stitch of clothing they have.

As chance would have it, camping nearby is group of outlaws – three of them, in fact: two men and a woman (Katherine Grant, George Rowe, Jules Mendel). Tewks gets an idea: he goes near their camp, just out of sight, and tosses a rock in the river, loudly exclaiming “There goes all our money!” The outlaws strip down to their underwear and jump in after the supposed loot. The Spats then help themselves to their discarded clothes. Unfortunately, they were a bit too slow and the outlaws see them as they’re getting away. Commence the chase.

The chase leads to the railroad tracks, where the Spats have several misadventures with the pursuing outlaws and with a railroad bull who doesn’t take kindly to them hopping on his train. At the end of the line is “the final disaster”: a cop spots the Spats climbing down off a boxcar and, given their dress, takes them for the wanted outlaws. Fade to black as they’re lead away in handcuffs.

 

The Great Outdoors (1923) is the fourth installment of the 24-part Spat Family Comedies series. How many Spat Comedies survive, I don’t know. Including this one, I’ve seen three. All seem to follow the same basic formula, which I can most easily describe by saying Tewks is the Skipper, Mrs. Spat is Mary Ann, and Ambrose is Gilligan.

I enjoyed Great Outdoors up until the train sequence, when the film seemed to lose focus. There were some good scenes there, and some scary-looking stunts, but they just didn’t fit in with the camping theme. I thought the ending was decent, even if I guessed that was the direction it was headed as soon as the switching clothes gimmick was introduced. All in all, I suppose the good outweighs the bad in this short, so it has my recommendation.

My rating: I like it.

The Soilers (Hal Roach, 1923)

The Soilers screenshotThe Soilers (Hal Roach, 1923)
Directed by Ralph Ceder
Starring Stan Laurel and James Finlayson

I continue my look at silent films with gay themes:

The sissy is a stock character, common in silents, although he neither began nor ended there. Very rarely he gets to be the star, but usually the sissy is in a supporting comic relief role. He’s flamboyant, has stereotypically gay mannerisms, dress, and speech, and is assuredly meant to be read as gay, but how his sexuality is addressed varies from film to film. Most of the time, it simply isn’t mentioned at all. Sometimes he’ll be given a nominal female love interest – sometimes in addition to a less overt male one, letting those in the audience choose to see what they want to see. What’s uncommon is a film where the sissy is explicitly and undeniably gay, but The Soilers (1923) is just such a film.

In the early 1920s, Stan Laurel acted in a series of spoofs of popular films (Mud and Sand, When Knights Were Cold, Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pryde, etc.), most shot and released only months after the originals hit the screen. The Soilers is a spoof of The Spoilers, first a novel by Rex Beach, twice adapted for the silent screen in 1914 and 1923.

In The Spoilers, Roy Glenister stakes a claim during the Alaskan gold rush that proves to be immensely valuable. The government and law enforcement are both corrupt and under the control of Alexander McNamara, who abuses the courts to steal Glenister’s claim. I can’t say for sure about the book, because I’ve never read it, or about the ’23 film, because I’ve never seen it, but in the ’14 version at least, the story culminates with a knock-down-drag-out fight between Glenister and McNamara that lasts so long and gets so violent that it’s ludicrous. The Soilers broadly covers the same ground:  Bob Canister (Stan Laurel) strikes it rich, Smacknamara (James Finlayson) jumps his claim, and it ends with an even more cartoonishly violent, prolonged flight.

But the topic of this review is gay characters. In The Spoilers, a woman named Cherry Malotte is in unrequited love with Glenister. In The Soilers, the Malotte equivalent is a sissy. He doesn’t have a name, so I’ll give him what in the 1920s was considered a stereotypically gay name, Clarence.

We first see Clarence shortly after the fight breaks out. Canister and Smacknamara are brawling across the table when Clarence walks in from the back room. He shows not the slightest care for the fight, but walks up to the table, moves Canister’s head aside, and carefully selects one of the papers. He then turns and strolls out, much to the amazement of the fighters, who’ve paused to watch him leave. They’re interrupted several more times in a similar manner. Eventually, the fight makes its way to the back room, where we see Clarence calmly filing his nails as Canister and Smacknamara try to kill each other.

The fight drags on and winds up downstairs in the saloon. Canister, at last, is victorious, but no one seems to care much – not his mining partners and certainly not Helen (Ena Gregory), whom Canister had been in love with. One person is impressed, however. From the window, Clarence clasps his hands at his heart and cries “My hero!” Canister shrugs him off. Clarence picks up the potted flower from the windowsill, gives it a smell, and then drops the pot on Canister’s head. Canister goes down and the street cleaners toss him in the back of the garbage truck.

 

The Soilers was originally a two-reeler, but that version isn’t in circulation today. I’m not sure if it even survives. I’ve seen the commonly available one-reel cut-down several times and have multiple copies of it in my collection. It’s focused on the fight – the lead-up is trimmed almost to nothing. A while ago, I obtained a copy of the international release, which is also a one-reel cut-down, but it’s a different cut – one that preserves considerably more of the pre-fight sequences. I never really liked The Soilers before, but the additional footage greatly improves the film. Who knew that it actually had a plot after all?

The fight is overly long, and while I’m sure that’s on purpose and part of the parody, it’s still the weakest part of the short. There’s one cut scene that I found funnier: Canister visits the town of Ping-Pong for the first time, which we’re told “is a peaceful place… you might be indiscriminately massacred in the streets, but in perfect tranquility”. There’s a shoot-out going on between everyone and everyone else, with Canister strolling down the center of it all, casually stepping over bodies. It’s very simple, but it’s a good spoof of the original film and the humor flows naturally from it. The fight sequence just tries too hard, in my opinion.

My rating: Meh.


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