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William Tells (FBO, 1924)

William Tells (FBO, 1924)
Directed by Malcolm St. Clair
Starring Alberta Vaughn

William Tells (1924) is the sixth episode in The Telephone Girl series. It, along with all the other episodes, was originally a two-reeler, but my print is not complete. What I’ve got seems to be most of the first reel minus the main title, then a big jump, then the final few minutes of the second reel minus the end card. Who knows why it’s cut like that, but I’ve also got a print of Laughing Gas (1924) from the same source that’s similarly edited. It’s an original 35mm nitrate print.

Gladys (Alberta Vaughn) and Hazel (Gertrude Short), formerly switchboard operators at the St. Moe Hotel in New York, have been lured to Paris by Julius de Haven (Arthur Rankin), a movie producer who promised to make them stars. Stardom, however, seems not to be forthcoming and the two girls are holed-up in their hotel room until they find some way back to the States.

After them are Jerry (Albert Cooke) and Jimmie (Kit Guard), the former being St. Moe’s house detective and the latter its bellhop. They’re on the train from Beauvais. In the same compartment is a gendarme. It seems like they might already be acquainted but they certainly are after the trio gets into some mishaps with a live turkey and some butter-throwing shenanigans.

Skipping a bit and the girls are attempting to order breakfast at a Parisian cafe — attempting, I say, because even with their phrasebook they can’t do much better than ask “mushoo” to “bringez” them “la hammo and eggo”. At a nearby table is William Van Cleve II (Mario Carillo), who pays close attention to the girls. What his intent is can only be guessed by his motto “Sheik and Ye Shall Find”, because now we skip to the end:

It’s night time at the bustling Cafe Oo-La-La. The girls are there, as are Jerry and Jimmie, who are still trying to duck the police. Gladys and Hazel are accompanied by Van Cleve, who carries himself with quite an aristocratic bearing. It’s a slight embarrassment when the waiter recognizes him as a man of his own profession and demands repayment of a three-dollar loan he made him. Just then, the gendarme appears and moves to arrest Jerry and Jimmie. They get away in confusion when the scuffle between Van Cleve and the waiter breaks into an enormous fight that engulfs the entire restaurant.

I think my summary makes the film sound more slapstick than it is. Most of the humor comes from the very jokey and referential titles (it namechecks A Woman of Paris and The Sheik).

If I remember from the research I did when I acquired the print back in 2009, The Telephone Girl is an orphaned work — meaning, it’s still under copyright, but who exactly owns it isn’t clear. Robertson-Cole became FBO became RKO, which finally went kaput in 1957. The library was split up mostly between United Artists and MBP. MGM took over most of MBP’s holdings, and in turn were taken over by Turner. That’s just U.S. video rights — international rights are scattered to the four winds and theatrical rights, now that’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish. All that can safely be said is that the copyright on the series was renewed on January 10th, 1952 and is therefore still in force.

I’m only aware of one other extant episode — episode four, Sherlock’s Home, survives on 16mm.

I suppose William Tells is all right. Not terribly funny, but not a groaner either. Some of the titles are cute — I’m particularly fond of Hazel being “sorry to hear Napoleon is dead. She didn’t even know he was sick.”

My rating: Meh.

In other news, The Doll-House Mystery should have already been out, but I’ve had a minor illness and am running behind. It shouldn’t take much longer, I hope. The next video, a lovely Kodascope of Tough Luck and Tin Lizzies, is already scanned and waiting in the wings.

The Last Man (Export & Import, 1924)

The Last Man screenshotThe Last Man (Export & Import, 1924)
Directed by Bertram Bracken
Starring Richard Sterling and Hedda Nova

Selig Polyscope was a fascinating place. They were one of the pioneering American studios, releasing their first film, The Tramp and the Dog, in 1896. They popularized the western — indeed, their stars Tom Mix and G.M. Anderson essentially defined the genre. They invented the serial cliffhanger with The Adventures of Kathlyn (1913), Kathlyn literally hanging from a cliff at the end of an episode. They dabbled in early talkies, using the recently invented Audion vacuum tube as an electronic amplifier (obviously, to not very great success).

Short comedy westerns were still their stock in trade, but by the 1910s, they had made a name for themselves in the new genre of the jungle adventure. Self-styled Colonel William Selig was rather interested in animals and had amassed quite a menagerie, which were put to good use in front of the camera.

Then came the twin troubles — World War I and the dissolution of the Patents Trust — and with them, the end of cinema as America had known it. The war had cut-off the vital European markets that the Trust studios had come to depend on, but they might have persevered had the Trust survived. Since 1908, the Motion Picture Patents Company had a stranglehold on production, using the courts to marginalize independent producers and promote the films of the Trust studios. Although their patents eventually expired, the monopoly they had created continued to be near-insurmountable, until independent producer Carl Laemmle sued. In 1915, it reached the Supreme Court and the MPPC was busted under the Sherman Antitrust Act.

The Trust studios were pioneers, but they had grown complacent. They had clung too fast to the old ways, particularly concentrating on programs consisting of several shorts rather than feature-length films. Suddenly, the uneven playing field was leveled and they faced competition for the first time. One by one they fell. Vitagraph was the last to go in 1925.

Selig folded much quicker, in 1918. Erstwhile studio boss William Selig spun off his menagerie into a zoo. He had great plans for his Selig Zoo Park in East Los Angeles, intending for it not only to be a zoo, but essentially Disneyland — a jungle-themed amusement park with huge carnival rides, a water park, restaurants, and resort hotels. None of this ever came off. The zoo languished for several years without ever making a profit. His fortune entirely lost, Selig gave most of his animals to the Griffith Park Zoo and died in 1948.

But prior to that, after the closure of Selig Polyscope but before Selig himself was quite ruined, he attempted to break back into the movie industry as an independent. In 1921, he got a three-year contract from the Export & Import Film Company. Export & Import was a short-lived distribution house that essentially dealt in B-movies — low budget filler for padding out the program at second-run, proto-grindhouse theatres. Selig turned in a series of six two-reel shorts collectively called The Jungle Stories. They were mostly acted by nobodies, but each was headlined by a “name” actor. Hedda Nova was the star of The Last Man, released in 1924, and a star she was… half a dozen years earlier, at Vitagraph during its heyday. But she was still recognizable, if not exactly a draw.

 

A group of college friends about to set out into the world to win their fortunes make a promise to each other to meet again in three years’ time. John Gaunt (Richard Sterling) goes to “the wilds of South America”. At the appointed time, the old college friends reunite. Gaunt seems to be a no-show until he arrives two hours late, his clothes in tatters, sporting shoulder-length hair and a Grizzly Adams beard. In his search for gold, he explains, he found himself lost in the jungle…

·._.·´¯`·. Flashback .·´¯`·._.·

Gaunt, weak from hunger, was found by “A Crazed Scientist” (James Mason) and “His Crazed Negro Slave” (Oscar Morgan). In the grand tradition of the Selig films of yore, none of the back-story is ever explained, but it would seem that the Scientist was not always Crazed and had come to the jungle to collect wildlife specimens. Something happened (maybe it was lightning…) and he lost his grip on reality. Now he tends to his personal zoo in the jungle, and he sees in Gaunt nothing more than “a wonderful specimen” to add to his collection.

Gaunt meets his fellow exhibits: there’s a llama, a puma, a leopard, a monkey, and a Joan Darcy (Hedda Nova). Joan has been there for two years. There hasn’t been a cage prepared for Gaunt yet, so he’s kept in the Scientist’s cave. Pretending to be asleep, he sees the Scientist bury a quantity of gold (never mind where it came from, but keep it in the back of your mind). After the Scientist turns in for the night, Gaunt sneaks out. He frees Joan — which wasn’t hard, given that her cage was made out of sticks — and they abscond into the jungle.

The Slave has alerted his master to the escape of the two human specimens and they set out in pursuit. Unlucky for Joan and Gaunt, the monkey has followed them and led the Crazies right to their hiding place. They are swiftly recaptured.

Either as a punishment or simply out of madness, Gaunt is shoved into the puma pen, where he does battle with a puma puppet that would make Ed Wood and his octopus smile. Gaunt lives to see another day… and then another 729 days in captivity.

“Then one night, an act of Providence.” Zeus tosses down a lightning bolt that shatters Gaunt’s cage. Simultaneously, it has further crazed the Crazed Negro Slave, who now turns on the Scientist for some reason. Gaunt can’t free Joan for some reason, so he leaves alone, promising to return with help. Meanwhile, a fight breaks out between the Crazies, in which they both strangle each other to death.

Gaunt makes it back just in time for the party (hand wave, hand wave, tramp steamer). The friends are not terribly keen on helping, until Thomas Wynn (William C. Ehfe) hears tell of the Scientist’s treasure. If you don’t follow the We Hate Movies podcast, pause now to have a listen to their take on Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Thomas Wynn is their impression of Ray “the gowld — gimme the gowld — I want the gowld” Winstone, to a T.

They return with Gaunt to the jungle and rediscover the Crazy Zoo. The buzzards are circling. All the animals are dead and enough time has passed that the Crazies are now nothing more than sun-bleached skeletons. Surely, Joan is no longer of this world.

But no! The monkey (!) has been feeding her (!!) with bananas (!!!) and she is saved. This is of little concern to Wynn — “where’s the gold” … “where did you say that gold was?” … “let me have the gold!” He busies himself in search of the Scientist’s cave, and lo!, “I’ve found it! The gold! Look! Look!”

The end.

 

I love this film. It’s absolutely terrible in every conceivable way, but it never stops being entertaining, and it just keeps ratcheting up the craziness to an almost fevered pitch. It encapsulates everything I love about Selig films (yes, it wasn’t technically made by the old studio, but it may as well have been). It wasn’t the last of The Jungle Stories, but it is to my knowledge the last survivor, and it makes a fitting capstone to the Colonel’s career.

My rate: I like it (!!!!).


Available from Harpodeon

The Hollywood Kid (Mack Sennett, 1924)

The Hollywood Kid screenshotThe Hollywood Kid (Mack Sennett, 1924)
Directed by Roy Del Ruth
Starring Jackie Lucas, Vernon Dent, and Charles Murray

A screenwriter (Vernon Dent) is trying to pitch a new screenplay to Mack Sennett (himself), who tells him that he’ll make the picture on the condition that the right child actor can be found to play the lead. They find a four or five year old kid playing baseball who somehow manages to lose his pants on the field, hide inside a barrel, and then lose the barrel (Jackie Lucas). He’s just the ticket, they agree, as they rush back to Mack Sennett Studios to get a contract drawn up. A spy from a rival studio (Billy Bevan) is in the room when they return and learns of their hot new discovery. What ensues is a race between the Sennett man and the spy, each hoping to reach the boy’s father (Charles Murray) first and get the kid signed on. Also, a big rolling boulder – at one point, they’re chased by a big, rolling boulder.

It isn’t my style of comedy, but the film is a great behind-the-scenes look at Mack Sennett Studios, including the cyclorama used to shoot cartoon-style chase scenes, where the actors run on what’s essentially a treadmill while a giant circular mural spins behind them. I found it interesting in that regard. Sennett’s world-weary nonchalance, not even batting an eye when a lion enters the room and jumps on his desk, was really the only thing I found funny as far as the narrative goes.

My rating: Meh.

Fast and Furious (Educational, 1924)

Fast and Furious screenshotFast and Furious (Educational, 1924)
Directed by Norman Taurog
Starring Lige Conley

When I reviewed Air Pockets (1924) back in February, I had never seen a Lige Conley film before. I was very impressed by it and began wondering whether Conley was an overlooked genius or if Air Pockets was just a fluke. Now that I’ve seen Fast and Furious (1924), I suspect it’s the latter.

The film is rather starkly divided into two acts. In the first act, we meet Lige Conley, who plays a nameless department store clerk. We also meet his boss (Otto Fries) and the big boss (John Rand). The big boss has a daughter (Ruth Hiatt) that the film hints may be Conley’s love interest, but that plot thread doesn’t really go anywhere. Truth be told, the same can be said for all of the plot threads in the first act. Something will be abruptly introduced, there will be exactly one gag related to it, then, just as abruptly, it will be dropped forever. The only event that actually leads to anything is the last bit: robbers appear and make off with the store’s money, which takes us to act two.

In the second act, Conley and his black caricature assistant (uncredited, but it’s Spencer Bell) give chase and try to recover the stolen money. Whether they travel by car, motorcycle, horse, train, or railroad handcar, everything that can go wrong for Conley does. It’s still little more than a series of one-off gags, but at least the vague “chase” framework gives it some of the focus that the first act was sorely lacking.

Lige Conley is channeling Larry Semon something hard in his performance, and it doesn’t help that his partner in the film, Spencer Bell, was Semon’s long-time sidekick – although in Semon’s films, Bell is better known by the pseudonym G. Howe Black.

The first act of Fast and Furious is pointless. There was literally no plot, few of the gags worked, and nearly all of the situations were lifted wholesale from much more effective films. I would say you could cut it entirely, but then you’d lose the only decent scene in the movie: a heat lamp is turned on some eggs, and in a great stop-motion sequence, they sprout legs, dance around the counter, and then hatch into chicks. The second act had some impressive stunts and special effects, but stunts and special effects alone don’t make for a good comedy.

I did not like Fast and Furious. I do not recommend it. I don’t think there’s anything more to say.

My rating: I don’t like it.

Air Pockets (Educational, 1924)

Lige ConleyAir Pockets (Educational, 1924)
Directed by Fred Hibbard
Starring Lige Conley

Well that was a thing. I’m not too familiar with Lige Conley. In fact, to my knowledge, this is the first film of his that I’ve seen. I wonder if all of his work is this… well, I’m getting ahead of myself.

For a slapstick comedy, the plot of Air Pockets (1924) is surprisingly intricate. The foundation of the story involves a private detective, Uranius Holmes (Earl Montgomery), whose card tells us that he specializes in “Alimony, bombs, and secrecy – not responsible for lost property”. Holmes drums up business by committing the crimes he hopes to investigate.

No… no, I shouldn’t start with that. The plot really hinges on this committee of wealthy investors, led by Sanford Morgan (Otto Fries), who are being extorted by a mysterious person called Moscow Murphy under the threat of something unsavory happening to Morgan’s daughter (Olive Borden) – who does, in fact, turn up kidnapped later in the film.

Wait, back up. There’s this guy named Octavius Jones (Lige Conley), an inventor who fancies himself to be a real mover-and-shaker in the automotive industry. He’s invented a revolutionary “folding flivver” that will render the garage obsolete, if only he could get his hands on enough venture capital.

He’s also got a mother-in-law who’s fat (Sunshine Hart). That’s it. Her plotline, at least, is easy enough to follow.

With it all separated out, you might see how each story segues into the others, but understand that Air Pockets jumbles them together in an almost dreamlike manner. It has its fair share of standard slapstick gags, making much use of Octavius’s car and Uranius’s airplane (did I mention he has an airplane?), but it’s the confused, illogical-but-yet-unquestioned way that the story unfolds that really makes “dreamlike” the best way to describe it.

Also of note, the last act takes place mostly in the air and features some very good aerial photography and miniature work.

A word of warning, you will not like this film if you’re sensitive to racial comedy. It isn’t quite on the level of G. Howe Black in Wizard of Oz (1925), but Morgan’s valet and chauffeur and the mechanic at the airport speak in an exaggerated dialect (“Oh mammy – bring dat ground closer to mah feet”) and are the butt of many, many a joke.

That aside, I found Air Pockets mesmerizing to watch and will admit that it got a few laughs out of me. I think that counts as an endorsement.

My rating: I like it.