Blog Archives

Satan Town (Pathé, 1926)

satan-town-screenshot-1Satan Town (Pathé, 1926)
Directed by Edmund Mortimer
Starring Harry Carey and Kathleen Collins

Ladies and gentlemen, I feel that I need to apologize. I don’t often watch videos. Usually when I watch something, I’m screening a film print. When I’m running something that I’ve half a mind to write about, I’ll have a video camera off to the side vaguely pointed at the screen so that I’ve got a file to pull screenshots from. It’s sometimes out of focus and poorly exposed, and maybe the top or bottom of the frame is cropped off, and the picture is always horribly skewed, but everything went wrong with today’s screenshots. I am sorry.

Satan Town — “The Wickedest Place in the World – Tourists Welcome”, so says the banner across main street. Bill Scott (Harry Carey) rides into the city looking for adventure. At the Palace Hotel, the wickedest place in Satan Town, Sue (Kathleen Collins) of the Salvation Army strives to reach one or two of the drunks, gamblers, and prostitutes that throng the saloon.

Malamute (Ben Hendricks), the bouncer at the bar, never shies from a fight, and what’s more, he’s never lost one. Sue, to her misfortune, has gotten on his nerves. Bill enters just in time to get between Malamute and Sue. After a brief but spirited battle, Malamute is bested.

satan-town-screenshot-2It doesn’t end there, of course. Malamute attempts revenge several times and is repelled by Bill at each turn. The direct approach not working, Malamute tries a more indirect route. Sue gets a letter from Pearl, a prostitute at the Palace, saying that she’s ill. When Sue gets to room 16, however, she’s met only by Frisco Bob (Charles Delaney), the band leader. Bob is in cahoots with Malamute to ruin Sue’s reputation and thus drive her out of town. As Bob approaches menacingly, Sue picks up a convenient gun that was left on the table. Bob is undeterred. When he’s almost on her, she fires. Bob is not hit. The girl standing in the doorway, however, is. Pearl crumples to the floor, dead.

The evidence is against her and Sue is arrested. On the way to jail, Bob rides in and sweeps up Sue. A mob forms to retake her, but just then, a woman appears (I don’t know who it is — doesn’t really matter) and tells them that Pearl isn’t really dead. All of it was staged to frame Sue — Pearl and Bob are laughing it up at the bar this minute. Malamute, who’s been in the background all along, sees his plans unraveling before his eyes. He pulls his gun to shoot Sue, but Bill’s quicker and shoots him first.

The worm begins to turn. The mob rather suddenly switches sides. “Let’s wipe out the whole rotten town!” a woman cries. The way it’s acted and blocked, the scene plays out very much like the False Maria inciting the workers scene in Metropolis, so much so that, if it weren’t for the fact that this film is a year older, I’d say it was ripped off from it. As it is… well, I wonder if Fritz Lang was a fan of westerns.

satan-town-screenshot-3Bill and Sue embrace in the middle of the road, the town literally in flames around them as a crazed torch-wielding mob races about in a frenzy of destruction, left “to a life of peace and happiness”.

I liked it. The film’s kinda hokey, its plot’s a little thin and what plot it has is well-worn, Carey is very much taking his cues from William S. Hart’s good bad man shtick and the whole story bears more than a passing resemblance to Hell’s Hinges (1916), but for all that, I liked it. It helps that it’s easy to look at, being very well acted and expertly shot (though the screenshots may not seem so). And the title is great; how could anything called Satan Town be bad?

The only questionable things are a couple of weird tonal shifts. The film was advertised as a western drama and nothing else. For everything between the first scene and the last, I wouldn’t argue that. It is, on the whole, a melodrama that’s played completely straight, but the satire is so in your face at the open and close that I can’t believe it was unintentional. I’m not sure what they were going for with that.

My rating: I like it.

The next video out will be an HD remaster of The Victoria Cross (1912). After that, I’m not so sure, but I’m leaning toward The Doll-House Mystery (1915) or maybe The Dancer (1916).

Hoot Mon! (Educational, 1926)

Hoot Mon screenhot 1Hoot Mon! (Educational, 1926)
Directed by Harold Beaudine
Starring Bobby Vernon

Are you familiar with the stereotype that the Scottish are stingy? That’s Hoot Mon! (1926).

To elaborate a bit more, Bobby (Bobby Vernon) is a car salesman in Scotland — or rather, he’s an attempted car salesman, given that he’s yet to sell a single car.

While driving down the road, he upsets Sandy McTarnish’s (Jack Duffy) horse, knocking the Scotsman off his buggy and into an open well. Thus begins the undying feud between Bobby and Clan McTarnish.

Later, he incurs the wrath of McRuff (William Irving) by flirting with McTarnish’s daughter (Frances Lee) — who we’re told is a prime example of “what a fine Scotch should look like” (like Broken China (1926), Hoot Mon! is very punny with its titles). McRuff fixes him for stealing his lassie by cutting both the brakes and steering of his car. Bobby careens through the countryside until he crashes into McTarnish’s castle — knocking McTarnish into the fireplace in the process. Ever the optimist, Bobby then tries to sell him the car, but is chased out.

The McRuffs and the McTarnishes are also feuding, which gives McRuff an idea for getting rid of Bobby. He gives Bobby a set of McRuff plaid and a bagpipe, telling him that McTarnish will “fall right on [his] neck” when he sees him. Bobby returns to the castle and blows into the bagpipe, which McRuff has loaded with ash. The soot shoots straight into McTarnish’s eyes.

Hoot Mon screenhot 2“The McRuff Clan has blackened the McTarnish Clan’s honor — I mean face!” Sandy cries to his fellow McTarnishes, who take up their swords in revenge. The McRuffs are ready to meet the challenge and a pitched battle ensues, much to Bobby’s chagrin, as he’s sure this will hamper the sale of his car. Then a sure-fire way to settle the matter dawns on him: he pulls out a nickel and tosses it on the floor. The McRuffs all drop their swords and scramble for it. McRuff himself takes the bait, and as he leans over, Bobby knocks him out with the hilt of his sword.

“That sight is worth a thousand dollars to me!” McTarnish says. $500 will do, Bobby replies, handing him the contract for the car. Daughter McTarnish reappears and Bobby resumes flirting with her. McTarnish tears up the contract: “Now that it looks like you’re going to be in the family, I won’t need a car — we can use yours!”

There are actually a great deal more cheapskate Scottish jokes — they make up the majority of the film, I’ve just glossed over most of them. I’ll grant that it’s nowhere near Broken China’s level of offensiveness and that it could have been much, much worse. Some of the jokes are even a bit funny, like when Bobby declares to a group of Scotsmen that all the car’s accessories are free and then they push him aside and proceed to take them. Also, despite being half the length of Broken China, Hoot Mon! manages to present a story that’s more than just an extended chase sequence. But I think Hoot Mon! only shines in comparison; I don’t think it’s that I like Hoot Mon! so much as it is that I hate Broken China. That’s reinforced by All Jazzed Up (1920), the third Bobby Vernon film I watched that night, which I found to be a quite good, if dark, short comedy. I can’t help but like Bobby Vernon, though. He plays nebbish so well — I would even venture to say that he plays it better than Harold Lloyd.

My rating: Meh.

Broken China (Educational, 1926)

Broken China screenshotBroken China (Educational, 1926)
Directed by Harold Beaudine
Starring Bobby Vernon

Bobby (Bobby Vernon) wants to marry Betty (Frances Lee), but Betty comes from a long line of cops and her father forbids her from marrying anyone not on the force. The policeman’s ball is a costume party and Bobby decides to go dressed as a cop in the hopes of melting Betty’s father’s hard heart.

News arrives that Won Lung (Bill Blaisdell), the infamous smuggler, is back in operation in Chinatown. The whole force is called out for a raid. Bobby, in costume, is confused for a real cop and taken along. He finds himself separated from the others and, after some antics, falls quite accidentally into Won Lung’s secret underground hideout. Bobby, again quite accidentally, offends Won Lung and he and his henchmen pursue Bobby around the hideout for ten or twelve minutes. They catch him several times in traps both mechanical and supernatural (their god “Boola Boola” doesn’t much like Bobby either) only to keep losing him.

Eventually, Bobby figures out how to turn their own traps against them. One by one, he delivers the Chinese smugglers into the waiting hands of the police before escorting Won Lung to the back of the police wagon himself. Betty’s father congratulates him and she and Bobby kiss as the film ends.

 

I first became aware of this film from the TV series The Secret Life of Machines (1988-1993). It pretty frequently used clips from silent films, and a clip from Broken China (1926) was used to illustrate pneumatic elevators (one of the contraptions in Won Lung’s hideout). I had my eye out for it pretty much ever since and finally got my hands on a print several weeks ago.

Now, I don’t normally point out casual racism in films from this era. It comes with the territory, especially in comedy, and you’ve got to look beyond it. But holy good goddamn is this a racist film. Aside from the horrendous Chinese jokes, most of the humor is height-based. Bill Blaisdell is about a foot and a half taller than Bobby Vernon and much of the second half of the picture revolves around watching a shrimp trying and failing to fight a towering giant. The situation is briefly reversed when Blaisdell is crushed into a dwarf by a descending elevator. Bobby is quite cocky until his foe inflates back to his normal proportions. Also, if you dislike puns or double entendre, you will hate this film as almost every title includes one if not both.

Offensiveness aside, most of the film’s attempts at comedy are groan inducing. Some of the wordplay’s not bad (the policeman’s ball, held “in honor of the cop who pinched an old maid in the dark”) and the stick-figure illustrations on the intertitles are cute, but that’s about all I can say to its favor.

My rating: I don’t like it.

The Bat (Roland West, 1926)

The Bat posterThe Bat (Roland West, 1926)
Directed by Roland West
With an ensemble cast

The film starts with a card imploring the audience to not reveal the identity of The Bat to those who have yet to see it, so I won’t. I’ll just say that The Bat is a costumed villain who has been pulling off a series of high-profile robbery-murders. Although out in force, the police have been unable to pin him down.

Near the start, we find him on the roof of the Oakdale bank, but he seems to have been beaten to the punch. Through the skylight, he sees another man – presumably one of the cashiers – make off with $200,000.

Most of the action, however, is set in an old, dark, country house that’s occupied by the dryly sarcastic Cornelia Van Gorder (Emily Fitzroy), her niece Dale (Jewel Carmen), and her scaredy-cat maid (Louise Fazenda). Seven others, The Bat included, eventually show up for their own mysterious reasons and are not afraid to kill anyone who gets in their way. I can’t say much else without giving it away.

There are some Scooby-Doo antics – including the running in and out of doors in a hallway gag – that some might find weirdly off-kilter when compared to darker scenes, but I think the film has a fairly good mix of comedy and drama.

The story plays out at a very quick pace. With the large number of characters and their disparate plotlines, turn away for an instant and you’ll surely be lost. After a couple twists, everything does come together in a satisfying conclusion.

It’s a fun film. If you don’t expect it to take itself too seriously, I’m sure you’ll enjoy the ride.

My rating: I like it.

‘Morning, Judge (Red Seal, 1926)

'Morning Judge screenshot ‘Morning, Judge (Red Seal, 1926)
Directed by Dave Fleischer
Starring Peggy Shaw and Flora Finch

Flora Finch is most known for playing opposite John Bunny as his shrewish wife in the numerous “Bunnyfinches” the two made for Vitagraph in the early 1910s. When Bunny unexpectedly died in 1915, she attempted to continue the act solo. It didn’t really work out. Going from the height of stardom in the ’10s, her career sunk lower and lower until, by the end of her life, she was reduced to doing extra work.

In ‘Morning, Judge, Finch plays Crabbine Hicks, president of the Women’s Uplift Society. To give an idea of her moral conviction, she once organized a movement “to prevent saw mills from selling undressed lumber”. The local theatre is playing a saucy can-can dance routine, which Crabbine successfully sues to shutdown.

Peggy Pierce (Peggy Shaw) is among the now out of work chorus girls. The coat boy at the theatre is Crabbine’s son, Buster (James Terbell). Buster is rather taken with Peggy, and as she has nowhere to go, Buster suggests that she and the other girls come over to his house. Mother is out all day with the society, and Dad (Joseph Burke) isn’t the sort to care.

Crabbine and the other society members are at the train station when one of them realizes they’ve left the treasury back at Crabbine’s house. The group discusses for a moment before deciding to go get it. They’re overheard by Naughty Nick, a “large bandit at large” who’s “in the country for his health, after too much night work in the financial district”. Nick also decides to pay the Hicks house a visit.

 

‘Morning, Judge is not a good film – not at all. It’s unfocused, unfunny, the plot just meanders from one scene to the next, and the “resolution”, if you can even call it that, is infuriating:

The police cum fire department are called, who turn out to be a rustic version of the Keystone Cops. Yes, you didn’t read wrong, the film was indeed released in 1926, not 1916. The force is complete with a dwarf, a giant, and a fat man (I suppose they wanted to cover all their bases) and they completely wreck the house when they arrive. One of them climbs down a ladder cradling what looks like a baby wrapped in a blanket, but golly gee, it’s actually a fire extinguisher. Ha, ha, ha, the end.

The chorus girls? Naughty Nick? Buster and Dad? No time for them when you’ve got a killer sight gag like that to go out on. Rarely has a film – and a comedy film, no less – angered me so much as ‘Morning, Judge. It’s only February, but I think I’ve already seen my worst film of the year.

My rating: I don’t like it.