The Light in the Dark was a seven reel (about 90 minute) feature released in 1922 starring Hope Hampton. In a supporting role was one Lon Chaney, whose name — unlike Hope Hampton’s — you might actually recognize. In 1927, the film was re-released in an edited form to capitalize on Chaney’s appearance. The Light of Faith, as it was titled, re-worked the original footage to make Chaney into the main character. That could not have been an easy task, considering two thirds of the film had to be cut to accomplish it — The Light of Faith is barely more than half an hour long. Today, the original release of The Light in the Dark is lost, but The Light of Faith version still survives.
Tony Pantelli (Lon Chaney) is a boarder at a rooming house. He’s a crook… I guess? The film isn’t terribly clear on that point. At any rate, he’s there when a new boarder arrives — a pretty girl named Bessie (Hope Hampton). She spends her last dollar on the room and the next day sets out in search of work. After some time passes, Tony finds Bessie collapsed on the stairs. The doctor is called and she’s diagnosed with “break-down”. In her delirium, she calls for someone named Warburton.
Meanwhile, J. Warburton Ashe (E.K. Lincoln) is trying to “forget that he is an unhappy man”, and that means hunting in rural England. His dog leads him into a ruined abbey where he digs up an ancient chalice. Back at the pub, some guy suggests it’s the Holy Grail (spoilers: it is).
Tony brings Bessie the newspaper and she reads about Warburton’s discovery. Tony is unfamiliar with the Grail story, so Bessie briefly recounts the tale of Sir Galahad. This is, hands down, the best part of the film. She tells Tony that the Grail has miraculous healing powers and that’s cue enough — Tony goes to Warburton, punches him right in the face, and runs off with the cup.
Bessie is healed by the power of the Grail, but Tony, unfortunately, finds himself arrested for assault and robbery. At the trial, as Bessie gazes at Warburton, “the misunderstanding that caused her to flee melts away like mist in the sun”. The… the what? There was a misunderstanding? Anyway, Bessie apparently forgives Warburton for something and Warburton refuses to identify Tony as the culprit because that follows, I guess. The end.
Much of the confused plot is obviously the result of cutting 60 minutes from the picture. E.K. Lincoln, who was second billed in The Light in the Dark, barely exists in this version. I’m sure “the misunderstanding” at least got a mention in the original, I’m sure that there was some characterization of Bessie and Warburton, and I’m sure that the plot had some kind of logical progression — but that isn’t the case here.
Abridgements can be done well if handled by a skillful editor, but The Light of Faith was not well edited. For example, at the trial, Warburton is being questioned about the crime when the judge asks to examine the Grail in the dark. The bailiff switches off the lights, the Grail begins to glow, the clouds part, and a beam of sunlight streams through the window like a spotlight on the cup… then the questioning proceeds as if nothing happened. What should be the big, emotional climax is rendered absurd.
However, the Sir Galahad sequence still stands out. In the original release, it was hand-colored — which must have made it even more impressive — but even simply tinted, it’s wonderful.
I’m going to recommend this film. Bessie’s telling of the Grail story is legitimately good, and the rest of the film is the funny kind of bad, which can be just as entertaining.
My rating: I like it.
Okay, so I’ve read a press sheet and a few contemporary reviews, and I can fill in some of the details cut from the story in The Light of Faith:
Bessie is a poor girl from Vermont who travels to New York to find work. She gets a job in the cloakroom of a hotel. While walking home from work one day, she’s accidentally run over in the street. The woman driving the car is a wealthy socialite who afterwards takes a fancy to Bessie and decides to make a project of her. The woman lives with her several siblings, one of which being Warburton. Bessie falls in love with him and he leads her on. She later sees him wooing another girl of his own class and, heartbroken, runs away. In her absence, Warburton realizes he did indeed love Bessie, but all his efforts to find her fail and, to escape from unpleasant memories, flees to England. During his sojourn, he finds an old silver chalice in a ruined abbey, which he brings back with him when he returns to New York.
At the boarding house, Bessie’s savings run out and she begins to starve. Tony, a gangster, at first sees Bessie as a mark, but after finding her unconscious in the stairwell (and after rifling through her purse and finding it empty), he takes pity on her, gives her food, and calls for a doctor. He finds Warburton’s calling card and puts two and two together. He goes to find him and offers to betray the location of Bessie if his price is met. Warburton refuses. Tony knocks him out and robs him of the cup, which he pawns.
Warburton recovers the cup from the pawnbroker. That night, the servants see it glowing on the mantle and begin to believe that it’s the Holy Grail. The story finds its way to the papers. Bessie hears about it and recounts the story of the Grail to Tony, who decides to steal it again. He gives it to Bessie, who is convinced of its authenticity and believes to have been healed by it herself. She takes it around the slum, healing the sick.
The police trace the crime to Tony and he’s arrested. At the trial, the pawnbroker explains that the cup glows because he accidentally broke a vial of radium on it. Bessie forgives Warburton, and Warburton forgives Tony for his part in bringing them back together. The cup, meanwhile, has mysteriously vanished from the courtroom.
Boston Blackie (Raymond Glenn), a former jewel thief, has just been released from prison. He intends on going straight and living the quiet life with his dog Strongheart (himself), but his former partner in crime, Denver Dan (Coit Albertson), fears that going straight might also involve ratting him out.
Meanwhile, Necklace Nellie (Rosemary Cooper), who’s under Dan’s employ, has just conned John Markham (William Worthington) out of a valuable bejeweled necklace. A mysterious woman, who turns out to be John’s daughter Sylvia (Corliss Palmer), steals it back – hoping to prevent her mother from discovering her husband’s infidelity.
The police, however, don’t know any of this, and Sylvia is in danger of being caught when Blackie crosses her path…
The film’s plot is convoluted and absolutely full of holes, but it’s not too bad if you turn off your brain and just go with it. It’s obvious that the whole stolen necklace thing is nothing more than an excuse to string scenes together involving Strongheart, and there are some great ones strung together.
Strongheart, born Etzel von Oringer, was a German police and military attack dog. When he was three years old, he was acquired by the American animal trainer Laurence Trimble, who saw in him the makings of a great canine star. And he turned out to be one. Dog actors in general were pretty big in the silent era. Strongheart was preceded by Jean, at Vitagraph; and Luke and Teddy, both at Keystone; and would be followed by Rin Tin Tin, at Warner Bros, who survived into the talkie era and is by far the best remembered today.
The Return of Boston Blackie (1927) was Strongheart’s last and thought to be only extant film. It’s a rather low-budget Chadwick production (you might remember Chadwick for producing Larry Semon’s post-Vitagraph films). The character of Boston Blackie comes from Jack Boyle’s short stories and novellas, but the film has nothing whatsoever to do with those besides the name and it involving a reformed thief.
Again, if you don’t try to find much reason behind it, you’ll probably enjoy the film purely for its action and comic relief scenes.
My rating: I like it.
Story time: I first saw Don’t Tell Everything (1927) theatrically at an LGBT silent film festival ages ago. The festival lineup was a pretty mixed bag, but I remember thinking that this was a good two-reel ethnic comedy. Not so good that I didn’t immediately forget every detail about it, but I did come away with the impression that it was the best film screened that day. Flash forward ten or eleven years and a print turns up on the market. I think: hey, why not?
The vague recollection I had of this picture was much better than the actual product.
The Doodlebaums are throwing a house party and the Ginsbergs – Asher (Spec O’Donnell) and his Papa (Max Davidson) – are invited. After “some little inexpensive thing” goes wrong with his car, Papa entrusts it to a doofy looking but conveniently located mechanic (Jesse De Vorska). Asher generally makes an ass of himself at the party, much to the embarrassment of Papa. Papa is desperately trying to woo the rich widow Finkelheimer (Lillian Elliott). “Who is that brat,” she asks him. “In all my life I never saw him before,” he replies.
After the party, Papa returns to the mechanic to retrieve his car. We’ve previously cut back to the mechanic once and have seen that he’s completely disassembled the machine, but now it looks perfect. As Papa starts cranking it, the mechanic slinks off, and the car begins to fall apart. Eventually, the whole thing washes down the storm drain.
Jump forward a couple weeks. Papa and Finkelheimer are married. To maintain the lie, Papa has thrown Asher out. Incidentally, I’m not entirely clear how old Asher is. He acts likes a young child, but looks like and I assume is supposed to be a teenager. Anyway, Asher writes to his father to say that if he can’t live at home as his son, then he’ll become a girl and accept the job of their maid. Asher doesn’t wait for an answer.
On the street, Finkelheimer spots him as he nears their building. Girl-Asher is pretty noticeable with his bleached-blonde hair, short skirt, rayon pantyhose, and trampy walk. Suspicious, Finkelheimer follows at a distance. She enters just in time to hear the tail end of his intimate conversation with Papa: “Your wife won’t get wise to us – she’s too dumb”. Papa tries to play it off and Finkelheimer pretends to believe him. She steps outside as the other two go into the bedroom, where Papa helps Asher undress. Finkelheimer sneaks back in and peers through the transom, where she sees Papa on the floor marveling at how smooth Asher’s legs are.
Finkelheimer storms out, saying that she’s going to get a lawyer. Asher, feeling guilty, chases after her to explain. He’s only wearing a slip right now, remember. He quickly amasses a crowd of gawkers, including a cop (Budd Fine) who tries to arrest him. Asher flees, jumps in a barrel, and is submerged neck-deep in black paint. Once the coast is clear, he stumbles back to Papa, who strips him down and puts him in the bath.
Finkelheimer returns with the threatened lawyer (James Finlayson), who tries to assure her that it must just be big misunderstanding. He opens the door to the bathroom to see Papa scrubbing Asher’s chest. Papa’s excuse that “the maid needed a bath – awful” does not placate Finkelheimer this time.
At last, Papa confesses to everything and all three are reconciled surprisingly quickly. There’s a knock at the door, which Finkelheimer answers. Sheepishly, she returns to Papa to tell him that “I didn’t dare tell you – I also got a son”. Enter the mechanic that destroyed Papa’s car.
The biggest problem with Don’t Tell Everything is that it never commits to the gimmick. The Asher in drag story never goes anywhere, and the scenes with Finkelheimer catching Papa in flagrante with the supposed maid are just breezed right over. Conversely, it runs standard comedy tropes into the ground. The party scene is essentially one joke repeated a dozen times. Literally the same joke. It isn’t even a very strong joke – one man is trying to perform a magic trick with a glass of punch while Asher keeps breaking the glass with his slingshot. And that’s stretched out to nearly four minutes.
I don’t know what I initially saw in this film. The others screened that day must have been truly atrocious. I would not recommend it now.
My rating: I don’t like it.
Two to One (Vitagraph, 1927)
Directed by David Smith
Starring Alice Calhoun and Cullen Landis
It’s amazing what a difference being able to actually see a film makes. I first saw Two to One years ago on a wretchedly poor quality VHS tape with a generic needle-drop score, and despite it being only half an hour long, it felt as though it would never end. It did not leave a very good impression. When I had the chance to buy a film print in decent shape, I jumped at it. And it does make a tremendous difference. I can’t say it improves my impression of Two to One, but it does make a difference.
The film is based on Booth Tarkington’s novel The Magnificent Ambersons. At least, the first half is. The ending is something else entirely. Actually, I should say the film is based on Pampered Youth (1925), which itself was based on The Magnificent Ambersons, but that gives the impression that Pampered Youth and Two to One are separate entities. They aren’t. Pampered Youth was released by the Vitagraph Company of America shortly before they were bought out by Warner Bros. Pictures. Two years after the purchase, Warner Bros. re-edited Pampered Youth, gave it the new title Two to One, and re-released it under the short-lived Vitagraph Films banner, making Two to One the last theatrically released film to go out under the Vitagraph name.
The Ambersons were the richest and most prominent family of their hometown of Midland, Indiana in 1850. Isabel, the Amberson daughter (Alice Calhoun), is of marrying age and has two suitors: the rather boring Wilbur Minafer (Wallace MacDonald), and the unconventional Eugene Morgan (Allan Forrest). She initially favors Eugene, but after he makes a fool of himself by getting drunk and serenading her window one night, she announces her engagement to Wilbur and Eugene disappears for a while.
Twenty years pass. Isabel is now a widow, left with one son, George (Cullen Landis), whom she dotes on to a fault. He has just returned to Midland from back east, where he’d been at college. Eugene is also back in Midland. In the intervening decades, he’s become a major figure in the fledgling automobile industry and returns a wealthy man. Eugene is himself a widower with one daughter, Lucy (Charlotte Merriam).
George and Lucy hit it off at once and the two are happy until George notices that Eugene and his mother also seem to be getting rather close. Why George disapproves of his mother remarrying takes up the majority of the novel and ties closely into the novel’s commentary on George himself, but here it’s left as a vague Oedipal jealousy. When next Eugene calls on Isabel, George tells him in no uncertain terms that his presence is not welcome. Isabel, who would give the world to make her son happy, breaks their engagement.
Meanwhile the health of the family patriarch, Major Amberson (Emmett King), has been in decline. He dies shortly after the falling out between Isabel and Eugene (and, consequently, Lucy and George). At the reading of the will, George learns to his surprise that the estate is in ruins. He and his mother are left broke and homeless, and George’s dreams of idle wealth come crashing into the reality that he’ll have to work to survive.
Then we depart from the book, there’s something about a tenement fire (which I have to admit is spectacular – no expense must have been spared in shooting it) and forgiveness and redemption for all involved and… bah.
I rank The Magnificent Ambersons as one of my all-time favorite novels, and while I normally try to approach film adaptations on their own terms, divorced from their source material entirely, I just don’t think I can in this case. Two to One is probably a decent film, but it fails to capture the book and that’s all I can see when watching it. For that reason, I’m going to abstain from rating it.
My rating: Abstain.
Available from Harpodeon