Though a superstar in the 1910s, little of Theda Bara’s work survives today. What does survive is divided between her very early work and her very late work, after she had essentially become a self-parody, like so many iconic actors then and now. The celebrated films that she made in her prime are all gone. East Lynne (1916) is probably the nearest that we, as modern viewers, can get to Theda Bara at the peak of her career.
East Lynne is the only Theda Bara film known to survive that I don’t have a film print of, but I did pick up a video of it some little while ago from eBay or iOffer to some such place. It looks to be a bootleg of a MoMA screener. The transfer probably wasn’t all that good to begin with and my copy is several VHS generations removed from it, so you can imagine that the picture isn’t the greatest. The medium and close shots are okay, but the wides that comprise most of the film are so blurry that telling one character from another is a challenge. I watched it once or twice years ago, but I confess that, between the poor image and the byzantine plot, I couldn’t make heads or tails of what was going on.
The film is based on the Ellen Wood novel of the same name. I read it not too long ago. It’s trashy, make no mistake about it, but it was popular trash — it was one of the most widely read books of the Victorian era. Everyone read East Lynne, whether they’d admit to it or not. With the plot fresh in mind, I figured I could better tackle the film.
Speaking of the plot, I’m not going beyond a very rough summary here. There’s just too much of it to go into detail. Read my book summary if you’re interested; it goes into more depth. In brief, Lady Isabel marries Archibald Carlyle but comes to believe he’s unfaithful to her. She leaves him and is thought to have been killed in a train accident, but secretly Isabel assumed a new identity and is hired by Carlyle to be the governess of her own children.
Even knowing the plot — and it’s pretty clear that you’re expected to —the film is incredibly hard to follow. The major issue is pacing. East Lynne isn’t a long movie — five reels, something over an hour — but how it uses its runtime is just insane. It languidly ambles along then switches into high gear and powers through 500 pages of plot in ten minutes.
Levison, the man who instigates both the infidelity plot and the murder plot and whose capture is what resolves the entire story isn’t introduced until the third reel and really isn’t characterized at all, ever. The train wreck that Isabel is believed to have died in is literally the last scene of the fourth reel and it comes so abruptly that I laughed out loud. I don’t think Madame Vine, the governess alter ego Isabel assumes, even has five minutes of screentime — and that’s probably 75% of the book. It’s impossible to read what sort relationship exists between any of the characters. Barbara is just a cypher and Carlyle’s marriage to her comes out of nowhere. Her dislike of the children I assume is just meant to be taken for granted. Corny and Joyce seem to be rolled together, but it doesn’t matter since they don’t do anything. Afy has one line and then drops off the face of the earth. Levison’s undoing is pared down from what it is in the novel, which in itself could be fine, but again, the way the film handles it is just so abrupt and inexplicable that it plays like a farce. And speaking of farces…
It’s just as ridiculous as that.
If this is Theda Bara at her best, then we can only hope that no prints of Cleopatra or Salome ever turn up — I’m sure the disappointment would crush us all.
My rating: I don’t like it.
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!”
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