After the first viewing, I found The Secret of the Palm (1911) to be completely incomprehensible. I had no idea what it was even about, much less what was going on in the plot. I immediately watched it a second time, but was no less confused. I set the film aside for a while and came back later with fresh eyes, and still all I got from it was that seemingly unrelated things happen for no reason to people I have no idea who are, then some guy falls out of a palm tree and the film is over.
To Moving Picture News!
All right, IMP published a synopsis of their film in the trade journals to bamboozle entice exhibitors into booking it. According to their synopsis, the film is about a Spaniard named Don Alvarez (Joseph Smiley) who is sent to work on a fruit ranch in Cuba owned by Canby, a man his mother was school friends with. Canby’s daughter, Edna, is in love with Cecil Abbott (King Baggot), the ranch foreman. Don is “smitten by her charms” and jealous of the attention she shows to Cecil, so when Cecil goes into town to get the mail, Don stealthily steals the mail pouch and hides it at the top of a palm tree. Cecil is accused of the theft and is fired. Don is promoted to foreman. On the next mail day, Don gets a letter from his mother that said she sent him money in her last letter. Don scrambles up the tree to retrieve it, but falls afterward. He’s found by Cecil, who takes him back to the ranch, where he exonerates Cecil before dying.
I defy you to get any of that from the picture — even one single line. I’ve seen my share of incoherent films before, but I don’t think I’ve ever encountered such a nonsensical assemblage of scenes amounting to absolutely nothing. This makes As a Boy Dreams (1911) look like a masterpiece of filmmaking that’s brilliance will never be topped.
My rating: I don’t like it.
In the early days of cinema, actors were never credited. There were two reasons for that: On the one side, most actors came from a live theatre background, and while many theatre actors would happily accept a paycheck for appearing in a movie, very few would ever admit to doing so. On the other side, studios feared that if audiences knew who acted in their films that a fan base would develop around those actors, which would give them the high ground in contract negotiations. Still, moviegoers had their favorites, even if they didn’t know their names. Vitagraph had “The Vitagraph Girl” (Florence Turner), Biograph had “The Biograph Girl” (Florence Lawrence), and then there was “The Girl with the Curls” (Gladys Smith at the time, better known as Mary Pickford).
The fact that they had fans was not lost on these actresses, and by the beginning of the 1910s, they were more than willing to claim their film performances, regardless of what the theatre community might say. Being credited by name became a point of contention – one that the studios had not the slightness inclination to yield to. Enter Carl Laemmle.
Now, Laemmle started out on the exhibition end of the film industry. He knew very well that people cared little for who produced a film, who wrote it, or often even what it was about; they came to see their favorite actors on screen. In 1909, Laemmle founded the Independent Moving Pictures Company (or IMP – their logo was a cute pitchfork-wielding devil) with the expressed purpose of not only crediting the actors that appeared in their films, but advertising films based on who acted in them. It was a strategy that lured in many popular actors, Mary Pickford included.
As a Boy Dreams (1911) was one of Pickford’s IMP productions.
The Boy (Jack Pickford) is a cabin boy on a ship full of jerks. They alternate between being jerks and looking intently at a map that shows the way to Treasure Island. The Boy, tired of their jerkiness, steals the map and shows it to The Girl (Mary Pickford). The Girl is The Captain’s daughter… I guess? Anyway, the two of them show the map to someone who might be The Captain, which incites a mutiny or something, that results in The Boy and The Girl escaping in a dinghy. The jerks win the mutiny with such violence that they nearly knock over the flimsy backdrop they’re standing in front of.
It turns out they didn’t need the map, since their aimlessly drifting boat took them right to Treasure Island. Unfortunately, they’re captured by pirates in a matter of seconds. It also turns out that the jerks didn’t need the map either, since they’re hot on The Boy and Girl’s heels in a dinghy of their own. Somehow, the jerks beat them to the treasure, but since the pirates are, you know, pirates, they just murder them and steal it.
Teleport to the ship where The Boy rescues The Captain… from the jerks… who the pirates killed… okay, I don’t really know. Back on the island, the pirates have vanished and The Captain and… some other people… claim the treasure. The Boy and The Girl then get married and apparently The Boy’s name was Mr. Howard.
“Gee! But that was a great dream”…
…yeah, everything was a dream. The Boy was asleep and in his mind had acted out the plot of a penny dreadful book that he’d been reading when he was supposed to be chopping wood. His father is not pleased.
If my synopsis made the film sound like a horrible, confused mess, then I do it too much justice. It’s a far cry from the caliber of work Pickford played in at Biograph.
IMP didn’t last long. In 1912, it merged with a number of other, smaller studios to form Universal Pictures. Pickford thankfully returned to Biograph, but by that time, the cat was out of the bag. Laemmle had created the star system that would come to dominate the movie industry, and there was no brighter star than Mary Pickford. Just as the early studios feared, her popularity meant that she could dictate whatever salary she chose and she quickly became the highest paid actress in the world.
I would not recommend As a Boy Dreams. Occasionally there’s some unintentional humor, but it’s mostly bad-bad, not funny-bad.
My rating: I don’t like it.