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Lady Godiva (Vitagraph, 1911)

LadLady Godiva ady Godiva (Vitagraph, 1911)
Directed by J. Stuart Blackton
Starring Julia Swayne Gordon

Like The Victoria Cross (1912), which I’ve written about before, Lady Godiva (1911) is another example of that short-lived genre known at Vitagraph as the Quality Film. Elsewhere, they were termed variously De-Luxe Films or High-Art Films, but we might allow Vitagraph naming rights as they were the chief producers of the genre. Also like The Victoria Cross, Lady Godiva is based on two culturally revered subjects: history (or at least legend) and poetry (Tennyson in both films).

Lady Godiva (Julia Swayne Gordon) is the wife of Earl Leofric (Robert Gaillard), who has imposed a ruinous new tax on his townspeople that threatens to drive them to starvation. She begs he lift the tax, but the Earl’s heart is “as rough as Esau’s hand” and he’ll only agree to do so on the condition that she ride naked through town.

Warned by a herald of her approach, all the townspeople go inside and shut their windows, except for “one low churl” (Harold Wilson) who watches through a peephole. As she passes, he’s blinded by the sight — “his eyes were shrivell’d into darkness”.

The task complete, she returns to the Earl, who repeals the tax, and so Lady Godiva’s fame becomes “everlasting”.

All of the titles are “quotes” from Tennyson’s poem Godiva. I scare-quote the word because, while the text is presented as direct excerpts, it’s awfully mangled. That’s not at all unexpected. The target audience for Quality Films was not well educated and probably didn’t have a firm grasp of English. They may know of Shakespeare or Tennyson, but it’s highly unlikely that they ever read either. Their familiarity with the great English poets came mostly from places like postcards illustrating famous lines, which were often condensed for space and modified to be both more stand-alone and also to be more marketable — to be able to serve as an advertisement for some product or other. For the Quality Film producers, when the choice came down to a quote that’s right or a quote that’s familiar, one always erred on the side of familiarity. There are some common misquotes persisting today that, while they didn’t originate in early film, early film helped to cement in popular culture — lines like “Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well”.

Lady Godiva screenshotThe set is the same Ye Olde England lot that can be seen in several Vitagraph films from this period, consisting of three half-timbered building façades and a painted backdrop. They vary the angles and move around the set dressing from scene to scene to make it appear larger than it is. There’s attention to detail shown in matching the painted shadows to the actual ones, and in keeping the actors from casting shadows on the backdrop. I don’t recognize the castle (or the gate of the castle, rather — that’s all we see). It may have been built specially. I count about sixteen extras, which reasonably fills out the crowd scenes. One of them is Kate Price, who’s pretty easy to spot. Clara Kimball Young is apparently in there, too, but I couldn’t pinpoint her.

The nude ride is as absolutely sexless as can be, and not only because of the bodystocking and strategically placed hair. Julia Swayne Gordon plays Godiva as you might a saint. But the moral of the story is to not be a Peeping Tom — indeed, the Lady Godiva legend is the origin of the term Peeping Tom. You might recognize Tom — or Harold Wilson — as Silverstein from The Awakening of Bianca (1912). His performance here is kind of the same, only now his handwringing is meant to suggest lasciviousness, and in Bianca, it was meant to look Jewish.

Quality Films are interesting in an abstract, film history kind of way, but can often be on the dull side. The Victoria Cross had the saving grace of an exciting battle scene and the novel conceit of the binoculars, which served the practical purpose of masking the small number of extras, but also looked cool and gave Edith Storey some welcome screentime. In comparison, Lady Godiva doesn’t have much going for it. I didn’t dislike it, but it’s just sort there and it feels all its length.

My rating: Meh.

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The Last Cartridge (Vitagraph, 1908)

The Last Cartridge screenshotThe Last Cartridge, an Incident of the Sepoy Rebellion in India (Vitagraph, 1908)
Directed either by J. Stuart Blackton or Albert E. Smith

A sepoy, during the British rule of India, was a term for a native Indian solider. In 1857, there was a large scale mutiny of sepoys, called by some the First War of Indian Independence. I don’t believe that the “incident” portrayed in The Last Cartridge is any particular real-life event — it’s vaguely similar to the Siege of Cawnpore, but if that’s what they were going for, the ending is entirely ahistoric.

We start with a group of British officers and their wives having a party in front of a grass hut. Another officer runs into the shot and raises the alarm. The soldiers retreat inside the fortress, where they’re laid siege to by the mutineers.

A cartoonish round bomb with a burning fuse rolls onto set. One of the British soldiers, who I’m going to call “Tom” just to make things easier, picks it up and tosses it into a bucket of water. “Bob”, the major, commends Tom for his valor and sends him on a mission to go get reinforcements. “Sally”, Bob’s wife, is in fits of histrionic terror. (The BFI says Sally is Florence Turner, but I don’t think so — there’s a resemblance, but the nose is wrong.)

The mutineers raise the white flag. Sally is overjoyed, but not everyone is so easily misled. One man peeks over the gate and sees that it was only a ruse and that an ambush is waiting for them.

The siege continues for two days. The British force is severely depleted and even Sally has been called on to take up a gun. The mutineers start a fire in front of the gate, and since it’s only made of painted canvas, it’s now a matter of time for the British. Bob takes his pistol and readies to shoot his wife lest the mutineers take her, but just then, Tom triumphantly returns — presumably with the reinforcements, although we never see them.

I generally give films of this vintage a lot more leeway than those even a few years younger, but even by the loosest standard, The Last Cartridge is still a bit lacking. It’s not that it’s badly written — it’s got a strong scenario. The cinematography and editing are also very good, with an advanced use of crosscutting between both sides of the gate that shows the invaders’ and the defenders’ actions while maintaining a sense of separation between them. I joke about the unconvincing sets, but honestly, they were nicely constructed, even if of canvas. No, it’s main failing was in the acting. There’s no real main character, but Sally has the most screentime, and 90% of the time she’s flailing her arms in the air and running in circles — screaming, I’m sure. It’s hard to get a count, but there can’t be more than fifteen extras on either side of the conflict. There was precisely one horse. It looks absolutely barren, particularly when we cut to the more spacious shots given to the invaders away from the fortress.

But cast aside, I liked the film more than I didn’t, mostly for its technical proficiency, but also because I thought it was an entertaining and exciting story.

My rating: I like it.

 

Edit:

After rewatching the film, I realize that I’ve got some things wrong in this review. In my defense, I wrote it directly after my first screening of the print, which I had only just acquired. I of course went through it on the rewinds to make sure it was in projectable condition, but still, I keep a close eye on film I’ve never projected before to make sure it’s running smoothly. Although this print isn’t particularly old (struck in 1972) and there was no reason to suspect a shrinkage issue, I was nevertheless paying more attention to the loop than the screen for the first minute or so and I missed a crucial bit of the plot: Sally isn’t Bob’s wife, she’s his daughter. She’s in love with Tom, but Bob disapproves of him for whatever reason. Tom’s ride for reinforcements isn’t just to save the regiment, but to save his chances with Sally. I missed the love story angle, which is almost identical to the one Vitagraph would later use in the war drama The Victoria Cross (1912).

Also, Bob is played by Charles Kent. I noticed that the first time around, but I neglected to mention it. I still strongly doubt that Sally is Florence Turner.


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