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.
The Miracle Man (Paramount, 1932)
Directed by Norman Z. McLeod
Starring Chester Morris, Sylvia Sidney, and John Wray
The Miracle Man (1919) is, unfortunately, almost entirely lost. Clips from two scenes were included in Movie Milestones (1935), these being the part of the Chinatown segment in which Tom outlines his scam to his accomplices, and a portion of the healing segment, beginning with the Frog’s approach and ending with Jack running to the Patriarch. The latter clip was also used in The House That Shadows Built (1931). These two clips, totaling two minutes and twenty seconds at sound speed, are all that survives of The Miracle Man today — insofar as moving images are concerned, at least. There are quite a large number of stills.
The last film I attempted a photo reconstruction of was The Juggernaut (1915). It had considerably more surviving footage to build around, but only a handful of production stills to use in recreating the missing sequences. Conversely, I had nearly sixty stills to work with from The Miracle Man, with almost every lost scene represented by at least one photo. I also had the benefit of a scene-by-scene plot synopsis and quotes from many of the original intertitles.
The story of The Miracle Man began as a book, then was adapted into a stage play, then into a silent film, and then remade as a talkie. The 1919 adaptation was critically acclaimed and wildly popular with audiences, making instant stars of its lead actors. It credits the play as a source, but is based more on the book — although it does make some significant changes I’ll discus in a moment.
Tom Burke (Thomas Meighan) is the ringleader of a gang of con artists working in New York’s Chinatown. Their primary game is running scams on slumming tourists, but when Tom learns of a faith healer in a small Maine town, he concludes that the real money is in fleecing gullible believers.
Tom goes to scope it out. This miracle man, called the Patriarch (Joseph J. Dowling), is blind, deaf, and dumb. He’s no longer able to care for himself and the townspeople are searching for his niece, who none have ever met before, in the hopes that she’ll come to attend him. Tom’s plan is for his girlfriend and accomplice Rosie Vale (Betty Compson) to assume the role the Patriarch’s niece, then the Frog (Lon Chaney) will enter the scene. The Frog, a skilled contortionist, will pretend to be a mangled cripple that gets miraculously cured by the Patriarch. News will spread and pilgrims will follow, bringing tens of thousands of dollars in donations, all of which must go through Rosie.
Everything goes according to plan, until the Frog’s pretended cure is followed by two real ones — Jack Andrews (Frankie Lee) and Claire King (Elinor Fair). Tom’s accomplices — Rosie, the Frog, and a cokehead called the Dope (J.M. Dumont) — are shaken and begin to doubt whether they should keep up the scam.
Claire’s brother, Dick (W. Lawson Butt), is a wealthy asbestos magnate who at once donates $50,000 and wishes to provide further funding for the Patriarch. Tom is interested in Rosie courting Dick’s money, but becomes jealous when it appears the two are falling in love. Things come to a head when Rosie stays out all night with Dick (quite innocent – their boat was stuck on a sandbar and they had to wait until the tide came in to float off). Tom intends on killing Dick, but at the last moment stays his hand.
Realizing the error of his ways, Tom apologizes to Rosie, who forgives him and accepts his marriage proposal. The two go to the Patriarch to thank him, but find him dead.
The most immediately obvious difference from the novel is also the least important: all the character names are different. More significant are Claire and Richard King. In the film, they’re siblings, Claire has been paralyzed since infancy, and Dick is supportive of anything that might help his sister, however slim the chance. In the book, Naida and Robert Thornton are married, Naida has only been wheelchair bound for a number of years, Robert is dismissive of her ever being cured and has grown rather tired of her, and he plots adultery even if he never actually commits it. Most significant, the novel hints that the Patriarch isn’t actually a miracle worker at all. It either suggests or outright postulates that both Naida Thornton’s and the Holmes boy’s (Jack Andrews in the film) paralysis is caused by a nervous disorder, and that it was their belief in the Patriarch that cured them rather than the Patriarch himself. Now, the last line of the 1919 film does leave some opening for this interpretation, but until that point, the miracles are presented as being nothing but real.
In the novel, the last chapter flashes forward several years to see where the gang went with their lives after the Patriarch’s death. The Flopper (the Frog) married a local girl and works at the general store. Pale Face Harry (the Dope) moved out west and became a farmer. Helena Smith (Rosie Vale) and Doc Madison (Tom Burke) are married and have a young son — the book ends with them visiting the Patriarch’s grave and retelling the story to the boy. It’s not really necessary and I think it’s for the best that the film ends where it does.
The silent Miracle Man was a record-breaking film and extremely successful from a financial standpoint — making back its budget nearly 24 times over. Of course it was remade, as a talkie, in 1932. The remake starred Chester Morris, Sylvia Sidney, and John Wray and is still extant, although it never has officially been released on video (bootlegs are readily available). It adopts some of the changes made in 1919 version — Margaret and Robert Thornton (aka, Claire and Richard King; aka, Naida and Robert Thornton) are still siblings, for instance — but on the whole, it follows the play more so than it does either the book or previous film. The most noticeable difference and the one that most changes the dynamic of the story (to its detriment, I would say) is that the Patriarch isn’t mute.
The remake was designed as a vehicle for John Wray and Paramount had hoped to would launch him as the new incarnation of Lon Chaney, but it did not, nor was the film itself very well received. If it’s remembered at all today, it’s for Boris Karloff’s rather small role as Nikko. Nikko is roughly equivalent to Tong-Fou (Kisaburo Kurihara) in the 1919 film. Tong-Fou is only in one scene and is not particularly relevant to the plot — he’s a Chinese man occasionally paid off by Tom to take care of the police. Nikko is Madison’s Chinatown landlord. Madison catches him spying on Helena undress and grievously injures if not kills him. That’s the reason why he leaves New York — not because he plans on exploiting the Patriarch, but to evade arrest.
It had its moments, but I didn’t think the remake was very good overall. The book I liked, but not as much as other Frank Packard novels I’ve read. The original film, of course, is hard to judge. So little footage survives and stills only give an idea of how it may have looked. I can say that it has the tightest plot of the three, and in a contest between Lon Chaney and John Wray, there can be no doubt who the winner is. It was surely better than its remake and may have edged out the book as well. I don’t know.
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