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The Roaring Road (Paramount, 1919)

The Roaring Road screenshot 1The Roaring Road (Paramount, 1919)
Directed by James Cruze
Starring Wallace Reid

Toodles Walden (Wallace Reid) is a sales agent at Darco Motors but he aspires to being a racecar driver. His boss, J.D. Ward (Theodore Roberts), won’t give him a break. When a shipment of Darco racers are destroyed in a trainwreck, Toodles and his mechanic friend (Guy Oliver) buy the scrap pieces and assemble a Frankenstein Darco that they enter in the race themselves. Toodles wins, which pleases J.D., but not enough that he’ll consent to Toodles marrying his daughter (Ann Little).

Toodles gets into a bit of a funk, which he works through by secretly trying to beat the San Francisco-Los Angeles speed record — currently held by Darco’s arch nemesis, Rexton. As the window for beating the record closes, it becomes imperative that Toodles succeeds, or else Darco will be the laughing stock of Gasoline Row. To provide some motivation, J.D. lets it slip that he intends to take his daughter back east for a year — they leave on the eight o’clock train tonight. If Toodles hopes to see her, he’ll have to beat the train — and the record.

The Roaring Road screenshot 2Between the two racing set pieces, there’s really not much to this film. The love story angle is slight and the Darco-Rexton rivalry is slighter still — it’s literally nothing more than a couple throw-away lines. In this genre, though, that wouldn’t matter at all if the racing sequences landed.

The second one does. Toodles is speeding through town and countryside over good and bad roads, which provides variety. The race is also mostly at night, with some interesting light effects. The train lends a sense of urgency, particularly when the tracks and the road briefly run side-by-side and Toodles has to beat the train to the crossing. Given that Toodles is such a static character, we wisely cut back and forth between the car and the train, to see the increasing excitement of the passengers and J.D.’s growing approval. I should say now, Wallace Reid might be first billed, but Theodore Roberts is the real star of the film. Roberts is an enormous character that completely overshadows Reid whenever they share the stage.

The first race… it’s so boring. I don’t suppose there are that many ways to shoot a car speeding around an oval track, but there surely must be more than the handful of angles we get here. They just go round and round for ten long minutes. And the cars themselves are so nondescript, if it weren’t for periodically cutting back to the scoreboard, you’d have no idea who was winning. Even J.D. doesn’t do much to buoy the excitement. It isn’t until the race is over and Toodles has won that he stops sulkily chomping on his cigar.

The Roaring Road screenshot 3The Roaring Road isn’t Reid’s only racing film. He did several — indeed, he was particularly known for them. Roaring Road was released in 1919, which was the same year that Reid was involved in a trainwreck. It left him pretty banged-up and in considerable pain. To keep working, he was kept pumped full of morphine on set — leading to his becoming addicted to it. I don’t know if Roaring Road came before or after that, but it would explain his acting.

Theodore Roberts is excellent, but it’s never a good sign when a supporting character consistently and thoroughly upstages your lead. The San Francisco-Los Angeles race is exciting and well photographed, but it’s the last reel in a five reel picture. It rarely feels interminable, but the movie does drag for much of its runtime. I know why they didn’t — in 1919, the shorts market had all but dried up — but with such a threadbare story, they should have just jettisoned all the padding and fluff and released a two-reeler.

I’m not sure. I certainly don’t “like it”, but I think that — if taken in parts — there are enough good bits to elevate it out of “don’t like it”.

My rating: Meh.

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The Miracle Man (Paramount, 1919, 1932)

The MiThe Miracle Man 1919 adracle Man (Paramount, 1919)
Directed by George Loane Tucker
Starring Thomas Meighan, Betty Compson, and Lon Chaney

…and…

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 Miracle Man 1932 posterThe 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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The Woman in the Suitcase (Paramount, 1920)

The Woman in the Suitcase screenshotThe Woman in the Suitcase (Paramount, 1920)
Directed by Fred Niblo
Starring Enid Bennet

The Woman in the Suitcase (1920) is a very intriguing title for a not very intriguing film.

Mary Moreland (Enid Bennett) is the daughter of a wealthy lawyer (William Conklin) who has been neglecting his wife (Claire McDowell) and staying out late. He claims it’s a business matter – his daughter discovers her name is Dolly (Dorcas Matthews). Mary tries to get to the bottom of the affair, rescue her father, and preserve her mother’s happiness.

There might be enough material here for a two-reeler, but this meager story is spread awfully thin over six reels. Apart from a subplot involving a man Mary hires to pose as her boyfriend to get nearer to Dolly, not much is omitted from the synopsis above.

The film is well photographed, I’ll give it that. Fred Niblo was a prolific director in the silent era, with titles including some of my personal favorites like The Mysterious Lady (1928), with Greta Garbo; Blood and Sand (1922), with Rudolph Valentino; and The Red Lily (1924), with Ramon Novarro and the star of this film, Enid Bennett.

Bennett and Niblo were married and frequently worked together. Overall, the acting is quite good in the film, and I would say that Bennett has a particularly strong grip on her character. There are a few scenes where her motivation seems to turn on a dime, but I attribute that more to poor writing and can’t imagine anyone else could make it more believable. The Woman in the Suitcase has the sort of plot that hinges on happenstance and would be resolved immediately if anyone ever said anything to anyone – but of course, then there’d be no movie.

I don’t think I can say it better than Wid’s Daily did when the film premiered: “the title is a good one” but the production “seldom reaches the entertainment point”.

Side note: with as well established as that puppy is at the start of the film, I was shocked that he doesn’t figure into the ending. I must also give credit for the attractive art titles the film sports, some of them animated.

My rating: I don’t like it.

Metropolis (Paramount, 1928)

Metropolis PosterMetropolis (Paramount, 1928)
Directed by Fritz Lang
Adapted by Channing Pollock
Starring Gustav Fröhlich and Brigitte Helm

If you’re reading this at all, you must have at least a passing interested in silent cinema, so I think it’s safe to say that we’ve all heard the story of Metropolis (1927). We know about the Berlin premiere version that was presumed lost decades ago. We know about the reconstruction attempts that began in the 1980s and culminated with the then-definitive Kino version in 2002. We know about the discovery of a nearly complete print of the film in Argentina that, in 2010, allowed us to see the premier version again for the first time in 80 years. But if you’re like me, you may not know much about what happened between 1927 and 1984.

The international release of Metropolis was handled by a company called Parufamet, a joint venture of UFA in Germany and Paramount and MGM in America. Paramount was to be the American distributor. UFA, who produced the original film, gave Paramount (through Parufamet) carte blanche to re-edit the film to make it more profitable in America. They hired a playwright named Channing Pollock to make the necessary changes. Pollock’s Metropolis premiered in America in 1928 and between that date and the first reconstruction, if someone said that they had seen Metropolis, it was Pollock’s version that they were referring to.

I’m not going to talk about Fritz Lang’s original Metropolis. There would be no point – I’m sure you’ve seen the recent 2010 reconstruction and probably one or two of the others as well. But in a curious reversal of history, if someone today said that they had seen Metropolis, they’re never referring to the Pollock version. That’s the film I’m going to review.

 

The first two acts of the film are spent weaving a Christ allegory around Eric Masterman (Freder Frederson in the original – Gustav Fröhlich), a man metaphorically borne of Mary (Maria – Brigitte Helm) and come as a savior to the workers of Metropolis. It manages this to good effect, even repurposing the scene where Freder takes over for 11811 (Erwin Biswanger) on the V-machine as a metaphorical crucifixion. It tries to carry it forward into the final act, but frankly, Pollock’s film kind of falls apart after the introduction of the Machine Man, or “Efficiency” as they name it.

I suppose now is a good time to bring up Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge). Of all the characters, Rotwang is the most changed in Pollock’s edit. In the original film, Rotwang’s reason for creating the Machine Man is to bring his lost-love Hel back to life. He’s motivated by a deep-seated hatred for Joh Frederson, the man he lost Hel to and the man he blames for her death, as she died giving birth to Frederson’s son, Freder. When he gives the Machine Man the likeness of Maria, he does so to trick Joh. Joh thinks he’s helping him to quash the worker’s nascent uprising, but the Machine Man really obeys only Rotwang and he intends to use it to spur the workers into open rebellion and crush Joh’s city.

In Pollock’s film, Rotwang is working with John Masterman (Alfred Abel) in creating a soulless and untiring race of machine men to replace the workers of Metropolis, and Efficiency is their prototype. The soullessness part is John’s idea. John sees himself as a god (and, taking the allegory Pollock has so carefully constructed around Eric to its natural conclusion, he sort of is) and wants to remake man in his own image of the perfect worker. Rotwang warns that a man without a soul can have no loyalty to his creator and will quickly turn on him, which is just what Efficiency does.

It wasn’t a bad idea on Pollock’s part, and it could have worked had he been writing the script for a new movie, but limited to just the scenes available in the original Metropolis, there isn’t the necessary footage to convey what Pollock is trying to say and the third act feels cobbled together in a way that the first two acts didn’t.

What surprised me most about Pollock’s Metropolis isn’t what was changed but what wasn’t. I had always heard that the reason Paramount didn’t simply release the original film was because they feared its Marxist themes wouldn’t play in America, but if that’s true, then Pollock failed spectacularly with his edit. Pollock’s injection of religion does nothing to diminish the overarching class struggle between the proletariat “hands” of the workers’ city and the bourgeois “brains” of Metropolis. If anything, his Christ allegory emphasizes the film’s socialist message – Pollock’s Eric is no Supply Side Jesus. It strikes me that Paramount was less concerned with the film’s politics than it was with its length (Pollock’s version is a good half-hour shorter) and accessibility (it goes out of its way to explain visual metaphors like the Moloch machine where the original had more faith in the audience’s intelligence).

I confess that, before sitting down to watch it, I was unprepared to like to Pollock’s Metropolis, but it very nearly won me over. Had it not collapsed in on itself by the end, I would have said that, while it was a very different film from Fritz Lang’s vision, it more than accomplished its goal. But with the almost incoherent third act, it lost whatever praise I could have given it. It exists as a curiosity that a fan of the “real” Metropolis may be interested to see, but I wouldn’t recommend it to a first-time viewer.

My rating: Meh.

You may also be interested in the novel the film is based on, which I read and wrote about on my other blog.