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The Ring (Crystal, 1914)

The Ring screenshot 1The Ring (Crystal, 1914)
Directed by Phillips Smalley
Starring Pearl White and Chester Barnett

It’s time to close out my little series of Crystal reviews with the film I’ve saved for last. If The Hallroom Girls (1913) was the best comedy, The Ring (1914) was surely the best drama. But whereas Hallroom really only stood out in comparison to its very weak competitors, I thought Ring was a decent short drama taken on its own merits.

The opening scene cuts back and forth between Mrs. Gray (Pearl White) throwing a lavish party, being attended by liveried servants, and wearing a dress dripping with pearls; and her husband, Arnold Gray (Chester Barnett), who sits in his office looking worried, eagerly awaiting but simultaneously dreading the arrival of some important business correspondence. At last it arrives, and the news isn’t good: the Grays are bankrupt.

“After the catastrophe”, we find Pearl and Arnie at breakfast in a simple, cheaply furnished room, where Pearl has to clear away the dishes herself. Before Arnie leaves to go to his new clerical job, he kisses his wife, but she seems cold and distant.

Arnie’s boss is Alfred Norman, a snide-faced man who wears a top hat and white gloves and a mustache that I kept waiting for him to twirl. Alf doesn’t stay at the office long, though. He leaves to attend a party at Mrs. Allen’s.

The Ring screenshot 2Mrs. Allen is one of Pearl’s friends from the old days, and distressed conditions or no, Pearl is still welcome at her functions. In fact, she’s already at the party when Alf arrives. They meet and he’s taken by her at once, and she’s not a little taken by him as well. Back at home with Arnie at the end of the day, Pearl seems even more aloof.

Some time later, Alf sends a gift to Pearl — a diamond ring.

A note about the cinematography: The intercutting of the first scene is nicely handled, but after that, the filmmaking technique settles into an adequate but unremarkable style. Except this scene. Here, we intercut between Arnie toiling at his desk and Alf in his private office with the ring — a sort of reverse cut, suggesting that they sit on either side of a frosted glass wall. But it’s very, very obvious that it’s the exact same backdrop and they’ve just swapped the furniture around. We cut from Arnie to Alf several times and it’s never not distracting.

Anyway, the diamond ring. Pearl tries it on and instantly adores it, but when she reads the notes and sees the name of the sender, she knows she can’t accept the gift. She’s still wearing it when Arnie returns home. Startled, she says the first thing that comes to mind: “I found this ring”. You’re not fooling anyone, Pearl.

The next day, while Arnie is at work, Pearl takes the ring to Mrs. Allen, who she hopes will act as an intercessor between herself and Alf — Pearl determined not to see him again. Coincidentally, I suppose, Alf leaves the office to call on Mrs. Allen as well. Arnie, suspicious, trails him.

The Ring screenshot 3Pearl flees into the back room as Alf enters. Arnie appears moments later, sees Pearl’s hat on the sofa, and becomes enraged. He pulls out a gun, a struggle ensues, the gun goes off, Pearl — standing just on the other side of the door — is hit.

Mrs. Allen breaks up the fight. Alf runs off. Arnie goes to Pearl, but it’s clear enough that he’s assumed the worst and is through with her. As he’s about to leave, Mrs. Allen shows him the note Pearl had asked her to give Alf. “I am a married woman”, it reads. “I cannot … accept your gift.” Arnie, realizing the mistake he made, returns to Pearl, who accepts him back.

I really liked this film. It plays at just the right pace and doesn’t show anything more or less than it needs to. It gets a little bit silly with Arnie clinging to the back of Alf’s car and the clichéd gun-going-off-in-a-struggle, but the story on the whole was well done. It successfully gets the audience to side with the husband at the start, and since we identify with him, we’re taken along the same mistaken journey he is — but it does so without having to reduce Pearl to an outright villain, which would have made the reversal at the end much less believable and would have sapped away the impact of Arnie’s almost leaving her.

Moving Picture World’s review praised White’s performance, and I would concur both with that and with their implicitly saying the other performances weren’t particularly praiseworthy. Barnett is acceptable, but he plays it broad. The Alfred Norman character, as I’ve already suggested, is one mustache-twirl away from being a full-on parody of a lecherous fat cat. The other characters are so minor, it hardly matters how they act.

But still, questionable acting and one poorly constructed scene aside, I really enjoyed this film.

My rating: I like it.

The Hallroom Girls (Crystal, 1913)

The Hallroom Girls screenshotThe Hallroom Girls (Crystal, 1913)
Directed by Phillips Smalley
Starring Pearl White and Chester Barnett

Pearl (Pearl White) and Katie (Vivian Prescott?) share a cheap studio apartment. Between them, they have one decent dress. Likewise, roommates Chester (Chester Barnett) and Shorty Smith (Baldy Belmont) have but a single good suit. A ball is being held, to which Chester invites Pearl and Shorty invites Katie… and I think by now you know exactly what happens next. It ends with fights breaking out between both parties that leave the clothes ruined.

As hoary a plot as it is in sitcoms today, so it was in 1913 as well. That said, even if no one would accuse it of bringing anything new to the table, The Hallroom Girls isn’t badly put together. At least the arc makes logical sense, it isn’t needlessly padded out, and the ending follows from the beginning — which puts it above most of the other Crystal shorts I watched.

Calling it the best of the bunch isn’t exactly a recommendation, though. Comedy lives or dies by being funny, and as predictable as this film is, there’s not much to laugh at.

My rating: Meh.

Lost in the Night (Crystal, 1913)

Lost in the Night screenshot 1Lost in the Night (Crystal, 1913)
Directed by Phillips Smalley
Starring Pearl White and Chester Barnett

On the way to deliver a diamond and sapphire necklace to rich Mrs. H.B. Collingwood, Dick Halstead stops over at his friend Tom Barry’s (Chester Barnett) house to meet his new wife Pearl (Pearl White). Tom deposits the necklace in his bedroom safe and the three go downstairs to dinner. It comes out in conversation that the necklace is worth $6,200. While Tom and Dick are smoking, Pearl slips back upstairs to try it on.

She’s interrupted when she hears Tom on the steps and quickly puts it back. That night, however, with her “sub-conscious mind” focused on the necklace, she sleepwalks to the safe, withdraws the necklace, takes it into the backyard, and slips it in the hollow of a tree.

In the morning, the necklace is found missing. A detective is called, the maid is strongly suspected, but in the end — no necklace. Tom pledges to pay for it, which means mortgaging the house. A year later, we find Tom writing to John Baring, begging for a loan to stave off eminent foreclosure. (Who is John Baring? No idea). That night, Pearl sleepwalks again. She returns to the tree and finds the necklace where she dropped it. Tom discovers her with it and startles her awake. She’s evidently unaware of how she came to have it, and Tom seems very angry.

Lost in the Night screenshot 2There’s the germ of a story here, but it needed more working out. It makes sense that, if Pearl were interrupted while trying on the necklace, she might later try it on again in her sleep, but nothing prompts her then hiding it in a tree. I believe they were trying to foreshadow something in an earlier scene when Pearl and the maid were making room in the safe by moving some silverware into a hutch, but if there is some connection intended, it’s way too vague to work. And I could see it taking another crisis for Pearl’s subconscious to return to the necklace, but again, there’s no adequate parallel established in the waking-world that would explain Pearl’s dream actions.

Dick is a non-entity whose only purpose is to introduce the necklace and disappear directly afterward, which I don’t suppose is too much of a problem since the time constraints of a single reel mean details must be limited, but at the same time, the film isn’t shy of wasting time on other details of no consequence — like the entire detective subplot or the bank scene.

I suppose it might be a bit hypocritical of me right after saying that A Night in Town (1913) would have benefited from a more open ending, but I think Lost in the Night (1913) is a bit too open. What happens next? Is the foreclosure averted? (Recovering the necklace doesn’t necessarily mean recovering its value, especially since a year’s passed and the original buyer has been compensated.) Do Tom and Pearl reconcile? (From the last scene, I wouldn’t bet on it.) For that matter, is Pearl accused of stealing the necklace?

There is something here, I won’t deny that, but it’s too half-baked to recommend.

My rating: Meh.

A Night in Town (Crystal, 1913)

A Night in Town screenshotA Night in Town (Crystal, 1913)
Starring Pearl White and Chester Barnett
Directed by Phillips Smalley

Tom makes a visit to his nephew Dick to meet his new wife, but the newlyweds aren’t there — they left on a short trip of their own, leaving the house entrusted to their maid (Pearl White) and butler (Chester Barnett). When the cat’s away, the mice will play: the servants invite several friends over and are in the midst of a raucous party when Tom arrives.

The maid, who has helped herself to her mistress’s clothes, is mistaken for Dick’s wife. Tom leads her away to a private alcove to get to know her better, which incurs the butler’s jealousy. A fight breaks out that leads to Tom getting thrown from the window. He lands on a cop, who arrests him for assaulting an officer.

In the morning, the newlyweds return from their trip and Tom is released from jail. He makes a second visit to the house and discovers the true identities of the woman he flirted with and the man who attacked him, but nothing really comes of it. I watched several Crystal films the same night I screened A Night in Town (I’ll probably write something about two or three of them), and while all of them suffered a bit from this problem, it’s clear that the writer started with idea for a premise that he had no idea at all how to end. Really, after Tom mistakes the maid for his nephew’s wife, the story is over and the rest of the film is just killing time. Personally, I’d have padded out the set up a bit more and ended it with the arrest — leave it to the audience’s imagination what happens next, rather than disappoint them with the… it’s not even half-hearted, “quarter-hearted” next-day scene.

My rating: I don’t like it.

The Paper Doll (Crystal, 1913)

The Paper Doll screenshotThe Paper Doll (Crystal, 1913)
Directed by Phillips Smalley
Starring Pearl White and Chester Barnett

Alice (Pearl White) has two suitors: George Clements (Chester Barnett) and Eugene Raynor (Joseph Belmont). Alice obviously prefers George and this is not lost on Eugene, so at the next garden party, Eugene has his sister attempt to seduce George. Alice becomes jealous and so starts to favor Eugene. A brief fight breaks out between the two rivals, putting an end to the party.

Alice coldly sends George away. He returns a few moments later only to find her and Eugene apparently in an intimate conference. He doesn’t stay long enough to see that she is actually in the process of dismissing him as well.

Eugene goes home, depressed at losing Alice – suicidally depressed, in fact. He’s just signed his suicide letter when a friend interrupts him. They speak for a few minutes until Eugene finds a way to get rid of him. As he’s walking away, the friend sees George enter Eugene’s house behind him.

George confronts Eugene. The gun comes out and a struggle ensues, ending in George being disarmed and sent away. Finally alone, Eugene can prepare for his suicide, but his plans are destined for failure, as when he drops the gun on the floor, it accidentally goes off and shoots him through the heart. Adding insult to injury, a gust of wind carries the letter out the window.

The police arrive and George is arrested for murdering Eugene. It looks bad at the trial – a known motive, witnessed at the crime scene, his recently fired gun found on the floor.

Meanwhile, Alice had been teaching her younger sister how to make paper dolls. Alice has been, naturally, affected by the recent events, and so to cheer her up, Sister shows her some of the dolls she’s made from scraps of found paper. Alice discovers that one has writing on it. After realizing what it is, she rushes to the court just in time to give the suicide letter to the judge, thus clearing George of the murder charge.

The film stumbles at bit at the start, jumping into the action without defining the characters sufficiently to tell them apart. Baldy Belmont is more comfortable in comedy – “Joseph Belmont” here struggles with being believably dramatic. Other than that, I rather liked it. It was nicely shot and competently edited. The paper dolls are setup well in advance of the pay off, so it doesn’t feel as contrived as it otherwise might. On the whole, the story hangs together and plays out naturally enough.

My rating: I like it.

Pearl of the Army: The Silent Enemy Unmasked! (Astra Film, 1916)

Pearl of the Army posterPearl of the Army (Astra Film, 1916)
Episode 10: The Silent Enemy Unmasked!
Directed by Edward José
Starring Pearl White, Ralph Kellard, and Marie Wayne

I don’t normally watch individual episodes of a serial separate from the serial as a whole, but as Pearl of the Army (1916) is largely lost, I don’t have much choice in the matter. Being as this is episode ten of fifteen, a great deal has already happened that the audience is presumed to be familiar with, but as I’m not, my plot summary will be a bit disjointed and full of guesswork.

Before that, though, a note about the print I watched. Title-less negatives for the whole serial survived intact until they were lost in a vault fire in the 1960s. Prints of five or so of the thirty reels are known to still exist, mostly coming from the film cache discovered in Dawson City back in the 1970s, comprising parts of episodes one, six, and fourteen. My print of episode ten isn’t unique, but no one seems to know much about it. It was struck in 1940, according to the edge code, and the titles are obvious replacements. That leads me to strongly suspect it was sourced from the negative when it was still extant.

We join the story in progress. There are three plots running more or less concurrently in this episode, aside from the general overarching plot of the serial, that being the hunt for the Silent Menace, a mysterious German operative working to sabotage the U.S. war effort (Pearl of the Army is a World War I propaganda series, if you were unable to guess).

The first plotline follows Pearl Date (Pearl White) and Captain Ralph Payne (Ralph Kellard – my print calls him Adams, but I’m reasonably sure this is an error), who, I assume after a cliffhanger in episode nine, find themselves captives of the Silent Menace and his gang at the start of this episode. Ralph appears to be something of an analogue to Harry Marvin in The Perils of Pauline (1914) – in love with Pearl and wanting to marry her, but she’ll have none of it until she’s had her fill of adventure.

The second plotline follows the Lieutenant in an Arm Sling (I think he’s played by Floyd Buckley, but I don’t know the character’s name), who is under suspicion of “duplicity in the matter of the secret Canal Defense Plans” and is about to be court martialed. I give him the name Arm Sling because his left arm is in one. Arm Sling is also in love with Pearl, but is much less involved in her adventures.

The third and least developed plotline follows a woman who I can only assume to be Bertha Bonn (Marie Wayne). She is an agent for the Army (I guess) and has been tasked with keeping tabs on the Menace’s movements (I guess). She’s in love with Arm Sling? Maybe? Or perhaps he’s her brother? In any event, there’s some strong connection between them.

Much of the film, as you might expect, is devoted to finding and unmasking the Silent Menace, which falls entirely to Pearl. Seriously, you’d think the army couldn’t care less about apprehending him going by how much legwork she puts in compared to their actions. Unlike White’s characters in Perils or Exploits, Pearl here isn’t thrown into much danger that she didn’t actively seek out herself. She takes multiple punches to the face and is knocked several stories down a fire escape, but after all that, she still manages to tackle the fleeing suspect and throw him to his death over the side of a tall building.

There is a mystery involved in the Menace’s identity and how the ancillary characters are connected, but from this single, late episode, it all comes across as very confusing. There’s a flashback to a train wreck that may have occurred in an earlier episode, where a bearded-man plants a document on the body of one of the victims, and this apparently implicates Arm Sling so strongly in something that he kills himself to avoid being questioned. Ralph was apparently undercover at some point? Maybe that’s how he came to be captured by the Menace at the end of episode nine? A ghost of a woman appears to Pearl when she’s trying to puzzle out the identity of the Menace and seems to beckon to her – who she is and what that’s all about, I have no idea. A man in the hospital tries to confess to crimes he committed as part of the Menace’s gang, but they’re so incredible, he’s dismissed as being delirious. Before he names who his boss is, two shifty-eyed orderlies give him something “to steady his nerves” and he says no more.

I will say, confusing as it could be, The Silent Enemy Unmasked! certainly held my attention. The cinematography is much improved from White’s earlier serials. I particularly liked the train wreck flashback, which is entirely black and we only see brief snatches of action when the scene is lit up by lightning. Pearl wracking her brain to identify the Menace was handled in an effective, if surreal, way, with him appearing as a phantom that turns into a shadow that turns into a giant question mark.

I would definitely recommend Pearl of the Army and I’d love to see more of it myself.

My rating: I like it.