It’s been a while but I’ll break my four month hiatus with a review of a Priscilla Dean two reel comedy-drama I recently saw. If I’m not mistaken, the last time I spoke of Dean was way back in 2012 with the slapstick parody Heaven Will Protect a Woiking Goil (1916).
No longer with Vogue, Dean is now headlining a Victor film. The Victor Film Company was founded by the Biograph Girl herself, Florence Lawrence, as a subsidiary of IMP. I’ve already covered IMP and the establishment of the star system in my review of As a Boy Dreams (1911), so I’ll leave it at that. I should say, Somebody Lied (1917) was only nominally produced by Victor. For all intents and purposes, Victor ceased to exist in 1913 when the studio was absorbed by Universal, but the branding continued to be used for several years after that, in much the same way that Warner Bros. continued releasing “Vitagraph” films in the late ’20s.
Dolly (Priscilla Dean) has been married to Willie (Harry Carter) for just a month, and in her newlywed eyes, her husband is still a “flawless, blue-white diamond, sparkling in a setting of twenty-two carat gold”. When she looks at him, she literally sees a halo ‘round his head. Her friend Evelyn (Virginia Lee) invites them to a costume party, but there are four things Willie never does: in his words, “I never smoke, I never drink, I never dance, and I never attend mask balls!” He’s not opposed to Dolly going, though. He’ll be content spending a quiet evening at home with his books.
At the ball, Dolly as Marie Antoinette meets a Pierrot (Earle Page). There’s a bit of flirting, it must be confessed, but it’s innocent enough and Dolly flees home the moment the clown gets too fresh. She tiptoes to bed so as not to disturb Willie in his study.
She needn’t have bothered; her angel isn’t at home. Willie is “where no saint ever comes — and wouldn’t be admitted if he did”. Namely, he’s at an underground casino, smoking and boozing it up. The night still young, the deserted Pierrot drops in to partake in a few spins of the roulette wheel. Unfortunately for both, the police also have a mind to visit. Willie and the clown barricade themselves in the back room. “She thinks I’m an angel,” Willie moans. If he’s arrested, his “wife will lose all faith” in him. The police didn’t see Pierrot, so he offers Willie his costume and shoves him through the trapdoor to the roof.
After a daring escape, Willie makes it home. As she sees the clown enter her bedroom, Dolly recoils: “Please go — I was wrong to flirt with you at the ball!” She’s not long in suspense. Willie at once whips off the mask and demands to know who she’s been flirting with. He’s so angry that it isn’t until the roulette chips fly out of his pockets and spill on the ground that he remembers his own transgression. Silenced, he slumps on the bed. “Then you’re not a perfect angel, are you?” “No, not perfect, but…” Willie needn’t say more. Dolly reaches over and pulls him in for a kiss.
I liked this film quite a bit. Dramedies can be hard to get right, but Somebody Lied rode the line well. The humor here, at least, always seemed intentional and didn’t feel incongruous to the otherwise straight drama. To Ben Wilson’s credit, more celebrated directors than him have failed at that. Frank Borzage’s The Circle (1925), in my opinion, is a particularly bad example of a film that lurches from serious to comic without doing justice to either.
My rating: I like it.
Heaven Will Protect a Woiking Goil (Vogue, 1916)
Directed by John Francis Dillon
Starring Priscilla Dean and Russ Powell
I cannot begin to describe how much I love this film, and given that I’m not usually much of a fan of short comedies, that must mean something.
Moviegoers of 1916 saw themselves as a quite sophisticated bunch well beyond the old “flickers” that once graced the screen only a few years before. Heaven Will Protect a Woiking Goil is a parody of those early film (and stage) melodramas. It’s hardly original – Goodness Gracious; or, Movies as They Shouldn’t Be (1914) covered much the same ground two years earlier – but whereas Goodness Gracious often veers a little far into the wacky for my taste, Woiking Goil is played mostly straight. Mostly.
The plot is cobbled together from elements and situations lifted from countless potboiler melodramas: Nell, a simple, good-hearted country girl (Priscilla Dean), travels alone to the heartless big city to find her drunken father and bring him back home to her poor, downtrodden mother. Meanwhile, the lecherous manager of a clothing store (Arthur Moon) fires a sales girl (Louise Owen) when she refuses his demand “Kiss me, proud beauty!” Needing a new clerk, he spots Nell and offers her the position… and his attentions. When Nell flees from his embrace, he and a crooked cop (Paddy McQuire) give chase and eventually catch her and her flamboyantly gay boyfriend (Russ Powell) and tie them to the railroad tracks as a train speedily approaches. As luck should have it, the drunken hobo loitering nearby is none other than Nell’s drunken father and he rescues the couple with less than a second to spare.
And that’s only the main plot – I’ve said nothing about the miserly landlord and the suicidal tenant, or the railroad officer and would-be train hopper, or the plight of street beggars. In the span of twelve minutes, this short manages to cram in every single cliché imaginable.
I’m not sure how well the film would play to someone less familiar with the tropes it’s spoofing or with the contemporary memes it constantly alludes to (I was crying from laughter when “And the villains still pursued her.” pops up), but I adore Heaven Will Protect a Woiking Goil and would heartily recommend it to anyone the least bit interested in silent parodies.
My rating: I like it.
Available from Harpodeon