If you read movie magazines from the early 1910s, you’ll find an almost universal theme coursing through every issue: will there be censorship? Motion Picture Story Magazine, in particular, had a long running series on the topic with interviews and guest articles by religious leaders of various stripes arguing the morals of the new medium. You’ll recall that the magazine was published by J. Stuart Blackton, co-founder of Vitagraph — who very, very coincidentally were at the height of production of their so-called Quality Films, as distinguished from those vile and corrupting pictures from other studios that played at the nickel theatres.
It’s often hard to reconcile the hyperbolic tone those “other” films are spoken of with the actual films themselves, which often come across as harmless and even quaint. With Blackbeard (1911), though, I kind of see what they’re talking about. I wouldn’t say it’s vile and corrupting, but it is graphically violent, and while the villainous Blackbeard is defeated at the end, he is — until them — more or less the main character. In other words, the story doesn’t focus on some hero out to stop the pirates — it focuses on the pirates.
Blackbeard (Sydney Ayres) and his men sack the island of Martinique. The Governor (Hobart Bosworth) and his household are carried away as prisoners. The Governor is forced to walk the plank, but his faithful maid Conchita (Bessie Eyton) dives in and swims him to safety at a nearby islet. With the other male captives similarly disposed of, the ladies are thrown into the hold where they’re menaced by Blackbeard until a pursuing British Man-O’-War is sighted. Blackbeard orders the hold be sealed and the prisoners suffocated with burning sulfur and they very nearly are until a lucky cannon shot blasts a hole through the deck to let in fresh air. The Man-O’-War overtakes the pirate ship, the British board them, and then it’s down to pistols and cutlasses. At last the pirates are defeated and Blackbeard is hanged from his own yardarm.
It’s gruesome stuff, especially the end, where it does not shy from showing the bodies swinging in the breeze.
Blackbeard was written and directed by Francis Boggs. It was one of his last works — he died the year of its release. I have prints of three of his films. The Cattle Rustlers (1908) is primitive even for the time, but he seems to have learned how to make a movie right quick — Blackbeard and Shipwrecked (1911) are both very well photographed and decently acted, at least in comparison to other films out in the early 1910s, and certainly compared to Vitagraph’s Quality Films. If I had any complaint, Blackbeard relies too heavily on titles to maintain the continuity, but that’s really just down to its length. To be told visually, either story would have to be simplified or the film would have to be a good deal longer than one reel.
My rating: I like it.
Lionel Strongheart (Tom Mix) is out on a hunting vacation in the hills. He stumbles across a couple of moonshiners — Joe and Jeff — who shoot him. When they discover he’s just a hapless tourist, they take him back to their cabin where Nellie nurses him to health. Nellie is Joe’s daughter and Jeff is in love with her, although she turns down his marriage proposal. Joe promises to plead his partner’s case, but that’s sidetracked when Sheriff Jim comes with a warrant for Jeff’s arrest. Meanwhile, Nellie and Lionel have fallen in love and decide to marry.
There’s something about this film that doesn’t sit right with me. Several things, actually: it doesn’t look or play like the sort of films Tom Mix was making at Selig in 1915; I can find no release notices for a Selig film by the name “Man Hunt” — not in that year or at any other date — nor any newspaper ads or reviews; it looks most natural at around 22fps and not the 16-18fps Selig films usually run at; Mix looks noticeably older than he does in, say, Sage Brush Tom (1915), which I happened to watch immediately before running The Man Hunt; and the plot is awfully intricate for the film’s run time, and it strikes me as an abridgement of a longer work.
What I have is a 16mm print released by Castle Films — I’m not sure when, but the edge code of the film stock dates it to 1964. The titles are replacements. It names Tom Mix (and him alone), but it doesn’t suggest that it’s a Selig production or that it was originally released in 1915. The only place I can find making those claims is IMDb, and IMDb is… not exactly the most reliable resource.
I don’t think it is a 1915 Selig one-reeler. I think it’s probably a cut-down of one of Mix’s later Fox releases, either feature length or at least two or three reels long, and that “The Man Hunt” is simply the title Castle assigned it and not what it was originally called. Now I could be wrong, but that’s my impression. With that said, I can’t really criticize the film’s abruptness, pacing issues, or its weak character development — as what’s here may not be representative of what might have been intended.
So what can I say? Well, I can say that none of the cast is acting with even the slightest conviction. It’s good that the film tells us that Jeff is in love with Nellie, or that Nellie doesn’t care for the man, or that her father inexplicably does — because none of that comes across otherwise. The titular manhunt, which is introduced dramatically with “THE MAN HUNT IS ON!”, is an oddly sedate affair. The sheriff and I suppose deputy ride slowly up to the still and simply slip the handcuffs on Jeff without any real struggle or urgency and the film just fizzles out afterward. Father’s involvement with the moonshining operation seems to be forgotten, as does the attempted murder.
What’s here isn’t good, and I can’t imagine what isn’t here was very good either. In short…
My rating: I don’t like it.
Another splendid jungle adventure from our old pal Colonel Selig.
Charles Clancy (Earle Foxe), a representative of the Great American Circus, is in Africa trapping exotic animals — mostly large cats, but also a zebra, a rhino, and an elephant. He meets John Gladding (Fred Hearn), a trader who lives in the jungle with his daughter Kate (Vivian Reed). John is sick with the plague. Charles offers to stay with them, but John insists that his daughter will see him through.
The very instant that Charles leaves, John dies. The native servants, evidently frightened by the plague (and I don’t see why they shouldn’t be), refuse to stay in the cabin and all but one flee. Kate is left alone with Wamba (Walter Beckwith). She sends him out with a message to Charles.
The very instant that Wamba leaves, a lion pounces on him and he’s killed. Unlike in The Last Man (1924), where the menacing puma was just a dummy, a very real lion jumps on the stunt man here and falls on top of him when they hit the ground. This is happening literally steps from the door, but Kate doesn’t seem to hear it. She’s in the cabin with a couple of tame leopards. She’s holding a stick and doing some kind of circus act with them while her father’s corpse is presumably in the corner of the room… you know, this is a really weird scene. Anyway, she evidently decides that she needs some air.
The very instant that Kate leaves, a growling tiger rushes for her. She runs back inside. The tiger paces in front of the door. She reaches for the pistol at her hip, but that won’t do. She instead takes an elephant gun from the wall and loads a cartridge. She shoots through the window, but I guess she was aiming at the lion? I don’t know, but the tiger doesn’t care and I guess she doesn’t have any more bullets. She opens the door and commands the leopards to attack… and they do. They kill the tiger (or rather, they roll around with a tiger puppet for a while) and Kate calls them back inside.
A year passes. Charles is back in the jungle, or maybe he never left, but at any rate he finds the sun-bleached skeleton of Wamba, and on that faithful lost messenger, he finds Kate’s cry for help. He rushes to the cabin but it’s not so much a rescue as Kate and her leopards seem to be perfectly fine. Back at the boat (there’s a boat evidently), someone named Tom writes to Charles that they’re ready to leave and he’d better come aboard. Charles writes back that he’s staying with his new wife.
The story is nutty and I love it. I expected that, but what I wasn’t expecting was how well shot the film is. It looks much, much better than it has any right to, with some creative framing, well-timed cuts, and appropriate reaction inserts. I think that the legitimately good cinematography coupled with the supremely kitschy storyline really elevates the film to something special. It’s different from The Last Man, which really only works on a so bad it’s good level. This is an unusual but entertaining mix of good-bad meets good-good.
My rating: I like it.
Selig Polyscope was a fascinating place. They were one of the pioneering American studios, releasing their first film, The Tramp and the Dog, in 1896. They popularized the western — indeed, their stars Tom Mix and G.M. Anderson essentially defined the genre. They invented the serial cliffhanger with The Adventures of Kathlyn (1913), Kathlyn literally hanging from a cliff at the end of an episode. They dabbled in early talkies, using the recently invented Audion vacuum tube as an electronic amplifier (obviously, to not very great success).
Short comedy westerns were still their stock in trade, but by the 1910s, they had made a name for themselves in the new genre of the jungle adventure. Self-styled Colonel William Selig was rather interested in animals and had amassed quite a menagerie, which were put to good use in front of the camera.
Then came the twin troubles — World War I and the dissolution of the Patents Trust — and with them, the end of cinema as America had known it. The war had cut-off the vital European markets that the Trust studios had come to depend on, but they might have persevered had the Trust survived. Since 1908, the Motion Picture Patents Company had a stranglehold on production, using the courts to marginalize independent producers and promote the films of the Trust studios. Although their patents eventually expired, the monopoly they had created continued to be near-insurmountable, until independent producer Carl Laemmle sued. In 1915, it reached the Supreme Court and the MPPC was busted under the Sherman Antitrust Act.
The Trust studios were pioneers, but they had grown complacent. They had clung too fast to the old ways, particularly concentrating on programs consisting of several shorts rather than feature-length films. Suddenly, the uneven playing field was leveled and they faced competition for the first time. One by one they fell. Vitagraph was the last to go in 1925.
Selig folded much quicker, in 1918. Erstwhile studio boss William Selig spun off his menagerie into a zoo. He had great plans for his Selig Zoo Park in East Los Angeles, intending for it not only to be a zoo, but essentially Disneyland — a jungle-themed amusement park with huge carnival rides, a water park, restaurants, and resort hotels. None of this ever came off. The zoo languished for several years without ever making a profit. His fortune entirely lost, Selig gave most of his animals to the Griffith Park Zoo and died in 1948.
But prior to that, after the closure of Selig Polyscope but before Selig himself was quite ruined, he attempted to break back into the movie industry as an independent. In 1921, he got a three-year contract from the Export & Import Film Company. Export & Import was a short-lived distribution house that essentially dealt in B-movies — low budget filler for padding out the program at second-run, proto-grindhouse theatres. Selig turned in a series of six two-reel shorts collectively called The Jungle Stories. They were mostly acted by nobodies, but each was headlined by a “name” actor. Hedda Nova was the star of The Last Man, released in 1924, and a star she was… half a dozen years earlier, at Vitagraph during its heyday. But she was still recognizable, if not exactly a draw.
A group of college friends about to set out into the world to win their fortunes make a promise to each other to meet again in three years’ time. John Gaunt (Richard Sterling) goes to “the wilds of South America”. At the appointed time, the old college friends reunite. Gaunt seems to be a no-show until he arrives two hours late, his clothes in tatters, sporting shoulder-length hair and a Grizzly Adams beard. In his search for gold, he explains, he found himself lost in the jungle…
·._.·´¯`·. Flashback .·´¯`·._.·
Gaunt, weak from hunger, was found by “A Crazed Scientist” (James Mason) and “His Crazed Negro Slave” (Oscar Morgan). In the grand tradition of the Selig films of yore, none of the back-story is ever explained, but it would seem that the Scientist was not always Crazed and had come to the jungle to collect wildlife specimens. Something happened (maybe it was lightning…) and he lost his grip on reality. Now he tends to his personal zoo in the jungle, and he sees in Gaunt nothing more than “a wonderful specimen” to add to his collection.
Gaunt meets his fellow exhibits: there’s a llama, a puma, a leopard, a monkey, and a Joan Darcy (Hedda Nova). Joan has been there for two years. There hasn’t been a cage prepared for Gaunt yet, so he’s kept in the Scientist’s cave. Pretending to be asleep, he sees the Scientist bury a quantity of gold (never mind where it came from, but keep it in the back of your mind). After the Scientist turns in for the night, Gaunt sneaks out. He frees Joan — which wasn’t hard, given that her cage was made out of sticks — and they abscond into the jungle.
The Slave has alerted his master to the escape of the two human specimens and they set out in pursuit. Unlucky for Joan and Gaunt, the monkey has followed them and led the Crazies right to their hiding place. They are swiftly recaptured.
Either as a punishment or simply out of madness, Gaunt is shoved into the puma pen, where he does battle with a puma puppet that would make Ed Wood and his octopus smile. Gaunt lives to see another day… and then another 729 days in captivity.
“Then one night, an act of Providence.” Zeus tosses down a lightning bolt that shatters Gaunt’s cage. Simultaneously, it has further crazed the Crazed Negro Slave, who now turns on the Scientist for some reason. Gaunt can’t free Joan for some reason, so he leaves alone, promising to return with help. Meanwhile, a fight breaks out between the Crazies, in which they both strangle each other to death.
Gaunt makes it back just in time for the party (hand wave, hand wave, tramp steamer). The friends are not terribly keen on helping, until Thomas Wynn (William C. Ehfe) hears tell of the Scientist’s treasure. If you don’t follow the We Hate Movies podcast, pause now to have a listen to their take on Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Thomas Wynn is their impression of Ray “the gowld — gimme the gowld — I want the gowld” Winstone, to a T.
They return with Gaunt to the jungle and rediscover the Crazy Zoo. The buzzards are circling. All the animals are dead and enough time has passed that the Crazies are now nothing more than sun-bleached skeletons. Surely, Joan is no longer of this world.
But no! The monkey (!) has been feeding her (!!) with bananas (!!!) and she is saved. This is of little concern to Wynn — “where’s the gold” … “where did you say that gold was?” … “let me have the gold!” He busies himself in search of the Scientist’s cave, and lo!, “I’ve found it! The gold! Look! Look!”
I love this film. It’s absolutely terrible in every conceivable way, but it never stops being entertaining, and it just keeps ratcheting up the craziness to an almost fevered pitch. It encapsulates everything I love about Selig films (yes, it wasn’t technically made by the old studio, but it may as well have been). It wasn’t the last of The Jungle Stories, but it is to my knowledge the last survivor, and it makes a fitting capstone to the Colonel’s career.
My rate: I like it (!!!!).
Available from Harpodeon
I think I might do a series of reviews of silent films with gay themes, focusing on those not covered as much as the big three that everyone talks about – Different From the Others (1919), Michael (1924), and Sex in Chains (1928). This obscure Tom Mix short seems like a good starting place.
A lot of cowboy movies are homoerotic, but for what’s ostensibly a story about two men trying to woo the same woman, Roping a Bride (1915) is one of the gayest films I’ve ever seen.
The film opens with Tom (Tom Mix) and Dick (Sid Jordan) sitting together on the grass. Tom helps himself to a cigarette from Dick’s pocket, Dick remarks how over the years they’ve “naturally got to like everything jest about the same”, and they both have a good laugh at nothing in particular.
Next, we meet Vera (Goldie Colwell), the only eligible woman in Snake Hollow (population: twelve). She’s looking for a husband and the obvious choice is either Tom or Dick, but she simply can’t decide between the two. Possibly because they’re inseparable. The pair arrive for a date of sorts with Vera on her front porch and they stay all night and into the next morning, but it’s mostly just the two of them – Vera greets them both and they talk a little, but then she goes inside for an indeterminate amount of time (returning “much later”, the title says). When Vera says she has to get breakfast going (I read it as a more polite “get the hell off my porch”), the two ride off together, side-by-side, Dick’s white horse in step with Tom’s black horse.
With Vera still undecided, an arbiter is appointed to choose a husband for her: Bill Bush (or maybe his name is Sile Burton – the intertitle introducing him and the signature on his letter disagree – played by Roy Watson). His first suggestion is a duel between Tom and Dick, but they immediately reject that option. He’s all out of ideas until, sometime later, he stumbles upon Tom and Dick both tossing a lasso around pole and laughing at nothing in particular. He writes a letter to Vera outlining his plan: she’s to stand on the road, and 400 yards away, Tom and Dick will wait on horseback. When she hears a gunshot, she’s to start running while the two men race toward her as each tries to catch her with his lasso.
Tom and Dick begin practicing – together, of course. Vera watches them from a distance as they lasso a donkey and a calf, kiss them on the snout, and deliver lines like “You’re the cream of my wheat, the sugar of my rhubarb, and the light of my lantern! Let’s you an’ me get hitched!” She finds it quite amusing.
The day of the competition arrives and all goes according to plan. Tom beats Dick to Vera and tosses his rope around her. He dismounts and kneels before her, but unlike the practice donkey, Vera slaps him on the face and screams “I wouldn’t marry either one of you, unless I were a calf – or a donkey! I’m going to marry a human being!”
Tom and Dick sit by the side of a barn, looking sternly away, but slowly they turn to face each other and a smile creeps across their faces. Tom grabs Dick’s hand and says “I’m powerful glad WE didn’t marry her” (his emphasis). Dick lights Tom’s cigarette and the two laugh as the scene fades out.
I’m never entirely sure if I’m reading too much into a film and finding subtext where there is none, but I showed Roping a Bride to my mother without any context and the first thing she asked after it ended was if that was the silent Brokeback Mountain, so at least I’m not the only one to get that impression.
When I think of Selig, I think of intriguing if crudely made films, but Roping a Bride is very well put together. It’s well written, well paced, and there are no major gaps in the narrative. It’s nicely shot, and although it could have used some close-ups, good use is made of medium-close shots. Most of all, the actors really breathe life into their characters – with minor gestures from Tom and Dick suggesting much that isn’t explicitly said. I would heartily recommend it.
My rating: I like it.
Available from Harpodeon
Tom (Tom Mix) is Vicky Jordan’s (Victoria Forde) boyfriend. He’s a cowboy or something like that and has just ridden into Las Vegas to see Vicky and to visit the local saloon. At said saloon and after several drinks, Tom spots his old friend Ned Burrows (Leo D. Maloney) coming through the door. The bartender appears and he and Ned argue over something the audience isn’t privy to. Tom, a little tipsy, pulls out his gun and starts shooting wildly. Ned is hit. Tom staggers out of the saloon and rides away. He’s met on the road by another of the barflies who tells him that he “sure enough killed Ned” and that he had better clear out of town before the police find him. Tom hops a train and disappears into the night afternoon.
A week later, the Sheriff (Sid Jordan) receives a letter from his sister Bess (Helen Gilmore). There’s going to be a riding show in Los Angeles and she wants him to accompany her there, which he does, and who should he see among the participants…
Tom Mix and Sid Jordan made a boatload of short westerns for Selig in the 1910s. They were mostly comedies or action-comedies, but Never Again (1915) is more of a drama with a twist. The setup echoes the dozens upon dozens of other “drink” films that were coming out at the time. It was during the lead-up to Prohibition and the temperance movement was growing louder by the day. The first act of Never Again reminded me particularly of a somewhat less preachy What Drink Did (1909), but the second act abandons the hard-line approach for a much more moderate message:
The film ends with the Sheriff arresting Tom and taking him back to Las Vegas, only to deliver him into the hands of Ned, who it turns out wasn’t seriously injured, and to Vicky, to whom Tom promises that he’ll “never again get drunk”.
Tom doesn’t say he’ll never drink again, only never drink to drunkenness again. That is frankly remarkable. As far as the other drink films I’ve seen are concerned, alcohol is nothing short of the embodiment of all evil. To see one that hedges that claim even slightly is a puzzle. I don’t pretend to have the answer, but I have an idea for why Never Again backs away from calling for an all-out prohibition.
Who was the target audience for Tom Mix films? They had a broad appeal, surely, but they weren’t most popular among rural audiences, they were watched most by inner-city children and their mothers. City dwellers were, on the whole, against Prohibition – the loudest voices calling for it were in the suburbs and countryside. There were a host of reasons for that, but a big one was that the temperance movement went largely hand-in-hand with the nativist movement, whose subscribers thought America was going to hell in a handbasket and laid the blame squarely on the recent influx of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. Those immigrants congregated in cities, chiefly New York, and would have made up the core of Mix’s audience. It would seem to me that Never Again is trying to cash-in on the drink film craze while simultaneously trying hard not to alienate those targeted by Prohibition.
But I haven’t said much about what I thought of the film. It’s pretty good. Like most Selig films, it offers few details regarding the characters or story and it leaves even major plot points to the audience’s imagination, but it has a certain crude charm that makes it very agreeable to watch. I’ve said before that I’m attracted to Selig films for reasons that I can’t entirely express, but I think that comes nearest to explaining why. That, and the fact that the output of any major studio that somehow re-imagines itself as a zoo when the movie business dries up can’t help but be intriguing.
My rating: I like it.
Available from Harpodeon
Bill (Sidney Smith) is in love with Mr. Fogg’s daughter, Betty (Elsie Greeson), and wants to marry her. Mr. Fogg (John Lancaster) does not exactly approve of the match, and as he just so happens to be Bill’s boss, he fires him. Bill, hoping to persuade Fogg to give him his job back, goes up to the boss’s office and discovers Fogg and his secretary in a rather compromising situation. Bill rushes away, but not before Fogg notices him holding what looks like a camera under his arm. Fogg must prevent that picture from reaching his wife at all costs.
The Mysterious Black Box (1914) is one of those films that straddles the line between drama and comedy, and like many other such films, it doesn’t really succeed at either. The infidelity story, clichéd as it is, does start out strong thanks in large part to John Lancaster’s performance, but that same performance hinders the comedy elements. Lancaster plays his part as straight as an arrow, but Sidney Smith and especially Lillian Leighton (Fogg’s wife) act as if they’re in a broad slapstick regardless of the scene. When the three come together, it feels almost as if two entirely separate movies have crashed into one another.
Selig films fascinate me for reasons I can’t quite articulate and I’m happy to have seen another of the rare surviving few, but The Mysterious Black Box isn’t a film I wouldn’t recommend to anyone.
My rating: I don’t like it.