I think I must have referenced Auntie’s Portrait at least two or three times when talking about other Sidney Drew films, but I’ve never spoken about it directly. I should rectify that.
Auntie’s Portrait is usually cast as a “rare” film, but for all it’s supposed rarity, I’ve got five prints of it. The old standard definition video was sourced from the best print I had at the time, which still wasn’t very good — a bit soft and more than a bit dark. The new high definition remaster comes from the last print I obtained, which is just all around gorgeous. I’m very happy to have it as Auntie’s Portrait is my favorite Drew short.
Mr. and Mrs. Honeypet (Sidney Drew and Jane Morrow) are newlyweds. They receive a gift from Mrs. Honeypet’s wealthy aunt Flora (Ethel Lee). They dig into the box eager to see what it contains only to find a hideous portrait of Auntie herself. The Honeypets are obviously middle class, but they’ve got pretensions and this picture would disgrace their carefully curated walls. Not expecting Auntie to visit anytime soon, they decide to worry about it later. In the meantime, the portrait is consigned to the attic.
The next day, who should drop by but Auntie Flora, every bit as harsh and mean-looking as her picture. And about that picture — no sooner does she take off her hat and coat than the lorgnette comes out and she begins scanning the walls for it. Mr. Honeypet retrieves the portrait from the attic and tries to quickly hang it, but they don’t have a big place — just a few rooms downstairs — and he keeps being interrupted by Auntie. It seems like all is lost when he drops the picture and the frame breaks, but then inspiration strikes and Mr. Honeypet rushes out the back door.
Auntie, having gone round the house several times, has determined that her portrait is nowhere to be found. “I shall leave this house and never return,” she tells her niece, “and I’ll leave you out of my will, too!” She’s almost out the door when Mr. Honeypet barges in. “We sent it away to have this beautiful frame put on it,” he explains, showing her the picture with a new, elaborate gilt frame. “We wanted to surprise you!”
I tend to bring up Auntie’s Portrait when talking about Drew films because I really consider it the gold standard of their formula: newlyweds that are pretentious social climbers and probably a bit insufferable to be around, but not so bad that you want to see them fail. It’s not too confining as formulas go and there’s a lot that can be mined from it. There’s nothing wacky about the Drews’ better domestic comedies. Their world is really only a slightly heightened version of our own. You probably know people in real life not too unlike the Honeypets.
My rating: I like it.
Available from Harpodeon
And now, unless you enjoy my continued ramblings about Amazon, you can stop reading and I’ll think nothing less of you for it.
Professor Cameron (Sidney Drew) is hard at work on his “great literary masterpiece” when Mrs. Merrileigh (Jane Morrow) moves into the neighboring house. She’s a widow with two young children — “Mother’s angels”, she calls them (Helen and Bobby Connelly). Cameron is smitten by Merrileigh at first sight and is hardly able to work without imagining the woman next door.
Likewise, the two hellions immediately declare war on the Professor. Their offensive escalates from putting firecrackers under his chair and drenching his romantic picnic with the garden hose to stealing his manuscript and burning it in the front yard. But the children’s efforts are self-defeating. Merrileigh, after learning what happened, goes to console Cameron. The Professor admits that maybe his book didn’t mean “more than anything else in the world” to him, and that maybe there was one thing that meant more.
Cameron and Merrileigh are embracing when the kids come bounding in with the news that what they burned wasn’t actually the manuscript. It was all pretend and the real papers were safely hidden all along.
As a one-reeler, it plays a bit too fast. There’s not enough material for a feature, but it could easily have filled two reels, and I’d have liked to have seen more of the budding romance and the children’s efforts to undermine it.
The characters are grounded in reality and their actions, though exaggerated, are entirely believable. They’re a much better fit for the Drews’ usual style of domestic comedy than the last Drew film I wrote about, Wanted:- A Nurse (1915). Only Cameron’s mischievous housekeeper, played by Ethel Lee, seems to act without purpose.
I enjoyed The Professor’s Romance (1914). It still doesn’t top Auntie’s Portrait (1915) as my favorite Drew short, but it is definitely one of the better ones.
My rating: I like it.
There’s an accident on the street and Helen Worth (Jane Morrow), a nurse, attends to the injured man. J. Robert Orr (Sidney Drew) was walking by at the time and stops to see what’s going on. Robert falls in love with Helen at first sight and can only look on stupefied as she leaves in the ambulance – which is unfortunate for Robert, as he neglected to get her name.
Back at his club, Robert suddenly realizes what to do. He feigns madness and his friends haul him to the hospital. It would be a workable plan, except Helen isn’t there – she’s out on a house call. There are other nurses, however, whose care threaten to actually drive Robert insane.
Sidney Drew and Lucille McVey were real life husband and wife. They married in 1914, shortly after the death of Gladys Rankin, Sidney Drew’s first wife. Rankin, under the name George Cameron, was a screen and stage writer. Rankin’s play Agnes was adapted into Vitagraph’s first big, feature-length drama, A Million Bid (1914). McVey – who used the stage name Jane Morrow, and later, Mrs. Sidney Drew – in addition to being an actress was also a scenarist. She wrote the majority of the “domestic comedies” that became the Drews’ trademark style. They are, for the most part, quite a bit more sedate than the action-packed slapstick films more associated with silent comedy today. They tend to focus on a single situation and are often comedy of manners.
Wanted:- A Nurse (1915) isn’t one of the Drews’ best. In most of their comedies, the leads are A) fairly recently married, and B) solidly middle class, but aspiring to greater financial and/or social heights. This picture strays from both halves of the formula. It doesn’t feel grounded in reality, which is my biggest complaint. In films like Auntie’s Portrait (1915), their characters are exaggerated, but are based on a type of person that actually exists. J. Robert Orr does not exist outside of the movies.
I do like the little touches that don’t really enter into the plot, but give the film some color – like the suggestion that the hospital superintendent is a drunk or that Robert could be a miser. Also, watch out for Ethel Lee, who you might remember as Auntie from the aforementioned Auntie’s Portrait (1915). Although uncredited, she plays the nurse who’s not taking any of Robert’s nonsense and seems to push him over the edge. Wanted:- A Nurse is a slight recommend, just for her.
My rating: Meh.
Available from Harpodeon
My look at silent films with gay themes continues with a “farcical fantasy” released in the summer of 1914:
Lillian Travers (Edith Storey) is a New York heiress whose fortune has just been turned over to her. Seeing nothing left to stand in the way, she jumps on the train to Florida to surprise her fiancée and begin arrangements for their wedding. His name is Fred Cassadene (Sidney Drew); he’s the house doctor at the exclusive Hotel Ponce de Leon in St. Augustine. Staying at the hotel is a flirtatious young widow, Stella Lovejoy (Ada Gifford), who delights in feigning illness for the doctor’s attention. When Lilly arrives, unannounced, she’s furious to find Fred and Stella apparently hand-in-hand in the hotel courtyard. Fred explains and Lily is placated… for the moment… but it seems something keeps coming up between Fred and Stella and Lilly’s suspicions heighten.
While all this is playing out, Lilly is staying with her spinster aunt, Constancia Oglethorpe (Grace Stevens). Connie is of old Southern stock and she tells Lilly the story of one of her ancestors, Captain Hauser Oglethorpe. It seems he was shipwrecked off the coast of Africa (the implication is that he was a slaver, although that isn’t explicitly said) and came away with a mystery: a box, now on display in Connie’s parlor, containing an enigmatic note that reads “In the duplicate of this casket, whereabouts unknown, lies a secret for all women who suffer.”
Lilly goes out with Bessie (Jane Morrow), the daughter of Connie’s widower neighbor Major Horton (Charles Kent), to hit up the local antique stores. She finds a box that looks just like her aunt’s, with a tag that claims it was found washed ashore a century ago. Lilly buys it and, from its contents, learns the rest of old Oglethorpe’s history: after the captain was shipwrecked, he was rescued by an African tribe that was curiously all male. The chief of this tribe, Quasi, told him that they recruited their numbers from the women of neighboring tribes. These women they fed a particular seed, which instantly changed them into men. Quasi gave Oglethorpe four of these seeds as a parting gift – Lilly finds the vial containing them in the box.
After the final straw breaks Lilly’s trust in Fred’s fidelity, she swallows one of the seeds. She grasps at her throat as it begins to take hold then, after a moment’s pause, stands up, hurls away the chair, grabs the box and remaining three seeds, dashes Fred’s flowers to the ground, and marches out of the room.
Lilly spurns Fred at the ball and begins courting Bessie. After a while, she gives a seed to her maid and the two return to New York to complete their transformation: Lillian Travers becomes Lawrence Talbot and Jane the Maid becomes Jack the Valet. Lawrence again visits Florida, this time to ask for Bessie’s hand in marriage…
A Florida Enchantment (1914) was adapted from a Broadway play of the same name, which in turn had been adapted from a novel by Archibald Clavering Gunter. The film is more popular now than it was when it premiered – audiences and critics alike panned it for being too absurd. In truth, it was never intended to be a hit in America. Like many of Sidney Drew’s “sophisticated comedies”, Vitagraph was banking on its assured success in France to buoy lackluster domestic returns, but unfortunately the First World War broke out during production and that market was cut-off. Enchantment lost Vitagraph a fair bit of money.
It’s interesting to see the dichotomy of reactions the film shows between same-sex attractions. When Lilly (still outwardly female) openly flirts with Bessie, Connie is a bit scandalized and Fred looks on in confusion, but there is no uproar. No one attempts to stop her, nor is she so much as criticized for her actions. When later in the film Fred swallows a seed and begins to act femininely, and angry mob literally chases him off the end of a pier and into a watery grave. It’s played for laughs in Enchantment, but you’ll see it repeated in serious dramas as well: gay women might get off lightly, but gay men have to die. Paul Körner, Claude Zoret, Franz Sommer – I can’t think of a single lead character who breaks this trend.
I like A Florida Enchantment a great deal. It was actually the movie that got me interesting in releasing my film collection on video and it became my first DVD. I’m presently working on it again and hope to have a new version out for its hundredth anniversary next year (and maybe a theatrical screening or two – we’ll see what the card’s hold). It’s a better transfer and the restoration software I’m using is much improved. There’s still a long way to go, but I’m already proud of it. Here’s a sneak peak of the new video:
My rating: I like it.
Available (old version now, new one sometime next year) from Harpodeon