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Romeo and Juliet (Thanhouser, 1911)

Romeo and Juliet screenshot 1Romeo and Juliet (Thanhouser, 1911)
Directed by Barry O’Neil
Starring George Lessey and Julia M. Taylor

I’m aware of three extant prints of Romeo and Juliet, Part Two: the Folger Shakespeare Library has a copy, the British Film Institute has a copy, and we have a copy. There may well be countless others, of course, but again, those I know. Where ours came from, who can say? I got it years and years ago from eBay as part of an unidentified lot of films. The seller, I understand, got it from an estate sale in California and was reselling it sight-unseen. It’s a 16mm reduction print on diacetate stock that the edge code dates to 1932. That’s all I know.

As for Part One, there are no known copies. Romeo and Juliet is often called a two-reeler, but that’s not true — it’s two one-reelers. The distinction is important. The ad copy stresses to exhibitors that each is a stand-alone picture and needn’t necessarily be shown with the other. Indeed, for its first run that would have been quite impossible, as part two was released a week after part one. A cue sheet survives that outlines each scene and title card and I at first intended to reconstruct Part One based on it. I did come up with something, but I’m just not very happy with it and decided not to use it. If I had more stills, perhaps it could work, but as it stands, it’s not much more than a string of title cards. For those interested, here it is. It’s unscored — play de Koven’s Oh, Promise Me under it if you like, the cue sheet suggests that for the climax.

Romeo and Juliet screenshot 2Speaking of the score, I’m having a devilishly hard time scoring Part Two. As I’ve said, there is a period cue sheet available. It has eighteen cues. For a fifteen minute short. Eighteen cues. Some scenes (none of which are longer than two minutes, including the title) have three different cues. The average piece of photoplay music is about three minutes long. Now, photoplay music is written specifically to be adaptable, and most pieces can be stretched or compressed considerably, but it’s quite a demand to shorten one to just eight seconds. And the pieces they suggest! Harvest Moon is the friar’s theme, and that’s… that’s just awful. Juliet’s death theme is Heart’s Ease (Lertz’s or Lange’s? The cue sheet doesn’t specify, but it hardly matters as both are ludicrously inappropriate). The only decent suggestion is the intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana, which is a very nice love theme, but when using classical music, you generally want to avoid such recognizable pieces — you don’t want to draw attention away from the picture, which you surely will the moment you make your audience think “where have I heard that before?”

But even disregarding the cue sheet, successfully scoring Romeo and Juliet is hampered by the film having no rhythm at all. Silent films, despite being silent, are very musical in their construction. The action should have a definite and Romeo and Juliet screenshot 3regular beat. This film doesn’t. It’s similar to the difficulty one encounters with poorly done abridgements, where the editor didn’t take care to cut on the beat and the flow of the action is disrupted, but this doesn’t have the excuse of being abridged. It was made like this. I think that’s why there are so many cues for such a short film. There’s so little hope of the music naturally staying in synch with the picture that it becomes necessary to stop and restart so frequently.

I had a similar problem with the closing sequence of Across the Mexican Line, but for a different reason. Beyond the fact that the first scene is missing entirely, the rest of the film also is somewhat fragmentary. There are a few frames missing here, a few there, and most aren’t an issue, but just after Dolores is shot there’s a jump of three or four seconds that just destroys the rhythm of what had been until then a well-paced action scene. Imagine you’re counting out the rhythm — one two three one two three one two three… — and then suddenly it skips — …one two three one tw-one two three one two three… I was sorely tempted to cut out a bit more to at least bring it back to time. In the end, I just awkwardly ad-libbed a bit to skip directly to the end of the repeat.

Romeo and Juliet screenshot 4And what’s more about the film’s construction, there’s the question of when to cue the music. It’s different for late silents, but the general rule for the era of filmmaking I generally deal with is that you cue on action. Say you have one scene, a title card, then another scene. You play one piece under the first scene and through the title card. You don’t start the next piece until the second scene begins. The more I work with Romeo and Juliet, the more I think cueing on action is simply impracticable for this film. I think I’m going to scrap what I’ve done so far (which isn’t much) and try again cueing on title. Romeo and Juliet is weird because the film tries to have it both ways: in some cases, dialogue titles are in-lined — that is, the character begins speaking, the title appears, and after the title we return to the character speaking; but in other cases, the film uses the earlier convention of pre-pending the dialogue — the title appears first, then we see the character speak. One or the other, fine, but mixing them confuses me.

As for the quality of the print, the picture is fine but I at first thought the titles had been replaced by black leader for some reason, but in one or two, you can just barely discern lettering on them, and I found that if you boost the contrast to an insane degree, text does start to appear. Example: here’s a frame directly from the scanner:

Romeo and Juliet title originalLooks black, yes? But if we stretch it, we get this:

Romeo and Juliet title enhancedIt’s still certainly of nowhere near useable quality, but it’s good enough to use as a guide for replicating the title:

Romeo and Juliet title recreatedI should warn those playing at home that you shouldn’t expect to get anything near so legible from the above frame grab, as that’s a compressed 8-bit JPEG. I’m actually working with uncompressed 16-bit TIFs, which have 256 times more dynamic range.

I realize I’ve done nothing so far but gripe and haven’t even mentioned the plot at all, but for Romeo and Juliet, do I really need to? Part Two begins with a strange little scene involving the nurse talking to the camera and waving her finger. It’s as enigmatic as the lantern man in Phantom of the Opera and I always assumed it was just a fragment and the film actually began in some other way, or at least with a title card to explain what the hell that’s all about, but according the cue sheet, nope — that’s exactly how it’s supposed to go. It evidently calls for a misterioso, so I guess the cue sheet was of some help. (I went with Otto Langey’s Misterioso Irresoluto to suggest that the story as continued from part one is still unfinished.) After that, we get Romeo breaking the edict against dueling and the rest plays out like a highly compressed version of the stage play.

Romeo and Juliet screenshot 5The acting isn’t bad — quite broad, but acceptable overall. I rather liked Julia M. Taylor’s Juliet. Robert Halt as the friar and Mary Walters as the nurse are far and away the worst actors here. Halt, especially, is far too animated for the part. George Lessey’s Romeo has his share of wild gesticulations, to be sure, but they suit the character — young, impetuous, self-absorbed, and grandiose. Interesting anecdote I read in Moving Picture News, apparently Walters had a long-lost brother who recognized her after seeing Romeo and Juliet, reuniting them after some twenty years apart. True or not, it’s a colorful story.

As for the cinematography, I suppose it gets the job done. To its favor, I will say that they weren’t afraid of getting the camera in close to the action. There’s the old story of conservative producers saying audiences pay to see the whole actor, feet and all, and it is certainly true that many films from this era tend to be framed as such. There are a couple nice medium-close shots here, like Romeo climbing from the balcony and Juliet hiding from her nurse. The editing is mostly episodic — each scene composed of a single continuous shot — but do notice the axial cut in the balcony scene.

Do I like Romeo and Juliet? I can’t say that I do, but I think that’s largely because of how frustrating it is in re scoring. But beyond that, it’s pretty ordinary fair. Quality Films as a genre interest me, but like I said about Lady Godiva, there’s often not much interesting about them taken on their own.

My rating: I don’t like it.


Edit: Well, the scoring is done reasonably to satisfaction. I even managed to keep it cued on action through some creative tempo changes that I hope aren’t too noticeable (there’s nothing abrupt — just gradually speeding up or slowing down to stay more or less in synch with the picture). Ten cues overall, which is less than eighteen but considerably more than I’d usually use for a film of this length.

Available from Harpodeon

Madame Blanche, Beauty Doctor (Thanhouser, 1915)

Madame Blanche, Beauty Doctor screenshotMadame Blanche, Beauty Doctor (Thanhouser, 1915)
Directed by Arthur Ellery
Starring Harry Benham

Bob (Harry Benham) is a college boy who’s “squandered [his] fortune”. He goes to his guardian (Riley Chamberlin) in search of fresh funds. Mr. Southwick is a businessman of some sort and it’s quite plain that he has little faith in his charge’s financial acumen. All the same, he makes Bob the offer that he’ll give him a position next week with a salary equal to whatever money he can make elsewhere this week.

Southwick’s stenographer, Betty (Mignon Anderson), is sweet on Bob and lets him in on a secret: although Mr. Southwick is the boss of the company, Mrs. Southwick (Ethel Stevens) is the boss of the money. She’s just come in to draw $500 for beauty treatments to recover her “youthful charm”.

Bob poses as Madame Blanche the Beauty Doctor and launches a targeted ad campaign (targeted at Mrs. Southwick, that is) promising to make any woman look younger than her daughter and claiming to be endorsed by all the crowned heads of Europe. When Mrs. Southwick arrives at Madame Blanche’s parlor, another client is ahead of her in line. She watches the ancient looking woman step behind the curtain. Out of view, Betty takes off the wig and old-age makeup. When Mrs. Southwick sees her again, she looks 40 years younger. Once it’s her turn, Mrs. Southwick readily consents to Madame Blanche’s fee.

Next week, Bob returns to the office and tells Mr. Southwick that he’s ready to take the job for $500 a week.

I first saw Madame Blanche, Beauty Doctor (1915) theatrically at a film festival, and although it was over a decade ago, I remember it being a very light 35mm print — light to the point that the image was so blown out that it was barely possible to discern what was going on. The Thanhouser video, though looking like a VHS transfer, is a great improvement quality-wise. This time around, I found the cinematography to be quite impressive for a 1915 short comedy. It effectively mixes medium shots with close-ups and makes good use of shallow focus for the inserts that draw the eye to the intended subject. I particularly liked how the waiting room scene was handled: Mrs. Southwick needs to be present, and the audience needs to see Betty colluding with Bob, but Mrs. Southwick shouldn’t see Betty until after the “treatment” is finished. To fulfill all three requirements without resorting to a stagey-looking aside, the scene is shot with Mrs. Southwick sitting in front of a mirror. She’s looking in a different direction, but from our angle, we see Betty and Bob.

As far as the actors go, I wasn’t feeling Harry Benham in the role of Madame Blanche. Benham can’t pull off being a woman, and further, he can’t pull off being young (if IMDb is to be believed, the guy was only 31, but it’s a hard 31). Mrs. Southwick would have to be blind to fall for the disguise. I also didn’t care for his constant mugging for the camera, especially when compared to the much more subdued performances turned in by the rest of the cast.

On the whole, though, I enjoyed the film and would recommend it.

My rating: I like it.

Available from Thanhouser

King René’s Daughter (Thanhouser, 1913)

King René’s DaughteKing Rene's Daughter posterr (Thanhouser, 1913)
Directed by W. Eugene Moore, Jr.
Starring Maude Fealy

Just after her birth, Iolanthe (Maude Fealy) is engaged to Tristan (Harry Benham) as a political alliance between her father, King René (Robert Broderick), and his father, Count de Vaudemont (Leland Benham?). Shortly thereafter, a fire breaks out in the palace. Iolanthe is rescued, but is for whatever reason now blind. Ebn Jahia (David H. Thompson), Moorish mystic, divines her future and says that, so long as she never knows that she cannot see, her vision will return on her sixteenth birthday.

Iolanthe is raised in isolation, hidden away in a small cottage inside a walled garden. She and Tristan have never met. As the scheduled wedding date approaches, Tristan — “hating the woman he has never seen” — runs away. He finds his way into the garden and discovers Iolanthe without realizing who she is. Tristan falls in love with Iolanthe and begs King René to break the engagement to his daughter so that he might marry her. King René reveals that Iolanthe is his daughter.

Iolanthe’s nurse (Mrs. Lawrence Marston) is worried that Tristan gave away Iolanthe’s blindness and that now she will never see again. Tristan did figure it out after Iolanthe was unable to distinguish a white rose from a red one, but he also figured out that Iolanthe apparently didn’t know that she couldn’t see and did not say anything about it. At the end of day on her sixteenth birthday, Iolanthe recovers her vision and everyone lives happily ever after.

There are subplots I’m not super clear on and details that seem to be relevant but damned if I can tell you why. The film is based on Henrik Heri’s then-popular stage play Iolanthe (unrelated to the Gilbert and Sullivan opera of the same title). Contemporary audiences would probably have been more familiar with the source material than I am and would know the answers to some of my questions, like is Ebn Jahia a villain? and is there some conspiracy to keep Iolanthe blind? and wait, who’s that other guy with the beard?

It’s shot on the same locations as the earlier Thanhouser film Romeo and Juliette (1911) and also shares some of its sets, but they’re still impressive here. The costumes are splendid taken on their own merit, but if I didn’t know the film was set in France, I would have guessed from the clothes that we were in Scotland. Almost the whole film is composed of medium-close shots that, compositionally, aren’t too interesting, but it’s decently edited together. The first reel is rather drawn-out, but the pacing improves tremendously in the second and third.

I don’t know. It isn’t bad, and I wouldn’t avoid watching it again, but I don’t think I’d strongly recommend it.

My rating: Meh.

The Woman in White (Thanhouser, 1917)

Ad slide for The Woman in WhiteThe Woman in White (Thanhouser, 1917)
Directed by Ernest C. Warde
Starring Florence La Badie

Laura (Florence La Badie), an orphan, lives with her half-sister Marian (Gertrude Dallas) at the estate of their uncle, Frederic Fairlie (J.H. Gilmour). Laura has been taking painting lessons and has fallen in love with her instructor (Wayne Arey), but before her father’s death, he made it known that he wished her to marry Sir Percival Glyde (Richard R. Neill) once she came of age. Laura tries to break the engagement, but Sir Percival is insistent. Meanwhile, a woman has escaped from a nearby insane asylum and finds her way to the Fairlie estate. This unnamed “woman in white” appears on a few occasions to cryptically warn Laura that Sir Percival is not who he seems to be.

I’ll say right now that I adored The Woman in White (1917). The story was intriguing, the characters well developed, the mystery unraveled in a believable way and at a good pace, and above all, the film was superbly shot. The use of harsh light and shadow give it a very proto-Noir feel that makes it seem a great deal more recent than you’d expect of a film from 1917.

I struggle to find anything critical to say. There is one title near the beginning that says a little too much regarding the mystery that surrounds Sir Percival, but not enough to spoil it. What is finally revealed in the final sequence is surprising and unexpected, but it doesn’t come out of the blue as it does in some poorly written works – it flows very naturally from the build-up and fits like the last piece of a puzzle. I’ve never read the novel the film is based on, but in that regard, the film felt to me like a Mary Roberts Rinehart Had-I-But-Known mystery. If you enjoy that style of storytelling, you will undoubtedly like The Woman in White.

My rating: I like it.

Available from Thanhouser