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The Cost of High Living (Vitagraph, 1916)

The Cost of High Living (Vitagraph, 1916)
Directed by William Wolbert
Starring William Duncan

Jack (William Duncan) is in college on an economics degree. He evidently isn’t studying too hard since he’s blown all his cash going out with his friends, singing college songs badly out of tune. He writes to his father for more. It’s the high cost of living, he says, but dear old dad knows it’s really the cost of high living.

Dad writes to Jack’s sister Grace (Corinne Griffith), who lives near the college, and tells her it’s high time Jack settled down. Introduce him to some girl, he says. Corinne calls up her friend Helen (Carmen Phillips) and invites Jack over. He ditches the instant he figures out what’s up to go party with his friends.

At the restaurant, after downing bottle after bottle of liquor, they get to singing. One of Jack’s friends, infuriated that Jack’s ruining their harmony, rips up the tablecloth and wraps it around Jack’s head. “Help — help!” he cries. The new cop on the beat hears the commotion and comes to investigate. Too inebriated to deal with the law, the gang scatters. Jack ducks into a swanky mansion. “Are you the new butler?”

He is now. The cop is still prowling around outside, precluding any escape for our unmusical drunkard. Jack’s not a very good butler, what with spilling the food tray, trampling on feet, and openly flirting with his employer’s attractive daughter. The cook (Anne Schaefer) is sweet on the new cop and invites him into the kitchen. A brief but spirited tussle ensues when he spots Jack. Grace, who’s come to visit her friend Helen — for, of course, Jack had to duck into Helen’s house — intervenes: Jack is there for some real-world experience in his study of kitchen economies. That’s pretty much the end, but it doesn’t seem like Jack will flee from Helen this time.

Another boozy Vitagraph short, but unlike Bingles Mends the Clock, it doesn’t try to mine comedy from child abuse. Jack singing off-key when in his cups is rather less off-putting. The humor certainly goes down easier.

Duncan had been a contract player at Selig and featured in quite a few western shorts before making the move to Vitagraph. The Cost of High Living comes from his somewhat awkward transitory period before A Fight for Millions established him as a serial superstar. In the long run, that really worked against him as the serial format shifted away from serious drama and more into kiddy fare in the late ‘20s and into the talkie era. It was character roles of diminishing prominence for Duncan from then on out.

It may be from an awkward period — it certainly isn’t the William Duncan you’re used to seeing and he’s not wholly suited to comedic acting — but The Cost of High Living is funny enough.

My rating: I like it.

 

Pioneer Trails has been available online for a couple weeks. The Blu-Ray and DVD are now available on Amazon. We’ll sell the DVD directly at some indefinite future date, but if you want a Blu-Ray, go ahead and get it from Amazon — we probably won’t ever sell it. The smallest number of Blu-Rays I can economically have made is 25, and like I was telling someone about the Juggernaut disc, I’ll probably still be working through those 25 for the next five years. Outside of collectors, DVD as a medium is dying fast and Blu-Ray never even lived. We don’t move much physical inventory anymore. DVD is a lot cheaper and I can get smaller quantifies, so we’ll probably only ever stock Pioneer Trails on that. We usually keep five discs on hand, although the recent J. Warren Kerrigan set sold better than was anticipated and I had to get another ten to keep pace with orders.

What’s the next video out? I don’t know — it will be an HD remaster of something. What’s on the horizon, though, is something I announced, like, five years ago, but then we switched to HD and my old source wasn’t good enough. It’s coming straight from 35mm now. On an entirely, entirely unrelated note, I pulled a magic lantern slide out of my collection. This one shows the construction of a building in Boston in 1914 and there’s nothing at all phantasic about it:

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Bingles Mends the Clock (Vitagraph, 1913)

Bingles Mends the Clock (Vitagraph, 1913)
Directed by Fred Thompson
Starring James Lackaye and Flora Finch

It’s never a good sign when you’re uncertain whether a film is meant to be a comedy, but I’m assured that’s what this is.

Martha (Flora Finch) notices the clock has stopped and tells her husband Bingles (James Lackaye) to have it repaired. The clockmaker says it will cost five dollars. Outrageous, Bingles exclaims. He’ll fix it himself.

He shoos his wife and children out of the living room so he can work on the clock in peace, but then finds he’s out of machine oil. He heads to the hardware store for some lubricant, but on the road meets some friends (one of them is Harry T. Morey) and decides to get some lubricant for himself. Back at home, drunk as a skunk, he picks a fight with Martha and beats his children.

“There, I’ve saved five dollars!” Bingles cries, throwing open the door — but there’s no one there to hear. Martha’s note says it all: “You have been drinking. I am going to mother’s never to return. It will be useless to follow.” Bingles looks up to see the clock’s hands spinning backwards.

Moving Picture World’s review said Bingles Mends the Clock was “a dull offering” “in poor taste” with “very little laughter”, and I have to agree. This was an all-around bad idea for a film.

My rating: I don’t like it.

You know what I do like? The Women Film Pioneers Project. As a film collector, you get pretty jaded. There was a bit in one of the Metropolis documentaries about the difficulty those that discovered the complete film in Argentina had of getting the Murnau-Stiftung to acknowledge them, but as any collector would tell you, that’s par for the course. If a film is proclaimed lost, then it is, now and forever. Should you have a copy of it, expect to be ignored, and if you should have the fortune of someone listening to you and even watching it, you might perhaps garner a few comments, but then the film will continue to be lost — even to those that just saw it. It gets to the point that you don’t even bother anymore. It’s so refreshing to find people who actually care, and the WFPP does. I think all the Flora Finch films they have marked “PC” (private collection) are mine.

The Smoking Out of Bella Butts (Vitagraph, 1915)

The Smoking Out of Bella Butts (Vitagraph, 1915)
Directed by George D. Baker
Starring Flora Finch

I was so excited to finally obtain a copy of this rarity that I was running it not five minutes after opening the box and I’m writing this within the hour.

EYE thinks they have a brief fragment of it and you can see it online, but it’s misattributed. I don’t know what film that is, but only the title card at the start is from Bella Butts — the rest is something else. It doesn’t even look like a Vitagraph production. I don’t recognize any of the actors. It’s probably spliced-together projection booth clippings. When film got damaged and the projectionist needed to snip a bit out and make a splice, those clippings tended to wind up on the projection booth floor. Whenever they got around to it and swept up, they were collected together and may or may not have been saved. I’ve certainly got a box full. The clips might vary from only a few frames long to a couple of feet or more, if there was a length of sprocket-hole damage. There was a market for them. Companies like Pordell Projector bought them, cut them into individual frames, and sold them as slides. Movielets did the same. They were sold in random little collections stuffed in tins like Altoids — I’ve got several of those as well. You can play around with the clippings, find similar looking material, try to piece together some sort of narrative, but it’s all a tremendous amount of guesswork. I’ve put together what might be 30 second-ish fragment of Liberty, A Daughter of the USA (1916), but I can really only be sure that the two titles are from Liberty. The film sold by Pordell and Movielets is generally too far gone to salvage — the tins seal fairly air-tight and nitrate decomposes rapidly when it isn’t allowed to off-gas — but if you find loose projection booth floor sweepings, they’re usually fine.

That was a long digression. Anyway, I’ve just acquired a copy that, minus just a brief bit of no consequence at the start, is complete and really is The Smoking Out of Bella Butts.

Bella Butts (Flora Finch), anti-smoking campaigner, arrives in the town of Hicksville to spread the word. At the Ladies Aid Society, she proves how injurious smoking is by giving the women cigars — promptly causing dizziness, headaches, and nausea. Among the afflicted is the mayor’s wife (Betty Gray), who demands that her husband ban smoking or else she’ll divorce him.

His back to the wall, the mayor (Hugie Mack) complies. All the town’s tobacco products are seized and burned in a great bonfire. This does not win the mayor many friends among the menfolk, who soon start trying to smoke corn silk to feed their habits. When a cigar salesman (Jay Dwiggins) arrives, all the men — the mayor included — hide out in a basement to chain-smoke away his samples.

The woman of the house (it’s either Florence Radinoff or Edwina Robbins — hard to tell. That’s the drawback of the first minute or two being missing — there’s no cast list and you just have to recognize the actors) sees smoke pouring from the window and thinks it’s on fire. The fire department is called and start blasting water into the basement. Forced out by the deluge, the men are caught red-handed. Butts is on hand to demand the sheriff arrest the mayor. The mayor hands him a cigar and he forgets all his duties.

Butts gets her bag and “leaves Hicksville to its doom” while the mayor watches, smoking on the porch.

Flora Finch was most known for starring opposite John Bunny in more than a hundred “Bunnyfinches” — domestic sitcoms somewhat similar in style to those of Sidney Drew. Bunny shot his last film with Finch in 1914 before starting on a live stage tour that no one knew he would not return from. (The Jarrs Visit Arcadia was posthumously released in 1915.) Finch continued the act solo, to greater or lesser effect.

In terms of theme, Bella Butts is not unlike the Red Seal film I reviewed a thousand years ago, ‘Morning, Judge (1926), in which Flora Finch enacts a ban on a can-can dancing. ‘Morning, Judge even ended with bungling firefighters as well. But the difference is that Bella Butts wasn’t awful. The jokes are less bottom of the barrel slapstick, which helps, but mainly it’s because the plot was followed through to its conclusion and the filmmakers didn’t just abruptly drop storylines as they became inconvenient. Including the main storyline.

My rating: I like it. I may just postpone the next film I’d intended on scanning and scan Bella Butts instead.

Auntie’s Portrait (Vitagraph, 1915)

Auntie’s Portrait (Vitagraph, 1915)
Directed by George D. Baker
Starring Sidney Drew and Jane Morrow

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!”

All is forgiven. Auntie decides that the best place to hang it is right over the mantle and the Honeypets begrudgingly take down their tasteful landscape and replace it with her glowering visage.

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.

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The Juggernaut (Vitagraph, 1915)

The Juggernaut (Vitagraph, 1915)
Directed by Ralph W. Ince
Starring Earle Williams and Anita Stewart

Can it be? Is it really finished? It doesn’t seem possible. The new reconstruction of The Juggernaut is done.

This review will probably be  shorter than you might have thought. I’ve already said pretty much all there is to say about the history of the film in my Juggernauting series, and I don’t have much to add about the adventure it was reconstructing it either. I’m very happy with how it turned out, as I said before. I find The Juggernaut to be a fascinating film — I’ve said that before, too — but I don’t think I’ve ever commented on whether or not it’s a good film.

Let’s put it in a more modern context: it reminds me of Titanic (1997). I went to see Titanic when it came out. Somewhere at around hour 35 of the screening, the person I was there with leaned over and asked me when the boat was going to sink. I think a lot of people were leaning over to their neighbor and asking when the train was going to wreck when they went to see The Juggernaut in 1915. Like the iceberg, audiences knew the wreck was coming. It was all over the advertisements — it’s what the film was sold on, it’s what they were there to see.

It takes a long time to get to the train wreck.

The first reel starts off strong. After a brief introduction to our characters — Mr. and Mrs. Ballard, farmers; their son John (Earle Williams), who dreams of becoming a lawyer; rich railroad magnate James Hardin (Frank Currier) and his ne’er-do-well son Philip (William R. Dunn) — we get right into some action. On their way to market, the elder Ballards are struck at a railroad crossing and killed. John sells the farm and enrolls in law school, where he meets Philip and becomes his friend, despite blaming his father for his parents’ death. Philip is given to dissipation, and rather than meet John for a study session as planned, he joins a poker game with a gang of sharpers. A fight breaks out when he discovers he’s being cheated. He would be killed by one of them if not for the timely arrival of John, who smashes a chair on the hooligan’s head. End of reel one.

As for reel two… and three… and four… well, we’ll say it doesn’t keep up the momentum. A less charitable viewer might use the word “padding” to describe everything that happens after the fight and before the wreck.

John apparently killed the menacing gambler. Philip swears he’ll never reveal the secret. John and Viola Ruskin (Anita Stewart) meet on graduation day and fall in love, but Viola’s mother (Julia Swayne Gordon) has the Hardin fortune in mind and forces her to marry Philip. Viola dies giving birth to Louise, John and Philip drift apart.

Twenty years later, John is the District Attorney and brings a suit against Philip’s railroad, which has only gotten worse since he’s inherited it. Philip would blackmail John into dropping the case by threatening to reveal the murder, but Louise (also played by Anita Stewart) spoils it all by giving evidence to John that proves it wasn’t him — the sharper got into another fight later that same day and was killed then. The trial proceeds, Philip phones Louise to bring him some documents from his home safe, her car breaks down and she’s force to take… dun-dun-dun… the train.

We’re in the fifth reel now and have come to what everyone is waiting for. The train is speeding toward a bridge Philip knows is unsafe to cross, but he doesn’t discover until too late that his daughter is on board. He races out of the office and tries to head-off the train and warn them of the danger ahead, but he’s not fast enough. The bridge collapses and the train goes tumbling into the water.

Then the film forks in a couple directions. John has rushed to the scene as well. At the film’s premiere screening, he swims out to the wreckage and pulls out Louise, but the Juggernaut has claimed its victim — Louise is dead. Others got one of two alternate endings that vary in detail, but both end with Louise recovering and John professing his love to her.

The Juggernaut was a popular film — it played for 750 days and made an obscene amount of money. It’s interesting to see, as time goes on, how the ads for it change. Earle Williams is the star in 1915. In 1917, Anita Stewart and Earle Williams are both top billed. In 1920, Anita Stewart is the star.

I must say, Anita Stewart gives the only decent performance. Earle Williams’s idea of emoting is to just spike the camera. The intensity of his emotion can be gauged by how long he holds eye contact with you — romantic, pathetic, tensive, it doesn’t matter, spike the camera. Now Julia Swayne Gordon, she is acting. My word, does she chew the scenery. The thing is, I’ve seen Gordon in other films and she’s nowhere near as hammy as she is here, even in her very early work. I’m sure she was directed to act like that. I’m sure even in the final take just as she’s about to devour the set whole, Ralph Ince is just off-camera yelling “BIGGER!” I will give credit where it’s due, the man knew how to block a scene. The scene where John overhears Viola and her mother arguing about Philip in particular, I though that was expertly arranged. He just couldn’t direct actors for beans.

We’ve come down to the rating. The Juggernaut is a fascinating film, and it does deliver the promised full-scale train wreck, and it is thrilling for two or three scenes, but is it a good film? No, not at all. Not one bit. But would I recommend it? The narrative is weak and the acting is horrid, but it’s less a movie than it is a spectacle. Go in with that mindset, don’t trouble yourself with paying too close attention to the middle bits, and you’ll love it as I love it.

My rating: I like it.

I think I’m going to take a few days off, but I’ll give you a hint as to what the next video will be. I needed part of Wanted:- A Nurse (1915) for The Juggernaut and it didn’t make any sense not to go ahead and scan all of it. So that’s waiting on the hard drive for whenever I care to get around to it, but that won’t be the next video out. We released an HD remaster of The Victoria Cross (1912) not too long ago. Coming up next will be another before-he-was-famous Wallace Reid film. One more hint, just as in The Victoria Cross, he also plays a lieutenant in this one.

 

Available from Harpodeon

Tough Luck and Tin Lizzies (Vitagraph, 1917)

Tough Luck and Tin Lizzies (Vitagraph, 1917)
Directed by Larry Semon
Starring Larry Semon

After at least reluctantly approving of the last couple of Larry Semon films I wrote about and worrying that I might be brain damaged for doing so, it feels good to be back to a Larry Semon film that’s unequivocally garbage.

Pietro Aramondo is out driving with his girlfriend Florence Curtis when his car breaks down. Larry Semon is… I don’t know who Larry Semon is, but he’s in the road and is hit by another motorist and thrown up into the air. He lands next to Florence and drives off with her, running over Pietro several times in the process. Pietro alerts the Big V Riot Squad who are an absolutely original creation and are in no way a knock-off of the Keystone Cops. And they are totally indoors and there is no shadow of a tree blowing in the wind on the back wall. Three squad cars are sent out in pursuit, which is a great way to pad out the runtime since now the film can repeat every gag three times. I suppose there’s more, but it doesn’t matter — I’m done. There’s no plot, there are no characters, the gags were terrible the first time around and don’t improve with repetition. Literally the only interesting thing about this short is how flagrantly it pilfers from Keystone.

There’s obviously four or five minutes of material missing. It begins in media res and doesn’t end so much as it just stops. The footage is missing in the pre-print, though. There’s only one physical splice in the print and it’s just to mend a film break — no more than a frame or two is missing around it. The splices joining the title and end cards are on the negative. I also suspect this is from a reissue with new titles added. They make a Flying Finn joke and I somehow don’t think Paavo Nurmi would have been a household name in America before his 1920 Olympics win.

I misspoke before, this isn’t a Kodascope, but it is a very similar amber-tinted show-at-home released in 1924. Sharp focus, dense image, obviously a print-down struck directly from the camera negative — it looks great. It’s a shame the film is so awful, but it does look beautiful.

My rating: I don’t like it.


Available from Harpodeon

Smashing Barriers (Vitagraph, 1919)

Smashing Barriers (Vitagraph, 1919)
Directed by William Duncan
Starring William Duncan and Edith Johnson

Original posters for silent films are rare. The films themselves were seen as disposable once they’d finished their run, the ephemera connected to them were valued even less. Most that still exist survive by accident. Rarer still are the posters that hung in the offices of distributors that advertised posters to exhibitors. I’ve got one of those for the 1919 serial Smashing Barriers. It shows all the styles of posters available and explains which will catch attention at a distance and which are better for up-close inspection. The latter one is great because it’s just a collage of every cliff-hanging moment from all fifteen episodes. I look at it quite often — it hangs in my bedroom — and I always seem to spot something new in it. All I had were those pictures, because the serial itself was believed to be lost.

Several years ago, probably 2003 or 2004, I had the opportunity to buy a reel of Smashing Barriers. Which of the thirty reels it was, I don’t know. It was in very bad shape. The inner part of the reel was at stage five (terminal) decomposition, much of the remainder was at stage four. Perhaps only the first dozen feet was salvageable at all — not even a minute’s worth of footage. I passed on it and I’ve kicked myself for passing on it ever since. Even if was only a few seconds, I wanted to see those few seconds.

In 1923, Vitagraph re-worked the footage into a single feature-length film, abridging it down from something like 30,000 feet to 5,600 feet. This, too, is presumed to be lost aside from perhaps a fragment. It was even further abridged, down to just a single reel, in 1932. That version I can now say is not lost because it arrived on my doorstep this morning and I just confirmed that the faded handwriting on the label is correct — it is Smashing Barriers.

From contemporary reviews, I already knew that the only reason anyone watched Smashing Barriers was for the action — the plot was, by all accounts, mind-numbingly incoherent. I imagine it was similar to A Woman in Grey (1920) in that you sat through half an hour of boring nonsense because the last few moments made up for it in excitement. This abridgment of Smashing Barriers is composed of nothing but those last few moments, one after the other, and it is glorious. It’s like the poster on my bedroom wall come to life.

The story, such as it is, is dispensed with quickly: Helen Cole (Edith Johnson) owns a logging operation in the Rocky Mountains. A band of outlaws kidnaps her for ransom. Dan Stevens (William Duncan) must rescue her. It’s a lot like The Timber Queen (1922).

There aren’t many other characters identified. The chief bandit, “Wirenail” Hedges, is Joe Ryan. The man who lassos Helen looks a great deal like Guillermo Calles, who I know did work with Duncan on several films.

Helen has a sort of MacGyver-ish ingenuity for getting out of danger and Dan is a brave lunkhead kind of guy. There are fights and shoot-outs and lassoings, horse chases, boat chases, wagons going off cliffs, diving from a fifty foot dam into the water, burning cabins and collapsing barns, Dan slides on a zipline down a mountain clutching Helen between his legs… it’s non-stop action from beginning to end. It’s everything I could have hoped for and more. I love it.

I’m still working on Tough Luck and Tin Lizzies and there’s another film in the scanner right now (a remaster of an old title), but Smashing Barriers is definitely coming to video soon.

My rating: I like it.

Available from Harpodeon

Bathing Beauties and Big Boobs (Vitagraph, 1918)

bathing-beauties-and-big-boobs-screenshot-1Bathing Beauties and Big Boobs (Vitagraph, 1918)
Directed by Larry Semon
Starring Larry Semon and Madge Kirby

You don’t have to hang around long with a group of silent comedy enthusiasts before at least a few of them will make sure you know of their vehement hatred of Larry Semon. I wonder how much of that is because of his adaption of The Wizard of Oz (1925). Oz is a film so terrible I don’t think even his defenders would pretend to like it, but unfortunately for Semon, it’s probably the work he’s most known for today.

Certainly, his work is formulaic. In my review of The Sawmill (1922), I gave a rundown of features common to pretty much every Larry Semon film — and the film I’ll be presently getting to, Bathing Beauties and Big Boobs, is no exception — but in his day, Semon was rather popular. I think the similarity of his films worked in his favor. You know exactly what you’re going to get, and if his shtick is the kind of thing you’re into, well, you know you won’t be disappointed no matter what title is playing.

I just acquired a new print of Bathing Beauties a few weeks ago that’s of infinitely better quality than any of my other ones. It shouldn’t matter — theoretically, a good film should be able to shine through a muddy picture — but of course, bathing-beauties-and-big-boobs-screenshot-2quality does matter. You, me, and everyone else is going to give a fairer shake to whichever print looks the prettiest. Going back to The Sawmill, I recall that I had to re-evaluate my opinion of it after screening an original Kodascope.

Larry Semon is at the beach and falls in love with Madge Kirby (I’m just going to call them that—they’re not characters enough to have names), but her father disapproves. Naturally, the only course of action is for Larry and his rotund friend Frank Alexander to stage a robbery which Larry can then foil and thus win over the old man. Unfortunately, there’s also of pair of actual robbers running about to be contended with. Cue the chase and the inexplicable tower that must be jumped from several times. The robbers caught and the swag retrieved, Larry goes to claim his girl only to see her and Frank hand-in-hand — “I owe everything to this stout young man,” her father says approvingly.

It’s… not bad? Yes, there’s the unfortunate scene where Larry confuses the maid for Madge — “Man, yo’ sho’ am a fast worker!” “You’re tanned up a bit too much for me!” — but that aside, I’ve seen much worse slapstick comedies. Yes, it ticks every box on the Larry Semon Checklist of Plot Points, and yes, the requisite tower comes out of nowhere, but still… it kind of works.

I think I’ve seen too many Larry Semon pictures. I’m developing Stockholm Syndrome.

My rating: I like it.

The Fatherhood of Buck McGee (Vitagraph, 1912)

The Fatherhood of Buck McGee screenshot 1The Fatherhood of Buck McGee (Vitagraph, 1912)
Directed by Rollin S. Sturgeon
Starring Robert Thornby

Pete gets word that his wife and daughter are coming out west to see him. The news is received with little relish by his mining partner Buck McGee (Robert Thornby), who has no patience for children. Misfortune follows misfortune for little Nellie: first her father is killed in a blasting accident, then her mother dies in an Indian attack. Buck writes to his sister, begging her to take the kid off his hands, but she’s his responsibility in the meantime.

Nellie tries in vain to make friends with Buck and doesn’t complain when, again and again, she’s met with nothing but a cold shoulder. At last, Buck returns home to find a note. Since Buck doesn’t want her, Nellie says, she’s gone up the mountain to be with her mama. Buck sets out to find her and arrives just in time to see Nellie hurl herself off a cliff.

It was quite a fall, but Buck manages to revive her. The Sheriff arrives the next day, come to take Nellie to Buck’s sister, but Buck tells him he’d rather adopt Nellie himself.

The Fatherhood of Buck McGee screenshot 2A good film, if a bit rushed. Westerns are usually thought of as rough-and-tumble, action-packed affairs, but films like this and A Man’s Calling (1912) show that the setting can just as well be used for more personal, character-driven works. The Fatherhood of Buck McGee is a small-scale drama with no pretensions to being an action film, so I don’t fault it too much for this, but I have to say that the Indian attack was a bit pathetic. “The battle”, as it’s grandly described, consists of a few horsemen circling a wagon train and firing into the air for about fifteen seconds. Nellie’s mother is dispatched off-screen via title. That aside, the camerawork itself is quite commendable. Even the battle is a nice, wide, overhead shot that I’m sure would look incredible if they had ten or twenty times more Indians and enough wagons that they could circle them rather than triangle them. To the film’s credit, the exteriors do look like they were actually filmed somewhere in the southwest and not just on an outdoor set in New Jersey.

The girl, who’s probably between six and eight years old, is the weak link as far as the acting goes, but she handles the role well enough. In the year following the film’s release, the “Answers to Inquires” column in Motion Picture Story Magazine was written to no fewer than three times asking who played Nellie, and they simply didn’t know. She wasn’t a contract player and apparently nobody knew her — just someone off the street answering a casting call.

My rating: I like it.


Available from Harpodeon

The 100 to 1 Shot; or, A Run of Luck (Vitagraph, 1906)

The 100 to 1 Shot screenshot 1The 100 to 1 Shot; or, A Run of Luck (Vitagraph, 1906)

A farmer is behind on his mortgage and a heartless creditor has come demanding payment. His daughter’s boyfriend pawns his watch for $50 and heads to the racetrack, where he picks up a hot tip. Literally, he picks it up — a “plunger” had dropped a note telling him to “Play Tommy Foster, STRAIGHT”. Boyfriend stakes it all on the long shot, and in an instant, $50 turns into $5,000. He races back to the farm, where the bailiffs have been called and even now are threatening to evict the old man. He arrives just in time. The farm is saved with money to spare.

If you’ve read… well, any book on film editing, you’ve probably heard about The 100 to 1 Shot (1906). After the boyfriend’s big win, he jumps in a taxi and speeds back to the farm, where the eviction is being carried out. The two events are occurring simultaneously, and to show that, the film cuts back and forth between the speeding taxi and the bailiffs manhandling the farmer. 100 to 1 may be the earliest example of cross-cutting, and if it isn’t, then at least it’s earliest example that both The 100 to 1 Shot screenshot 2survives and is more or less readily available to watch. It marks a dramatic departure from the stage-bound, episodic form earlier films took — where every scene consisted of a single shot, usually including the actors entering the frame at the start and exiting it at the end, just as if on stage. Cutting was seen as analogous to closing the curtain, and when it was used, it tended to denoted elapsed time. There was a huge concern that cuts within scenes would disorient viewers. There’s no stage analogue to a camera angle change, and certainly not to cross-cutting between two locations. To a film historian, 100 to 1 marks the beginning of the modern concept of cinematic continuity.

It didn’t seem to be so well respected by its contemporaries, however. Most bemoaned the immorality of the subject — rewarding a gambler, how sinful! Why, these “movies” will be the downfall of America! You know what sort goes to see them and how impressionable those people are.

The 100 to 1 Shot screenshot 3I do think it was the holier-than-thou backlash against films like 100 to 1 that prompted Vitagraph’s heavy investment in Quality Films a few years later — to legitimize itself and the medium in the eyes of the middle and upper class. Speaking of that, the binoculars gimmick that I thought worked so well in The Victoria Cross (1912) is also used here: Boyfriend has a pair that he watches the race through. It’s not as effective, but I thought it was an interesting connection.

My rating: I like it.