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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 scene, 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 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.

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.

The Firing of the Patchwork Quilt (Vitagraph, 1911)

The Firing of the Patchwork Quilt screenshot 1The Firing of the Patchwork Quilt (Vitagraph, 1911)
Starring Mary Maurice and Robert Gaillard.

Mother McCoy’s (Mary Maurice) son (Robert Gaillard) is an engineer. He’s out one night during a storm. Between flashes of lightning, Mother sees that the trestle his train is about to cross has been struck and destroyed. She douses her quilt in kerosene and sets it ablaze on the track, warning him of the danger ahead just in time to avert disaster.

It’s a simple but effective story. The screenplay was written by Hazel Neason, who was mostly known for her acting but she also worked as a scenarist. She’s credited as a writer on a handful of films, but she largely wrote anonymously. In an interview with Motion Picture Story Magazine, she mentions this and also brings up a couple of her favorites: The First Violin (1912) and The Patchwork Quilt (1911). It’s generally a good idea to take these interviews with a grain of salt and assume that they’re heavily edited, if not entirely concocted, by studio publicists, but in this case it’s probably true. Those are both Vitagraph productions and by the time of this interview, Neason had left Vitagraph and was under contract with Kalem — there’s no reason for Kalem to push them.

The Firing of the Patchwork Quilt screenshot 2We’ve released this title on video before — it was an extra on the old Juggernaut disc, since it’s so thematically similar and I always thought of it as the obvious inspiration — but I’ve never done a great deal of research on it. Now that I have, I begin to question the received facts about the short. Or, at least, I question IMDb.

First, IMDb says it was released on February 28th, 1912. After trawling release notices in the trade magazines, I see it was actually out on December 26th, 1911. That isn’t a big deal — it can be surprisingly hard to pinpoint an exact release date sometimes, and it varies depending on what you mean by “release”. In the silent era, the modern concept of a general release didn’t really exist — in the absence of internegatives, there were never enough release prints available to reach the thousands of cinemas across the country simultaneously. When you say “release”, you really need to qualify it with “where”.

The second issue is the title, which IMDb says is A Mother’s Devotion; or, the Firing of the Patchwork Quilt. It was released in 1911 as The Patchwork Quilt. It’s referred to exclusively by that name until February of the next year, when it picks up The Firing of… Perhaps this was to distinguish it from the several other films called “Patchwork Quilt”, particularly the higher-profile Edison picture that was then in production. At any rate, this is surely where IMDb gotThe Firing of the Patchwork Quilt screenshot 3 mixed-up with its release date. If they were searching for the keyword “firing”, the earlier release wouldn’t have shown up. I do wish I had my copy of The Big V at hand — I’m curious to see when Anthony Slide said it was released.

American magazines and newspapers only go so far. They’re invaluable for information about a film’s initial release, but as ephemeral as cinema was back then, titles quickly drop from notice and aren’t ever mentioned again. It helps to also check “end-of-the-line” locations where films would eventually wind up after playing for months or sometimes even years in other markets. That’s where Trove, the National Library of Australia’s online newspaper archive, comes in handy. Again, it was initially released there as The Patchwork Quilt, and it only became [The] Firing [of] the Patchwork Quilt on July 12th, 1912. After the film ended its run there, it disappears from the record for several decades.

But whither “A Mother’s Devotion”? Nobody has called it that so far, nor have any of its two or three reviews used the line, nor did Hazel Neason bring it up in her interview. The intertitles on the surviving print use only the name The Firing of the Patchwork Quilt (from a later release, evidently). Where did “A Mother’s Devotion” come from? Blackhawk, I think. The film was released on 8mm and 16mm by Blackhawk sometime in the early ‘60s. I haven’t got a catalogue, which could give an exact year, but I do have two prints of this release in my collection and the edge code on the earlier one dates it to 1961. On theirThe Firing of the Patchwork Quilt screenshot 4 replacement title, Blackhawk calls the film A Mother’s Devotion. And so, IMDb reconciles that information with its previous information and goes with the title A Mother’s Devotion; or, the Firing of the Patchwork Quilt. And Harpodeon blindly parroted that title and falsely legitimized it. Our bad. The future video release (probably out sometime in the next two weeks) will use the more historically attested title The Firing of the Patchwork Quilt.

As I said, it’s a strong, if simple, scenario. I actually prefer it when short dramas keep the story simple and allow some space for the characters to breathe. The acting is good. I hesitate to even name Robert Gaillard as a co-star; he’s hardly in the film. This is really a one-woman show, and Mary Maurice carries it admirably. You know, this could legitimately be termed an action film, and I can’t think of many other actioners with an elderly woman as the hero. It’s well photographed, especially the very realistic lightning effects. There’s almost nothing not to recommend it.

My rating: I like it.


Available from Harpodeon

Polishing Up (Vitagraph, 1914)

Polishing Up screenshot 1Polishing Up (Vitagraph, 1914)
Directed by George D. Baker
Starring John Bunny and Flora Finch

John Bunny was one of the first internationally renowned film comedians. His fame wasn’t the only thing that was big about him — he weighed around 250 pounds at the start of his career and 300 at his untimely death in 1915. He was largely responsible for the “fatty” subgenre that would remain popular in silent comedy into the 1920s. His first couple years at Vitagraph saw him paired with several actresses, but Flora Finch would become his regular co-star. The two made well over 200 “Bunnyfinches” together, and Polishing Up (1914) is one of them:

At dinner one night, John (John Bunny) tells his wife Flora (Flora Finch) that she looks like an old hag. Later that night, Flora writes to her sister: “I am going to a sea-side resort and polish up a bit.”

John also gets to thinking about his own appearance and decides he could do better. The next day, after his wife has gone to ‘visit her sister’, he takes a stroll down the street in his best suit. John makes the acquaintance of two young ladies (Phyllis Grey, Emily Hayes) vacationing on the coast, who invite him back to their hotel.

Meanwhile, Vivian Astor (née Flora) checks-in at the resort. She’s no sooner shown to her room than she sprains her ankle. Presuming her to be a wealthy widow, Dr. Reynolds (William Humphrey) is openly flirtatious while treating her, and she’s quite flattered by his attention.

Polishing Up screenshot 2Next door, John and the two ladies are about to settle in when they meet the doctor in the hallway. After learning about the accident, the two women go to visit ‘Vivian’ and the three get to gossiping about the conquests they’ve made. A little double-date dinner party is arranged for that evening.

And so “the widow” meets “the bachelor”. The others back off as John and Flora stare each other down. The tension is palpable. And then… they both start laughing. John gives a toast as the party gets started: “Here’s to our wives and sweethearts; may they never meet.”

Of the several Bunnyfinches I’ve seen, this one is my favorite. I really enjoyed this film. I don’t know if I agree with the sentiment, but I’ve heard it said that, for all the fame he won during his lifetime, Bunny’s comedy is all but inaccessible to modern audiences because it relies so much on the novelty of an obese man. I can sort of see it for his non-starring roles — like his comic-relief role in Vanity Fair (1911), which really is not much more than “look at that fat guy” — but with the Bunnyfinches at least, his weight isn’t the focus. It’s true that he does little, if any, physical comedy, but he had a remarkably expressive face and could convey a great deal of humor just in his look. Surely, in Polishing Up, the comedy stems from the awkward situation and is carried by the actors’ performances. The size of Bunny’s character is never even mentioned.

Vitagraph spotting: the hotel lobby is the exact same set used in John Rance, Gentleman (1914). Later, it would be transformed into the ballroom seen in A Florida Enchantment (1914).

My rating: I like it.

Lady Godiva (Vitagraph, 1911)

LadLady Godiva ady Godiva (Vitagraph, 1911)
Directed by J. Stuart Blackton
Starring Julia Swayne Gordon

Like The Victoria Cross (1912), which I’ve written about before, Lady Godiva (1911) is another example of that short-lived genre known at Vitagraph as the Quality Film. Elsewhere, they were termed variously De-Luxe Films or High-Art Films, but we might allow Vitagraph naming rights as they were the chief producers of the genre. Also like The Victoria Cross, Lady Godiva is based on two culturally revered subjects: history (or at least legend) and poetry (Tennyson in both films).

Lady Godiva (Julia Swayne Gordon) is the wife of Earl Leofric (Robert Gaillard), who has imposed a ruinous new tax on his townspeople that threatens to drive them to starvation. She begs he lift the tax, but the Earl’s heart is “as rough as Esau’s hand” and he’ll only agree to do so on the condition that she ride naked through town.

Warned by a herald of her approach, all the townspeople go inside and shut their windows, except for “one low churl” (Harold Wilson) who watches through a peephole. As she passes, he’s blinded by the sight — “his eyes were shrivell’d into darkness”.

The task complete, she returns to the Earl, who repeals the tax, and so Lady Godiva’s fame becomes “everlasting”.

All of the titles are “quotes” from Tennyson’s poem Godiva. I scare-quote the word because, while the text is presented as direct excerpts, it’s awfully mangled. That’s not at all unexpected. The target audience for Quality Films was not well educated and probably didn’t have a firm grasp of English. They may know of Shakespeare or Tennyson, but it’s highly unlikely that they ever read either. Their familiarity with the great English poets came mostly from places like postcards illustrating famous lines, which were often condensed for space and modified to be both more stand-alone and also to be more marketable — to be able to serve as an advertisement for some product or other. For the Quality Film producers, when the choice came down to a quote that’s right or a quote that’s familiar, one always erred on the side of familiarity. There are some common misquotes persisting today that, while they didn’t originate in early film, early film helped to cement in popular culture — lines like “Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well”.

Lady Godiva screenshotThe set is the same Ye Olde England lot that can be seen in several Vitagraph films from this period, consisting of three half-timbered building façades and a painted backdrop. They vary the angles and move around the set dressing from scene to scene to make it appear larger than it is. There’s attention to detail shown in matching the painted shadows to the actual ones, and in keeping the actors from casting shadows on the backdrop. I don’t recognize the castle (or the gate of the castle, rather — that’s all we see). It may have been built specially. I count about sixteen extras, which reasonably fills out the crowd scenes. One of them is Kate Price, who’s pretty easy to spot. Clara Kimball Young is apparently in there, too, but I couldn’t pinpoint her.

The nude ride is as absolutely sexless as can be, and not only because of the bodystocking and strategically placed hair. Julia Swayne Gordon plays Godiva as you might a saint. But the moral of the story is to not be a Peeping Tom — indeed, the Lady Godiva legend is the origin of the term Peeping Tom. You might recognize Tom — or Harold Wilson — as Silverstein from The Awakening of Bianca (1912). His performance here is kind of the same, only now his handwringing is meant to suggest lasciviousness, and in Bianca, it was meant to look Jewish.

Quality Films are interesting in an abstract, film history kind of way, but can often be on the dull side. The Victoria Cross had the saving grace of an exciting battle scene and the novel conceit of the binoculars, which served the practical purpose of masking the small number of extras, but also looked cool and gave Edith Storey some welcome screentime. In comparison, Lady Godiva doesn’t have much going for it. I didn’t dislike it, but it’s just sort there and it feels all its length.

My rating: Meh.

An Unusual Honeymoon (Vitagraph, 1913)

The Unusual Honeymoon screenshotAn Unusual Honeymoon (Vitagraph, 1913)
Directed by James Young
Starring Flora Finch and Charlie Edwards

When she’s co-starring alongside John Bunny, Flora Finch plays fairly grounded characters — generally the shrewish wife — but when she’s with other actors or flying solo, things can get pretty weird. An Unsusual Honeymoon is an intensely weird little film.

Newlyweds Mary (Flora Finch) and Tammas (Charlie Edwards) are on their honeymoon at the fair. From the numerous kilts and bagpipes (both of which Tammas sports), I can only assume we’re in Scotland. The two take in all the sights, including the wine tasting tent, where they get plastered. There’s a gas balloon tethered on the fairgrounds that Mary finds intriguing, climbing into the gondola to get a better look. Tammas follows her lead, and because he “desires adventure”, he cuts the tether. The couple sail away into the air.

Over a South Sea island, the balloon develops a leak for plot reasons and crashes to the ground. The natives look something like a cross between Zulus and Vikings. They swarm Mary and Tammas, but back away in terror as the latter begins playing on the pipes.

“They think we are gods”, Tammas says, his bagpipes in hand and his foot planted on the back of one of the prostrate Zukings. Not exactly — they actually think it’s the bagpipes that are enchanted. The King, frustrated that his subjects no longer heed his music (he’s got two great femurs that he swings around), decides to steal the pipes while the newlyweds sleep.

Without the protection of the enchanted bagpipes, Mary and Tammas are at the mercy of the increasingly hostile Zukings. They escape by throwing snuff into the air, which causes the natives to sneeze uncontrollably. They reach the shore and are picked up by a patrol boat, where their adventure ends.

This may be an unusual comparison, but this short reminded me of a late-series episode of The Simpsons, in that even if nothing else can be said in its favor, watching it is always a surprise because you can never tell where the plot is going. It isn’t totally random — it does operate on a certain logic — but at any moment, the slightest little thing could segue the setting and action into something totally unexpected. I had no idea what was going to happen next in An Unsusual Honeymoon and it was entertaining to watch unfold.

Written by Rose Tapley, who evidently was also an extra in the film, but I failed to spot her.

My rating: I like it.

Available from Harpodeon