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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:

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