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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).

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.