Silent films


REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:         


  IS LIFE WORTH LIVING? Selznick Pictures, released by Select Pictures, 1921. Eugene O’Brien, Winifred Westover, Arthur Houseman, George Lessey, Warren Cook, Arthur Donaldson. Director: Alan Crosland. Shown at Cinefest 26, Syracuse NY, March 2006.

   Based on “The Open Door,” a Saturday Evening Post story by George Weston, this attractive film traces the fortunes of a young office worker who’s framed for a crime and after unsuccessfully trying to make a fresh start selling typewriter ribbons, has his suicide all planned and ready to be carried off when he rescues a young woman who’s fainted from hunger in a park.

   He carries her off to his boarding house and puts her in the care of his sympathetic landlady. He keeps delaying his suicide as he establishes a business with the young girl’s help to convince her that she’s repaying his good deed. The business unexpectedly takes off and he becomes wildly successful. Then the man who framed him reenters his life, and it appears that the young man’s success may be short-lived.

   Lewis Selznick, David O. Selznick’s father, apparently liked the story in the Post so much that he rushed the film into production. I’ve not read the story, but I certainly liked the film that resulted from it. It’s basically an Alger story with some wry twists that lift it out of that time-worn groove.

   I suppose that much of the attraction of the film lies in innocence reestablished and generosity rewarded, with a healthy dash of rooting for the young couple. In any case, I thought the film was a standout for its sympathetic characters and compelling situation.

REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:         


HOLD YOUR BREATH. Christie, 1924. Dorothy Devore, Walter Hiers, Tully Marshall, Jimmie Adams, Priscilla Bonner, Jimmy Harrison, Lincoln Plummer, Max Davidson. Director: Scott Sidney. Shown at Cinefest 26, Syracuse NY, March 2006.

   The audience greeted the silent comedy with considerable pleasure. In its own way, it is somewhat bizarre, as cub reporter Dorothy Devore attempts to get an interview from reclusive millionaire Tully Marshall in his well-guarded apartment.

   Through a series of ruses, she gains entry and even manages to ingratiate herself when an organ-grinder’s monkey reaches through an open window and makes off with an expensive diamond bracelet, the most recently acquired bauble in Marshall’s collection.

   The rest of the film consists of Devore’s hair-raising attempts to retrieve the necklace as the monkey climbs about the building’s exterior, with a detective in hot but somewhat less exposed pursuit, A highlight for the audience was a cameo by Max Davidson as a street pedlar who takes advantage of the crowd gathered to hawk his wares.

   Devore is a delight, and this film was one of the comic highlights of the weekend. Sidney also directed the Elmo Lincoln Tarzan of the Apes, as well as another Christie comedy that I’ve seen and liked, Charley’s Aunt (1925). According to the program notes, Devore was the top female comedian on the Christie lot in the 1920s. I don’t find that hard to believe.

REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:         


BRONCHO BILLY AND THE BABY. Essanay, 1915. G. M. Anderson (Broncho Billy), Berenice Sawyer, Evelyn Selby, Lee Willard. Based on a story by Peter B Kyne. Director: G. M. Anderson. Shown at Cinefest 26, Syracuse NY, March 2006.

   It’s a strong sign of the popularity of the Broncho Billy series (and possibly, also, a symptom of the difficulty in getting new scripts fast enough to accommodate the rapid shooting schedules of the series) that this remake of Broncho Billy and the Sheriff’s Kid was released only two years after the original film.

   Billy, an outlaw on the run, rescues a child and returns her to her mother. When the husband returns and discovers that the saviour of his child is a wanted outlaw, he’s faced with a moral crisis.

   It’s difficult to explain the appeal of these simplistic little two-reelers, but they undoubtedly reside in guilelessness and sympathetic portrayal of Billy by Anderson, and in the emotional tug of the simply defined story lines.

   The screening of an interview with Anderson by William Everson in 1957 showed Anderson to have a phenomenal recall of details of the early days of the film industry, if somewhat less appreciation of current films.

   This was followed by Shootin’ Mad (1918), an abridged version of one of Anderson’s last Broncho Billy films, originally released as a five-reeler. The budget was larger so that the sets didn’t shudder when a door was slammed, but Billy was his dependable self, still, as the program notes put it, “a surefooted cavalier who turns into a bumbling clod when he meets a purty girl.”

Editorial Comment:   The popularity of the Broncho Billy series (1910-1918) should not be underestimated. The list of films in the series on IMDb includes 144 of them, and there are quite likely many others that are missed.

REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:         


SUBMARINE Jack Holt

SUBMARINE. Columbia, 1928. Silent film with sound effects. Jack Holt, Dorothy Revier, Ralph Graves, Clarence Burton, Arthur Rankin. Director: Frank Capra. Shown at Cinefest 26, Syracuse NY, March 2006.

   Ace deep-sea diver Jack Dorgan (Jack Holt) marries a woman he meets at a dancehall (Bessie, played by Dorothy Revier). When he’s called to work, Bessie, bored, goes out and meets Bob Mason (Ralph Graves), who, unknown to her, is Jack’s best friend.

   Jack returns unexpectedly, finds the two together and throws Bob out of the house. When Bob is trapped in a sunken submarine, Jack, the only diver who might be able to reach the sub, sulks at home, unwilling to help the man who betrayed his friendship. A chance discovery reveals Bessie’s duplicity and Jack races to the rescue of the crew.

SUBMARINE Jack Holt

   According to the program notes, this was Columbia’s first “A” picture, and Capra was brought on after Harry Cohn fired the original director. Capra obtains the assistance of the Navy, shooting on location in San Pedro with 100 Navy seamen as extras.

   The last third of the film keeps cutting from the trapped seamen to the rescue attempt, with the tension building until the final minutes of the film. Capra’s skill with actors makes the shopworn triangle believable and Holt, one of my two favorite actors when I was a kid (the other was Buck Jones), is every boy’s idea of a resourceful hero.

   Graves, hardly remembered today, is almost as good as Holt, and Revier is perfect as the girl you love to hate.

SUBMARINE Jack Holt

REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:         


THE MARKET OF VAIN DESIRE. Triangle, 1916. H. B. Warner, Clara Williams, Charles Miller, Gertrude Claire, Hutton. Story: C. Gardner Sullivan. Director: Reginald Barker. Shown at Cinefest 26, Syracuse NY, March 2006.

THE MARKET OF VAIN DESIRE

   Mrs. Badgely (Gertrude Claire) has engineered a marriage between her reluctant daughter Helen (Clara Williams) and the too smooth and obviously villainous Count Bernard d’Montaigne (Charles Miller). (You have to suspect that he’s not all he seems to be since no true French aristocrat would drop the “e” in d(e) Montaigne.)

   Pastor John Armstrong (H. B. Warner, warming up for his role as the Christ in DeMille’s King of Kings), upset by the blatant insincerity of the arranged marriage, preaches a sermon in which he compares the “selling” of a daughter to a woman selling her body on the street, bringing home this message with the introduction of a streetwalker (Leona Hutton) into the service.

   The congregation is horrified and when Helen’s father calls off the engagement, the “Count” confronts and assaults the minister. When the fake aristocrat is exposed, the members of the congregation are reconciled with their pastor, and he and Helen, realizing that they love one another, pledge their troth.

   I like a meaty melodrama, and this heady mix of religion, prostitution and social climbing was to my taste. I wasn’t raised a Southern Baptist for nothing. The moral lessons I absorbed in countless sermons and bible classes still resonate in the proper setting and with the right material.

   I noted with some surprise that C. Gardner Sullivan was both the author of the scenario for Hairpins [reviewed here ] and of the story for the very dissimilar Market.

REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:         


HAIRPINS. Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, 1920. Enid Bennett, Matt Moore, William Conklin, Margaret Livingston, Grace Morse. Story: C. Gardner Sullivan. Art director: W. L. Haywood. Art titles: F. J. Van Halle, Carl Schneier, & Leo Braun. Director: Fred Niblo. Shown at Cinefest 26, Syracuse NY, March 2006.

HAIRPINS Enid Bennett

   This film, which I had seen before, was substituted for Over There, a WWI patriotic drama. I like to expand my repertoire, but since Hairpins is a charming light drama, I happily sat through it again.

   Muriel Rossmore (Enid Bennett) has settled too comfortably for her husband Rex’s liking (Matt Moore) into the role of frumpy wife, so he begins a dalliance with Effie, his attractive, nattily dressed secretary (Margaret Livingston).

   When Muriel finds out about the affair, she consults her stylish neighbor, grass widow Mrs. Kent (Grace Morse), who supervises a new look for her and introduces her to Hal Gordon (William Conklin), a playboy friend who pays her the kind of attention that husband Rex finds mightily offensive when he stumbles on to what his wife is doing during his evenings out wth Effie.

   Fred Niblo married his star during the production of this film, and his direction is a tribute to her charm and beauty. I’ve credited the art director and the creators of the attractive intertitles for their contribution to the style and wit of this delightful film.

REVIEWED BY WALTER ALBERT:         


SEVENTH HEAVEN Janet Gaynor

7th HEAVEN. Fox, 1927. Janet Gaynor, Charles Farrell, Ben Bard, David Butler, Marie Mosquini, Albert Gran, Gladys Brockwell, Emile Chautard, George Stone. Scenario by Benjamin Glazer, based on the novel by Austin Strong. Cinematography by Ernest Palmer. Director: Frank Borzage. Shown at Cinevent 38, Columbus OH, May 2006.

   After thirty years of film festivals, there are undoubtedly notable films that have eluded me, but I have finally seen the film that established Gaynor and Farrell as major stars and led to a partnership that lasted for twelve films.

   Still, this is not a partnership that has endured in the experience of current film fans as have the Eddy/McDonald films of the mid-1930s, although for a roomful of viewers at Cinevent I venture to say that the magic of the two distant stars flamed again in their glory, albeit briefly.

   The film follows the fortunes of Diane, a waif rescued from the streets by Chico, a sewer worker who’s just been promoted to his long dreamed-of job as a street cleaner. But, of course, he’s no ordinary blue-collar worker but a dreamer and a poet whose act of rescuing the disreputable waif leads to an undying love that flourishes in a garret apartment where they transform the humble room through the miracle of love into a privileged place where their lives flourish and expand.

   Then, the reality of war intrudes, separating them for years during which their devotion unites them daily in a ritual of remembrance. Finally, a tragic event seems to part them forever, unless a miracle can work its magic.

   Gaynor is the miracle that infuses this film with a life that can touch a contemporary audience. Farrell is an appealing partner, somewhat gauche in his romantic ardor, and certainly lacking the transfiguring grace of Gaynor’s smile (so memorable also in Murnau’s Sunrise) or the gamin-like reticence of her mime.

   The two may have starred in better films, but I suspect that they never appeared together in a more appealing one.

SEVENTH HEAVEN Janet Gaynor

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