Silent films



NO MAN’S LAW. Hal Roach production, distributed by PatM Exchange, 1927. Rex (King of the Wild Horses),Barbara Kent, James Finlayson, Oliver Hardy, and Theodore Von Eltz. Photography by Floyd Jackman and George Stevens; director: Fred Jackman. Shown at Cinevent 40, Columbus OH, May 2008.

   I usually have a good memory for animal stars, but I don’t recall seeing the reportedly temperamental equine star before. Rex was a nom de cinema, with Casey Jones his original moniker. Rex’s career continued into the sound era, but No Man’s Land was the third and last of his Roach-produced oaters.


   It may be surprising to see the names of James Finlayson and Oliver Hardy attached to a dramatic film, especially since Hardy is the villain of the piece, with not a good (or funny) bone in his body.

   Hardy and Von Eltz play crooks on the lam who attempt to take over the claim where prospector Jake Belcher (Finlayson), helped only by his foster daughter Toby (Barbara Kent), has been digging for gold for many years.


   Rex is a wild horse, presumably beholden to no man (or woman), but for reasons that aren’t explained he keeps a close watch on Toby and Jake, finally driving Hardy into a gulch where he pounds him to death with his driving hooves. (No, we don’t see this; the camera focuses on Hardy’s clenched fist that slowly relaxes as he dies.)

   Barbara Kent is still alive, living in Sun Valley, Idaho, and refusing to talk about her movie career. She has an extended nude swimming scene (well, it looks as if she’s nude, but with a long shot she may be wearing a skin-tight outfit) and the interest this aroused in the Cinevent audience (and probably in audiences at the time of the film’s original release) may explain why Rex seemed so cranky during much of this hokey, entertaining film.




THE DEVIL’S BAIT. Balbao-General Film, 1917. Ruth Roland, William Conklin, Henry King, Ed Brady, Myrtle Reeves, Lucy Blake, Gordon Sackville. Scenario by Will M. Ritchey. Director: Harry Harvey. Shown at Cinecon 44, Hollywood CA, Aug-Sept 2008.

   Another of those sentimental morality plays that I have an almost inordinate fondness for, which could be a lingering effect of my upbringing in a Southern Baptist church.

   I was initially drawn to this film by the presence of Ruth Roland, a major chapter play star in the 1920s whom my mother still remembered with pleasure when I was a child. Here she was not required to exhibit any athletic prowess, but showed some skill at portraying an attractive young woman, brought up by a strict but loving father, whose checkered past almost helps bring about the downfall of his virtuous daughter, lured by an unscrupulous letch with jewels that captivate the eye and destroy the soul.

   This agent of the devil is, of course, foiled and punished, but there’s some splendid melodrama along the way, with intermittent appearances by an actor clothed in a tight-fitting devil’s suit who should have spent more time working out before he took on the role.


THE MOLLYCODDLE. Fairbanks-United Artists, 1920. Douglas Fairbanks, Ruth Renick, Wallace Beery. Director: Victor Fleming. Shown at Cinecon 44, Hollywood CA, Aug-Sept 2008.

MOLLYCODDLE Douglas Fairbanks

   The films that Fairbanks made before the success of Robin Hood propelled him into the big-budget historical epics for which he is now remembered may not be as visually sumptuous as his later work, but they are every bit as entertaining.

   In this, his third United Artists release, Fairbanks plays Richard Marshall V, the descendant of a line of risk-takers and adventurers, who is the “Mollycoddle” of the title, a term coined by Theodore Roosevelt to characterize a spoiled, frivolous young man.

   Attracted to a young woman in Monte Carlo, he insinuates himself into her group, a party formed by villainous diamond smuggler Henry Van Holkar (Wallace Beery) that is shortly to set off as a cover for an Arizona tour where Van Holkar will pick up another supply of diamonds for delivery to Amsterdam.

   The Arizona excursion proves to be the making of Richard, who performs spectacular stunts that prefigure the Fairbanks roles shortly to follow. The most spectacular stunt, in which Marshall leaps from a cliff to a tree, was filmed with a double because of injuries Fairbanks sustained in an earlier stunt.

   The doubling is seamlessly shot, with the dastardly villain foiled and the intrepid hero and fair maiden reunited. All of the early Fairbanks films are wonderfully entertaining; ten of them, including The Moddycoddle, I am delighted to say, are included in a reecnt DVD set from Flicker Alley.

Editorial Note: In that set referred to by Walter are: His Picture in the Papers / The Mystery of the Leaping Fish / Flirting With Fate / The Matrimaniac / Wild and Woolly / Reaching for the Moon / When the Clouds Roll By / The Mollycoddle / The Mark of Zorro / The Nut.


THE HOME MAKER. Universal, 1925. Alice Joyce, Clive Brook, Billy Kent Schaefer, Martha Mattox, Virginia True Boardman, Jacqueline Wells (later known as Julie Bishop). Scenario by Mary O’Hara, from the novel by Dorothy Canfield. Director: King Baggot. Shown at Cinecon 44, Hollywood CA, Aug-Sept 2008.


   The subject of this film — a reversal of roles in which the husband stays home and takes care of the children — was probably an unusual one in 1925, one that was apparently reflected (according to reviews quoted in the program notes) in the hostility in at least some of the reviews to the husband’s role.

   He’s portrayed as almost terminally bored by his office job and when he’s passed over for a promotion and then, as in everything else, fails at a suicide attempt that leaves him a cripple, he welcomes the opportunity to stay at home while his wife, taking a low-level job in the womens’ wear factory run by his former company, quickly shows herself to be a gifted manager, soon promoted to a position and salary her husband could only have dreamed of.

   This domestic drama might initially seem to have been lifted from the pages of one of the slick womens’ magazines of the period, but it sheds that formulaic corset, impressing by its crisp direction, fine acting and unsentimental treatment of a then controversial subject.

   It should be noted that two distinguished women writers were credited for the source and scenario for the film. Dorothy Canfield (Fisher) is probably best known for her children’s classic Understood Betsy, while Mary O’Hara was the author of the bestselling My Friend Flicka, turned into a successful film by MGM starring Roddy MacDowell (and, of course, a horse).



THE BLOOD SHIP. Columbia, 1927. Hobart Bosworth, Jacqueline Logan, Richard Arlen, Walter James, Fred Kohler. Scenario by Fred Myton, based on a novel of Norman Springer. Producer: Harry Cohn; director: George B. Seitz. Shown at Cinecon 44, Hollywood CA, Aug-Sept 2008.

   This plays like a stripped-down version of The Sea Wolf, with a sadistic sea captain, but with none of the philosophical underpinnings of the Jack London novel.

   Bosworth is a discredited Captain who signs on to the ship, which we learn is helmed by Walter James, the man who robbed him of his own ship, and, more importantly, of his wife and daughter. The crew largely consists of hijacked seamen, along with Bosworth and Richard Arlen, a young sailor who catches sight of the daughter James claims as his own and impulsively signs on for the voyage.

   James’ first mate is played by Fred Kohler, who specialized in playing bad guys, and the two run a ship in which brutality and fear reign. With a little quiet time, you can figure out that the girl is the pivotal player, who unites the past crimes and present perilous situation in a way that precipitates the final conflict and resolution.

   Predictable but entertaining.


THE LADY. Norma Talmadge Film Corp., 1925. Norma Talmadge, Wallace MacDonald, Brandon Hurst, Alf Goulding, Doris Lloyd, Marc McDermott, Paulette Duval. Screenplay by Frances Marion. Director: Frank Borzage, director. Shown at Cinefest 28, Syracuse NY, March 2008.

THE LADY Norma Talmadge

   Polly Pearl (Norma Talmadge) marries the dissolute son (Wallace MacDonald) of a British aristocrat. The father disinherits his son who gambles away what remains of his money in Monte Carlo and dies, leaving Polly with an infant son.

   She is singing in a Marseilles dive when her father-in-law turns up with his lawyer and attempts to take custody of the child. Polly entrusts the child to a British couple (a curate and his wife) and then spends years looking for him. Their reunion leads to momentary tragedy but the possibility of an eventual happier resolution.

   Norma Talmadge shines as the unfortunate Polly and the gifted director handles the unpromising materials with consummate skill, spinning cinematic gold out of straw.


THE STOLEN VOICE. World Film Corp., 1915. Robert Warwick, Frances Nelson, Giorgio Majeroni, Violet Horner, Bertram Marburgh. Screenwriter/director: Frank Hall Crane. Shown at Cinefest 28, Syracuse NY, March 2008.


   When society matron Belle Borden (Violet Horner) is entranced with the world-famous tenor Gerald D’Orvilie (Robert Warwick) her jealous suitor, the sinister mesmerist Dr. Von Gahl (Giorgio Majeroni) renders D’Orville mute.

   Belle immediately loses interest in the silenced tenor, who travels abroad, exhausting all of his fortune in an attempt to recover his voice. Reduced to utter penury, Gerald is rescued by someone he once salvaged from the refuse heap of humanity, rising to new heights as a silent screen star. When Dr. Van Gahl sees Gerald in his new-found glory on the screen he has a fatal heart attack, which immediately restores Gerald’s voice.

   I’ve skipped over several interesting features of which the most striking is the rescue by Gerald of his co-star from the raging rapids which are pulling her to a violent death. But you’ll get no more details from me. I’ve whetted your appetite enough already. (By the way, I loved the film. Or hadn’t you guessed that already?)

Editorial Note:   Robert Warwick’s movie and television career began in 1914 and did not end until 1962, two years before his death, with a substantial combined 242 total credits on bot screens. Moviewise, his roles seem largely to have consisted of minor roles in bigger films, and bigger roles in B-movies.

   Catching my eye, though, looking down through the list of movies he appeared in, are several he made for Preston Sturges in the early 1940s: The Great McGinty (1940), Christmas in July (1940), The Lady Eve (1941), and Sullivan’s Travels (1941). He was third-listed in the latter, after Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake.


    A PHILISTINE IN BOHEMIA.   Vitagraph, 1920. Nellie Spaulding, Edna Murphy, George de Winter, Rod La Roque. Based on a story by O. Henry. Director: Edward Griffith. Both this film and the one following were shown at Cinefest 28, Syracuse NY, March 2008.


   A charming short film in which Kate, whose mother runs a boarding house, is taken with Mr. Brunelli, a roomer who has the airs of an aristocrat. One day he invites her to dinner at the Restaurant Tonio where everybody seems to know him and confirms Kate’s suspicion that he must be a count.

   To her surprise, he reveals himself to be Tonio, the restaurant owner and chef, a spaghetti “prince” but not a true aristocrat, a species of disreputable roomer with whom the Irish boarding-house owners have had most unpleasant experiences.

   Relieved, Kate allows Tonio to kiss her, delighted that she has found a plebeian suitor that her mother will accept.

   Edward/Edward H./E. H. Griffith had an extensive list of directorial credits for silent films, and was also the director of the first version of Holiday (1930), which a good friend has told me he finds superior to the Cukor remake with Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant.

  ●   THE VIOLIN OF M’SIEUR.   Vitagraph, 1914. Etienne Girardot, Clara Kimball Young, James Young, Napoleon the Dog. Director: James Young.

   When violin teacher Pere (Etienne Girardot) is separated from his beloved daughter Yvonne (Clara Kimball Young) by the FrancoPrussian war, he wanders for years until a chance encounter leads him to his daughter, now grown, married and the mother of a child, and a happy and prosperous future.

   I know you’ll want to know this: the dog saves the day. I’m glad he got a credit.


FEED ’EM AND WEEP. MGM/Hal Roach Studios, 1928. Max Davidson, Anita Garvin, Marion Byron, Edgar Kennedy, Charlie Hall, Frank Alexander. Director: Fred L. Guiol, with supervision by Leo McCarey. Running time: 20 minutes. Shown at Cinefest 28, Syracuse NY, March 2008.


   I don’t know if the Cinefest programmers were enjoying a little in-joke by scheduling this Max Davidson short after Showgirl in Hollywood with a minor role by Spec O’Donnell [reviewed here], but whether they were or not, it was still a treat to see this rare Davidson film, even if it was largely a showcase for the female comedy team of Anita Garvin and Marion Byron.

   Max, the owner of a small eatery that serves as a restaurant and rest stop to railroad passengers, hires Garvin and Byron as waitresses just as a trainload of passengers pours into the restaurant for a quick meal. Chaos quickly ensues, with the two women probably the worse waitresses in film history.

   The film has a few decent moments, but the same gags are recycled with increasingly less effect, and the result is a lame comedy in which poor Max is forced to play second fiddle to two actresses of modest talent.

Editorial Comment:   According to Wikipedia, five foot Marion Byron was teamed with six foot Anita Garvin for a brief (three film) series as a “female Laurel & Hardy” in 1928–1929. For a brief clip of the two of them in action together, check out this YouTube video (from A Pair of Tights). [The link should now be working.]



WILD HORSE MESA. Famous Players-Lasky, 1925. Jack Holt, Noah Beery, Billie Dove, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., George Magrill, George Irving, Edith Yorke, Bernard Sigel, Margaret Morris, Eugene Pallette. Based on the novel by Zane Grey. Director: George B. Seitz. Shown at Cinefest 28, Syracuse NY, March 2008.

   The fellow who introduced the film referred obliquely to a very warm relationship between Zane Grey and female star Billie Dove. You can’t blame Grey. She’s very appealing, and after some initial palling around with Fairbanks, she finally settles on the character’s older brother (Jack Holt) when he shows up to get the plot really moving along.

   Noah Beery is the totally reprehensible villain, but he’s matched (if not in charisma, at least in villainy), by another of Dove’s admirers, Bert Manerube (played by George Magrill).


   Manerube conceives the dastardly plan of driving horses into a canyon whose exit is blocked by a barbed wire fence that he argues will bring the horses up short. They won’t, he claims, run into the fence in their eagerness to escape their pursuers.

   When Holt points out the fallacy in this plan, Manerube joins forces with Beery and the action doesn’t let up until the final romantic fade-out. Among the film’s many pleasures are the performance by the magnificent white stallion who leads the wild horses and the beautiful photography by Bert Glennon, who would be a member of John Ford’s regular crew, with Stagecoach among his credits.


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