Silent films


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.



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.


   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.



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.


   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.


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.



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.




A TALE OF TWO CITIES. Fox Film Corporation, 1917. William Farnum, Jewel Carmen, Charles Clary, Herschel Mayan, Rosita Marstini, and many others. Scenario by Frank Lloyd. Director: Frank Lloyd. Shown at Cinevent 38, Columbus OH, May 2006.

   This is a lavish, entertaining version of the Dickens novel, adapted and directed by Frank Lloyd (later director of the 1924 version of The Sea Hawk), which undoubtedly takes many liberties with the original to fit into a seventy-minute running time.

   The most startling departure is the murder of Mme De Farge (certainly well-deserved but not canonical) but otherwise the story sticks to the familiar central plot of wrongs righted with new wrongs committed in the name of “justice,” and Sydney Carton delivering, as expected and anticipated, his famous curtain speech in intertitles.

   The key roles of Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton are both played by William Farnum, and played superbly, and the supporting cast is uniformly excellent The 1935 version will probably always be considered the definitive screen adaptation for its typically lavish MGM production and casting, but this silent film seems somehow closer in spirit and style to the historical period.



KING OF THE RODEO. Universal, 1929. Hoot Gibson, Kathryn Crawford, Slim Summerfield, Monte Montague. Director: Henry MacRae. Shown at Cinefest 19, Syracuse NY, March 1999.

   One of the high points of the weekend. Hoot is thrown out by his rancher father because he wants to ride in a rodeo in Chicago rather than go to college. Hoot’s films are notable for their superb action and good humor and his search for his rodeo shirts (ill-advisedly stolen by the film’s villain during the commission of a more serious crime) provided both laughs and thrills in a motorcycle/car chase that kept this eternal adolescent on the edge of his seat.


SPRING PARADE. Universal, 1940. Deanna Durbin, Robert Cummings, Mischa Auer, Henry Stephenson, S. Z. Sakall. Director: Henry Koster.

   Saturday night featured a “lost” Deanna Durbin musical Spring Parade, with the unbeatable Deanna playing a girl from the country who befriends the Emperor Franz Joseph II in pre-war Vienna, benefiting her boyfriend, the insufferable Robert Cummings and her employer, S. Z. “Cuddles” Sakall, being his usual … uh … cuddly self. DD is in fine voice and there’s a scene at a beer garden where she sang and danced her way into my heart. I love this kind of schmaltz.



FOOL’S PARADISE. Famous Players / Lasky Super Production for Paramount release, 1922. Dorothy Dalton, Conrad Nagel, Mildred Harris, Theodore Kosloff, Clarence Burton, John Davidson, Julia Faye. Photography by Alvin Wyckoff and Karl Strus. Director: Cecil B. DeMille. Shown at Cinevent 38, Columbus OH, May 2006.

   This was a repeat performance for me but I find it hard to resist early DeMille silents. Arthur Phelps (Conrad Nagel), an unsuccessful poet, is also unsuccessful in his pursuit of noted dancer Rosa Duchene. When he is blinded by a cruel joke engineered by Poli Patchouli (Dorothy Dalton), a dancehall girl who’s in love with him, she assumes the identity of Rosa, marries the besmitten and unsuspecting Arthur, and the two live in deceptive bliss until Poli, repenting of her joke that blinded Arthur, arranges for an operation that may restore his sight.

   Only a DeMille could make this concoction work, but against all odds, and with the help of his appealing cast and some flamboyant camerawork, he does. There’s an episode late in the film that cannot be allowed to pass unnoticed. Arthur, a millionaire after oil!



NEVADA. Paramount, 1927. Gary Cooper, Thelma Todd, William Powell, Philip Strange, Ernie S. Adams, Christian J. Frank, Ivan Christy, Guy Oliver. Based on a novel by Zane Grey. Director: John Waters. Shown at Cinevent 38, Columbus OH, May 2006.

NEVADA Gary Cooper

   Gary Cooper is “Nevada,” a wandering cowboy with a tendency to get into trouble, who, with his sidekick Cash Burridge (Ernie S. Adams), seeks refuge on a ranch whose owner’s sister (Thelma Todd) quickly develops an interest in Nevada that’s not welcomed by Clan Dillon, her suitor, played by a polished (as always) William Powell. Ranches in the vicinity are being victimized by cattle rustlers and Nevada goes undercover in an attempt to ferret out the secretive mastermind whose identity is known only to Cawthorne (Ivan Christy), foreman of the ranch owned by Todd’s brother.

   It’s good to see Todd in a leading dramatic role and she and Cooper make a highly combustible pair of lovers. The unmasking of the villain and the rehabilitation of the trouble-prone Nevada come together in a fast-paced climax that wraps up this fine Western drama in a most satisfying fashion.

   The touch I most enjoyed was a meeting between Nevada and the still unidentified villain, with the villain’s face masked by a light shining into Nevada’s eyes, a nice variation on the masked villains of the ever popular chapter plays of the ’20s and ’30s.



WHAT PRICE GLORY. Fox, 1926. Victor McLaglen, Edmund Lowe, Dolores Del Rio, William V. Mong, Phyllis Haver, Elena Juardo, Leslie Fenton, Barry Norton, Sammy Cohen, Ted McNamara. Director: Raoul Walsh, director. Shown at Cinevent 38, Columbus OH, May 2006.

   This was a year for repeat screenings, but I had never seen this great success of 1926. The film was based on the Lawrence Stalling/Maxwell Anderson stage hit of 1924, but with the antics of co-stars McLaglen (Captain Flagg) and Lowe (Sergeant Quirt) beefed up at the expense of the strong anti-war message of the play.

   Much of the film deals with the combative womanizing of Flagg and Quirt, but the climax features a well-staged battle sequence that does play up the brutality and inhumanity of war, with the obligatory sacrifice of a secondary character whose demise you can spot coming very early in the film. (He’s the young artist who’s the least likely of the recruits but performs gallantly until his heroic death.)


   There’s a similar sacrificial lamb in the first talking-film sequel (The Cock-Eyed World, 1929), demonstrating once again that Hollywood loves nothing better than a formula that strives to repeat the success of the original. Still, with its engaging cast and Walsh’s vigorous direction, the film has retained much of its impact.

Editorial Comment:   Mike Grost has a long in-depth look at this movie on his website. Check it out here.

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