Kennington Bioscope at the Cinema Museum
Back in June, renowned film historian Kevin Brownlow wow-ed the Kennington Bioscope audience when he brought along a selection from his Vitagraph 9.5mm movie collection. We got to see films such as The Ninety and Nine ( Dir. David Smith, 1922) an early dramatic outing for Colleen Moore before she found fame as a flapper, The Beloved Brute (Dir. J Stuart Blackton, 1924) Victor McLaglen’s first American film and, best of all, Captain Blood (Dir. David Smith, 1924) with J Warren Kerrigan in one of Vitagraph’s biggest budget epics. But with characteristic enthusiasm Kevin brought along far too many films to squeeze into one evening showing but he promised to come back at a future date and show us some more.
So, on 7 September, the KenBio crowd gathered once more at the Cinema Museum to see Kevin’s ‘Vitagraph – The Sequel’ presentation. If you missed the first Vitagraph evening or you want to know a bit more about the Vitagraph company or if you are interested in the Vitagraph notched inter-title system and the difficulties this presents for modern auditorium projection then click Here to read our review of that first evening. Otherwise, continue on for tonight’s screenings.
First up was Trumpet Island (aka Hand of Fate) (Dir. Tom Terriss, 1920) in which rich heiress Eve (Marguerite De La Motte) has eyes only for Richard (Wallace MacDonald) but is forced by her father to marry rich but ghastly Henry (Arthur Hoyt) for financial reasons. Distraught, Richard goes off to live on a desert island, as one does! But, in one of those amazing plot coincidences so common to silent film, Eve and Henry on their honeymoon flight crash on the self same island. When Henry is conveniently killed in a cliff fall Richard and Eve are free to live happily ever after. This was a fairly routine melodrama, somewhat hampered by a few too many plot coincidences but with a well shot aircraft crash sequence. La Motte starred as the dancer Jacinta in the aforementioned The Beloved Brute and was a regular co-star with Douglas Fairbanks. MacDonald failed to make the transfer to talkies but went into film production, producing over 100 films between 1937 and 1959. Cinematographer Ernest Haller went on to much greater things, including The Dawn Patrol (1930), Captain Blood (1935), Gone With The Wind (1939) , Rebel Without A Cause (1955) and even an episode of TV series Star Trek (1966).
(NB Trumpet Island is available on an all-region DVD as part of a Vitagraph re-release triple-bill with Pampered Youth (1925) and Black Beauty (1921). Find further details Here )
Next we had Pioneer Trails (aka Out West) (Dir. David Smith, 1923) in which Jack Dale (Cullen Landis), twenty years after being orphaned in an Indian attack, meets and is attracted to Rose Miller (Alice Calhoun). But Philip Blaney (Bertram Grassby), a business associate of Rose’s father, is also interested in her and resents Jack’s presence. He kills Jack’s adopted mother and frames Jack. Eventually Jack proves his innocence, kills Blaney and gets the girl. This is a bit of an oddity, a pretty ordinary, low budget western but with a much grander second unit-shot wagon train sequence almost tacked on at the beginning, presumably hoping to cash in on the success of the then current hit, The Covered Wagon (Dir. James Cruze, 1923). This edited-down 9.5mm home market version also hinted at a much more complex plot-line in the now-lost theatrical version (eg Jack Dale discovering his true pre-orphaned identity, presumably via Rose or her father?) which was a bit frustrating, but this was still fun to watch with a dramatic runaway-carriage scene, well shot with one camera mounted underneath the carriage, a camera set-up probably not seen again until Ben Hur (1925). English born director David Smith was the brother of Albert E Smith, one of the founders of Vitagraph and he was one of the company’s leading directors, making 79 films between 1915 and 1927 including The Ninety And Nine (1922) and Captain Blood (1924).
(NB I can find no trace of Pioneer Trails either on DVD/Blu-Ray or on-line)
This was followed by Tides of Passion (aka The Sea Repays) (Dir. J Stuart Blackton, 1925) set on the Canadian coast where Charity Byfleet (Mae Marsh) is married to soldier William Pennland (Ben Hendricks) but Pennland has an eye for the ladies and is already tiring of his wife. When his regiment is redeployed to India he leaves her behind. Nearing the end of his return sea crossing back to Canada he is caught making eyes at the Captain’s wife (?) and thrown overboard. Washed up on the coast he is taken in by the exotic Hagar (Laska Winter) with whom he starts an affair but he eventually decides to return to his wife. After becoming stranded on the coast he falls ill and dies. Charity confronts the now pregnant Hagar, but takes her in and looks after her baby when it is born. A distraught Hagar attempts to drown herself but Charity and fellow villagers rescue her and the two women decide to bring up the child together.
This was a surprisingly good little film (despite some problems with the notched inter-titles which led to a bit of guess work with the plot), an enjoyable melodrama with a curiously contemporary ending. The climax, shot in the teeth of a raging storm, is superbly done, with both actresses (or their stunt doubles?) seemingly in real danger of being washed away. Mae Marsh puts in a solid performance near the end of her silent film career (although she would go on taking largely un-credited roles in sound films until the mid-1960s) although Ben Hendricks is a bit wooden and hard to take seriously as a ladies man.
But it is Laska Winter (image, above left) who grabs the attention with a timeless beauty and an emotional fragility used to great effect. Born in St Louis in 1905, supposedly of French, Spanish, Irish and German descent, she often used the orientalised stage name Winter Blossom in film roles. She was cast in the leading role in Whims of the Gods (aka What Ho, The Cook) (Dir. Roland V Lee, 1921) but the film was apparently never released and is now considered lost. After that she was seen mainly in supporting parts, usually cast in an exotic role such as a Native American, Inuit, Oriental, Arab or South Sea Islander, in films such as The Thief of Bagdad (1924), The Marriage Cheat (1924, image right, with Percy Marmont), Justice of the Far North (1925) and the Mysterious Dr Fu Manchu (1929). Her last known film credit was in The Painted Woman (1932) after which I can find no further details other than that she died in 1980. But if anyone has any further information about her life or career I would be keen to find out more.
(NB Tides of Passion is due to be re-released by Undercrank Productions in the fourth volume of rare/lost silent shorts in their Accidentally Preserved series which focuses specifically on Vitagraph 9.5mm films released to the European home market. Find out more Here)
We then had Pampered Youth (aka Two To One) (Dir. David Smith, 1925) which promised to be the most interesting film on the night’s programme but which turned out to be something of a disappointment. Based (somewhat loosely) on Booth Tarkington’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Magnificent Ambersons, the plot focused on the Ambersons, the leading family in a small Indiana town. Heiress Isabel Amberson (Alice Calhoun) is unable to decide between two suitors, Eugene Moran (Alan Forrest) or Wilbur Minafer (Wallace MacDonald). When Eugene disgraces himself she marries Wilbur , although she does not really love him and Eugene leaves town. Wilbur later dies and his and Isabel’s son George (Cullen Landis) grows up spoilt and self-centered. Years later, Eugene, now a widower, returns to town a rich industrialist. George, meanwhile has fritted away the family fortune. He and his mother move into a tenement and George has to look for work. Although George has fallen in love with Eugene’s daughter he resents Eugene’s efforts to rekindle a relationship with his mother. He relents when Eugene dramatically rescues his mother from a fire in the tenement.
Sadly this film came over as a rather stilted family melodrama and it is difficult not to compare it unfavourably with the highly acclaimed 1942 Orson Wells remake. Yet perhaps this is rather harsh. The edited down 9.5mm version we saw ran for barely 25 minutes, cut from an original seven reel theatrical release. Furthermore, the climatic fire scene looks to have survived virtually in its eight minute entirety (and is particularly well shot and quite exhilarating), so perhaps it is not surprising that the rest of the film is disjointed and difficult to follow given the extent to which the story is compressed. However, reviews at the time of its original release were not exactly gushing with praise, one describing the film as “missing by a wide margin from living up to expectations.” Of the actors, the performances are competent although none is outstanding. Despite considerable silent film success neither Alice Calhoun or Cullen Landis made the transition to talkies. Of interest, George Minafer as a child was played by 14 year old Ben Alexander, already a ten year acting veteran, who would go on to star as Officer Frank Smith in the 1950s TV series Dragnet. So perhaps the only quality Pampered Youth shares with its more illustrious 1942 remake is that neither film emerged in a version intended by the director.
(NB Pampered Youth is available on an all-region DVD as part of a Vitagraph re-release triple-bill with Trumpet Island (1920) and Black Beauty (1921). Find further details Here )
Finally we had Loyal Lives (Dir. Charles Gibley, 1923) an everyday story of postal worker folk! Dan O’Brien (Brandon Tynan) and his son Terence (Willian Collier jr) are both postal workers. When Terence fights off thieves trying to steal from a mail train he himself is accused of the theft. When the same thieves attempt another mail robbery it is Dan who prevents the theft and the thieves confess to the earlier robbery. Terence is cleared and the family are personally congratulated by the postmaster general. This was a rather minor melodrama, in which most of the story seems to have failed to have reached the 9.5mm edit. We had the oft repeated plot thread of the innocent man being suspected of the crime on the basis of no proof at all but this time freed when the real thief makes a surprisingly benevolent confession. Mary Carr playing Terence’s mother made a career of playing motherly and later grandmotherly parts right up until the mid-1950s.
(NB I can find no trace of Loyal Lives either on DVD/Blu-Ray or on-line)
And that was it. The end of another evening of Vitagraph 9.5mm presentations. I can’t really say that any of them were classics, but that didn’t really matter. They were all interesting in their own way. It would be hard to beat the excitement of the burning building climax of Pampered Youth while Trumpet Island and Pioneer Trails had early examples of some innovative cinematic techniques. And while Tides of Passion might not have been a great film it was enjoyable, had a surprisingly progressive plot line, some wonderful storm photography and a captivating second female lead about whom I would love to find out more. But more importantly, for each of these five films the original theatrical release versions are now considered lost so these edited-down 9.5mm home-release versions are the only way in which we will ever get to see even a fragment of the original films. As ever, more power to the elbow of Ken Bio for providing this opportunity and to Kevin Brownlow for sharing just a fragment of his silent film collection with us.
As always, the piano accompaniment to Ken Bio presentations made all the difference. Tonight, making good use of the Cinema Museum’s newly acquired grand piano, there was a top team of accompanists including Meg Morley, Costas Fotopoulos and John Sweeney, but as with the first Vitagraph evening, top marks must go to projectionist Dave Locke (right) who once again worked miracles screening hundred year old film through a projector onto a small screen then through a video camera and digital projector and on to the big screen for all to see.