Last time, we learned that Cecil B. DeMille started 1915 with a shaky mix of established stage stars, popular plays and his own original material. We ended with The Captive, an original story created by DeMille and his collaborator Jeanie Macpherson. The tale was likely designed to get one more use out of the Montenegrin costumes left over from The Unafraid but it proved to be a popular film in its own right.
For his next release, DeMille returned to the safety of his brother’s writing.
The Wild Goose Chase
U.S. Premier Date: May 27
William deMille’s play is a story of arranged marriages, young love and the theater. Two elderly French friends wish their American grandchildren to marry but both boy and girl object to this and separately join the same theatrical troupe. Of course, the wayward pair falls in love, both unaware of the other’s true identity.
Broadway comedienne Ina Claire plays the girl and Tom Forman plays the boy. Ina spent much of her career on the stage (her most famous movie role is probably Swana from Ninotchka), making just one more motion picture in 1915. For those of you keeping track, Ina was the third Mrs. John Gilbert and he was the second Mr. Ina Claire.
Forman moved from acting to directing features in the 1920’s (he directed Lon Chaney in Shadows) but his career was cut short when he committed suicide in 1926. (Rumors that Forman killed himself because he was not okayed for sound are quite unfounded. In the first place, he was a director. In the second place, he killed himself a full year before the talkie revolution.)
All in all, this sounds like a very cute little light comedy. It has a similar plot to the 1926 Charley Chase comedy Crazy Like a Fox, which I enjoyed immensely. However, the film does not seem to have been an enormous success as it was dropped from the Paramount advertising lineup almost immediately.
What did we learn about 1915? Generational conflict and Old World vs. New World manners were considered ripe topics for comedy. Broadway stars were still trying to make their mark on the silent screen, though precious few succeeded.
Survival Status: Missing and presumed lost. Check with your wealthy French grandfathers.
U.S. Premier Date: June 14
You just knew we would have to have one of these sooner or later, didn’t you? Hot Love on the Desert Sands was popular even before The Sheik made it a phenomenon.
In this case, Jamil is an Arab prince whose horse has been sold by his father as punishment for his naughty ways. Determined to get it back, Jamil tracks the horse to its new owner, an American missionary named Mary. Horse thieving and the expected romance ensue. However, since this is 1915, Mary and Jamil cannot stay together and part at the end. (Most Sheik films handled the matter of interracial marriage by making their denizens of the Middle East Europeans in disguise. In fact, if Hollywood is to be believed, Northern Africa and the Middle East were populated, not by Syrians, Persians, Moroccans or Egyptians, but by French, Spanish and English nobility who just got mislaid on their way to the safari.)
The scenery was praised but the scenario was described as ending with a whimper rather than a bang. Edgar Selwyn, who wrote the play upon which the film was based, was praised for his performance as the hot-headed Jamil. (Samuel Goldfish partnered with Selwyn and his brother to form a company dubbed “Goldwyn.” Goldwyn later became the “G” in MGM and Mr. Goldfish took the surname as his own.) Gertrude Robinson (a Biograph veteran) is Mary the little missionary.
The Arab was remade in 1924 with Ramon Novarro and Alice Terry in the leads and directed by Rex Ingram. Thought lost for decades, this version was rediscovered in Russia and is now held by the Library of Congress.
The last remake was the sleazy 1933 bodice-ripper, The Barbarian. It starred Ramon Novarro (again!) and a very annoyed-looking Myrna Loy. Miss Loy was obliged to bathe wearing strategic rose petals and a smile. Mr. Novarro was obliged to smolder and act the beautiful brute. It’s quite dreadful
What did we learn about 1915? The sheik film genre was around considerably earlier than most people realize. The issue of interracial marriage was often brought up in films but usually sidestepped with narrative tricks.
Survival Status: Missing and presumed lost. All prints were likely destroyed to avoid competition with the Rex Ingram version, which was common practice when films were remade in the silent era. Check with your friendly local Russian archive!
U.S. Premier Date: June 28
Another film, another vehicle to introduce a stage star to motion pictures. This time it was Victor Moore, noted for playing good-natured roughnecks. Moore had one film under his belt, Snobs, and Chimmie Fadden was ideally suited to his talents. What makes him significant is that he managed to stay in the movies, getting steady work in character parts until a few years before his death. (His last part was a small role in The Seven Year Itch)
Chimmie Fadden started as a series of newspaper sketches. These were turned into a book, which was then turned into a play. (You can read E.W. Towsend’s Chimmie stories freely online as they are in the public domain.) They concerned the adventures of Chimmie, an Irish-American tough with a heart of gold.
In the film, Chimmie rescues a rich do-gooder from a Bowery masher and is engaged as a footman in her house. However, Chimmie’s brother has conspired with another servant to relieve the rich lady of her silver. Chimmie must save his brother– and himself when he is accused of the robbery!
DeMille and Moore made sure that Chimmie was funny but not slapstick. You may not realize it from the inept comic relief in his later films but DeMille was actually quite adept at directing humorous scenes. He demonstrated this forte again and again in his marital comedies of the ‘teens and twenties. Chimmie Fadden received excellent reviews, with Moore in particular receiving praise for his funny and touching performance.
In her book Cecil B. DeMille and American Culture: The Silent Era, film historian Sumiko Higashi writes that the Chimmie Fadden film “functions as sentimental melodrama in that romance mitigates social tensions.” This theme would be introduced again in DeMille’s 1926 Russian Revolution romance, The Volga Boatman. (In that film, DeMille seems to suggest that the whole revolution could have been halted if both sides had just been more open to inter-class dating.)
In addition to Moore, DeMille regular Raymond Hatton is on hand to play the brother. Hatton’s movie career spanned an astonishing 58 years starting in 1909. His final role was a bit part in the 1967 film In Cold Blood.
What did we learn about 1915? DeMille could direct comedy when he wanted to. It was possible for stage stars to make a successful jump to the screen if they had the right character. The lovable tough was just as popular then as it is today.
Survival Status: Missing and presumed lost. Look in the attic of your tenement flat.
U.S. Premier Date: July 12
Social films were stylish in the ‘teens and DeMille never met a trend he couldn’t latch onto. Social topics included drug addiction, labor laws, the plight of immigrants, prostitution, interracial marriage, single mothers, abortion, birth control… It seems that nothing was taboo. For his stab at the genre, DeMille again concerned himself with poverty and tenement dwellers. Unlike Chimmie Fadden, however, this film is quite serious.
It is the tale of an impoverished husband and wife. They have agreed not to have children because they are too poor to give a child a decent life. The wife finds herself pregnant but keeps it from her husband. Desperate to raise money to move out of the slums, she becomes involved with a ring of thieves.
This was the first time that DeMille worked with Thomas Meighan as his leading man. Meighan would go on to star in two of DeMille’s biggest successes, Male and Female and Why Change Your Wife? However, DeMille found Meighan to be difficult and preferred the talents of Elliott Dexter.
Contemporary critics praised Charlotte Walker’s acting but most modern reviews have described her performance as simpering and hammy. Meighan, on the other hand, is praised for his restraint.
What did we learn about 1915? Even glitzy DeMille was not adverse to dipping his toe into the social film genre and, by all accounts, he acquits himself quite credibly.
Survival Status: A print exists in the George Eastman House. The title has not been released on home video.
DeMille made five more films in 1915. Three of them are considered classics, one is still in the vaults and the fifth is missing and presumed lost. Next time, we will look at Carmen, Sessue Hayakawa and Cinderella + Burglars.