Cecil B. DeMille’s first feature from his shiny new studio, The Road to Yesterday is the epic tale of two couples, marital strife, a fiery train wreck, flappers, ministers and a touch of time travel. You know, keeping things simple. It is also notable as the film that started William “Hopalong Cassidy” Boyd on his path to stardom.
Take the night train to San Francisco…
William Boyd remains a beloved figure to millions of movie fans who remember him as the noble Hopalong Cassidy. What many of you may not know is that Mr. Boyd’s career got its start because of a flimsy patent leather swimsuit.
According to Cecil B. DeMille’s autobiography, while filming an elaborate pool party sequence for the 1922 film Saturday Night, character actress Julia Faye leapt into the water. The top of her patent leather swimsuit burst open on impact– in full view of camera, crew and cast. William Boyd was working as an extra in the scene and he leapt into action. He turned Faye towards him and held her close, shielding her from the camera with his body and making it look like they were simply a romantic couple. After the scene ended, he lent her his coat.
Faye was DeMille’s longtime mistress and she told the director of Boyd’s gallant conduct. DeMille was doubly impressed that Boyd had not only saved Faye’s modesty but had also done so in a way that did not spoil the take. He personally thanked Boyd, was impressed with his fearless demeanor and made it his goal to help the young man get a foothold in Hollywood.
Three years after the leather swimsuit affair, Boyd got his first chance as a DeMille leading man. The Road to Yesterday was the very first special release from the newly-minted DeMille Pictures Corporation and it promised the sort of lavish production values and lurid excitement that had become the director’s trademark.
DeMille had had some difficulty recruiting top-tier talent for his new company. Even performers who personally liked him and enjoyed working with him were nervous about leaving more established studios for his upstart concern.
Joseph Schildkraut was one of the performers who took the plunge. He had made a striking impression as the leading man of D.W. Griffith’s French Revolution epic Orphans of the Storm (my word, that man could rock a powdered wig!) but had conflicts with his co-workers, was dubbed “pretty” by Dorothy Gish and (according to a quote of a quote of a quote) even received racial slurs and threats from the crew because of the perception that he was trying to upstage Lillian Gish.
His follow-up performance in The Song of Love was panned. The effeminate label was brought up again, his spats with leading lady Norma Talmadge were breathlessly documented and he was given that most damning of labels: difficult. What with one thing and another, he was working briskly on the stage but had not made a movie in nearly two years.
It’s worth noting that both Orphans and Song of Love were troubled productions with a fair amount of drama behind the scenes that had nothing to do with Schildkraut.
Orphans: Lillian Gish was on the verge of leaving Griffith (she was being pushed out in favor of Carol Dempster). She and Griffith openly argued about the editing of the climax and just how much oomph she was to display as she was led to the guillotine. Further, an extra was killed by musket fire and both director and star sustained injuries trying to put out a fire on the set. (You can read details of the production in the excellent book D.W. Griffith: An American Life by Richard Schickel and in Lillian Gish’s memoirs.)
Song of Love: Both Norma Talmadge and Schildkraut were miscast from the start (she plays an exotic Arab dancing girl in teeny-tiny costumes, he plays a French spy in spit curls). Writer and director Frances Marion had recently recovered from whooping cough was put out of commission when an arc light fell on her head. (A few more details can be found in Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood.)
Schildkraut was a seasoned veteran of the stage (he had debuted at the age of 6) and his father was a longtime fixture of German and Yiddish theater. His problems seemed to stem less from major personality issues and more from the culture shock of film vs. theater and having the misfortune to land in two very high-profile but chaotic productions.
Unlike many of his directing contemporaries, Cecil B. DeMille had worked with major stage actors since the beginning of his film career. Further, his family had been immersed in the New York theater culture and he could talk the talk. DeMille also knew how to maintain control over his sets and to keep all egos but his firmly under wraps. He and Schildkraut got on famously and worked together well into the sound era. (Schildkraut’s sound successes included a best supporting actor Oscar in 1937 and his acclaimed performances as Anne Frank’s father, Otto, in both the stage and screen versions of her famous diary.)
So, The Road to Yesterday was an extremely important picture for both Boyd (debut) and Schildkraut (comeback). These two also happen to be a couple of my favorite silent leading men. I am a very happy camper.
The story opens in the Grand Canyon, where Ken (Joseph Schildkraut) and Malena (Jetta Goudal) are spending their honeymoon. All is not well, however, as Malena has developed a sudden and all-consuming fear of… her new husband. You think she would have noticed this before the wedding but no, she waited until after the I Do’s to spring this on him.
Ken is understandably upset because he is married to a crazy person. Also, his left arm has mysteriously become paralyzed. It’s just not his week. So, he is feeling just a little agnostic.
Boy Scout leader, reverend and all-around manly man Jack Moreland (William Boyd) runs into the unhappy Ken and tries to help him with sermons and bro hugs. Jack is an affable, forward-thinking sort of minister but there are some things even he cannot fix.
Bess (Vera Reynolds) is a freshly-engaged modern gal who is vacationing with her fiancé, Rady (Casson Ferguson). She and Jack meet cute (one of his scouts shoots an arrow at her hat) and they both get a feeling of déjà vu. Jack’s knife seems familiar and Bess finds a hidden compartment in it that contains a dried rose. Naturally, all they can do after that is kiss. I told you Jack was a rather forward-thinking minister.
As it turns out, everyone is from the exact same city and Ken has asked Jack to his homecoming party. Bess is delighted and means to throw over her wimpy fella in favor of her new hunk. But then, horror of horrors, Bess discovers that he is a minister. The digrace! The humiliation! Her friends mock her and she asks that Jack give up the ministry, lest his profession shame her before her friends.
I loved this sassy reversal of the usual flapper/boy scout romance. In the most flapper films of this era, Jack would be horrified when he finds out about Bess’s wild ways and she would have to win him back. Instead, it is the wild girl who doesn’t want the proper minister ruining her party girl reputation. The extremely tolerant Jack is pushed one step too far and departs, dignity intact. (Well, her demand was pretty obnoxious.)
Bess is brokenhearted and agrees to take the night train to San Francisco with Rady where they will be married in the morning.
The romance is not much better in the Ken and Malena camp. In fact, it is much worse. The doctors have no idea why Ken’s arm is crippled and the only hope for treatment is to take the… wait for it… night train to San Francisco.
Malena is still being weird. (“Just because you horrify me, I think you hurt me in a past life and I won’t let you come within three feet of me, well, that doesn’t mean I don’t love you!”) I mean, if she is so terrified of Ken, why is she still hanging around? Just get an annulment and let the poor man get on with his life.
Ken finds himself locked out of the bedroom. He breaks down the door and (it is heavily implied) forces himself on his wife. (Ken’s shoe crushes a flower as he leans over Malena in bed. Subtle.)
Okay, time out! My love for Joseph Schildkraut the actor notwithstanding, I am revoking any and all sympathy for Ken. If someone has an irrational fear of you, I don’t think that perpetuating a violent crime against them is the way to make things better. Just my two cents. (Hollywood never learns and a very similar scene was played out nearly forty years later in Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie.)
So Malena’s formerly inexplicable fear of Ken is now completely understandable and she flees on the… say it with me now… night train to San Francisco.
Did not one of these people think to go east?
Jack gets special points for being the only person on the train who knows what he’s there for. He has thought things over and he wants to win Bess back. Rady objects and they end up in a fist fight.
Then, wouldn’t you know it, the train gets into a spectacular, fiery head-on collision. (It looks amazing, by the way.) Malena and Ken are trapped in the rubble, Rady and Jack get knocked down and Bess is thrown back in time to England, circa 1650.
Still with me? Good. Things are going to get a little crazy from here. Well, crazier.
Bess sees Jack (in a pageboy cut and thigh-high boots, no less!) and runs to him but soon realizes that this is Historical Jack and he has no idea who she is. He does think she’s awfully cute though. Anyway, Historical Ken shows up and even though Bess had no idea what was going on a minute ago, she somehow knows that Ken is after her.
No, I don’t know why either. Stop asking so many questions, you impertinent knave!
Sorry. I got a little caught up in the film.
You see, the intertitles are full of thees and thous and other high-falutin’ Englander talk. These are real titles from the film:
“Thou art the wastefulest tapster that ever vexed a gentle tavern-woman!”
“Little sweet lady – have you in truth the courage to trudge the rough road I must go?”
And who wrote these titles, you ask? Why, Howard Hawks. Yes, the Howard Hawks. He was just one year away from his own debut as motion picture director over at Fox.
Another important figure in motion pictures got a career boost in the picture. Adrian’s gowns had been greatly admired and DeMille won the war for his services. Director and designer shared an opulent aesthetic vision and enjoyed working together. The same could not be said of Adrian and Jetta Goudal. Her spoiled behavior was the stuff of mad Hollywood legend and poor Adrian reportedly collapsed after a particularly contentious fitting.
On another side note, the pronunciation of Jetta’s first name has been puzzling to me. Many online resources say that it is pronounced zah-hetta but that does not jive with her Dutch origins. However, I found an article (in PDF form only, I’m afraid) that tracks down the root of her unusual name. She was born with the given name Julie Henriette and her nickname took the first part of her first name and the last part of her middle name to become Jetje. (Similarly, Marlene Dietrich’s real first name was Marie Magdalene, which was shortened to the nickname Mar-lene.) Goudal invented a French background for herself and simplified the spelling of her nickname to Jetta. Her family pronounced the j softly, the famous ZH sound, like the “s” in “pleasure.” (The Library of Congress also lists the pronunciation as ZHET-e.)
Anyway, Jack hides Bess from Ken or Lord Strangevon, as he is called. Modern or historical, Jack is a real stand-up guy. And no, my pronunciation research did not turn up how to properly say “Strangevon.” Is it strange-von or stran-ge-von or stran-gevon?
Bess and Historical Jack end up at a tavern where they meet Historical Rady (still a louse) and Historical Malena, who is a Gypsy and claims to be married to Ken. She gives Bess a disguise and then flees as Ken approaches.
Historical Ken is none too pleased to see his maybe-wife but she reminds him of the day she healed his left arm (you get it? get it? get it?) and they share a flashback.
Wait a minute, whose dream is this anyway? Is it Bess’s point of view or not? If so, why are we inside the heads of Ken and Malena? If not, why is Bess the only one who is aware of the time shift?
Oh well. Anyway, Ken still loves Malena but he needs to wed Bess for her fortune so…
Meanwhile, Bess and Historical Jack are not wasting any time. She puts a rose in the secret compartment of his knife and he pops the question. But then Ken shows up (having dumped Malena) and snatches Bess. Jack puts up an enthusiastic defense but is outnumbered and forced to retreat.
However, Jack and Malena are not about to give up so easily! Ken’s castle is jam-packed with secret passages and Jack uses one to try to rescue Bess. Unfortunately, Ken is psychotic but he is nobody’s fool and he shows up in time to stop the escape. With Jack his prisoner, he is able to coerce Bess into marriage. Jack is to go free once the ceremony is over.
As for Malena, it won’t do to have two wives so he has her burned at the stake. This does strike me as overreacting a bit. Oh, and that letting Jack go thing? He lied. Jack has a date with the torture chamber.
Goodness gracious, how could anyone stand this man in the modern world?
So Malena curses Ken, Bess helps Jack stab him, Jack dies, Malena dies, Ken dies, everyone dies but Bess and… Ta-da! We’re back to the present!
So, will everyone learn from whatever the heck that was? It doesn’t matter if you see the movie or not as none of it will make any sense.
The film boasts a nice selection of lesser-known silent talent. It’s interesting that the most flamboyant real-world personality in the film is also the blandest onscreen. Jetta Goudal possessed a delicate, porcelain beauty but none of her reported off-screen fire seemed to project into her role.
The film is pure hokum, that is well-established, and there are only two ways to survive hokum with dignity intact: Play it absolutely, deadly straight or play it with a sly wink. Boyd and Schildkraut both took the latter approach, Vera Reynolds took the former. Goudal dealt with the corny material by phoning in her performance. I mean, how in the world can you make a gypsy healer so boring?
The single biggest flaw of the film is its lack of protagonist. At first, we are led to believe that this is Ken’s tale. Then, after the time jump, we follow Bess as the main character. When the film returns to the present, we are given Ken as a hero once more. This unfocused approach is highly unusual for a DeMille film (his plots, no matter how silly, had a driving force behind them and rarely stopped for breath) and it deflates much of the tension that had been building.
The emotional climax of the film is supposed to be when Ken throws off his agnosticism and rescues Malena from the burning train. The problem is that Ken has acted so abominably in both the historical and modern stories that it is impossible to root for him. I, for one, was waiting for some divine being to smite him.
Look, I know that unlikable characters can be fascinating but this movie seems to be unaware of just how nasty Ken is. We are clearly expected to be cheering when he gets all religious and saves his wife. The problem is that we are not given enough modern Ken to make the atonement believable. I mean, just a few minutes before, Historical Ken was merrily killing Historical Jack and now Modern Ken is our hero? No. Just no.
Joseph Schildkraut was an excellent actor but this was truly his Waterloo. However, I honestly cannot name an actor who could carry off the role. Schildkraut did his best but the character was so badly written that he really did not have a prayer.
I think the film would have been much more interesting if it had just focused on the unconventional courtship of Jack and Bess. But that probably was not epic enough for DeMille as he had a new company to promote and wanted to start things out with a bang.
The runner-up for biggest flaw is the utter lack of narrative logic.
A selection of unanswered questions:
If Malena’s terror of Ken is based on what happened in the past, why is she the only one who notices? I mean, Ken tortured Jack to death. I repeat: He tortured Jack to death. Tortured. To death. That seems to be a fairly decent reason to be upset and I should think it would be a fairly memorable event. Ken also forced Bess to marry him, another nefarious deed. Then Bess helped the dying Jack fatally stab Ken. Wouldn’t Ken find that a bit annoying? By all rights, everyone should hate Ken and he should hate them in return.
If Malena is the one who is so in touch with the past, why is the dream in Bess’s point of view?
When last seen, the rose knife was used to murder Ken and then Jack died with it artistically dripping blood all over a bible. If the knife was in Jack’s family, how did they get it?
The entire modern cast is like their historical counterparts (Bess is lively, Jack is noble, Malena is weird) except for Ken. Modern Ken is broody and abusive but Historical Ken is a full-fledged psychopath. He would be twirling his mustache if he had one. What gives?
In the end, The Road to Yesterday is a film that tries to do too many things at once. Is it a tale of religious reawakening? A historical confection? A flapper love story? A marital drama? A disaster picture? The movie flits from theme to theme and never successfully bridges the jarring changes in tone. Schildkraut later described the film as beautiful but a three ring circus with to many plots to follow.
That being said, the story keeps moving, there is always something interesting to see and Boyd, Schildkraut and Reynolds all act their hearts out. There is some wonderful lighting, the gowns by Adrian are fabulous and the sets are truly epic.
A little too epic, as it turned out. The train wreck scene called for the steaming front of the train’s engine to ram through the car where Ken and Malina were sitting. The scene was timed to avoid hitting any of the performers but no one had accounted for the white hot steam from the locomotive. Joseph Schildkraut’s character was to be knocked out so he could not move as the steam burned his arms.
Schildkraut’s parents (famed actor Rudolf Schildkraut and his wife, Erna) were guests on the set that day and he later wrote that his mother watched the scene unfold. Without saying a word, she picked up a heavy stick and hid it behind her back. Rudolf asked her what she was doing. Erna replied that if anything happened to her boy, she was going to kill DeMille.
Fortunately, Schildkraut’s burns were not severe and no murders were required.
The Road to Yesterday is bad. Astoundingly bad. But it is also amusingly bad. There is not a single dull moment in the film. The plot has definite distasteful elements but most of the story is unintentionally hilarious. The movie works when Jack and Bess are allowed to be quirky together but there is not enough of it to save the picture. As I said before, I really wish that their characters had been given their own 100% modern film as William Boyd and Vera Reynolds have excellent chemistry and are adorable together. Plus, the flapper-minister love story is quite fascinating and I wanted to see more.
The Road to Yesterday made $522,000 at the box office. A respectable number but far less than what DeMille’s films at Paramount grossed and just a bit more than the film’s budget of $477,000. Factor in marketing costs and DeMille was left with a significant loss.
DeMille, however, had a few advantages that accounted for his longevity in the movie business: He knew how to pick his battles and he knew when to quit. The historical flashback had served him well for years but now audiences were tired of the device. DeMille quietly retired the narrative conceit.
The next movie DeMille made as an independent filmmaker was a straightforward costume epic called The Volga Boatman. (I reviewed it here.) William Boyd was the solo male lead and the film had a budget of $479,000. This time, DeMille struck gold. Boatman grossed $1.27 million and helped spread the craze for Russian epics. Mr. DeMille was back on top.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★★
Where can I see it?
The Road to Yesterday was released on DVD by Alpha, a budget disc company. It has a fairly good print and a cobbled-together score, though small snippets of footage are missing from the first act. Still, it’s very cheap ($7USD or less from most sources) and will certainly do until a better version comes out.