After a stint in prison, Elmer Booth returns home to the loving arms of his wife, Mary Pickford. However, the eyes of the law are still on him and his old prison buddy just may want to start a tiny, itsy-bitsy counterfeit money operation. Will our hero stick to the narrow road?
This is my contribution to the What a Character Blogathon. Be sure to read the other entries!
I was framed, see?
Exactly one century ago in June, the American motion picture industry lost one of its finest and most promising character actors.
It was early morning in Los Angeles when an automobile carrying three members of the film industry hurtled through the fog and struck a streetcar. The driver, Tod Browning, broke his left leg and sustained internal injuries. Passenger George Siegmann, fresh off his success as the blackface villain of The Birth of a Nation, broke four ribs. The second passenger, Elmer Booth, was killed.
Browning went on to have a successful collaboration with Lon Chaney and become one of the legends of American horror. Siegmann continued to work as a character actor, often playing villains. Had Booth lived, he might have become one of the greatest gangsters the screen had ever known.
(Note that the newspaper clipping states that both Siegmann and Browning “will probably die.” I do love the classy way journalists used to report these things.)
Booth’s reputation rests on his charismatic turn as the Snapper Kid, a tough but lovable criminal who tries and fails to win over Lillian Gish’s good girl character in D.W. Griffith’s 1912 film The Musketeers of Pig Alley. However, it was not his first time playing a man on the wrong side of the law.
Today, we are going to be looking at a more obscure Booth title. It’s directed by Griffith with Mary Pickford as the leading lady. Once again, Booth is a bad boy who loves a good girl. This time, however, the love is requited. The overall theme of the picture is reformation, a popular topic in literature and films of the period. Can a criminal go straight or is he naturally doomed to a life of crime?
A young wife (Mary Pickford) stands outside the walls of a nearby prison, something that seems to be her custom. Inside, her husband (Elmer Booth) is serving a stretch but will soon be released. However, it is clear that prison has not dampened his cocky attitude. His buddy, a counterfeiter (Charles Hill Mailes), is being released at the same time but fully intends to return to his old profession.
(Like so many silent films of this period, The Narrow Road does not name its characters. Therefore, I will be referring to them by the names of the actors who play them.)
Mary is anxious for Elmer to get a proper job and live an honest life. He gets a job to please her but is clearly conflicted. Meanwhile, Charles has set up his counterfeiting operation using a suitcase-size kit. Things take a serious turn when the police catch on to the funny money and track Charles down. In a panic, he runs to Elmer and gives him the counterfeiting kit. (With friends like these…)
Elmer hides it in his bed much to Mary’s horror and they both panic when the police show up. However, a pair of hobos conveniently picked that minute to break in and steal what they think is a suitcase full of valuables. So thanks to this deus ex machina (hobo ex machina?), Elmer is safe and vows to stay on the straight and narrow forever and ever. To prove this point, he is shown returning a wallet to its owner.
I dunno. I have a feeling that Elmer will not be able to resist the excitement of crime, especially once the scare of his close call wears off. This guy was born to be bad. Well, bad-ish.
Mary Pickford’s role is severely underwritten. She is the loyal little housewife, the sort of woman whose only mission in life is to turn Elmer Booth or William S. Hart antiheroes to the side of truth, justice and the American way. It’s very difficult to play a saint and Pickford does not seem particularly interested in trying. I don’t blame her.
Booth, however, is given lots of juicy stuff to work with and he tucks in with great vigor. His character is a nice fellow but he’s mouthy to cops and prison guards and just plain insolent when he is feeling grumpy. The film is short on close-ups (as was typical for American films of the period) but he manages to convey everything with a few grins and scowls. What a great character actor!
This film neatly predates The Musketeers of Pig Alley by a few months, which is significant as Musketeers is often billed as the first gangster picture. If that’s the case, what, pray tell, is The Black Hand (1906)? And that’s just off the top of my head.
Don’t get me wrong, D.W. Griffith is an important American director but why the heck to we have to steal credit from other movie pioneers to honor him? If a director’s reputation can’t stand on his or her own work, maybe it’s time to reexamine their legacy.
(If you want to argue that The Black Hand was a mafia movie and not a gangster movie, all I can say is that you are a very tedious person and I don’t want to talk to you. In short, same difference. It’s like saying that a movie is not a comedy, it’s a satirical comedy. And if you want to argue that Musketeers is the first because it was the first charismatic gangster, you’re just moving the goalposts. No one mentions charisma when they call it the first gangster film. If it makes you feel better, I do believe it is the first gangster film with a charismatic lead that starred both Lillian Gish and Elmer Booth with Harry Carey’s mascara in a supporting role. Happy now?)
As stated before, reformation melodramas were very stylish during this period in film history. Progressive ideas were starting to replace ruthless Victorianism and movies naturally followed the trend. However, this picture does not really work in the reformation melodrama category as we are never fully convinced that Elmer Booth’s naughty days are behind him.
Booth had played heroes (he was the Gish sisters’ concerned older brother in their debut film, The Unseen Enemy) but criminals were really what brought out his best. In fact, it’s possible that Booth’s successful performance in this role inspired the creation of The Musketeers of Pig Alley. The Narrow Road even works as a prequel to Musketeers, if you want to believe that Elmer fell off the straight and narrow path and returned to his wild ways, forcing Mary to kick him out once and for all. Or maybe it is a sequel, with the Snapper Kid finally finding the perfect good girl.
Booth is constantly compared to James Cagney. The two men had a slight physical resemblance but it’s really more of the cocky attitude, the bratty grin, the obvious joy in causing mischief or mayhem—never mind which. In fact, had Booth survived, I think he would have done well as Cagney’s older brother, mentor or some other role that took advantage of the resemblance. He certainly would have benefited from the gangster craze that swept the movies in the mid- to late-twenties and into the thirties.
While The Narrow Road is not as compelling as The Musketeers of Pig Alley, it does show that Booth’s performance was not a fluke; he is just as charismatic and appealing in this lesser-known role. Fans of the Snapper Kid will definitely want to track it down.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★½
Where can I see it?
The Narrow Road was released on DVD as part of the Origins of Film box set. Alas, this set has fallen out of print. A real shame as it contained some gems.