Madge Bellamy plays a circus performer who escapes from her evil step-father into the Canadian wilderness by riding away on her slang-talkin’ elephant named Oscar when the big top is blown down in a freak storm. Once free, she is mistaken for the antichrist and subsequently enslaved by a French-speaking café owner who forces her to pluck geese but everything is okay because she falls for a handsome violinist with only one good foot and a pet rabbit named Napoleon. As one does.
Pink elephants on parade.
People sometimes ask me why I love silent movies so much. My first answer is the fresh and exciting selection of films, many unseen since their original release. But the secondary reason? Because some silent movies are so insane that they need to be seen two or three times just to soak in all the madness.
The Soul of the Beast is one of those films. It stars Madge Bellamy, yet another major silent star who has been all but forgotten. Of course, in all fairness, most people see her in the painfully dull Lorna Doone and that film isn’t a good showcase for anything but Maurice Tourneur’s admittedly stunning cinematography.
For better or worse, Bellamy is front and center in this film, along with her elephant. She plays Ruth, a girl born and raised in the circus with an evil ringmaster step-father, of course. (It is a well-established fact that all silent movie circus owners are at least icky and probably malevolent.) Silas Hamm (Bert Sprotte) is the wicked step-father in question and he works poor little Ruth and her elephant, Oscar, to death.
Tensions boil over while the circus is in the wilds of Canada. The rest of the circus may be afraid of Hamm but the “Wild Girl” most certainly is not. An African-American woman from Mississippi, her act consists of wearing skins, eating raw meat and growling. (This combined with her dialect title cards and the fact that she is the only “speaking” character who is uncredited… Yeah, weird racial nonsense once again. Thank you, 1920s.) While every other performer eats the horrible food that Hamm serves for supper, the Wild Girl refuses to eat his nasty meal or take his nasty attitude and quits the job then and there.
This leaves Hamm in the soup (hee hee) because the Wild Girl act is the biggest draw next to Ruth and Oscar. He decides to solve the problem by having Ruth do the Wild Girl act before her own performance. And so Ruth is locked in a cage wearing animal skins (Do I need to mention that Cecil B. DeMille loved this picture?) and this is a problem as circus movies are never complete without a hurricane or fire sweeping through the tents. The writers flipped a coin and chose the hurricane because, presumably, Canada.
Ruth is trapped and in peril but Oscar comes to the rescue, breaking her out of the cage. The pair escape together into the Canadian wilderness.
Silas Hamm wants his biggest act back but he has no idea where to find them. Ruth doesn’t know where she is either but tries to be friendly. Her efforts are hampered by her outlandish costume and by Oscar. He eats an entire haystack and when a farming family comes out to investigate, they decide that Ruth and Oscar are the antichrist and throw rocks at them.
(Writing staff: One tequila, two tequila, three tequila, floor!)
Now it’s time to meet our hero and villain. Paul (Cullen Landis) is a violinist with one good foot and a white rabbit named Napoleon. Noah Beery is Caesar, the local bully who has decided that Paul owes him money. (Both characters are French-speaking Canadians with Pepé Le Pew dialect title cards to match. Hoo boy.)
Paul decides that discretion is the better part of valor and hightails it out of town with Napoleon. Naturally, he falls into a bear trap (sad sack that he is) but is immediately rescued by Ruth and Oscar. As Ruth flirts with Paul, Oscar meets a skunk and hightails it. Ruth chases after him and runs into Caesar, who decides she is an animal and opts to sell her for her fur. (Caesar failed third grade biology.)
Ruth’s pelt isn’t so good but she is given to the local innkeeper as a kitchen helper, which leads me to wonder whether or not slavery is illegal in Canada. Can you just grab someone from the woods and make them wash dishes? Is this a Canadian custom? Also, the French-speaking locals call Ruth “Root” because… I don’t know. Nothing surprises me with this movie.
As you can see, Oscar is pretty much treated as a pachyderm ex machina for most of the film and he has spent all this time looking for Ruth. Oscar may be a fine performer but he is just terrible at tracking. Meanwhile, Paul and Ruth continue their strange courtship. He plays the violin at the inn, you see, but it never occurs to him to call a Mountie. “Hello, the local inn is keeping a woman prisoner and forcing her to wash dishes.”
And then halfway through the picture, what do you think happens? The movie suddenly decides that animals can talk! And in twenties slang, yet! I suppose you could argue that this is a Garfield situation where animals have their own language/thought bubbles but the humans in the cast do seem to react to the animals’ title cards as though they understand them. So there’s that. Later, birds sing with cartoon musical notes sprouting out of their mouths. Why do I get the feeling that the entire crew was indulging in recreational pharmaceuticals?
While this is often described as a family film, I would never dream of showing it to young viewers. The movie, having established that animals can talk, decides to add a little Titus Andronicus to the plot. Around the late second act, Caesar shoots Paul’s pet rabbit, has Ruth cook it and then he serves it to its former master. When Paul realizes just who the rabbit is, Caesar beats Paul and forces the meat of his former pet down his throat. You know, for the kids, who will not find this to be at all disturbing, especially since it has been established that animals are fully sentient and capable of speech.
The performances are… there. I mean, with all this nuttiness, I am not sure that anyone would know how to give a performance. Bellamy is cute enough, though her hippity-skippity routine does seem forced at points. Landis is kind of dull and Noah Beery does his standard Beery™ bully/slob stuff. Our elephant hero is very cute and in her memoirs, A Darling of the Twenties, Bellamy wrote that her former co-star trumpeted for joy every time she came to visit the Los Angeles Zoo. Finally, in spite of her brief time on the screen and her dialect title cards, I thought the actress playing the Wild Girl was likable and would have actually preferred a movie about her.
Let’s face it, though, we’re not watching this movie for the actors, we’re watching it to see how much nuttier it can get before the end. And the answer to that is very, very, very, very much nuttier. The real stars of the show are Ralph Dixon and C. Gardner Sullivan, who seem to have written the thing with considerable assistance from a Mr. Jack Daniels and a Comrade Smirnoff.
The Soul of the Beast is as weird as weird can be but it does have uniqueness in its favor. I am fairly certain that you have never seen Noah Beery nearly drowned by a talking elephant. So there’s that. Get a copy and watch it if you want something that makes you go, “Huh?!?!?!”
Movies Silently’s Score: ★½
Where can I see it?
My copy is an out-of-print edition from Sunrise Silents. Grapevine Video has released a version, which I have not yet seen but it should be a similar product to the Sunrise release.