A wastrel son uses up his own money and so he forges his mother’s signature to get more. However, the family portrait gallery comes to life and the figures take turns berating their descendant for sullying the clan crest.
And you thought your family was weird…
The Edison motion picture company has the reputation of always being a day late and a dollar short with film technique. While this is a gross oversimplification (Edison directors from Edwin S. Porter to John Collins were doing smashing things), there is a grain of truth to the accusation.
An Unsullied Shield was directed by Charles Brabin, a transplanted Liverpudlian who is best remembered today for directing the kinky 1932 pre-Code The Mask of Fu Manchu and for being Mr. Theda Bara. He was also the director of the 1925 Ben-Hur before the first purge. (Oh, there were multiple purges. There was basically a whole game of thrones going on behind the scenes.) Finally, he directed Colleen Moore in the film she would name as her favorite: So Big. Alas, we cannot say whether or not Brabin’s direction was up to snuff as the movie is missing and presumed lost. (Attics, check them, etc. etc. etc.) Brabin did have hits in the meantime, obviously, but he has always been a bit meh for me.
The story opens with the death of the Duke (Wadsworth Harris), whose final words are aimed at his only son: “Be worthy of your name.” The son is played by Marc McDermott, whose career continued until his death in 1929. He excelled in playing posh jerks and you can spot him at work in films like The Sea Hawk and He Who Gets Slapped.
The son immediately sets about squandering his inheritance on wine, parties and apache dancers. Then a money lender shows up and demands to be paid what he is owed. If the son fails to cough up the cash, he will be exposed as a wastrel. Panicked, he forges his mother’s (Mrs. Wallace Erskine) name on a check but falls asleep in the family gallery before he can do anything with it.
One by one, the portraits in the gallery come to life, step down from their frames and berate their descendent for his unworthy behavior. The Warrior (Walter Edwin) fought for the family name, the Admiral (Herbert Prior) left no blot on the name, which doesn’t seem like much of a brag, and the Statesman (Augustus Phillips) claims he left the name untarnished. Again, not terribly impressive. The first dude bled! I expect a little more effort on the ancestral front. (And no ancestresses? And not a dud in the whole lot? Of course, the duds probably didn’t get portraits.)
This is enough to cure the wastrel of his wicked ways. He confesses all to mom, who forgives him and agrees to pay his debts. A happy ending for all! At least until the son develops another taste for apache dancers…
Brabin had been directing for almost exactly a year when An Unsullied Shield was released but that’s, like, five in silent movie years. Films were made at such a rapid clip that film personnel could have dozens of credits to their names in the space of a single year. Brabin had fourteen confirmed films under his belt as director but, frankly, you would never know it from An Unsullied Shield.
Let’s start with the positive: the double exposure stuff is nice. The ancestors step down from their frames in turn and then show their descendant their great accomplishments via cosmic big screen. It’s smooth and the flashbacks are suitably lavish.
Moving on to nerdier pastures, this is the earliest film I have viewed in which paintings in a gallery come to life and take an active role in the film’s plot as something other than just comedy or novelty figures. (Brabin is also the credited screenwriter.)
I know I’m being very specific but it’s a very specific trope. The device has been used off and on for decades with That Lady in Ermine (1947) being one of the more famous examples. (By the way, I consider that film to be highly underrated. Yes, I know Betty Grable considered it her worst but this is Betty Grable we’re talking about. Up is down, down is up, cats and dogs live together.)
Living paintings were a common feature in early film but their main function was comedic and usually involved wacky gags. Edison produced An Artist’s Dream in 1900 in which an artist attempts to flirt with and attack his creations when they step out of their frames and Lubin made The Living Posters in 1903. And, of course, Georges Méliès made several of these films, as well as a 1900 film involving storybook characters emerging from their pages. My favorite Méliès film on this subject is his 1906 short The Hilarious Posters, in which the advertisements engage in a raucous brawl and finally escape their paper prison.
(For further information on this gag, I highly recommend The Funny Parts: A History of Film Comedy Routines and Gags by Anthony Balducci.)
There was a rather icky 1908 Lux comedy called Posthumous Jealousy about a dead husband’s portrait driving away his widow’s suitor with practical jokes but that strikes me as more of a ghost story with the picture being used as a visual cue. We can’t expect too much nuance in 194 feet of film.
(Please do share any other silent examples of the “portrait gallery takes part in the film’s plot” trope that you might know of. I find the topic fascinating.)
And now for the bad news: Brabin’s direction is as dry as toast. Now the unchained camera and more sophisticated cutting were still on the horizon but the dramatic closeup or, heck, even a medium shot was well within the ability of a director of 1913. I know it’s my go-to example but compare the visual sophistication and experimentation of Suspense (1913) from Lois Weber. Or, if you want more of an apples to apples comparison, Leonce Perret’s The Mystery of the Rocks of Kador (1912). Even Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life (1913) from Keystone (Keystone!) shows more refinement and a better grasp of basic film grammar.
I suppose Brabin does deserve credit for making the portrait gallery scene look like one long shot but it doesn’t really serve much of a story purpose and I would have gladly traded it for more visual interest and maybe a better look at our main character’s face as he is shamed by his ancestors.
The acting is rather stagey as well and McDermott leaves no piece of scenery unchewed. Tragic poses abound! Oh, the horror! (Faints on brocade couch.) In short, this film could easily be mistaken for a production of the 1900s and I keep having to remind myself that this was made the same year as Fantomas.
The story is also a bit, well, snobby. I mean, the whole thrust of the tale is that our wastrel’s ancestors are too good to have an embezzler as a descendant. So if he was descended from thieves and brigands, stealing from his mommy would be okay? It’s what one would expect from someone of low breeding? The law only applies to people with appropriately blue blood? I mean, I get what Brabin was trying to say but I don’t think he considered the implications.
An Unsullied Shield is interesting for its plot and its effects but the picture in general is stiff and dull. I don’t really recommend watching it unless you’re really into the living portrait thing.
Where can I see it?
An Unsullied Shield was released on DVD as part of Kino Lorber’s Edison: The Invention of the Movies set. This set is splendid for anyone interested in the evolution of American cinema from its earliest days. (I wish something similar would be released for Biograph, Vitagraph, Lubin, Kalem and Essanay.)
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