Kidnapped (1917) A Silent Film Review

David Balfour (Raymond McKee) sets out to claim his inheritance in 18th century Scotland but his greedy uncle has other ideas. One kidnapping later, David finds himself on the run with a Jacobite rebel (Robert Cain). One of those weeks, apparently.

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

Charlie is My Darling

Disclosure: In November of 2017, I launched a Kickstarter to release Kidnapped and the four short films that originally accompanied it on DVD. The campaign was a success and the film is now available to the general public. So, I am not exactly a disinterested party and have the films practically memorized (while authoring the DVD, I had to watch the entire program from beginning to end every time I made even the smallest change in order to check for any flaws). So, please read this review with that fact in mind.

In 1917, the Edison film studio was on its last legs. The attempt to spark a talkie revolution with Kinetophone technology had failed, there had been a nitrate fire and motion pictures had firmly embraced feature films, something Edison and many of the other pioneering studios had failed to anticipate and so they were playing catch-up.

There is a common narrative that Edison’s later films, made long after the glory days of Edwin S. Porter, are not worth bothering to see. I disagree. Edison’s features often showed remarkable ingenuity and at the very least, they were a solid night’s entertainment.

Nothing better than a ship battle on an actual ship.

Kidnapped is the earliest known feature-length adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s popular novel set just after the Jacobite Rebellion. New York and New Jersey locations stand in for Scotland but the Edison team did obtain what was described as an “old brig” and launched it off the coast of Sandy Hook for the nautical scenes.

The plot of Kidnapped involves David Balfour (Raymond McKee, you probably already know him from either Down to the Sea in Ships or Sennett’s Smith Family comedy series) trying to get his inheritance from his Uncle Ebenezer (Joseph Burke playing to the cheap seats). After Ebenezer’s attempt at a MWAHAHA “accident” fails, he decides to hire a ship of brigands to kidnap David and sell him in the Carolinas.

Kidnapped AND forced into a customer service job? The noive!

This plan goes off without a hitch and David finds himself sailing away with the brutal Captain Hoseason (Franklyn Hanna) and his crew of cutthroats. When the cabin boy is murdered by one of the crew in a drunken fit, David is made to take his place, which strikes me as asking rather a lot of a kidnappee.

Of the coast of Scotland, the ship hits a smaller vessel and the sole survivor is Alan Breck (Robert Cain), a Jacobite rebel who is carrying a generous supply of cash. (The Jacobites were the supporters of the descendants of James II, who was dethroned for the crime of exiling Captain Peter Blood… I am informed that I have been getting too much history from the movies. In any case, James II was kicked out, William and Mary replaced him and opened the door to Anne and just a ton of Georges. Charles, who was the grandson of James, tried to disengeorge Britain but was defeated. Kidnapped opens six years after Bonnie Prince Charlie was defeated. End of history nerd stuff. And Captain Blood would be a great double feature with Kidnapped.)

Turns out, they picked the wrong victim.

Hoseason and his men mean to murder Alan for his money but David warns him and, as it turns out, a whole crew of cutthroats is no match for Alan’s sword. David and Alan escape to the shore where they are implicated in an assassination and have to go on the run.

There’s a reason why Kidnapped is still considered to be one of the finest adventure books. It’s an exciting time period, it has colorful characters and Stevenson knew how to keep the action moving. Reviews for this film adaptation had similar praise.

The heroes at odds.

Motion Picture News was enthusiastic for Raymond McKee and Robert Cain’s performances as David Balfour and Alan Breck. “The continuity of the story as picturized is remarkable for its smoothness of action,” the review adds. This may sound like odd praise to modern eyes but this was one of director Alan Crosland’s very first directing jobs, if not his first, and he was just twenty-two at the time. A slick narrative is nothing to sneeze at.

Crosland is probably best remembered for his work in sound; he directed both Don Juan and The Jazz Singer, which were instrumental in popularizing synchronized scores and then talking pictures. Ironic, considering how hard Edison had tried to make talkies stick in 1913.

Nice castle even if it isn’t Scottish.

Crosland also directed The Beloved Rogue, which is remembered as Conrad Veidt’s American debut. While Kidnapped doesn’t have John Barrymore’s antics or a Warner Brothers or United Artists budget, it does have pep, zip and enthusiasm. There are a few errors in cinematography (no light source in the lantern, for example) but many scenes are quite lovely, such as the simple glow of the fireplace and the deep composition as Alan and David witness the assassination.

(whisper) Where is the light coming from?
But I do love that fireplace!
And this shot!

The performances were also praised but I think Burke’s Ebenezer has not aged too well. It’s very stagey and hammy, exactly the sort of thing we are tying to avoid as the go-to example of silent film acting. More appealing are Raymond McKee and Robert Cain as David and Alan. McKee was twenty-five at the time Kidnapped was shot and a member of Edison’s comedy team but he was upgraded to dramatic leading man in a few films released in the Conquest series (more on that in a moment). He’s a good David, who was a serious, dour young fellow in the book and a perfect contrast with the colorful Alan.

David has it out with Ebenezer.

Alan Breck is, of course, the best part in any Kidnapped adaptation. Who could resist playing a character that Stevenson describes thus: “his eyes were unusually light and had a kind of dancing madness in them, that was both engaging and alarming.” Bring on the dancing madness! He was a real-life historical figure but Stevenson’s novel is what brought him lasting fame. The part has been played by such actors as Warner Baxter, Peter Finch and Michael Caine.

I was not familiar with Robert Cain before seeing this film but I liked what was on display. He does seem slightly off-kilter, as any good Alan should be, and he has the action film banter down pat. He obviously understood that he had the best scenes and he makes the most of them.

This film is curious in that it has absolutely no women. The book was also a bit of a stag party but women did make some appearance. This omission was likely to stay in keeping with the family friendly Conquest brand (um, thanks?) but I wonder what they would have done if they had adapted Stevenson’s sequel, Catriona?

The Conquest brand was the brainchild of producer George Kleine, who had made a good living at importing foreign films, particularly Italian epics. The First World War but the kibosh on that particular business and so he entered into contracts to distribute films from various struggling concerns.

Legal entrapment… for the kids!

The idea of a Conquest program was to offer a complete, family-friendly night at the movies with a feature and several short films that were both educational and entertaining. This also allowed Edison to use its older material, repurposed for release under the Conquest label.

Hey, any film that gets kids interested in history is okay by me.

Kidnapped had been initially unveiled earlier in 1917 but was pulled back and reissued as the ninth Conquest Program. It was accompanied by a gladiator comedy (also starring McKee and directed by Crosland), a silhouette version of Little Red Riding Hood, an actuality of Provincetown and a scientific short on microscopic organisms. In all, twelve of these programs were released with the promise that they were “guaranteed censor-proof” and “films for all the family.”

Kleine and Edison kept the budgets relatively low but were clever about their locations to make them look more expensive than they were. The old brig, for example, looks far better than the plastic boat in the bathtub used in the 1960 Disney film and the abundance of castles on the American east coast meant that there was no need to create costly exteriors. (We don’t know for certain but certain features of Ebenezer’s castle make it look like two castles were used and Paterno Castle and Libbey Castle are the frontrunners.)

Libbey Castle with Kidnapped frame superimposed. (Courtesy of Christopher Bird)

Further, snow was free and abundant in the New York and New Jersey areas, so the winter chase scenes look appropriately frigid, though I can’t imagine the gentlemen playing the Jacobite rebels were comfortable in their kilts.

For years, Kidnapped was ignored and even sometime described as a lost film. “Don’t worry,” we were assured, “it cuts out most of the book anyway.” Let that be a lesson to us all about relying on descriptions of lost films. “It doesn’t look like much” is easy to say but there are a thousand and one little details that can elevate a motion picture. Kidnapped has them in abundance, as shown above, but we never would have known without seeing the picture.

Alan? Resort to violence? Never!

As for cutting most of the book, this is actually a pretty faithful adaptation. Streamlined, certainly, but most of the main plot points are present. The main change is the removal of any ambiguity as to whether Alan was involved in the assassination of Colin Campbell of Glenure, which is known in history books as the Appin Murder. The real Alan Breck was considered the prime suspect but that would hardly do for a film series aimed at families, would it?

(By the way, you can read a public domain edition of Kidnapped for free here and I recommend the audiobook narrated by Kieron Elliott as well.)

We can all use more powdered wigs in our lives.

Kidnapped is not a lost masterpiece but it is a perfectly solid little swashbuckler and I enjoyed myself thoroughly. The acting is good, the production team made the most of their budget and fun is had by all. What more could anyone ask for in a family adventure film?

(I could do a Silents vs. Talkies with other versions of Kidnapped but I kind of want this one to have some time in the spotlight after a century, y’know?)

I hope you will indulge me a bit with some behind-the-scenes information on this release.

How did I get involved? Well, it started, oddly enough, with some mushroom soup. I had made a particularly odd soup recipe from Francis X. Bushman that used tapioca pearls as a thickener. I was stuck with almost an entire bag of tapioca and wanted to find another celebrity recipe that included it as an ingredient. I stumbled across Robert Cain’s tapioca wine soup (!) but wanted to know a little more about the man. A quick skim of his filmography later, one title jumped out at me: Kidnapped.

The novel by Robert Louis Stevenson is one of my favorites and I have seen several film adaptations (though not all by any means). I love being able to combine things I love and so I checked to see if it was still surviving. It was! And it was in the collection of the Library of Congress with no donor restrictions. (While a film may be in the public domain, a donor can still restrict access to the physical print. It’s like if I tell someone that they can’t borrow my copy of Star Wars. I’m not denying access as a copyright holder but as the owner of that particular copy.)

I was getting pretty excited at that point because I had been dying to get involved with a crowdfunded release but hadn’t found a likely prospect. Then I noticed that the ads for Kidnapped all mentioned the Conquest Program and I saw that the Library of Congress also help copies of all four short films. Would anyone else find that as intriguing as I did? I put out some feelers and everyone seemed enthusiastic.

And that, dear friends, is how I ended up with four feet of DVDs in my living room this summer.

Pretty darn good, if you ask me.

Due to fire safety concerns (well-founded, by the way), all of the nitrate in the George Kleine Collection was transferred to 16mm safety film in the 1950s. While not ideal, it did preserve the movies and I would rather have 16mm Cleopatra, London After Midnight and The Divine Woman than what we have now: fragments. These prints lack the depth of a 35mm original but are quite serviceable, especially with the fine job the Library on Congress did in transferring them. (Can we get a quick round of applause for the wonderful folks at the Library? They do amazing work and are so generous with their expertise.)

The dark tower wouldn’t be nearly so dark without the blue.

The safety film was black and white, which meant the original tinting scheme was lost, if it the originals were indeed tinted. Reinstating tints is controversial but I decided to do it because it is highly likely that the originals were tinted (most silent films of the period were) and there were day-for-night shots in Kidnapped that would have been distracting without a blue tint. (Whenever you see a day-for-night shot in a silent film, it was almost certainly meant to be tinted or toned.) Christopher Bird, who edited the films and knows a ton about tints, was able to replicate the colors of real tinted nitrate from the same period.

(Tell him we can see him in the back)

Finally, Ben Model composed a beautiful piano score for the picture. A proper score is the one ingredient that is non-negotiable in a silent film release, at least for me. Good music elevates a so-so film and makes good and great films even more enjoyable. As Irving Thalberg once put it: “There never was a silent film. We’d finish a picture, show it in our projection room and come out shattered. It was awful. Then we’d show it in a theatre, with a girl down in the pit pounding away at a piano, and it would make all the difference in the world. Without music there wouldn’t have been a film industry at all.”

These movies were designed for music and music they shall have if I have anything to say about it. (Obviously, this is the single least controversial opinion I have ever voiced but there are actually some people who prefer no music at all. Each to their own, of course, but make mine music.)

Welcome back, Kidnapped.

Kidnapped is a perfectly solid programmer, the kind of picture that would have delighted families 101 years ago. We’re fortunate to have it and I was fortunate to be able to release with the help of over 300 other silent film fans. For the first time in over a century, the general public can enjoy this film and that’s a cause for celebration.

Where can I see it?

Kidnapped was released on DVD by… (checks notes) Movies Silently. It is accompanied by all four short films that were released with it in 1917 and has newly-composed piano scores by Ben Model. (They’re really, really good!)

The Kickstarter backer package included a booklet but as I released the film through CreateSpace, which doesn’t support booklets, I ended up including most of that information in this review.

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9 Replies to “Kidnapped (1917) A Silent Film Review”

  1. LOVED last evening’s MS live tweet of Kidnapped plus all the shorts! Wasn’t home for the live version (neighbors’ weekly card game), but read it all this afternoon and so enjoyed it. Big thanks once again to Movies Silently, Christopher Bird, Ben Model, and any and all involved 😀

  2. After following your posts on the release of Kidnapped and learning it was now available I ordered it from Amazon and am waiting for it to arrive later this week. Kidnapped is one of my favorite books as well.

  3. Thank you for another thorough review. I will definitely have to check this out.
    I’m currently watching disc 4 from “Edison: The invention of the Movies”. I have a new found respect for what was done by the Edison co.
    I also could not agree more about music with silents. It IS the difference.

  4. Speaking of the realism of filming on the Kidnapped “brig”…they may not be brigantines (two masted ships), but a couple of three masted ships (of course replicas) from the 1780s come to our harbor every year and stay for a couple of weeks. They tour each year up and down the California coast.

    The Lady Washington and the Hawaiian Chieftain stage several mock battles out in our bay. All can tour them when they’re in harbor every day. Both are so similar to the layout of the Kidnapped brig (!).

    Wonderful to be on the ships both in harbor and during these mock battles, though for the battles earplugs strongly recommended 😉

    https://www.historicalseaport.org

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