Lost Film Files #25: The Abysmal Brute (1923)

Status: Missing and presumed lost.

Every lost film is a tragedy but some hit your gut worse than others. The Abysmal Brute is one of those movies that makes me want to cry. True, it’s a boxing film and I am not a fan of the sport but it also has my beloved Reginald Denny (who was a the champion heavyweight boxer of his brigade during the first world war) and it boasts of some gushing reviews.

While The Abysmal Brute is a straightforward drama, its star is best remembered for his comedic roles. Denny’s career as the champion of witty suburban comedies was damaged by sound. As an Englishman playing extremely American parts, he found himself in need of a career change once his accent could be heard. Denny continued on in character roles and was disarmingly modest when his brilliant silent comedies were rediscovered. (You can read Kevin Brownlow’s interview with the ever-charming Denny in the classic The Parade’s Gone By…)

The rather silly title for this film is taken from its source material, a 1911 novella by the famous Jack London. London’s tales were ideally suited to the outdoorsy and gritty world of silent film and his novels and stories were adapted numerous times. (The Abysmal Brute is in the public domain and may be read online for free.)

Photoplay was ecstatic and lavished praise on the picture:

This is the story of a boy who was raised, by his ex-prize fighting father, to be a champion. A woman-shy young man with a wallop in his right fist and a come-hither in his eye. When he falls in love he falls hard — though the object of his affection is the daughter of a rich man and something of a social light herself. The boy, despite his lack of polish, is both a gentleman and a real person. He proves it by winning the girl without sacrificing the career that was planned for him. The picture was taken from a yarn by Jack London — and the characters are all drawn so well that they might have stepped from the original manuscript. Reginald Denny makes a hero who is both manly and appealing. And Hobart Henley’s direction is practically flawless. This is a picture for everybody.

The trade journal Motion Picture News was equally enthused, encouraging theater owners to book the film immediately.

A genuinely human document of the prize-ring which carries a most realistic atmosphere and picturesque incident and which gets under the skin because of its life- like plot and characterization is “The Abysmal Brute,” founded upon Jack London’s story of the same name. There is something about tales of the roped arena which fascinate the spectator. For one thing they are usually rich in local color and present real adventure and a spark of romance which account for their popularity.

Hobart Henlev has never given the screen a more entertaining subject than this, his latest effort. He has caught the true psychology of the character who is reared among the California hills to become a prize- fighter like his father before him and who, coming down to Frisco, finds adventure, romance and success awaiting him. There are no gaps here — no convenient touches added to give it a ” kick.” This quality it has in abundance without any recourse being made toward the lengthy arm of coincidence. It may be a trifle long and there are some sequences which if shortened would quicken the action and heighten its appeal.

“The Abysmal Brute” is mostly a character study of a shy mountain youth whose modesty makes him his own worst enemy. He is afraid of the opposite sex but still he obeys his father’s advice — ” If you love a girl, don’t give up ’til you have won her!” So he is thrust into a strange world — the world of society, this uncouth pugilist. He is ashamed of his profession and the girl doesn’t learn of his association with the manly art until he has conquered her heart. Yet his sincerity has brought such a deep appreciation that she doesn’t waver except for a brief instant. Then his courage and determination to conquer her, for he applies cave- man tactics. This is the story in a nutshell — a story punctuated with considerable by-play as it concerns the prize-ring.

Henley’s atmosphere and incident are exceptionally good. And his scene when the youth calls on the girl, unannounced, is a gem. The guests are in evening dress and their table manners are perfect, yet they do not become Ritzy before the boy. Who could be a better choice for the title role than Reginald Denny, the actor that made the “Leather Pusher” tales so entertaining? He gives his best performance here, acting in character throughout every scene. Some of the Latin favorites had better watch this fellow Denny. He is stealing some of their thunder. A capital picture, capitally staged, directed and acted. A fine box-office attraction. Get it quick.

Such hearty praise was echoed by the newspapers of the day:

Are you starting to see why I am so anxious for this film to be found? I realize that tastes change and that contemporary critics can be wrong but Reginald Denny has rarely failed to please and it sounds like this story is right up his alley.

And the advertisements for the film are quite amusing in their breathless promises of passion, strength and brute force.

Makes it sound rather like a bad romance novel, no? Well, I am still confident that Denny can save the day!

Even if he doesn’t, this promises to be amusing.

As usual, check those vaults and attics!

Lost Film Files #24: Red Hot Romance (1922)


Red Hot Romance (1922)

Status: Fragments survive in the Library of Congress

Today, I will be featuring a forgotten film that is most notable for who was behind the camera. Victor “Gone With the Wind and Wizard of Oz” Fleming directed. Anita Loos and John Emerson wrote the script. The film was praised for its wit but has been overlooked in the years since its release. (Anita Loos is best remembered today as the author of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes but she had been involved with the motion picture industry since the pre-feature era, selling her first screen scenarios to Biograph studios to be filmed by D.W. Griffith.)

The scenario was originally meant as a vehicle for Douglas Fairbanks before being shelved, according to Picture-Play Magazine’s review:


There is no doubt about the burlesque in this picture, however, and very amusing burlesque it is, too. They do say that the play of this jazzed melodrama was once written seriously for Douglas Fairbanks. But it got shelved somehow and “years later,” as the subtitles”‘ say, John Emerson and Anita Loos got hold of it. What “The Tavern” is to the inn melodramas and what “Captain Applejack” is to the pirate yarns, this tale is to the “Graustark” school of romance where the clean-cut specimen of American man- hood gets stuck in a hostile little island and proceeds to show how superior he is to any other kind of hero. This kingdom’s name is “Bunkonia,” which gives you an idea of the plot. Needless to say it is carried over chiefly by the glorious titles of Miss Loos.

And here is a small profile from the same magazine. It describes the story as clever. Please note that Miss Loos was in fact 34 when the story was published.


She is coauthor and co-everything with her husband, John Emerson, of one of the cleverest pictures of the year, “Red Hot Romance.”

Photoplay was enthused about the film:


A sure fire hit if there ever was one. This remarkable combination of keen edged satire and sure-fire melodrama, which was written and produced by the indefatigable team of John Emerson and Anita Loos, is described by them as “a tale of young love and old hokum.”

The description is about as descriptive as it is possible for any description to be. For “Red Hot Romance” is a remarkably good burlesque of a ham film. So effective is it, that there are moments when even the most cynical and sophisticated observer will be tempted to rise out of his orchestra chair and cheer. The hero (like all heroes) is a young American who is pining for romantic adventure. The heroine (like all heroines) is a high bred American girl, who is yearning for love. The plot’s laid in South America. The leading parts are well handled by Basil Sidney and May Collins, and the entire cast enters into the spirit.


Loos and Emerson describe the story in their 1921 book Breaking into the Movies:

“Red Hot Romance” is played as a romantic melodrama, but is intended as a satire upon this very type of story, with its incredibly heroic hero, its American girl, its marines-to-the-rescue and all the rest of it.


If you are curious about the story, the book also includes the complete scenario! Nice!

It looks like quite a silly affair with characters named things like Senor Frijole, Madam Puloff de Plotz and Lord Howe-Green.

Attics. Check ’em!


Lost Film Files #23: Burning Sands (1922)


Burning Sands (1922)

Status: Missing and presumed lost

Another day, another sheik film. It seems that even my beloved Milton Sills was not spared the indignity of appearing in one of these things. Burning Sands was billed as “The Sheik for men” and shared both director and filming locations with its predecessor.

(To tell the truth, these overblown desert romances are my guilty pleasure. They’re dreadful but I can’t seem to get enough!)

Oh, Milton, Milton, Milton, what have you gotten yourself into?
Oh, Milton, Milton, Milton, what have you gotten yourself into?

Mr. Sills was supported by two DeMille actresses: Wanda Hawley (a DeMille discovery best remembered today for her major role in The Affairs of Anatol) and Jacqueline Logan (who was Mary Magdalene in King of Kings). The talented Louise Dresser is also on hand as the genial best friend-type.

Much was made of the movie’s Oxnard filming location.

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Motion Picture Magazine acted as though Oxnard was on par with camping in the Sahara. I actually rather like Oxnard and I have to say that I would infinitely prefer camping there to pitching a tent in the Sahara.

Well, warm sands anyway. (click to enlarge)
Well, warm sands anyway. (click to enlarge)

But how did the movie fare once the critics got their paws on it? Not too well, I’m afraid.

Photoplay kept things short and not-so-sweet:

In other words, hot dirt! Of “The Sheik” school, and made by the same director — George Melford — who started the fashion in desert love, hate and passion. The cast is fairly good — Jacqueline Logan, Wanda Hawley, Milton Sills — and the sets have the east of Suez look. But audiences arc beginning to tire of a conventional story in the midst of tribal feuds and sand storms and camels — especially camels!

Hey! What did camels ever do to them?

An embrace or the Heimlich gone wrong? You decide!
An embrace or the Heimlich gone wrong? You decide!

Motion Picture Magazine was less succinct but equally dismissive:

burning-sands-1922-milton-sills-09It’s the same old story of the desert with its caravan and the exiled English- man which confronts the spectator in “Burning Sands.” There is no variation in this formula which, now that Valentino has made it popular, is brought forth from its cubby-hole in the filing cabinet marked “B.” The Valentinoritas will miss their favorite here. In his place is Milton Sills trying to appear as convincing as possible under the burden of carrying on the heroic virtues. He is awfully manly, is Milton here — a figure too good to be true. Would you know the plot? Well the spoiled darling of society is charmed by the Englishman’s colorful tan and wardrobe. Being so far away from Hyde Park she has time to realize that the time and the place are in order when one is looking for romance. There is no story interest because the idea is too trite and the development brings forth all its stupidity. George Melford directed the picture. He also directed “The Sheik.” Therefore his sands, palm trees, caravans et al. are entirely appropriate. It’s a favorite recipe — this story. Consequently it will be produced ’til the sands of the desert grow cold.

I don’t know… It actually sounds like an amazing kitsch-fest to me. And I am always up for Milton Sills doing manly things in a manly fashion, manly man that he is.

For men!
For men!

Researching the film led me on a little tangent that I would like to share:

Wanda Hawley, the leading lady of the picture, is quite a fascinating and elusive figure. She enjoyed some measure of popularity in the late ‘teens and early twenties but had no screen credits past 1932. Predictably, her IMDB profile states that her career ended with the coming of sound. Since I find that these statements are almost always incorrect, I decided to do a little digging.

Whatever happened to Wanda Hawley?
Whatever happened to Wanda Hawley?

Miss Hawley did indeed work steadily through 1926, only made one film 1927 and one in 1929. On the surface it looks like sound is the culprit but not so fast! Take a closer look at her screen credits and you will see that she was employed with Famous Players-Lasky/Paramount until 1923. From that year forward, she jumped from studio to studio. By the mid-twenties, she was appearing in poverty row productions. Oh, and that pivotal year of 1927? It’s important to remember that the film that brought on the talkie revolution, The Jazz Singer, was not released until early October of that year. That leaves three-quarters of the year when silents reigned supreme. Anyway, Wanda’s 1927 release was actually filmed in 1926.

So, talkies were not the culprit. What was?

Marketing material for Burning Sands featured Miss Hawley prominently. Here is the tie-in sheet music.
Marketing material for Burning Sands featured Miss Hawley prominently. Here is the tie-in sheet music.

Well, I did a little detective work. Miss Hawley was barely mentioned in fan magazines after she left Paramount. At first, I thought she may have been pushed out but that was not the case. Wanda was apparently tired of playing adorable ditzes and felt that she had a chance at better roles if she struck out on her own. This change of employment coincided with her divorce from Allen Burton Hawley. Mr. Hawley claimed that he would “astound the movie fans of America” with his revelations about his wife.

Wanda also took work with foreign studios during this period, including another sheik film shot in Cairo. There is a small item on her Egyptian working vacation in 1923:

How many different nationalities and races can we offend with one clipping? Let's find out!
How many different nationalities and races can we offend with one clipping? Let’s find out!

Bashing your host country? Charming. (That is, if she wrote this little quip herself. One always wonders with fan magazines.)

She appears in an ad or two and is listed in film casts but is pretty well ignored by the press. Some loyal readers of Photoplay noticed this and called attention to it:

Wanda's fan is also an outspoken Valentino hater.
Wanda’s fan is also an outspoken Valentino hater.

Then I came across this item in a 1924 issue of Photoplay:

Wanda before and after.
Wanda before and after.

Weight issues are not the sole province of modern actress. Silent leading ladies were also judged by the numbers on the scale. However, our silent starlet lost the weight and looked svelte.

On to 1925! Where is Wanda? Still mentioned as “appearing in” but definitely not getting the star treatment. Then I found a little offhand mention in the gossip department by Cal York. It seems that while at Paramount Miss Hawley had put on airs and annoyed at least one reporter.

Wanda was not well liked by Mr. York, methinks.
Wanda was not well liked by Mr. York, methinks.

Wanda Hawley annoyed this gentleman of the press, it seems. Of course, one must take this opinion with a grain of salt as Mr. York mentions Mary Miles Minter’s faltering career in the same breath. And we all know that the cause MMM’s downfall was considerably more dramatic than simply acting the duchess. However, this description of Wanda was echoed by her niece, who was interviewed by Michael G. Ankerich for his book Dangerous Curves Atop Hollywood Heels.

By 1927, Wanda Hawley’s career was being described in the past tense. Her saccharine comedies were blamed but the semi-scandalous divorce could not have helped her case.

Wanda Hawley, Movie Star is no more.
Wanda Hawley, Movie Star is no more.

It is important to remember that movie careers moved much faster in the silent era. Performers could potentially put out dozens of films in a single year and my estimate is that most mid-level stars would release between four and ten pictures a year. Big stars had the luxury of giving their productions more time but contract players like Wanda Hawley had very little control over their own destiny. With so many films in production at once… Well, downfalls were sped up too. A star may be popular but a few bombs in a row and they would be shown the door.

Wanda's career did not survive the rampant silliness.
Wanda’s career did not survive the rampant silliness.

Sound had nothing to do with Wanda Hawley’s fading career. Her story is all too typical. She was popular but a combination of ill-chosen vehicles and lack of a long-term contract (after leaving Paramount) doomed her prospects. Tastes changed and Wanda Hawley was last week’s flavor.


The combination of minor scandal, poor career decisions and a difficult personality were enough to bring down this star. Sound was merely the final nail in the coffin.

With that mystery out of the way, let us move on to happier topics.

I have a very special treat for you. Motion Picture Magazine adapted Burning Sands into a short story and I am presenting it to you in its entirety! Warm sun and purple prose.

(The story was published in 1922 and is not politically correct. At all. You have been warned.)

Here is Burning Sands the song to listen to while you enjoy the tale.

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(click to enlarge)

Out of music? Here is another guilty pleasure of mine: Ketelby. This is his ode to the Nile river.

Back to the story!

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The kitsch is almost too much for Milton! Look at his expression(click to enlarge)
The kitsch is almost too much for Milton! Look at his expression (click to enlarge)
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Oh my! Invoking deities at the end was a master stroke of awfulness. But my main question is where can I find people to feed me grapes? I love grapes. Must one go to the Sahara to hire such workers? Let’s hope someone recovers the film so we can learn the answer!


Oh, and in case you are interested, the original novel is in the public domain and may be freely downloaded. Or you can snag a hard copy from 1922, complete with scenes from the movie!


Lost Film Files #22: The Face in the Dark (1918)

face-in-the-darkness-mae-marsh-1918-lost-silent-movie-image-01The Face in the Dark (1918)

Status: Missing and presumed lost

Mae Marsh is remembered as one of D.W. Griffith’s most vulnerable actresses. Her tragic roles in The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance have been named again and again as the very essence of the art of pantomime. And yet for all her talent, Marsh’s career sputtered after she struck out on her own.

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(click to enlarge)

The Face in the Dark was one of Marsh’s vehicles when she was signed on with the Goldwyn (before Metro and Meyer joined the party) motion picture company. An experienced and famous tragedienne, Marsh welcomed lighter fare.

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(click to enlarge)

It’s a tearless Mae Marsh in “The Face in the Dark,” her Goldwyn production, from the story by Irvin S. Cobb. It doesn’t follow that “The Face in the Dark” is not without sad moments. In fact, as Jane Ridgeway, a motherless girl. Miss Marsh has one of the most appealing roles she has yet been called upon to portray.

“I welcomed the opportunity to go through a play without shedding tears,” remarked Miss Marsh, to whose eyes tears can easily be brought. “I don’t mind playing parts where tears are necessary, but it’s a relief when you don’t have to cry.”

Moving Picture World praised the cast:

Strong Goldwyn cast in “The Face in the Dark”

face-in-the-darkness-mae-marsh-1918-lost-silent-movie-image-03For the drama of the secret service, “The Face in the Dark,” in which Mae Marsh appears April 21, Goldwyn has assembled an uncommonly interesting cast of contributing players. A leading man new to Goldwyn pictures plays opposite Miss Marsh. He is Niles Welch. He has played with practically every star, his last production before supporting Miss Marsh being Metro’s “Her Boy,” in which he was co-starred with Effie Shannon.

Alec B. Francis essays the role of Miss Marsh’s father, a retired secret service man who chooses to sacrifice his daughter’s love rather than reveal the truth about himself. Harry C. Myers, another screen favorite, adds to the excellent ensemble in the Irvin S. Cobb play. Mr. Myers plays a gentleman crook. Isabelle Lamon emerges from several years in a convent school to resume her work before the camera. She was a great favorite before she began to grow up, and now that she is again among personalities of the screen some of the stars will have to look to their laurels.

Others in the cast are Donald Hall, Willard Dashiell, Gladys Fairbanks and Inez Marcelle.

The story involved a secret service man, a bank robbery and a girl detective (I wonder who?):

Did you know Mae Marsh was dubbed "Girl of a Thousand Faces?" (click to enlarge)
Did you know Mae Marsh was dubbed “Girl of a Thousand Faces?” (click to enlarge)

To weave more tightly the net of the law around a gang of counterfeiters Charles Ridgeway, a secret service man, becomes one of them. The crooks do not suspect he is spying. The country bank in which Richard Grant, the sweetheart of Jane Ridgeway, is employed as paying teller, is robbed, and circumstances so shape themselves that the young man is convicted and imprisoned. Jane makes a startling discovery, and it would now seem that Ridgeway himself is the thief. Jane denounces her father, who at the next council of the thieves puts the situation before the leader, who is known as “the face in the dark,” because at conferences of the counterfeiters he has his face shielded by a shadow. Ridgeway is offered money to get out of the country when suddenly the secret service man throws the light on the face of the master mind of the gang. The crooks are taken prisoners, Richard is released, and Jane learns that her father was a secret service man all the while. Feature Mae Marsh as Jane Ridgeway and Niles Welch as Richard Grant.

Photoplay, however, was unimpressed:

Just another Goldwyn movie; Mae Marsh needs a good director; the story — Irvin S. Cobb at his movie worst.



The film sounds like a fun little thriller to me. I hope it turns up so I can judge for myself.

Lost Film Files #21: London After Midnight (1927)

London After Midnight Lon Chaney
Now let’s not get carried away… (via Tumblr)

London After Midnight (1927)

Status: Missing and presumed lost. The only known copy was destroyed in the 1967 MGM vault fire.

One of the most sought-after lost silent films, Lon Chaney and Tod Browning combined forces once again to create a tale of murder and… vampires?

Marceline Day and co. move into a house with a history: the last tenant committed suicide. But was it suicide or… murder? And then Miss Day spots what look like vampires! Oh my! What is afoot in the old dark house?

Photoplay thought that the film was excellent, though the creepy bits worked better than the normal bits:

Lon Chaney has the stellar role in this mystery drama and the disguise he uses while ferreting out the murder is as gruesome as any he has ever worn. The story attempts to prove that a murderer, when hypnotized, will enact again every detail of his crime. The suspense is marvelously sustained. Chaney plays a dual role, and, when conventionally clad, is a little less convincing than usual. In the other role, perfect.


Variety found the whole affair to be decidedly meh:

Will add nothing to Chaney’s prestige as a trouper, nor increase the star’s box office value. With Chaney’s name in lights, however, this picture, any picture with Chaney, means a strong box office draw. Young, Browning and Chaney have made a good combination in the past but the story on which this production is based is not of the quality that results in broken house records.

London After Midnight does have one advantage over other lost films: It’s absence is noted and lamented. Because of this, TCM aired a 2002 reconstruction of the film. While nothing can compare to the real film, this reconstruction gave audiences a taste of what they were missing.

Ahem. Boo! (via Doctor Macro)
Ahem. Boo! (via Doctor Macro)

Director Tod Browning remade the film in 1935 as The Mark of the Vampire with Bela Lugosi (of course) as the is-he-or-isn’t-he bloodsucker. This version is widely available on DVD and currently may be streamed from Warner Archive’s instant service.

The interest in London After Midnight is easy to understand. Lon Chaney is one of the few dramatic silent film stars who still enjoys mainstream popularity. And his tragic death in 1930 meant that he just missed the release of some of the greatest horror classics: Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy… Seeing him play a horror creature as iconic as a vampire (spoiler: it’s all just a disguise to trap a murderer) would be a rare treat. Plus, is not this makeup awesome?

Ooooo, creepy! (via Silent Hollywood)
Ooooo, creepy! (via Silent Hollywood)

So, enjoy the reconstruction and the remake and hope that someone has a print stashed in their secret lair.

This post was part of the Chaney Blogathon, hosted by The Last Drive In and myself.

Lost Film Files #20: Prudence, the Pirate (1916)


Prudence, the Pirate (1916)

Status: Unknown

Gladys Hulette gets another adorable vehicle in the form of Prudence, the Pirate. The plot involves a pirate-obsessed young lady who gets out of an arranged marriage by hiring a ship (complete with crew) and proclaiming herself a pirate captain. She then kidnaps her  would-be suitor and forces him to swab the deck! The young man finally proves himself when a fire breaks out on the ship and he saves Prudence, thus proving his worth.


Moving Picture World thought the film was good entertainment:

In “Prudence, the Pirate” Gladys Hulette has a youthful role finely fitted to her tender years— surely as Prudence she looks not more than sixteen, and it is a more or less commonly accepted fiction that a female is only as old as she looks The story is by Agnes Johnson. It is a craftsmanlike piece of work, especially that part of It which is devoted to the draughting of the leaders. These have more than a distinct comedy flavor; there is always present the literary touch Miss Hulette is supported among others by Flora Pinch and Riley Chamberlin. These two unusually clever character actors prove to be Just the team that one knowing their individual capacity for mirthmaking would be led to expect. The general result Is worthwhile. “Prudence the Pirate” will make good entertainment.

Miss Hulette as Prudence shows marked skill in comedy interpretation. She has the pep and abandon of young girlhood Prudence Is romantic, with a leaning to the piratical. She imposes her pranks on relatives and servants alike. Her mis- adventures have the natural effect of indefinitely postponing her formal debut In society even while her feminine ways are hastening the ensnaring of the smitten Astorbilt.

Miss Finch is seen as the prim aunt who unsuccessfully tries to keep her niece within the bounds of conventionality; but who likewise finds her matchmaking ambitions gratified when Prudence in her own way secures the hand-picked prize Mr Chamberlin Is Meeks, the family butler. Meeks loses his standing as a temperance advocate when on the Invitation of Prudence he looks on the punch when it is red; his position is placed in still greater jeopardy when the hastily gathered pirate crew of the Bucket of Blood kidnaps him and carries him away to don a pirate’s garb. Barnett Parker is Astorbilt; he does a good bit of character drawing of the wealthy young man none too strong in his masculinity. Yet he does not overdo the part. The remainder of the cast gives satisfactory support.


Wid’s Film and Film Folk was quite enthusiastic:

I believe that you can feel pretty safe in booking this because it is different. It is just a light comedy with a ‘melo’ climax, but the idea is different and I would say that any average audience would enjoy it. As to box-office value, there is a question as to whether or not Miss Hulette’s name will pull, since she is rather a newcomer to the ranks of stardom. I would depend almost entirely upon playing up the unusual situation of a society debutante, who, in seeking an adventure, chartered a schooner and set out as a sure-enough pirate craft. That sounds very interesting, and on that alone you should be able to pull considerable business. Use Miss Hulette’s picture generally, and ask the question: ‘Can you imagine this young lady commanding an honest-to-goodness pirate crew? She did it! That was her idea of a good time.


The Morning Telegraph liked the film but found the scenario to be cliche-ridden:

Agnes C. Johnston has set about writing her story as though she had never seen a moving picture in her life and didn’t know that by every screen convention the millionaire should have been the villain and Prue’s young admirer, the hero. As it is, there is not a commonplace character or a hackneyed situation in the whole picture; the people are all human beings and the comedy is lively, good humored and original. As for the subtitles, many of them are good laughs in themselves. 

Unfortunately, no word exists on whether this film is still with us. Too bad, it looks like a blast!

(photo source: silentfilmstillarchive.com)


Lost Film Files #19: The Shine Girl (1916)


The Shine Girl (1916)

Status: Missing and presumed lost

This is a Pollyanna-esque tale of a little shoeshine girl who brightens the lives of all she meets. For the record, Mary Pickford and I feel exactly the same way about Pollyanna (she annoys us) but I rather like Gladys Hulette, who plays the title character in The Shine Girl. (Get it? Get it? Cuz she shines shoes and brightens lives? Get it? Get it?)

The story is about a shoeshine girl who wins the love of a Children’s Court judge.


Moving Picture World praised the picture but mentioned a few rough spots:

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One of the interesting points about this production from the Thanhouser studios is that its scenario was written by Agnes C. Johnson, who is not only one of the youngest, but one of the few scenario writers exhibiting the spark of genius. Miss Johnson is but eighteen years old, and first attracted the notice of the writer through an artistic three-reel production entitled “The Window of Dreams.” While “The Shine Girl” could not be termed a powerful play, it represents an idea of great beauty. The character of the “shine” girl is of the positive, individual sort that is sometimes met with in the most unexpected places. Although this little girl’s vocation was that of a bootblack, she was not content with the mere shining of shoes. She was of a philosophic turn of mind, and believed among other things that sorrow had the same effect on people that show blacking had on shoes, it made them dark at first, but they polished up brighter after if had been rubbed on. She was also the very embodiment of the spirit of love as learned by her only pal Sally; and Sally, by the way, was a poor, sickly geranium, who consented to live only because the little “shine” girl carried her out of her dark corner into the sunshine whenever she ventured forth herself and considered it a privilege to clamber up fire escapes that Sally might drink in larger droughts of the life-giving elements.

This is an index to the nature of the “shine” girl, and early in life she found opportunities to shine human hearts as well as shoes. She also found her way, along with Sally, into the country where she believed the sun always shone through the kind heart of the Judge of the Children’s Court, whom she afterward rescues from committing a folly, and later marries.

Gladys Hulette has given a beautiful portrayal of the character of the “shine” girl , with A. Wayne playing opposite her as the judge. There are a few points at which the picture might be brushed into more professional shape, but here is no denying that the central idea has been clearly defined. Some off-shoots of the theme might have been strengthened in detail, and there may be a felling that the character of the Judge was not a well-balanced one and has been somewhat victimized in bringing about a dramatic climax. Nevertheless the production is distinctly human, clean and beautiful.

Agnes Christine Johnston was all of 20 when she wrote The Shine Girl. As predicted in the review, she did go on to great things. She wrote scenarios for beloved silent classics like Daddy Long Legs and Show People and enjoyed success in the talkies writing screenplays for the Andy Hardy series.

Gladys Hulette charmed the audiences of the ‘teens.
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Wid’s Film and Film Folk also praised the concept but considered the film uneven:

Taken as a whole, I would say that this is a production which will be decidedly satisfying with any audience, highbrow or lowbrow. It is sufficiently artistic to please the discriminating, and surely it has a good audience appeal because of the central thought. This is not a wonderful production technically, because of a few little things which hold it down in the ‘good’ class instead of allowing it to soar to great height, but it surely is a splendid audience film. When it comes to box-office appeal, I doubt whether Miss Hulette can pull you much business, unless you go out and aggressively boost this as an artistic, human presentation of a truly big idea. You can possibly arouse a lot of interest in this by announcing that it deals with the juvenile court problem, for this is a question of general interest. If you wanted to start a discussion, you might say in your ads, ‘Is it any worse to steal a man’s wife than it is to steal a loaf of bread?

I am curious to see this “clean and human” film. I certainly would like to see Gladys Hulette in an early role.



Lost Film Files #17: The Amateur Gentleman (1926)

Status: Missing and presumed lost

This Richard Barthelmess vehicle was based on the 1913 novel of the same name by Jeffery Farnol. The novel told the tale of the son of a prizefighter who tries to break into English society in the Regency era. The silent era was not overly fond of Regency-era costume pictures (some were made but silents generally skewed Victorian and Elizabethan) so it would be fun to see how they handled this tale. Plus Richard Barthelmess is always a pleasure to watch.

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Lost Film Files #16: Far From the Madding Crowd (1915)

Status: Missing and presumed lost

If ever there was a tale to showcase leading men, this is it. Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel features three juicy parts for the boys: The flashy playboy, the mature stalker and the solid (and stolid!) suitor-in-waiting. There is also a doozy of a leading lady part and a few nice supporting roles for actresses as well.

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Lost Film Files #14: Gang War (1928)

Status: Missing and presumed lost

Jack Pickford (little brother of Mary) stars with Olive Borden in this gangster film, his final motion picture appearance. With the success of Underworld, all things gangland were popular and profitable. The demand for the genre would, of course, only increase with the coming of sound and the introduction of Cagney, Robinson and Raft, among others.

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Lost Film Files #13: Me, Gangster (1928) directed by Raoul Walsh

Raoul Walsh. You may know him as the director of gangster classics White Heat, The Roaring Twenties and High Sierra. What you may not know is that Walsh’s career had been linked with crime pictures since the very beginning. He directed Regeneration, considered by many to be the first true gangster feature, in 1915. He had only been directing pictures for three years at that point.

Me, Gangster was released during the sound transition and was offered with a synchronized score. The reviews were quite positive. It was based on a book by Charles Francis Coe and it presented itself as the diary of a gangster. The intertitles were even hand-written. I am not usually a fan of diary picture since the narration is often intrusive but I think that the silent format would make this narrative device work quite well.

Leading man Don Terry would find fame in cliffhanger serials, most famously Don Winslow of the Navy. Pre-stardom Carole Lombard has a supporting part as Blonde Rosie.

Photoplay loved the picture:

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Here is a picture as sentimental, as melodramatic, as pointedly moral as any picture ever made, yet it is completely absorbing. Raoul Walsh has the knack, possessed by Griffith in his heyday, of making the characters of a sticky story pulse with life.

The picture is outstanding for another and a more important reason. It brings a new player, a very fine, very compelling actor to the screen, one Don Terry, a young college man discovered by the author of the piece, Charles Francis Coe, in the Montmartre Cafe. Terry’s performance stands out as one of the unusual and moving gestures of the cinema. He is not handsome, he is definitely a type, yet there is a rugged charm about him that gives him a niche higher than your sleek haired, amorous puppets.

The story is related in a novel form. It is “The Diary of Me, Gangster” and the subtitles are shown in handwriting, written in the first person. It is the boy’s story, of course, yet there are splendid performances given by June Collyer, who makes the most of a weak role; by Anders Randolf and by Gustav von Seyffertitz. It is an injustice to relate the plot, since it is an ordinary one of the son of a wardheeler who finds that crime doesn’t pay. Such trite phrases as “the straight and narrow path,” “going straight,” etc., are plentiful. But it is the absorbing interest of the prison scenes, the fascinating development of the situations and the absolutely perfect characterization of Terry that make it a splendid contribution to the art of the cinema. It may not touch your heart, except in one prison scene, but it will hold you spellbound.

The New York Times was also lavish in its praise:

Raoul Walsh, producer of the film version of “What Price Glory,” directed “Me, Gangster.” His scenes move compellingly and naturally, but toward the end there are pardonable periods of gun-play and general excitement. It is, however, a chronicle that stresses the futility of a lawless existence and Mr. Walsh points out the desperate chances the gangster takes and stresses that there is precious little honor among thieves.

Motion Picture News was less excited about the film, though it admitted that is was powerful:

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Carrying a decorative title which fairly shouts its meaning:, this crook drama gets under way with realistic touches and maintains them through a series of punchy scenes to the very finish. The idea is built up from a sort of diary exploiting the criminal life of a convict from his first days of crookedness until he seeks and finds redemption through the aid of a girl who believes in him.

Not so new, is it ? But it is forcefully presented and sticks to its pattern without trespassing over into sentimental pastures, aside from the necessary romantic interest. The hero is a bad chip of a bad old block and after a series of shady crimes he wins an election to prison. But the girl who loves him exercises her charm and understanding. And the youth’s redemption is effected.

The piece is strongest in its atmosphere, the scenes comprising prison shots, police court sequences, and some tenement tidbits. The story is well told, punctuated with adequate incident and acted competently enough even if the players are not always convincing.

This movie sounds like a pip to me. Plus, you know, Carole Lombard! Check those attics, basements, etc.

Lost Film Files #11: The Sea Wolf (1913)

The Sea Wolf (1913)

Status: Missing and presumed lost

In 1913, Jack London was a white hot author in 1913. Only a few years removed from his three biggest successes (White Fang, The Call of the Wild and The Sea Wolf), it was natural that film-makers would want to adapt his rugged adventures to the screen. The stories were especially well-suited to the gritty, grimy, outdoorsy world of silent movie making. Because there was no sound equipment to consider, silent movies had freedom to film almost anywhere. The great outdoors were at their disposal.

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At the same time, actor Hobart Bosworth was striking out with his own production company. A burly six-footer, Bosworth was born to act in Jack London stories. He had escaped a wicked step-mother, worked as a sailor, a whaler, a rancher, a wrestler, a boxer, a miner, a magician’s assistant…

(You know what? This guy was awesome!)

He bears a rather striking resemblance to Rutger Hauer and had a similar masculine bearing. In short, ideal to play Wolf Larsen. (Larsen was described as a perfect physical specimen in the Scandinavian mode.)

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Anyway, Bosworth took to the stage where his blue eyes made him a sensation with the fair sex. He was also an extremely good actor, subtle and powerful. Tuberculosis robbed him of his health and his voice. Fortunately, he was able to join the fledgling motion picture industry in California, where the warmer weather ensured better health.

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Bosworth’s production company obtained the rights to London’s novels and began production on The Sea Wolf but another production company, Balboa, attempted to make a film using the same source material. Jack London sued for copyright infringement. I mention this because the ads for the film seem a bit paranoid otherwise. You know, The One and Only Authorized Version kind of thing.

Moving Picture World praised Bosworth but felt the film was too long:sea wolf 1913 image (4)

No praise can be too high for the settings and for the photography. The spirit of the ocean, which London conjures with such enviable ease, is on the screen and travels from the screen to the delighted audience. The attention to detail in all nautical matters, the characterization of the types of sailors, who sail in the London stories — and we all know they are true enough sailors and always mighty interesting — leave not the least thing to be desired. I think a word of acknowledgment is likewise due to the cameraman, whose task was a heavy burden. He has done well. The realism for which a London story affords such fine chances is not lacking. It is convincing no less than exciting. Take the accident. It has every appearance of being real, and the cheers the scenes brought forth from a rather critical audience were well deserved.

Far the most difficult part of the whole production was the rendering of the “Sea-Wolf.” Mr. Bosworth had the physique and the artistic size required by the part, though in the characterization he was not quite as strong as in the “straight” acting. He seemed in the early part of the story not quite certain of his ground, but as the action advanced to the great dramatic moments he electrified the audience by his masterly portrayals. He does not always succeed in expressing a mood, but a passion he can express according to Shakespeare. He found his footing at the first great dramatic moment and never lost it afterward. It was his acting which was chiefly responsible for the sharp revival of interest toward the end of the story just as the action was beginning to drag.

His support was fair. Viola Barry, the only woman in the story, is conscientious in her work. It would have been better if she had not emerged from the shipwreck with her makeup in a flourishing condition.

I think five reels would have been much better than seven. In saying this I realize very well that the adaptation for the screen may be allowed on a much more generous latitude than an adaptation for the conventional stage.

Indeed many of the incidents of the story, though they do not carry the action forward by the fraction of an inch, are entirely welcome to the motion picture audience. What could be more interesting than the rough but good-natured comedy of the sailor folk? The throwing overboard of the cook and “washing” him because of his contempt of sailors’ stomachs, the appearance of a man eating shark going in the direction of the unlucky cook and finally the capture of the monster are incidents that add not a little to the charm and the general effect of the story. Other scenes, however, were painfully superfluous. The lingering of the poet and the critic on Endeavor Island was altogether too long and the action in the last thousand feet could have been fully brought out in less than five hundred feet without the least danger of crowding. The trips to the boat and the final incidents on it might profitably have been cut even at the risk of cutting the story itself. These and other scenes that might be mentioned in different parts of the production have not enough humorous or spectacular value to allow them to detract from the central theme of the story.

The motion picture art is in a fair way to profit by further screen adaptations of the London stories. I predict that in his second venture Mr. Bosworth will touch perfection. He has the ability and he has the ambition which is justified and useful only as it is supported by ability. There was a lavish expenditure of money in the production, an item that counts for much when the money is expended judiciously, as it was in the present case. Every friend of the good motion picture will hail the present and the future work of Mr. Bosworth with sincere joy. We cannot have enough good, clean, thrilling pictures of adventures at sea and in strange lands.

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Bosworth would remain with his production company until 1921’s The Sea Lion, a tale very much along the same lines as The Sea Wolf. He would continue playing fathers, mentors, and other kindly figures but he also included a fair dose of salty (and sometimes psychotic) seamen.

I have seen Bosworth in so many Sea Wolf-like parts that I would love to see him doing the real thing. Check the vaults, please!

Lost Film Files #10: Alias the Lone Wolf (1927)

Status: Two reels (out of the original seven) exist in the UCLA Archives on 16mm. No other prints are currently known to exist.

Based on the popular Lone Wolf novels by Michael Lanyard, this was the third of five films in which the title character would be played by Bert Lytell. Other notable actors who tried their hand at the Lone Wolf were Henry B. Walthall, Jack Holt, Thomas Meighan and Melvyn Douglas. Many of the original novels are in the public domain and can be downloaded from your online archive of choice.

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I’m not going to lie, I got interested in this film due to the fabulous ad campaign surrounding it. The fact that it co-stars Lois Wilson (one of the best and most underused actresses of the silent era) was the icing on the cake.

Reviews were positive. Motion Picture World wrote:

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Those who like a real good mystery-crook melodrama — and most folks do — will not be disappointed in this offering from Columbia. Their previous picture along these lines, “The Lone Wolf Returns” made a decided hit with the fans, and this companion production should prove to be just as much of a winner. The story is another of Louis Joseph Vance’s — and that gentleman’s reputation speaks for itself. Edward H. Griffith, director, has done a neat piece of work, while that of the featured players, Bert Lytell and Lois Wilson, also ring true; in fact, the entire cast is particularly good.

The story opens aboard an ocean liner en route from Europe to America. Among the passengers are, the “Lone Wolf,” a supposed crook, two others of the underworld and a French mademoiselle. The latter, with true feminine disregard for any law which does not suit the occasion (editor’s note: I beg your pardon?!?! So men never disregard laws? I want to reach through the page and shake this creep!), is inclined to smuggle some family jewels in order to raise money for a brother charged with embezzlement. And so a clever game starts between the “Wolf” and the other crooks to gain possession of the jewels — which finally reach New York. In the City, further attempts are made by the gang to gain the necklace, and in the meantime romance develops between the girl and “The Lone Wolf.”

The New York Tribune singled out the actors for praise:

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Lois Wilson looks extremely pretty, and she plays with her usual sincerity. Bert Lytell is the wisest choice we can think of for the Lone Wolf.

The genteel crime picture of the early twentieth century is a refreshing change of pace from serial-killer-of-the-week television shows and graphic police procedurals. Here’s hoping that Alias the Lone Wolf is in an attic, an archive, a private collection waiting to be rediscovered.

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Lost Film Files #9: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1928)

Status: Missing and presumed lost


The famous 1953 film starring Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe was the second film incarnation of the 1925 Anita Loos novel. Well, actually, it was adapted from a musical version that was based on the novel but let’s not split hairs. The plot of gold-digging was quite current for the 1920’s and the novel (again following a stage adaptation) was brought to the screen in early 1928.


The roles that would later go to Russell and Monroe were played by Alice White and Ruth Taylor. Sennett veterans Chester Conklin, Ford Sterling and Mack Swain have supporting roles. Holmes Herbert (who is rapidly becoming one of my favorite forgotten silent actors) is on hand as one of the rich targets for matrimony.


Photoplay raved:

WHETHER or not you read Anita Loos’s laugh provoking “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” you are certain to go into ecstasies when you witness the picturization of the tale. It is sure to be one of the outstanding comedy screen successes of 1928. First, because it is a laugh compelling tale of a beautiful but far from dumb gold digger, who took men like Grant took Richmond. Only much faster! Her triumphant climb from a small Arkansas town to Little Rock, Hollywood, New York, and, finally, Paris, along a road that she left strewn with shattered hearts and swains from whom she had painlessly extracted jewels and gowns and the wherewith to make it possible for her to live and pursue her educational quest, is absorbingly pictured.

Second, because it will bring to you a new screen personality in Ruth Taylor as Lorelei Lee. You are going to love her. She was selected for the role after a nation-wide search and proves herself so capable an actress in this role that she has been placed under a long term contract by Paramount. The fat laugh lines are in the very capable hands of Alice White, the living embodiment of Dorothy.

Ford Sterling as the Chicago Button King will cause you to laugh until you cry, and Mack Swain will make you laugh some more. Holmes Herbert as the eligible millionaire bachelor gives a great performance. Chester Conklin and Trixie Friganza add to the gaiety. Mal St. Clair has turned out a delightfully handled production that keeps him in the forefront of directors. Atop of all this, the picture is titled by Anita Loos, an assurance of an evening of laughter.




Motion Picture News said:

It is good entertainment and stirs up some good humor.



Ruth Taylor, in spite of her success in the role, did not stay in motion pictures. She quit the movies to marry a millionaire.

Please check the basement, the attic, the safe deposit box, the estate sale of that crazy old guy down the street…

Lost Film Files #8: Merton of the Movies (1924)

Status: Missing and presumed lost

Harry Leon Wilson is not well-remembered today but he was a popular writer in the early 20th century. He wrote zany, breezy comedic novels that often involved a cripplingly eccentric hero who must be rescued by a sensible and maternal young lady. Wilson’s novels are goofy and cute and they make great reading.

The 1919 novel Merton of the Movies is probably Wilson’s best remembered story. It tells the tale of Merton Gill, a movie struck lad who arrives in California determined to be a great actor. With the help of a spunky young comedienne named Flips, he breaks into pictures. What he doesn’t know is that his acting is terrible. So bad, in fact, that he is unwittingly creating comedy gold.

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In 1924, Paramount adapted the novel into a film starring stage actor Glenn Hunter as Merton and Hollywood veteran Viola Dana as Flips.

Here is what Photoplay had to say:

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HARRY LEON WILSON’S superb satire of movieland has reached the screen minus a considerable measure of its tang. James Cruze’s version avoids the biting satire and centers upon the pathos of the dreaming small-town boy who wanted to do better and bigger things on the screen. The adaptation follows Merton Gill from Illinois to Hollywood, traces his tragic collision with the world of celluloid make-believe, and reveals his ultimate success — as a burlesque comic foil for a cross-eyed comedian. In this the screen “Merton of the Movies” is pretty satisfying. But you will miss the pointed satire of filmdom. You will resent, too, the making of Flips Monlague into a soubrette, although Viola Dana has a good moment or two. We would rather have had Charlie Ray as Merton than Glenn Hunter.

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The New York Times was considerably more enthusiastic, naming Merton as one of the top ten films of 1924, along with such titles as The Sea Hawk, The Thief of Bagdad, He Who Gets Slapped and Beau Brummel.

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The book was adapted as a pre-Code comedy in 1932 and again in 1947 as a Red Skelton picture. The Marion Davis vehicle Show People also owes a lot to Merton, albeit with reversed genders.

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Now seems to be the time to ask everyone for the requisite attic checking. This film looks like a ton of fun.

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Lost Film Files #5: The Great Gatsby (1926)

Status: Missing and presumed lost except for the fragments found in the film’s trailer.

This is the very first film adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, filmed a mere four years after it was written. No need to make this a costume picture. The twenties were roaring away as the cameras cranked.

1926 was a banner year for silent film and The Great Gatsby, while praised, seems to have been a bit lost in the shuffle of Beau Geste, Old Ironside, What Price Glory, Night of Love, Flesh and the Devil… 

Here are some vintage reviews:

Photoplay particularly praised Lois Wilson as Daisy Buchanan.

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F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel of the great war’s aftermath presented unusual film difficulties. Herbert Brenon, the director, has managed to retain much of the feeling of the story. Gatsby comes out of the war to achieve a fortune unscrupulously. He falls, of course, in the end, finding that happiness can’t be won that way. Lois Wilson runs away with the film as the jazzy Daisy Buchanan who flashes cocktails and silken you-know-she-wears-’ems.

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The distributor magazine Motion Picture News had this to say:

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Every good job has been done by this picture — an adaptation of the novel and play. It offered material which necessitated the intelligent handling of characterization so as to keep its spirit intact. In other winds, it depended upon the director emphasizing the central figure as he was emphasized in the novel and play to approach a “nearly perfect gentleman.” This Herbert Brenon has done and so well has Warner Baxter responded that his performance is quite the best of his career and one of the best of the season.

A tragic figure is Gatsby, a product of the gutter who comes up in the world and tries to assume the culture which only goes with long-established generations of ancestry. The manner in which Brenon works is in showing the mute pride and helplessness of the man in attempting to “belong.” Of course, Baxter has his work cut out for him, too.

It’s a sophisticated story, told with first-rate lights and shadows. The spirit of the original is there with plenty to spare. It has its dramatic moments, its romantic scenes, its contrasts and conflicts. And it is splendidly acted by every member of the cast, including Lois Wilson, Neil Hamilton, William Powell, Hale Hamilton, and Georgia Hale.

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You read that cast right. William Powell, Lois Wilson, Georgia Hale…

The New York Times felt that something was missing from the final product:

The screen version of “The Great Gatsby” is quite a good entertainment, but at the same time it is obvious that it would have benefited by more imaginative direction. Although Mr. Brenon has included the tragic note at the end, he has succumbed to a number of ordinary movie flashes without inculcating much in the way of subtlety. Neither he nor the players have succeeded in fully developing the characters.

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Zelda Fitzgerald was even less happy with the film (she and her husband walked out):

“We saw ‘The Great Gatsby’ in the movies. It’s ROTTEN and awful and terrible and we left.”

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Unfortunately, we will never be able to judge for ourselves. The Great Gatsby is one of the more sought-after lost films of the silent era. It is a shame that it is gone since it would have provided a unique perspective on the novel, as played by the men and women who made up that Lost Generation.