Fun Size Review: Below the Surface (1920)

Hobart Bosworth is the strong silent type as a deep-sea diver. When he refuses to assist a gang of criminals in a con game, they send in one of their molls to seduce Bosworth’s impressionable son. Big mistake. On the surface it sounds like a classic revenge tale but it also has deeper themes of parental love and self-sacrifice. Bosworth dominates as the macho seaman with a heart of gold.

Continue reading “Fun Size Review: Below the Surface (1920)”

Fun Size Review: The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

Douglas Fairbanks is a thief but what he really wants is to marry a princess (Julanne Johnston) and so he sets off on a treasure hunt that will win her hand. But wouldn’t you know it, those dadblasted villains take over Bagdad and it’s up to our thief to take it back. Meltingly gorgeous to behold with stunning sets and splendid effects but the pace slows to a crawl after the first half-hour.

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How does it end? Hover or tap below for a spoiler.

Our thief reforms, gets a few magical artifacts, saves the day and wins his princess.

If it were a dessert it would be:

Patience cake. Full of tasty ingredients but a little too elaborate for its own good.

Read my full-length review here.

Availability:
Released on DVD and Blu-ray. Get the Cohen release, it has a wonderful orchestral score from Carl Davis. So, so good.

About Silent Movies: Kinetoscope, Vitaphone, Part-Talkie…. huh?

Let’s talk a little bit about the terms that are bandied about silent film circles. This is just a brief overview, nothing too heavy. I will probably write some more in-depth articles later but I wanted to provide a handy glossary for readers who may be new to silent film viewing. Here are some important terms:

Time Periods:

These are just generalizations used for easy reference. No two film historians seem to agree on what exact dates these eras began or ended. I like the dates used by the University of California Press’s History of the American Cinema series and they are the ones I borrow for my writing.

Early Cinema (Invention-1907)

There is debate over just what can be considered the first motion picture. (You may have noticed that film historians cannot agree on anything.) Here are the facts: The Lumiere brothers showed a projected film to a paying audience of more than one person in 1895. To me, that counts as the start of movies as we know them. This is open to debate but it works for the purposes of discussion.

Movies were seen as low-class entertainment. Nice girls did not go to movie theaters and respectable actors did not perform in these vulgar little pictures. Gracious! **fans self*** Most films ranged in length from a few seconds to a few minutes. They were often vignettes, news footage, dancing sequences, brief scenes from famous plays or books and even home movies. Later in the period, films got longer and the plots got more elaborate.

Check out Domitor, the international society for the study of early cinema (they go up to 1915), if you want more information on this time period.

Kinetoscope
Kinetoscope

The Nickelodeon Era, or, the Pre-Feature Era (1907-1915):

You pay a nickel and you get to see a collection of short subjects, ranging from about 10 to 20 minutes each, in a cheap, chintzy theater. Movies were still not respectable but the ubiquitous nickel theaters were extremely popular. This is when the motion picture industry as we know it began to form and when movies started to migrate en masse to California from New York and New Jersey. Fan magazines were becoming popular and actors were starting to be credited. (They were not allowed screen credit early on because producers feared they would ask for more money.)

You could further divide this era into 1907-1912 for the true Nickelodeon era and 1913-14 for the early feature era but that’s getting a bit fussy for our purposes.

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Silent Feature Film Era (1915-1928):

This is what most people think of when they say “silent era.” While feature-length films had been made prior to 1915, this was the year when they well and truly cornered the market. Movies were potentially respectable family entertainment, actors were idolized, movie theaters were palaces. It also marked the ascendancy of Hollywood in dominating the international market, as their international rivals had been disrupted by World War One.

Pre-Code Era (1930-1934):

The motion picture code was a list of what behaviors were unacceptable in a “decent” motion picture. When people use the term “Pre-Code” they are referring to movies made after the introduction of sound but before the 1930 Motion Picture Production Code was strictly enforced. In the silent era, film producers would have to present their films to various regional censor boards for individual approval and was this process ever a pain! Plus, several Hollywood scandals had prudes everywhere calling for federal censorship. Will Hays was invited into the movieland fold in 1922 to try to make sense of the mess, create guidelines for good on-screen behavior and to prevent wholesale censorship. You only need glance at a few 1920’s films to realize that he was unsuccessful in getting Hollywood to behave.

I know some have the warm fuzzies about the Code but you should know that it did not just cover sex and violence. Oh no. The Code was quite racist, sexist and any good it did was counterbalanced by a large dose of the bad. You can read the whole thing if you like.

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Technology:

Kinetoscope:

An early way of watching movies. These coin-operated boxes allowed the viewer to see a few seconds of film. A later advance was the Kinetophone, which added music via earphones. These machines fell out of favor when it became clear that projected films were the future.

communal earbuds. Yay.
communal earbuds. Yay.

Vitaphone:

Warner Bros. famously used this sound system for its popular talking pictures. However, it was initially used to add music and sound effects to silent films. It was Sound-on-Disc, which meant that the sound was on separate records instead on on the film itself. Some silent movies still have their Vitaphone scores but many have been lost. The Vitaphone Project is dedicated to reuniting films with their discs. (Fox Studios used Movietone, early sound-on-film, for some of its silents.)

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Orthochromatic vs. Panchromatic

Without getting too far into the nitty-gritty, earlier orthochromatic film made blues “blow out” and reds show up very dark. This meant that silent era performers had to employ heavy makeup (lest they look blotchy) and be careful of blue eyes (which could look white and dead).

Panchromatic began to replace orthochromatic film in the early ‘twenties.

Hand-colored, Hand-tinted

Colors were painstakingly added frame by frame. Imprecise but beautiful.

Pathécolor:

A much more precise color process. Using stencils, film frames were individually colored. This process created the illusion of color film. Some of it is truly stunning.

Check out the glorious shades found in Cyrano de Bergerac.

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Tinting and Toning:

Used to add mood to a film. Amber for daytime, rose for romance, blue for night, green for mystery and so-forth. A very popular process in the silent era. Tinting changed the “whites” while toning changed the “blacks” of the film.

Here is a small sample:

Two-color Technicolor:

Technicolor only recorded red and green in the silent era. It was also incredibly expensive and hard to work with. A few high-budget silent films used color for the whole movie but most used color sequences lasting a few minutes.

Ben-Hur (1925)
Ben-Hur (1925)
The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

Film Marketing Terms:

Reels:

Movie lengths used to be referred to not in minutes but in reels. How many reels of film did the movie have? And how long was a reel? This is extremely general but a short film was usually one or two-reels long. A feature film was between five and eight, give or take. A reel (depending of projection speed) lasted about 11-15 minutes in the silent era. Again, give or take. Cameras and projectors were both hand-cranked, which meant there could be variation in the motion picture running time.

Talking Sequences/Part-Talkie:

When sound pictures first became popular, many in the film industry were not sure if it was a fad or not. Besides, many theaters were not equipped for sound. As a result, movie studios hedged their bets. From 1927-1929, movies were sometimes shot silent and then had sound sequences added to improve to their box office appeal. Or a film may have been conceived as a part-talkie, a film that divided its time between sound and silent. Once it became obvious that sound was going to stay, the part-talkie was abandoned.

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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Fun Size Review: Bare Knees (1928)

Virginia Lee Corbin is a Charleston-dancing, back-baring, perfume-splashing, lingerie-buying, hair-bobbing, baseball-playing Jazz baby. When she returns home to live with her stodgy sister and equally stodgy brother-in-law, she finds herself causing scandals everywhere she goes. At her heart, though, Virginia is an old-fashioned girl. But her sister has a few secrets (and boyfriends) of her own. Which sister was the wild one again? If you want a movie that captures the spirit of the Jazz Age, this is it.

Continue reading “Fun Size Review: Bare Knees (1928)”

Fun Size Review: The Forbidden City (1918)

Norma Talmadge plays a Chinese maiden (hoo boy) who falls for American diplomat Thomas Meighan. The romance ends in tragedy for Miss Talmadge but not before she gives birth to a daughter who grows up to also be Norma Talmadge. The daughter sets out to seek her father and love. Racially clueless, which garbles its feeble plea for racial tolerance. Not Norma’s best.

Continue reading “Fun Size Review: The Forbidden City (1918)”

The Readers have spoken! Poll Results for June’s Theme

First, a huge “thank you” to everyone who took the time to vote in my poll. And now, the winners!

In a stunnning come-from-behind win, we have:

The Peasants are Revolting!

Yes, my readers are an adventurous lot. They want the thrills, the romance, the socioeconomic debates! Well, dear readers, you shall have all those things! Revolutions in America, France, Russia, Mexico… All captured in silent movie form. The theme for June shall be The Peasants are Revolting!

Here are the complete polling results:

  1. The Peasants are Revolting
  2. Double Vision
  3. Crime, Inc.
  4. Heir Loss
  5. In the Shorts!
  6. Famous for their voices

Double Vision led for most of the week but a flurry of Revolutionary votes sunk its chances for the win. Since it was so close, though, I have decided to make July Double Vision Month.

Here is my theme schedule:

May: Brothers Barrymore | celebrating the films of John and Lionel.

June: The Peasants are Revolting | revolution and the American silent film.

July: Double Vision | (and triple, and quadruple!) stars in multiple roles.

August: Crime, Inc. | Bootlegging! Murder! Double amputees who become criminal overlords and conspire to invade San Francisco! And some comedy.

September: ??? (I have something pretty fun planned but I want to surprise you!)

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

Status: Missing and presumed lost

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Motion Picture News said:

It is good entertainment and stirs up some good humor.

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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…

Fun Size Review: The White Rose (1923)

D.W. Griffith tried to break his slump by casting Mae Marsh and scrumptious Welsh heartthrob Ivor Novello in this tale of single motherhood and spiritual crisis. Minister-to-be Novello seduces and abandons orphan flapper Marsh, who must face the cruel world, etc. etc. Griffith has done all this before (and better) but his leads try their hardest and almost manage to put it over. Almost. A mixed bag.

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How does it end? Hover or tap below for a spoiler.

Marsh and her baby wander into Novello’s neck of the woods, where he promptly realizes the error of his ways and he makes an honest woman of our heroine on her sickbed. Happy endings for all.

If it were a dessert it would be:

Cheesecake rice pudding. Variation on a very old theme. Tasty enough but hardly earth-shattering.

Read my full-length review here.

Availability: Released on DVD.

Silent Movie Bookshelf: Merton of the Movies by Harry Leon Wilson

There’s a pretty good chance that you have never heard of Harry Leon Wilson.  He specialized in light comedic fiction with eccentric characters overwhelmed by everyday life in the early twentieth century. I really hate to make comparisons like this but I have to do it this time because it is the only way to describe Wilson’s style. He is an American P.G. Wodehouse.

Merton of the Movies was published in 1919. It was subsequently adapted into a play and then a film in 1924. The film is unfortunately lost. (Other Wilson books turned into silent movies include Ruggles of Red Gap and Oh, Doctor!)

My copy is a 1923 printing. You can find 1920s editions for fairly low prices. However, since it was published in 1919, it is in the public domain and may be downloaded for free. The version I found is illustrated with scenes from the play. It is also available as a free audio-book courtesy of Librivox.

My copy
My copy

What is it?: Merton Gill is a romantic young man who decides that the movies are the only place for him. Being a complete bumpkin, he stumbles around Hollywood and would probably have starved if he hadn’t run into Flips Montague, a comedienne and stuntwoman. Flips shows Merton the ropes and helps him secure a job in a film. Merton gives his all in a dramatic performance. What he doesn’t know is that his acting is so bad he is unintentionally making an uproarious comedy– and Flips is in on the conspiracy. Will his relationship with Flips survive once he finds out? And will he be able to get that dramatic acting gig that he dreams of? Read the book to see.

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Favorite part: I loved the prissy hero who has no idea he is funny. How he views the heroine:

Merton Gill passed on. He confessed now to a reluctant admiration for the Montague girl. She could surely throw a knife. He must practise that himself sometime. He might have stayed to see more of this drama but he was afraid the girl would break out into more of her nonsense. He was aware that she swept him with her eyes as he turned away but he evaded her glance. She was not a person, he thought, that one ought to encourage.

And the marvelous slang that Flips (aka the Montague girl) employs. Here she is complaining about her role:

“Yes, one must suffer for one’s art. Here I got to be a baby-vamp when I’d rather be simple little Madelon, beloved by all in the village.”

But the best part of all is the fun that can be had by a silent film fan. The book is chock full of film references, naturally, and a knowledge of silent movies increases the reader’s enjoyment enormously. It is still a good book if you have never seen a silent movie but you will not get the full experience.

Least favorite part: Can’t think of one.

Merton of the Movies is fun, cheap and easy to get. What are you waiting for?

Fun Size Review: Two Arabian Knights (1927)

William Boyd and Louis Wolheim are frenemy  POW’s who escape and make for warmer climes. They meet Arabian princess Mary Astor (um…) and decide to save her from an unsavory arranged marriage. Producer Howard Hughes hoarded this film in his vault, the villain. One of the best wartime bromance pictures of the silent era. Nice balance of action, comedy and romance. Worth seeking out.

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How does it end? Hover or tap below for a spoiler.

Boyd and Astor ride off into the sunset in a carriage driven by Wolheim. A trio!

If it were a dessert it would be:

S’mores Brownies. Too much of a good thing is wonderful.

Read my full-length review here.

Availability: Alas, not on DVD but it airs on TCM sometimes.

A Modern Musketeer (1917) A Silent Film Review

Douglas Fairbanks is a nice Kansan who, through a the odd combination of his mother’s prenatal Dumas reading and a cyclone ravaging town as he was born, is a little hyper. All right, a lot hyper. He is also chivalrous to the point of madness (Dumas again). Setting out to find adventure, he happens upon a true damsel in distress. Is this the mission he has been waiting for?

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

Continue reading “A Modern Musketeer (1917) A Silent Film Review”

About Silent Movies: Which version should I buy?

It can be one of the most confusing aspects of silent film fandom: You have decided to plunk down some hard-earned coin for a silent movie and you are faced with rows and rows of choices and prices– and all for the same film! Which should you buy? Sure, you can read the reviews one by one but I am going to share a few hints that will make you a smarter shopper.

Popular and famous titles like Nosferatu, The Phantom of the Opera or Orphans of the Storm may have dozens of releases available but generally they fall into three categories. (I am covering discs for this section and will move on to streaming next.)

High-quality releases
High-quality releases

High-Quality and Official Releases: These releases are the highest quality and often the most expensive. It is the only way to legally obtain films that have not yet entered the public domain. Even if the film is in the public domain, high-quality and official releases often obtain the best possible print for maximum enjoyment. These films are (usually) restored, feature custom scores and other special features. Look for the logo of a major film studio or companies like Flicker Alley, Kino Lorber, Criterion Collection, Image Entertainment, or Milestone Films.

DVD-R selections.
DVD-R selections.

Public Domain Vendors: These are folks who obtain public domain silent movie prints and release them on DVD-R. The companies are run by fellow fans and while they cannot afford to restore the films, they often release rare titles that the big boys won’t touch. The most famous vendor is probably Grapevine Video, which releases some really rare stuff. Reel Classic DVD is another choice, though I have not dealt with them before. Sunrise Silents and Unknown Video were excellent but are, sadly, out of business.

Note: Warner Archive straddles these two levels. They release films onto DVD-R format with no frills or extras.

Bargain releases are often anything but.
Bargain releases are often anything but.

Bargain Bin Releases: Just what the name indicate. These are cheap discs (usually under $10) of public domain films and the quality is usually atrocious! Battered prints, inappropriate (or absent!) music, everything at the wrong speed… There really is no worse way to see a silent film. Very rarely (even a blind pig gets a truffle) there will be a worthy release but not often. Just remember, you get what you pay for. (These companies love their box sets. If you see a box with famous films and a price that seems a little too low, the quality is probably going to be pretty poor.)

There is one more type of vendor to consider, one that it not worth dealing with.

Seems legit.
Seems legit.

Pickup truck with motor running: There are fly-by-night operations that sell duped DVDs, recordings from TCM and other pirated or near-pirated goods. Generally it is a game of whack-a-mole between these sellers and the copyright holders. My philosophy is this: I buy legitimate copies so that I can support the folks unearthing and restoring silent movies. It’s just the right thing to do.

Leaving the Physical World behind…

Now let’s move on to the brave new world of streaming. There are a lot of different services and I won’t cover them all but here is a basic overview:

The big boys: Companies like Amazon and Netflix do offer to stream silent films. These are often a mixed bag of high-quality and bargain bin releases. To make matters worse, more than once the artwork of a high-quality release has been used for a bargain bin release. Disappointed does not begin to cover it.

Quality streaming.
Quality streaming.

The niche streamers: I like these. Companies that specialize in the old, rare and esoteric. Fandor (which I subscribe to and love) has partnered with Flicker Alley and Kino to stream some really gorgeous and rare stuff. Warner Archive Instant is a good concept (TCM on demand!) but as of this writing, they only offer six silent titles. Both services have free trials so I say try ’em both and see. Fandor is my pick for silents.

The freebies: These can be a great way to watch silent films without spending a dime. Plenty of films are in the public domain and are posted for all to enjoy. Archive.org features quite a few silent titles in the public domain for download and streaming. Youtube also has its share of silent films (though I would be careful about linking to them as some have pirated content).

Which version of "Caligari" is the best?
Which version of “Caligari” is the best?

I hope this saves you some headaches and guides you to the best possible viewing experience. Happy watching!

PS, I just realized how much I talk about copyrights and the public domain. I think this calls for an article…

In the Vaults #3: The Blood Ship (1927)

Status: Print, held by the Academy Film Archive, was missing one reel. The missing final reel was located and the complete film has been shown at festivals but has not been made available to the general public. Hint hint.

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It stars Hobart Bosworth, my absolute favorite old sea salt, and Richard Arlen, who provides the hubba-hubba.

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From the descriptions available, it sounds like it has everything a viewer could want in a seafaring adventure: Shanghaied crew, mutiny, ruthless captain…

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Bosworth is out to revenge himself on the nasty captain who framed him for murder and stole his wife and daughter. Arlen, naturally in love with said daughter, is ready to lend support. Sounds like some grade “A” tuppenny blood stuff!

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Reviews were very positive for this nautical yarn.

Motion Picture News was quite enthusiastic:

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A good old nerve-tingling title decorates this picture — the action of which lives up to its colorful moniker. The piece carries a wallop in the play of melodrama on the high seas. Before you are barely ready to say “Captain Kidd” it informs you that the clipper is a hell-ship the master of which has a habit of beating up his crews. As you can see, the story is a blood relative of Jack London’s “Sea Wolf,” though there are many marks of originality about it which sets it apart from the London opus.

The skipper has a “shanghai” complex. When a crew runs out on him after a punishing cruise he and his first mate (who registers an equally hard-boiled disposition) use strong-arm methods and shanghai enough sailors to run the ship. Of course, with such a background it is easy to guess that the motivation will concern a mutiny. It’s red-hot action which is served up here — and no mistake. The players entertain a deal of punishment from the brutal skipper before he is knocked for a row of anchors.

A love note punctuates the action to balance the hard moments — and Richard Arlen and Jacqueline Logan take care of it very romantically. But it is the melodrama which provides the real interest and suspense. Everything happens that could possibly happen during the voyage. So put it down as vigorous entertainment.

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Photoplay liked the film but felt it was too brutal:

A real he-man picture and this is one time we feel the ladies will like to be excused. (Editor’s note: This lady will be staying, thank you very much.) A picture that is well- produced and directed; filled with splendid performances; but its story is one of mutiny, brutality, murder and a girl. Too gruesome for real enjoyment. Hobart Bosworth, Jacqueline Logan and Richard Arlen are in the cast, with Bosworth giving one of the finest performances of the month.

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The New York Times liked what it saw:

Vivid characterizations give vitality to “The Blood Ship,” at the Roxy this week. It’s a story of mutiny, murder and men, with a lone girl among them.

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The original 1922 novel by Norman Springer is in the public domain and may be downloaded from several sources. Until the film is released to the viewing public, that is about as close as we can get to it.

Richard Arlen. Hubba!
Richard Arlen. Hubba!

Scaramouche (1923) A Silent Film Review

Featuring the famous opening line, “he was born with the gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad,” Scaramouche is the tale of Andre-Louis,  a young lawyer (Ramon Novarro) who seeks to revenge the murder of his best friend at the hands a heartless aristocrat (Lewis Stone). To further his ends, Andre-Louis becomes an actor, a fencing master and, finally, an architect of the French Revolution.
Continue reading “Scaramouche (1923) A Silent Film Review”

Fun Size Review: Annabell Lee (1921)

Very (very, very, very, very) loosely based on the poem Anabel Lee by Edgar Allan Poe, this film tells the tale of a struggling author and his lady fair who are parted by circumstances. Tries to capture the spirit of Poe without all that, you know, death and stuff. Nothing offensive but not really exciting either. However, the scenery is wonderful.

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How does it end? Hover or tap below for a spoiler.

They live happily ever after. Meh.

If it were a dessert it would be:

Blancmange. A bygone confection that still has appeal but seems bland when compared to the newer recipes.

Read my full-length review here.

Availability: Released on DVD

Fun Size Review: Miss Lulu Bett (1921)

Spinster Lois Wilson is penniless and practically enslaved by her family. She jumps at a chance to get married but must leave when she learns her husband may have another wife. (Oops) Returning home to slander and scorn, Wilson must depend on her inner strength to escape. She even gains the courage to pursue local schoolteacher Milton Sills. Delightful and uplifting but never, ever corny.

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How does it end? Hover or tap below for a spoiler.

Lulu stands up to her horrible family and wins over Mr. Sills in the bargain. Not too shabby, eh?

If it were a dessert it would be:

Root Beer Float Marshmallows. Traditional flavors presented in a whole new way. Light, sweet and memorable.

Read my full-length review here.

Availability: Released on DVD.

Silent Star Mini Biography: Mary Pickford

Mary Pickford (1892-1979)

Country of birth: Canada

Birth name: Gladys Marie Smith

The basics: Mary Pickford became an actress at the age of seven when her mother’s lodger gave her a part in his play. Pickford managed to steal the show even in a bit part. She joined the Biograph film company in 1909. Pickford returned to the stage briefly but soon realized that the movies were her true home. Through a combination of talent, popularity and shrewd bargaining, Pickford was soon one of the richest and most influential performers in the film industry. She was one of the co-founders and United Artists and one of the founding members of AMPAS. She and her husband, Douglas Fairbanks, were the acknowledged king and queen of Hollywood. Pickford was not keen on sound films but she set to work and earned an Oscar for her role in 1929’s Coquette. Pickford retired from the screen in 1933.

You probably saw her in: Sparrows, My Best Girl, Stella Maris, Daddy-Long-Legs, Tess of the Storm Country

Silent style: If one role shaped Mary Pickford’s career, it was Gwendolyn in 1917’s The Poor Little Rich Girl. Just shy of 25 in real life, Pickford successfully captured the spirit of a child. The audience responded enthusiastically and demanded more child roles. Pickford spent the rest of her silent career balancing her need to satisfy the public with her desire to create art on film. She often found the balance by starting out playing a child and then having her character grow up. Pickford on screen was spunky, fiery and cute; rough edges with a heart of gold. Her flair for physical comedy combined with a talent for pathos creating memorable role after memorable role.

Sound transition: Pickford had nothing to fear from sound movies as far as her voice was concerned. However, she knew that it would be difficult to leave her best-known screen persona behind. As she put it: “The little girl made me. I wasn’t waiting for the little girl to kill me. I’d already been pigeonholed.” However, age and shifting public tastes meant that the little girl had to go. So Pickford left with her.

What others said:

“She was a unique symbol of of the birth and growth of the only art form that found its origins in the western hemisphere– the motion picture.”

Film historian Kevin Brownlow

If you gotta know more:

Sunshine and Shadow by Mary Pickford (autobiography)

Mary Pickford Foundation (official website)

Mary Pickford: Canada’s Silent Siren, America’s Sweetheart by Peggy Dymond Leavey (biography)

Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood by Eileen Whitfield (biography)

Mary Pickford Rediscovered by Kevin Brownlow and Robert Cushman (pictorial tribute)

Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies by Christel Schmidt (large format anthology)

LA Times Star Walk Profile

TCM Profile

IMDB Profile

If you can only see her in one thing: Tough call but Daddy-Long-Legs shows off Pickford in a child role as well as a romantic role and it is adorable.

Fun Size Review: Hell’s Hinges (1916)

A new preacher arrives at the sinningest town West of the Pecos. William S. Hart is a gunfighter with a homicidal streak determined to run said preacher out of town. One snag: The preacher’s pretty sister. Hart finds humanity and love but that doesn’t stop him from using his gunfighting skills one last time to set the entire town ablaze. One of Hart’s best good-bad men and a splendidly apocalyptic Victorian throwback.

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How does it end? Hover or tap below for a spoiler.

Mr. Hart burns the sinning down to the ground and departs with his lady love. It’s pretty amazing.

If it were a dessert it would be:

Jack Daniel’s Fudge. Old-fashioned and intense with a kick at the end.

Availability: Released on DVD.

Read my full review.

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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Fun Size Review: The Cat and the Canary (1927)

The Location: Old Dark House. Time: Dark and Stormy Night. The Will: Laura La Plante will inherit a fortune if she can prove she is sane. The Problem: One of the many guests present is determined to drive her insane– and murder anyone who gets in the way! Thrills, chills, laughs, gorgeous cinematography and more character actors than you can shake a femur at. A great introduction to silent films.

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How does it end? Hover or tap below for a spoiler.

The murderer reveals himself and it’s… Cousin Charles! Laura La Plante gets out safe and sane.

If it were a desert it would be: Turtle trifle. Dark, fun and full of nuts.

Ready my full-length review here.

Availability: Released on DVD and via streaming.

Silent Movie Bookshelf: Daddy Danced the Charleston by Ruth Corbett

This is not just a book for silent film enthusiasts. Any fan of classic film is going to find a lot to like. But I am getting ahead of myself. Daddy Danced the Charleston is “a nostalgic remembrance of our yesterdays.” In this case, “our” means people who came of age between 1920 and 1950. So this book encompasses the silent era, the pre-Code era and much of the Golden Age as well.

Continue reading “Silent Movie Bookshelf: Daddy Danced the Charleston by Ruth Corbett”