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

Status: Missing and presumed lost

gentlemen-prefer-blondes-1928-clipping09

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.

gentlemen-prefer-blondes-1928-clipping07

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.

gentlemen-prefer-blondes-1928-clipping05

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.

gentlemen-prefer-blondes-1928-clipping04

gentlemen-prefer-blondes-1928-clipping03

gentlemen-prefer-blondes-1928-clipping02

Motion Picture News said:

It is good entertainment and stirs up some good humor.

gentlemen-prefer-blondes-1928-clipping01

gentlemen-prefer-blondes-1928-clipping06

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.

white-rose-getting-ready

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.

merton of the movies book image (3)

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.

two-arabian-knights-hows-it-going

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.

blood-ship-1927-in-the-vaults-silent-movie-clipping-11

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

blood-ship-1927-in-the-vaults-silent-movie-clipping-08

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

blood-ship-1927-in-the-vaults-silent-movie-clipping-05

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!

blood ship 1927 in the vaults silent movie clipping 01

Reviews were very positive for this nautical yarn.

Motion Picture News was quite enthusiastic:

blood-ship-1927-in-the-vaults-silent-movie-clipping-07

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.

blood-ship-1927-in-the-vaults-silent-movie-clipping-02

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.

blood-ship-1927-in-the-vaults-silent-movie-clipping-09

blood-ship-1927-in-the-vaults-silent-movie-clipping-06

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.

blood-ship-1927-in-the-vaults-silent-movie-clipping-08

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.

annabell-lee-poems

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.

miss-lulu-bett-miss-mr

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.

hells-hinges-flares

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.

merton of the movies 1925 image (3)

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:

merton of the movies 1925 image (2)

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.

merton of the movies 1925 image (1)

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.

merton of the movies 1925 image (4)

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.

merton of the movies 1925 image (6)

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

merton of the movies 1925 image (5)

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.

cat-and-canary-gonna-getcha

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”

The Mark of Zorro (1920) A Silent Film Review

Douglas Fairbanks stars in the very first Zorro movie. The tale is familiar: Zorro is a Californian Robin Hood, who robs from the rich, gives to the poor, fights oppression, romances the beautiful Lolita and does battle with the villainous Captain Ramon. And, this being a Fairbanks vehicle, there is quite a lot of leaping about in the bargain!
Continue reading “The Mark of Zorro (1920) A Silent Film Review”