The Bargain (1914) A Silent Film Review

William S. Hart’s first feature film is also a real corker. He plays a bandit who decides to trade it all in for an honest life but who soon realizes that going straight is a lot harder than it looks. After some misadventures, he finds himself in a strange alliance with the local sheriff. Filled with genuinely exciting actions scenes, ironic humor and a good dose of dust, this movie is the one that made Hart a star. It’s easy to see why.
Continue reading “The Bargain (1914) A Silent Film Review”

Brute Island (1914) A Silent Film Review

It’s an island. Full of brutes. That’s the plot they went with. No, I’m not sure who greenlighted it either. In any case, this is a directing effort from Harry Carey, who soon switched back to just acting. A good career move, as it happens. It’s all about some guy from Harvard who goes to the South Seas and nurses his broken heart by looting and torturing. It’s a living.

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

No. Just no.

Harry Carey’s silent career is generally summarized with three broad strokes. One, his time with D.W. Griffith (he was famously featured in close-up and then gunned down in The Musketeers of Pig Alley). Two, his status as John Ford’s very first leading man. Three, his rollicking westerns from the mid-twenties to the coming of sound.

We're used to seeing Carey in a cowboy hat. (This is from "Bucking Broadway")
We’re used to seeing Carey in a cowboy hat. (This is from “Bucking Broadway”)

In between parts one and two, though, there is another chapter: Harry Carey, director. Carey directed four films between 1914 and 1916. Of these four, two are considered lost. A complete copy of Love’s Lariat is held by the Filmmuseum in Amsterdam but it has never been released on home media. Brute Island remains the sole example of Carey’s directing that is available to the general public.

South Seas tales were popular in the silent era because they allowed the ladies and gentlemen of the cast to show more flesh than would normally be tolerated and the idea of “savage” vs. civilization fit nicely into the attitudes of the time. Throw in a native uprising, some buried treasure, pearls, a missionary or two and you had yourself a movie. (Obviously, I am referring to films that revel in the exotic locales and indulge in both adventure and hokum. Well-made dramas that happen to have an island setting are quite different.)

The genre has since fallen out of favor. Thank heaven. The genre has since fallen out of favor. Thank heaven.
The genre has since fallen out of favor. Thank heaven.
The genre has since fallen out of favor. Thank heaven.

I have to confess I am not a big fan of the genre. More than nearly any other popular silent film sub-genre, the South Sea tales have aged badly. These films gained more nuances and subtlety in the late twenties but the early entries are often, frankly, painful. Basically, they all seemed to be in competition to see which title could fit more sexism, racism, colonialism and any other -ism into the story.

I am sorry to report that Brute Island is not going to change my mind about movies in this milieu. In fact, it cemented my dislike of them.

How could this possibly have aged badly?
How could this possibly have aged badly?

The movie opened with some promise. There is a storm at sea and a small group in a lifeboat are the only survivors from a wrecked passenger ship. Nancy Darrell (Kathleen Butler) is one of the lifeboat’s occupants and she is not sure why no one is rowing toward the nearby islands. The sailors who accompany her refuse to make for shore. They are terrified as this part of the ocean is ruled by Captain McVeagh (Harry Carey) and he is one unpleasant customer.

The shipwreck.
The shipwreck.

McVeagh’s full title is Cyrill Bruce McVeah and he was, we are informed, Harvard class of ’05. If that is true, it does not say much for Harvard. He is introduced in the middle of swigging gin whilst torturing one of his native servants. McVeagh has all but enslaved the island’s citizens to work at pearl harvesting. He keeps power with guns and by bribing the local chieftains with gin and beads. Oh dear. One of these transactions involves swapping his merchandise for the chief’s daughter, Liana (Fern Foster, Carey’s wife at the time).

He’s the hero. The hero. Him.
He’s the hero. The hero. Him.

Now, just to remind us that our Harvard boy still has a shred of decency, he means to marry Liana fair and square once the missionary makes his rounds. Oh good. Because I was really worried about that. Apparently, purchasing another human being is just fine if your object is matrimony. Fortunately, Liana goes for soused psychopaths so the union just might work.

Get your hand off my knee, Harry.
Get your hand off my knee, Harry.

But then Nancy shows up and it turns out that she is the cause of everything. Her rejection of McVeagh sent him down the path of darkness. It is all her fault. Obviously. To prove his point, Harvard ’05 has a couple of freelance pearl divers shot in front of her and then he smacks her around for good measure. That will make her sorry she dumped such a fine fellow!

I repeat: Our hero.
I repeat: Our hero.

(Between this and The Wishing Ring, it’s a wonder that any movie people bothered to send their boys to college in 1914. My word! The habits they pick up!)

I wish I could go back in time and be a fly on the wall when this story was proposed.

Harry Carey: Then Nancy dumps him. He is so broken-hearted.

Producer: Understandable.

HC: So he sails the oceans to forget and ends up on a remote island.

P: It often happens that way.

HC: He gives himself over to the bottle.

P: Alas, a story all too true.

HC: And then he forms an illegal pearling operation, begins to torture and strangle people, and purchases women for kicks!

P: That sounds very interes— wait, what?

Meanwhile, the natives are planning an uprising (good!) and Liana is conspiring to poison Nancy. More violence is in the offing but I think we can cut off the synopsis here.

Here is your drink, which I did not poison.
Here is your drink, which I did not poison.

Brute Island is one of those movies that makes you feel grimy inside. The content is so very unpleasant, so repugnant on every level that it is impossible to enjoy. It didn’t have to be that way. See, stories of people who go too far in their resentment and then slowly transform into monsters can result in intriguing character-driven films. Unfortunately, Brute Island treats McVeagh not as a monster of his own making but as a good guy who has a few bad habits. Anyway, it was all Nancy’s fault. I thought we made this clear. (Seriously, though, I don’t blame her for dumping the whiny-baby-turned-homicidal-maniac.)

He’s a very nice man once you get to know him.
He’s a very nice man once you get to know him.

Carey wrote and directed the film but his performance is the biggest problem. I have always said that of all the silent cowboys, he had the most raw acting ability. Well, in this case, bad acting would have actually been a plus. To be sure, Carey’s performance isn’t great but even so-so Carey is pretty darn good. He does spend much of the film staggering about in a gin haze. However, he is quite convincing in the more brutal scenes. I didn’t want to be convinced, thank you very much.

I counted, like, five strangulations.
I counted, like, five strangulations.

Carey had the rare ability of being able to turn his charm on and off like a spigot. I have never seen another performer be able to be so charismatic in one role and then switch it off completely for another. This works against Carey as a shred of charm might have made McVeagh eventual redemption more believable or welcome. And by redemption, I mean he just decides he has killed and maimed enough people and goes home. Yay?

Now killng time’s over. That’s enough killing.
Now killing time’s over. That’s enough killing.

Our director/writer/star is pretty much the whole show as none of the supporting cast is at all memorable. The direction itself is so-so. There are nice sea and sky shots and whatnot but the editing has no rhythm or flow and the action is difficult to follow. There are relatively few cuts and even fewer closeups (which are, oddly, reserved for relatively minor characters) and this really gives the film a static, archaic quality. Some of the compositions are interesting but this is cold comfort what with the nasty plot and all.

Note: Keeping people prisoner in grass huts is not always the most secure method.
Note: Keeping people prisoner in grass huts is not always the most secure method.

Brute Island shows the dark side of movie making in the early feature film era. It was apparently re-released in the early twenties to capitalize on Carey’s popularity but it has sunk into obscurity since then, deservedly so.

One interesting footnote: Both the film’s production company and Carey himself were named in a lawsuit claiming that the film was withheld and shareholders shorted. It seems, though, that nothing came of the case. (The movie is listed under its original title, McVeagh of the South Seas.)

lawsuit

Brute Island is one of very few Carey silent features available to the general public. This is a pity as it seems to have been one of his worst appearances.

Movies Silently’s Score: ★

Where can I see it?

Brute Island has been released on DVD. I would compare versions and all that but you’re not going to make me watch it again, are you?

The Wishing Ring (1914) A Silent Film Review

In ye olde merrie Englande (that mystical place of superfluous letters), a wastrel of a college student pulls one prank too many and is kicked out of both school and home. He ends up falling for the local parson’s daughter, who makes it her mission to reconcile father and son. Oh, and she thinks she has a magic wishing ring. What? Doesn’t everyone?

Continue reading “The Wishing Ring (1914) A Silent Film Review”

Theme Month! September 2014: One hundred years ago… The films of 1914

This month is all about the films that turn 100 this year. 1914 was an intriguing time in cinema history. The feature film era was dawning and the star system as we know it was starting to solidify. However, the free-wheeling spirit of the early days was still in evidence. Vamps, flappers and sheiks were not yet on the scene but the stage was set.

In many ways, the audiences of 1914 were very similar to the audiences of 2014. Adventure and fantasy ruled at the box office, along with some still-shocking spots of darkness.

Here are some 1914 topics I have already covered:

The Squaw Man (Cecil B. DeMille’s debut)

Won in a Cupboard (Mabel Normand directs)

And the top American stars of 1914 were…

On to the new stuff!

Review #1: Cinderella

Mary Pickford’s version of the popular tale. Co-stars her then-husband, Owen Moore.

Review #2: The Magic Cloak of Oz

L. Frank Baum produced a series of silent Oz films. This is the first.

Review #3: The Wishing Ring

A charming and lovely little romance set in old England.

Review #4: Brute Island

Lest you think all 1914 movies were sweetness and light, here is a rather nasty piece of business from writer-director-star Harry Carey.

Who were the top movie stars of 1914?

motionpicturemag08moti_0500
(click to enlarge)

It was fascinating to take a look back at the top American stars of the 1913 movie industry. Well, now it is time to see who took top honors in 1914. Motion Picture Magazine held a contest to see which star would receive the most votes. I’m sure a bit of ballot stuffing probably occurred but as the participants had to pay postage to vote, I imagine that it was not enough to tip the scales too badly. Participants were asked to mail coupons (maximum of one per month) naming their favorites:

The voting coupon.
The voting coupon.

As an added bonus, Motion Picture Magazine also held a contest for scenario writing. The top stars chosen would then act in photoplays written by the magazine readers.

(click to enlarge)
(click to enlarge)

You will recall that the 1913 list was rather male-centric. Well, the ladies were out in force for 1914!

The top 15 of 1914:

  1. Earle Williams
  2. Clara Kimball Young
  3. Mary Pickford
  4. J. Warren Kerrigan
  5. Mary Fuller
  6. Marguerite Clayton
  7. Arthur Johnson
  8. Alice Joyce
  9. Carlyle Blackwell
  10. Francis X. Bushman
  11. Crane Wilbur
  12. Edith Storey
  13. Florence Lawrence
  14. King Baggot
  15. Anita Stewart

Since many of these performers may be unfamiliar (and some have no films available for home viewing), here is a handy slideshow.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

For purposes of comparison, here were the top 15 stars from the 1913 contest:

  1. Romaine Fielding
  2. Earle Williams
  3. J. Warren Kerrigan
  4. Alice Joyce
  5. Carlyle Blackwell
  6. Francis X. Bushman
  7. G.M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson
  8. Muriel Ostriche
  9. Arthur Johnson
  10. Mary Fuller
  11. Edith Storey
  12. Crane Wilbur
  13. Maurice Costello
  14. Ormi Hawley
  15. Mary Pickford

Many favorites have been knocked off the list entirely (Romaine Fielding did not even make the top 15), demonstrating just how fast the motion picture industry was moving.

But wait, there’s more!

In May, I will be holding Centenary Month, in which I shall try to watch and review films from as many of these 1914 stars as possible. I can’t guarantee that I can cover everyone but I can sure try.