Fun Size Review: That Certain Thing (1928)

Frank Capra’s first film of many for Columbia Pictures and his trademark optimism-amongst-poverty is already in place. Viola Dana is a tenement beauty determined to marry money. Ralph Graves is a rich wastrel who meets Viola, falls for her and marries her the same night. Everything would be fine except that Ralph’s father disinherits him and Viola is back at square one. What to do? Start a business, of course! Capra’s offering delights with charming script and a brisk pace and the leads are engaging.

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In the Vaults #6: The Cossack Whip (1916)

Status: Complete reconstructed print held by the George Eastman House. There are also prints held by the Library of Congress and the National Archives of Canada.

I first heard of this film in Kevin Brownlow’s marvelous Behind the Mask of Innocence. It is one of the films of director John Collins, a talented artist whose early death from Spanish Influenza deprived the fledgling motion picture industry of one of its potential greats. Collins directed his wife, Viola Dana, in this anti-czarist film, a reasonably common genre at the time.

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Brownlow praised Collins for his rapid cross-cutting and sophisticated style. Star Viola Dana recalled the difficulty she had in handling the whip of the title. Tiny, delicate and just nineteen, Dana was universally praised for her performance. The popularity had a downside: she was mobbed by enthusiastic fans during a personal appearance promoting the film.

Moving Picture World provided this synopsis:

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A long line of prisoners winds over the snow-covered Russian steppes toward the train which is to carry the unfortunates to Siberia. A band of revolutionists, bent on freeing their brothers from the living death, attack the Cossack guard and in the excitement several prisoners escape. Turov, Prefect of Police, learns of the attack and orders the whole district raided that he may punish the perpetrators of the attack.

In their crude home live Sasha and his daughters, Darya and Katerina. Suddenly the still air is shattered with the blood-curdling yells of the raiding Cossacks. Little Darya is quickly hidden, hut Sasha and Katerina are led before Turov. The father is sent to Siberia. Soon afterward Katerina. robbed of life and honor, creeps back to the little settlement to die, carrying with her the Cossack knout with which she has been flogged.

Over her sister’s body, Darya swears revenge and keeps the Cossack’s whip as a reminder of her vow. Then follows a story of action and power, telling how Darya becomes the favorite dancer of the Imperial Ballet; how she brings the bloodthirsty Turov to her feet and finally accomplishes her revenge; how, at last, she listens to the pleadings of Sergius, a revolutionist and master of the ballet, and how the two of them make their way out of Russia and across the ocean to the great land of liberty and opportunity.

And the review from the same magazine was very positive:

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It is not often that a motion picture visually telling of Russian revolutionists and of oppression by the Russian police diverges from a rather tiresome sameness, but this Is done to a considerable extent in “The Cossack Whip,” a five-reel picture produced by Thomas A. Edison, Inc.. for release through K-E-S-E. Good entertainment is furnished by the five reels of this production, and the work of Viola Dana in the leading role is flawless. She plays the part of the youngest member of a Russian household, which is crashed by the police, with a finesse of understanding and sympathy. As the plot develops. Miss Dana’s screen characterization develops with it, but so gradually and so subtly does she change from a simple lass into a revengeful woman that the spectator is forced to feel for her.

The story has been superbly screened, and no little amount of credit is due Director John Collins. Many unusual and novel settings are seen in the film — especially the ballet scenes. Photographically, the production is excellent, and it is evident from a showing of the finished product that director and company worked in harmony.

The players appearing in support of Miss Dana make the story convincing. Richard Tucker pleases in the leading male role. Frank Farrington does commendable work as the superintendent of police, and Sally Crute makes a lovable Mme. Pojeska. Grace Williams, as the sister of the girl, and Bob Walker, as Alexis, both do good work.

Darya, the girl, keeps the scourge with which her sister has been flogged to death. She swears to avenge her sister and her father, and becomes a ballet dancer. She becomes famous in London and, returning to Russia, is entertained by the chief of police. By a clever ruse she gets him to put his hands in the handcuffs which held her sister. She flogs him with the whip used on her sister. The despot is killed by a brother-revolutionist.

Photoplay was happy:

A corking Russian story  evidently made some time ago by Edison, but released only a few weeks since. It has vigor, action, speed, suspense and fine heart interest. Viola Dana plays the chief role.

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John Collins has a high reputation among film scholars but most of his films are not made available to the general public. It is high time that we be given a peek at his work.

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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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