What do you do if your boyfriend is a hopeless hypochondriac and his father is trying to bankrupt your family’s railroad? Well, you could hire pugilists to kidnap said boyfriend to get him into shape and then blackmail his dad into submission. Yeah, that sounds like a perfect plan for killing two birds with one stone and only a few felonies to commit!
You always abduct the one you love
I must say, I have been extremely impressed with the output of World Film, a now-forgotten Fort Lee, NJ studio that stayed east coast even as the movies were heading west. Founded by Lewis J. Selznick (father of David O.), it was responsible for producing The Wishing Ring, Alias Jimmy Valentine and The Heart of a Hero, three pictures with notable production values. (The Wishing Ring is a particular favorite of mine.)
And so, dear readers, we are diving back into the World catalog with The Beloved Blackmailer, a film that has the added bonus of being written by Clara Beranger, who masterfully adapted Miss Lulu Bett for the screen in 1921. (Another particular favorite of mine.) Even better, the film stars Carlyle Blackwell, one of the top leading men of the 1910s who has been all but forgotten these days. Many juicy angles to pursue, I am sure you will agree. Let’s dive in!
Blackwell plays Bobby Briggs, the pampered son of a railroad magnate who has been coddled into hypochondria by his overbearing mother. He subsists on cough drops, rarely leaves his house and is a general mollycoddle. Meanwhile, Daddy Briggs (William T. Carleton) is in a foul mood because fellow railroad tycoon George Norris (Charles Dungan) has opening poo-pooed one of his ideas. This means war!
Briggs proceeds to play with the stock market and suppress the shares of Norris’s railroad. His daughter, Corinne (Evelyn Greeley), sees that her father has given up and decides that she is going to have to take matters into her own hands. Bobby has a crush on her and she likes him too, though his craze for throat lozenges eliminates him as a serious romantic prospect. In any case, Bobby is too wimpy to defy his father but the conversation reveals an interesting detail.
When Bobby was in college, the school’s boxing coach was Spike Brogan (Jack Drumier). Bobby had a doctor’s note saying that he could not engage in any exercise but Spike told him that he could make a man of him.
Inspired by the conversation, Bobby sneaks out of the house, meets Spike and asks him to “kidnap” him to his boxing camp. Corinne is equally inspired. She looks up Spike and asks him to kidnap Bobby to his boxing camp in order to toughen him up. Spike takes her money and never mentions that he was already engaged for the task.
Corinne has a clever twist on the scheme up her sleeve: she has written a ransom note to Briggs telling him that if he ever wants to see Bobby again, he must arrange for shares of the Norris railroad to rise by fifty points on the stock market.
Will Bobby be able to throw off him hypochondriac ways? Will Corinne’s ransom demands be met? Will everyone end up in prison? You’ll have to see The Beloved Blackmailer to find out!
The film is a bit of a mixed bag due to the fact that it combines two common silent film tropes: kid trying to save the family business and the curing of a hypochondriac. The latter trope remained popular throughout the silent era with sufferers including Reginald Denny in Oh Doctor and Bebe Daniels in a gender-reversed version entitled Feel My Pulse.
Unfortunately, these two plot threads do not mesh well, mainly because Bobby’s time at the boxing camp receives much more attention than the blackmail plot. Whoever named the picture obviously knew which thread was the more interesting but that information does not seem to have sunk into the film itself.
Carlyle Blackwell has fun with the Bobby role and isn’t afraid to look silly or have his character act like a spoiled brat. The most successful scenes at the boxing camp are the ones in which Bobby is trying to evade cold showers, exercise and anything that requires exertion. Less successful are the cheap fat jokes at the expense of another camp guest.
Evelyn Greeley has a pleasant, gentle presence and so it’s a shame that she appears so little in the film. Her blackmail scheme is clever but she quickly falls into damsel mode when (spoiler alert) she is harassed by a cad. It is clear that this development exists solely to prove that Bobby has become a man but the point was already made in the boxing camp when he managed to defeat one of the instructors. There was no need to bring in this hoary, melodramatic cliché.
Still, I liked both the leading players very much and I can see why audiences of the day liked them as well. Blackwell’s stills all look brooding and intense but he actually shows a light touch on the screen and is more in the Wallace Reid mode than an Ivor Novello type. Greeley brings a girl next door quality to her performance and it’s easy to understand why she and Blackwell were teamed in eighteen pictures. In fact, Greeley’s final screen appearance was opposite Blackwell in the 1922 version of Bulldog Drummond.
The direction by Dell Henderson is about average for the period. No fireworks but not stodgy either. Henderson would later abandon directing for acting and is probably best known today for playing Marion Davies’ father in The Patsy and Show People.
Clara Beranger’s screenplay (Harry O. Hoyt wrote the story) has its flaws but you can see glimmers of the women who would adapt Miss Lulu Bett in three years. Viewers can sense Corinne’s frustration at her limited options and applaud her clever solution to solve her family’s woes. While the film sinks into melodrama in the last reel, there is a lot of good meat on its bones. It’s just a shame that the filmmakers opted to focus on Bobby instead of Corinne as her plot is the more unique and interesting.
The Beloved Blackmailer is not a terrific picture but it’s worth it if you want to see Beranger’s earlier work or if you want to take a gander at Carlyle Blackwell at the height of his fame. About half the jokes flop but half do land and the story is clever enough to keep the viewer’s interest.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★½
Released on DVD by Reelclassicdvd with a very suitable organ score by Bernie Anderson. It is paired with another World Film production, A Girl’s Folly (1917).