Stage star Lenore Ulric brings her signature role to the screen in this melodrama set in Canada. We have Mounties, trees and bloody revenge. The usual Hollywood Canadian wilderness picture, in other words, but we have the added bonus of a super Mountie and a location shoot in Yosemite.
Go get ‘em, tiger!
I do love Mountie flicks and I know I’m not alone. What’s not to love about noble gents in great hats tracking down evildoers? Unfortunately, the quality of Mountie pictures can be described as spotty at best. For every piece of quality entertainment, we have a few bombs. For example, Nomads of the North features Lon Chaney as a sexy fur trapper. Really. Where the North Holds Sway is essentially a western with more flannel. See what I mean? Well, let’s see if this picture will make up for the bad ones.
Tiger Rose is an adaptation of a 1917 stage play written by Willard Mack (you can read a public domain copy here) and produced by the famed David Belasco, who had quite a number of western and wilderness pictures in his repertoire. Warner Bros. scored a casting coup when they obtained the services of Lenore Ulric, who had created the role of Rose on the stage and had not been seen in movies in six years. The film was subsequently remade as a 1929 Lupe Velez vehicle (both silent and talkie versions were released) but, alas, the remake is not on home video.
(I should note that the version of the film I saw runs for just one hour. Tiger Rose as originally released ran for eight reels, which would be eighty minutes at minimum and likely far longer. The storyline is smooth and I did not notice any particularly large holes in the plot.)
The film opens in a quiet Canadian trading community that bears a shocking resemblance to Yosemite. (Mainly because the exteriors were shot there. Whodathunkit?) Sergeant Michael Devlin (four-time Marion Davies leading man Forrest Stanley) is a Mountie’s Mountie and he comes riding hell for leather into town. He has fished a half-drowned woman (Lenore Ulric) out of Loon River and turns her over to the kind locals for some first aid.
We know that this young woman has been through a lot because she looks like this:
Yipes! When they say “waterproof” on the mascara bottle, they mean it! And who made her hairspray? Color me impressed.
Devlin tells the story of his brave rescue in flashback and it strikes me that this would have been a far more impressive opening scene for the film than shots of the great outdoors. Devlin races on horseback to catch up with the woman in the water—she’s caught in a current heading for a waterfall because this is a melodrama—and then he dismounts and throws himself off a cliff into the river below. That is some grade A stunt work and it’s a pity that the suspense is spoiled by using the flashback structure.
Anyway, the young woman is named Rose and she likes to hunt and swear in the most adorable way possible. Devlin is interested but Rose falls for Bruce Norton (Theodore von Eltz), a dashing engineer. (Now there are two words I never thought I would type in the same sentence.) It’s love at first sight but Bruce is on a mission: he has tracked down a nefarious bad guy-type and he means to kill him for the sake of someone called “Helen.” There’s a suitably violent struggle for a pistol and Bruce ends up shooting his target, one of the local doctors.
Another local doctor (this town is flush with ‘em, it seems) examines the body and delivers a mysterious proclamation. It appears that everyone in this picture has decided to become Lemony Snicket. The second doctor is played by Sam De Grasse, noted villain of Fairbanks flicks, and he sets out to help Bruce… or does he?
Devlin receives news of the murder and springs into action. He takes his trusty rifle and is able to wing Bruce lickety-split. Bruce is in a pickle as a storm is coming in and Devlin’s posse has the area surrounded. He takes refuge in Rose’s cellar, where she and the doc discover him a bit later. But Devlin hasn’t given up the chase and it’s going to take a very clever plan to evade our unstoppable Mountie.
Will Bruce get away? Do we really want him to get away? I mean, that Devlin guy is pretty cool. In any case, find out in Tiger Rose!
Lenore Ulric does well overall but her Broadway experience causes her to play things in a broad way. (Get it? Get it?) It’s not too distracting but there are a few scenes in which her gestures get out of control and I wish I could assure her that we saw her in the nickel seats. She also applies her makeup with a trowel, which is distracting alongside the more subtle cosmetics of her costars and the general grit and outdoorsiness of the picture. (Makeup in the silent era was wildly inconsistent but the basic rule was that the actors should try to match one another in general amount and application.)
Ulric is further hampered by silly title cards that attempt to mimic French Canadian dialect. And does her background ever amount to anything in the picture? It does not. I am on record as hating dialect title cards and unnecessary dialect title cards are even worse. Frankly, it’s amazing that Ulric manages to rise above the silliness.
Let’s face it, Rose’s motivation is a little weak. She met Bruce the day before and had a flirtation that lasted all of five minutes, that hardly seems like a good reason to risk everything for him. But… this is a melodrama. Love at first sight is a staple. What’s more problematic is the fact that her contributions to the story are pretty much superfluous. The doc and Bruce would have escaped on their own and the ending of the film (being intentionally vague here) would have been essentially the same with or without Rose. Yes, it’s fun to see a silent heroine wield a pistol but it’s not unheard-of. (See Back to God’s Country, a smashing Canadian wilderness picture in which Nell Shipman saves the day with firearms and a killer dog.)
Theodore von Eltz is okay as Bruce but the film misfires when it plays Button Button with his past and motivation. It would have been far more believable if he had confided his sad tale to Rose. As the film stands, the leads are forced to run around being terribly mysterious when any normal person would be asking some questions. “Um, why’d you shoot the guy? I know the doc said you had good reasons but I’d kinda like some clarification. Also, do you shoot girls? Asking for a friend.” Look, this mournful “Oh, my horrible past that I will not clarify!” stuff is amusing in A Series of Unfortunate Events but it gets rather tedious in a drama.
I usually find Forrest Stanley to be a bit on the dull side but I really liked Devlin the Super Mountie. He doesn’t show up much in the beginning but every time he does, he performs some splendid stunt, strikes a heroic pose and otherwise shows himself to be Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean, and Reverent. In our world of gravel-voiced antiheroes, Devlin’s unabashed good guy-ness is a positive breath of fresh air and Stanley manages to do it all without coming off as sanctimonious or trite.
Devlin’s whole “unstoppable manhunting force for good” act just gets better and better as the film progresses. I don’t know about everyone else but I was definitely rooting for him to get his man. The fact that Bruce’s motivation is not revealed until the finale makes him a rather opaque hero, which in turn makes Devlin’s straightforward lawman stuff even more appealing. Why were there no Sgt. Devlin of the RCMP spinoffs? Come on, people, you missed a huge opportunity!
I have to say, though, that the casting of Sam De Grasse really threw me off. Here’s a man who can make picnics and candy and flowers look sinister and he spends the entire picture lurking about in a most ominous manner. I kept expecting him to stab Bruce in the back or something.
Legendary cinematographer Charles Rosher makes the most of the film’s Yosemite locations and the cast is frequently posed against lovely natural backdrops. Hey, if you’ve got it, you flaunt it. He does equally well with the moody shadows of the nighttime storm scenes. The man was good, is what I’m saying. Check it out:
When interviewed by Kevin Brownlow for The Parade’s Gone By, Rosher revealed the film was significant in his career as it was the only time movie mogul Harry Warner ever gave him (or anyone else) a bonus. Lenore Ulric was due back in New York for rehearsals and if the film was not finished in time, the entire crew would have to follow her to the east coast and finish making it there at great expense.
Director Sidney Franklin was too nice to rush things along so Rosher took over the role as expediter and the picture was finished on schedule. Ulric got to New York on time, Warner Bros. didn’t have to move production across the country and everyone was happy. Harry Warner personally thanked Rosher and told him that shooting in the east would have added $25,000 to the film’s budget. There was a funny bit of business where Warner wouldn’t let go of the check but Rosher got his bonus in the end. Fully deserved too, I might add.
(Rosher also received a telegram from Belasco himself complimenting him on his camera work. Rosher claimed it was just because Ulric, a Belasco favorite, liked her closeups.)
But back to the film as we need to discuss some significant flaws and the main issues can be traced directly to the script. Its stage roots show particularly in the third act as the story’s setbound nature becomes obvious. The leads scamper from the house to the cellar to the house to the cellar to the cabin to the house. Rosher and Franklin try their best to open things up with shots of the great outdoors but there’s only so much that can be done and the story ends up feeling a bit claustrophobic.
The finale of the film descends into absolute Victoriana, coincidences and all. It turns out that the doc was Bruce’s brother-in-law all along (the villain of the tale seduced and abandoned Bruce’s sister, who was doc’s wife) Everyone seems poised to get away when Devlin reveals himself and begins to make his arrest. Rose springs into action and holds Devlin back with a pistol while Bruce and the doctor escape. This means jail for Rose but she keeps Devlin prisoner all night. However, Bruce returns to turn himself in and to save her from sacrificing herself. Why they didn’t just tie Devlin up and all escape together, I have no idea. In any case, Devlin is moved by the gesture but he still arrests Bruce.
Hurray! You know, for people whose Hollywood motto is, “We always get our man,” the Mounties certainly seem to let a lot of fugitives go. I’d complain but then I remember that I almost never get my mail delivered during snow, sleet and dark of night. Hollywood needs more realistic mottos for its government organization. “We always get our man unless he’s dating that girl we used to like.” Well, not this time! Devlin remains a Mountie’s Mountie and thank goodness. Of course, Bruce just gets a few months in the pokey, which kind of retroactively nullifies the urgency of his escape. “I need to get away! I can’t serve six months! It’s inhuman!”
Is it worth seeing? Oh, definitely. Tiger Rose is as corny as can be and no Mountie film cliché is left out, though some are twisted about and played with. Also in the plus column, the cast is game, Rosher’s cinematography is gorgeous and it’s all in good fun. If you get into the spirit of the thing, I think you’ll have a great time. It’s one of the better Mountie flicks of the silent era.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★★
Where can I see it?
Tiger Rose is available on DVD from Grapevine.