A miller loses his livelihood and self-respect when he descends into alcoholism, egged on by his business partner who just happens to own the local bar. A rare chance to see a performance by Charles Gilpin and one of only two films made by the Colored Players Film Corporation of Philadelphia to survive.
I’ll also be covering the 1931 version. Click here to skip to the talkie.
Driven to Drink
In 1854, American author Timothy Shay Arthur published Ten Nights in a Bar-Room and What I Saw There. A melodramatic novel, it told the tale of Joe Morgan, a family man who is tempted by drink, becomes an alcoholic but (spoiling the end of a book published sixteen decades ago.) is called to his senses when his daughter is killed in a bar fight. The book ends with Morgan calling for the complete prohibition of drink in his town.
Quickly adapted for the stage, Ten Nights in a Bar Room was a smash hit on the page and in the live theater but by 1926, at the height of Prohibition, it had lost much of its appeal.
Much but not all. The Colored Players Film Corporation of Philadelphia decided to adapt the play to the screen as their second feature and they hired Charles Gilpin to play the dissolute Joe Morgan. Gilpin had created the lead role of Emperor Jones but was fired by playwright Eugene O’Neill, who had a Tarantino-esque propensity for peppering his dialogue with slurs and objected to Gilpin omitting them.
Quality roles were in short supply for black actors on the American stage and Gilpin eventually turned to the movies. His own struggles with alcohol would surely have informed his performance as Joe Morgan.
The story opens with Morgan a shell of his former self, his only comfort is the undying faith of his young daughter and the more jaded but still tender affection of his wife, Fannie (Myra Burwell). However, he cannot manage to tear himself away from Simon Slade’s bar. Slade is played by Lawrence Chenault, who viewers may recognize from his role as Yello-Curley in Body and Soul, an Oscar Micheaux production that starred Paul Robeson, who replaced Charles Gilpin in Emperor Jones. (Ten Nights in a Bar Room and Body and Soul are often compared as double rivals due to the Gilpin-Robeson connection and the competition between Micheaux and the Colored Players of Philadelphia.)
The bar is a place of moral degradation, where young men lose their all to crooked gamblers and young women are targeted by lotharios. In fact, the bar is presented as the root of all evil in the town of Cedarville. (While Hollywood was nearly done with Ten Nights in a Bar Room, its influence can be seen in both Hell’s Hinges and The Strong Man, both of which conclude with the total destruction of the local den of sin.)
The story is told in flashback by a traveling salesman whose yearly visits to Cedarville show the town’s steady descent into vice and corruption, decaying before his eyes. This is all reflected in the fate of Morgan, who loses his mill and then his dignity and then his daughter before he is able to break the stranglehold of drink.
If you see this movie to catch a glimpse at Charles Gilpin, let me assure you that you will not be disappointed. If I may compare him to his rival Paul Robeson, I will say that Robeson has the power but Gilpin has the nuance and pathos. This isn’t taking anything away from Robeson, of course, just illustrating their different performance styles.
Playing a derelict is challenging. The performer must be pathetic but not such a sad sack that he loses the audience’s sympathy. Gilpin gives Morgan a tiny core of dignity that cannot be destroyed by drink or bankruptcy. There’s something of his old self still alive inside and once it is rekindled, he is reborn. There’s a lot going on in Gilpin’s expressions and unlike many stage actors, he understands that he doesn’t need to play to the back row. Those haunting eyes are for the movies.
Lawrence Chenault does what he can with his rather one-dimensional villain, Myra Burwell is fine as the unfortunate wife of Joe Morgan. There’s assorted comedy relief (including a dime novel-crazy woman named Mehitable) and tragic figures but the real standout is the young lady who plays Morgan’s daughter. Her plight as the too-loyal daughter of an alcoholic is heartbreaking and she does not overplay or simper.
As Ten Nights in a Bar Room (novel and play) covered a topic that was the hottest political argument of the era, it was natural that silent movies would want to get in on the action. It was filmed twice by the Lubin company, once in 1897 and once in 1903, Biograph made a five-part series of scenes from the tale in 1901 (they survive in the Library of Congress’s paper print collection) and it was adapted numerous times throughout the 1910s.
The version that would have likely been most compared to the 1926 film is the eight-reel adaptation directed by Oscar Apfel in 1921. (Apfel, you may recall, was the director who taught Cecil B. DeMille the ropes and shared credit with him through 1914 and 1915.) This was not a major studio production and likely would have had budget restraints similar to the 1926 product. The film has not been released on home video but the Library of Congress has a 35mm copy.
Interest in the tale did not survive Prohibition. The 1931 adaptation starring William Farnum was filmed during the last gasp of the “noble experiment” and filmmakers were not eager to sign on for a repeat. Republic announced new versions twice in the 1940s and there were TV movies but ten nights were just too many to a thirsty public burned out on Prohibition.
I definitely understand the appeal of banning alcohol. Anybody who has had to deal with alcoholism firsthand has had moments where they wish they could emulate Carrie Nation. A simple answer to a complicated problem is always going to gain followers and such was the case with Prohibition. To the bitter end, temperance activists that the problem had merely been one of enforcement and such radical punishments as poisoned liquor were proposed in what I hope was just tasteless jest. (For ostensibly wishing to save lives, temperance advocates could be a bloodthirsty lot.)
Both novel and play conclude with a sober Joe Morgan delivering a pro-temperance speech, an open stand-in for the author that would make Ayn Rand blush. This might have been rousing stuff pre-1920 but a thirsty nation would have been unlikely to embrace the sentiment, pro-temperance fanatic excepted.
What’s interesting is that the consumption of the “demon rum” was already plummeting, along with other spirits, before the dawn of the twentieth century. Better refrigeration and transportation had made beer, both refreshing and less alcoholic than hard liquor, America’s favorite tipple and so it has remained. Prohibition temporarily stifled America’s thirst (officially, anyway) but it went shooting right back up after it was repealed in 1933.
The 1926 version of Ten Nights in a Bar Room wisely allows drinking to be just one vice among many Slade encourages at his bar. Sleazy, cheating gamblers and attempts to seduce respectable young women also figure into the story. It is still a temperance story, make no mistake, but it doesn’t hammer you over the head as much as it could and I am grateful for that.
This film is one of the four features produced by the Colored Players Film Corporation of Philadelphia and one of only two to survive (the other is The Scar of Shame). The studio rejected the in-your-face audacity of Oscar Micheaux and instead followed the path that was also being traveled by Richard Norman: Ten Nights in a Bar Room takes place in a world where all the characters, good and evil, are African-American with no explicit mention of race. (The level of racial content in The Scar of Shame is up for debate but that’s another story for another review.)
While Ten Nights in a Bar Room is clearly a budget product, it still includes a creditable bar burning and rowboat race. The direction lacks the polish of a major studio programmer of the era but it is on par with other budget productions of the day and uses the same philosophy: let a name actor or two carry the thing.
Ten Nights in a Bar Room was produced by people who knew the worth of Charles Gilpin and let him do his stuff. While it’s not the fanciest production of the 1920s, the performances make it worth seeing. It’s a rare chance to see the kind of acting that made Gilpin’s reputation. The story was old-fashioned even in 1926 but Gilpin’s work stands the test of time.
Where can I see it?
Ten Nights in a Bar Room was released on DVD and Bluray as part of the Pioneers of African-American Cinema box set. It is accompanied by a jazzy score from Donald Sosin.
As mentioned above, the 1931 version of Ten Nights in a Bar Room was the story’s last celluloid gasp. This low-budget production chooses to make the downfall of Joe Morgan (William Farnum) the only focus of the story and all it took was one swig of alcohol.
We know the story by now: Joe Morgan is a sober miller who walks into Slade’s bar and walks out a lush who has lost his business to drink and dirty gambling. I regret to report that the young actress who plays his daughter is directed to behave in that twee, over-rehearsed manner that 1930s audiences seemed to inexplicably find charming.
William Farnum had been one of the big stars of the early feature film era but his popularity had declined somewhat at this point. I was quite curious to see him in the talkies because he was a veteran of both the stage and the silent screen—two very different acting methods. His performance here is, frankly, wildly inconsistent. One minute grim and dark and realistic, the next playing to the cheap seats with plenty of vibrato in his voice.
Silent veteran Thomas Santschi trades in his usual spurs for a waistcoat and tie as Slade. Santschi chews the scenery and twirls his mustache whilst foreclosing on a widow, stealing a lollipop from a kid and kicking a puppy. He’s a pretty obvious bad guy is my point. I mean, I know we signed up for melodrama and all that but this pretty obvious stuff.
The film itself is as inconsistent as its leading man. One minute a pretty realistic portrayal of alcoholism and its effects on the family of the addict, the next a raging melodrama that is as awkward and coarse as one of those “Just say no!” D.A.R.E. productions that people of a certain again (i.e. me) snickered at back in the day.
It’s a pity because the film is quite effective when it goes for the quieter, more heartbreaking aspects of alcoholism. There’s more pathos in Morgan’s mother telling him that every single member of his family has fallen to drink than a dozen simpering scenes with his kid.
(Spoiler: The film doesn’t even have to guts to fully embrace its melodramatic roots. Little Mary Morgan survives the thrown glass but her father goes to kill Slade and burn down the bar anyway. I think the film suggests a happy ending but I can’t see how that would work out seeing as how Morgan killed a man. It strikes me as something that most people, no matter how pro-temperance, would find disturbing.)
And the winner is…
No surprises here. The silent version boasts a more dynamic leading man, better production values and a better grasp of the poisonous influence of Slade on the town. It’s not particularly famous but maybe it’s time that we changed that.
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The government really did poison liquor. Specifically, sometimes industrial denatured alcohol, instead of being mixed with something to make it undrinkable, was mixed with un-tastable poisons like strychnine. Several thousand people supposedly died from this over the course of prohibition. One of the selling points of getting your booze from mobsters was that they sold stuff a lot less likely to kill you than what you could get from “less reputable” sources! (I’m getting all this from the book “One Summer: America, 1927”, which was a good read except for having less about movies than I hoped for).
Well, I wouldn’t really call that intentional poisoning as denatured alcohol isn’t something people should be consuming anyway. Unless the plan was “We hope people drink this and die” instead of “Let’s use this industrial additive in a non-consumable” or “Surely nobody will be mad enough to drink this”
“Playing a derelict is challenging. The performer must be pathetic but not such a sad sack that he loses the audience’s sympathy. Gilpin gives Morgan a tiny core of dignity that cannot be destroyed by drink or bankruptcy. There’s something of his old self still alive inside and once it is rekindled, he is reborn.” – You mean, like in “Bad Santa”? No, no, sorry, don’t hit me. That is my irreverent sense of humor again. I have known real alcoholics and of course it is more sad than funny to watch their unintentional self-destruction.
Very few films have captured the sadness and the infuriating challenges of dealing with an alcoholic. Substance abuse runs in my family and cutting off is sometimes a matter of self-preservation. It’s so complicated and, I think, beyond the grasp of many films.
Yes, I also had alcoholics in the family. I am completely in sympathy, and I agree, most movies really do not capture it.
But then again, maybe it’s a good thing, right? There’s such a thing as too much realism.
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