A family’s life is thrown into chaos when the daughter of the house purloins a stack of valuable bonds to paper her playhouse. The very essence of “Well, that escalated quickly!” occurs when an ex-con neighbor is blamed for the theft and goes on the lam.
Home Media Availability: Released via streaming.
The Littlest Felon
Chester and Sidney Franklin enjoyed a meteoric rise as silent era directors. Within a few years of their 1915 debuts, the brothers were directing big names like the Talmadge sisters, Bebe Daniels, and Mary Pickford and Chester was responsible for the early all-color feature The Toll of the Sea.
The Doll-House Mystery makes it easy to see why the Franklin brothers enjoyed so much early success. In his program notes, William K. Everson wrote that “the cutting and camerawork are both superb, and the film is really an amazingly advanced little two-reeler.” I agree with this assessment and have rarely been so impressed by such early work from directors of the silent era.
This film is a bit of a tricksy thing, though. For the first five minutes (an eternity with a two-reeler), the picture seems like a static throwback. There are no closeups and everyone just takes turns standing around interior sets like it’s 1910 or something. And then it is as if somebody called and informed the Franklins that it was 1915 and we get a Wizard of Oz-like transition. Closeups! Cameras attached to moving vehicles! Shocking stunts! Aggressive and exciting editing! Did someone spike their coffee?
The story centers around the Grant family, a happy but dim trio consisting of dad John (Jack Hull), mom (Marguerite Marsh, big sister of Mae) and baby Carmen (Carmen De Rue), who is seven going on eight. When dad buys some bonds and puts them in his desk drawer, little Carmen waits until after dark to sneak down and steal them so that they can be used to decorate the walls of her doll-house (what we would call a playhouse these days).
Unfortunately, Carmen’s little playmate is Georgie Morley (Georgie Stone), whose doting father, Jim (Charles Gorman), is an ex-con trying to make an honest living. When the Grants discover that the bonds are missing, suspicion quickly falls on Jim and he realizes that his record makes him the perfect fall guy for the crime, especially since Carmen made a present of some of the bonds to Georgie.
This leads to Jim going on the run with his young son with Detective Pierce (Ben Lewis) in hot pursuit. And oh what a pursuit it is. Morley jumps on and off a moving train with his young son in his arms and it was clearly a real train and no stuntmen in sight.
(Checks family history to see if the Franklin brothers were related to John Landis.)
Lewis was clearly injured when he jumps off the train himself and takes a nasty, bone-crunching tumble. Yikes! And all of these events lead to a posse with rifles forming… and all because some spoiled brat didn’t want to ask for permission to decorate her stupid playhouse. (At seven, kids understand about stealing and anyway, the nasty horror waited until everyone else was asleep to purloin the bonds, she knew what she was doing.)
Spoiler: It all ends well when Ma Grant steps into Carmen’s doll-house and sees the bonds, which is something an actual parent would have done on day one, especially since Carmen showed so much interest in the bonds the evening before they went missing. An innocent man was hunted and nearly shot, a police detective nearly broke his own neck pursuing an innocent man all because the Grants displayed the intelligence of one of the dimmer members of the oyster bed. So, basically, the Grants need to be sued and Baby Carmen needs to be grounded until she is old enough to legally sign contracts. A less likable family is difficult to imagine and if you told me that this movie was meant as anti-capitalist propaganda, I would believe you.
All this being said, the picture is incredibly impressive and displays the kind of technical virtuosity that likely won the Franklins all sorts of attention from the bigger studios. I was unable to find the name of the cinematographer but whoever they were, they can count me as impressed. After the inexplicably static first half-reel, the film turns into a snappy and exciting fugitive picture.
I just wish that the story had been thought through more carefully. It’s not even a mystery because we know from the start whodunnit and the other characters would have figured it out too if they had simply taken the obvious step of searching their own house for the bonds. And given the dire consequences of the theft, the inevitable happy ending for the family feels undeserved and annoying. The film seems to be trying to convey a message about false accusations and pre-judging people based on their criminal records but it wimps out in the last few scenes and seems to be putting across the message that… if a rich family falsely accuses you of stealing, pray they show up to vouch for your innocence before the redneck posse starts shooting you? That’s not very reassuring, is it?
I should also mention that the performers make the most of their roles (silly though they are at times) and give natural and appealing performances. Marguerite Marsh is especially good in what could have otherwise been a thankless role but she infuses her mom character with charm and vivacity that makes her highly appealing.
The Doll-House Mystery fails spectacularly in its screenplay but the direction is quite impressive and should raise a few eyebrows even among established silent film fans for its daredevil stunts and impressive techniques. If you’re looking for excitement and don’t mind ignoring the story flaws, this is a very interesting suspense short for the silent movie nerd.
Where can I see it?
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