Edith Storey was one of the most popular stars of the 1910s and When the Tables Turned was one of many short films that built her career and made her a pioneer American movie star. She plays an actress on vacation who is kidnapped by a band of prankster cowboys and, you guessed it, she turns the tables.
Home Media Availability: Released via streaming.
They’re coming to take me away…
This may seem obvious on the surface but it’s worth repeating… All actors are more appealing in motion, it’s kind of their thing, but with silent stars, it is essential to see them act in order to understand their appeal. Florence Lawrence, for example, looks pretty in stills but on the screen, she is lively, warm and appealing in ways still photography just cannot capture.
Edith Storey hit her peak of fame a few years after Lawrence and is probably best known for A Florida Enchantment but that picture is sought out for its subject matter rather than its cast. Storey herself remains obscure compared to, say, frequent co-star Antonio Moreno. This is likely due in part to the fact that she retired from pictures in 1921—silent film study remains firmly fixated on the 1920s with a few notable exceptions.
I was curious about Storey because she was praised to the skies in contemporary reviews but photos didn’t really convey what was so special about her. Well, it’s high time to take a dive into her work. When the Tables Turned was made by the American branch of the Méliès film company and was made early in her career; Storey was just nineteen.
The available version of this picture— and, it seems, all surviving versions—are missing the opening scenes but the story is explained via title cards. Storey plays Ethel Kirby, a stage star who decides to give herself a vacation and chooses Lariat, Texas as her random destination. On the train, she meets a native of Lariat named Florence and they get along famously. Florence has written home and complained that the Lariat cowboys have lost their pepper and are incredibly boring.
The local cowpokes see the letter and decide to prank Florence with a fake kidnapping. You guessed it, they grab the wrong woman. Ethel is terrified at first but soon sees that it’s all a joke and decides to engage in some pranking of her own. She pretends to have been driven mad by the abduction and uses her skills as an actress to terrorize her abductors, stealing a pistol and forcing them to entertain her with song and dance and animal impressions. One of the cowboys flees in terror and runs to get help. Florence, who has just arrived safe and sound, takes matters into her own hands to save the boys from their own folly.
Feigning madness as a form of self-defense is, of course, as old as the concept of mental health and accounts of it are found in both ancient religious and mythological sources. Further, people suffering from mental illness were a reasonably popular bogeyman in popular entertainment of the time (they were kind of the killer clowns of the day), so the plan was a good one considering the context.
And now, the verdict on Edith Storey is… I LOVE HER! She’s just as cute as a button. Lively, mischievous, committed to the central gag. Like most films of this period, narrative closeups and synchronous dialogue title cards (that is to say, dialogue cards that appear at the same time the line is being spoken onscreen) are not used in When the Tables Turned, so Storey exaggerates her spoken dialogue in order to facilitate lipreading but this was considered appropriate and expected in films of the period.
Other than this understandable concession to the acting style of the period, Storey is natural and unaffected in her delivery. Her performance within a performance as a madwoman is winking and humorous and her more normal tomboy persona feels very modern and translates well considering that this film is very nearly eleven decades old at the time of this writing.
The rest of the cast is similarly engaging. The actress playing Florence is not listed in reviews of the period but she is natural and appealing as a no-nonsense character.
Westerns tend to be a dusty, male-centered genre and so it is fun to see one in which the ladies not only take the lead but finish everything up by making the cowpokes clean themselves up for a frilly tea party complete with petit fours—and the cowboys are perfectly happy with this turn of events. This is just one of many examples of early films seeming to break the rules because they were made before the rules were firmly established. I, for one, would welcome more frilly tea parties in our western motion pictures.
Note that the cowboys are specifically invited to a “pink tea party,” that is, a particularly formal affair demanding the very best manners. This term was already synonymous with starchy, demanding high society types and was used in slang of the period to mean same. A movie magazine published in 1912 referred to “the pink tea and silk stocking brigade” as opposing the motion picture industry. So, this invitation would be seen as playful teasing at the time, though the cowboys take it in stride and eagerly wash up for this new-fangled, high-falutin’ social affair.
I should mention that the Méliès producing this picture was not Georges but his brother, Gaston. Gaston Méliès produced films in Texas and California during this period before selling out to Vitagraph. Storey, of course, thrived at Vitagraph and her popularity continued to grow through the 1910s decade.
When the Tables Turned is a charming western comedy with a welcome sprinkling of femininity and an appealing lead. If you’ve never seen Edith Storey act in a motion picture but are curious to see what film audiences of the day liked about her, this picture is a good showcase. And at around ten minutes, it’s a small investment of time for a rich reward.
Where can I see it?
Available for streaming and digital download from Harpodeon.
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