A chipper young inventor seems to have a stroke of good luck when an eccentric millionaire gives him a yacht as a gift… but the “millionaire” is really an escapee from an asylum and the yacht is being used to smuggle illicit spirits by a gang of bootleggers. Can’t win ‘em all…
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How are things in the ink business?
The recovery of some silent films will make headlines. The only known copy of Beyond the Rocks was unearthed in the stash of a collector in the Netherlands. The lost footage of Metropolis had been buried in an Argentinian archive. The original cut of Battleship Potemkin is finally available again after years of painstaking restoration.
The Wright Idea doesn’t star big name legends like Gloria Swanson or Rudolph Valentino and it’s not a lost masterpiece of Weimar Germany or Soviet Russia. But it is a silent movie that, up until a few months ago, was thought to be lost forever.
Film collector Christopher Bird noticed a 16mm copy of the film listed for sale and did a bit of digging. When he discovered that it was listed as a lost picture, he immediately bought it and ran it through his projector. Not only was it truly The Wright Idea, Bird states that “It seems to be a one-off copy, perhaps made from a nitrate original before it was lost to decomposition, and appears to be complete.”
And so here we are. An obscure comedy that was lost because nobody was looking for it for 92 years has reemerged after being hidden in plain sight. It may not make the front pages of film periodicals but I couldn’t be happier. Now, here’s the big question: Is it a hidden treasure or a bust?
First, a few words about the leading man. Johnny Hines is reasonably obscure even among devotees of classic and silent film. He was the resident funnyman at World, a high-quality concern based in Fort Lee, New Jersey, and the earliest appearance I have seen is in the charming 1914 rom-com The Wishing Ring.
Hines continued in a solo career and while I enjoyed his humor in World productions (particularly A Girl’s Folly), I have not been so charmed by his later work. I found his feature Luck to be dull and aggressively unfunny.
So, where does that leave The Wright Idea? Well, I am delighted to report that I loved it. It plays to all of Hines’ strengths as a comedian. He tended to occupy a similar space to Harold Lloyd: a peppy go-getter who tries to win both cash and the hand of his love. That’s his role in The Wright Idea as well but this picture has an extra special ingredient that puts it over the top. It’s a genre-savvy picture that plays around with the tropes and expectations of go-getter comedy, simultaneously fulfilling expectations and sending them up.
Hines plays Johnny Wright, a struggling ink inventor who has formulated an ink that dries instantly, does not require blotting paper and glows in the dark. He plans to sell his invention to one of the big stationary manufacturers and make a fortune but that’s easier said than done.
Johnny is interrupted by a brawl outside his window and sees an older gentleman in a frock coat being manhandled by a ruffian. Our hero leaps to the rescue and escorts the grateful Mr. Filbert (Edmund Breese) to his car. However, we soon see that the attacker is not a mugger but a keeper at the local asylum.
Filbert (Get it? A nut?) asks Johnny to drive him home in his car (of course it’s his car, the very idea) and the latter is so delighted by the fine car that he fails to notice his passenger stealing fruit, shooting out the hood ornament of a passing vehicle and interacting with billboards. Breese thoroughly steals the show here. A veteran actor in his fourth decade as a performer, Breese’s timing is impeccable and he plays the slapstick madness just believably enough so that his strange behavior never quite tips Wright off.
Out of gratitude, Filbert declares that he is giving his yacht, the Sultana, to Johnny as a gift. Johnny cannot believe his good fortune and goes off to return Filbert’s car and that’s when he quite literally runs right into Helen Thorpe (Louise Lorraine). Or, rather, her car.
While Johnny and Helen are flirting, the nefarious Captain Sandy (Walter James) takes the opportunity to steal a roll of bonds from Helen’s purse. Johnny makes a date with Helen to see his yacht and offer to pick her up at her office. Helen then realizes that the bonds are missing and who could have taken them? The too-friendly young man who slipped his business card into her bag and is flirting up a storm? It has to be!
Helen is a smart cookie and plays it cool, there’s no telling what such a desperate character might do. Instead, she lets him drop her off and then follows him. The car he was driving seems to have been stolen and Johnny has to sneak into his own room through the window. Of course, Johnny wasn’t the one who stole the car and he’s climbing in the window to avoid bill collectors but Helen doesn’t know that.
This is where the clever writing really starts to reveal itself. Johnny is a creature of the go-getter comedy and acts in the way the audience would expect: a bit of sneaking, a bit of grifting but all with the very best of intentions. However, Helen is reacting the way any normal person would when confronted with this only-in-the-movies behavior. The humor is not derived from the leading lady being a ditz, it is rooted in the fact that she is the least ditzy person in the film.
And so, Helen does what any sensible person would do, she seeks out professional assistance, in this case, a private eye named Flatt (Fred Kelsey). Flatt isn’t much of a detective but he thinks he has cracked a counterfeiting ring with Johnny at the head. I mean, the guy is trying to manufacture ink and he’s meeting with paper companies, of course that’s what he’s up to. Flatt tells Helen to get close to Johnny and go along with anything he asks her to do in order to gather evidence.
After a series of misadventures as Johnny tries to finagle stationary executives into buying his formula and ends up accidentally inviting half the city of Los Angeles to a party on the Sultana. Meanwhile, the nefarious bond-stealing Captain Sandy has decided to use the Sultana to run a supply of ardent spirits to thirsty Californians and the impromptu yacht party is the perfect cover.
The other successful ingredient in this picture is the inclusion of droll little details. A villain carrying around a Persian cat? Yawn. A villain carrying around a dachshund? Hilarious. Conrad Veidt later carried a small wiener dog in All Through the Night and I am similarly delighted. Captain Sandy’s little canine companion also figures into the plot later but to say more would be telling.
The rest of the film concerns Flatt and Helen trying to get to the bottom of Johnny’s scheme on the yacht while Captain Sandy tries to evade them and hide the stolen bonds. I am neither confirming nor denying that at one point, the dachshund is disguised as an octopus.
All in all, it’s a light, breezy comedy that doesn’t wear out its welcome and moves along at a brisk pace with plenty of gags and a clever screenplay. (Screenwriter Jack Townley, a newcomer when The Wright Idea was released, worked steadily and his credits include The Great Gildersleeve film series and the Abbott and Costello television show.) The production is helped along considerably by its veteran supporting cast and small visual details such as the announcement of the Sultana’s theft being shown as text spilling out of the radio.
The Wright Idea was pretty heavily marketed and the fact that it was silent was touted as a strength. First National’s full-page ad for the picture bragged “NOT a sound picture! – Because they wouldn’t hear a sound for all the laughs, laughs, laughs.” Of course, the laughs, laughs, laughs with silent comedy could not last and this was the last silent film of Johnny Hines but one.
So, obviously, I enjoyed myself and I learned something, too. Given my general “meh” reactions to Hines’ other films from this period, I surely would have written off The Wright Idea as more of the same and not thought twice about it as a missing film. But given the opportunity to actually see it, I found myself proven wrong in the most pleasant way possible. And that illustrates the value of lost films: we can theorize all we like about the quality of a movie we have not seen but the flavor of the production cannot be conveyed by stills or descriptions.
This also shows us all that treasures are still out there just waiting to be found and we never know where they will turn up. Sure, the stories of eccentric collectors hoarding treasure are enticing but some silents are lost simply because nobody was looking for them.
So, let’s rejoice. A lost film has returned to us and as a special bonus, it’s a fun little romp. Even if it had been awful, at least we would have been able to judge it firsthand. That is the true value of surviving silents, a trip back in time and a chance to experience what audiences of the day experienced.
A huge thanks to Christopher Bird for obtaining the one-of-a-kind print and allowing me to view it. I hope you all have that opportunity someday.
Where can I see it?
First, the bad news. The Wright Idea’s copyright was renewed, which means it is not in the public domain. As of this writing, 1928 will leave copyright in 2024. In the meantime, be sure to check with London’s wonderful Cinema Museum because there’s a decent chance it may pop up in their programming in the future.
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