Eleanor’s Catch (1916) A Silent Film Review

Director/star Cleo Madison plays young woman named Eleanor, who is on the verge of being seduced and driven to a life of crime by a sleazy city slicker. Will the young maiden be saved in time? This film sounds corny on the surface but just wait until you see that twist ending!

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD and Bluray.

The tale of the not-so-distressed damsel

During the mid-1910s, Universal began handing out directing jobs to women and popular star Cleo Madison was among them. Unfortunately, due to accidental fires and intentional junking, Universal has one of the most abysmal silent film survival rates of all the major studios, so only three of the films she directed or co-directed survive.

Our director and leading lady.

Eleanor’s Catch is a dramatic short and I have to be out front about its appeal. You will not understand what is so great about this picture until the last few minutes because there is a big twist. I know that a lot of viewers prefer to be surprised but I can’t properly discuss this picture without revealing the twist. So, consider this fair warning. If you want to be surprised, see Eleanor’s Catch and then come back and read this review.

Okay, everyone who wants to be surprised has left the room? Great, let’s get into this.

What is the secret here?

Madison plays Eleanor, an impoverished young lady who lives with her mother (Lule Warrenton) and takes in washing for a living. Her honest boyfriend, Red McGuire (Edward Hearn), is attending night school but for the moment, he is just as poor as Eleanor.

Flash Dacy (William V. Mong) is the local lothario and he immediately sets his eye on Eleanor. She is flattered by his advances, enjoys his expensive gifts and is soon throwing over Joe to keep company with Flash. However, Flash’s intentions are not honorable. The cad means to trick Eleanor into a life of crime and even has a drunk robbery victim lined up for her. All she has to do is flirt with the man and take his wallet while he is distracted.

The cad! Boo! Hiss!

Will she do it? Will Eleanor be ruined by the heartless Flash? See Eleanor’s Catch to find out.

So far, so typical of a melodrama. What about that famous plot twist I was rattling on about? Well…

Eleanor is really an undercover Secret Service Agent! She pulls a gun on Flash and declares that he is under arrest. He smacks the gun out of her hand but rather than fainting or fleeing, Eleanor tackles him, determined to bring in her man. She does it, too, with a little help from Red. After that, she retires from government work to marry the man of her dreams. This seems like an enormous waste as Eleanor could easily run for sheriff.

Does this plot twist make a lick of sense? No. But is it satisfactorily explained later in the picture? Again, no. It makes absolutely no sense based on what came before and what comes after. And I honestly do not care at all.

Who’s the cat and who’s the mouse?

Obviously, yes, I do like plots and logic and whatnot but this twist is so extreme, so whiplash-inducing that all I can do is applaud its audacity. And, in any case, the brief runtime of the film means that it is over before we can ask too many questions.

Lack of logic notwithstanding, the reason why this twist works so well is because plays perfectly into the popular view of what silent movies must have been like. A virginal heroine threatened with a Fate Worse Than Death at the hands of a slick lady-killer? Like, every silent movie ever, amiright? And then, BOOM! Our leading lady is engaging in gunplay and fisticuffs with the villain.

And this wasn’t an anomaly for Cleo Madison, either. In the lost 1916 film, Priscilla’s Prisoner, which she produced, directed, wrote and starred in, Madison was equally assertive. She plays a farmer who runs her smallholding singlehanded before taking the leading man prisoner under the assumption that he is attempting to rob her.

Her direction also seemed to head into the extreme on occasion. The lost feature film Her Bitter Cup features a dream sequence with the drug-addled villain crucifying Madison with nut picks. In the 1915 film Liquid Dynamite, Madison sets off a madcap chain of events when she becomes convinced that her boyfriend’s coffee thermos contains liquid explosives and that he is really a secret terrorist.

Madison’s independent onscreen characters reflected her real world opinions. “One of these days, men are going to get over the fool idea that women have no brains and quit getting insulted at the thought that a skirt-wearer can do their work quite as well as they can. And I don’t believe that day is very far off.”

Madison surely makes a strong case for this with Eleanor’s Catch. To be honest, I have not been so delighted with a motion picture in quite a stretch and I think most viewers will come away with smiles on their faces.

Are you even a 1910s movie without a moody doorway shot?

Is there more to this picture than its twist? Well, I did enjoy the standard issue 1910s moody cinematography. How they loved silhouetting their cast in doorways. I do feel that the cast was a little overstuffed considering the picture’s brief length. Eleanor’s sister and Red don’t do all that much to move the story along and things would likely have been snappier without them.

The acting is on the melodramatic side but I believe that the style can be considered intentional as this picture is playing around with the overblown tropes of the stage, novels and other motion pictures. I am personally delighted that we were threatened with an abbreviated Way Down East and instead ended up with Eleanor of the Secret Service.

Go Cleo!

Unfortunately, Cleo Madison’s acting career did not last past the mid-1920s and her directing career was even shorter with all of her credited films being released in 1915 and 1916. Besides Eleanor’s Catch, only Her Defiance and The Power of Fascination survive.

Eleanor’s Catch was a kick to watch for me and I think you will enjoy it too as long as you don’t think too deeply about that final twist.

Where can I see it?

Released on DVD and Bluray on Kino’s Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers box set.


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