The Jockey of Death (1915) A Silent Film Review

A young aristocrat joins a circus in order to rescue his cousin, who was kidnapped as a small child. Donning the costume of the Jockey of Death, our hero will stop at nothing to right wrongs and bring villains to justice. This unabashed melodrama was written and directed by Alfred Lind.

Home Media Availability: Stream on Vimeo courtesy of CINEMATEK.

More like the Jockey Shorts of Death, amiright?

The silent era was the golden age of cinematic hoopla. Every movie was thrilling, wonderful, the greatest ever, at least according to the ad copy aimed at theater owners and audiences. As a result, I’ve become jaded and tend to ignore the hype until I can see the actual film being advertised.

So, when I saw this ad:

I was incredulous. I mean, sure, it’s a melodrama, there are acrobats and one is dressed as a skeleton. And, sure, we are promised THRILLS! THRILLS! THRILLS! but what film could ever deliver on such guarantees? It’s all sizzle, no steak, surely.

Well, then I saw The Jockey of Death for myself and let me tell you something: that ad doesn’t show you the half of it. It lives up to the hype, it exceeds the hype. If the advertisement has you thinking, “That’s for me!” then I can assure you that you are absolutely correct.

I think that guy may be up to no good.

The film opens, as all good films do, with a man in a half-mask on a nefarious mission. He pays an itinerant theatrical trouper named Bartoli 10,000 francs to take a small girl with them and disappear forever. Once the little girl is gone, he cackles and monologues that Castelroc Manor is his, all his! Mwahahahaha!

Fifteen years pass and the masked man from the beginning is in possession of the manor. The young girl is still missing and it looks like he’s gotten away with it. But then, Henri de Castelroc (M. Arturo) shows up. He is the nephew of the late Count Raoul, the son of his estranged brother who was thrown out of the family circle when he married a circus amazon.

Henri is on the case.

The masked man realizes Henri is a threat to his victory and conspires to kill him, arranging an “accident” while they go riding. It backfires, though, as Henri discovers a note left by his uncle stating that he was poisoned. With the help of a loyal old servant, Henri realizes what has happened to his cousin and vows to rescue her.

The cousin is not given a name in the extant title cards of this version but the American release print referred to her as Elda, per the synopsis published in Moving Picture World, so I will use that name as it is less awkward than “Hey you!” Bartoli took her to Italy and she is now the main attraction of a large circus. Her high wire act is a daring affair that features the young lady riding a bicycle on a tightrope.

The missing countess.

In order to get near his cousin, Henri dresses up as a skeleton, calls himself “The Jockey of Death,” and joins the circus as an equestrian. Circus skills are genetic, it seems. But Bartoli doesn’t want anyone near his meal ticket and he forbids Henri to come anywhere near Elda. It seems that a rescue is in order. But the masked man is lurking and Bartoli is conspiring to rid himself of this troublesome jockey permanently…

Alfred Lind began his career as a director in Denmark and Iceland and he made some gloriously lurid films, including the 1911 version of The Four Devils. The circus continued to attract him throughout his career and the films he made during his stint as a director in Italy are no exception. The fact that the circus performers were the real deal performing authentic acts adds considerable excitement to the production.

Who doesn’t love a good lurking skeleton?

On a technical note, the film features the kind of shadowy cinematography that we can expect in a 1910s production and it includes some clever special effects. During the climax, Elda and Henri escape via bicycle across a river and it looks like the effect was accomplished with animated miniatures and forced perspective. It’s quite successful.

The Jockey of Death can be best compared to the madcap serials of French master Louis Feuillade. If you liked Judex, Fantômas and Les Vampires, you will love this. It has the same bonkers vibe, the same cheerful embrace of genre tropes and melodrama. Melodrama has a bad name these days but, as I always like to say, we still love it, we just prefer it to be attached to superheroes and space wizards. Why not a skeleton acrobat and his tightrope-walking cousin? In short, The Jockey of Death is delightful and exemplifies everything I love about the freewheeling 1910s.

What’s not to love?

I enjoyed the performances of the young leads, billed only as Mlle. Evelyn and M. Arturo. (The male lead is sometimes credited as Alfred Lind himself but this cannot be. Source: I have eyes with which I see.) Contemporary coverage stated that they were veterans of the acclaimed Circus Busch but, alas, both had common given names and no surnames were provided.

There was an animal tamer who billed herself as Mlle. Evelyn but there’s no record of her performing on the high wire. I really thought I had a good lead when I read that circus-rider-turned-owner Jack Joyce had a daughter named Evelyn who was about the right age. Joyce worked with Busch and was deeply involved with the circus culture of Denmark but his daughter followed her father as a rider rather than a tightrope walker.

What’s a little injury between cousins?

So, I suppose I shall just leave the matter at: “Excellent work, Arturo and Evelyn, whoever you were.” Their acting got the job done and their physical skills as performers added realism and suspense to the more adventurous scenes in the picture.

In English reviews of the period, the action was universally praised but the script was dismissed as being too old-fashioned and either too simple or too complicated. So, does the screenplay hold up? I should start by stating that the surviving print of this picture is missing about a reel and a half of material out of a total of five original reels, so there’s no telling what details are missing. That being said, Lind’s writing deserves more credit.

Never abandon your skeleton.

We live in an age when film and television writers are constantly trying to get ahead of the internet. The entire live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast seemed to be designed to rebut numerous blogs and vlogs crying “Stockholm Syndrome!” I am not a fan of this as it comes off as stilted and distracting, as though the writers are constantly using the cast as a surrogate to defend their storytelling decisions. However, I do enjoy screenplays that play a bit with audience expectations.

The Jockey of Death is very much structured along the lines of a classic melodrama and it leans into its genre heavily. There’s no ironic winking, no embarrassment, we are here to boo and hiss and the villains, cheer the heroes and have a wonderful time. However, there are a few moments in which Lind anticipates audience incredulity and then incorporates these questions into the story.

All the skeletal goodness you can handle.

For example, Henri and his old servant spend much of the film schlepping about a costumed human skeleton. “Wouldn’t that look suspicious?” the audience thinks to itself. Well, yes. Yes, it is and the suspicious skeleton actually saves the day in the end. At another point, Henri uses a note to alert his cousin that he is going to help her escape from her abductors. “But doesn’t that look suspicious? A man trying to lure a minor away from his guardians? Nobody else knows his motives are pure!” Well, yes. And Bartoli uses this suspicion to file a police complaint against Henri, framing him as a trafficker. (Lind had served as director of photographer on one of Denmark’s early films on trafficking, Den hvide Slavehandel.)

These little plot details never come across as defensive or an attempt to get ahead of criticism. Rather, the plot feels like a delightful game of cat and mouse between Lind and his viewers. He anticipates our thoughts and then it turns out that the skeleton was a Chekhov’s skelly the whole time.

It’s a living.

The Jockey of Death’s cheerful embrace of its genre, the imagination of Alfred Lind and the performances by its two leads all make the film one of the finest examples of action-adventure made in the 1910s. It’s a shame this film isn’t more famous because it’s a sure crowd pleaser. Don’t miss it.

Where can I see it?

Watch online sans score courtesy of Belgium’s CINEMATEK. The print is a dual-language foreign release with Flemish and French title cards. You can also watch an Italian subtitled version of the Belgian print with a very modern and experimental score performed on bass, drums and electric guitar. The score was composed by Andrea Valle and funded by the National Museum of Cinema of Torino. Both versions are offered for free on Vimeo.

I am also happy to offer a very rough translation of the film’s title cards into English. A huge thanks to Peter and Shaun for their assistance. I hope the document will help English speakers enjoy this truly special motion picture.

☙❦❧

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