When Tom Moore discovers a safecracker in his swanky house, he decides to let her go rather than call the police. The pair are suddenly struck down by a mysterious sleeping illness, so the hospital naturally calls in a foreign mystic. What secrets are hidden away in the distant past?
Home Media Availability: Released on YouTube courtesy of EYE.
Getting some shuteye
Do you want to know what I love most about 1910s cinema? The studio system wasn’t quite in place but the movies were proven moneymakers with constant demands for more. This created the perfect environment for some absolutely nutty plots. Filmmakers weren’t afraid of any story, no matter how weird.
And weird is the only way to describe The Mystery of the Sleeping Death. Its genre is romance, I suppose, but there’s a crime picture, a medical drama, and an Orientalist fantasy contained in these two reels. I don’t know how or why it happened but I am grateful that it did.
Perennial 1920s mom Alice Joyce plays Lizzie, “the best little safe breaker in town,” who is engaged by some toughs to rob Guy Harrison (Tom Moore). Guy catches Lizzie red-handed but instead of calling the police, he offers her money. Lizzie is freaked out by the weird generosity and flees but she is attacked by her co-conspirators for her failure and refusal to try again. Guy rushes to her aid and is held at gunpoint while Lizzie runs for help.
And then… they both just kind of collapse. They are taken to the hospital but none of the physicians can figure out why they are sleeping and speaking a foreign tongue. They try all the modern scientific methods—putting the patients to bed and slapping their faces— to no avail. So, they call in a mystic named Amar (Robert Walker), who declares that he understands what they are saying and tells the sad story of their condition.
It seems that thousands of years ago, somewhere in South or Central Asia (USA films never were big on geography), the daughter of a rich Afghan (Joyce again) fell in love with a white guy enslaved to her family (Moore again, needle scratch, “You’re probably wondering how an Irish guy like me got into this situation…”) but forbidden love, etc. etc.
The pair attempt to flee but are caught (their plan was “wander through Florida location aimlessly” so I am hardly surprised) and are sentenced to the Sleeping Death. They are placed on slabs, hypnotized and sentenced to sleep for eternity but once every century, they will leave their bodies and, I dunno, seek out random characters in a film of a completely different genre?
Look, I warned you that this wouldn’t make a lick of sense. Still, there are plenty of reasons to watch this picture and the primary one is That Shot.
When the mystic begins to tell the story of the lovers, the camera cuts to city gates and then begins to move toward those gates, through the crowd, until the doors open and reveal the sleeping lovers. As tracking shots go, this is spectacular for 1914.
Given the fact that so many silent movies are lost and we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of what does survive, I am very cautious about proclaiming firsts in cinema but…
This is the earliest I have seen this particular camera trick done for this particular narrative purpose. Tracking shots are a lot older than some viewers may realize and strapping cameras to trains, boats and motor cars was probably the first way audiences experienced camera movement in moving pictures. But taking the camera through the milling extras and through the gates to introduce a new time and place? That’s some stylish stuff. And then reversing the trick to return to the present? Again, looks great, does its job and this is the earliest I have personally seen it done.
The Mystery of the Sleeping Death reveals the ambition and vision of American filmmakers of the period but, in this case at least, budget limitations clearly hindered the scope of the fantasy. The painted sets and cardboard statues are hardly conducive to getting us lost in the daydream, though the costumes are generally very good.
Still, the ambitions are impressive in themselves and as I see more of his filmography, I become more convinced that director Kenean Buel was one of the great nickelodeon era talents who is now unfairly obscure. He particularly shone with more natural settings such as The Confederate Ironclad, which, despite its clueless palsy-walsy North vs. South plot, shows considerable dash, stylishness and a strong performance from Anna Q. Nilsson. I have been watching as many Buel pictures as I can get my hands on and continue to be impressed.
The mad plot made an impression when the film was released. The trade magazine Moving Picture World headlined its review with “New to the Point of Astonishment” and stated that, while it wasn’t exactly plausible, “We soon find that it is eatable and gives us a good meal. The ingredients are novelty of interest, suspense in its action, and sets that are all one could desire both as to photography and to the set itself. It tells a yarn of mystery; is not substantial, not bread but cake. The people will count it good entertainment.”
Alice Joyce is particularly fun to see. She ended up typecast as moms when she was barely thirty, so it’s good to see her at the height of her early fame as the leading lady of the picture, sporting the cloth cap of a burglar with aplomb and brandishing a pistol when necessary.
Tom Moore is a little more generic (I honestly have trouble telling him from brother Matt) and he absolutely does not have the legs for the extremely abbreviated costume he wears during the fantasy sequence. Where’s Carlyle Blackwell, Joyce’s onetime screen partner, when you need him?
The Mystery of the Sleeping Death is a very silly story was some absolutely stunning cinematography. It’s about half an hour long and well worth your time. Here’s hoping for a score one day!
Where can I see it?
Available courtesy of EYE’s YouTube channel. The titles are in Dutch but there are English subs available, just click the CC button.
The film is not scored but if you want to make your own, César Cui, Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Borodin are the way forward, in my opinion.
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