Dynamite Smith (1924) A Silent Film Review

When a shy bookworm of a reporter is unexpectedly dispatched to cover a homicide, he gets into more trouble than he bargained for. The killer’s pregnant wife needs to escape and our hero is her only hope. North the Alaska in this formerly lost Thomas Ince feature.

Home Media Availability: This new rediscovery is not yet available to the public.

“Do you want to watch a lost movie?”

Those are magical words to a silent film fan. The majority of all silent films are lost, that is, no copy is known to have survived. However, in the decades since, dozens of lost movies have resurfaced, from Beyond the Rocks to Sherlock Holmes to The Gold Diggers.

Dutch title card with newly-translated English subtitles.

And so, when editor and film historian Christopher Bird invited me to take a look at the lost movie he was stabilizing, I jumped at the chance. The title Dynamite Smith is not on many Most Wanted Lost Films lists but it was a major release from producer Thomas Ince, one of his last, and was a comeback attempt for one of his biggest stars, Charles Ray. However, supporting players Bessie Love and Wallace Beery probably have more name recognition these days.

The film was part of the collection of the late David Wyatt. He had purchased a dodgy 8mm transfer of a 35mm print. Why was this film considered lost when it was held in a private collection? Well, like many major films of the time, Dynamite Smith was exported overseas and was completely retitled in the language of the country that bought it. In this case, Dutch. The archivists who rediscovered Beyond the Rocks didn’t realize what they had at first either because of the translated title (Dutch again).

After he learned about Wyatt’s copy, Bird made inquiries about the source of the 8mm print to see if a better copy existed. Archives, catalogs, private collectors… Unfortunately, it seems that the original Dutch print has either decayed or has been otherwise lost and none of the American release prints are known to exist either, so the 8mm print is the only known surviving copy as of this writing. After scanning by Dave Glass, the print still needed a lot of help, including translating the Dutch title cards back to English courtesy of Rob Koeling, and we’ll talk more about the process of making it viewable later but let’s dig into the plot first.

The story opens sometime in the late 19th century and our hero, Gladstone Smith (Charles Ray), reviews books for his local newspaper but when all the other reporters are dispatched to a big story and he is the only staff member remaining, he is sent to cover a murder in Chinatown.

Bookworm on the job.

Nobody is willing to talk because they are terrified to Slugger Rourke (Wallace Beery), who owns a saloon. His abused wife, Violet (Bessie Love), realizes that Smith might be her only hope to get out and she agrees to help him crack the case.

This was where the first reel Chris sent to me ended. I was hooked. How would this murder mystery pan out? Would Charles Ray rescue Bessie Love? Maybe his book smarts would come in handy?

The unlikely alliance between Smith and Violet.

And then I saw the rest of the film.

We’ve heard of genre mashups. This was more of a genre hijacking.

Rourke attacks Smith and he is scared away from the story but Violet follows him to his workplace and drops a bombshell: she is pregnant with Rourke’s child and wants to save the baby from the abuse she has endured. She begs Smith to take her away and save her. And so, he agrees to leave everything and take her to Alaska, as one does.

Smith and Violet plan their escape.

Now, silent movie women who give birth outside of traditional wedlock (and Violent being estranged from her husband fits the bill) are generally obliged to die or watch their child die. Dynamite Smith opts for the former and now Smith is in Alaska alone with a baby he is not really related to in any way. Worse, Rourke has pursued him.

The group of settlers Smith was traveling with become trapped in a blizzard but with Rourke on his heels, he flees into the storm with the baby, drags himself to the nearest town and sends help back for the others. This makes him a hero and he becomes the local publisher, sheriff and suitor of Kitty Gray (Jacqueline Logan), your standard issue Secondary and Less Interesting Heroine Because We Couldn’t Use the Other One With Will Hayes in Town.

Smith made sheriff.

Of course, Rourke has not given up and he plans to get his revenge for Smith stealing his wife. The only answer to this is a round of self-mutilation and a nice pack of dynamite.

You are cordially invited to join me in a nice round of, “Excuse me, what?” And I agree. However, to understand why Dynamite Smith was written the way it was, we’re going to have to dig into the context, specifically, the career of Charles Ray and where it was at the time the film was made.

1910s coverage of Ray’s rapid ascent to stardom.

Charles Ray was part of the second wave of American film stars, the ones who really hit it big in feature films rather than nickelodeon shorts. Most of the biggest 1910s names in non-comedy fare that are still remembered in any capacity today were part of this group. Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, William S. Hart, Theda Bara… Charles Ray was their contemporary and equal and he was shepherded into stardom under the umbrella of producer Thomas Ince.

(Comedy was a little different because the shorts-to-features pipeline remained active far longer than it did for dramas. So, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd were part of the same cinematic generation but did not make their first features until much later than their dramatic counterparts.)

Charles Ray met with enormous success, particularly playing country boys who learned their lessons but finally succeeded due to pluck. His films were called things like The Busher and The Egg Crate Wallop, if that gives you any idea. The 1910s was a decade of change—chaos, really—with technology and a World War reshaping the world. Ray’s country fantasies were exactly what the public wanted to see. (Compare the wild popularity of the Andy Hardy series and The Andy Griffith Show in the equally tumultuous 1940s and 1960s.)

Ray worked in other genres (more on that later) but he had ambitions for even bigger things and his great dream was to adapt the Longfellow poem, The Courtship of Miles Standish, to the silver screen. Producers balked, so Ray independently funded the picture himself.

Film producers could be remarkably cruel and philistine in their creative decisions but, in this case, their caution was justified. It was true that costume pictures could be big business. After all, Douglas Fairbanks had just successfully jumped from breezy modern adventures into playing Zorro, Robin Hood and D’Artagnan around the time Ray was making The Courtship of Miles Standish. (Ray even used Fairbanks’ Prince John and Maid Marian, Sam De Grasse and Enid Bennett.)

However, these films were enormously expensive and, further, trying to make a romance, the sexiest genre, featuring members of a religion famous for not having any was not the wisest decision, it seems. It’s like making an all-Quaker fight picture. It would not be the sort of thing you would pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into making.

And think of the competition! The hearts of American public had barely recovered from the smoldering rise of Rudolph Valentino, the glorious historical antics of Ramon Novarro and Milton Sills was about to brood his way through The Sea Hawk. And those were just the American films. European epics were being imported, too. Charles Ray’s puritan fable never stood a chance and the film’s lavish budget made recouping it nearly impossible. The public stayed home in droves and Ray was obliged to give up his dreams of independence and return to Ince, who felt he could revive the star’s bruised career.

There’s a belief that Charles Ray was definitively ruined by the failure of his ambitious disappointment. It may have been the beginning of the end but he was still considered a going concern at the time. His comeback in Dynamite Smith was heralded and he continued to act in major productions for a few more years. (For example, the quarter-million-budgeted MGM picture The Fire Brigade.) A big bomb like Miles Standish hurt his reputation—his name wasn’t enough to sell a reportedly dull tale of puritan love, after all—but the bigger problem was that he was entering his mid-thirties and aging out of the country boy roles that had charmed the public in the first place. He was versatile, of course, but the flawed hayseed was his ace in the hole.

So, audiences still craved old-timey country entertainment (more on that in a minute) but Ray and Ince had other options. His baseball pictures were tied into his country juvenile image but his early hit, The Coward, was something else entirely. It was a Civil War picture that centered around its hero’s lack of courage and his struggles to overcome his fears. That picture was likely on the minds of everyone involved in making Dynamite Smith (the picture’s screenwriter, C. Gardner Sullivan, also wrote The Coward), along with another, more recent hit.

There’s a long shadow over Dynamite Smith and that shadow is Tol’able David. The beloved classic starred Richard Barthelmess in the kind of role that had made Charles Ray a top star: a country boy on his first mail run finds himself fighting for his life. The film launched Barthelmess into the top tier of Hollywood and granted him the kind of creative control that Ray had hoped to achieve with the success of The Courtship of Miles Standish. It was also produced and directed by Ince veteran Henry King.

Ray v Beery Round One

Unfortunately, the lesson that Hollywood took from Tol’able David was that movies needed to have bloody brawls with hulking brutes during the finale. The biblical structure of Tol’able David and the delicate nostalgia for a dying rural lifestyle? Naw, just pit the hero against the biggest bruiser on the studio payroll. (See: Wild Oranges.)

Once we realize that Ince and Ray probably viewed Tol’able David as muscling into their territory, the creative decisions of Dynamite Smith make a lot more sense. Sending the hero hurtling into a violent confrontation, narrative logic be damned, seems like an attempt to take some from Column A and some from Column B to create The Tol’able Coward in Alaska.

(Spoiler warning, for what it’s worth.)

Chewing the scenery during the finale.

Here’s an accurate vintage synopsis for the finale, just so you understand that I am not making this up: “Smith determines to overcome his cowardice and hits his foot with an axe so he cannot run. He sets a steel trap and catches Rourke and plants dynamite to destroy himself and Rourke. Kitty returns, Smith manages to save her but Rourke is killed in the explosion.”

Well then.

Smith’s motivation during the climax makes very little sense to modern viewers. Fleeing into a blizzard to save a child from his violent and abusive father is heroic, not cowardly. If Smith had left the kid behind, that would have been one thing, but he kept him warm and safe during the flight and saved the stranded travelers too. Therefore, the battle between Ray and Beery lacks the “prove your mettle” aspect that would be required to make it suspenseful.

Smith’s mental break plays heavily into the finale.

Smith’s decision to ax his own foot is even more incomprehensible and I actually checked a contemporary synopsis to understand what he was doing because I couldn’t believe the screenplay was that bad.

That just comes off as idiotic. Why didn’t Smith just throw away his boots or coat if fleeing was such a concern? The film is set in an Alaskan winter, he couldn’t go anywhere without them. Why injure himself when he was about to enter a physical confrontation with a violent, murderous brute with the life of a baby and the woman he loves at stake? I realize that he was supposed to be having a breakdown but there’s a reason this sort of thing didn’t catch on, folks.

Smith’s escape with the baby.

C.S. Sewell’s synopsis, published in Moving Picture World, confirms Smith’s motivation for self-mutilation, while also praising the film for its… realism?

“Even in the climax the type of character is consistently adhered to and instead of a conventional and unconvincing scene in which the coward suddenly develops great courage and overcomes the powerful villain, we see Ray resorting to the device of injuring his own foot with an ax so that he cannot run away, capturing the villain in a bear trap and arranging to blow both himself and the villain into eternity with a charge of dynamite and taunting him as a cat does a mouse. This is all stirring melodrama and the unexpected return of the heroine, resulting in Ray’s hurling the dynamite out of a window, is effective.”

Smith with axed ankle.

There’s a bromide that gets thrown around whenever anyone is reviewing older works. “You can’t judge old entertainment by modern standards!” I find this is often weaponized to block criticism of racism and sexism in older entertainment but even if it’s in good faith, it’s just a silly thing to say. As the man has it, the past is a foreign country and we are forced to interpret as best we can. There are no more native speakers of 1920s American pop culture. And some things… well, some things are just untranslatable. The hero thwacking his own foot before trying to kill the bad guy? That’s one of them.

As you might have surmised from the review snippet quoted above, Dynamite Smith opened to strong reviews and the ads focused on its success as Ray’s “come-back” picture. In his review, critic Peter Milne praised the climax lavishly, declaring it a successful comeback picture for Ray and expressing his belief that it was actually counterprogramming to the Tol’able David-style beatdown.

Rourke makes his appearance.

“Dynamite Smith successfully blasts us back to five years ago, when Charles Ray was at the peak of his career. He is up there again,” Milne gushed. And later in the review: “In handling his climax, Mr. Sullivan steered clear of conventionality, too. In fact, he is rather bold in the underlying trend of the action. The hero… fails to perform the usual unconvincing act of beating his opponent to a frazzle!”

In The Exhibitor’s Trade Review, George T. Pardy proclaimed: “Charles Ray executes a brilliant “comeback” in this picture, reminding old-timers of the Triangle period, when Thomas Ince and Gardner Sullivan combined with Charles to put out features which went over with the proverbial bang wherever they were shown Here we have the trio again, and we want to go on record as saying that it’s a case of unity which wins. For Dynamite Smith is great entertainment!”

Bessie Love didn’t last three reels but owns the picture.

For all the praise, though, Dynamite Smith didn’t seem to stick in the public imagination. As is the case today, popular films would be spoofed, referenced or at least mentioned in other pop culture. Dynamite Smith just faded quietly away. Part of the reason may be that Thomas Ince died just a few months after the film’s release and his ambitious plans died with him, including Charles Ray’s comeback.

The focus may have been on Ray but the MVP of the cast is, without a doubt, Bessie Love. She plays to the camera beautifully as the abused wife of Rourke and immediately captures the sympathy of the audience. Smith’s decision to take her to Alaska may have been questionable but nobody could find fault with his desire to rescue her.

Farewell, Bessie.

These types of movies usually get rid of the worldly women in order to make room for a more virginal character. (Censors will always be censors.) In this case, Love dies of the dreaded Movie Illness soon after giving birth and Jacqueline Logan steps in. Unfortunately, Love’s likable performance endears her and Logan’s character isn’t interesting enough for viewers to enjoy her interloping on the story. Bumping off their best performer two-and-a-half reels in was not the wisest decision, in short.

I think it’s fair to pass judgement on the picture’s strange plot but there are other issues with the picture that should not be held against it. In addition to the jitter in the print, Bird shared that it likely lacks the editing finesse that the original American release likely displayed.

Image blowout means lost details.

Bird pointed out some instances of errors that would probably have not been present in the more polished American release. For example, many scenes contain repeated actions across cuts, with the actions mis-matched by the editor of the European release version. The task of editing had likely been given to an overworked, overscheduled assistant and that was a recipe for mistakes.

It should be clear by now that Dynamite Smith has a number of flaws. Some are a result of production decisions made a century ago and some are the result of the way the print has been treated during its long journey to rediscovery.

Violent conflict was the center of the advertising campaign.

David Wyatt was passionate about releasing obscure treasures to the general public. His Kickstarted releases of films starring Lupino Lane, Billy Bevan and Lloyd Hamilton, co-produced by Dave Glass, gave silent movie fans a chance to finally see these comedians at their best.

However, when a private collector or fan decides to put work into a release, more factors than rarity come into play. Print quality is a big one. Dynamite Smith was transferred onto 8mm film and both blowout and mildew damage are evident and, in certain scenes, severe. The damage and decay were present in the source print when the film was transferred to 8mm, the 8mm print itself is in good shape.

Further, the surviving footage has Dutch intertitles. Printed materials quite possibly survive that would allow for a completely authentic reconstruction of the text of the titles, rather than a re-translation of the Dutch into English, but that adds another layer of complication.

And this is where another factor comes into play: how will the film go over with the general public? If a picture is based on a famous property or stars a big name, it’s easier to sell. Wallace Beery and Bessie Love are known to classic film fans, most silent movie fans have heard of Charles Ray, though Jacqueline Logan is more obscure. However, none of these names launch sold out retrospectives, let’s face it.

Finally, there’s the matter of the picture itself. Dynamite Smith is very much a “had to have been there” picture. Its bloody and bizarre climax was praised lavishly when it was first released but it is baffling and opaque to modern viewers. It’s valuable film history and it gives us insight into the views of masculinity prevalent in American films of the period but the sad truth is that it’s not a great deal of fun to watch.

You can sell, say, a Weimar art film portraying grinding poverty that ends in tragedy, film festivals do it all the time, but Dynamite Smith was always intended to be a meat and potatoes crowdpleaser. Its jack-knifing genre shift and climactic self-mutilation simply do not work in that context. Extremely violent silent film climaxes, like those of Behind the Door and Tol’able David, have found passionate fans in the modern era but they were earned by their screenplays. The former film portrayed violence begetting violence and the latter’s hero had established motivation that caused him to enter a bloody battle he had no hope of winning.

How do you sell a climax like, “the hero thwacks his own foot with an ax, sets a bear trap for the bad guy and then laughs wildly as he lights the impossibly long fuse leading to a bomb… What? No, he is not a genius coyote. Stop laughing!”

I don’t want to give the impression that Dynamite Smith tips into “so bad it’s good” territory. The finale is so grimly lit and bloody that it is never allowed to teeter into camp, so we have this bizarre twilight area in which gag props aren’t funny enough to amuse but they’re too funny to allow viewers to take the scene seriously. It’s like showing someone slip on a banana peel and then letting the camera linger over their broken, bloody leg, mangled in the fall. (And, remember, comedy bombs and booby traps were in common use in slapstick comedy when Dynamite Smith was released.)

This is also where we have to, alas, bring in the subject of money. Most small silent film releases are the work of volunteers who work for nothing or very little. There’s no money in this. At the height of physical media sales, a less-famous silent film would be a hit selling hundreds of copies. Not millions or thousands, hundreds. And with Warner Bros. pulling their single most popular legacy series, classic Looney Tunes, from their streaming platform to cut costs, what chance do more obscure silent films have?

Bird obtained the print from Wyatt as a film trade and has been using his expertise to stabilize the image and make it watchable again. Between the transfer, stabilization and translation, there has been a lot of work put into the film already. What are the future plans? Well, it very much depends on how much interest there is from the old movie-loving public once word of its rediscovery spreads. A screening needs an audience, after all.

“Dynamite Smith” is now safe and sound.

Dynamite Smith started out strong and I would have liked to have seen the movie promised in the first reel. Alas, the Alaskan melodrama fails and the cartoonish finale has aged like milk. That being said, as is the case with any recovered lost film, I know this from firsthand experience. I didn’t have to cobble together the information from contemporary reviews or play detective. I know because I saw it. That’s truly amazing.

Keep looking, there is so much still out there.

Where can I see it?

The future of Dynamite Smith is still being considered. There is no danger of it disappearing again and I will share any screening or release plans as they are announced.

☙❦❧

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