A 1916 Film Diary: “Confession at St James, Pictures.”
On Saturday 30th September, Margaret went to see a film - most likely at the Glebe Theatre - after attending confession at her local parish, St James. The church, which sat only a few blocks away from her home, today remains much as it was that Saturday evening - and, for that matter, as it was when Margaret and Fred Wilkins were married there a year later.
The Glebe Theatre was low in the pecking order of Sydney’s second run theatres, meaning the feature she saw would have already appeared in one of Union Theatres’ major city cinemas as much as two months earlier.
Did she see Douglas Fairbanks in The Good Bad Man? Probably not - Doug being one of her favourites, she would certainly have mentioned him by name in her diary. The same principle would tend to exclude William S. Hart’s The Apostle of Vengeance and The Primal Lure, both of which were shown in the city at around the same time.
Thomas Ince’s Going Straight, starring Norma Talmadge, is one possibility, or perhaps Acquitted, starring Wilfred Lucas - but to take various factors into account, the most likely film is The Pawn of Fate, starring Doris Kenyon and George Beban, who was also credited with the story. It was a product of the Fort Lee, New Jersey—based World Pictures.
Reviews suggest that The Pawn of Fate was so beautifully staged that the simplicity of the story of a naive Normandy farmer who is duped by an artist who falls in love with his wife, was easy to excuse. ”It is all so delightful that we do not care whether there is a plot or not, because the beholder is lost in the spell of fascination that nature uses to make the whole world kin,” reported Motography, one of many reviews that make the film sound like an ancestor to F. W. Murnau’s remarkable Sunrise: A Tale of Two Humans. We will probably never know whether The Pawn of Fate was a similar masterpiece, as it is a lost film.
The Pawn of Fate provided the first major screen role for Doris Kenyon, who would go on to be a very well known and prolific actress in silent and sound film, and eventually television. Likewise, director Maurice Tourneur went on to be a major force in Hollywood, as would the film’s assistant director, Clarence Brown.
George Behan is a less recognised name today, but was already well known as a stage actor by the time he entered films via Thomas Ince’s The Italian in 1915. Born in America to a Croatian father and Irish mother, but frequently appeared on screen as an Italian. As did Sessue Hayakawa for the Japanese, he strove to find more flattering roles for Latin actors than the usual mafiosi. He died tragically, contracting uremic poisoning after a fall from a horse in late 1928.
A 1916 Film Diary: “Louise Lovely This Time,” and “A Terrible Explosion”
The SS Wairuna
“A terrible explosion, six men killed," Margaret writes in her diary for Wednesday, September 27th - speaking not of the war, but of a dreadful industrial accident in which her brother Cecil was involved. A boxer by night, Cecil toiled as a day labourer for a living and was currently at the shipyards of Darling Harbour, where he was one of eighteen men working on the SS Wairuna. Fortunately, ”Cecil had a wonderful escape" - one of only nine men who did.
As the Sydney Morning Herald reported: “An explosion of benzine [sic] occurred in number 2 hold of the steamer Wairuna, in Darling Harbor. Six men were killed and three injured.” Local firemen worked valiantly to locate any survivors, ‘caught like rats in a trap’ as one report put it, who had to crawl through thick smoke and benzene fumes to reach safety. Many had been thrown several metres by the explosion.
The story made national headlines, and paranoid rumours of a German conspiracy began to circulate. A coronial inquiry eventually delivered an open verdict, though evidence suggested that the culprit was an unnamed worker who lit a tobacco pipe whilst inside the hold.
Ironically, German sabotage did eventually prove the Wairuna's downfall. Only a few months after being damaged in a French air raid in 1917, the ship was raided and sunk by the German SMS Wolf, and its crew taken as prisoners of war.
No doubt shaken by her brother’s close escape, Margaret took in a movie that evening, starring her current favourite: “Gilded Spider, Louise Lovely this time." The Haymarket Theatre had recently inaugurated a policy of changing their program twice weekly, so the venue was the Australian Picture Palace, yet another of the new Sydney theatres that had opened in 1916.
Like the nearby Majestic Theatre, the Picture Palace hoped to build a clientele of working-class Hyde Park shoppers such as Margaret. The distinctive rounded building was a feature of Liverpool Street until the late 1970s, when it was yet another victim of the establishment of the nearby George Street cinema complex. It is now the location of the Hyde Park Plaza.
The Gilded Spider was a baroque tale that found Louise playing Leonita, the danseuse wife of Italian sculptor Giovanni (Lon Chaney). Captivated by her beauty, an American millionaire, Cyrus (Gilmore Hammond), drugs Giovanni and kidnaps his wife. As in The Grip of Jealousy, Louise’s character suffers a tragic demise early in the film, drowning in her attempt to escape from Cyrus’ yacht - but this time, she’s allowed to return in the personage of her own daughter, as the film skips ahead to show Giovanni’s attempts to avenge his wife’s death.
The cast was considered above reproach, and the visual polish of the film was highly praised by critics, but Bluebird Photoplays were quickly gaining a reputation for subordinating effective storytelling to high production values. ”Bluebird seems to have the idea that spending a lot of money on a production, with a good cast, is all that is required for the turning out of successful features,” grumbled Variety. “It has long been an axiom in legitimate theatricals that the first requisite to success is a good play. The same applies to motion pictures.”
The film was also one of the first to be reviewed by Photoplay, which began publication in July 1916 and would become the best known and most trusted of all of Hollywood’s film magazines. Its reviewer, Julian Johnson, came to a similar conclusion: ”A good cast, almost sensationally opulent surroundings and much feminine beauty are wasted on a noisily impossible melodrama.” Margaret may have agreed, as she did not bother to see Louise’s subsequent film, Bobbie of the Ballet, or any future Bluebird productions.
Like the majority of Louise Lovely’s films, The Gilded Spider is now lost.
The Gilded Spider was one of a number of films from 1915-1916 in which Louise co-starred with the legendary Lon Chaney, whose film career was only a few years old at this point. Though Chaney is best known today as ‘The Man of a Thousand Faces’, thanks to his mastery of screen makeup, and as star of grotesque dramas and horror films such as The Phantom of the Opera (1926), this tends to obscure the fact that he was one of the greatest dramatic actors the silent screen ever produced. As the son of two deaf-mute parents, non-verbal communication came naturally to him.
Chaney’s only talking film, a remake of the silent The Unholy Three (1930), showed he was equally adept at sound drama. Undoubtedly, he would have played a vital role in the film industry of the 1930s and beyond, had he not succumbed to throat cancer in 1930, at the age of 47.
A 1916 Film Diary: “First Taste of Grand Opera”
On 21 September, Margaret makes mention of receiving her ‘first taste of Grand Opera, La Boheme.’ The play was a production of Italy’s Gonsalez Opera Company which, displaced from their usual European touring route by the war, were on a groundbreaking tour throughout the Southern hemisphere, allowing audiences in places such as India to see a full Italian opera for the first time.
The company was brought by Australia by promoter George Marlow, who was generally known for lighter theatrical fare. As a mark of the seriousness of his venture, Marlowe rebranded his Adelphi Theatre, at which Margaret had seen the pantomime Dick Whittington earlier in the year and was generally used for vaudeville and revues, as the Grand Opera House.
The season was anticipated as an ideal introduction to grand opera for people such as Margaret, and its price scale of 6/, 4/, and 2/ was advertised as the lowest prices at which opera had ever been shown in Australia. Along with 50 performers and two musical directors, the company brought its full wardrobe and its backdrops. The company performed a rotating selection of no less than twenty famous operas, which also included Il Trovatore, La Traviata, Cavalleria Rusticana and Il Pagliacci.
Marlow’s venture was considered a risky one, but his experiment seems to have worked.By the time it reached Sydney, the Gonsalez company boasted of having broken 55 records during its Melbourne season. “The Sydney public continue to give splendid support to the Opera,” reported The Newsletter in early October. “The Grand Opera House is crowded every night, and the productions of all the great operas have proved a magnificent lyric triumph. There is no mistaking the quality of the Gonzalez Company. The whole repertoire can be produced again and again on present appearances.” The company made the first of many return tours in 1917, and a version was still appearing on Australian stages in the late 1920s.
It was a particularly fortuitous visit for the company’s baritone, Count Ercole Fillippini. After falling in love with an Irish-Australian singer, he settled in the country, later helping to found the South Australian Grand Opera Company. Amongst his descendants is Paul Kelly, the singer-songwriter responsible for a very different but no less important legacy in Australian music.
Margaret’s attendance at the opera might have come at the suggestion of her brother-in-law to be, Syd, who had attended the previous week. She called the experience ‘v[ery] nice.’
A 1916 Film Diary: The Foundling
Mary Pickford’s The Foundling was Margaret’s selection for the evening of Saturday 16th September, after she and her fiancee had spent a day at the Glebe Carnival at Wentworth Park. This event featured everything from a military procession and welcome home to returned servicemen, to a fancy dress parade. Margaret described it as ‘a great success’. At the following year’s Carnival, her little sister Grace would win First Prize for Best Original Costume for her nurse’s costume.
The story of The Foundling, described by the Sunday Times as one “of a beautiful sentiments and tender appeal to the finer senses,” was a return to a more archetypal role for the star after the atypical Madame Butterfly.
The latter film had been one of Pickford’s many attempts to broaden her appeal past the ‘Little Mary’ persona, and like the others, it would prove short-lived. "The public ‘typed’ Mary against her wishes," explained Adolph Zukor, the mogul who had staked the success of his Famous Players company on Pickford’s fame. "She was wanted complete with curls, puppies, and a jam-smeared face and brave smile while going through some of the worst adversity ever heaped upon a young girl."
In The Foundling, Pickford’s favourite collaborator, screenwriter Francis Marion, pelted Little Mary with every possible peril in order to show off the pluck and humour with which the actress’ persona was now inextricably linked.
Poor Molly O is abandoned by her father after her mother dies in childbirth, undergoing deprivation after deprivation at a foundling’s home. When her father returns to adopt her, another child is substituted, and she instead goes to live with the cruel mistress of a boarding house, who keeps her in virtual slavery. Naturally, she is eventually rescued and all ends well. ‘[It’s] the sort of picture that at one moment gives rise to a delighted chuckle, and the next raises a lump, in your throat,’ said Sydney’s Arrow newspaper, a description that could easily be used for many of Pickford’s productions in coming years.
The Foundling is famous within filmic circles for a number of reasons that have little to do with his content. Firstly, it was Pickford’s first self-produced film - remarkable, given that she was only 23 at the time, but no less remarkable than the fact that she was already earning $104,000 per year. With various bonuses for box office performance factored in, the figure inflated further to a staggering $500,000. Pickford would soon find even this sum inadequate, departing Famous Players-Lasky to help found United Artists in 1919.
Secondly, the picture had already been completed when a fire devastated the Famous Players lot in New York. While a number of negatives for recently completed films survived, having been stored in a specially constructed fireproof safe, The Foundling was destroyed. Partly re-cast and entirely remade under a new director, it made its debut in January 1916.
Pickford attributed the film’s soft performance to this change in personnel and its troubled production history, but reviews of the time suggest that both critics and audiences considered the story a little too similar to her other hits to be entirely satisfying.
Already one of Margaret’s favourites, Mary Pickford's fame was reaching its zenith in Australia when The Foundling was released. In America, she was known as ‘America’s Sweetheart’, but in other international markets, including Australia, her sobriquet was ‘The World’s Sweetheart’. After opening at the Strand Theatre, The Foundling proved so popular that the Waddington’s chain, which had exclusive rights to Pickford’s pictures in Sydney, decided to show it simultaneously at all of its major city theatres.
The film is extant in a number of American archives.
A 1916 Film Diary: Fool’s Revenge
By now, the idea of the double-feature was well established in Sydney, particularly in the case of second-run pictures. This would have been attractive to Margaret, who had over a month’s picture-going to catch up on. On 14 September, she went to the Majestic Theatre at enjoyed The Fool’s Revenge, starring Maude Gilbert and W. H. Tooker, with The Secret Sin, starring Sessue Hayakawa and Blanche Sweet, as the supporting feature.
The Fool’s Revenge was based on a play by Tom Taylor, which itself was a loose adaptation of Victor Hugo’s play Le Roi’s Amuse and the opera it had inspired, Verdi’s Rigoletto. The story had already provided fodder for another film version, directed by D.W. Griffith, in 1909. The Fool of the title, a court jester in the original, was translated to a circus clown in this modernised adaptation.
Reviews paint a detailed picture of a lurid melodrama, reminiscent of the gothic horror stories that Lon Chaney later made famous, which included Victor Hugo’s own The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The clown (W. H. Tooker) murders the vampish wife he suspects of infidelity (Marie Gilbert) by throwing her off a cliff.
The clown changes his identity to avoid capture. After making a fortune in the oil industry, he encounters the lecher who cuckolded him, and disguises his identity a third time, in order to pose as the man’s butler and set his sights on his beautiful wife. A convoluted and tragic denouement instead sees him inadvertently assisting in the scoundrel’s seduction of the Fool’s own daughter (Ruth Findlay).
Motion Picture News' Peter Milne praised the story's “unrelenting force and unsparing frankness,” while admitting that these very traits would turn off some viewers, and noting that some early audiences had found its dramatic convolutions difficult to take seriously. Moving Picture World's Judson Hanaford also held reservations, praising the directing and most of the acting, but wondering exactly what the film's series of increasingly tragic events was supposed to mean, if anything. “In trying to crowd five reels with climaxes he [director Will S. Davis] has lost his way,” he concluded. “The story is clearly continuous, but in his accenting of this and that he has obscured its inner significance.”
The Secret Sin tells the story of two young women, Edith and Grace both of whom were played by Blanche Sweet. Stricken by poverty and their father absent, the sisters are forced to do piecework to keep their family fed. A combination of pure chance and the strain of her work leads Grace into a sinister underworld:
Grace is bribed by a drug friend to go around the comer into Chinatown and get him some opium. Grace goes, and in a joke, gets her first taste of the drug. Afterwards, when she and her sister secure employment in a blouse factory, and she is suffering from overwork, Grace takes money from the house funds and gets opium to relieve the pain. She is not suspected, and later, when an ignorant doctor gives her morphine as a medicine, she becomes a secret drug fiend.
Grace goes to great lengths to conceal her growing problems from her sister and family, and the plot thickens when the two sisters fall in love with the same man, and Grace conspires to make it appear that it is her sister Edith suffering from addiction. There is an exciting climax in Chinatown as Grace is rescued from the clutches of a Chinese drug gang.
Though the leading man was the handsome Thomas Meighan, it was the villainous Chinese drug pusher Lin Foo, played once more by Sessue Hayakawa, who was given more prominence in advertisements, following the success of The Cheat. Moving Picture World gave the film a cautious thumbs up, praising the verisimilitude of its scenes of poverty and director Frank Reicher for adding excitement and thrills to what might otherwise have been a purely grim story.
While Fool’s Revenge is considered lost, The Secret Sin is extant in the collection of the US Library of Congress.
The Majestic Theatre, at the corner of Liverpool Street and Nithsdale Street, Hyde Park, had opened on 30 April 1915, making it the newest cinema in the Waddington’s chain, which also operated the nearby Strand and Globe Theatres.
Its proprietors seemed to have young women exactly like Margaret in mind. “The Globe and Majestic Theatres are so conveniently situated for ladies who like a quiet and enjoyable rest after a strenuous day’s shopping that they have become a by-word amongst Sydney’s shoppers,” said advertisements, and indeed, the large Mark Foys department store was only a few doors away. “All dress circle patrons are served with a refreshing cup of tea and biscuits or a Summer drink between 11am and 6pm.”
The Hyde Park Margaret would have seen was very different from the one we know today - no St James or Museum Station, small saplings in place of the corridors of enormous trees, and of course, no soaring memorial to the victims of World War I.
Little trace of this area remains intact aside from the Mark Foys building itself, which has been repurposed as law courts.
A 1916 Film Diary: The Golden Chance
The Golden Chance, showing at the Globe Theatre on George Street, was Margaret’s choice of entertainment for the evening of 6 September. After two months of illness and uncertainty, she would resume her busy cinema-going schedule during September.
The ‘golden chance’ of the title referred to the prospects of a beautiful but downtrodden housewife (Cleo Ridgeley) who suddenly finds herself part of society life when she is brought in to substitute for an upper class woman at a dinner party. A rich bachelor (Wallace Reid) instantly falls in love with her, giving her a new opportunity not only for true love but for bettering herself. The chemistry between the two romantic leads was such that they were starred together in several more films.
Paramount Pictures, distributors for the Famous Players-Lasky production company, had by now firmly established itself in the Australian exhibition scene, and advertisements made liberal use of the excellent reviews it had received in America. According to Motion Picture News' Peter Milne:
Superlatives are dangerous, particularly the overworked word 'best,' and when employed to describe a Lasky picture the danger is even greater, for if we are inclined to say that such-and-such a picture is the best that Lasky has produced, next week there comes another even better — and better than best is— well, it's The Golden Chance. It is difficult to draw a definite line between the merits of the story and the direction… The story carries with it a load of suspense that keeps the interest at high pitch every minute of the time.”
Moving Picture World's Stephen Bush was similarly admiring:
"The gloss on all the superlatives has been worn off by the ruthless hand of the press agenda and superlatives after all are the only terms in which justice can be done to this picture … it is rich in dramatic material and replete with genuine pathos … it is bound to add to the prestige of the motion picture everywhere."
Many reviews commented on how ideally the story was suited to the motion picture form, and the construction of its screenplay by Jeanie Macpherson was used as a case study in at least one screenwriting guide in later years. Director Cecil B. DeMille was himself so taken with the theme that he remade the story as Forbidden Fruit in 1921.
During 1915, the year of The Golden Chance's production, DeMille kept up an extraordinary pace. Not only did he produce thirteen features during the year, but made The Golden Chance back-to-back with The Cheat, filming the latter during the day and the former in the evening.
The critics may have hit the nail on the head when they judged that over-lavish praise was beginning to dull the public’s ability to tell genuine quality from ballyhoo. Margaret must have felt the same way, as she decided The Golden Chain was ‘not up to expectations’.
Wallace Reid was one of the premier heart-throbs of the era, his persona clean-cut, cheerful and athletic. He had worked with a number of the pioneer companies before being one of the many popular actors to be signed by the burgeoning Paramount/Famous Players-Lasky. Eager to consolidate their growing stature in the industry, the company kept Reid, one of their major assets, very busy over the next few years.
While filming The Valley of the Giants (1919) in rural Oregon, Reid was injured in a train accident, and doctors prescribed morphine for chronic pain. As discussed earlier, morphine addiction was an emerging but still poorly understood phenomenon, and the methods to treat it could sometimes be little better than the addiction itself. Famous Players-Lasky kept Reid working as long as possible, but the world was shocked when the former matinee idol died in a rehabilitation facility in early 1923, at the age of 31.
Though Reid had been no hedonist, the stigma of addiction was such that his name was inevitably caught up with those of the victims of a number of other recent Hollywood scandals, including the mysterious death of rising star Virginia Rappé and the unsolved murder of director William Desmond Taylor, which exposed a seedy underbelly of drugs, drink and infidelity in the movie capital.
Sadly, the talented Reid became irrevocably associated not with the outdoor life or a love of motor cars, as he had during his lifetime, but with the scourge of celebrity drug addiction.
CINECON 50: Special Programs
JOHN BENGSTON SPECIAL PROGRAM
John once again earned his title as ‘the Kevin Brownlow of film locations’ in this program, which focused on locations at Santa Monica Pier, Venice Beach, the Pacific Palisades, Chinatown and our favourite Cahuenga Boulevard. Not being as blazingly hot as last year, a large and enthusiastic group accompanied John on his tour of the area around Cahuenga, including descendants of both Harold Lloyd and Chaplin’s cinematographer, Rolly Totheroth. We no doubt baffled onlookers as to our fascination for apparently nondescript alleyways which, as we now know, are parts of cinema history.
The picture above shows John standing on the exact corner that Mary Pickford is seen peeking around in the wartime charity short, 100% American (1918).
If you haven’t done so already, please visit John’s fascinating website for more information on the silent-era shooting locations in Hollywood and elsewhere that he has tracked down.
SILENT SERIAL PROGRAM
Silent serials remain a blank spot for many film fans, but Ed Hulse, author of the recently released Distressed Damsels and Masked Marauders, aimed to change that, dispelling a number of myths about their production and marketing, and discussing the career of serial queen Ruth Roland. A Pathé promotional reel encouraging showmen to purchase their latest serial, Hands Up!, was of particular interest, while Episode One of The Timber Queen left us on a cliffhanger, as Ruth Roland careened through timber country on the back of a runaway train. It’s a fascinating new area for exploration, and I hope to see some more of these serials in future years.
Earlier in the weekend, were also treated to THE ADVENTURES OF TARZAN, Chapter 3 - ‘The Flames of Hate’ Here, we meet a stockier and darker Tarzan (Elmo Lincoln) than the ones we’re used to. Was it an ‘electrifying chapter’, as the poster boasts? Perhaps not, but the average cinemagoer would have got a real kick out of observing the menagerie of exotic animals and the concluding sequence of a jungle fire, which is tinted a vivid and effective red.
That wraps it up for this year’s Cinecon coverage. Thanks and congratulations go to Bob Birchard, Stan Taffel and the entire Cinecon team for making it all happen. I can’t wait until next year!
CINECON 50: The Silents
PATHS TO PARADISE (1925) - Our first delight of the festival came early. Betty Compson plays a canny conwoman who finds herself outwitted by the even cannier Raymond Griffith. The two are soon in competition to con a wealthy family out of a fabled diamond necklace, resulting in some very funny gags as they attend a fancy party, attempting to distract the family and each other, in order to make the theft. Eventually joining forces, they make a break for the Mexican border, and thus follows a prolonged, hilarious chase through all of Southern California! The story wraps up nicely enough without the missing final reel, although I understand that it has deprived us of a terrific final gag. Keep searching your attics, everyone!
$20 A WEEK (1924) - A wealthy industrialist (George Arliss) challenges his spendthrift son (a young and under-used Ronald Colman) to a bet in which they both agree to live on $20 a week. The comic possibilities of this scenario are abandoned in favour of complicated plot which has an incognito Arliss investigating criminal misbehaviour in the rival Reeves steel company, and a dullish subplot about Reeves’ flighty socialite daughter (Edith Roberts) adopting a child. Performances are good and the film itself is OK, but you get the impression it all worked better onstage.
ALMOST A LADY (1926) - Marie Prevost stars in this fun and frothy comedy as a fashion model who is talked into posing as a famous lady novellist as a favour to her boss’s ditzy nouveau riche wife (Trixie Friganza), who hopes to impress a visiting Duke. Little does she know that the handsome stranger (Harrison Ford) is no Duke but a fellow victim of mistaken identity. Friganza is always fun, Prevost looks beautiful in her many close-ups, and the setting allows for a number of gorgeous Art Deco costumes - one of which Prevost ends up losing piece by piece, in the film’s funniest sequence.
BEHIND THE SCENES (1914) - Pickford is a rising stage actress who marries a homebody (James Kirkwood). Just as she receives her big break, he demands that she give up her career in favour of life on the farm. She must decide between her husband and the career that she loves, and in choosing one, she comes to learn the value of the other. Arguably, there is a feminist message struggling to get out, but only arguably. The story is clear, the characterisations good, and the stage scenes interestingly rendered - and yet the film still lacked a certain something.
A few people I spoke to felt that the projection speed was a mite slow, an adjustment that might have made this as enjoyable as it felt it should have been.
COURT-MARTIAL (1928) - Betty Compson is Belle Starr, a Southern belle whose hatred of the North has transformed her into the feared leader of the meanest bunch of bandits in the land. Northerner Jack Holt manages to infiltrate her gang in an attempt to end her thieving ways, but finds her stealing his heart instead. With a plot like that, this should have been far more exciting than it is, and we know Compson is capable of much more than sitting around looking noble and troubled. Still, as a rare document of Columbia’s transition from the corned-beef-and-cabbage days to major player it remains of interest, and there are moments of inspiration in the cinematography.
The intertitles were a peculiar mishmash of English and Czech, but enough could be understood to easily follow the story.
IF I WERE KING (1920) - This intertitle-heavy historical drama had its moments, but might have been a reel or two shorter. William Farnum plays Francois Villon, a romantic Robin Hood figure who is championing a rebellion against King Louis XI (Fritz Leiber, in an outrageously over-the-top performance). It is not until the fourth reel that the central conceit is revealed when, in an elaborate ruse, the King tricks Francois into spending a week believing he has become the leader of France. As a rare surviving feature by director J. Gordon Edwards, it does give us some impression of what his numerous lost Theda Bara historical epics might have been like.
EAST IS WEST (1922) - Constance Talmadge plays Ming Toy, the daughter of a large Chinese family, who is constantly haunted by the prospect of being sold into marriage. Instead, she is adopted by kindly young missionary Billy Benson (Edward Burns) and brought to San Francisco. While she becomes fascinated by the local taste for jazz and chewing gum, Benson becomes fascinated by her. It’s not until she’s pursued for marriage by the sleazy Charlie Yong (Walter Oland) that matters come to a head.
There really isn’t much more to this than Connie dancing around making cute quips and looking adorable in her Chinese pyjamas, and certainly no grand statements about race aside from a rather cringe-worthy pronouncement that sits uneasily with the film’s ostensible message that ‘East or West, we’re all the same inside’. Some original reviews for the film were surprisingly lukewarm, and I find myself agreeing with them. It’s very pretty but doesn’t add up to much.
There is some significant damage to the first reel, and a few missing scenes towards the end are filled in by intertitles in this high quality restoration from EYE. San Franciscans will love the shots of old Chinatown.
KENTUCKY PRIDE (1925) - The tone of this heartwarming horse racing yarn becomes clear early on, when the horses receive top billing over the humans, and the narration comes from the horsey hero herself, Virginia’s Future. Stud owner H.B. Walthall’s kindly nature masks a gambling problem, plans for her glittering career as a racehorse go awry, and Virginia’s Future finds herself tossed out into a sometimes cruel world. Ford measures out the pathos in careful doses, and before you know it, you’re highly involved in her rousing story. Gertrude Astor is appropriately mean as Walthall’s gold-digging wife, while J. Farrell Macdonald doesn’t overdo the ‘Typically Oirish’ in his role as a stablehand turned police officer. Good clean fun.
TRAVELLIN’ ON (1922) - This subdued Western tells the tale of ‘Travellin’ On’, an archetypal William S. Hart Good Bad Man, who travels into town believing in nobody but himself - until he meets the wife of a weak-willed preacher whom the ornery locals are determined to run out of town. The film looks beautiful, thanks to quality art direction and unusual chiaroscuro lighting, and Hart’s fine-grained focus on grey morality is intriguing, but the pace is rather leisurely, and much like the film itself, Jon Mirsalis’ score tended to walk when it could have done with the occasional trot or canter. The third reel is missing, but the lack of a driving plot made the gap imperceptible.
THE ETERNAL GRIND (1916) - There was some doubt as to whether we’d get to see this fragment, as the video was late in arriving, but I’m very glad we did. It proved an unusual vehicle for Mary Pickford, and an appropriate film with which to celebrate Labor Day.
Pickford is an impoverished New York garment worker supporting her two sisters - one a flirt, the other chronically ill. John Bowers, the compassionate son of the plant’s harsh owner, chooses to experience the sweatshop conditions firsthand, where he takes a shine to Mary. Meanwhile his dastardly brother is leading the flirt up the garden path, and the third sister’s condition is worsening. The surviving footage concludes about two thirds of the way through the story.
Bob Birchard valiantly stepped in to provide a running translation of the French intertitles, but the lengthy concluding crawl defeated us all, leaving the ending a mystery (Moving Picture World’s review provides some elucidation). In addition to the evocatively realised clothing factory and tenements, there are some great early shots of New York.
THE WICKED DARLING (1919) - Guttersnipe Mary Stevens (Priscilla Dean) and her friend ‘Stoop’ (Lon Chaney) are petty street thieves. After stealing a pearl necklace from a socialite (Gertrude Astor), Mary is befriended by the deb’s rejected fiancé Kent (Wellington Playter). She finds herself transformed by his compassion and belief in her innocence, and sets about changing her ways. Can their love survive Kent’s discovery of her past transgression, and ‘Stoop’s jealousy?
Though it does mark Lon Chaney’s first appearance under the direction of Tod Browning, this film really belongs to Priscilla Dean, who is entirely convincing as the diamond-in-the-rough Mary. Photoplay’s typically high quality restoration made the best of a damaged source print and filled in some short missing scenes with explanatory titles. To my mind, the best silent of the weekend.
BRONCHO BILLY AND THE BANDIT’S SECRET (2013) - This sweet modern silent, put together by the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum to commemorate the centenary of Essanay’s arrival at Niles, finds Bronco Billy (Bruce Cates) seeking inspiration in the exploits of a local criminal gang for his latest film. Cates and Christopher Green Goodwin (The Sheriff) will have a long future in silents if they should so desire it, and a guest appearance by Diana Serra Cary surely boosted that good lady into the Guinness Book of Records. Nice work.
CINECON 50: The Talkies
HOLD THAT BLONDE! (1945) is a so-so screwball remake of Paths to Paradise (1925), seen earlier in the weekend, with the suave Raymond Griffith replaced by the less attractive Eddie Bracken, awkwardly Code-neutered into a dim-witted clinical kleptomaniac who has been prescribed a good marriage as his cure, while Veronica Lake has been tricked into a life of crime via blackmail. Little of the earlier scenario is retained aside from a few isolated gags and the central idea of the theft of a diamond necklace. A lengthy Harold Lloyd style thrill sequence was received with nary a titter, an essay on what works wonderfully in a silent, but just seems vaguely sadistic in a talkie.
THE BARONESS AND THE BUTLER (1938) - William Powell made a brief sojourn from MGM to 20th Century Fox to launch the American career of Frenchwoman Annabella in this enjoyable curiosity. Powell plays William Porok, butler to the conservative Prime Minister of Hungary (Henry Stephenson), who is suddenly elevated to Parliament for a progressive party that opposes everything his master stands for.
Powell must juggle his commitment to the Parliament and the family - and deal with his feelings for their beautiful but spoilt daughter (Annabella). Ironically, the weak link is Annabella herself, who might better have been introduced via a smaller role. Her accent is sometimes hard to understand, and it’s rather incongruous coming from the daughter of an American and Englishman, but it’s a small quibble.
BUCK BENNY RIDES AGAIN (1940) - This is the sort of film Cinecon does so well - well produced, shamelessly and relentlessly entertaining, and unjustly forgotten. Jack Benny plays radio star Jack Benny, later assuming the self consciously faux-Western persona of Buck Benny as he pursues the lovely but unwilling Joan Cameron (Ellen Drew), a member of the singing Cameron trio, who are working at a fancy desert resort. Benny lets a number of fellow radio stars share in the fun, including Phil Harris and Dennis Day, but it’s Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson who almost steals the show as Benny’s butler, particularly when he pairs with Theresa Harris in a great song and dance number. Unrelenting fun.
THE NIGHT BEFORE THE DIVORCE (1942) - This battle of the sexes comedy begins well, with sparkling dialogue and funny situations reminiscent of last year’s wonderful Suddenly It’s Spring, whose plot it resembles. Chauvinist George (Joseph Allen) becomes bothered by his hyper-competent wife Lynn (Lynn Bari). Literally bumping in to the helplessly feminine Lola (Mary Beth Hughes), he finds her subservience more to his liking.
The film skids off the rails when Lynn’s new musician lover (Nils Asther, in an all-too-brief cameo), is dispatched for the sake of a rather nasty plot point, which both sides seize upon to further their agendas. Had this incident been better integrated, it would have made for a much better film - though this does not change the baffling matter of why Bari’s character works so hard to win back a husband who remains a complete oaf.
WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION (1957) - Billy Wilder’s courtroom drama not only remains a knockout, but one of the most beautifully cast films I’ve ever seen. Each suspect has exactly the right kind of ambiguity for their character - Marlene Dietrich’s mix of ice and fire for Christine; the earnest and yet evasive Leonard (Tyrone Power), while the mighty Charles Laughton anchors the film as the blustery barrister Sir Wilfred, with wife Elsa Lanchester in able comic support. In accordance with the concluding voiceover, I will not divulge the plot, except to say that if you’ve never caught the film and want to see a master at work, find a copy immediately.
Ruta Lee, who played a minor role, was in attendance, and had some funny recollections about working with Laughton.
A LITTLE BIT OF HEAVEN (1940) - Young Midge (Gloria Jean, Universal’s intended replacement for Deanna Durbin) is the beloved daughter of a hardscrabble extended family with a big heart. When she crashes a live radio broadcast and proves a hit with the listeners, she’s signed to a contract and the family’s luck changes. Soon, they’re living in a huge mansion with fancy new friends, but Midge begins to suspect that fame and fortune aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. On the basis of Jean’s performance, it’s hard to see why she did not go further, except to say that she occasionally comes across as a little too polished. The supporting cast is good, and features Billy Gilbert as comic relief.
Of particular interest is Midge’s large coterie of uncles, almost all of whom are played by silent era veterans, including Charles Ray, Maurice Costello, Monte Blue, William Desmond and Noah Beery Sr.
HUMAN CARGO (1936) - I’ve enjoyed the Claire Trevor/Allan Dwan films of the late 30s that have been shown in previous years, and this one did not disappoint - a slam dunk as the best talkie of the festival. Claire Trevor plays a fast-talking society dame who wants a leg-up in the newspaper game. She receives one when she gets a lead on a human trafficking racket, much to the annoyance her rival, ace newspaperman Packy Campbell (Brian Donlevy). The two go undercover and form an uneasy alliance in an attempt to identify the ringleader, stumbling into further danger.
Donlevy and Trevor are terrific, an attractive brunette named Rita Cansino shows promise in her short role as a nightclub dancer, but Helen Troy, as a switchboard operator-cum-Greek chorus, almost steals the show. The film whizzes by at a whirlwind clip. Thoroughly entertaining.
MEET ME IN ST LOUIS (1944) - Seeing this perennial favourite on the big screen was treat enough, but to see it in a jaw-droopingly gorgeous new million-dollar restoration was a knockout. The story probably needs no introduction - in any case, it’s one of those films you watch less for the narrative and more to become enveloped in the atmosphere, and this screening only served to remind us of Vincente Minnelli’s mastery on that score. Margaret O’Brien’s post-screening Q&A was quite brief, but contained some insights about performing with Judy Garland.
ALWAYS IN TROUBLE (1938) - In this very silly farce, Jane Withers plays the daughter of a newly wealthy family, whose madcap schemes to help her exhausted Papa see the family and a bewildered interloper stranded on a desert island, tangling with opportunistic crooks, and caught up in a fake kidnapping plot. I suspect that even the kiddies at the Saturday matinee for whom this was designed would have considered it pretty thin stuff.
ONE NIGHT OF LOVE (1934) - Anyone who has read Bob Thomas’ King Cohn will know this film by reputation, with reports of star Grace Moore’s capricious behaviour and fractious relationship with Harry Cohn. There is little trace of these tensions in the completed film, the tale of an aspiring opera star who rises to fame under a prickly Svengali, Monteverdi (Tullio Carminati).
Moore sings beautifully and looks lovely, despite being saddled with some ghastly costumes, and I’m always interested to spot Mona Barrie, whose career began in Australia. The film risks wearing out its welcome as Moore ping-pongs between Monteverdi and the boy-next-door Bill (Lyle Talbot) but the lengthy excerpts from Carmen and Madame Butterfly are a highlight, and there is ultimately much to enjoy about this glossy production.
CINECON 50: The Shorts
Time to interrupt the film diary once more, for a report on Cinecon, marking its half-century as Hollywood’s best showcase of rare films, new restorations and other gems for the serious cinephile!
Firstly, the shorts - which appropriately featured a strong emphasis on Charlie Chaplin, given the 100th anniversary of his first film, and Flicker Alley’s sterling restoration of Chaplin’s Mutual comedies.
VITAPHONE FROLIC (1937) gives the audience a front row ticket to a typical vaudeville show of the era. A peculiar act in which a very flexible man dressed as a life-sized golliwog allows himself to be thrown around like a rag doll is the most memorable of the four acts on display.
BRIDE AND GLOOM (1921) is a great Monty Banks comedy which I found much superior to The Covered Schooner, which we saw at Cinecon in 2012. Monty must scrape together $5,000 to marry his wealthy lady love, so he takes out a personal injury insurance policy. Unlike our typical silent comedy hero, he’s trying his hardest to get hurt - but failing miserably! A cute ending makes Sherlock Jr style fun of the standard fade-out of the time. Good shots of early Los Angeles no doubt provided John Bengston with some homework.
KID AUTO RACES AT VENICE (1914) - It’s only moderately funny, but the fascination here is in seeing ordinary people watching Charlie Chaplin as a complete stranger for the first and last time. In its restored state, the revelation is all the greater. The picture is so sharp that it’s hard to believe that a week has passed since it was filmed, much less a century.
THEIR FIRST MISUNDERSTANDING (1911) - Mary Pickford and real life husband Owen Moore play a newly married but jealous couple who find various ways to rib one another before finally reconciling. Sensationally discovered in an old barn in 2011, it’s unremarkable as a film but intriguing as a historical document. Given that Pickford credited herself with the scenario, you wonder if she already suspected her marriage to Moore would not be smooth sailing. Director Thomas Ince and an unrecognisable Ben Turpin appear as extras, but the real eye-opener was seeing Little Mary pretend to smoke a cigarette!
THE ADVENTURER (1917) provides a succinct summary of Chaplin’s acrobatics, with which we’re all so familiar - but the restoration allows us also to see the nuances for the very first time. Several times, I spotted Chaplin flick the audience the merest glance as he works his way further into trouble, as if to say ‘Ahem. Bear with me, now …’ To me, the Mutuals remain the purest expression of what Chaplin did best, and kudos once again to all who were involved in their restoration.
In a longer-than-expected break in the program, we had the surprise treat of MOTHER GOOSE IN SWINGTIME (1939), a short of the Mickey’s Gala Premiere celebrity spoof genre which looked great on the big screen in full Technicolor.
SNAPPY SNEEZER (1929) - This is a good example of a short that would have been perfectly charming as a silent, but sometimes feels a little clunky as a talkie, despite the presence of the always likeable Charley Chase. Charley’s got problems with hay fever, and the man he sneezed all over on the streetcar turns out to be the father of the girl he wants to date (Thelma Todd). Needless to say, things don’t go smoothly, as Thelma’s driving lesson turns into a literal roller coaster ride.
SCRAM! (1932) - This hoot-worthy Laurel and Hardy short has the boys, told by a court to beat it after being charged with vagrancy for sleeping in a park, befriend a wealthy drunk who invites them home. The trouble is, it’s not his home, and the blonde they accidentally get drunk is not his wife!
THE MASQUERADER (1914) - Chaplin plays a rejected actor who attempts to trick his director into giving him another role by returning to set dressed as a flirtatious actress. The main interest in this short is glimpses of the real-life Keystone studio in action. That, and contemplating that Chaplin makes a disturbingly attractive woman.