Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: American Cinema

The Nut (1921)

Happy Silent Movie Day, and welcome to my review. In the 1920s, Douglas Fairbanks began a transition as a star to become known mostly for what he is remembered for today – swashbuckling, derring-do, and heroism. But in the teens, he had been a promulgator of physical and situational comedy grounded in athleticism and pep (in fact, he was one of the only film comedians of the time who worked exclusively in feature-length format). One hundred years ago, he still had some funny ideas to work out, and this movie is an example of his earlier style, carried over into the 1920s, and with all the film technique he had learned after six years in the business.

Nut-1921

The movie begins with a series of intertitles that set the scene for us. Doug’s character is Charlie Jackson, an aspiring inventor. Like so many of Doug’s characters, he is in love, and bends all of his energies and attention to The Girl, a neighbor in his Greenwich Village apartment house named Estrell (Marguerite De La Motte). The first scenes of the film focus on the Rube-Goldberg-like inventions Doug has developed as “labor saving” devices. His bed rolls him over to a pool and dumps him in, where spinning brushes apply soap to his body, then the floor raises him up to automatic towel-ers, and a moving sidewalk cruises him past several closets where mechanical arms help him choose clothing and dress himself. It all looks terribly inefficient and inconvenient, but it does show a man always looking for a new way to do things. Once this morning ritual is complete, he crosses the courtyard and climbs to the balcony of his beloved, who treats him politely but distantly, indicating that she is not sold on him as yet. We learn from intertitles that she is an educational reformer who believes that if lower class children spend one hour a day in the homes of the rich, they will grow up to be productive and escape poverty. We see her taking care of a brood of such kids in her own fancy apartment.

Nut

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The Delicatessen Shop (1915)

As with last week’s post, “The Conquest of Canaan,” this is a movie I watched during the Cinecon online film festival this year, and like many movies you can see there, it’s hard to find otherwise. Hence, I’ve only had the chance to see it once to prepare this review.

Delicatessen Shop

Joe Weber and Lew Fields were “Dutch” comedians from Vaudeville, who did an immigrant act based on malapropisms and misunderstandings, Lew as the smart, skinny one, and Joe as the fat, dumb one. Relatively little of this movie takes place in the delicatessen in which they apparently work together, Almost immediately after the credits, they break out into a huge fight, breaking up and throwing everything in the store at each other. This is interrupted when one of their wives shows up and says “the kids have eloped” – apparently referring to one another’s daughter and son. They go into a lengthy Keystone-style chase with cars and horse wagons, but only get there after the minister pronounces the kids man and wife. They make common cause, but somehow wind up in jail. They then go through an elaborate escape and are chased by cops until the climactic crash-up.

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Joe Weber in 1901

This movie follows a pretty standard formula for slapstick, and is essentially built around two comedy chases. The action was so fast most of the time, I had a hard time getting an un-blurry screenshot. It was funny at times, if childishly so, but I would guess that Weber & Fields were better when they could use their voices. According to online sources, they had broken up in 1904, and Fields went on to become a successful theater owner and producer. There were various reunions, most famously their first one in 1912 in which they performed as a duo at one of Weber’s theaters, and presumably in 1915 they were still friendly enough to work together on this and a few other movies (I believe the intro at Cinecon said three, but I could be misremembering as I didn’t make a note). The synopsis published in “Moving Picture World” focuses on the background to the plot seen here, explaining that the two friends have run their shop for years; their friendship deteriorating into suspicion and jealousy as it became more successful: “at night each slept on one side of the cash register.” Thus, two Jewish actors used Jewish stereotypes to create comedy for a mixed audience of Jews and non-Jews.

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Lew Fields in 1912.

The film making for this movie is pretty lackluster for 1915. Produced in Fort Lee at the World Film Company, it was presumably a second-string production for that short-lived but dynamic studio. Editing is minimal, and the use of the chase format allows them to re-use shots for both the pursued and pursuer, economizing on camera set ups. The sets are simplistic, reminiscent of an earlier era in cinema, and the acting is predictably too broad, as is often the case when stage actors first go on the big screen. Worth it mostly because it’s a rare chance to see old vaudevillians in action, otherwise Weber & Fields would just be fragments of old reviews and promotional posters to us now.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Joe Weber, Lew Fields

Run Time: 8 Min

Not currently available for free online. If you find it, please comment and provide a link.

The Conquest of Canaan (1921)

This feature-length interpretation of one of the works of Booth Tarkington was screened last weekend as part of the Cinecon online film festival. As is usually the case with the rare movies I can see through Cinecon, I’ve only been able to watch it once, so this review should be read with that limited exposure in mind.

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The Town of Canaan, Indiana, is dominated by Judge Pike, who owns a crusading newspaper that celebrates lynchings. He is opposed by Joe, a local street hood (Thomas Meighan) who loves Ariel (Doris Kenyon), daughter of an impoverished artist from a wealthy family. Pike’s daughter is the lovely Diana Allen, who is having a coming-out party to which almost everyone in town is coming. Joe is not welcome, but he goes to keep an eye on Ariel. This only enrages the judge further, who begins a campaign to keep Joe out of honest work, which drives him to the criminal underworld of the city, an area known as “Beaver Beach.” Meanwhile, Ariel’s rich uncle has died, making it possible for her father to finance their move to Paris. On the way out, she encourages Joe to study law and make something of himself.

Conquest of Canaan

Joe moves to New York, and working at a shipyard by day, goes to night school and does just that. He decides to move back to Canaan to set up a practice, only to find that the judge and everyone else still stigmatizes him as an enemy of decency. When Ariel comes back, however, she is a famous socialite, and the town forgets that it used to treat her the same as Joe, crowding the train station to welcome her back while Joe gets drunk on bootleg whisky to forget his trouble. She calls on him, which causes a split between her and Pike, while the gossips of town say things like, “That’s what living in Paris will do to a girl.”

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Meanwhile, a new sub-plot develops about a Beaver Beach girl and her husband, who suspects her of cheating on him with a local hood. The husband sees the two of them together in a dive, and he shoots him. Of course, they go to Joe for a defense lawyer. Meanwhile, in a sort of metaphor, Judge Pike and his minions get the idea that Joe’s dog is rabid and chase him through the streets until Joe shows up and shames them. Then the husband shows up and they decide that lynching him sounds like a good idea, although he surrenders willingly to the police, who manage to get him to jail. The movie turns into a courtroom drama as Joe tries to defend him, but meanwhile Pike is inciting a mob outside the courthouse. They burst in just as the Beaver Beach bar owner is about to give critical evidence, and it looks like the husband will hang, but the barkeep reveals that Pike is the true owner and somehow this results in acquittal. The husband goes free and Joe and Ariel are able to marry. The end.

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This movie, while set in Indiana, was in fact shot in the town of Asheville, North Carolina, today a kind of liberal artistic enclave in the largely conservative South. It probably served well enough for an Anytown, USA, at the time, and at least had the advantage of not being recognizably Los Angeles or filled with palm trees and Mexican-influenced architecture. Booth Tarkington, the author, was a tremendously popular author and associated with “Midwesterner” literature that romanticized the center of the country and the salt-of-the-Earth people who dwelt there. This fits pretty well with trends in popular cinema, that produced down-homey characterizations such as we saw in “Way Down East” and “Tol’able David.” Tarkington would continue to be drawn from for “wholesome entertainment” in movies for years to come.

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The big problem with the plot of the film is that the denouement makes little sense. How does the identity of the owner of a tavern alter the question of whether another man is a murderer? It might take some of the wind out of his crusading sails, if published in a newspaper, but it’s unlikely to calm a raging mob in the moment of passion before they haul out a man to be lynched. It certainly has no bearing whatsoever from a legal standpoint, and should have no effect on the verdict of the jury (indeed, the judge should have it stricken from the record as irrelevant). According to the introduction given at Cinecon, this was just as nonsensical in the book, so we can’t accuse Director Roy William Neill of garbling Tarkington’s message. Apparently both felt that it made for good drama, or just found themselves written into a corner with no other clear resolution.

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Another interesting aspect of this movie is that it is critical of lynching and vigilantism, both of which were scourges of that Middle America which Tarkington so famously celebrated – the rise of a new KKK would see its largest membership success in his home State of Indiana. This version avoids any discussion of the issue in terms of race, however, unlike Oscar Micheaux in “Within Our Gates.” If I recall correctly from my single viewing, the first instance of the judge’s newspaper celebrating a lynching mentions that the victim was Black, but no Black people are seen in this movie, we only read about him in an insert shot. On the one hand, by making the potential lynching focus on a white man, we could argue that the director is trying to universalize the experience and make his mostly white audience see the horror more clearly, the more effectively to drive home his lesson that it is always a bad thing. On the other hand, by failing to clearly condemn lynchings of African Americans (which were by far more common), the movie leaves its audience a moral “out” that perhaps it doesn’t apply equally; maybe lynching is truly only objectionable when it is done to “us” not “them.”

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Overall, this is a well-made drama that takes advantage of good acting and camera work, and a location that gives it more authenticity than it would have if made in Hollywood. We don’t often get to see 100-year-old images of North Carolina streets and architecture, so it’s historically interesting from that point of view. It suffers somewhat from its source material and the usual blindness of privilege, but was still good to see.

Director: Roy William Neill

Camera: Harry Perry

Starring: Thomas Meighan, Doris Kenyon, Diana Allen, Henry Hallam

Run Time: 1 hr, 10 Min

I have not found this available for free online, however, you may watch a trailer for free: here.

Broncho Billy and the Sheriff’s Kid (1913)

This short from Essanay is a typical “Broncho Billy” entry in which Gilbert M. Anderson plays an outlaw with a heart of gold. The company was cranking out dozens of these movies per month from its base near Chicago at this time.

Broncho Billy and the Sheriffs Kid

The movie begins with a grim shot of Broncho Billy getting locked into a cell. He wears leather wrist cuffs, a bullet belt, and a holster (despite being in jail), so we know right away that he’s a cowboy, even without a horse or a pistol. He picks at a bowl of unappetizing food and calls the jailer over to remove it, then makes a grab at the jailer through the bars and manages to secure his gun. He forces the man to unlock the cell and makes his escape. The next scene shows the jailer riding up to the sheriff’s house, where he is asleep (presumably it’s night time, though it isn’t dark at all) in the same bedroom with the crib of his small daughter. The sheriff (Harry Todd) reluctantly crawls out of bed and gets dressed to join the search. Now we see the mother (Evelyn Selbie) and child, in their night clothes, fixing food in the kitchen for him to take on the trail. The sheriff tucks the bundle under his shirt and gives each of them a kiss before going out. He rides off and we see Billy stealing food from an outdoor cabinet hung on the side of a house (the same house? It’s hard to say).

Broncho Billy and the Sheriffs Kid1

An intertitle reads “Later” and we see children dispersing from the front of a schoolhouse. Each is kissed goodbye by the teacher, a woman in a dark dress. The last one out is the sheriff’s daughter. After leaving the school, she walks home through a wild area, straying just a little off the path, and suddenly tumbling down the side of a cliff! Billy, eating nearby, hears the commotion and draws his gun. He finds the child, crumpled on the rocks, and identifies her by her writing slate, which is labeled “MAY – the sheriff’s kid.” Billy starts to leave, but, struck by his conscience, turns back and picks the child up, carrying her offscreen. He takes her back to the mother, now in day clothes with her hair up (it scarcely looks like the same actress). He places the child gently in her bed and the mother weeps over her. Billy tries to comfort the woman and she says something, which makes him look resolved and then leave. The next shot is a door with the shingle of “Dr. Brush” hanging over it. Billy walks up and pounds on the door. When the doctor comes out, he tells him he’s needed, then sneaks off while the doctor gets his bag.

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Meanwhile the searchers have taken a break to eat some lunch. Suddenly, they look up with interest at something offscreen, stow their sandwiches, and get up to proceed cautiously, guns drawn. They hunker down behind a bush and see Billy coming through the brush in another shot which may or may not be anywhere near them. The sheriff fires his rifle and Billy drops his gun, pantomiming that he has been hit in the hand. We cut to a scene of the doctor giving the mother some medicine, and she shakes his hand, relieved that the child will be OK. Now Billy staggers up to a door, his wrist crudely bandaged with a bandana, and knocks, staggering in pain when the mother answers. An intertitle says “I only ask help for help,” which seems an odd way of saying he wants her to return the favor for saving her child. She seems reluctant at first but eventually pulls him into the house. Billy stops and smiles when he sees the child’s improved condition. She takes him into a back room and removes the dressing, examining the wound. Now the sheriff and his companion break off the search, so the sheriff goes back to his house, surprising the mother. He is concerned when he sees the injured child, and he speaks briefly with her, looking surprised when she points toward the door. Billy tries to get some water, knocking a bowl on the floor, which causes the sheriff to realize there’s someone in the house, The mother tries to prevent him going to look, holding his gun hand as he draws his revolver and gesturing to show that she is pleading for the outlaw. Billy hears from the other room, but, having no gun and no way out, can only expect the worst. The mother suddenly kicks the door open, handing Billy the sheriff’s rifle while still holding his revolver-hand low. Billy now has the upper hand and holds the sheriff at bay while he goes over to give the little girl a kiss. The movie ends without any more resolution than that.

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Please don’t shoot my daddy!

This whole story takes 15 minutes and only two intertitles to tell. The situation is familiar enough that audiences could guess at what the characters were saying to one another, and their motivations, without any more information than that. We know Billy is a good man, even if he has done something wrong or illegal, and we know that he will save the child even at the risk of his own freedom. We also pretty much know that he isn’t going to shoot the sheriff in front of his wife and daughter, but it is a little unclear what the narrative expects to happen next. Maybe that’s why the movie ends so abruptly. One of the most interesting pieces of the film for me is the sheriff’s shooting Billy in the hand. In later Hollywood and television, it would become a cliché that good guys shot pistols out of the hands of bad guys without really hurting them = a practical impossibility, but a convention that arose because of concerns that Westerns were “too violent.” Here, Anderson graphically shows the consequences of being shot in the hand, even using stage blood on the wound and bandages, something Westerns would scrupulously avoid until Sam Peckinpah started using squibs in the 1960s. Anderson’s movies are generally (and for the most part rightly, in my opinion) remembered as simplistic moral tales, compared to the brooding ambiguity of William S. Hart, but the rules of the Western hadn’t been fully defined in 1913, and Anderson did sometimes take an interesting chance in molding them.

Director: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson, Harry Todd, Eugenia Clinchard, Evelyn Selbie, Fred Church

Run Time: 15 Min, 20 secs

I have not found this movie available to watch for free on the Internet. If you do, please comment.

True Heart Susie (1919)

D.W. Griffith was finishing up his Artcraft contract, preparing to make the shift over to celebrity-owned United Artists, when he put out this homey tale of rustic romance. It shows a number of his strengths as a director, more I think than the great “spectacles” with which he is associated today, though it has its underside of weirdness, like all his movies.

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The movie starts, as we expect from Griffith, with intertitles filled with bombastic claims and purple prose. The entire movie is “taken from real life” and will explore whether men are more motivated by the appearance of women or by their “true heart.” The first images show us the bucolic homes of William Jenkins (Robert Harron) and Susie Trueheart (Lillian Gish), who have grown up just across the road from one another. We see them at school, and when William can’t spell “anonymous” but Susie can, she goes to the head of the class. It develops that Susie has a big crush on William, to which he is completely oblivious, but nonetheless Susie interprets his words and actions to mean that he is also harboring love for her and they are destined to be married. Based on this, when he desires to go to college, she sells her beloved cow and various other farmyard resources in order to secretly sponsor him, pretending that the money comes from a foppish swell that passes through town one day and notices William for all of a second or two.

True Heart Susie

A Tale of Two Houses

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Hoodoo Ann (1916)

This early production from Triangle Film Corporation stars Mae Marsh, fresh from the set of “Intolerance,” and was produced by D.W. Griffith, at the time when his name could sell a picture by itself. A bit oddly structured for a melodrama, it gives Marsh opportunities to show a range of emotion and development.

Hoodoo Ann

The film begins in an orphanage, where the twenty-two-year-old Marsh plays Ann as a younger girl in the fashion set by Mary Pickford. She is the least popular girl at the orphanage and is also treated cruelly by the staff for some reason, made to do chores like scrubbing the kitchen floor while the others are at recess. It is never explained why her status should be different from any other orphan, except that the African American cook (Madame Sul-Te-Wan) one night reads her palm and tells her she is “hoodooed” until she gets married – “And then you won’t need no hoodoo to make trouble.” One day she steals a doll from Goldie, one of the other orphans (Mildred Harris, future first wife of Charlie Chaplin), accidentally breaks it and hides it, then is wracked with guilt over lying about it. Her opportunity to redeem herself comes when a fire breaks out at the orphanage, and Goldie for some reasons sleeps through the alarm. Ann runs back into the building and saves the still-snoozing Goldie. She wins praise and a couple who recently lost their own child adopts her on the spot.

Hoodoo Ann1 Read the rest of this entry »

Broncho Billy’s Love Affair (1912)

G.M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson tries to mix Western with romantic themes in this short from Essanay. Given the limitations of the length and the film techniques, it doesn’t entirely work, but it’s another example of the once-popular series trying for a broad appeal.

Broncho Billys Love Affair

The movie begins in the local land office, where a man (Brinsley Shaw) in a bowtie and a white hat receives money from an older man (David Kirkland), indicating that he does not consider it adequate. He leaves, looking dissatisfied and the scene cuts to an image of Billy with his girl (Evelyn Selbie). He puts a ring on her finger, and an edit shows Brinsley looking on, obviously concerned about this development. He waits until Billy leaves, then goes over to speak with her, and she proudly shows off her ring, disturbing him still further. Now an Intertitle tells us that he “induces his father to discharge Broncho” – the first indication we’ve had to the relationship of anyone in this movie to anyone else. The father (the old man at the office) seems very reluctant to heed his son – evidently Billy is a good worker. But, he eventually caves and calls Billy in, counting out his final pay, much to Billy’s shock. We now see Brinsley sneaking around a nicely appointed home, searching for something (the ring). He eventually finds it and steals it. Then he writes a note ostensibly from the girl, breaking up with Billy because he was fired. He leaves it at Billy’s shack and Billy, heartbroken, saddles up and moves on.

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The second half of the movie shows how all of this plays out, years later. Evelyn has a completely different hair style and wardrobe, indicating her transformation from virginal young girl to married woman, and Brinsley walks out of the house behind her while she sweeps the stoop. He is dressed less like a fop and more like a cowboy now, and he wears a gun. He takes money from her against her will, and goes to a building with a sign marked “Gambling.” Meanwhile, we see Billy snoozing with his feet propped up a desk, and an image of Evelyn as she used to be appears thanks to double-exposure, showing us his dream. Next, we see Brinsley backing out of the building with his gun drawn – evidently there has been a dispute of some kind. He jumps on a horse and rides off, and we see two men propping up another, apparently shot by Brinsley. One of the men goes to find Billy and tells him what has happened. Billy puts on his hat and joins the posse – we now see his badge and conclude he is the local law. They split up, and the other part of the posse finds Brinsley first, shooting at him from a distance and wounding him in the head. Brinsley escapes back to his house, where Evelyn takes him in, helping him to a bed where he collapses. Billy now wanders up and knocks on the door, and is stunned to find Evelyn there. She tells him she is now married and directs him to the wounded man, who confesses all before he dies.

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With limited intertitles, at least on the print I saw, this movie is not easy to follow, and without closeups or sharp resolution, I wasn’t even sure Evelyn and Brinsley were the same people after their wardrobe change. It relies on the audience’s ability to follow the formulaic story of star-crossed love more or less by instinct. I used the actor’s names because, even though imdb supplies names for the characters, it gets their relationships wrong, suggesting that David is Evelyn’s father when that is contradicted by the intertitle. There are some interesting edits, as when intercutting is used to show us Brinsley’s reaction to the gift of the ring, and Billy’s dream being intercut with Brinsley at the gambling hall. Overall, though, this is a pretty bare bones film for 1912; even the use of double exposure to indicate a dream is pretty old hat by this time. The romance doesn’t really have time to develop, and the story just moves through the most basic plot points without much development. It’s interesting to note, once again, that although the Broncho Billy movies were a “series,” there is no logical way to make them work as connected narratives. Billy has a different girl in each movie, and a new timeline is set at the beginning of each one, with no connection to what came before or after. Audiences (presumably) accepted the character as iconic, and didn’t worry about trying to make the stories link up in any way.

Director: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson, Evelyn Selbie, Brinsley Shaw, David Kirkland

Run Time: 12 Min

I have not been able to find this movie available for free online. If you do, please comment.

Within Our Gates (1920)

The earliest surviving film of African American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux is a very in-your-face response to the off-handed racism of most of cinema at the time, particularly D.W. Griffith and “The Birth of a Nation.” Not necessarily the most fun experience to watch, it is nevertheless a fascinating document from the “other side” of history.

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Evelyn Preer (introduced in the titles as a “renowned Negro artist”) plays Sylvia, a Southern African American woman living in the North with her friend Alma (Floy Clements, called “Flo” in the intertitles). Sylvia is engaged to serviceman Conrad (James D. Ruffin), but Alma secretly wants him for herself, setting up the first conflict of the film. When he announces his return from overseas, Alma hides the letter and sees to it that he will find Sylvia with an unnamed white man (whose presence isn’t explained until the final reel). Meanwhile Sylvia has been ducking the advances of Larry, Alma’s step brother (Jack Chenault), who is being investigated by a righteous detective (William Smith) at the behest of the police. When he gets into a shootout with some gamblers, Larry makes for Alma’s place, where Sylvia has dreamed that he is a murderer. All that aside for the moment, when Conrad sees Sylvia and the white man, he blows his top and calls off the engagement.

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The Affairs of Anatol (1921)

Cecil B. DeMille directed this lightweight sex comedy based on a racy play by Arthur Schnitzler, although the story seems to have been cleaned up a bit for the screen. DeMille shows how far he has come since the beginning of his career in the teens, and a young Gloria Swanson is ready for her closeup.

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The movie begins with an intertitle suggesting that protagonist Anatol (Wallace Reid) is a man who wants to be a hero – a modern Quixote who tries to rescue women from “real or imaginary” dangers. His wife Vivian is unlikely to understand, and she (Swanson) is first revealed to us receiving a pedicure from her maid, then emerging to peek over a changing screen at the camera. We learn from intertitles that they are newlyweds and her flirting seems to annoy him when what he wants is breakfast. Read the rest of this entry »

Tol’able David (1921)

This down-homey piece of Americana reflects the values that movie audiences responded to in the immediate post-war era. It also gives Richard Barthelmess a starring vehicle in which we can see his real face, unlike “Broken Blossoms” where he was under Yellowface.

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The movie begins by introducing the Kinemon family, salt-of-the-Earth types in a small village somewhere near West Virginia. Warner Richmond is Allan, the favored older son who drives the mail for the local general store owner – an important mark of social success. Barthelmess is David, the younger son, who is pampered by his mother, who describes him as “just tol’able,” not great. Older brother is already married and his wife is expecting, while David frolics in the lake with a little dog, only to have his clothes stolen, resulting in a humorous encounter with the girl-next-door, Esther Hatburn (played by Gladys Hulette). Esther seems to be interested in David, but he is painfully shy. At breakfast, David offers to drive the carriage (called “the hack”) for Allan, but Allan scoffs that he is too young for such a responsible role. We see Allan get the hack ready and take it off down the road, with a local child running alongside. We also see “pa” ignore his wife’s advice to take his work easy because of concern over his health. Read the rest of this entry »