Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Charles Hill Mailes

Polly Redhead (1917)

This was the one “feature length” Century Film screened at this year’s Cinecon, and once again I review it from my memory of a single viewing (almost a week ago as of this writing). It was billed as an attempt by Universal to recreate the success of Mary Pickford, and the plot has a lot in common with the simpler of little Mary’s stories.

Ella Hall

“Polly” is short for “Pollyooly,” apparently the original title of the novel this was based on, and we have to take their word for her hair color because the surviving print is black and white. She is played by Ella Hall, who is young and charming in her elaborate locks, but lacks some of the magic of Pickford. She is a street urchin in London who happens to be the niece of the dying maid of two solicitors solicitor (George Webb and Dick La Reno), and when the maid falls ill, she turns up as a substitute. What she doesn’t mention is that her aunt has actually died and she is hoping to take over the role permanently. In case she isn’t cute enough, the writer has thrown in “the Lump” (William Worthington, Jr.), a precocious little brother with a penchant for playing the drums. She brings “the Lump” to work with her, and for some reason Webb finds this more charming than annoying. Meanwhile the housekeeper (Louise Emmons) learns the truth and does her best to get Polly fired. She loses her job with La Reno but Webb keeps her on because of her remarkable talent for cooking perfect bacon. This turns out to be a good choice, because La Reno soon finds Emmons watering down his whiskey! It was to cover the fact that she had been nipping, but this would have been a lesser crime and she is let go and Polly brought back. Webb takes to teaching the Lump manners, using Polly’s bacon as a reward.

George Webb

A second conflict, seemingly more significant, arises when Webb’s fiancée and only client (Gertrude Astor) begins to object to this attractive young girl around the house. However, this is quickly negated when she recognizes Polly as the exact twin of a wealthy young girl caught in the throes of a custody battle. This allows Hall to take on a typical “changeling” dual-role when the two concoct a plan to replace her so that the mother can sneak the real child away to Europe and take on full custody. Alas, Polly’s odd treatment of the servants as equals gives her quickly away, but the end result is a predictable reconciliation between the parents and Polly even finds a nice rich boy next door while the game is on.

Gertrude Astor

It seemed to me like this was two short films, not all that well sewn together to make one short-ish feature, although it’s possible that there’s missing footage in the middle somewhere. The first movie actually worked better for me, with Polly defending her job through her bacon skills and the housekeeper losing hers for disrespecting good whiskey. The second story is more typical of the worse melodramas of the time and relies on the unlikely coincidence of Polly having a wealthy doppelganger and a resolution that seems all too simplistic and improbable (nothing like kidnapping a child to bring a couple together!). Hall seemed to overdo the dual role by giving the “rich” version of herself a bit too much moodiness and gloom and the “poor” version of herself a can-do spirit. She was more likeable in the first part of the story, where she just gets to be herself (apparently). The little brother seemed a bit too much like an out-of-wedlock child of Polly’s and calling him “the Lump” (which made me think of “baby bump”) didn’t help anything. We never see any sign of his or Polly’s mother, so the connection seems all too likely, though of course we are meant to think she’s the same age as the boy-next-door, who might be eight years her junior, and who she kisses at the end. A bit of a reversal from all the old men falling in love with underage girls in the movies!

Director: Jack Conway

Camera: Edward Kull

Starring: Ella Hall, George Webb, Gertrude Astor, William Worthington, Jr., Louise Emmons, Dick La Reno, Charles Hill, Mailes, Gretchen Lederer

Run Time: 45 Min

This movie is not available for home viewing or on the Internet at this time.

The House of Darkness (1913)

House_of_Darkness_(1913)1It’s not quite October, when I continue my history of horror films, and this short by D.W Griffith isn’t quite a horror movie. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s difficult to measure the development of horror as a genre, because early filmmakers appear to have been reluctant about overtly trying to frighten audiences, even though in other areas the public was quite willing to be frightened. By the time Griffith made “The Avenging Conscience” in 1914, he seems to have been willing to take the plunge, but with this movie – not exactly. I’m still tagging it as part of the horror fest, though, in part because of the title, and in part because it has certain parallels with “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” the movie with which most traditional histories of the horror movie begin.

House of Darkness2The movie is structured much like other progressivist message pictures we’ve seen from Griffith, beginning with a generalized problem and then closing in on a more intimate and personal storyline. In this case, the opening Intertitle assures us of a happy ending: this is the story of “how the mind of an unfortunate was brought to reason by music.” It begins, however, with a side story of a woman who suffers from mental disease, believing her baby is still alive when it is actually dead. The next sequence makes no sense to me at all – I actually wonder if it was shot for another movie. A clerk in an office seems distraught, then a young child with a doll comes in and he gives her some money (folding money, which would be a big deal in 1913). Then he breaks down and starts weeping and his co-workers gather around him. We don’t see him again. Next, we are taken to an asylum for the insane, where a doctor (Lionel Barrymore) and a nurse (Claire McDowell) carry on an accelerated romance and are wed. In the courtyard of the same asylum, a fight breaks out between two lunatics. Finally, an inmate (Charles Hill Mailes) emerges as the center of the action, as he breaks and runs, apparently meaning to escape. The attendants catch him when he stops to listen to Lillian Gish playing the piano. Once he is away from the music, however, his violent tendencies take over and he breaks and runs. Soon there are many attendants in pursuit, but he eludes them and manages to wrest a gun from some passers-by he accosts. Now he makes his way to the home of the doctor, where the nurse/wife is alone with a cat. He breaks in and threatens to kill her, but when she accidentally hits the keys of a piano, the man stops short. Now she soothes him by playing a tune, and the attendants and her husband show up to take him back to the hospital. In the most improbable sequence of an improbable movie, we now see Mailes “cured” of his malady by repeat sessions of “music therapy” in which McDowell plays the piano for him until he is rational again.

House_of_Darkness_(1913)The movie has a lot of problems, which I have to suspect Griffith would have been conscious of by this time. Really, it needs more than one reel for this story to unfold and be at all believable, and Griffith was campaigning for longer films at this time, so that fits. But, the bizarre sequence with the character who never returns is more likely an afterthought or an error of some kind, perhaps Griffith’s mistake, perhaps of other provenance. The premise calls for a more horrific treatment as well, if we saw the world, as in “Caligari” through the eyes of the madman, the illogic of it might well seem more appropriate. While it may have foreshadowed, or even inspired that film, it also resembles a 1904 Biograph comedy, “The Escaped Lunatic,” which also involves a chase after a mentally ill asylum escapee who stops and starts at unpredictable moments. It is quite possible that Griffith was familiar with this movie and decided (or was ordered) to try remaking it as a drama, which could explain some of its weaknesses.

House of DarknessNot to say that the movie is a total failure. There are some good parts. The acting, especially by McDowell and Mailes, is top-notch. Some of Billy Bitzer’s camerawork is fairly daring – notably a shot mirroring the famous one in “Musketeers of Pig Alley” in which actors approach the camera until they are in extreme close-up. In this case, Mailes “sneaks” toward the camera, at times concealing himself behind palm trees, until he emerges in very close range from behind the nearest of them, staring maniacally into space. Bitzer was unable to keep him in focus during the approach (adjusting focal length in the middle of a shot simply wasn’t possible with the technology of the time), but he did manage to set the lens to focus on him at this most frightening final moment. There are also good close-ups of the cat and of hands playing the piano. Griffith makes use of the editing techniques he was known for, especially cross-cutting, to keep the tension high as the pursuit advances. Finally, this is one of those silent movies where the soundtrack makes or breaks it, and the score by Sidney Jill Lehman on the Flicker Alley DVD-on-demand release is perfect for it.

House of Darkness1Director: DW Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Charles Hill Mailes, Claire McDowell, Lionel Barrymore, Lillian Gish, Christy Cabanne, Kate Bruce

Run Time: 15 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music)

For His Son (1912)

This is another of D.W. Griffith’s progressivist message pictures, made well into his career at Biograph studios, at a time when he was itching to use longer formats and express film as an artistic medium, but was constrained by his budgets and production schedule. The specifics of the story may appear a bit silly to modern audiences, but to best understand it we should keep our attention focused on the broader moral message of the piece, which is a critique of both over-indulgence of children by parents and of greed for profits that causes blindness to the harm that is caused in money-making.

For His Son2A middle-aged doctor (Charles Hill Mailes) has a wastrel son (Charles West) who keeps spending his allowance faster than the old doc can earn it. The doctor comes up with a get-rich-quick scheme: he’ll just mix in some of his therapeutic cocaine with a soda pop and make a mint! It works like a charm, and pretty soon drugstores all over town are carrying “Dopakoke,” the new soft drink sensation. The doctor has plenty of money to give his son now, and also to expand operations, hiring a PR man and a secretary (Dorothy Bernard), as well as quite a number of Dopakoke-loaders for all the trucks. The secretary tries Dopakoke, and decides it’s all right, even after she learns the secret ingredient. West and his cronies go out to a drugstore and decide to try it too; soon he is stealing from dad’s cocaine stash to spice up his sodas. West pays a call on his fiancée (Blanche Sweet), who detects that something is wrong when he starts showing off his track marks (apparently he has upgraded to injection now). When Blanche throws him out, he elopes with secretary so that they can shack up in a seedy room and indulge their true passion. Before long, they’re fighting over the needle until West makes like Sid Vicious and only now does his father learn his mistake.

For His SonAs goofy as the story may appear to us today, it is true that for some time (while it was still legal to do so), the Coca-Cola recipe did have some quantity of cocaine in it, and there was concern that its addictive properties might be transferred to the soda. Evidence suggests that by 1912, so little of the drug was present that it was probably negligible (and not as bad for you as all that sugar), but Griffith can’t fairly be faulted for not knowing that. What he attempted to do was to show the horrors of drug addiction in a movie long before this became an accepted genre of film, and, as I’ve suggested above, to speak to more universal moral concerns. As with his other shorts, the movie is an effectively intimate look at human beings affected by a broader social problem. The photography is fairly standard, once again being limited to small studio spaces and an occasional exterior of a doorway, and the large cast is at times cramped into small areas, but the editing is lively enough to keep the story moving forward. There may be a few unintended laughs in this one, but it’s still worth a look.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Cast: Charles Hill Mailes, Charles West, Blanche Sweet, Dorothy Bernard, Alfred Paget

Run Time: 14 Min, 40 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.