Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Doris Kenyon

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.

The Ocean Waif (1916)

This late movie from Alice Guy-Blaché’s Solax studio seems to be an effort by her to imitate the success of Mary Pickford, with a less-expensive actress. The story, as well as the performer, do manage to evoke some of the charm of Pickford’s better work.

Not Little Mary

Doris Kenyon is Millie, a young orphan who washed up on the beach one day and is being raised by “Hy” Jessop (William Morris), a gruff fisherman with all the social graces and basic decency of Huck Finn’s Pappy. She is also loved from afar by the seemingly simple-minded “Sem” (Fraunie Fraunholz), who hates to see her abused by her foster father, and tries to defend her. She runs away to a nearby abandoned crumbling mansion, which, though filled with rats, is not much worse than her regular squalid digs. A wealthy author by the name of Ronald Roberts (Carlyle Blackwell) decides to lease said mansion, seeing it as the ideal romantic atmosphere to work out yet another best-selling novel, and he brings along his valet, Edgar Norton. Clearly, the three are on a collision course with wackiness!

This being a fairly brief silent film, said wackiness gets underway pretty quickly, with Millie hiding out in the mansion and fooling the butler into believing there is a “lady ghost.” Norton gives quite a number of good scare takes before Roberts figures out that there’s a real girl hiding out. Once she’s been discovered, Roberts takes her under his wing, with the usual result of an impoverished young girl’s awakening attraction to an older successful man (see, for example, “Stella Maris”). In this case, he more or less reciprocates, but with the added complication of a fiancé who comes to visit at an inopportune moment, causing Millie to run back to her foster father, who now notices her blooming womanhood for the first time. Luckily, Sem intervenes once again to rescue her, conveniently getting himself killed n the process to avoid any further romantic triangles. Ronald’s fiancé decides she’s more interested in marrying “the Count” who has been wooing her single (presumably widowed) mother, thus allowing the two stars to live happily ever after.

Your…fish…has arrived, sir.

This is pretty light fare, and as I’ve suggested it’s rather derivative, so doesn’t hold up against the best work Guy-Blaché was putting out from Gaumont in the 1900s. It is undeniably more sophisticated in terms of film techniques and storytelling, but only in the sense of having kept up with the industry as of 1916, not in terms of any innovations. Still, there are some nice touches. I actually think the best performance is the comic turn by Norton as the butler. I could actually hear his nasally-British voice as he showed his fastidious snobbishness at the surroundings and locals of the seaside. Anyone who watched (or read) “Jeeves and Wooster” will instantly recognize his archetype here. Norton would continue playing butlers of this type well into the sound period, so he’ll be recognized by many classic film fans. One nice bit has the waif’s first night at the mansion intercut with the author’s night in a luxurious hotel nearby, emphasizing the differences in their backgrounds and the lives they’ve known. I was actually rooting for Sem, myself, who seemed to have more genuine feelings for Millie, and who is the only one who really puts himself on the line for her. I suppose that the difference in their intelligence would have prevented a healthy relationship, but I’m not sure that falling for the first rich guy you meet is much better.

Director: Alice Guy-Blaché

Camera: John G. Haas

Starring: Doris Kenyon, Carlyle Blackwell, William Morris, Fraunie Fraunholz, Edgar Norton

Run Time: 40 Min (with some missing footage, I believe)

You can watch it for free: here.