Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Famous Players Lasky

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.

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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 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 »

The Whispering Chorus (1918)

This feature by Cecil B. DeMille shows the development of plot and acting as it was taking place in a young Hollywood. Its star, Raymond Hatton, demonstrates that silent movie performance need not be hackneyed or overstated.

The conceit of this film is a simple one – that each person carries around with them a Greek “chorus” of voices that constantly advise on every decision made or action taken. These voices may be those of someone we know – our mother’s voice, for example, might be quite influential – or just represent our idea of “society” or some part of it. Together, these voices make up a “Whispering Chorus” that echoes through our minds with good and bad advice alike, often contradicting one another as they compete for our attention. Hatton plays John Tremble, a low-ranking white collar worker for a large contracting firm. His “chorus” includes Gustav von Seyffertitz and Edna Mae Cooper, and they appear as disembodied heads behind his shoulder through the magic of double-exposure when DeMille wants us to realize that Hatton is under their sway. When he considers knocking off work early, von Seffertitz encourages him with communistic logic about the theft of his time for the profit of the company, but Cooper changes his mind, promising him that his work will ultimately be appreciated.

After finishing his tasks, Tremble goes home, where h lives with his wife Jane (Kathlyn Williams) and mother (Edythe Chapman). They are busy decorating for Christmas, but John is upset because there are bills waiting to be paid, his clothes are worn and threadbare, and his wife wants to spend money on a new dress. After being a bit of a jerk about it, he talks to his mother, who convinces him to spend the last of his money on the new dress, to make up to her. He goes out again, but before making the purchase, he runs into a friend from the office, who invites him to a poker game. At first he refuses, but his whispering chorus convinces him that he can make enough from gambling to buy the dress and a new coat for himself, so he goes along after all. Predictably, he loses all of his money, then stays out late to avoid having to admit his mistake to his family. His whispering chorus convinces him to steal money from the till at work to make up for it, and he falsifies an entry in the ledger. Then an investigation into graft arrives, in the form of George Coggeswell (Elliott Dexter), and Tremble panics, knowing his theft will be detected. He begs off a theater engagement, claiming he needs to go back to the office to lock his desk, but instead he runs out of the state and goes into hiding in an abandoned shed near a river.

One day, a body washes up on shore, and Tremble uses it to fake his own death, leaving a cryptic note about a man called “Edgar Smith” who was supposedly trying to strong-arm him into falsifying the books. Tremble now shaves off his beard with a piece of glass, giving himself a nasty scar in the process, but also altering his appearance enough to throw off any pursuer. Meanwhile, Mrs. Tremble has been comforted by Coggeswell as his investigation now focuses on “Edgar Smith” rather than her blameless husband. She falls in love with him, and he with her, but she is reluctant to re-marry, since Tremble’s mother still insists that her son is alive. John drifts aimlessly through life, taking up dock work despite being rather too small and skinny for hard labor, and he is injured in an accident, giving him a limp that also distinguishes him from his former self. On Chinese New Year, Jane finally relents and agrees to marry Coggeswell, now  a successful politician and candidate for the governorship, while at the same time John dallies with a prostitute in Shanghai.

Eventually, John goes back to see his mother, finding her alone and dying. This leads to his being caught and accused of being “Edgar Smith.” When the trial comes, his own wife does not recognize him, and he fails to put up a good defense, believing that it is impossible for a man to be convicted of killing himself. He is, however, and now the “good” side of his Whispering Chorus comes to his aid. He decides that rather than proving Jane a bigamist and showing the world his own cowardice, he will go to the electric chair as “Edgar Smith,” redeeming himself for all of his mistakes in this way. The movie concludes by showing us that John Tremble has now become a part of Jane’s Whispering Chorus, the noble version of him guides her conscience through life.

On the whole, I enjoyed this movie more than “Old Wives for New,” also made by DeMille in the same year. While both were written by a woman (Jeannie MacPherson) and intended to appeal to a female audience, this movie does rather a better job of sympathizing with the wife’s point of view. At the beginning of the movie, I was a little worried that her desire for a new dress, and apparent neglect of her husband’s appearance would be blamed for all of the hardship that followed, but the script makes it clear that it is John’s bad decisions that are blame. Jane is portrayed throughout as decent and kind. John, on the other hand, is callous regarding her to the point of psychosis. His Whispering Chorus may be giving him bad advice, but he’s the one who never considers the effect of his actions on the people who love him, almost right up to the final scenes of the movie. It seemed to me that he had the perfect “out” when he made the excuse about going back to the office – he could have replaced the money then and the whole thing would have been cleared up. If there had been a scene showing him at the office, but seeing a cop on guard or something like that, it would have made more sense for him to run away.

John Tremble may be a heel, but Raymond Hatton is outstanding. He gives Lon Chaney a run for his money in changing his face several times in the course of this movie, also developing different body language as he goes from clerical worker to fugitive to deadbeat to convict. The wife who doesn’t recognize her own husband when he shaves (or grows) a beard may be a cliché in silent movie plots, but in this case, the transformation he undergoes makes it believable. The story also gives them several years of distance to help the memory fade. It’s sort of a reversal of “The Return of Martin Guerre,” and it works, but mainly because Hatton is so convincing. This is up there with the best work I’ve seen from DeMille as well, he keeps the story moving through editing and good use of multiple angles to show scenes and simultaneous action. The one weird choice was having the wedding inter-cut with John’s infidelity, though I suppose this was to insure that the audience would sympathize with Jane, even though she was technically violating one of American cinema’s cardinal rules by re-marrying while her husband was still alive.

Director: Cecil B. DeMIlle

Camera: Alvin Wyckoff

Starring: Raymond Hatton, Kathlyn Williams, Elliott Dexter, Edythe Chapman, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Edna Mae Cooper, Julia Faye, Noah Beery, Tully Marshall, Charles Ogle

Run Time: 1 hr, 25 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Busher (1919)

This baseball film from Thomas H. Ince emphasizes small-town values and staying true to your roots as ideals, just as many films about “the Great American Pastime” would do in years to come. It features a young Colleen Moore as the love interest, still a few years away from becoming the national symbol of “flapper” fashion.

The movie begins by introducing us to Ben Harding (played by Charles Ray), a small-time pitcher from Brownville. He is already in his baseball uniform as the movie opens, and we get the idea that he’s pretty devoted, in part because he carries a baseball glove around in his pocket. He tries to sneak past his snoozing father on his way to the ball park, but he drops the chain that fastens the gate to the fence and has to go back and tell him where he’s off to. Dad looks stern, but we can see he’s secretly proud of his son’s talents. Read the rest of this entry »

100% American (1918)

Mary Pickford stars in this promotional film for the Fourth Liberty Bond during World War I. While it’s predictably preachy, the film does take advantage of its star’s charms and gives a brief narrative to hold the audience’s interest while arguing that it needs to “do without” in order to support the war effort.

Pickford is introduced a “Mayme,” a typical young American woman who likes to indulge in the pleasures of an affluent society. The story begins with her and a girlfriend or roommate at an amusement park, dazzled by all kinds of opportunities for meaningless consumption and fun. They are distracted by a man giving a speech – possibly a barker for some new attraction. He turns out to be a “four minute man” – a public speaker drumming up support for buying war bonds. At the climax of his speech, he points at the camera and asks, “What are you giving right now?” A reversal shows Mayme reacting to this question. Evidently she feels guilty for not doing enough. She and her friend continue along the boardwalk and Mayme window shops longingly, but resists the urge to go into a store and buy new clothes. Then she and her friend go to a soda shop. While her friend eats ice cream, Mayme orders water. Finally, she walks home alone to save car fare.

The next scene comes on “bond day.” Mayme stands in a line of people, ready to buy their war bonds. She has saved up a sizable wad of bills, but she gets nervous when an ugly man takes an interest in her, and she stashes the loot. When she reaches the head of the line, she looks in her purse and can’t find the money – she’s already forgotten that she hid it – and she accuses the ugly man of robbing her. A policeman comes over to shake him down and meanwhile, Mayme finds the money, buy her bond, and makes a hasty retreat after correcting her mistake.

The movie now looks forward to “after the war” when Mayme is qualified to go to a “100% American” dance with soldiers and other bond-holders. Her fashionable friend cannot attend this event, because she failed to buy bonds. But, Mayme has pity on her and lets her take her bond. After she leaves, Mayme collapses in remorse that she can’t even go to the celebration. Then, Mayme’s soldier boyfriend comes home. He has bought two bonds, so that they can still go together. The final scene is a live-action political cartoon, in which Kaiser Wilhelm II is suspended from falling into “the soup” on a thin high wire labeled “Hindenburg Line.” He tries to retreat from France to Germany, but is weighted down by various burdens, with labels like “brute force” and “clown prince.” Mayme takes out a baseball labeled “Fourth Liberty Bond” and knocks him off the wire, simulating the kinds of amusements she forsook at the beginning of the film. Then she points to the camera and suggests that, “Your’s may be the bond to knock him off his perch!”

By 1918, Mary Pickford was possibly the biggest star in the world (easily in the top five, at any rate). Her support of liberty bonds was well known, and she donated a considerable amount of her valuable (and expensive!) time to public appearances in support of them. There’s an irony to the title of this film, however, since she was in fact a Canadian citizen! Her home country had been fighting for almost four years by the time any American troops showed up, and perhaps that was the reason for her urgency in trying to get the war over as quickly as possible. Of course, she had already starred in “The Little American” and was known as “America’s Sweetheart,” so audiences probably didn’t see this as a big problem. She was an actress playing a role, and in this case that role was of a patriotic American girl who sacrifices her immediate pleasures for the sake of the war effort. Unfortunately, the concept of “100% American” would be used after the war to hound immigrants and leftists during the “Red Scare.”

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This sort of short propaganda film doesn’t show off the best in film making technique of the time, but there are some interesting bits. The reversal to Pickford after the four minute man breaks the fourth wall is particularly well executed in terms of editing, and handled very quickly, to keep the emotional verisimilitude high. There are a number of insert shots of Mayme’s fashionable shoes, perhaps to establish her as a person given to extravagance, or perhaps in the interest of titillating the male audience, as shoes and feet seem to have been a big deal since the days of “What Demoralized the Barber Shop” and “The Gay Shoe Clerk.” I found the final “cartoon” interesting as well, since it involved so many different ideas being integrated into a single image.

Director: Arthur Rosson

Camera: Hugh McClung, Glen MacWilliams

Starring: Mary Pickford, Loretta Blake, Monte Blue, Henry Bergman

Run Time: 14 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Joan the Woman (1916)

Cecil B. DeMille enters the arena of the historical epic with this depiction of France’s most famous saint, starring Geraldine Farrar, who had been very successful in “Carmen” the previous year. While a bit rough in places, it is likely to be a major contender in this year’s Century Awards.

joan_the_womanThis is one of those silent movies that, unfortunately, begins with several minutes of intertitles explaining the plot. Most silent directors did their best to avoid this, but DeMille may have felt that because he was dealing with such a “serious” subject, his audiences would need a little priming to get into the mood. Anyway, after five minutes of introductory reading, we finally get to an unnecessary wraparound story. We begin in the trenches in France in 1916, where a young English soldier is digging in the dirt wall for some reason, and pulls out a sword, apparently buried there since the fifteenth century. He speculates that some “queer bloke” must have wielded it, and then responds to a call for volunteers from an officer. The officer is looking for someone to carry a very unwieldy bomb across no-man’s-land to destroy an enemy trench. He tells the soldier to think about it until midnight before making a decision whether to take on the suicide mission. Once back in his barracks, the soldier sees a vision of Joan of Arc and the real movie finally begins!

joan-the-woman2 Read the rest of this entry »