'The Green Eye of the Yellow God' was originally a 1911 poem by balladeer J Milton Hayes. This poem was so extremely popular in its day that it became a standard recitation on the bills of early 20th-century English music halls, much as 'Casey at the Bat' and 'Gunga Din' later became staples in American vaudeville theatres. Hayes's poem was so familiar to British theatre-goers that comedian Billy Bennett gleefully parodied it as 'The Green Tie of the Little Yellow Dog'. (Bennett was the first comedian who tagged his jokes with the exclamation 'Boom, boom!', leading the way to Basil Brush and to Johnny Carson's 'Ba-dump-ump'.) David Frost parodied the poem in 1962 during the premiere broadcast of 'That Was the Week that Was'.
This low-budget American silent film is a dramatisation of Hayes's poem, which has never been as well-known Stateside as it was in Britain. Modern viewers will probably find this movie quite laughable. Most of the action is set outdoors, but the action has clearly been filmed on an indoor set, using elaborate painted backdrops to represent scenes in the Asian mountains. I'm extremely impressed with how well-done the backdrops are, but the flat lighting makes clear that they're painted backdrops, not mattes. The 'ground' beneath the actors is clearly the level floor of a stage, even though mountainous terrain is directly behind them. All we need are some footlights in the foothills.
The intertitles reprise the verses of the famous poem. SPOILERS COMING. Charles Ogle plays Carew, an army sergeant stationed 'north of Khatmandu' (as the intertitles put it). The local natives worship a cyclopean idol with an emerald for its eye. Carew is in love with the colonel's daughter, who is implausibly billeted with the regiment. The daughter is played by bland actress Mabel Trunnelle. The titles identify her as approaching her 21st birthday; Trunnelle is attractive but she looks a bit past her twenties. Ogle is such a physically unappealing man, even viewers who don't know the original poem will sense that his suit will not succeed.
When Carew asks the unnamed daughter what she wants for her birthday prezzy, she tells him - half in jest - that she wants the green eye of the yellow god. So, of course he steals it for her (prising it from the idol's eye socket with a bowie knife) and he brings it back safely, after hideous Oriental ordeals. But the acolytes of the pagan god catch up with Carew, and he dies hideously.
In addition to the painted backdrops, this film (like many of its time) suffers from extremely stagey 'tableau' direction. The camera stands motionless in long shot while the actors emote in front of one of those backdrops. There's no camera movement at all, and the camera remains at the same distance from the action in every set-up. The most dramatic moments are the cuts from one tableau to the next. Matters are made more risible by the Asian acolytes, who are played by white actors in body paint and Gunga Din suits. At this point in the history of silent films, movie actors usually painted their faces bright yellow, because this colour photographed as a realistic (caucasian) flesh tone on screen. I shudder to think what colour the actors painted themselves in this movie to look like the stereotypical yellow-skinned Asians that appear here. And, of course, there are the usual acting techniques of early silent films: not very subtle.
I am extremely sympathetic to movies from the early years of the art form, so I'll rate 'The Green Eye of the Yellow God' 7 out of 10. But I fear that most modern viewers would fall about laughing at this Victorian farrago.
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