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Of the two "lost" feature films done by director D.W. Griffith in 1914, just before the revolutionary release of "The Birth of a Nation" (1915), this one is much missed. "The Battle of the Sexes" (also lost) was quick and commercial, and "The Escape" is sometimes thought to be a likewise lesser effort, made as Mr. Griffith was biding his time before giving "Birth". That may be so, but "The Escape" comes between two relatively adventurous productions, "The Avenging Conscience" and "Home Sweet Home" (both 1914), and was probably a more significant release than originally thought.
"The Escape" began as a successful New York play, by Paul Armstrong, which was likely seen by Griffith and members of the cast. The director begins his film with a prologue, which both highlights and seems to advocate eugenics (manipulating species through selective reproduction). As if that wasn't distasteful enough, we meet characters who would certainly benefit from some selective breeding. Film historian William K. Everson called it, "an almost unrelievedly sordid procession of brutality, madness, sex, disease, and death," and perhaps, "the first feature-length film noir."
"The Escape" received mixed reviews, with the negative noting its lurid subject matter. A contemporary "Variety" review noted it wasn't quite a "vice picture," but flirted with the genre, due to its degenerate, dysfunctional family. Today, this is known as "ahead of its time." There were also good reviews. In New Zealand, "The Guardian" called it "powerful, unusual, and sensational." And, "Motion Picture" polled it at an all-time rank of #16 in 1915. Some contemporary reviews omit mention of the unusual prologue, suggesting "The Escape" was cut down from its seven reel length.
A web search for a synopsis of "The Escape" (1914) will reveal story details. A revised version was released in 1928. Surviving production stills are all that visually survive from the 1914 production, but it's certainly possible a print may someday be found, as the film received worldwide circulation. Starring as the film's "Joyce" sisters were popular, pretty Blanche Sweet (as May) and plain, jealous Mae Marsh (as Jennie). Nice brother Robert Harron (as Larry) goes mad after being beaten by their father. Handsome doctor Owen Moore and dastardly gangster Donald Crisp court the women.
When Ms. Sweet fell ill with scarlet fever, production shut down while several in the cast made "The Battle of the Sexes" in New York, before resuming "The Escape" in California. This led to the repeated story about how Mr. Harron opened a door in one movie, and stepped out into another - but, since both films are lost, we can't see Harron's feat. In one of this film's most memorable scenes, Harron strangles a kitten, after going insane; in a photograph from this scene, the cute tabby is thankfully still alive. "The Escape" is also the film in which Mr. Crisp drunkenly stomps a baby to death.
******* The Escape (6/1/14) D.W. Griffith ~ Blanche Sweet, Mae Marsh, Robert Harron, Donald Crisp
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