This turgid drama takes its title from a Victorian poem (later set to music as a hymn) referencing Matthew 18:12-13 ... the one about "the tender Shepherd" who has "ninety and nine" sheep safely in the fold, but is concerned about the one sheep who has gone astray. At a couple of points in this drama, characters burst into renditions of the hymn ... courtesy of title cards, presumably assisted by the house pianist when this movie was exhibited in 1922.
Railway dramas are usually quite exciting: as long as that engine is hurtling down the rails, we don't mind if the plot is stuck in place. Unfortunately, 'The Ninety and Nine' features too little locomotion and far too much loco emotion ... and I'm not saying so just to make a pun at this movie's expense. Well and truly, there's just too much soap-opera mellerdrammer here, with Dark Secrets and convoluted backstories.
A while back in the town of Cleve, a murder was committed that remains unsolved. Suspicion has fallen upon Tom Silverton, the local pariah. However, there's one clue to the murderer's identity: whoever he was, he knew how to pilot a railway engine ... and that would seem to clear Silverton, whose greatest talent appears to be his capacity for alcohol. Only that minor detail -- the apparent fact that Silverton doesn't know how to drive a locomotive -- spared him from prosecution for the murder. Still, he remains despised. Only one person in Cleve has faith in Silverton and can sense his inner virtue: the winsome Ruth Blake (Colleen Moore, excellent in a bathetic and badly-written role).
Silverton's unpopularity is matched by the popularity of Mark Leveridge, the local playboy: handsome, wealthy and idle with it. Leveridge amuses himself by playing Casey Jones: he possesses his own personal locomotive and passenger carriage. He drives his chi-chi choo-choo up and down the local roadbed, and the citizens think he's wonderful, by golly. When a scheduled train needs the right of way, guess which train gets forced onto the siding? With Leveridge applying leverage to the steering tiller, his engine does a chi-chi choo-choo cha-cha, and his train dances away whistling while all those other passengers are delayed and inconvenienced. Yet the locals who despise Silverton still think Leveridge is wonderful.
Now that the characters have been trundled into place, the plot lurches into action. Ruth's parents are visiting a neighbouring village when grim news arrives on the Cleve telegraph: the village and its inhabitants are trapped in a forest fire, and their only hope of rescue is for some brave engine-driver in Cleve to risk his life driving a train into the inferno to pick up passengers. Of course, the engineer who normally handles the route is conveniently absent. So it's all up to...
SPOILER NOW. A railway employee announces that playboy Mark is the only experienced engine-driver available. Does Mark find his manhood and save the villagers, including Ruth's parents? Does he, heck! "It's sure death!" Leveridge whimpers into the nearest title card. This is the cue for Tom Silverton to screw up his courage and announce that, in fact, he has known all along how to drive a railway train. As the vans are hitched up and Silverton bravely drives off down the rails to save Ruth's parents (and a bunch of extras), the penny drops: if Silverton is an engine-driver, then perhaps he's the murderer...
The few minor surprises in this film are easily outweighed by the ploddingly obvious events in between them. The business of casting Warner Baxter in two different identities is a gimmick that serves no major purpose, except possibly for tempting Baxter (reportedly a somewhat vain actor) to agree to star in this film that has few other virtues. Colleen Moore's performance deserves a better script in a better movie. If you can't figure out from the above synopsis who the real murderer is, all hope is lost. Most annoyingly of all, there are some twee attempts at comic relief from supporting characters who are supposed to be young refugees. I seldom criticise a movie for having "too much" plot and "too little" action, since far too many movies get it just the other way round ... however, 'The Ninety and Nine' would definitely benefit from less backstory and more shots of thundering locomotives.
This movie is ever so slightly similar to a film made seven years later: 'Thunder', the last silent film starring Lon Chaney. (I've read the scenario for 'Thunder' and seen a few excerpts; one day I hope to screen a complete print.) 'Thunder' evidently got the proportions between plot, characterisation and action correct: 'The Ninety and Nine' gets derailed on that same gradient. As Silverton, Warner Baxter seems to be rehearsing for his role as the dissipated doctor in 'West of Zanzibar'.
Have you figured out yet why this movie is named for that hymn about the stray sheep? Bah! 'The Ninety and Nine' is the little engine that couldn't, and my rating for this one is barely 3 out of 10, mostly for Colleen Moore's performance.
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