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When book author Willa Cather saw this film she immediately banned all adaptations of her work, screen or otherwise, and more than forty years passed before another was attempted. It is easy to see why once you compare her novel with this soapy love yarn -- there is practically no connection in story, or tone. I loved the cast in this picture and there were parts that moved even unsentimental me; it was nice to see Frank Morgan play a role so far from his most celebrated turn as the avuncular, but sexless Wizard of Oz. Here Morgan is a mature man that is used to holding his passions in check, but sets himself up in a situation that brings him disillusioned loneliness and self-doubt. Barbara Stanwyck is ravishing in every frame of the movie, and she has to be, as she's set up as being a girl so beautiful that no man can resist her. But then we have the scene with Barbara working in the garden in white high-heeled shoes and a bright, floral print dress and we begin to wonder -- "What's up with that?" Do we have to keep propping up this concept of her as perpetually dressed for a cocktail party in order reinforce this idea of her irresistible beauty? Lyle Talbot, God love him, puts his all into the minor part of Nial, and that's what got me interested in looking up Cather's book. Actually, Nial is the major character in the novel, so Talbot's reduced role is a demotion indeed. It can be an enjoyable picture if you concentrate on the performances and not worry about where the story is going; the pacing in the first half is swift, and builds interest. But if you look at it through the lens of somehow representing the work of Willa Cather, then this version of "A Lost Lady" falls flat on its ass. Apparently the now lost silent version was closer to its source.
Despite what is given here, the title is truly "The Bride's Play" and it refers to an odd custom, probably fictional, where an Irish bride circulates among the men in the wedding party and asks them if any one of them is her "true love." Although it is her twelfth starring role, it is still an early film for Marion Davies, who plays Aileen Barrett, a beauteous and captivating Irish Colleen and daughter to a local squire of means. She is protected and doted upon by the local men, including Sir Fergus Cassidy (Wyndham Standing) though he elects to keep his deeper interest in her a private matter. In convent school Aileen runs into trouble through sharing with other students the purple poetry of popular, but second-rate, versifier Bulmer Meade (Carl Miller). One day, after her father has died, Meade comes to town and immediately devotes his energies to winning Aileen's heart. After much persistence, Meade finally succeeds, but then he's done with her and disappears. Sir Fergus finally makes his interest known, and the heartbroken girl is happy to learn the truth; they agree to marry. But before the wedding begins, an old wife (Julia Hurley) relates her old wives' tale about Sir Fergus' ancestor, who had lost his bride to her old lover during "the bride's play" some eight centuries before, leading some to doubt as to the outcome of the new union to be. For such a simple story, Cosmopolitan really pulled out the stops on this one; the sets and costume are eye-popping, and so is some of the cinematography. Moreover, "The Bride's Play" survives in a gorgeous 35 mm print; thankfully so, as so few of Davies' early pictures now exist. However, the direction is make work and there are some notably dull stretches in the picture. Perhaps Cosmopolitan felt that they weren't getting their money's worth with director George Terwilliger, whose last major studio production this was before he slipped into states' rights features and poverty row fare. Davies' best years -- and best films -- were still ahead of her, but for Terwilliger "The Bride's Play" was the end of the road. It's impressive in spots, and Davies is genuinely lovely as is the Irish setting in addition to the charming, if slight, tale told. Owing to it's occasionally leaden pacing, some measure of patience brought to "The Bride's Play" will pay off though there are definitely better vehicles for Marion Davies than this one.
Tiffany Pictures is often judged by its last couple years' output, typified as specializing in ultra-cheap, stilted and slow moving talkies. In the silent era, however, their product is indistinguishable budget-wise from every other studio save M-G-M. Tiffany in the 1920s was more comparable to a studio like early Columbia Pictures; making quality features on less money than the majors. Director Louis Gasnier -- early shepherd of Max Linder and director of both "The Perils of Pauline" and "Reefer Madness" -- likewise has his detractors despite a large and respectable output mostly lost to us. One Gasnier film that is not lost, however, is "That Model from Paris," which survives in two 28 mm prints; one at the Library of Congress, the other in Canada. It stars Marceline Day, a radiant cutie of the first order in what has got to be one of her finest and most characteristic roles. She is Jane Miller, a shopworn angel with nothing to wear, working as a cashier in an apparel store who gets free theater tickets from the boss in a rare moment of charity. She unwittingly goes to the show in a dress borrowed without permission and wins her discharge from the drudgery of her position, though also her source of livelihood. By chance, she is hired as a model by slime-ball Morgan Grant (Ward Crane) who nonetheless maintains some slimy designs on her, not to mention a hidden lien on her new career. Jane is engaged to fill in for a no-show French fashion model and to keep her secret intact she is instructed to answer every question with one word -- "no." This leads to some very funny situations when she falls in love with Robert Richmond (Bert Lytell), a senior partner in the firm that she is representing and a seemingly incurable playboy; he finds that he just cannot stay away from "That Model from Paris" -- who is really not from Paris, and only says "no." At first glance, Lytell comes off like a poor man's Neil Hamilton, but as the film progresses you begin to feel for his character, as you definitely do for Day's; she is bright, very pretty and graceful and her big, emotive eyes help to tell the story as much as any other element in the picture. Director Gasnier had his own struggle with the English language which he was never able to master, and you can see that he was sympathetic to Jane's plight; having to feign exclusive competence in a language that she didn't understand. As a silent movie, "That Model from Paris" is entirely successful in conveying a conflict that is rooted in dialogue. Though he was not credited, director Robert Florey once claimed "That Model from Paris" as his first film, and this is entirely possible, as Gasnier preferred to work with a second director who wasn't always named. As a Frenchman, Florey would have been an obvious, and useful, candidate for the job. Whether or not "That Model from Paris" is the result of one or two minds, the finished film plays seamlessly, and the pacing is near perfect. I saw the Library of Congress print projected from a clattering pair of vintage 28 mm machines, and while it looked fine, the LC print has some amount of damage typical to 28 mm prints. As 28 mm was a safety film format we are not in immediate danger of losing "That Model of Paris" to decomposition, but it is such a fine film that one may hope that it is moved up in the preservation queue; it serves as a corrective to the various critical brickbats hurled at its studio and director, and is a captivating, smart and highly entertaining experience -- it is hard not to praise it enough.
Richard Bransby (Charles A. Stevenson) heads a successful firm where he employs both Hugh Brook (Robert Barrat) and Stephen Pryde (Philip Merivale) in its South African division; Brook is a former soldier who is the apple of the eye of Bransby's daughter, Helen (Lucy Cotton). Pryde, however, is jealous of Brook, and also desires to win Helen's hand; moreover he is embezzling the company of thousands of dollars and doctoring the books to make it look as though Brook - - a known gambler -- is the culprit. One night, it all comes out, and Brook gallantly breaks his engagement with Helen and pledges that he will not return until he clears his name. Bransby is on to Pryde, though, and forces him to sign a confession to his dirty deeds. However, it all proves a bit too much for the aging industrialist, who expires that evening, leaving the confession in a book which is duly shelved away. Lucy is skeptical about the paranormal, and yet finds herself receptive to what seems to be posthumous messages from her father, reaching out to her from the beyond. After a year or so, and during a time when Pryde is pressuring Helen into what will surely be a loveless marriage, all of the principals converge at the house. Helen and Pryde are both interested in finding the book, but neither of them can remember which one it was. Based on a play which was moderately popular in its time, "Whispering Shadows" sounds much more interesting than it actually is. It is not a horror film, but sort of a supernatural mystery story with no detective afoot. Merivale looks like a young David Letterman who never smiles and has a square head; some of his anxious expressions as his fortunes flag here and there are comical, and are not meant to be. Cotton is attractive in the same way that Francelia Billington was, and while one realizes that in some scenes she is supposed to be in some kind of a supernatural trance, a fair amount of it just seems like bad acting. The search for the book is interminably long, to the extent that one wants to stand up, point to the bookcase, and say, "It's THAT one!" It is, nevertheless, a very early film about the paranormal, and the audience I saw it with was patient with it and seemed to thoroughly enjoy it. "Whispering Shadows" is a very rare movie; it survives in a single 28 mm print at the Library of Congress, and was hardly shown at all upon its first release. It also marked the final screen appearance for Lucy Cotton.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"Money Mad" was also a popular stage play by Steele Mackaye that debuted in 1880; with elaborate scenery, it was a meditation on the theme of "the love of money is the root of all evil" with numerous characters and situations. Although doubtlessly familiar with the property, D.W. Griffith had neither time nor budget to do justice to Mackaye's five-act panorama in this one-reel subject, and probably only worked from the most basic idea of it, if at all. But the title "Money Mad" would've struck a chord with his viewers, recalling the popular Mackaye play. One of the other reviewers here errs when he calls Inslee's character "a homeless man;" he has a home where he lives in squalor, but prefers to beg on the streets than to pursue an honest living and hoards the money that he accumulates or steals. The version I saw had not a single subtitle, nor even the front title, a condition that afflicts many Biographs that survive only in paper prints, filed sometimes before the titles were made, or containing flash titles only. In some cases, it can be difficult to tell exactly what is going on; that the miser is exchanging his ill-gotten cash at the bank for gold coin rather than making a deposit is unclear, and a title would have filled us in. There are two remarkable sequences; the first -- a scene where the miser is followed back to his squat by two Italian bandits from the bank -- indulges in some primitive cross-cutting and appears to modern eyes as a dress rehearsal for a far more famous scene in Griffith's later "The Musketeers of Pig Alley" (1912). The conflagration set up by the candle knocked over by the greedy old hag fills the whole frame with smoke so thick one wonders how Billy Bitzer kept the camera rolling in the face of it; this ends the brief subject with an abstract image, and a sense of total obliteration. Otherwise, Griffith's "Money Mad" is a broad morality tale with no sympathetic characters, still somewhat grounded in typical conventions of the stage.
Fred Allen made a living hurling brickbats and biting the hands that fed him, and one may surmise that his only starring role in a major motion picture would push the envelope. "It's in the Bag" does so, sometimes with breathtaking efficiency -- it's like a whole different world opened up in this film apart from typical 1940s screwball comedy, a negative, street smart and cynical attitude more in line with the comedic tone of later eras. But if you want to laugh, you might do better with a more typical screwball comedy of the period than with "It's in the Bag," as its episodic and composite construction as a film doesn't maintain a consistent level of hilarity, and parts of it are more confusing than funny. Fred Allen is terrific, and one wishes he'd been more interested in appearing in films, though his best work is unquestionably found in his radio programs; his deadpan mug, though, is effective in movies even though he had "a great face for radio." Binnie Barnes, Robert Benchley, John Carradine and William Bendix all stand out in this piece, and in the main "It's in the Bag" is definitely worth seeing at least once for its value as a dark, non-conformist alternative to American film comedies of the 1940s. However, it's a little too long, has too many moving parts and Fred Allen seems aware of that, stating in his ad-libbed annotation of the opening credit for producer Jack Skirball, "It's his picture."
Stage actor Wallace "Wally" McCutcheon was briefly pressed into service
to cover for his ailing father as a director at Biograph. While in a
sense we can be grateful for McCutcheon's failure in this task, as it
opened up the opportunity for D.W. Griffith to undertake film direction
for the first time, Griffith had to oblige the hapless Wally through
helping out on a few of the latter's projects before he finally got his
walking papers. "The Black Viper" may have been based on a true crime
story from the newspapers: The Viper -- a hooligan and possibly a
"black hand" -- waits outside a factory at quitting time for the
workers to depart. He puts the make on the last woman out, and she
rebuffs him, so he knocks her to the ground. Another gentleman rushes
up, subdues the Viper, and escorts the lady on her way. The Viper
shakes his fist at them, vowing to get even -- we assume, as there is
not a single title card in the film, though with a Biograph of this
date coming solely from a paper print, the titles may have been lost.
The Viper gathers a couple of friends, and the three sneak up on the lady and her beau in a horse drawn wagon, which they use to abduct the hero. She rushes to a police station to summon three detectives, and all rush after the bad guys. They begin to haul their quarry up the side of a steep cliff, casting stones from above to discourage the would-be rescuers, who find shelter under a stone protruding from the cliff wall. Once up top, the Viper and his crew plan to dispose of their victim by placing him in an empty house and setting it ablaze. But he gets loose inside the house, and the struggle continues up on the roof as the building begins to burn.
Even for 1908 standards, this is an extremely bad film; while the settings are all exteriors and are interesting in themselves, there are so many ways in which the film could also be interesting, and it is not so. Practically everything is in long shot, and action is so poorly plotted that often you cannot tell how many players are in a scene; not so good when your're only working with a cast of eight. Since there are three detectives, why couldn't they have spared one to go around to the other side of the bluff and meet the bad guys at the top? Why did the bad guys send away their wagon? Likewise, they could've taken it up the other side to the house and saved themselves a lot of misery. The detectives and lady friend do make it to the top within seconds of the villains, so why are they absent from all of the action which follows? The elder Wallace McCutcheon was a specialist at making chase films, and perhaps this was something he'd had on the drawing board when he took ill. Gene Gauntier and actress Kate Bruce have left reliable testimony as to just how incompetent "Wally" McCutcheon was as director. "The Black Viper" is yet another testimony to his un- talent; in this case, D.W. Griffith was just along for the ride.
"Sioux" could apply, in the old school context, to any Native Americans
living in "the Dakota Hills" where this film is set, and they are the
faceless villains in this story. The good guys are a frontier family
led by an elderly Civil War veteran, Ezra Tuttle (George Nichols), who
drills his large family in military fashion day after day. Tuttle's
oldest son (Robert Harron) tires of the endless military routine and
goes A.W.O.L., much to the consternation of his father, in order to
visit his sweetheart. Not long after the boy and girl part, the
aforementioned Sioux attack, and the family take their places within
the cabin to fend off the invaders. There is gun smoke aplenty, some
obscuring the audience view, yet both Indians and defenders bite the
dust in high numbers. The boy gets separated from his sweetheart's
family and manages to repel an attack from two particularly persistent
Indians. Once free to do so, he collects the Cavalry in hopes of saving
his family, battling on valiantly in their tiny cabin as it fills up
with smoke and fire.
The attribution of this story to Zane Grey is puzzling; he never wrote a novel called "Fighting Blood," and indeed hadn't even published "Riders of the Puple Sage" when this film made its bow in 1911. The adult western novel was still then an infant; Owen Wister's "The Virginian" -- widely regarded as the first in its genre -- had only appeared in 1903. "Fighting Blood" was filmed during one of the Biograph Company's annual junkets to Southern California in search of sun and scenery, and most likely Griffith wrote this scenario himself or bought it from a local author. He may have cribbed some elements for its story from one of the many dime novels about the Sioux Wars or from a popular stage play that dealt with an Indian attack; there were many of those also, at the time. The character of Tuttle may have been modeled after Griffith's own father, Colonel "Roaring Jake" Griffith, an old Civil War soldier that died in 1885. But, if so, one thing that Griffith didn't right was that the main Sioux resistance was over by 1878, not affording much of a chance for his Civil War veteran to grow old. Given the son's age, the earliest these events could've happened would be the mid-1880s, when Indian attacks of this scale were not occurring in the Dakotas.
For 1911, "Fighting Blood" is impressive in every way except that the camera never gets close enough to the actors to provide much in the way of facial expressions, though Harron manages to make an impression. The two actors most often credited with this property are Mae Marsh and Lionel Barrymore but, unless Barrymore is playing an Indian, then neither of them are in it. Griffith is reaching for bigger things here, and it is amazing that he and cinematographer Billy Bitzer are able to get so much action into a one-reel subject. Griffith also maintains interest by focusing on the smallest of the children and giving them a little screen time, which adds levity to what would be a rather grim subject. This was made only eight years after "The Great Train Robbery" and there is a dazzling array of shots, complex cross-cutting and dangerous looking stunts to be found in its eleven minutes. There is little doubt that fledgling Western film-makers -- such as Francis Ford and Thomas Ince -- also saw it, as the techniques used here surfaced in their films as well. "Fighting Blood" is a critically important, and still very early, film western as long as you don't mistake it for anything that really happened. Or for Zane Grey.
What we now see as "Blonde Cobra" actually began as two films being
made simultaneously in 1959-60, shot and directed by Bob Fleischner and
starring Jack Smith. These projects have been described as "horror-
comedy" and were short circuited by an accident that destroyed the raw
film stock set aside to complete them. Fleischner later handed the
remaining footage over to Ken Jacobs to see if Jacobs could do anything
with it. Jacobs recorded Smith improvising monologues on tape and
stretched the film with black leader in order to let Smith's recorded
ramblings run their course. In a sense, the soundtrack is one of the
most innovative aspects of "Blonde Cobra," with its mixture of radio
news, old 78s, records played at the wrong speed and Smith's wild
commentary. This was further accented by the use of a live radio at
certain points in screenings of "Blonde Cobra" that is totally lost
when the film is seen on the web. That "Blonde Cobra" took so long to
finish diluted its impact somewhat, as by the time it was finally
shown, "Flaming Creatures" and other, similar films were already
playing in New York.
P. Adams Sitney in the first edition of "Visionary Film" and some others wrote in glowing terms about "Blonde Cobra" and it is true that repeated viewings of the subject can reveal different interpretations of what it may mean; it is very friendly to intellectual analysis as it is an intellectual film, albeit one that on the surface does not seem very seriously intended. Fleischner's footage is part horror movie and part home movie, and the narration provided by Smith is a mixture of sad childhood memories and fantastic sexual routines that take the project into an entirely different direction. Smith felt that Jacobs had made it "too dark" -- although separately he thanked Jacobs for completing it -- but the material as Jacobs received it comes from a very dark and tragic place, an aesthetic of boredom, decline and a longing to get back things that cannot be had among a group of impoverished young people who completely reject conventional morality, or even what is perceived as reality.
While some of the early writers on "Blonde Cobra" seem to overstate its case a bit -- it is not a masterpiece in the class of "Flaming Creatures" or Jacobs' "Star Spangled to Death" -- a fair amount of the web-based writing about it takes the opposite tack, condemning the film as unwatchable, uncomfortable, boring; a case of the emperor having no clothes. Look, there's no "emperor" here; Jacobs, Fleischner and Smith were not looking to entertain you or to fulfill your expectations as to what may constitute a movie in a basic sense. These filmmakers had no interest whatsoever in making commercial motion pictures or participating the in same game, with its rules, awards and criteria, as other kinds of movies. They were living a different kind of life from the rest of people around 1960 and looking for a way, in film, to express it. And despite being an outsider to this world, Jacobs found, in a structural sense, a new kind of film language to express it in, an approach that bypassed the usual relation of shots to slates to rushes to editing in favor of a kind of loose assemblage more akin to documentary film making. "Blonde Cobra" is what it is, and it isn't out there to impress you, though if you watch it more than once you have a better chance of "getting it" than if you struggle to the end of it, one time, or abandon it midway.
"What Drink Did" is a temperance melodrama loosely based on the play,
"Ten Nights in a Bar-room" which was familiar to anyone who set foot
into a theater in 1909. Griffith had probably played in it somewhere
along the line; if you were an actor in American stock companies in the
late nineteenth century, you could hardly avoid this property. Even at
the time, the story was considered a little dated and ludicrous, and
the play itself was over fifty years old in 1909. So Griffith attempts
to find ways to bring it into the realm of the believable; "the fatal
glass of beer" is drank, not the tavern, but at work, with Mr. Lucas'
(David Miles) co-workers egging him on. A bullet stands in for what was
an empty beer stein thrown in the original play. There is some
elementary crosscutting between Lucas, raising h-e-double-toothpicks in
the tavern, and his worried spouse (Florence Lawrence) and her children
(Gladys Egan, Adele De Garde). It is the plucky, courageous De Garde
who gives the most memorable performance in the film; her eyes project
genuine sadness and disappointment, and she gamely places her arm over
her face to simulate crying in a gesture familiar to audiences of that
day. The grown ups, however, are handled as cardboard caricatures, and
while the plan to transmit what was an hour-long affair on the stage
into 13 minutes on film works, one senses a thinly veiled contempt for
its source; even in 1909, Griffith handled actors with more
sensitivity, and here just going through the motions.
By virtue of the crosscutting employed, Billy Bitzer's crisp, well composed photography and De Garde's performance, "What Drink Did" is still better than average for an American, dramatic 1909 one-reeler. But it is far from being in the class of the best Griffith Biographs of that year, as it is mainly a prosaic attempt by Griffith to knock his way through a familiar property, keep it to one reel, and to have it out on schedule. I saw it with a Pic-tur-music score that matched the film okay in the first half, but fit it hardly at all in the second. So that element didn't do it any favors.
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