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The Man Without a Country (1917)
Florence's Last Film!!
1917 was a sad year for the Thanhouser Company. They were a small studio that operated out of New Rochelle and were able to give their films a spaciousness (parks and wide streets etc) that other studios just couldn't match. They also had the foresight to realise that the writing was on the wall as far as short films were concerned and in 1916 only feature films were produced by them. But in September 1917 Florence La Badie was involved in a car accident and after two months of clinging to life, died of her injuries. La Badie was their leading star and after that, Thanhouser, which was like a big family company, just gave up. By October, the studio was almost idle with no one on the premises.
Holmes Herbert was a beloved character actor of almost 200 films but he wasn't always old and in this patriotic movie, made at a time when Americans were being encouraged to volunteer for war service, he played John Alton, a devoted pacifist who meets orphan Barbara (La Badie) when she is staying at her uncle's house which is where the local Peace Brigade meets once a month. Barbara however doesn't share their views. Her father was killed in a war and she is fiercely patriotic and breaks her engagement to John because he will not put aside his peaceful views.
Barbara goes to France as a volunteer Red Cross nurse but sympathies are changing back home and John now finds himself almost a pariah for his views. An old club member who was best friends with his father gives him Edward Everett Hale's "The Man Without a Country" to read after he hears John utter the same words at the club "D--m the United States"!! Barbara comes to him in a vision and gives him a first hand look at the story of Lt. Philip Nolan who for his same treasonous remarks in 1805 was sentenced to exile on a drifting boat, forbidden to hear or ask anything about the United States for the rest of his life. Nolan ends his life clinging to a little scrap of American history a sympathetic friend has confided to him, and this story, together with the anxiety of receiving no news from Barbara who has been lost at sea, is enough to hurry John along to the nearest recruitment agency.
This is a gently patriotic film - sold very much on the premise of being based on Edward Everett Hale's powerful short story which really only took up about 10-12 minutes of the actual film. Sadly it became known as beautiful Florence La Badie's last film.
Black Oxen (1923)
"She ran away with it"!!!
That's what one of Clara Bow's friends said about her performance in "Black Oxen" - the first time she experienced working with a top studio, big budget and a famous star. Schulberg recommended her to director Frank Lloyd and once he saw her knew she would be so right for the flapper role. Clara had her hew own take on the meeting - "he didn't make me feel like he was doin' me a favour lettin' me work in his picture". This was the movie that really got Clara noticed by the other studios. First National was so impressed with her performance that they requested her for "Painted People" another "biggie" with Colleen Moore but that turned out to be a fiasco. Clara's instinctive knowledge of what was right for her made her realise that the part was all wrong - "and she was right" Colleen Moore said. Still "Black Oxen" raised her standing and had her Preferred Studio bosses quadruple her salary to a princely $200 a week.
This film is fascinating for what's not included. The film I saw was 60 minutes but it is supposed to be 80 minutes and because it flowed pretty smoothly I have to assume that the missing reels are at the end. And also for the fact that Claire MacDowall has a prominent supporting role as Agnes Trevor, an embittered spinster - in the film I saw she has a very small scene where she renounces Mary (Corinne Griffith) as a "Hypocrite"!!!
When attractive "mystery woman" (Griffith) stands up at a Broadway first night, Lee Clavering's (Conway Tearle) elderly companion does a double take - she looks the mirror image of a girl, Mary Ogden, he was infatuated with in his youth but the last time he saw her she was old and feeble. Lee is determined to find out who she is - so they visit Jane Oglethorpe, a society "Grand Dame" who is feared for her frankness. Clara Bow is introduced as Janet Oglethorpe "going to Hell as fast as she can foxtrot - the wretched little flapper"!!! And from her first entrance she owns the movie - Lee exclaims "when you were little I gave you a spanking, I may be forced to do so again" - her reply "Can I depend on that"!!! Naughty Clara!! He also says when he has to escort her home and put up with her outrageous flirting "Girls of your age bore me to death and you're the silliest of them all"!!!
Meanwhile Lee becomes involved with mystery woman Mary who finally reveals to him the secret of her youthful appearance. The victim of an early unhappy marriage that took her to Vienna, she finally found a reason for living through helping her adoptive country until age caught up with her. It is here that the make-up artists really have a chance to "go to town" on Miss Griffith but I agree with the other reviewers, she is made to seem old and decrepit and almost on her last legs at 60!! Offered a rejuvenating X-Ray anti aging treatment, she took it - not for vanity but because her feebleness was an impediment to her good works.
She then announces it at Mrs. Oglethorpe's afternoon tea and later on Agnes Trevor speaks for them all when she wonders if she could regain her youth so she could find a husband. When Mary claims her ideals were higher than that Agnes denounces her - and Mary believes deep down that she is right!! Ian vehemently proclaims he would love her however old she looked but he is distinctly uncomfortable when some of the younger women "rib" her around the dinner table.
The film finishes there but was definitely heading "somewhere" and it is fascinating to wonder what the ending would be like. I don't think in 1924 there was a mainstream Hollywood film that would take a chance to end on a controversial note. Since Mary proclaimed her secret she is very thoughtful about how she would be treated if she wasn't so young and beautiful. Meanwhile Janet has been reading "Flaming Youth"(another Colleen Moore film!!) and wondering how to get her man!! The flapper segments give the film a much needed zest - the love story between Griffith and Tearle being just a tad boring. Corinne Griffith may have been best known as the "Orchid Lady" but she had only her beauty - she didn't have a huge personality or a lot of acting talent, though the last few minutes saw her giving her role a bit more colour and shade. Maybe the missing reels see her put Lee's loyalty to the test by, maybe, foregoing her treatment to see if he would stand by her if her looks were gone. An interesting theory.
Why Paramount Had Faith in Claudette Colbert
Paramount had high hopes for Claudette when she was signed in 1928. She had, by bad luck, been in a string of unsuccessful Broadway plays (except for "The Barker") and was now eager to try her hand at the movies. Before "Manslaughter" it hadn't looked promising - she had supported Edward G. Robinson in a very creaky stage bound crime movie, then played "the girl" as Maurice Chevalier went through his bag of tricks in "The Big Pond" and was also in the French language version of "Slightly Scarlet". But when Clara Bow's personal problems forced Paramount to replace her with Claudette in the upcoming "Manslaughter", Colbert grabbed the meaty role with both hands. It may have been an out-dated melodrama but with credentials that included being a remake of a Cecil B. DeMille silent blockbuster, it was a chance for her to tackle an A class production.
Lydia Thorne (Colbert) is a spoiled rich girl who is heedless of the sober advice of her beloved aunt "Bennie" (Emma Dunn) as she sets out for a wild week-end in her roadster!! And what a ride it is, weaving in between traffic, racing a train, bribing an officer who tries to give her a ticket - she is riding for a fall!! She meets up and coming D.A. Dan O'Bannon (Frederic March) who around the dinner table espouses his views of justice for rich and poor alike - it doesn't go down too well with the country club set. Reality starts to filter into Lydia's privileged life - the young officer goes to O'Bannon with Lydia's bracelet claiming she tried to use it as a bribe, then her maid is found to have robbed the safe which contains Lydia's jewels, Lydia says the jewels don't mean a thing to her and she will go to the trial to testify in Louisa's defense but she forgets and the maid is sentenced to years imprisonment. Then there is another episode of "race the policeman", Lydia jack-knifes her car hoping to send the same young constable sprawling!! He does but unfortunately is pronounced dead at the hospital and suddenly Lydia finds herself facing a manslaughter charge and years in prison!!
Claudette really rose to the occasion once Lydia dropped her flippancy and put on her "martyred" mantel and also showed why she was a bit different from other Paramount stars of the time (Bow, Carroll, Chatterton) - she was believable in what ever she was given and didn't seem to make bad career choices as far as parts went. In prison Lydia comes face to face with her maid who after becoming involved in a prison brawl, extends a helping hand.
Lydia leaves prison (after 3 years) chastened but believing that Dan had promotional motives for sending her "up the river" - not realising he put his job on the line to secure her a pardon and she is now striving to get Louise released. An excellent film and as usual Claudette is just terrific in a demanding role.
The Haunted Bedroom (1913)
A Charming Short
Another charming short from Edison - not in the tippest top condition but the orange and gold tones are very striking. Have a feeling that it is based on a story from Balzac - he did a series of books about the history of the "Rouget" family. Mabel Trunnelle was often paired with her husband Herbert Prior in Edison films until 1917 when she was "let go" and contrary to what is noted in IMDb, Prior didn't play Jean but the later introduced Lord Wentworth(??) who finally breaks the curse of the haunted bedroom.
Lizette loves Jean but a 10,000 franc dowry insisted upon by Jean's father is keeping them apart. Paul, Lizette's "black sheep" brother, begs that she gives him her saved money so he can increase it for her - at the gaming table!! He does win but there are a few who are determined he shall not reach home with his money. Paul also suffers from a bad heart and with the stress he feels from being set upon, he takes refuge at an inn. He seals the money up in an envelope addressed to Lizette Rouget but dies before he can deliver it safely to her. Lizette is now destitute, Jean having long ago deserted her but the ghost of Paul continues to haunt the inn's bedroom to guard the money from "unworthy hands". Enter Lord Wentworth who finds the money and instantly is on his way to Lizette's garret. Paul's job is now done.
Alias Mary Smith (1932)
"Is It a Nice Jail"??
Blanche Mehaffey was a sweet faced girl, one who was really helped by her 1924 Wampas Baby win. Her career gained momentum when talkies came in and 1931 proved her busiest year with 10 films including a serial.
"Alias Mary Smith" was a shoe string crime movie with all the old poverty row regulars including Alec B. Francis, Henry B. Walthall, Gwen Lee an MGM starlet fallen on hard times and John Darrow a young actor who never broke out of the cycle of programmers although he later became an acclaimed press agent.
For all that a very boring movie in which nothing happens. Well something happens after the first scene which shows a nervous "Mary Smith" going to the police station to retrieve her stolen purse. She hesitantly gives her name which leads the police to believe it is an alias but her protector, rich young man about town Buddy Hayes (Darrow) believes in her and asks her out for a meal. The next scene shows him sporting a black eye and he spends the rest of the movie apologizing for his behaviour!!! What happened??? Also not shown is the murder of Marco Hahn in which "Mary" is also implicated. Talk about a shoestring budget!! There seems to be only 2 sets - the police station and a flat (for all of 10 minutes). "Mary's" real name is Joan Wentworth and she had an appointment with Hahn to give him proof that her brother, who went to the electric chair, was innocent of the crime he was tried for. Now, thanks to the real killer, Snowy Hoagland (Matthew Betz) leaving part of an incriminating letter she wrote near the murdered man, she is facing the same fate as her brother.
"Is it a nice jail?", "that's the girl, be brave" are just two of the cringe making lines that probably would have sounded better coming from Gwen Lee who is really the best thing about this pretty awful movie!!
Mexicali Rose (1929)
Flashes of the Stanwyck Fire!!
By the end of 1929 Frank Fay had scored (who knew how - he was terrible) as the M.C. in "The Show of Shows", his wife Barbara Stanwyck had a pretty disastrous talkie debut in "The Locked Door" and was rewarded with an even worse film "Mexicali Rose". Playing an unscrupulous villainess she was just too inexperienced and hack director Earle C. Kenton couldn't give her the help she needed as a stage trained actress who desperately wanted film technique guidance. She plays promiscuous Rose who finds it impossible to remain faithful to her decent husband Happy Manning (Sam Hardy, who was a good friend from her Broadway days), who owns south of the border casino "The Gold Mine". Putting a bracelet on her ankle he notices bruising and while she explains it all away he is not convinced, especially when he sees her "in conference" with his right hand man, croupier Joe (Louis Natheaux).
There is a "Stanwyck Showdown" in the offing but Happy just tells her to "cut the dramatics"!! He runs her out of town and, newly divorced, visits his ward, fresh faced football star Bob Manning (William Janney) who introduces Happy to his fiancée Marie (an uncredited girl, sure is pretty, could be Greta Grandstedt?). But Marie is just too nice and the bride whom Bob brings to Mexico to show off to Hap is none other than - Rose!!
In spite of the cheapness of the production and the other actors giving "by the numbers" performances there are flashes of the Stanwyck fire and she really tries to rise above the film as a whole. Rose hasn't changed and soon is chatting up handsome bar fly (Jerry Miley). That is after she coerces Bob into the casino ("what are all those funny numbers?", "what's a bar?", "can you buy milk there?" etc). Over seeing all is half wit Loco (Arthur Rankin) who is Happy's eyes and ears concerning Rose's extra curriculum activities.
Thank heaven for Frank Capra and "Ladies of Leisure" - Stanwyck commented that the disaster of "Mexicali Rose" sapped nearly all the professional confidence that she had developed throughout those tough Broadway years.
Luxury Liner (1933)
"Are You From First Class?? - It Must Be Wonderful Up There!!"
Zita Johann was bought to the screen by D. W. Griffith to play the female lead in "The Struggle", his last film, that was savaged by the critics of the day. She only made a handful of films including the haunting "The Sin of Norah Moran" but she never felt she belonged and was far happier on the stage to where she soon returned. In "Luxury Liner" she had to compete against three very different actresses - the vastly under-rated Vivienne Osbourne who when she was given the opportunity could make her emotional scenes memorable, vivacious Alice White who by 1933 had put her own unique stamp on the "dizzy dame" type and the under-stated Veree Teasdale. Miss Johann who played the cold and aloof Miss Morgan definitely finished somewhere in between.
Miss Morgan is a nurse with a secret and seems quietly drawn to Dr. Carl Bernard (George Brent also appeared in M.G.M's 1948 "Luxury Liner" which starred Jane Powell), a last minute edition as ship's doctor. He actually boarded the boat in an attempt to stop his wife, flighty, hysterical Sybil (Osbourne) from making a fool of herself over industrialist Stevenson (Frank Morgan) who has already found a bored socialite, Luise (Teasdale) on board and is busy passing himself off as a poet!!
C. Aubrey Smith may be playing a down and out, just released from prison but once he holds forth on the evils of too much money his aristocratic bearing naturally takes over. Millie Leusch (White) attaches herself to him in the hope that through him she will be able to hobnob with the 1st class passengers, her wandering eye also ropes in Prince Vladimir (Barry Norton), a prosperous partner of Thorndyke's (Billy Bevan) as well as a lounge lizard (Theodore von Eltz) who makes her realise how much happier she would be with the elevator boy (Henry Wandsworth).
Osbourne really owns the film as she first realises that her lover has lost interest and her husband is off his head with grief and anger. She gives a powerhouse performance - it's a pity she wasn't given more prestigious films. Almost like a reworking of "Skyscraper Souls" among the ocean waves, stocks and shares Vs people's greed is one of the scenarios. Millie overhears Stevenson putting in a bid for some ocean liner shares and before you can say "You're the most wonderful man in the world" (Millie's catchphrase) the whole boat (especially steerage passengers) is in an uproar.
Just a terrific little film - fortunes won and lost, murder, suicide - even a near drowning, all in the space of 70 minutes. Among other players - Leni Stengal as Millie's down to earth friend and Joyce Compton as a girl at the bar.
Even though most of the audience felt Carole Lombard should have got her "buddy" in "Safety in Numbers"(1930) - it was easy to see why Kathryn Crawford won through in the end. In those singie mad days she was the only girl in the cast (apart from Louise Beavers) who could put over a song. But she had a tough chorus girl look about her so after a few westerns, by the time she made "Skyway" a strictly "B" movie with "funny man" Ray Walker as the star, her movie career was just about over.
Playing pretty much his stock in trade, Walker is Robert Norris, a cocky, brash, pretty obnoxious pilot who is hauled into court for making a monkey out of a policeman. He also makes his presence felt on flighty rich girl Lila (Crawford) - "keep your legs covered, you ain't on the witness stand now"!! They meet again when she decides to take a joy ride and he is even less charming than previously - he pulls out all stops to take the joy out and put the terror in!! Any normal girl would run a mile but as this movie is just over an hour they soon fall in love.
He is soon working at her father's bank having been sacked from the flying school because of hot headedness but even in this orderly environment he is transferred from department to department because of flying fists!! Meanwhile he lands in Baker's accounts department but Baker (Jed Prouty) has a few secrets - he has been embezzling from the bank for years and sees Robert as an easy target. When Robert's old boss (Gabby Haynes) comes to the bank for an investment loan and is knocked back, Robert leaves and gets behind the idea - of flying planes out to pick up the mail on anchored off shore ships. Suddenly auditors are called in and Baker prepares to flee to South America while Norris is left holding the bag.
Once you get over Walker's irritating personality the movie is entertaining enough with plenty of airplane acrobatics which may have looked pretty impressive to 1933 cinema patrons.
The Land Beyond the Sunset (1912)
The more I see of other studios at this particular time, the more I realise that Biograph seems to have an over exulted reputation. Edison Studios, who didn't have a reputation for being innovative, collaborated with the "Fresh Air Fund", a charity that organised country trips and outings for slum children, to produce this haunting film of an abused child (actually it indicates on the title credits that it is a re-issue from 1904 but I don't really believe that). The film is so clear - it's like you could reach into the screen and touch the players, as though it were made yesterday and the plaintive music is a big bonus.
Newsboy Joe trudges home after hours on the street hawking papers, to a drunken mother. Initially Joe is shown on a blank screen that gradually shows up the bustle and movement of the city. A mother and child take pity on him and give him some money and that is what he keeps back from his mother so he can go on the picnic. Joe almost misses the train but he is soon transported to a magical world - open spaces, trees, the river and fairy stories. The nice teacher reads the children one and Joe is soon dreaming of fairies and the land beyond the sunset. Joe seems to have developed a special bond with the young teacher which makes it disturbing when he is completely forgotten about.
This short film is so full of innovations, when the group go home Joe is left behind - his thoughts are materialised behind him and the horrible home coming that awaits him, so he decides to take a boat and find his own perfect land beyond the sunset. Martin Fuller was outstanding as Joe even though he only appeared in a handful of films in 1912.
The Flying Scot (1957)
Reminiscent of "Rififi"!!
Reminding me of "Rififi", the film starts with a young couple pasting signs on their train compartment window "Reserved - Newlyweds", when their body language tells that they are so obviously not! They change their clothes and within a short time are in the middle of a seamless, well rehearsed robbery aboard "The Flying Scot" - all told with no speech!! It seems too good to be true and it is. It is just a dream of cocky adrenalin filled Ronny (Lee Patterson) as he strives to sell his plan to his sceptical gang members. Phil (Alan Gifford) thinks it's do-able so along with waitress Jackie (sultry Kay Callard) they set about putting it into action.
Of course things go wrong, Ronny is too hot headed, instead of the easy screws in his dream, the money is behind a panel with immovable rivets so drills and saws have to be utilised, which makes them behind schedule so they miss their drop off point and now have to take the money off the train themselves. Phil becomes ill, the older woman in his carriage being a nurse realises it is a perforated ulcer and he later admits to Jackie that he postponed surgery that same week because this chance of easy money was too good to turn down.
Main player Ronny is unlikable which is a plot twist - Jackie has a lot of sympathy for Phil but like a lot of British "little" movies it is the quirkiness of the other players, any of which you are thinking will propel the narrative, that makes the film memorable. Firstly Phil's train companion has her head stuck in a crime magazine then announces "I've been watching you" - Phil stiffens but she reveals she is a nurse and is worried about his health. Another couple are a wife with an alcoholic husband, she is taking him to a clinic to "dry out" - concerned but keeping him supplied with liquor so he won't cause a disturbance on the train. A family, mother, father and bratty child cause grief to their fellow passengers with their different views on child rearing - mother wants the little boy to explore and be adventurous, father just itching to use a rolled up newspaper. Funniest part - a passenger who is on the receiving end of the unrestrained brat, is doing a cross-word, thinks long and hard about a word, sees the little boy and very clearly spells out B-A-S-T-A-R-D!!
I thought the little boy was going to "crack the case", he has already made himself troublesome around the train and has told all and sundry that he has seen a man with a gun, but like the little boy in "The Fallen Idol" he has told one lie too many and this is the chance his father is waiting for. As it is the instigator is a passing guard who puts justice in motion in a quietly unobtrusive British way.
Director Compton Bennett had a major hit with "The Seventh Veil" (1945) but by the mid 1950s he was ensconced in programmers. Shot in just 3 weeks on a budget of 18,000 pounds - shows what a imaginative and proficient director can do when given a chance.