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.
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.
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.
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.
"Csak egy kislány van a világon" is mainly notable as it represents the film debut of Hungarian actress Marta Eggerth, who would soon become the top star of Central European operetta films and musicals; Katinka is her only non-speaking part. Eggerth is radiantly beautiful throughout and demonstrates dramatic ability far beyond the norm for a 17-year old actress. Mercedes Zombary, in her only film role, is alluring, appropriately sexy and uncaring as the "other woman," and the two male leads handle their roles adequately if a little melodramatically. However, director Béla Gaál gets the most out of meager resources and makes what may have been a great picture here -- "may have been" as so much of it is missing. There are Russian-styled montage sequences that are ambitious and visually striking, and the overall feel of the film is rather like the style of MGM in the late silent period, but with natural settings in place of MGM's typical, studio-bound artificiality. The sense of Hungarian-ness in the film is palpable, with the bows of fiddles darting across the screen, the rhythmic pace of Gypsy music wrapping around the action and the mixture of modern and traditional dress. Despite some slow passages and ellipses in the story caused by missing footage, "Csak egy kislány van a világon" is an inspired effort with some genuinely great things in it. Director Gaál would go, with considerable success, into comedies in the 1930s, but would end his days, regrettably, in either the Dachau Concentration Camp or at the hands of Nazis on a Budapest street, depending on which account one accepts.
Time has not brought us a better print, and the one we have shows the telltale intrusions of censorship. In the first story, a fellow who claims to be a wealthy producer or something-or-other turns on the charm with several women. He tells one singer he can only pay her $3.25 a day to appear in a talking picture, and that appears to have been about the daily budget that Micheaux had to make "Ten Minutes to Live." There are so many ellipses and shortcuts that you can hardly tell a story is being told at all, and in the first part it so frequently interrupted by vaudeville acts and cutaways to non-speaking characters that you wonder who is actually participating in the tale told. The dancing, though, is all excellent, if not always shot to the best advantage, and in one scene the girls are crammed into a space so tight that they can barely move. Donald Heywood and his hard-working band are definitely an asset to the picture, even when their music is cut into little bits and shards, or interleaved with snatches of Beethoven symphonies. It is not completely foolproof, however; at one point a musician loses his music off the stand, and in yet another the whole band loses it place in the music, with the violinist diligently leading them back to the head.
Despite the front title card's assertion that this is an "All Talking" picture, the second story, "The Killer," is strictly a part-talkie, and plays for most of its length silent. One wonders if this was something Micheaux had made earlier as a silent and merely added to "Ten Minutes to Live" with a few talking scenes added. Overall, as a film it is far more interesting than the first part and contains several beautiful visual touches, but these are mostly in the silent filmed sections. Once the sound returns, conversation is heard while a character, ostensibly in hiding, is seen overhearing and reacting to it -- for a very long time.
While "Ten Minutes to Live" is not Micheaux' best effort by a long shot, it is also not his worst, and it would be his weirdest if "Swing!" didn't exist. If you approach it as a kind of arty affair and enjoy the dancing and music, you still might get something out of it. If you try to follow "Ten Minutes to Live" as a conventional story, however, you will get hopelessly lost. Not all actors are credited, and some are here credited incorrectly; some appear to be playing more than one part in the story, and there are lots of silent-style subtitles and letters to make things all the more mystifying.
The extant ten-minute sequence may be part of a workprint towards the finished film, which is lost; it has no intertitles, but also no slates, a couple of flash frames and some jumpy edits, suggesting that at some point this raw material was cleaned up. There are two takes of a scene where Petschler, as Silverjälm, is greeted warmly by Garbo, who jumps up into his arms. Afterward, they enjoy tea and crumpets at the girls' campsite, and it irises out. The footage, which mainly consists of Garbo and her two sisters going out on a boat, establishing a campsite and playing in the water, is beautifully filmed by photographer Oscar Norberg. But the scenes with the three girls are not very well directed, and suggests second unit, or student, work; the girls prance around, stand in the water and we are not sure what they are doing -- and perhaps, neither were they. While the sequence is clearly in imitation of Mack Sennett bathing beauty subjects it does not play as comedy so much as a lighthearted moment within a more serious endeavor.
Possibly the reason this material was conserved at all was that it was a more extended look at the sequence that Garbo was in; certainly in the finished film it would have played shorter. Garbo is the most attractive of the three girls and also the most resourceful; she pilots the motorboat that they ride in and also appears to be building the campfire that they use to cook their fish. Nevertheless, Garbo herself must have been devastated that this film survived only in this way, shorn of its context and playing like provincial, inferior comedy.
Ironically, "The Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man" is somewhat in the same boat as "The Magnificent Ambersons" as it is a very good film with some great things in it, and perhaps it would be a great film if its maker hadn't abandoned it. The Atom Man (Taylor Mead) is less than an atom; a nothing -- a pitiful, neurotic male who lives in a series of fantasies, none of which pan out for him. The Queen of Sheba (Winifred Bryan) is a beautiful, regal African-American woman with a taste for young white guys; she is confident and wholly capable of interacting with the outside world. The Atom Man is her servant, and despite the title, there is relatively little interaction between them -- their exploits are shown separately and such encounters as they have are relatively brief and awkward. In her dreams, The Queen of Sheba seems to wish that the Atom Man would get his act together enough so that he could accompany her on her daily rounds of the museums and other cultural attractions she likes, but he is clearly hopeless. Taylor Mead gives his usual 110 percent and this early role may have been his personal best -- with Rice, Mead had the freedom to make up his own part, and the Atom Man was exceptionally suitable to his gifts. Winifred Bryan is so charming, enchanting and sexy that one regrets that she appeared so seldom in films. Rice clearly had a strong eye and was quick on the uptake even within his improvisational style of filmmaking; there are shots in "The Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man" that French cinema verité filmmakers would die for. What edits Rice himself made that remain in the film demonstrate a symbolic flow that connect disparate things together and plays with time. That much of the movie stands as it does, hinging on principal photography and basic action, is kind of a pity, as the little bit of montage remaining from Rice's hand really picks it up. The film would be easier to follow if Rice had managed to devise a more convincing setting for the Queen of Sheba's boudoir -- little more than a bed in front of a "wall" which is simply a sheet thrown over a board with a magazine pinned to it as a "picture." At one point, this comes tumbling down, though the extreme cheapness of this feature is part of its charm. However, in terms of demolishing conventional storytelling and providing a viable, freewheeling alternative to it, "The Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man" must be regarded as Rice's signature achievement, despite its unfinished state. Jack Smith appears briefly as one of the Queen's suitors and Rice also appears in a scene that has the flavor of an outtake; perhaps it was kept in his memory, but one wonders if the film might not be a little stronger without it. Both Mead and Bryan are convincing as a kind of mythic super-people, and this is the one scene that seems to break that spell somewhat.
Someone stated that you could re-synchronize it, but it wouldn't be worth it. Actually, even if you worked with a set of surviving discs, you still couldn't sync it properly because they used the wrong takes; the audio, for the most part, does not fit the action on screen. I still feel a restoration would be worthwhile just to help us understand what the dialog is in the first place. Some scenes are very, very hard to understand, and a lot of the dialog is swallowed up in limiting; the soundtrack is littered with pops and the sounds of splice marks. However, even with an improved soundtrack, it might not improve the picture, at least by much. It's Viña Delmar's first story credit, and not one destined to win her any Oscar nominations, as "The Awful Truth" did. "Dance Hall" is pretty bad in the story sense alone; Tommy and Gracie (Olive Borden) are broke ballroom dancers, and Tommy is pretty keen on Gracie, but her emotional world is thrown into a tailspin when she is wood by no-good jerk-wad pilot Ted (Ralph Emerson). And that short summary almost gives away the whole story.
Arthur Lake -- who plays the whole first scene without his pants [!] --is trapped in the kind of miserable juvenile role that Humphrey Bogart was often saddled with in his days on Broadway. Lake is wasted; as Dagwood Bumstead he was a kind of a comic genius, but here he is trying to play Tommy as a lovable boob and only succeeds at making him a boob. And it is not through inexperience; Lake had already been in dozens of pictures. Olive Borden is lovely as Gracie, but the part -- well -- it's vapid. Redoutable supporting actors Seddon and Joseph Cawthorn play stock characters and seem anxious to move on to the next picture, whatever it is. Visually, the direction, camera-work and cutting is strong for an early talkie; the dance hall set is attractive and authentic, and the dance music is charming and catchy. But the total package plays like a weak comedy that doesn't have any gags in it. Everyone connected with it -- including producer William LeBaron, who ultimately produced such classic comedies as "It's a Gift," "Peach-A-Reno" and took home the Best Picture Oscar for "Cimarron" a couple of years later -- must have been embarrassed beyond description by "Dance Hall."
It is unlikely "Dance Hall" was made as a silent as there are few fades, actors do not "wait" for imagined title cards to pop up, or otherwise stall the action as is sometimes seen in talkies made both ways. If you had the means to fix it, however -- all of the original soundtrack, including the right takes -- you would probably remove the element that is the most interesting thing about "Dance Hall." If you were teaching a film class and wanted to show the students how important sound editors are, and how a bad one could really screw up a picture, then this is the perfect vehicle for that.
McKimson probably got the go ahead for this project as the war was seen as ending relatively soon, and the Navy needed this one in a hurry. His boss, Frank Tashlin, was up to his own nose in projects already and, indeed, McKimson would not direct again until he overtook the unit in the wake of Tashlin's departure the following year. McKimson's first job at direction once he assumed control was to finish "Daffy Doodles," a cartoon that Tashlin had started, and likewise "The Return of Mr. Hook" follows very closely in Tashlin's footsteps, particularly in the breathless middle section where Hook reunites with his sweetheart, buys furnishings for their home, marries her and settles down to start a family in just over two minutes' screen time.
The most effective sequence in the cartoon is the montage when the end of war is declared; the battleships race back from the Pacific theater to the US and Hook propels himself past the crowd -- and the burlesque house -- to the tailor's to transition back into civilian life. Hook's character -- voiced by "Dagwood" actor Arthur Lake -- is presented as an everyman, but actually comes off as kind of a jerk. There is a nod to the spicy humor employed in Private Snafu and designed to strike the funny-bones of hardened military men, but "The Return of Mr. Hook" stops short of the coarser, "freeze the nuts off a jeep" similes employed in U.S. Army subjects. Nevertheless, it is the message, rather than the humor, that is driving this picture, and it succeeds effectively in that, though for a seaman stationed on an aircraft carrier or battleship out in the Pacific all those many months, the card game may have seemed more attractive.
Although the finished product employs nowhere near the level of creativity of "Duck Amuck," it works well enough to at least fit in with Daffy's other output; he doesn't do anything we wouldn't expect him to do, and he does not play off the pack-rat as unnecessarily mean as he does with Speedy Gonzales in DePatie-Freling subjects. The music score, by William Lava, is dedicated rather than generic, and while it does not employ the humorous synchronicity of a Stalling-Franklyn score it doesn't get in the way either. Mel Blanc only has to play one character, and the timing is a little rushed as in later Daffy Duck cartoons, but not nearly as badly.
While "Aqua Duck" is less than deserving of its terrible reputation, that doesn't mean that it is altogether free from the brush of failure that rather obviously paints later Daffy Duck subjects. It's just a matter of the Warner Bros. animation studio, with resources growing short, attempting to achieve something convincing and characteristic of its product while waiting to learn of its fate. In a way, "Aqua Duck" can be seen as a metaphor for what the Warners' unit was going through at the time, in the same manner as so many of their other cartoons have that sort of self-confessional tone. In this case, though, they are trying find a way to make some rain, which, for the studio, never came.
Cartoon researcher Jerry Beck has suggested as answer to the perennial question "Which is the worst Looney Tune?" to choose from any of these mid-60s titles, and indeed, most are so worthless that it is hard to say that one is necessarily worse than another. However, it strikes this reviewer that "The Astroduck" is especially miserable; the set up is interminable and more than two minutes roll by before we are even treated to a single gag. Once going, they are gags of a very limited kind, largely centered around those ubiquitous dynamite sticks that usually blow up predator rather than prey, and as CBS removed the final outcome of these scenes through censorship in latter-day Bugs-Daffy reruns it hardly made a subject like "The Astroduck" worth watching at all. In the opening scenes, Speedy warns Daffy "You don't understand; you come into this country and..." -- he is cut off -- as if he is informing both Daffy and us about something significant to the cartoon's plot. But whatever it was, it must not have mattered too much, because we never come back to it.
Mel Blanc earns his paycheck and delivers the voice acting with his usual aplomb, though the timing is a tad fast so he isn't able to give his characterizations the nuances that they deserve. The layouts are cheap looking and only slightly better than Flintstones quality artwork. An especially tiresome entry in the sorry Daffy-Speedy canon.
Directed by second unit man Vernon Keays, who went into direction for a spell in the mid-1940s, "Lawless Empire" is well edited and reasonably well made, though gaffes of various kinds abound, not the least of which is that Bob Wills' high stepping, jazzy music does not coordinate in the least with the circa 1870 time frame suggested in the opening titles. The music is all terrific, and there is quite a bit of it; the story stands still while Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys play their numbers complete. "Lawless Empire" tremendously entertaining, and I only took it one point off a "7" simply because it lacks suspense; you know that the Marshall and the Durango Kid are one and the same very early on, and that the bad guys -- neither large in number, particularly bright or very tough -- have a hard row to hoe to win this one. One the bad guys, Duke (Ethan Laidlaw), wins points for both being the most threatening and yet most sympathetic of the men on Blaze Howard's team. Dub Taylor is on board to bring comic relief, and his stunt gags are pretty good, but overall there is plenty of action and music to make this one worth its oats. Just not much in the way of surprise.
Ivan Mozzhukhin, a major star of the French silent cinema of the 1920s, plays the role of Mathias Pascal. A deep thinker and scion of an aristocratic family that is declining and on the ropes, Pascal loses his estate, yet remains idealistic, marries, and has a baby daughter. His mother and the child die on the same day, and after a period of mourning he flees to Monte Carlo, where he luckily restores much of his personal fortune. Learning that he is considered dead back in his home town, he goes onto forge a new life, but is pestered both by the stress of being in hiding and the ineffectual nature of his not being who he says he is. The story has numerous substrata, and L'Herbier includes them all, with Mozzhukhin's expressive countenance and comic physicality holding it together. Mozzhukin is wonderful in the role, and does a fine job throughout; other standout performances include Michel Simon, in his film debut, as Mozzhukhin's occasional buddy and Pierre Batcheff as a juvenile thief. L'Herbier has a problem turning the corner on plot points: the first sequence demonstrating the conflict between Pascal and his mother-in-law seems to go on for an eternity. Experienced eyes know that this cannot be a major aspect of the tale told, and it isn't, but L'Herbier treats it like it is. There are a lot of long takes on Mozzhukhin, just thinking; we know what he's thinking, but it doesn't build tension. Also, L'Herbier's cutters were kind of cavalier about matching action; one character is seen leaving the scene three times. Despite such shortcomings, "Feu Mathias Pascal" is major landmark in French cinema in several ways; it is a high-water mark in both Mozzhukhin's career and in Pirandello adaptations, and it was the most commercially successful of all L'Herbier's films, which must have pleased him because he clearly designed it as a solid, commercial feature. Alberto Calvacanti and Lazare Meerson designed the sets, and despite the radical difference in approach the two styles shake hands, not to mention the splendid location shooting in Monte Carlo, Rome and San Gimignano. Careful eyes will note what Luis Buñuel took away from "Feu Mathias Pascal," particularly in the Roman sequence, which coincidentally involves Pierre Batcheff's character.