Movie Reviews - 1920s postsThursday July 25, 2019
Movie Review: Where East Is East (1929)
It’s a love story, and our young lovers, Toyo Haynes and Bobby Bailey (Lupe Velez and Lloyd Hughes), are together at the start. Meaning something will drive a wedge between them during the course of the movie. But what?
Initially, it’s the girl’s father, Tiger Haynes (Lon Chaney), a man who makes a living, and a good one, trapping wild animals in Indo-China for circuses, zoos, etc. He has the scars to prove it—not to mention the nickname. He objects to the union because he wants his daughter to be happy—that’s all he’s lived for—and he’s not sure Bobby is the man for the job. “I’m not trustin’ your happiness to any young whipper-snapper like that!” he tells Toyo via intertitles. Dropped g’s and all.
Then a tiger gets loose and Bobby protects Toyo. The father does most of the work restoring order but he appreciates Bobby’s bravery and the two men shake hands. Problem solved.
Except we’re 10 minutes in. So what comes between the lovers for the rest of the movie?
The girl's mother.
Ah. Same reason?
No. She wants Bobby for herself.
Was this a regular thing back then? A wanton Chinese woman hypnotically seducing innocent western men? It's directed by Tod Browning, and parts reminded me of von Sternberg’s “Blue Angel”: the man reduced and in torment because of the awful woman and her wiles. She’s the nightmare from which he can’t wake up.
Something tells me Bobby would’ve been in trouble anyway. Shortly after the tiger attack, a pudgy Chinese woman flirts with him, until Toyo, who I suppose is supposed to be half Chinese (Velez herself is Mexican), tells her off via Chinese intertitles:
Was this a regular thing back then? UntranslatedChinese intertitles? Was it an early attempt to get into the Chinese market or just an attempt at verisimilitude—letting us know that these two people were saying things that Bobby, for example, didn't understand? If so, why not translate for the mostly western audience?
Here's my attempt anyway: For the above, I knew the first four characters (“You women are...”) but not the last two. Turns out it’s mo-gui: “devils.”
Bobby is passive during all this and it gets worse on a trip he takes with Tiger to deliver animals to Bobby’s father. On board the ship, a lounging woman in slinky outfit, known as Mme. de Sylva (Estelle Taylor), spies him, pushes a ball his way. He picks it up, sees the small boy to whom it belongs, comes over. But then he trips over the boy. Sign of stumbles to come.
At this point, via two more Chinese intertitles, we get this dialogue between the mother of the boy and Mme. de Sylva:
For these, I needed some help from my Chinese teacher. I didn’t know 隻 was the traditional form of the measure word for animals, for example. And in the reply, I didn’t know 莫 is a colloquial form of 别, meaning “don’t,” while 出聲, chu sheng, is “to utter sounds.” Basically the above is this:
Mother: This stupid child is like a pig.
Mme. de Sylva: You, don’t say anything.
That took me half a day. You‘re welcome.
Afterwards, Bobby spends more time with Mme. de Sylva, then introduces her to Tiger, who scowls angrily while she eyes him coolly. They obviously know each other, but when Tiger stomps off Bobby doesn’t go after him to find out how; he simply apologizes for Tiger’s behavior. Then we get more bad dialogue as the boat sails quietly on into the sleepy evening.
He: This is all like a poem of Kipling’s.
She: [Sidelong glance] My East will by our East. You will love it ... I promise.
Then they kiss. Now he’s hooked. Tiger has to literally knock him out and take him ashore to explain what he should have explained immediately: that Mme. de Sylva is ... Toyo’s mother. That wakes Bobby up. Both men agree to return home to Vien-Tiane, Laos, and never speak of it again.
Except guess who’s waiting for them? And even though Mom left her when she was young, Toyo’s super happy and literally hopping all over the place at the prospect. So what can Dad do? As for Bobby, he’s still hooked. Almost hypnotized. You know those Dragon Ladies.
We continue in this fashion: Mom seductive, Bobby tormented, Tiger angry, Toyo oblivious. A caged gorilla—who hates Mme. de Sylva because she used to torture him—is introduced in the second act, and it doesn’t take Chekhov to figure out what will happen in the third. That’s how Mom finally gets it. Cue close-up and silent scream. Tiger, who released the gorilla, is injured, perhaps fatally, in the assault, but he’s there in a makeshift wheelchair for the wedding, after which Toyo and Bobby limp off into what can only be a marriage of mutual recriminations or long sad silences.
Bobby: How could you have let your mother stay?
Toyo: How could you have wanted to fuck her!?!
In the end, Dad was right: He shouldn’t have trusted Toyo’s happiness to that whipper-snapper.
Chaney is great here. He exudes power and emotion while reigning it in. One understands why he was such a respected silent film actor. It’s a shame he only had another year to live before dying of throat cancer at age 47. This is his third-to-last film.
Lloyd Hughes? He made the transition to sound well enough, but stopped making movies in 1939. Not sure why.
The actresses, famous in their time, might be better known today for the men in their lives. Estelle Taylor married thrice, the second time to Jack Dempsey when he was still heavyweight champion of the world. Valdez married just once—to Tarzan himself, Johnny Weissmuller—but was linked to such a Who’s Who of masculinity as to make Taylor look like a piker: Tom Mix, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Guinn “Big Boy” Williams (a Texan character actor who looked like a bigger, stronger George W. Bush), Erich Maria Remarque, and boxers Jack Johnson and, hey, Jack Dempsey again. Why not? If she had a type, it wasn’t exactly Bobby Bailey. She was also apparently volatile and abusive. Cooper supposedly lost 45 pounds in nervous exhaustion during their relationship. She supposedly fired a pistol at him when he was trying to leave. Interestingly, Taylor was one of the last people to see Velez alive. In 1944, amid another volatile relationship, she committed suicide.
Of course, what none of these actors are, in this tale of Chinese seduction, is Chinese. That's truly where Hollywood is Hollywood.
Movie Review: The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
Here’s something I never knew until the 2019 Seattle International Film Festival: the Phantom of the Opera’s real name is Erik. With a k. And the name keeps coming up in the 1925 movie: in title cards, on a file card, in letters to Christina:
You’d think someone would’ve told me this at some point. Or that I would’ve figured it out on my own. Is it in the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, for example? In any of the songs?
Is really Erik
With a kaaayyyy
I guess I didn’t really know the story, either, but it’s basically another of the deformed man/beautiful woman pieces. Think of Victor Hugo’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame” as hazy antecedent and Alan Moore’s “V for Vendetta” as direct descendant.
There are also elements of the Joker: the madman who’s somehow super organized.
So has anyone read the novel? Apparently what the ’25 version gives short shrift to is how long Phantom/Erik (Lon Chaney) has been tutoring his love, Christine (Mary Philbin). In the movie, every time he took credit for her talents I was like, “Bit presumptuous, dude.” But in the book that’s what happens. He makes her. Like Frankenstein. Or Eliza Doolittle.
In 19th-century Paris, two men buy the Paris Opera, while the sellers give each other sly looks. After the deal is made, they confess to the whole ghost/phantom problem, which is an odd move: “Hey, here’s how we snookered you!” Our new guys dismiss the rumors out of hand, but investigate a supposed phantom who sits in a regular balcony seat. At first they see him ... and then they don’t! So was this the Phantom/Erik? Did he have season tickets?
There are various backstage—or below stage—antics involving rumors of the Phantom, a stagehand who’s seen him (“a living skeleton”), and long shadows cast. The Phantom also sends threatening notices demanding casting changes. Specifically he wants Christine to star as Marguerite in “Faust” rather than the prima donna, Mme. Carlotta (Mary Fabian). And he gets his wish! Carlotta falls sick. Did the Phantom cause this? And could I do something similar with the Seattle Mariners? Send messages to management? Start So-and-So at short ... or else!
Meanwhile, Christine’s beau, Vicomte Raoul de Chagny (Norman Kerry), hears that he’s being superseded and confronts her about it. She admits she’s being tutored by someone she calls “the Spirit of Music,” and that nothing can stop her career now, but when he suggests she’s being duped she storms off. Later, outside her dressing room, he hears the Phantom talking to her: “Soon, Christine, this spirit will take form and will demand your love!” She's OK with that; she calls him “Master.” Kind of kinky. When she leaves, the Vicomte bursts in, but of course the room is empty.
Here’s a question the movie doesn’t really answer: Why did the Phantom choose Christine? Because he was enamored of her looks, her talent, or both? If it’s looks, wasn’t she a bit young when they started? And how did he become such an expert music tutor? I know: “self educated musician.” But that doesn’t mean you’re going to be a good teacher. Particularly if you’re, you know, insane.
Anyway, Christine’s debut goes well, but Carlotta returns to the role against the Phantom’s wishes, so for the next performance a giant chandelier crashes onto the audience. This is when the masked Phantom finally appears before Christine, and, in a kind of nightmare sequence, leads her slowly down the stone steps as she cowers in fright. What happened to all the “Master” talk? Hey, I thought you were into this!
There’s a labyrinth beneath the opera house, I believe she rides a horse for a time, and then he rows her via gondola across an underground river to his hideout. He wants to marry her, or something, says she can come and go as she pleases, but he makes one demand: that she never remove his mask. So of course that’s exactly what she does.
Apparently Chaney, who was already legendary in 1925, and only lived until 1930, did his own makeup. Even 100 years later it’s good. Spooky. One can only imagine what 1925 audiences thought.
So what’s her punishment for Eve-like doing the one thing she wasn’t supposed to? Erik says he’s going to make her a prisoner forever. But then he immediately lets her go back to the surface to say her goodbyes. Does she flee Paris? France? Does she go to the cops? None of the above. She attends a masked ball at the opera house, where she tells Raoul all; but the Phantom is there, too, spying, along with another mysterious, menacing figure in a fez, who turns out to be a cop, Ledoux. He's long been on the trail of the Phantom—a madman who escaped from Devil’s Island.
Another question: Was he a madman before Devil’s Island or was he tortured into it? And was his skeletal visage the result of the torture or was he born that way?
The big third act involves the Phantom kidnapping Christine off the stage, Ledoux and Raoul in pursuit but falling into one trap after another, and a mob with torches descending in the basement labyrinth of the opera house. There’s a chase through the streets of Paris, and the Phantom, grinning all the while, almost gets away but is caught near the Seine. I love the bit where he threatens the crowd with an explosive device in his hand, but then reveals the hand to be empty. I like how he does this—triumphantly—even though it means his doom. He’s beaten by the mob and tossed into the Seine. That’s it. Bye, Erik.
So what to make of this story? Why does it endure? How is it romantic?
To me, two things are still great about this ’25 version: Chaney, who apparently hated the director, and the sets. Here’s Wiki on the latter:
Because it would have to support thousands of extras, the set became the first to be created with steel girders set in concrete. For this reason it was not dismantled until 2014. Stage 28 on the Universal Studios lot still contained portions of the opera house set, and was the world's oldest surviving structure built specifically for a movie at the time of its demolition. It was used in hundreds of movies and television series.
One wonders which movies and TV series. One wants a book on the subject: “Stage 28.”
I got to see “Phantom” at SIFF, on the big screen, with a live soundtrack by Austin indie band The Invincible Czars. Made for a good Saturday afternoon.
Someone get back to me on the romantic question.
Movie Review: The Perils of Pauline (1914)
Well, “spoilers.” If you haven’t seen it yet, that’s kind of on you.
I doubt many people who are alive have seen the original “Perils of Pauline,“ but most everyone knows the title. It’s part of the culture. It was a huge hit that propelled the career of Pearl White and made serials a staple for decades. And it introduced us to the term “cliffhanger,” even though the serial doesn’t have traditional cliffhangers. Chapters don’t end with Pauline yelling, “Help! Help help!”; they end happily for the heroine, with the villain thinking “Curses, foiled again!” But Pauline hung from a cliff in one episode, and the name stuck.
It’s been remade several times—in 1933 and 1967—but I think I was introduced to the concept via the 1969 Saturday morning cartoon show “The Perils of Penelope Pitstop,” whose plot, unbeknownst to me, was taken directly from the 1914 original: Pauline’s legal guardian keeps trying to kill her so he can get her money. You know: the usual kids fare.
Pauline also remains oblivious, not to mention incurious, as to who is trying to kill her. She’s a bit of a dim bulb. That’s one of the annoying things about Pauline.
Actually, there are many annoying things about Pauline.
Tom and Daisy
I mention “the 1914 original” but that’s not quite correct. When “Pauline” was released in the U.S., it was 20 chapters long. A shortened nine-chapter version then made its way through Europe in 1916. That’s the one I watched because it’s the only one that still exists. Imagine that. Europe suffered two world wars but managed to hold onto someone else's movie history; we, uninvaded, lets ours slip through our grasp. World wars are nothing next to a disposable culture.
The plot is simple. Harry (Crane Wilbur), the son of a rich man, wants to marry his father’s ward, Pauline (Pearl White), but she begs off, wishing first for “a life of adventure.” So the rich man, Sanford Marvin (Edward José), promises her an inheritance, then puts his secretary, Koerner (Paul Panzer, who looks a bit like Rod Blagojevich), in charge of it. When she and Harry marry, she‘ll get the dough. Or he will.
Of course, Koerner—who was originally called Raymond Owen but became Germanic in France during WWI—isn’t who he appears to be. From the title card:
“Koerner, a man with a tainted past, has wormed his way into a position of confidence as Mr. Marvin’s secretary.”
I love the insinuation: His past is tainted so he’s automatically untrustworthy in the present. And he hasn’t done a good job as secretary; he’s wormed his way in. Was he already thinking nefarious deeds? Initially, he just seems like a guy doing his job. But then an old comrade, the evil Hicks (Francis Carlyle), shows up and blackmails him. Then the old man dies, Koerner gets bupkis except trustee of Pauline’s estate, so Hicks more or less whispers in his ear: “If you can manage to dispose of her, you’ll gain control of all her property.”
Hicks sets everything in motion, but, oddly, he’s not around for long. Each chapter begins with a new plot to kill Pauline but increasingly it’s only Koerner doing the plotting. And in the end, only Koerner finds his just desserts. Hicks? I don’t recall seeing him after the third chapter.
So what exactly are the perils of Pauline? She’s...
- trapped in a runaway balloon
- bound and gagged in a burning house
- bound and gagged in a flooding basement
- kidnapped by bandits, then Indians, then made to undergo “the race of the Great Stone of Death”
- left alone on a boat with a bomb on it
- adrift on a boat used as Gunnery target practice
She also enters a motor race and a steeplechase, tries to fly in an airplane, and helps rescue a submarine from foreign sabotage.
There’s great irony throughout. The “life of adventure” she wants is mostly created by Koerner in his various plots to kill her. Of the above, she only initiates the motor race, the steeplechase, and the trip out West. Otherwise, she’s just hanging around the mansion, waiting. For what? Mostly to not marry Harry. I get the feeling she doesn’t really like him.
Yet it’s mostly Harry to the rescue. He discovers the bomb on the boat and the snake in the flower basket. He rescues her from the burning house by riding up on a white horse (there’s that trope), and lassos her out of the way of a big boulder rolling downhill toward her (there’s that trope). After she manages to halt the runaway balloon by dropping anchor and then scaling down onto a rock cliff, Harry climbs up to meet her. She responds, “I’m dizzy, Harry. You’ll have to carry me down!”
Wait, I thought you wanted a life of adventure.
Both of them are kind of awful. With the plane, he delays her arrival on the airfield, which prevents her from flying with famed aviator Wilson Smith. Instead only he is killed—in a plane sabotaged by Koerner. No one blinks an eye. Neither she nor Harry wonder about all the attempts on her life. They’re like Tom and Daisy in “Gatsby”: careless people who smash up things and then retreat back into their money and vast carelessness.
It wouldn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure it out, either: all evidence points to Koerner. He’s got motive—the money—and he’s the one forever suggesting these life-threatening escapades. In Chapter 5, “A Watery Doom,” a band of gypsies (yes) dressed as firemen (sure) tie a bound-and-gagged Pauline and Harry in a cellar, which is then flooded by a nearby river. They report back to Koerner: “All is over!” Does Koerner play it tight to the vest? Not exactly. He celebrates by arrogantly firing the butler: “I am the master here now and I no longer require your services!” So, when Harry and Pauline turn up alive, why didn’t the butler say anything? “You know Koerner fired me while you were gone. He said he was the master here. He seemed to think you were both dead.” Instead, oblivious to the end.
Make that oblivious past the end. In the final chapter, on Harry’s yacht, Pauline points to a motorboat and says, “Harry, I should like to go all alone for a short cruise.” She does but Koerner puts a hole in the boat. When she realizes she’s sinking, she bites her fist, then rows to the target practice boat. When she realizes it’s being shelled, she puts a note in the collar of her faithful dog (there’s that trope), who swims to the gunnery. Pauline is saved! Which is when Koerner finally gets his comeuppance. By Pauline? By Harry? Nope. Just some guy. He saw the sabotage, fights Koerner and tosses him in the water. We see Koerner clinging to a log; then he’s underwater and his hands are clawing the air (there’s that trope). Then the end.
That’s right; They never find out. Instead, Pauline just agrees to marry Harry, and the two live obviously ever after.
Tune in tomorrow
There’s a lot of racism, of course, Indians and gypsies and probably worse which didn’t make the French cut (see slideshow). In the Indian camp, at one point, Pauline is declared a “fair goddess,” which results in happy dancing and kowtowing. “Our deviner has predicted your coming,” a warrior tells her. “You are the white girl who was to spring forth from the ground to lead the warriors of our tribe to victory.” So there’s that trope.
I like the oddities that resulted from—I imagine—translating title cards from English to French back to English: a reference to Pauline’s “immoral” strength, for example. The balloon ride at Palisades Amusement Park is said to cost $500. That would be more than $12K today. Francs, right?
In his book, “Classics of the Silent Screen,” Joe Franklin says ”The Perils of Pauline“ is the film ”that put serials on the map.“ They‘re still on the map—just hidden. They were replaced by television in the 1950s, then rebooted as single features with A-production values by nostalgic directors like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas in the 1970s. That’s what ”Star Wars“ was, and ”Raiders of the Lost Ark.“ Our long national rollercoaster ride began here.
A lot of future movie tropes can be seen in ”The Perils of Pauline.“ Example: The heroic man on the horse, and the woman saying, ”They went thataway!" But the biggest trope of all was the damsel in distress.
As here, from gypsies.
And here, from Indians.
Much of the serial is dress-up: Pauline as Indian and race car driver; as aviatrix and scuba diver.
Translating from English to French and then back to English led to some good, garbled title cards.
I guess there is a kind of strength in immorality.
Even when they get it right it's wrong.
Some of the racist stereotypes didn't make the French cut. But the French did like the Indians and gypsies.
Particularly the gypsies.
Here's our villain. Initially named Owen, he was renamed Koerner in France during WWI, and bears a passing resemblance to disgraced Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich.
He gets his.
While Harry gets his: Pauline, rescued again, is finally ready to marry.
Obliviously ever after. *FIN*
Movie Review: The General (1926)
Does anyone else extrapolate beyond Hollywood endings?
I know Buster Keaton’s “The General” is a classic, voted the 18th greatest movie of all time by the American Film Institute, with only Chaplin’s “City Lights” (No. 11) ahead of it in the pure comedy category. And I know 1926 wasn’t exactly an enlightened time when it came to race, so the fact that our hapless hero is in effect fighting to preserve slavery, even if he is just trying to get the girl, well, I’ll let go of that.
But the ending? Keaton’s Johnnie Gray finally gets the girl and the uniform; he’s both honored and loved. And we get that great final shot of Keaton and the girl, Annabelle Lee of Marietta, Ga. (Marion Mack), sitting on the siderod of the titular train, kissing, as he keeps saluting passing soldiers at such a furious pace it’s as if he’s dismissing them. There’s almost an Army schmarmy vibe to it. It’s as if he’s saying “Make love not war” 40 years before that became a rallying cry.
But it’s still 1862. And he’s still wearing Confederate grays. “So he’s dead in three years,” I thought. “And at best she’s Scarlett O’Hara, at worst ‘A Woman in Berlin.’”
I know. Don’t extrapolate.
Comic imperatives, narrative imperatives
The story is built on misperceptions that would easily be cleared up if someone, anyone, would just say something. Ironic, given silent film.
Johnnie, we’re told, loves two things, his train and Annabelle Lee. and we see him wooing her in her front parlor in his usual fumbling fashion. Then Confederates fire upon a Union garrison at Fort Sumter, war is declared, and Annabelle’s father and brother immediately go to sign up. And what about you? Annabelle seems to indicate to Johnnie. It takes a second for the other shoe to drop. Oh, right, I’m supposed to be brave. I loved Keaton at this moment. For not going along.
Except then he does. He’s first in line to sign up, but the Rebs won’t take him. The officers behind the scenes feel he’ll be more valuable as a train engineer except nobody bothers to tell him this. Despite his persistence, they simply order him out, repeatedly, and out he goes, dejected, only to be greeted by Annabelle’s father and brother, who eye him the way Annabelle did: So? You signing up? And he doesn’t bother to tell them. They think he’s a coward. Annabelle does, too. Even when he tries to tell her, she doesn’t believe him.
A year later, her brother has medals (I thought of Bob Dylan’s “John Brown”), her father’s been injured (superficially), and she’s still ignoring Johnnie. Then his train is hijacked by Yankee spies, who plan on destroying the Western & Atlantic Railroad tracks between Atlanta and Chattanooga, Tenn., cutting off the South from needed supplies. (Needed to keep slavery going.) This is based on a historic incident, the Great Locomotive Chase, or the Andrews’ Raid, after James J. Andrews, a Kentucky civilian who concocted it. The hero for the South was the train’s conductor, William Allen Fuller, who, per Wikipedia, “pursued the train hijackers on foot, by handcar, and in a variety of other locomotives.”
And that’s Keaton. There’s a great balance here between the comic imperative to have Johnnie fumble and the narrative imperative to have him succeed, and Keaton threads it like the silent-film genius he is. It’s this element of the movie, oddly, that Mordaunt Hall, in his review in The New York Times in February 1927, found problematic:
It is difficult to reconcile one’s self to a hero who is apparently astute in some things and almost idiotic in others. This man, who has difficulty in crossing a road, is supposed to be crafty enough to outwit the Northern General.
Hall’s piece is titled “Mr. Keaton’s Face Overpowers This Film,” which most modern critics would agree with; but he also dismisses the film as “somewhat mirthless,” which, for most critics, is like shots fired at Fort Sumter.
I’m in the middle. Keaton does beautiful things onscreen but he doesn’t make me laugh like Chaplin. Chaplin is also gentler around women. There’s something petulant and vaguely menacing about Keaton at times. Example: As Johnnie and Annabelle work to bring back The General and save the South (temporarily), she keeps mucking up in ways different from his own. So he throttles her neck. Like she’s Laurel or something. I guess it’s EOE but it’s still a bit of a surprise, particularly given his parlor shyness. Beware the shy ones, girls.
Most of the movie is chase, and includes the most expensive scene of the silent era: a locomotive is sent over a burning bridge, which collapses and sends the train, a real train, into the river below. But its most famous shot is an early one: a heartbroken Keaton sitting on the siderods as the train moves again, taking him up and down as if on a merry-go-round, or, more aptly, on the vicissitudes of life. It’s exquisite. I also liked a moment in the North when Johnnie is hiding under a table where the generals are making their plans. A cigar burns a hole in the tablecloth, and for a moment we fear that Johnnie will be revealed. Nope. It’s so Johnnie can see Annabelle through the hole. It’s a natural iris shot. Lovely.
But 18th all time? In AFI’s first 100 greatest films list, from 1997, “The General” didn’t even make the cut. Anyone know what happened between 1997 and 2007 to give it such a boost?
Plus, fuck it I’ll say it, Johnnie is fighting to preserve slavery. That curdles some of the comedy for me.
Movie Review: The Lime Kiln Club Field Day (1913)
Williams and Grey get ready for their close-up.
Last Monday, at the Paramount in Seattle, as part of “Silent Movie Mondays,” I saw a movie few people have ever seen.
It's called “Lime Kiln Club Field Day,” and no worries if you haven't heard of it. It was produced by the Biograph Company in 1913, and starred Bert Williams, a West Indian vaudeville performer who is considered the first black star (headlining shows on Broadway, for example, at a time of the KKK and lynchings in the South), but it was never released. And it would've disappeared completely if, in 1939, the Museum of Modern Art hadn't bought 900 cans of film that the bankrupt Biograph company was planning to destroy. “Lime Kiln” was among those reels; MOMA didn't know what it had until recently.
And why do we care? Because it's the first feature-length film with a mostly African-American cast. Williams is in blackface but no one else is. And as fraught as the concept of blackface is, within the confines of the film it feels like another comic mask—like Chaplin's moustache or Keaton's stone face. In the film, it doesn't feel racially derogatory. He's our clown, as Chaplin was. Indeed, one of the startling aspects of the film is how typically “silent film” it is. How long before we got another cinematic portrait of the African-American community that was this positive? Or this neutral? I'm guessing decades.
The plot is fairly simple. Williams is one of three men trying to court a girl, played by the super-stylish Odessa Warren Grey, and things begin to turn in his favor when he inadvertently drops a jug of gin down a well, tainting the water. He then labels the well “Gin Spring” and sells it, or something, and comes into cash. Then he escorts Ms. Grey through the fair, onto the rides (including an early 20th century Merry-Go-Round with brass ring), and to the big dance, where, I believe, he's revealed as a charlatan. No matter. He still gets the girl. The movie ends at her gate with a big kiss. Multiple versions of a big kiss, actually. Spike Lee would be proud.
If I sound shaky on some of the details it's because no title cards were ever created for the film, and no script was found. The curators at MOMA, including Ron Magliozzi who toured with the film, went so far as to hire lip readers to figure out what was being spoken. Most it was unhelpful ad-libbing. (After the screening, I asked Magliozzi what was being said, and he mentioned that in some scenes, such as when the rivals all show up at Ms. Grey's gate, they're actually swearing: “What the fuck are you doing here!” etc. Makes one wonder how R-rated silent films might actually be. Surely a good future project for someone.)
Even without the title cards, though, you pretty much know what's going on. Indeed, their lack probably helps the film, since we do get title cards in the Bert Williams short, “Natural Born Gambler,” which precedes “Lime Kiln,” and they're rendered in the usual, minstrel-y fashion of the time: “de debbil” for “the devil.” To me, the title cards are more problematic than the blackface, which in some ways emphasizes Williams humanity rather than detracting from it. So it's probably a net positive that “Lime Kiln” doesn't have the cards. It allows the story to be the story.
The most commented-upon aspect of the film is the cakewalk at the big dance. It feels like the first episode of “Soul Train” ever recorded:
After our screening, there was a discussion, moderated by Seattle Theater Group's marketing director Vivian Williams, and featuring Magliozzi; Teddie Gibson, who composed a score for the film and played on the Paramount's Wurlitzer organ; and Dr. Louis Chude-Sokei, a UW professor who's written a book about Williams, “The Last 'Darky,'” which I would love to read someday when I don't have a stack of books to get through. I've sat through a lot of these Q&As, and they're usually death, but this one was great. It had history, disagreement, discussion, insight. I wanted it to keep going.
So why was the film never released? Magliozzi suggests that once “Birth of a Nation” was released in 1915, and became a huge hit, and the KKK reformed and everything, it didn't seem like a good idea. But that would mean they kept it in the can for two years? Did they do that with silent films? I'm guessing there's a different answer—one we'll probably never know.