Category Archives: 1920s

The Only Way (Herbert Wilcox, 1927)

Martin Harvey 1I’ve finally been lucky enough to see The Only Way, the British silent adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities, which sadly isn’t on DVD – but is available to see in BFI mediatheques in the UK, and also via the web for universities and colleges and in some libraries. I’ve written to the BFI asking them to release it on DVD and saying that I’m sure a lot of Dickens fans would be interested to see it, but I won’t hold my breath! I wrote a short posting mentioning this film last December during my Dickens season, and posted a great photo of the star, Sir John Martin-Harvey. Some good discussion about the movie followed on, which made me even more determined to see it.

Now I’ve actually bought two photos of him in the role on Ebay and am posting scans of them here – they are both postcards, and I love the fact that, on one of them, someone has written “In sweet remembrance, JOCD.” (Not entirely sure about those initials.) All that is on the other side of the photo is the address, to a Miss D Dennis in London’s Notting Hill. The romantic in me is now wondering if a spurned lover sent this to his beloved, comparing himself to Sydney – or was it one fan sending it to another in “sweet remembrance” of seeing the  play? Or does the ‘CD’ refer to Dickens? Who knows. Anyway, the postcards are clearly from the stage play, which toured Britain for around 30 years, rather than the film, as Martin-Harvey is much younger and not yet knighted.

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The Scarlet Letter (Victor Sjöström, 1926)

This is my contribution to the Gish Sisters blogathon, being organised by  Movies Silently and The Motion Pictures blogs. Please note I will be discussing the whole plot of The Scarlet Letter, both the film and the book.
The Scarlet Letter 9Great Swedish director Victor Sjöström’s The Wind (1928) is regularly hailed as one of the very greatest silent films. However, The Scarlet Letter, a movie he made just two years earlier with the same screenwriter, Frances Marion, and the same main stars, Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson, tends to be strangely overlooked. Yet, for my money, his adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic novel is another masterpiece – and, as with The Wind (which has at least had a Spanish release), I can hardly believe there isn’t a DVD available.

It is about time Sjöström and Gish got the recognition they deserved, and  that both these great films were released on DVD, and preferably Blu-ray too. Sadly, the only way I could see The Scarlet Letter was on Youtube, where the picture quality wasn’t very good – but the film’s astonishing power shone through all the same. (It is occasionally shown on TCM in the USA, but I don’t think it is ever screened on TV in the UK, where I live.)

Portraits by Jenni has also reviewed The Scarlet Letter for the blogathon and her review includes a fascinating account of how Lillian Gish campaigned for the film to be made and how it was her project all the way. I won’t go over all this ground again, but please do read Jenni’s posting.

During filming for MGM, Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson acted their parts in English and Swedish respectively – something which was possible in the silent era – but you would never know that by watching. They both give great performances as the heroine, Hester Prynne, and the tortured young clergyman, Arthur Dimmesdale, while another fine actor of the era, Henry B Walthall, dominates several scenes as the vengeful Roger Chillingworth. (His name exactly suggests his chilling personality.) Gish  expresses her character’s suffering and passion through her eyes, as she also does in The Wind.

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John Martin-Harvey as Sydney Carton in ‘The Only Way’ (1927)

I’d been hoping to write about the 1927 British silent film The Only Way, based on A Tale of  Two Cities, as part of my series of Dickens postings – but so far I haven’t managed to see this film. The BFI does have it available to watch online but only to registered universities/colleges and libraries – my local libraries are in the process of registering, but this is likely to take a while.

However, though I haven’t managed to see the film as yet, I couldn’t resist sharing this photograph of the film’s star, Sir John Martin-Harvey, as Sydney Carton. He had also played the role on stage many times and there are many striking photos and even paintings of him as Carton online.

the only way

I will hope to write more about this film in future when I finally get a chance to see it!

BFI’s taster for silent Dickens – and lamentations over lost films

Thanks so much to everyone who has shown an interest in my Dickens in December series of postings. I’m getting the impression that quite a few people are particularly fascinated by the silent adaptations – it is amazing to realise that there were around 100 silent films of his works during that era, though many have sadly been lost.

I don’t have all that much time tonight, but thought I’d share a link to the BFI’s taster for the surviving Dickens silent films. This has left me very keen to see the adaptation of  David Copperfield made in 1913 by Thomas Bentley, which is said to be the second oldest feature-length British film (I don’t know what the very oldest was!)  There are a few minutes of footage included on the Dickens Before Sound DVD, but I now really want to see the whole thing.

Luckily, the 1913 British film of David Copperfield does survive complete, although it hasn’t been released on DVD, so I should hopefully be able to get hold of it at some time.

However, there are many other lost or unavailable silents which I would love to see. For instance, a 1914 two-reel version of Martin Chuzzlewit with Alan Hale, so great as a supporting actor in many 1930s Warner films, playing the young Martin – this is said to survive in George Eastman House’s collection, so it may emerge at some time, but it may remain as just a tempting thought. There were also two versions of The Chimes made the same year, now lost, as well as a Hard Times in 1915, a Great Expectations in 1917 – and the list goes on. Another one I’m especially sorry not to get a chance to see is A Tale of Two Cities from 1922, starring Clive Brook as Sydney Carton.  There are plenty of Dickens adaptations which are available and which will keep me busy for ages, but it is sad to think how much has been lost. I’ll once again link to the excellent page at The Bioscope blog which lists all the silent Dickens productions that were made, both those which still exist and those which are gone forever.

Oliver Twist (Frank Lloyd, 1922)

Oliver Twist 1922 1After watching Frank Lloyd’s early silent feature A Tale of Two Cities (1917),  I couldn’t resist taking a look at the second Dickens silent he directed five years later. This one is much better-known, because it has a more famous cast, headed by Jackie Coogan as Oliver and Lon Chaney as Fagin – and it is also available on DVD (it is the centrepiece of the BFI’s region 2 DVD Dickens Before Sound, and I believe there are other releases too) as well as online. Here’s a link to a Youtube version for anyone who would like to watch it online, but, be warned, the musical soundtrack for this version is extremely repetitive! I’m puzzled by the  poster shown left which mentions a song, but I suppose there must have been one played at the original showings.

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Dickens in December

As a lifelong Dickens obsessive, I’ve been vaguely intending all year to do a series of postings on films based on his books for his bicentenary, but have only got round to a couple of postings, on the 1935 films of David Copperfield and The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Now it’s December and, if I don’t get down to it right now, the moment (or the year) will be gone.

Of course, Christmas is always thought of as the season for Dickens (though there was a lot more to him as a writer than that)  - so I’m going to aim to post something about films associated with and inspired by my favourite novelist every day this month. Realistically, I don’t think I will come up with a full-length review every day, but there will be something Dickensian here for those few people who keep faith with my erratic blogging.

dickens before soundTo start off with, let me just recommend the region 2 BFI DVD Dickens Before Sound, which followed on from their fascinating Silent Shakespeare collection. It features some of the very earliest film adaptations of  Dickens, made between 1901 and  the 1920s. Most of the films are very short and focus on just brief incidents from his novels, but they give a feeling of just how well-known and well-loved his works were. I was especially amazed by Gabriel Grub, a series of lantern slides portraying the short story from Pickwick  Papers which was the inspiration for A Christmas Carol.  Also featured are an adaptation of the Carol from 1901, DW Griffith’s version of The Cricket on the Hearth, and more snippets from Pickwick, Nicholas Nickleby, Great Expectations and David Copperfield, as well as Frank Lloyd’s full-length silent feature of Oliver Twist from 1922. Of course, Dickens’ voice and use of language are central to his appeal, but he is also a very visual writer, who was interpreted by great illustrators like Cruikshank and Phiz, and adapted for the stage from the very beginning – and these  early films tie in with that.

The Ring (Alfred Hitchcock, 1927) – and the BFI’s Hitchcock retrospective

Lilian Hall Davis and Carl Brisson

It’s great that so many classic movies are now available for home viewing – but nothing compares with seeing them as they were made to be shown, on the big screen. So far I’ve only managed to see a relatively small number of older films in this way, but I’ve found they tend to stick in my mind more vividly than those I’ve only seen on TV. Last weekend I was lucky enough to be at the historic Hackney Empire cinema in London for the premiere of the BFI’s (British Film Institute) new restored print of  Hitchcock’s silent boxing/romantic melodrama The Ring, accompanied by music from Soweto Kinch’s jazz band. I won’t write a full review (there are many excellent reviews of this film online, which I can’t add much to) but just wanted to say something about this movie and the BFI’s Hitchcock season. The Ring is one of the ‘Hitchcock Nine’ which the BFI has been busy raising money to restore – his nine surviving silent films. The £2million target to restore all of these with brand new musical scores has almost been reached, and four restored silent  movies are being premiered as part of the London 2012 Festival, but the BFI is not quite there yet and still needs more donations.

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Daddy-Long-Legs (Marshall Neilan, 1919)

This posting is my entry for the Mary Pickford blogathon which KC is organising over the next three days  at her blog Classic Movies. Please do visit and look at the other entries – there are some great contributions lined up. I do discuss the whole plot of Daddy-Long-Legs in this piece, so if you don’t know the story’s ending you may want to see the film first.

 Mary Pickford is well-known for playing children convincingly in many of her films. She does so very effectively in Daddy-Long- Legs, a box office smash based on Jean Webster’s classic American coming-of-age novel, where she starts off as a 12-year-old waif in an orphanage – and ends as an assured young woman in her 20s. The film has been beautifully restored, with colour tints for most of the scenes, varying from blue to gold and red, depending on the mood and time of day. It was released some years back on DVD by Image Entertainment in region 1, but unfortunately the DVD is now deleted and extremely expensive secondhand, with copies going for around  $50! However, I was able to watch the restored print in the UK via Lovefilm (similar to Netflix) streaming. I believe it is also currently available to watch at Youtube, though without the music by Maria Newman which adds a lot of atmosphere to the official release.

I’d read Jean Webster’s novel as a child but didn’t really remember it, so I’ve just quickly reread it – and enjoyed it very much. She has a witty and charming way of writing (she was Mark Twain’s great-niece and has a similarly dry style at times), and her digressions, into discussions of various classic writers and her heroine’s forthright opinions on all kinds of topics, are often the most fascinating part of the book.  It’s the story of a young girl, foundling Jerusha “Judy” Abbot, who has grown up in an orphanage and been kept on as an unpaid assistant. But she is then sent to college, thanks to a mystery benefactor, one of the institution’s trustees – who asks that she writes him a letter once a month telling of her life and studies. She nicknames him “Daddy-Long-Legs’ because, although she has never seen him to speak to, she did once catch a brief glimpse of his long legs. During her studies, she is befriended by and gradually falls in love with Jervis Pendleton, the uncle of one of her room-mates… but what is his secret?

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Warner Baxter

As well as writing about films on this blog, I’ve been meaning to write a few postings about the actors and actresses I  especially like. While some of the top stars of the 1930s, like Gary Cooper and Cary Grant, are still (and deservedly so) household names, others, who were equally popular at the time, have been all but forgotten. One of these is Warner Baxter (1889-1951). He starred in almost 100 films, both silent and talkies, and was said to be possibly the highest-paid actor in Hollywood in his peak year,1936. He was also the very first male star to win the Oscar for best actor, in 1929. But today many film fans have never heard of him at all – and those who have probably only know him for a handful of his films, mainly for 42nd Street and his role as Doctor Samuel Mudd in John Ford’s The Prisoner of Shark Island.

So what is it that I like about him? In all honesty, it is partly his looks – but I’m also attracted by his screen personality, in the handful of films of his that I’ve managed to see so far, anyway, and by the demanding roles he took on. Below is a link to a tribute to him on Youtube, which gives a feeling of the range of roles he played, many in films which have now disappeared. He was the original screen Gatsby in a silent film made only a year after the novel was published, but that film is now lost, along with many of his other silents and early talkies.

Here is a brief run-down of the films of Baxter’s that I’ve seen so far, which are only a few. I’d be interested to hear recommendations of others to look for. I know the Crime Doctor films which he made in later life, after suffering a nervous breakdown and other health problems, are said to be worth seeing, but I haven’t had an opportunity to do so as yet. I have found an article which appeared under Baxter’s byline in a German movie magazine which is interesting and I will hope to translate it back into English as a follow-up to this posting – sadly I haven’t managed to find the English original of this piece!

The first film I saw Baxter in was 42nd Street (1933), and I was immediately impressed by his portrayal of driven, tortured producer Julian Marsh, who is suffering from some unspecified illness (it seems to be to do with his nerves), and slumps down outside the theatre at the end after his musical production has triumphed. The film is of course best-known for its astonishing Busby Berkeley production numbers, and for performances by musical stars like Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell and Ginger Rogers. Nevertheless, Baxter gets top billing and he also speaks the most memorable line: “You’re going out a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star!” In some ways this seems to be a typical role for him in his talkies – lonely, on the edge, tired, and still so  handsome, but with the feeling that those looks could be about to fade any minute.

The other films of his I’ve seen to date are:

Broadway Bill (1934, Frank Capra): For many years this comedy-drama was thought to be a lost film until rediscovered in the 1990s. Baxter plays the son-in-law of a domineering businessman, who breaks away from his life in the family paper business and stakes everything on training a racehorse, supported by his sister-in-law, Myrna Loy. This was actually made in the very early days of the Hays Code, but still feels like a pre-Code, as the in-laws inevitably fall in love while training the horse. Baxter is on the edge at the start of the film, but gradually mellows and is able to have more fun in this than in 42nd Street.

The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936, John Ford): This may be Baxter’s best-known role. He plays a doctor who innocently treats Lincoln’s injured assassin, and is therefore regarded as an accomplice and sent off to a nightmare island prison ridden with Yellow Fever. The film is said to be highly historically inaccurate, but it makes gripping viewing and Baxter gives one of his most powerful performances as the exhausted, despairing and yet dedicated doctor. R.D. Finch has just written a full review of this film at his blog.

The Robin Hood of El Dorado (1936, William A Wellman): Baxter plays a character 20 years younger than he really was in the early sections of this politically conscious Western, and he is also saddled with a cod Spanish accent as he plays a Mexican bandit. (He also played a Mexican bandit in the film he won his Oscar for, In Old Arizona (1928), which I haven’t seen as yet, and reprised that role, as The Cisco Kid, in some follow-up movies.) This little-known film shows the way forward to later Wellman films like The Ox Bow Incident in its powerful indictment of lynch law and prejudice. I’ve previously written a long review of this film on my blog.

The Road to Glory (1936, Howard Hawks): This is a little-known Hawks film, and not on DVD, but I really like it and have been meaning to write a full review of this one, though I will need to watch it again first. It has a lot in common with Hawks’ earlier The Dawn Patrol, focusing on a group of soldiers, here a French regiment in the First World War, with the mood becoming increasingly sombre as replacements turn up and are killed in turn. Baxter plays the stressed-out captain, who is caught up in a love triangle with Fredric March and the woman they both fall for. However, the most touching relationship is between Baxter and his father, played by Lionel Barrymore, who lies about his age and turns up at the front to serve under his son.

Wellman’s ‘Wings’ on DVD – and Blu-ray!

Clara Bow in 'Wings'

Wow! I’ve just written a posting about all the Wellman goodies coming out on DVD – and now comes the news from the wonderful Classicflix blog that his silent masterpiece Wings (1927) (winner of the first Oscar for best film) is coming out on DVD and Blu-ray from Paramount in January. They have now updated their site to say that it will have one bonus feature on the standard release and three on the Blu-ray, one of which is about the restoration of the film.

The artwork looks great although sadly it doesn’t include Wellman’s name.  Anyway, I’m very excited about this. I don’t know whether or not the release will be for all regions, but it sounds great.  Let’s hope there is even more to follow!