Posted in 1900s, Movies, Silent film

Happy 120th birthday, Life of an American Fireman!

Life of an American Fireman, filmed in late 1902 and released January 1903, stands as one of the very earliest narrative films in the U.S. Prior, most films were actualities, little vignettes of daily life, instead of having actual storylines like Georges Méliès’s pioneering French films. That all began changing with this short classic directed by the legendary pioneer Edwin S. Porter.

For many decades, Fireman was considered revolutionary on account of its editing techniques, namely being the first alleged known use of cross-cutting in the final scene. However, this was later proven to be a false claim, based on researching the paper print at the Library of Congress.

The original version contained few, if any, of the cross-cuts seen in the version which was best-known for a long time. E.g., the inside POV of the burning house appears first, then repeats exactly with an exterior POV, instead of cutting back and forth between the perspectives. Thus, the film was edited at some point, though the exact date is unknown.

According to film historian Charles Musser, author of Before the Nickelodeon and an expert on Edwin S. Porter, the version first seen by January 1903 audiences was the one with repeated actions and scenes, not the cross-cut version.

In 2016, Fireman was chosen for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry of the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” I first saw it on the excellent 4-disc set Edison: The Invention of the Movies, which contains films from 1889–1918. It’s also available on Treasures from American Film Archives, another 4-disc set which is the first of a currently six-part series showcasing early films.

As Charles Musser explains, this film represents how firefighters’ social role was changing in that era. It also has much in common with the 1901 British film Fire!, directed by James Williamson.

Fireman was considered a lost film until 1944, when the Museum of Modern Art acquired a 35mm print from Pathé.

The story is rather simple. A fireman dreams of a woman putting her little girl to bed, and shortly thereafter an alarm sounds. All the firemen rush out of bed and dress, slide down the pole, and get into their waiting horse-drawn firetrucks. Everyone lines up in the streets to watch as they race to the rescue.

The woman inside the burning house passes out on her bed right before the fireman gets inside. He carries her down the ladder by the window he axed open, then carries her daughter to safety. Once everyone is out, he and another fireman begin putting out the fire.

In the next scene, the same woman begs at the window for help, and the fireman goes up the ladder to rescue her. He then goes back up for her daughter. This was cross-cut together in the later edit.

Original version without cross-cutting.

Posted in 1920s, Movies, Silent film

A powerful story of hope, faith, and love in the face of great tribulations

Note: I wrote the first section of this post in December 2022, but was unable to squeeze it into the remainder of the year.

Mary Pickford loved Tess of the Storm Country so much, she filmed it twice, in 1914 and 1922. She decided to remake it because her previous film, Little Lord Fauntleroy, hadn’t done so well at the box office, and she wanted to redeem herself. She also realized she needed to play the kind of character audiences had grown to expect from her.

Not only did Mary love the character and story of Tess, she also felt the story could be done greater justice with improved filming technology and a bigger budget. The source material was a 1909 novel of the same name by Grace Miller White (née Mary Esther Miller).

The 1914 original is one of the few known surviving films starring Harold LockwoodTess was remade again in 1932 (with Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell) and 1960 (with Diane Baker and Jack Ging).

The version being discussed here was released 12 November 1922.

Elias Graves (David Torrence, brother of Ernest Torrence) has another think coming if he believes he can easily expel the squatters living at the bottom of his hill. These poor fishers proudly cling to their way of life and their shabby homesteads, even in the face of cruel hostility.

Graves’s daughter Teola (Gloria Hope) is being courted by a young law student, Dan Jordan (Robert Russell). Though Dan and Graves share their hostile views on the squatters, Graves doesn’t approve of Dan and Teola’s relationship. Dan hopes to change that opinion by finding a way to get rid of the squatters.

Graves’s son Frederick (Lloyd Hughes) doesn’t share their opinions. He knows the squatters would have nowhere to go if they were evicted.

The putrid scent of rotting fish carries all the way up to the top of the hill, greatly offending Graves. Hoping to butter him up, Dan goes to take care of the matter. Graves also sends Frederick on this mission.

When they arrive, spunky 17-year-old Tessibel “Tess” Skinner (Mary Pickford) jumps on Dan and tangles him up under a fishing net, giving him a scratched cheek. She also chases Frederick away. Despite this violent meeting and Tess’s unkempt appearance, Frederick is charmed by Tess.

Dan decides to try another tack, stealing the fishing nets. If the squatters can’t fish, they’ll have nothing to eat, and will have no choice but to scram.

Frederick goes down the hill to see Tess, bringing chocolates. Though Tess is initially suspicious of his intentions, she’s quickly won over. Frederick also apologizes to Orn (Daddy) Skinner (Forrest Robinson) for his dad’s hateful views and says he doesn’t share them.

Tess also has another suitor, physically powerful, mean-spirited bully Ben Letts (Jean Hersholt), who won’t take no for an answer, despite her constant refusals.

When the thugs come to steal the nets, Tess and Daddy hide theirs in a mattress. It goes undetected until a tiny bit falls out at the last minute. Dan decides to leave well enough alone and wait until he can catch them using it. Meanwhile, the other families’ nets are burnt, with no concern for how the squatters will eat.

Driven by hunger, the squatters take a chance and go fishing under cover of darkness. Tess is terrified of trouble, and her fears come true when Dan is shot and killed by Ben. The nightmare increases when Daddy is falsely accused and arrested. He admits that’s his gun, but professes his innocence.

Ezra Longman (Danny Hoy), another guy with a crush on Tess, tells Ben he’ll keep the secret if he agrees to quit sexually harassing Tess.

The situation is even more complicated because Teola is pregnant out of wedlock, decades before single motherhood became socially acceptable.

Tess asserts her father’s innocence when Graves comes to the shanty, and prays for God to save her father, which Graves condemns as blasphemy. Graves says he’ll make Daddy pay the penalty, and Tess leaps on him in rage.

Frederick advises her to cool her temper, and reassures her that no prayer is blasphemy.

Tess and Frederick’s friendship continues to grow, and they begin studying the Bible together (with a copy Tess stole from church). A major theme of the film is that some unbaptised people who never go to church, with no formal religious education, are better Christians than people who put on a public show of piety but have no regard for even basic religious teachings.

Graves disowns Frederick when he discovers Frederick is raising money for Skinner’s defence.

The plot thickens when Daddy is found guilty. Now Tess is all alone, and Ben breaks his promise to leave her alone. Not only that, but Tess saves Teola from a suicide attempt and brings her to the shanty to give birth.

Will Daddy be proven innocent? Will Tess and Frederick’s unlikely love succeed? And what will become of Teola’s baby?

Posted in 1930s, Movies

The Shame of a Nation (Scarface at 90, Part II: Plot summary)

Tony Camonte (Paul Muni), a gangster in Chicago, works as a bodyguard for crime lord Big Louis Costillo until being contracted by his buddy Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins) to kill Costillo. Though the cops bring Tony in for questioning, he quickly walks free, and Johnny takes over Costillo’s former territory on the South Side. Tony becomes his second-in-command.

Now that he’s gotten a taste of a bigger salary and more power, Tony is eager to expand the empire even farther, into the North Side. This is a bridge too far for Johnny, who pleads with Tony to leave the North Side in the control of Irish gangster O’Hara.

That doesn’t deter Tony in the least. He’s confident his gang will someday take over the North Side and dethrone O’Hara’s gang. Not only that, he believes he’ll succeed Johnny as the head honcho, and starts getting flirtatious with Johnny’s girlfriend Poppy (Karen Morley).

Because Prohibition has just come in, Tony also wants to increase their crime empire and earn more easy money through bootlegging. Johnny is also keen to do this, but insists on waiting until after Costillo’s funeral to discuss the matter.

We then meet Tony’s kid sister Francesca (Cesca) (Ann Dvorak). He’s furious to discover she’s in the entry hallway kissing some guy instead of eating dinner at home. After Tony chases away her date, he insists he doesn’t want any men touching her, and gives her money to have fun without guys.

Mrs. Camonte (Inez Palange) highly disapproves of her accepting dirty money, but Cesca is determined to live her own life as she sees fit.

Johnny takes over Costillo’s former club without any difficulty, and his gang’s control over the South Side increases even more. Tony and some of his buddies set up a bootlegging operation and begin overselling their beer to every local speakeasy. They also start putting out a lot of hits on rivals and people standing in their way.

One of these shootouts is at The Shamrock, run by O’Hara’s gang. With their rival’s top men permanently out of the picture, it seems as though the North Side is theirs. There’s a little snag when the newspaper reports one of the gangsters survived and is in hospital, so Tony and his guys pay him a little visit to take care of this problem.

Tony tries to put the moves on Poppy again, but she refuses his advances, despite feeling some attraction to him. Johnny is also angry to learn he put out a hit on the North Side, since O’Hara will now be out for blood. As they’re all arguing, a car speeds down the street and throws out a dead body, with a note pinned to him:


Soon afterwards, Poppy calls Tony multiple times to arrange a meeting. The message doesn’t get through the first time on account of Tony’s dimwitted secretary Angelo (Vince Barnett), a great bit of comic relief. Finally, Tony answers the phone himself, and to his great delight learns Poppy is right outside.

Poppy brings the news that O’Hara was taken out that morning in a flower shop, which explains why a fellow gangster just brought a carnation. While she and Tony are getting friendly in his place upstairs, the cops appear outside. Tony sends her to safety down the stairs through a back door and arranges a date that night.

Enter rival crime lord Tom Gaffney (Boris Karloff), who’s just received a fine shipment of sub-machine guns. When he’s tipped off that he’s being trailed, he figures out a way to get his precious new weapons to safety.

Tony has gotten out of legal trouble the same way he did earlier, by having his lawyer cite habeas corpus to the cops. With that matter easily settled, he goes to meet Poppy at the restaurant.

Alas, their date is interrupted by a big shootout. Angelo once against provides great comic relief by being completely unharmed as he talks on the phone right in the middle of the violence.

Tony is thrilled to discover an abandoned machine gun, particularly since it’s portable. This isn’t the kind of machine gun you have to operate in a stationary position. You can take it on the go with you.

Tony demonstrates the use of this magical weapon to Johnny, whom he has another fight with, and starts putting out hits on North Side rivals.

The violence continues fast and furious, leading cops to beg a newspaper editor to quit glorifying gangsters or even giving them any coverage at all. The editor says he can’t change anything unless the laws change first. That’s politicians’ responsibility, not his.

Tony is shocked and angry to see Cesca wearing a sexy dress and dancing with his buddy Guino “Little Boy” Rinaldo (George Raft) at a nightclub. This completely distracts him from his and Johnny’s rivalry for Poppy’s attentions, and he drags Cesca home, breaks a strap of her dress, and hits her. Once again, he insists no man can ever have her.

Then the power struggle between Tony and Johnny starts intensifying, with the stakes increasingly higher. Even more trouble appears when Tony returns from a month-long Florida vacation with Poppy and learns Cesca moved out. Tony storms over to her new home and flips out to see Guino is living with her.

Now the stage is set for one final confrontation between Tony and the law, with the highest stakes ever.

Posted in 1930s, Movies

The Shame of a Nation (Scarface at 90, Part I: Behind the scenes, reception, legacy)

Released 9 April 1932, Scarface: The Shame of a Nation was loosely based on Armitage Trail’s 1929 novel of the same name, which in turn was inspired by Al Capone. Since gangster films were a hot property in the early Thirties, Howard Hughes bought the film rights. Warner Brothers was quickly proven wrong in their pessimistic prediction that the genre was already worn-out and oversaturated!

Ben Hecht wrote the screenplay in eleven days in January 1931. Later additions were made by W.R. Burnett (author of the novel Little Caesar) and Fred Pasley. The script was rewritten for dialogue and continuity by Seton I. Miller and John Lee Mahin.

Ultimately, the film has almost nothing in common with the book, outside of the same major characters, major plot points, and creepy incestuous undertones between Tony and his sister Cesca. Sadly, some of the changes were made because of censorship fears.

Howard Hughes wanted a grand première in NYC, but censorship boards vetoed it. The film was also banned in Detroit, Chicago, Portland, Seattle, Ohio, Kansas, Maryland, and Virginia. The New York Herald Tribune was delighted when Hughes threatened to sue these Puritanical nitwits for attempting to block the release of his film.

Finally, Jason Joy convinced them to permit the film’s screening, since the equally-Puritanical Hays Office had approved all of the many, many, many changes made to appease censors’ warped sense of morality (e.g., making Tony less sympathetic and intelligent, adding scenes to explicitly condemn gangsterism, removing crime-friendly cops and politicians, making Tony’s mother against his lifestyle instead of hugely supportive of it).

Eventually, Scarface was approved for release everywhere.

Though most people liked the film (even Al Capone himself!), and the National Board of Review listed Scarface as one of 1932’s best films, box office receipts were negatively affected by general public disapproval of gangsterism, crime, and violence. Some critics wrote brutal reviews.

In addition to blasting the criminal subject, some critics also zoomed in on Boris Karloff’s British accent, which they felt was really out of place in a gangster film. However, other critics thought his role was one of the best aspects.

The fraternal Order Sons of Italy in America, the Italian Embassy, and many other Italian–American organisations and people also condemned the film for following the trend of associating Italian–Americans with crime. Will Hays tried to do damage control by claiming the film was delayed in production for two years and didn’t reflect the current censorship laws he oversaw.

Scarface was also banned in Nazi Germany, Ireland, and some cities in England, and despite Jason Joy’s victory over Puritanical U.S. censorship boards, some cities and states still refused to screen the film. It wasn’t shown in Chicago until 20 November 1941, when it broke box office records at the Woods Theatre.

Upon its initial release, Scarface earned $600,000 ($13,038,438 in 2022). Though this made it a bigger financial success than Hughes’s other films, it still probably only broke even instead of turning a profit. Hughes was known for spending a lot of money on his productions.

Hughes scrapped his plans to direct a sequel in 1933, thanks to increasingly stricter censorship demands. Eventually he removed Scarface from circulation due to not making enough money from it.

Despite its initial bombing at the box office, Scarface has gone on to become a classic, highly regarded by critics and regular viewers alike. In autumn 1946, it was translated and dubbed into Italian, with the characters’ names Americanised, and a few other changes made to appear less of a negative reflection on Italians.

In 1976, it was redubbed into Italian, with the changes reverted and the original Italian names and references restored.

In 1994, Scarface was chosen for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” Over the years, it’s frequently appeared on those incessant best-of lists.

Scarface is also considered one of the Big Three of early 1930s gangster films, the other two being The Public Enemy and Little Caesar. However, it was also the final major gangster film for some time, as the ridiculously restrictive Hays Code came crashing down on 1 July 1934 and made the subject matter impossible to depict properly.

In 1979, three years after Hughes’s death, the holding company Summa Corporation, which controlled his estate, released Scarface and seven other films from his vaults and sold their film rights to Universal. This led to a 1983 remake starring Al Pacino.

Since all events are linked together in this best of all possible worlds, Pacino said he was very inspired by Paul Muni, both as an actor in general and his work in Scarface in particular. It was also thanks to Scarface that Muni’s star began rapidly rising.

Additionally, Scarface launched the long leading man career of second lead George Raft, and it was Ann Dvorak’s best-known film.

In 2011, Universal announced plans for a new version, neither a remake or sequel, but rather with elements from both previous films. As of the last update in 2020, the current slated director is Luca Guadagnino, and the Coen brothers are the screenwriters.

Posted in 1920s, Movies, Rudy Valentino, Silent film

A lost and found flop with steamy costumes

The Young Rajah, released 12 November 1922 and based on John Ames Mitchell’s 1895 novel Amos Judd, is a sobering lesson on the importance of film preservation. For decades, it was considered a lost film (one of the few lost films from Rudy’s stardom years). Then a near-complete print was discovered in a chicken coop in Italy in the 1960s.

The silent film community immediately began raising funds to transfer the original, delicate nitrate to safety stock and enlist the film preservation services of Leslie Flint, head of London’s Valentino Memorial Guild. Alas, by the time the money was ready, about two-thirds had deteriorated beyond repair. Only a 26-minute fragment was left.

In the early 21st century, efforts to restore what remained of the film were undertaken again. The Library of Moving Images in Los Angeles won the surviving footage from a London auction, and intense preservation began. To fill in the many tragic gaps, the missing intertitles were recreated and other intertitles were inserted to explain missing events. Every effort was made to copy the look of other 1920s Paramount intertitles.

Film stills and two promotional trailers from 1922 were used in place of absent footage, with abovementioned explanatory intertitles. To figure out what went where, storyboards were laid out. When this laborious process was completed, film scholars at UCLA and the Academy Film Archives in L.A. reviewed it and made suggestions for improvements and additions.

After the final restoration and recreation was finished and given official approval, Jon Mirsalis was tasked with writing a new musical score. Many people who haven’t watched a lot of silents, or any, may not understand just how important the right music is for setting the proper mood, drawing the audience in, evoking certain emotions at the right moments, giving the action smooth flow. A generic piano or organ on a loop does a film no favors, and watching without any music at all is even worse.

The restoration made its network début on TCM in May 2006, along with several other of Rudy’s newly-restored films. In 2007, Flicker Alley released a two-disc set with The Young Rajah (now 52 minutes), A Society Sensation, Moran of the Lady Letty, and Stolen Moments.

When the film was originally released, it was a huge flop with both critics and regular moviegoers, and was one of the many reasons Rudy went on strike from acting for almost two years. Prior to its reconstruction, the most memorable thing about it was the costume design from Rudy’s second wife, Natacha Rambova. Some of Rudy’s costumes leave almost nothing to the imagination!

Joshua Judd (Charles Ogle) is the leading citizen of Daleford, Connecticut. Fifteen years ago, he and his wife Sarah (Fanny Midgley) adopted a son, Amos (Rudy Valentino), with mysterious origins.

One night, a letter is delivered to Joshua from his brother Morton in Calcutta, with papers enclosed to establish Amos’s identity. Joshua is instructed to not reveal anything to Amos. We learn Amos has an uncanny ability to forecast future events, which runs in the family, and a peculiar birthmark on the forehead.

This letter prompts Joshua to explain how Amos was brought from India to their family’s farm when he was a little boy, along with a package of rubies worth several hundred thousand dollars. Those rubies rightfully belong to Amos.

We then flash back to the night Amos came to live with Joshua and Sarah. The two Indian men who accompanied him explained the throne of Amos’s father, Maharajah Sirdir Singh, was seized by usurper Ali Kahn (Bertram Grassby). General Gadi (George Periolat) rescued Amos after the Maharajah was mortally wounded in a palace coup.

Amos insists he’s happy with the Judds and considers them his real family, regardless of his birth.

Back in India, Gen. Gadi consults with mystic Narada (Josef Swickard). He knows Amos is about to leave his home for Harvard, and wants advice on how and when to bring Amos back to his people. Because there’s currently peace in the kingdom, it’s decided that it’s best to leave the boy where he is for the moment.

Four years later, Amos is competing in a Harvard–Yale boat race. Naturally, Harvard wins, and there’s a big party to celebrate.

Three guys who aren’t part of the rowing team are at the party. They refuse to drink a toast to athletic hero Amos, convinced he bought his way into the team instead of fairly qualifying. Amos insists they’re liars, and Austin Slade (Jack Giddings) throws wine in his face. It turns out Slade was beaten by Amos when they tried out for the team.

A big fight with chair-throwing erupts, and when Amos dodges Slade, Slade falls through a window to his death.

We then shift to a summer party with a reincarnation theme on Long Island. Guests wear costumes of the people they believe they were in prior lifetimes. Here we meet Molly Cabot (Wanda Hawley). She’s dating Horace Bennett (Robert Ober), one of the guys who started the huge row. Horace wants an answer to his marriage proposal, but Molly insists on waiting till the end of summer.

When Horace sees Amos, he begins trashing him to Molly. Though Amos has never met Molly before in person, he’s seen her in his dreams, and feels they’re destined to be very good friends.

Molly’s dad, Judge Cabot (Edward Jobson), suggests a summer trip to Daleford, which he’s heard is delightful.

Amos is very happy to go home for the summer, and even more delighted to discover Molly is staying nearby. He’s determined to prove he’s not the evil guy Horace painted him as.

Horace sends Molly a letter, furious to learn she’s so chummy with Amos, and says he’s returning for her answer in August regardless. Meanwhile, Molly goes on a trip to Boston with her aunt. Amos correctly foresees her early, unexpected return, and Judge Cabot asks him to predict what will happen tomorrow.

Things happen exactly as Amos foretold, despite Judge Cabot trying to change his plans. Now Judge Cabot knows Amos has a true gift.

We then see the Indian court, where Ali Khan and his prime minister Ahmad Beg (J. Farrell MacDonald) learn about the existence of Amos and plot to have him and all of his supporters killed. To try to prevent this bloodshed, Narada returns to the world.

Horace sends Molly a telegram, alerting her to his imminent arrival. Though she likes Amos much more than Horace now, she feels she has to marry another white man instead of someone with Indian ancestry. (In the film, Amos has an Italian mother, though he’s 100% Indian in the novel.)

Amos and Horace have a fight which culminates in Horace trying to murder Amos. Molly cradles Amos’s bloody head in her arms and dumps Horace. While Amos is recovering, they set a wedding date.

Amos has a terrifying premonition of being murdered the day before their wedding, and is afraid nothing can be done to prevent it. Judge Cabot suggests Amos hide in a friend’s sanitarium under heavy guard.

This plan goes awry when Ahmad Beg and his thugs kidnap Amos. Will Amos’s horrific vision of the future indeed come to pass, and what will happen to his rightful throne?