Posted in 1920s, Movies, Silent film

A funny, ferocious feud of the 1830s, Buster-style

For the ninth year, Lea at Silent-ology is hosting the Buster Keaton Blogathon. You can click the image above to go to the full list of participants. I didn’t participate for the last two years, owing to how lockdown wrecked my mental health, so I’m very glad to finally start doing it again. This year, my subject is Buster’s brilliant 1923 film Our Hospitality.

Premièring 9 November 1923 and going into general release on 19 November 1923, Our Hospitality (originally titled just Hospitality) was Buster’s second feature-length film. It was a huge financial success, selling out at many theatres and earning $537,844 ($9,409,753 in 2023). Most critics absolutely loved it, an appraisal which continues to this day.

Our Hospitality has been remade many times in 21st century India.

Though the story is rather obviously based on the real-life Hatfield and McCoy feud, which began in 1863–64 and picked back up from 1878–91, Our Hospitality begins in 1810 and is set primarily in 1830. Buster changed the historical era because he loved trains so much and wanted to feature this mode of transportation in its very infancy.

Artistic director Fred Grabourne built full-sized, fully-functional train replicas that were accurate down to the very last minuscule detail. Buster decided to use the 1829 Stephenson’s Rocket because he thought it was funnier-looking than the 1831 DeWitt Clinton engine.

Some of the train scenes were filmed in Truckee, California and Cottage Grove, Oregon. Cottage Grove was later to become one of the primary filming locations for The General. Truckee was given a makeover to look like Shenandoah Valley in the 1830s. During filming breaks, Buster and his co-workers (both cast and crew) frequently went fishing in the Truckee River.

Replica of the DeWitt Clinton built for the 1893 Columbian Exposition

Contemporary drawing of Stephenson’s Rocket

In addition to the authentic antique train, Buster also made use of a dandy horse, a bicycle precursor which was most popular in 1816. By the 1830s, it had long since fallen out of fashion.

Joe Roberts, who plays Joseph Canfield, had an on-set stroke during filming. Though he soon returned from a Reno hospital to finish the job, he sadly died of a second stroke a few months later.

Another near-disaster happened when Buster, who refused to use stunt doubles, almost drownt in the Truckee River when his restraining wire snapped and he was swept into the rocky rapids. Ten minutes later, he was finally found face-down and immobile on a riverbank. After he recovered, he decided to film the rest of that scene on a movie set in L.A. instead of a real river.

Buster used miniature scenery for another dangerous stunt where he swings from a rope into a waterfall, also done on a movie set.

Three generations of Keatons appear together in Our Hospitality. Besides Buster, we also see his father, Joseph Keaton, who appeared in many of his films, as a grumpy train engineer. Buster’s 14-month-old son Joseph plays Willie McKay in the 1810 prologue, though he had to be taken off the set when the bright filming lights irritated his eyes.

Last but not least, Buster’s first wife, Natalie Talmadge, plays Virginia Canfield, the leading lady. Since she was pregnant with their second child, Robert, at the time, she had to be filmed in such a way as to conceal her condition as it became more prominent.

Sorry about the obnoxious watermark on a public domain image!

In 1810, John McKay is the last of his line. The last, that is, except his baby boy. He’s terrified because he heard Jim Canfield is in town, and their families have been feuding for generations.

In the Canfield home, Joseph tries to convince his fiery brother Jim to drop the feud already, but Jim says he came a long way to kill John McKay, and he’s bound and determined to do it tonight.

After the unthinkable happens, the Canfields vow to continue the feud, and Mrs. McKay sends her son Willie to her sister’s family in NYC.

Twenty years later, Willie has grown up to be quite the dandy, in a city far more rural and sparsely-populated than we think of it as. His familiar life is disrupted when he gets a letter asking him to come to Rockville to claim his late father’s property.

Before he leaves, his aunt tells him the story of the feud and makes him promise not to go near the Canfields.

But as it would so happen, also en route to Rockville is Virginia, whom Willie doesn’t yet know is a Canfield. While riding together in one of the bumpy carriages attached to the train, they start getting friendlier and friendlier.

Troubles encountered along the way include a donkey and cows wandering onto the tracks, wheels coming uncoupled, running over a big log, coke soot getting on everyone’s faces in a tunnel, and getting on the wrong track.

When they arrive after this very eventful journey, Willie makes the mistake of asking one of Virginia’s brothers where the McKay estate is. When asked why he wants to go there, Willie identifies himself as John McKay’s son. The brother then goes to buy a pistol.

While the Canfield men are busy at their pistol cabinet at home, Virginia invites Willie to supper.

Willie is very disappointed and stunned to discover the McKay estate is nothing more than a falling-apart shack.

Unfortunately, one of the running gags is more than just dated. Willie twice encounters a man choking and beating his wife, and he naturally intervenes. The wife gets really angry at him for interfering in their business. It makes me so uncomfortable to see domestic violence depicted like this, though I know Buster was only trying to be funny in the context of that era. Today we understand so much more about domestic violence.

The Canfields constantly try and fail to shoot Willie, though only outside. Mr. Canfield forbids his sons to commit any murders in the house, since it’s against the Southern code of hospitality. As long as Willie’s inside, he’s safe, but all bets are off the second he steps out the door.

Willie is on-edge the entire supper, and prolongs leaving as long as possible by shaking everyone’s hand multiple times, pretending his hat is missing, and playing with the dog.

He gets a reprieve when a parson who was also a guest opens the door to a huge rainstorm. Since it’s too dangerous for anyone to go outside, Willie quickly reaches outside for his suitcase and decides to spend the night.

The next day, Willie again prolongs his departure as long as possible, and finally escapes by cross-dressing. The Canfields, though, know it’s really him, and go on a murderous search for him at the train station and through the fields and woods.

The chase leads to a steep, dangerous cliff which Willie can’t find a way off of until one of the brothers throws down a rope to get a better shot. They both fall into the river below, and thus begins another desperate escape.

Willie thinks he’s finally safe when he commanders a train, but all bets are off when his car derails and sends him back into the perilous river. Now he has the difficult task of finding a way to safety, rescuing Virginia when she goes to look for him, and escaping the Canfields alive.

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 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?

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

From San Francisco playboy to sunburnt sailor

Released 22 February 1922, Moran of the Lady Letty was based on Frank Norris’s 1898 novel of the same name. In an attempt to woo more of a male audience, Rudy Valentino was cast in a stereotypical man’s man role. Though the film includes a romantic subplot, it’s not the main focus of the story, and it’s definitely not a traditional film romance by any stretch. At one point, tomboyish leading lady Dorothy Dalton declares she wasn’t made for any man, nor for any woman.

In 2007, Moran was released on DVD with The Young Rajah, Stolen Moments, and A Society Sensation, in a beautifully-restored print. The difference between the clean-up and the VHS version I first watched in 2005 is like night and day! That earlier print was borderline unwatchable, since it was so blurry, faded, and deteriorated. When I saw the new and improved print for the first time on TCM, it was almost like watching the film for the first time all over again.

A girl who comes from a long line of sailors is born and raised on the high seas, while a boy is born with a diamond-encrusted silver spoon in his mouth, “heir to the aimless life of a rich man’s son.”

Many years later, in Norway, the trading vessel Fru Letty (Lady Letty) is preparing to sail for the North Pacific. Her captain, Eilert Sternerson (Charles Brinley), is devoted most of all in this world to the ship and his motherless daughter. Said daughter (Dorothy Dalton), an only child, was raised like a hardy seaman and is known in every port as Moran of the Lady Letty.

Months later, in Nob Hill, San Francisco, idle playboy Ramon Laredo (Rudy Valentino) is at a house party. He complains to his girlfriend, Josephine Herrick (Maude Wayne), that he’s so tired of this lifestyle, and wishes he could just escape it all already.

Also in San Francisco is Lady Letty, who needs to get additional freight. The ship came from British Columbia with coal for Valparaiso.

Ramon meets Moran and her father while he’s on his way to a yacht party, just after the Herricks set sail out of impatience at waiting for him. Apparently he has a habit of always being late. Moran thinks Ramon is a softy in minstrel clothes, and that he’ll be really reckless and sail around the harbor.

Ramon is told his friends left a few minutes ago, and he gets to talking with an old sailor by the docks. They decide to go for a drink.

The sailor asks the bartender to drug Ramon’s grape juice, and Ramon passes out cold. He comes to himself on The Heart of China, a notorious ship of pirates captained by Slippery Kitchell (Walter Long). Kitchell is none too pleased with the pathetic new recruit, and Ramon likewise wants out of this situation.

Cook and steward Charlie (George Kuwa) takes Ramon below decks and gets appropriate sailing clothes for him after Kitchell punches Ramon for talking back and trying to disobey orders.

Two weeks later, Ramon’s absence has made the newspaper, but the search goes cold by the waterfront. Josephine remembers how he spoke of running away from everything, and wonders if he didn’t leave on purpose instead of being kidnapped.

Despite his rough early beginnings, Ramon takes to life on the ship and comes to impress Kitchell with his surprisingly excellent work ethic and manliness.

Things aren’t going so good on Lady Letty, where a coal and gas fire has broken out. Captain Sternerson gives orders to flood the hold, but Moran insists the introduction of air will blow everyone to bits. The other efforts to put out the blazes aren’t a success, and orders are given to abandon ship. Moran is the only one who stays, disgusted at the cowardice of the men.

At dawn, Kitchell and Ramon see Lady Letty with distress flags raised. This seems like a perfect chance for looting, so they sail out and go aboard, where they discover evidence of the fire and assume everyone was killed. Everyone, that is, except Moran, whom Ramon is shocked to see is a woman.

Ramon brings Moran back to his ship while Kitchell and other sailors collect loot. Since the fire is still going, the pirating expedition is necessarily, unhappily cut short. All they bring back is rum. However, they’re gone just long enough for Ramon to hide Moran.

Moran emerges, very confused and shocked, to the equal surprise of Kitchell. Because of her reputation as Captain Sternerson’s daughter and a fine sailor in her own right, she’s recognised and respected by the other sailors. Ramon also recognises her, and reminds her of their brief meeting.

Kitchell has lecherous designs on Moran, but the rest of his sailors refuse to let that happen. They’re all equal shareholders on this vessel, and they don’t want their arrangement ruined because their captain couldn’t keep his pants buttoned up.  Ramon is assigned to guard Moran.

Kitchell sails to Mexico, where he has seedy dealings. After he goes ashore to conduct business, Moran and Ramon decide to go ashore too and explore the beach. When they’re alone, Ramon declares he’s happier than he’s ever been, after being bored to death only a month ago.

Ramon also declares romantic feelings for Moran, but she says she’s not that type of woman or made for that kind of life. Her entire life is the sea, and she’s a proud tomboy.

Then trouble starts brewing with Kitchell and his thugs, and a fierce battle between crew and captain is launched. Will the evil captain be defeated, and will Ramon decide to return to his old life in San Francisco or remain at sea?