Captain Blood (1924) + other 9.5mm Vitagraphs

Kennington Bioscope at the Cinema Museum, London                                                        

                                                                          8 June  2016


It was an evening of cads, both male and female, at tonight’s Kennington Bioscope presentation, but only on the screen of course (and more about those later).  For Dave Locke and the KenBio projection team it was a night of heroics as they struggled with the complexities of showing 9.5mm prints on the big screen.  The occasion was an evening dedicated to screening rare 9.5mm Vitagraph films from the personal collection of noted film historian Kevin Brownlow’s personal collection, with Kevin introducing some of the films himself along with fellow screen historian Andrew Erish, who is working on a history of the Vitagraph company.

TheVitagraph Company of America was one of the earliest and most innovative of US motion picture studios,  founded in 1897 by two expat Englishmen, J Stuart Blackton and Albert E Smith, and joined later by distributor William ‘Pop’ Rock (Image left, Rock, Smith & Blackton together).  Working as traveling performers, Blackton and Smith saw an early demonstration of an Edison Vitascope projector and were so impressed that they brought a machine themselves and began to incorporate films in their own act.  Initially using Edison-supplied pictures they soon began to produce their own.  They began with newsreels before moving on to animation (producing the first US stop-frame animated film) and then live action.  By 1910, Vitagraph was the most prolific film production company in the world.  Its stars would include Florence Turner, the Vitagraph Girl, the most popular American screen actress of her day; John Bunny, who achieved worldwide fame as a movie comedian years before Chaplin; and Jean, the Vitagraph dog and first animal superstar of the silent era, while a very young Valentino was making un-credited appearances in Vitagraph films as early as 1914.

The development of the Vitagraph 9.5mm system was intended to allow the retailing of films to the home market (in the same way that DVDs and BluRays are sold today) but usually with the films in heavily abridged versions.  The format used a notched inter-title system (and I’m still not quite sure why!) in which each inter-title occupied only a single frame of film.  A notch at the edge of the print stopped the advance of the film through the projector at the appropriate point so that the inter-title was projected much like a still slide would be, the projectionist then restarted the film until the next notched inter-title was reached and the film-advance automatically stopped once more.

To further complicate matters, because the single frame inter-title was held for several seconds in front of the projector bulb, only a low power projector could be used otherwise the heat from the bulb would melt the film.  This was fine for projecting films in the home but in the large auditorium at the Cinema Museum something more would be needed.  The ingenious solution was to project the films onto a small screen on which a high-definition video camera was also focused which would re-transmit the image onto the large screen via a powerful digital projector and, hey presto, we could all follow the action.  Simple…well, maybe not if you’re the projectionist! Because in addition to this double-projection system we are also talking about film stock over a hundred years old, often damaged, with notches frequently out of alignment with the inter-titles and film prone to snapping.  That the evening passed off so successfully was a testament to the projectionist’s skills.

But what of the films themselves and getting back to those cads, the first offering was Black Beauty (Dir. David Smith, 1921), or rather Black Bess as it was re-titled for the 9.5mm version.  The cad here was Rickard (George Webb), pressuring Squire Gordon’s daughter Jessie (Jean Paige) to marry him by threatening to (falsely) reveal that her deceased brother was a thief.  Eventually Black Bess carries hero Harry (James Morrison) to the rescue and Rickard is unmasked for the cad he is (although given that he had a moustache, so characteristic of the silent movie cad, this shouldn’t have been too difficult to achieve).

Next up was The Ninety and Nine ( Dir. David Smith, 1922)  an early dramatic outing for Colleen Moore before she found fame as a flapper.  The cad here is Leveridge (Lloyd Whitlock), who is trying to break-up a relationship between Ruth Blake (Moore) and Tom Silverton (Warner Baxter) by framing Silverton as a thief.  But when a forest fire breaks out it is Silverton that comes to the rescue by driving the train through flaming woods to save the townsfolk in the course of which his name is, of course, cleared.  Although billed as “sensational drama of the old school” this was not Vitagraph’s finest hour.  Moore is wasted and the use of a model train in the forest fire scenes was unconvincing….to say the least!

We then had On The Banks Of The Wabash (Dir. J Stuart Blackton, 1923) in which aspiring inventor David (James Morrison) leaves his girlfriend Dolly (Mary Carr) to go to the city to seek an investor for his latest invention (some kind of remote controlled boat).  Here he meets and becomes infatuated with Susanne (Madge Evans), the investor’s sister and in this case a female cad.  On returning home, David has only just finished telling Dolly that he loves her but only like a sister when Susanne announces that she is returning to the city and her fiancé.  Suddenly, a storm breaks out and David is trapped by rising flood water in his workshop.  It is Dolly who comes to his rescue while David realises the error of his ways and the two are reunited.  This was a likeable little drama with some impressive footage centred around the storm and floods and the concept of a radio controlled boat in the pre-radio era was an interesting idea.

It was followed by The Man From Brodney’s (Dir. David Smith, 1923) in which the cad is clearly Rasula (Bertram Grassby), a native ‘Hindoo’ in East Africa, leading an uprising by locals against the colonial mine-owners.  The uprising is put down with the timely arrival of an American warship and a contingent of US marines. Despite what looked like a lavish budget, reflected in the large cast of both names and extras, this film was not a success for Vitagraph.  One review noted that “ audiences at the preview were extremely impolite”.  Another described the film as “hokum”.  And it looked it, especially in this 9.5mm bowdlerised version.

Of more interest was Romance of a Star (Dir. J Stuart Blackton, 1924), originally released as Behold This Woman. Here we had movie star Louise Maurel (Irene Rich, image left, publicity photo) meeting farmer John Strangeway (Charles A Post) after her car breaks down miles from anywhere and subsequently inviting him back to see her at work in Hollywood. A rival for Louise’s affections, Hawkins (Harry Myers), plays the cad here, trying to break up the relationship.  Although his efforts are enough to cause John to return home, Louise follows and they are re-united.  This film is of note in showing some interesting takes on life in Hollywood, particularly scenes shot in an impressive nightclub.  But there is some unintentional humour too,  in the odd expressions on cast faces particularly at the end which indicate that a lot of the plot must have been cut for this abridged version.  And just what was going on between John’s brother and the butler!

Next up was The Clean Heart (Dir. J Stuart Blackton, 1924), a real oddity.  Newspaper man Philip Wriford (Percy Marmont) is overwhelmed by his job and has a nervous breakdown.  His life is saved by a tramp, Digby (Otis Harlan?) who dies stopping him from drowning. While recovering, Philip falls for his nurse, Jessie Bickers (Marguerite De La Motte), but suddenly rejects her.  Distraught she falls from a cliff and, although she survives, is confined to a wheelchair.  Despite some interesting double exposure shots showing Philip being literally overwhelmed by the printing presses of his newspaper, this is a star role which elicits no sympathy whatsoever, with him being responsible for the death of the jovial tramp and the crippling of his caring girlfriend.  Clearly it is the star who is the cad here!

Then we had what was probably the biggest attraction of the night, Captain Blood (Dir. David Smith, 1924).  Hero Peter Blood (J Warren Kerrigan) is unjustly charged with treason and sold as a slave on the island of Barbados.  He is brought by that vicious cad Colonel Bishop (Wilfrid North) whose daughter Arabella ( Jean Paige) has taken a fancy to him. Blood and the other slaves escape by capturing a Spanish galleon.  After saving Arabella and humiliating the Colonel, the by-now Captain Blood is pardoned and naturally gets the girl.  This was clearly one of Vitagraph’s biggest budget films and it shows.  Originally running to 11 reels (110 mins) even the 30 minute abridged version is impressive, with a huge cast, some notable model work and not one but two full size galleons destroyed in the final battle.  The plot covers a lot of ground in a cogent fashion and moves at a cracking pace although Kerrigan isn’t a patch on Errol Flynn in the 1935 remake.

Finally we had The Beloved Brute (Dir. J Stuart Blackton, 1924).  This was basically a case of sibling rivalry for the affections of Jacinta (Marguerite De La Motte, image right), a girl forced to dance in the saloon of arch-cad Phil Beason (Frank Brownlea). Billed as “ a Western with a soul” this was actor Victor McLaglen’s first American film (image left, publicity photo), described by critics at the time as “…facially … no Ramon Novarro, Ronald Colman or a Rudolph Valentino, he has a sympathetic personality and a wonderful facility for appearing at ease before the inquiring eye of the camera”.

And that was all we had time for, but what an interesting evening on so many levels.  I’d never come across 9.5mm notched title prints before so it was fascinating to see not only how the technology worked but how it was made to work tonight on the big screen. And the films themselves were of equal interest, highlighting the diversity of Vitagraph’s output and ranging from the lightweight hokum of The Man From Brodney’s to the out and out spectacle of Captain Blood. It was also interesting to see the differing forms of abridgement used.  Some such as Captain Blood more or less followed the whole plot of the original while others  such as The Ninety And Nine focused on just one smaller area of the original, or even in the case of The Beloved Brute altered the plot altogether.  The evening was also particularly interesting because in at least three cases (Black Bess, On The Banks Of The Wabash and Captain Blood) the original, unabridged versions of these films are I believe considered lost, so it is only via these 9.5mm Vitagraph versions that a portion of them has survived.

For such a diverse evening, the KenBio had a full team of accompanists (John Sweeney, Cyrus Gabrysch, Meg Morley and Costas Fotopoulos) in action on the piano and there efforts were much appreciated, often in somewhat difficult circumstances.  But this was an evening when it was the projection team that took the main plaudits, for making the technology work so well.  Oh and not forgetting thanks to Kevin Brownlow for bringing some of his prized films along to share. He has even promised a further evening of 9.5mm Vitagraph rarities, so we might get to see all of those that there wasn’t time to watch tonight.  I for one can’t wait.