Kennington Bioscope at The Cinema Museum
21 February 2018
(Warning: Contains spoilers)
We were back with the Kennington Bioscope at Lambeth’s Cinema Museum tonight for another evening of cinematic delights from the extensive collection of acclaimed film historian Kevin Brownlow. Featuring strongly tonight were the films of Mabel Normand but first up it was the turn of Bessie Love.
Introducing the film, Kevin recounted a delightful story from his early film collecting days. Having just purchased a Bessie Love film he was passing a London theater when he saw the name ‘Bessie Love’ well down the cast list for a play. Not believing that an Academy Award nominated actress could get such low billing he assumed it was another actress with the same name but he was nevertheless persuaded by his father to write to her at the theatre telling of his film purchase. Not only did she write back confirming that she was indeed the real Bessie Love but she also asked if she could come around with her daughter to view the film! The story of her actual visit to view the film is another comedic delight but more importantly it began a friendship that would prove invaluable for Kevin Brownlow’s subsequent film history work, with Bessie Love’s Hollywood connections helping to facilitate his access to other stars of the silent era.
But getting back to tonight’s first film, this was a 9.5mm Vitagraph release of Bessie Love’s Little Sister of Everybody (1918), a two reel version of the original five reel film, edited down for the home purchase market. In the film, Bessie Love plays Celeste Janvier, adopted daughter of socialist thinker and ideologue Nicholas Marinoff (Joseph P Dowling) who is campaigning against the oppressive working practises at a nearby steel mill owned by Hugh Travers. When Travers dies suddenly, his indolent son Hugh Travers Jr (George Fisher) takes over. Seeking to get an idea of working life at the mill Travers Jr goes under-cover disguised as one of the workers and calling himself Hughes. He comes across militant firebrand Ivan Marask (Hector Sarno) but also makes the acquaintance of Celeste and the two form an emotional attachment. When Marask is sacked for his political beliefs he swears to kill Travers Jr. When a bomb that Marask has made is found at Marinoff’s house, he is arrested but Travers Jr arranges for his release. Still determined to kill Travers, Marask goes to his house armed with a pistol while Celeste follows and it is only as she stops him shooting Travers that she and Marask discover that Hughes and Travers are one and the same. Travers then unveils his plans to improve working conditions at the factory, placating Marask and Marinoff while Travers and Celeste are reunited.
In his introduction to Little Sister of Everybody, Kevin had said that the five reel original version from which this was edited down was titled on its original release The Little Boss. Now, woe-betide anyone who dares to challenge Mr Brownlow’s encyclopedic knowledge of silent film, but I’m not sure that this is correct. A number of sources point to Little Sister of Everybody as being the original title of this film when it was released in 1918. Additionally, they also mention another Bessie Love vehicle called The Little Boss, with a different supporting cast and centered on Love as the owner of a rural lumber company, and which was not released until the following year. Interestingly, that bible of silent film data Silentera.com mentions neither of these two titles. But the sources which do mention them are in agreement that both are now considered lost films. So, whatever the original title of the version of Little Sister of Everybody that we watched tonight, this edited variant looks to be the only one which survived, and is therefore yet another extreme rarity from the Brownlow collection which we are lucky enough to get to see.
Made relatively early in Love’s career, this was an interesting little film, mixing romance with social conscience. The main fault with the film lay with its edited format. There was clearly a lot going on in the original five reel original with several sub-plots which were heavily condensed in this version. If some of these had been better edited out it would have made for a smoother picture rather than the somewhat rapid-fire version remaining. Despite this however, the film was watch-able, the plot remained cogent and the performances believable. In particular, Love’s performance was a foretaste of her future stardom, largely playing the innocent young girl or sweet leading lady and a world away from the surreal weirdness of her earlier appearance in The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (Dir. John Emerson/Christy Cabanne, US, 1916, image left) opposite Douglas Fairbanks’ cocaine-snorting detective Coke Ennyday. By the mid 1920s, Love was a major star, appearing in films such as The Song And Dance Man (Dir. Herbert Brenon, US, 1926) and The Lost World (Dir. Harry O Hoyt, US, 1925). Love successfully made the transfer to talkies and was nominated for an Academy Award for The Broadway Melody (Dir. Harry Beaumont, US, 1929) but her popularity soon waned and she moved to England working largely on stage but with occasional minor film roles. Her last appearance was in The Hunger (Dir. Tony Scott, US, 1983) alongside David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve.
George Fisher as Travers Jr was a solid if somewhat uninspiring leading man. Two years earlier he’d had the distinction of being the first actor to play Christ in an American film when he starred in the epic blockbuster Civilization (Dir. Thomas H Ince/Reginald Barker/Raymond B West, US, 1916, image right). Joseph P Dowling as Marinoff came to films after a long and distinguished stage career and was last seen at the KenBio in the Constance Talmadge comedy Her Night of Romance (Dir. Sidney Franklin, US, 1924)
(NB There is no sign of Little Sister of Everybody being available on disc or on-line. Is it possible that Mr Brownlow has the only copy?)
It was then time for our first slice of Mabel Normand, starring with Roscoe Arbuckle in the Mack Sennett comedy Fatty and Mabel Adrift (Dir. Roscoe Arbuckle, US, 1916). Farmer’s daughter Mabel and farm hand Fatty (Arbuckle) are sweethearts, much to the annoyance of neighbouring farmer’s son and love-rival Al St John. When a passing Real Estate salesman has car trouble Fatty helps him out with some feats of strength while the farmer decides to buy a seaside chalet from the agent for Mabel and Fatty’s wedding. After they are married, Mabel and Fatty move in. But Al St John hasn’t finished with them yet. Falling in with a gang of criminals led by Brutus Bombastic (Wayland Trask) he cuts the seaside chalet adrift and next morning Mabel and Fatty awake to find themselves all at sea in a sinking cabin. Pet dog Luke is dispatched to fetch help and a frantic rescue mission ensues.
By the mid-1910s, Mabel Normand and Roscoe Arbuckle had become an established and popular comedy partnership turning out seven or eight films together each year (as well as working on their own individual projects). Made on something of a production line basis with the same cast and crew these were somewhat crude and simplistic slapstick comedies but Fatty and Mabel Adrift is probably one of the better ones, with some genuinely funny moments and some equally nice touches. Both Normand and Arbuckle have beautifully expressive faces and wonderful comic timing and Normand shows herself to be a real trouper, wallowing around in a tank of (presumably) cold water. There are some laugh out loud moments, including at Normand’s attempts at baking and Arbuckle’s car repair antics and the lovely scene where Arbuckle’s shadow comes down to kiss Mabel good night makes the film worth watching in itself.
Starting in films in 1909 aged 16, Mabel Normand’s career was intrinsically linked to that of Mack Sennett, Roscoe Arbuckle and Charlie Chaplin and saw her progress from simply acting to writing and directing as well. Along the way she became one of Hollywood’s most popular stars, managing to survive several major scandals. But by the mid 1920s her career was waning, in part due to ill health and she made her last film in 1927 before her death from TB in 1930 aged just 37.
At the height of his fame Roscoe Arbuckle’s career was destroyed by three widely publicised trials in 1920-21 for the alleged rape and murder of aspiring actress Virginia Rappe. Although eventually completely exonerated, the negative publicity meant he never acted again and only much later did he undertake occasional directing roles, working under a pseudonym before his eventual death in 1933, victim of a heart attack aged 46.
The other star of Fatty and Mabel Adrift was Luke the dog. Luke was gifted as a pup to Roscoe’s then wife Minta Durfee in 1914 in lieu of a bonus payment for a particularly dangerous film scene she had appeared in, by a notoriously penny-pinching director. Trained by Roscoe, Luke became a regular star of numerous Keystone comedies and was rumoured to have been paid $150 a week. When Roscoe was divorced in 1920, Luke went to his wife as part of the divorce settlement and, although Roscoe had visiting rights, that was the end of Luke’s acting career.
(NB Fatty and Mabel Adrift is available on a number of Arbuckle/Keystone compilation discs and can be viewed on-line via You Tube or Archive.Org in a number of versions.)
Live piano accompaniment for both of these films came from John Sweeney.
The feature presentation of the evening was another Mabel Normand film, but this one from much later in her career, The Extra Girl (Dir. F Richard Jones, US, 1923) although still produced by Mack Sennett. Normand plays Sue Graham who lives with her Ma (Anna Dodge)and Pa (George Nichols) in rural River Bend. It may be a long way from Hollywood but Sue dreams of becoming a famous film star. However, Pa Graham is keen to marry off his daughter to the local chemist shop owner, Aaron Applejohn (Vernon Dent). But Aaron is frustrated that Sue seems more interested in Dave Giddings (Ralph Graves) Meanwhile, the recently widowed Belle Brown (Charlotte Mineau) also has her eyes on Dave as a prospective future husband, much to Sue’s annoyance. With marriage to Aaron looming Sue plans to escape by sending her picture to a Hollywood studio in the hope they will call her for an audition. Meeting Dave one evening they decide to run away to get married but when their plans are thwarted Dave leaves alone, still carrying Sue’s letter to Hollywood. Seeking advice from Belle Brown, she tells Dave to send the letter off but secretly replaces the picture of Sue with a more photogenic one of model from an advertisement (hoping to get Sue out of the way, with her eyes still set firmly on Dave). It is not until the day of her wedding to Aaron that a telegram arrives from Hollywood where, on the strength of the wrong picture, Sue has got an audition. With Dave’s help she makes her escape.
Arriving in Hollywood, once the studio discovers she is not the girl in the picture they will only give Sue a job in the wardrobe department where part of her job involves measuring up Teddy the dog for a lion costume, as the studio’s leading star is afraid of working with a real lion. Dave arrives in Hollywood to find out how Sue is getting on but when Sue eventually gets a screen test it all goes disastrously wrong. Back in River Bend, Ma and Pa Graham decide to sell up their business and travel to Hollywood where broker Phillip Hackett (Ramsey Wallace) persuades them to invest in a ‘can’t fail’ business deal which is really just a ruse to steal all their money.
Back at the studio, Sue is getting Teddy the dog into his lion costume but mistakenly lets out the real lion which terrorises the studio until Dave manages to recapture it. But Sue looses her job as a result. Then Hackett tells Ma and Pa Graham that their investment is now worthless. Sue, finally suspecting a con, visits Hackett with a gun to demand the money back. Just as he disarms her, Dave also shows up and in the resulting struggle they recover the money and return it to Ma and Pa. The picture ends with the happily married Sue and Dave plus small son all watching Sue’s disastrous screen test film.
I have to say that I found The Extra Girl something of an oddity, switching wildly between genres. At times it was a rom-com, at other times a slapstick. But then there were elements of melodrama, tragedy and even social conscience. In addition, Mabel Normand, then aged 31, was at least 10 years too old to be playing the rebellious daughter role. And yet despite all this, it wasn’t quite the disaster you would have expected, with quite a few laugh out loud moments A lot of this was down to Normand’s comedic talent and her gift for facial expression (although she was much less effective in the more dramatic moments). Leading man Ralph Graves wasn’t called on to do a great deal and he continued to act in largely inconsequential films until his eventual retirement in 1949. His most notable legacy was probably in convincing Howard Hughes to enter into film production, funding a picture entitled Swell Hogan (1926), written directed and starring Graves himself. However, on seeing the final cut of the film Hughes decided it was too awful to release and he had the sole print destroyed.
The Extra Girl was also of note in being one of the first ever films to be centred around the film making business itself and, as such, a precursor to others such as Shooting Stars (Dir. Anthony Asquith, UK, 1927) or Show People (Dir. King Vidor, US, 1928). Playing himself as the lead in Sue’s screen test scene was actor William Desmond who appeared in over 200 films between 1915 and 1948 during which he became known as “The King of the Silent Serials.” There was also a brief appearance during the escaped lion scene by film comedian Billy Bevan and an even shorter sighting of Mack Sennett himself in the screen test scene, standing behind the ‘director’.
Providing live piano accompaniment for this one was Lillian Henley who met the challenge of the film’s somewhat wild mood swings with aplomb.
(NB The Extra Girl is available on disc and can also be viewed online at Archive.Org.)
So perhaps not the strongest of nights at the KenBio but as always there was something of interest for (just about) everyone. And don’t forget, their next event is the two-day KenBio comedy weekend, coming up 10-11 March. Don’t you dare miss it.