Second Fiddle (1923) + shorts

Kennington Bioscope at the Cinema Museum

                                            10 January 2018


(Warning: Contains Spoilers)

We were down in South London tonight for the first Kennington Bioscope presentation of the year and what a positive start to 2018 with not only a full house but also a line of hopeful spectators queuing for returns. How often do you see that at silent film screenings? Judging from the number of unfamiliar faces, many looked to be making their first visit to the Cinema Museum, presumably alerted by the continuing public campaign to save the museum site from being sold to property developers. Anyway, somehow I think that everybody was eventually squeezed in and we settled down to another evening of films supplied and introduced by renowned silent film historian and collector Kevin Brownlow.  

The opening film was an early short from director D W Griffith, Fighting Blood (1911).  I say early, but although Griffith had only begun directing in 1908, by the time of this picture just three years later he had already turned out well over 300 films and had established a close working relationship with pioneering cameraman Billy Bitzer.  

The film opens with civil war veteran Ezra Tuttle (George Nichols), now a homesteader in Dakota’s remote frontier land, drilling his large family like a military unit (image, right).  After evening drill, his eldest son William (Robert Harron) wants to go out to meet his girlfriend (Florence La Badie) who lives on a nearby homestead.  When his father refuses, a furious argument results in William storming off (image, left) and his father locking him out. Departing later from his girlfriend’s house he spots an Indian raiding party.  He races back to warn his girlfriend and her family and they all flee but after the girl’s father is shot William and his girlfriend escape on foot and, returning to his own house, he drops the girl off and rides for help.  The Indians lay siege to the house but just as all seems lost William returns with a cavalry unit to disperse the Indians and father and son are re-united (image, below right).  

At just one reel and lasting barely 12 minutes this is a nicely rounded film beginning with a light-hearted focus on the Tuttle family to set the scene, identify with the main characters and establish an emotional connection with the family. The drama builds following the family feud, with a dramatic chase to escape the Indians, an action packed siege and the cavalry riding to the rescue and ends with relief and reconciliation. Film historian William K Everson in his seminal book ‘American Silent Film’cited the film as a particularly fine example of how Griffith was years ahead of his contemporaries in establishing a language and grammer of film. Certainly the camerawork and editing were way ahead of their time.  In particular, the overhead shots of the homestead siege were striking as was some of the cross-cutting in the action scenes.  The film contained many of the motifs that Griffith would re-use in the future such as the notion of children or youngsters in danger (seen again, for example, in Unseen Enemy (1912), Broken Blossoms (1919) or Orphans Of The Storm (1921) ) while the cavalry’s ride to save the homesteaders was a smaller scale forerunner of the Klan’s ride to save the Cameron’s in Birth Of A Nation (1915).

Robert ‘Bobbie’ Harron as William Tuttle (image, left) began working as a messenger boy at the Biograph studios aged 14 and progressed on to a few minor film parts before Griffith picked him for the starring role in Fighting Blood. His photogenic good looks and quiet intensity led to starring roles in three of Griffith’s early feature length films, Judith of Bethulia (1914), Birth Of A Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916). Initially becoming a star of comparable status to the likes of Lillian Gish or Blanch Sweet, as he got older Harron began to loose out on roles to Griffith’s new rising star Richard Barthelmess.  In 1920 Harron died of what he claimed was an accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound.  But there was always speculation that it was in fact suicide in the face either of a declining film career or as a result of the breakup of his relationship with Dorothy Gish.

George Nichols, playing the old soldier Ezra Tuttle, was a long time stage actor before moving into films, becoming a prolific movie actor and director until his death in 1927 at the age of 62.  Florence La Badie as William’s girlfriend (image, right. Centre figure) got her start in the film industry with the help of her friend Mary Pickford.  After working with Griffith at Biograph she moved on to the Thanhouser Film Corporation, becoming their biggest star with films such as The Tempest (1911) and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1912).  But after 185 films and at the height of her fame La Badie was killed in a car crash in 1917.  Fighting Blood is also notable for having minor un-credited roles for Mae Marsh, Blanch Sweet and Lionel Barrymore.

(NB There is no sign of Fighting Blood being available on disc although several poor quality versions can be viewed on-line.  

The second short of the evening was another western, The Heart of an Indian (aka The Indian Massacre, 1912).  In his introduction to the film Kevin Bownlow noted that the film was a product of Thomas H. Ince’s Bison Motion Picture studios and, as was his habit, Ince tended to take producer/writer/director credit for many of the films coming out of his studio irrespective of his actual role.  In fact, Kevin speculated, Heart of an Indian was more likely directed by Francis Ford (John Ford’s elder brother) who also starred in the film.

The film begins with an Indian party setting up camp for the night and the chief’s wife suddenly left distraught by the discovery that her baby has died on the journey.  Separately, a newly arrived settler leaves his wife and baby at their homestead while he goes to work his fields. Another settler is out hunting buffalo when he is attacked by an Indian war party.  He drives them off prompting the Indians to hold a council of war and decide that it is time they drove the ‘pale faces’ from their hunting lands, a decision overheard by the buffalo hunter who seeks to warn the settlers.  Attacking the settler’s homestead the Indian’s come across the baby and the chief, recalling his own wife’s distress at loosing her child, decides to take the baby back for her.  Finding her baby gone, the settler’s wife sets out to find it and she too is captured by the Indians.  Seeing her child she attempts to snatch it back but the chief’s wife refuses to give it up,  However, she eventually relents, returning the child to its rightful mother and helping her escape the Indian camp.  Meanwhile, the settler, finding both his wife and child gone, leads a party to attack the Indian camp. Despite finding the wife and baby safe, the settlers continue their attack and ruthlessly slaughter most of the Indians.  The settler returns joyously to his wife and baby and the film ends with the chief’s wife mourning her lost child at a grave site (image, right). 

Heart of an Indian is interesting in its largely sympathetic portrayal of the Indians, a situation not uncommon in early silent films. See, for example, An Indian Love Story (Dir. Fred J Balshofer, US, 1911) also from Bison Films.  It was not until later and particularly with the arrival of the talkies that Indians were almost uniformly portrayed as savages, a situation that was largely to persist until the early 1970s with the release of such films as Little Big Man (Dir. Arthur Penn, US, 1970) and later Dancing with Wolves (Dir. Kevin Costner, US, 1990).  The film’s focus on the loss of a child by both the Indian and settler mother also adds a clever additional emotional touch to the film.

However, the film is hampered by some histrionic acting, often way over the top even by the standards of the time.  Francis Ford as the Indian chief (image, below left. Centre Indian figure) looked about as bad as a rugged Irishman made up to look like a native American could possibly look. Although by the time of Heart of an Indian he had appeared in around a hundred films he certainly wasn’t called on to do much here. As well as directing some 200 silent films Ford continued to appear in films, usually in small, frequently un-credited, parts, often in films directed by his brother, right up until his death in 1953.  The other actor in native make-up was Ann (or Anna) Little playing the chief’s wife (image, left, with baby). Coming from a ranching family she made a name for herself in western and other adventure pictures through her ability to ride, swim and shoot, frequently appearing as an Indian.  Although now largely forgotten, Little was a big star by the early 1920s but at the height of her fame she suddenly retired from film making.  She never divulged the reason why but rumours at the time suggested she had ‘got religion’!

Heart Of An Indian was filmed at what became known as Inceville, an 18,000 acre lot at Santa Ynez Canyon outside Los Angeles which  Thomas Ince brought after taking over at Bison and which became the new West coast home of Bison pictures.  Inceville grew to become what is now recognised as the first modern motion picture studio, with an almost production line approach to movie output.  Despite his success, Ince is perhaps unjustly remembered mainly for being the focus of one of Hollywood’s first and biggest scandals.  Although his early death in 1924 aged just 42 was officially put down as a heart attack a number of newspapers claimed that  he was shot while on board William Randolph Hearst’s yacht, possibly by Hearst himself.  Hearst was apparently jealous of the attention being paid by Charles Chaplin to his mistress Marion Davies while on the yacht and in a fit of jealous rage shot Ince by mistake. However, these stories have been disputed by a number of Ince biographers who point out that he had suffered from angina with a previous heart attack. 

(NB   Heart of an Indian is available on disc on Saved From The Flames – 54 Rare And Restored Films 1896 – 1944 from Flicker Alley.  It can also be viewed on-line.)

Accompaniment for these two films came from Lillian Henley who nicely captured the excitement and high drama but also the quieter and more intimate moments of the films.

It was then time for the evening’s main feature, Second Fiddle (Dir. Frank Tuttle, US, 1923), a comedy-drama starring Glenn Hunter and a very young Mary Astor.  

In the film, young Jim Bradley (Glenn Hunter) works as a mechanic in his father’s garage.  The Bradley family is looking forward to the return of their other son Herbert (Townsend Martin) from college, particularly Jim who idolises his older brother. But the returning Herbert has become something of an overly self-important dandy.  In contrast, Jim is quiet, introverted and tongue-tied, especially with his neighbour Polly Crawford (Mary Astor) who clearly has a thing for our Jim.  Quick as a flash Herbert is out to steal Polly out from under Jim’s nose. As Herbert dances a tango with Polly across the parlour floor Jim can only sink into a dream world of how things might be.  This is doubly frustrating for Jim because it is only his making the garage a success that is paying for Herbert’s college education.

But word then comes that the sinister and frequently drunk villager Cragg (William Nally) has murdered his daughter (image, left)  while looking for the money she has hidden away in their house.  Pop Bradley heads off to join the sheriff’s posse leaving Herbert and Jim in the house to guard their mother and Polly.  During the night they hear the sound of Cragg trying to break in.  Herbert decides to go and alert his father, leaving Jim the shot-gun but forgetting he has the cartridges in his pocket. Realising later that he still has the cartridges Herbert fails to tell his father that Jim has an empty gun.  As Cragg breaks into the house Jim himslf realises the gun is empty and injures himself trying to get more cartridges from a high cupboard. Confronting Cragg with an empty gun he tries to bluff it out but eventually passes out due to his injury.  

Just as Cragg is escaping the house the posse return with Herbert who now has a pistol.  Alone outside the house Cragg confronts Herbert who is struck with terror but the gun goes off by accident wounding Cragg who is captured by the posse and Herbert is hailed a hero.  Coming back into the house Herbert hears Jim explaining about the unloaded gun so he secretly reloads the gun but unbeknownst to him Polly sees him with the gun.  When Jim is shown the now reloaded gun he is branded a liar and a coward who fainted at the first sign of danger.  He decides that there is no future in the village for him and decides to leave.

Meanwhile Polly has gone with her father, Doctor Crawford (Otto Lang) to the jail to tend to Cragg’s injuries.  Here she learns from Cragg himself that the gun was indeed empty.  She writes to Jim to say she will be over the next day to discuss the unloaded gun. But that night Cragg escapes from jail and he returns to his old house still looking for the money his daughter hid.  

The next day, Herbert intercepts the letter from Polly meant for Jim.  But on her way over to see Jim, Polly’s car breaks down outside Cragg’s old house.  She sends a message to Jim to come and collect her and takes shelter in the house when it starts to rain.  Herbert gets the message from Polly and,  fearful that she will reveal the truth about the shotgun, heads to Cragg’s house to confront her.  But Polly has already been found by Cragg and knocked unconscious. Herbert is also attacked but Jim, having now found Polly’s letter also arrives.  Herbert again races off saying he is going for help, leaving Jim and Polly to hold Cragg at bay.  Herbert returns with the posse just in time to see Jim fight off Cragg and push him to his death.  It is now Jim’s turn to be hailed a hero and Herbert, his true character revealed, is left to depart alone.  

Second Fiddle was a particularly enjoyable little film, a nice mix of comedy and drama.  The film starts with a nice lightness of tone, particularly the scene in which Jim imagines himself as the super-confident Valentino-like tango dancer which was a lovely comic touch.  But then the film takes on both a more suspenseful tone as Cragg’s presence looms but also a darker hue as Herbert increasingly seeks to put down and humiliate his brother. The film was an early effort in the career of director Frank Tuttle who went on to direct a varied mix of films including the excellent comedy Kid Boots (1926) with Eddie Cantor and Clara Bow, the musical Roman Scandals (1933) again with Eddie Cantor and the cracking good thriller This Gun For Hire (1942) with Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake.  In addition Second Fiddle was very good to look at with some nice outdoor location shooting although many supposed night-time shots were somewhat undermined by the lack of appropriate tinting on the print we watched, but not sufficient to detract from overall enjoyment of the picture.   

 The film was also convincingly well acted by all concerned.  Glenn Hunter (studio shot, left) was nicely cast as Jim, the quiet sensitive type, tall, lanky and with not so perfect teeth he was a natural for the part.  Hunter was a popular Broadway star who found greatest fame with the play Merton of the Movies, a comedy about Hollywood hopefuls trying to make it in the movies.  He went on to star in the silent film version of the play (Dir. James Cruz, US, 1924), now sadly lost.  

Equally good was Mary Astor (studio shot, right) as Polly.  Still only 16 but looking a lot more mature, she had made her first film two years earlier and was now on the cusp of stardom. Beau Brummel (Dir. Harry Beaumont, US, 1924) made the following year with John Barrymore saw her career really take off.  If you only remember Astor as the hard nosed  Brigid O’Shaughnessy in John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941, image left) then Second Fiddle might come as a bit of a surprise with her displaying a natural charm and innocence but already demonstrating the acting ability that would see her through a long and successful career.  However the presence of Otto Lang playing Dr Crawford marked an ominous aspect of her life.  Lang was Astor’s father (their family name being Langhanke) and he and his wife had pushed their daughter into a film career and were now living off the proceeds and holding her virtually under house arrest in the mansion they had brought with her money, giving her an allowance of just $5 per week from her $2,500 per week salary.  D W Griffith reportedly turned down Astor at an earlier screen test because he regarded her father as a ‘walking cash register’ looking only to control and benefit from his daughter’s career.   It would be another decade before Astor broke free from her parents’ control and even then they successfully sued her for continued financial support.

Adding greatly to enjoyment of the film was the piano accompaniment from Cyrus Gabrysch, both in the lighter moments (particularly the tango scene) and with the suspenseful climax.  

(NB  Second Fiddle does not appear to be available either on disc or on-line.)

And don’t forget, the Cinema Museum is still under threat.  If you haven’t already done so, sign the petition to save it here.