Kennington Bioscope at the Cinema Museum
12 April 2017
Having unfortunately missed the last Kennington Bioscope presentation, there were some signs of withdrawal symptoms setting in, so it was with an air of relief that we were back at the Cinema Museum tonight for a much-needed silent film ‘fix’. And on the menu was another sampling from the extensive movie vault of renowned silent film historian and preservationist, Kevin Brownlow (right).
First up was a taster from 1916 entitled Nugget Jim’s Pardner, directed by and starring Frank Borzage. The film is focused on Hal (Borzage), the dissolute son of a millionaire. When Hal comes home drunk yet again after a night out with his friends, his father throws him out without a cent to his name. After taking shelter on a freight train Hal is then thrown out somewhere in Arizona and comes across the shack of Nugget Jim (Dick La Reno), a gold prospector. Hungry and finding no one at home, Hal helps himself to food. But when Nugget Jim returns he forces Hal to work for him prospecting for gold to repay the cost of the food. Ever cheerful, Hal takes to this hard working life, announcing to Jim that he is going to stay with him and an odd friendship develops. When he goes to the local bar, Hal discovers Jim’s daughter Madge (Ann Little) living there and working as a dancer. Telling Jim that it is no place for his daughter to be living Hal takes her back to the shack and romance blossoms. Meanwhile, Hal’s millionaire father has regrets over turning his son out and seeks to track him down. Eventually a letter arrives for Hal, asking him to return home. But just as he is on the train leaving, Hal has second thoughts and jumps off to return to Jim and Madge.
Starting in Hollywood as an actor, Frank Borzage (left) played in over a hundred films between 1912 and 1918. His first effort at directing was, depending on the source, either The Mystery of the Yellow Aster Mine (1913) or The Pitch O’Chance (1915). Either way he had directed around a dozen films by the time he made Nugget Jim’s Pardner. As an actor in the film Borzage was excellent as the easy-going and good-natured Hal, gradually discovering the satisfaction that comes with honest work and the value of friendship over money. The scene where he calmly eats Jim’s food in front of him is a comic delight, as is Jim’s subsequent reaction when Hal decides to stay and proceeds to share his dinner. As a director, Borzage produces a well-structured film, effectively and economically moving the plot along while the ending, filmed from within the departing train looking over Hal’s shoulder as he watches Jim and Madge fade into the distance and then leaps down to return to them is beautifully shot and nicely uplifting. Borzage of course went onto much greater things, directing such classics as Seventh Heaven (1927), Street Angel (1928) and Lucky Star (1929) followed by an equally distinguished career directing ‘talkies’. Ann Little, born Mary Brooks on a ranch in rural California, was an adept horse woman who went on to appear in well over 150 films between 1911 and 1925, mainly western films or serials. She retired from films in 1925, probably after struggling to escape from the cowgirl typecasting and died in 1984 aged 93. Dick La Reno, born in Ireland in 1963, made almost a hundred films, mainly westerns before retiring in 1931. He died in 1945 aged 81.
(Nugget Jim’s Pardner is available on DVD and can be viewed online)
We then had just a short clip from the 1919 feature, Heart O’ The Hills, directed by Joseph de Grasse and Sydney Franklin. Starring Mary Pickford (then aged 28 but playing a 13-year-old!) and a very young John Gilbert, this was a story of hillbilly family feuding set in rural Kentucky. The clip we saw was a very amusing barn-dance scene (in an otherwise apparently somewhat more serious film) featuring some hilarious and highly energetic dance moves which were brought to a sudden halt when an elderly participant loses his false teeth and everyone is set to looking for them. This is certainly a film to track down and see in its entirety.
(Heart O’ The Hills is available on DVD via Grapevine video and can be viewed online.)
The evening’s main feature was the 1927 film Stark Love, produced, written, filmed and directed by Karl Brown. Introducing the film, Kevin Brownlow recounted how he had discovered a copy of the previously thought lost picture in 1968 in the Czech national film archives, just as Soviet tanks were rolling into the city and how he subsequently tracked down Karl Brown to discuss with him the making of the film.
Set in the mountains of North Carolina, amongst a primitive people, descendants from Irish and Scottish immigrants, in a society where “Man is the absolute ruler – woman is the working slave”, the story focuses on Rob Warwick (Forrest James), a hill boy who has learned to read and who has dreams of another life, where women are looked up to by men, who provide care and shelter for them rather than treat them as drudges. Rob has feelings for Barbara Allen (Helen Mundy), a headstrong neighbour. He plans to escape this rural life and seek an education in the big city and he wants Barbara to go along with him but her father refuses to let her go. When the preacher arrives for his yearly visit, Rob arranges to leave with him, selling his horse to finance his education and promising to come back for Barbara. While Rob is away his mother dies and Barbara helps look after the family of Rob’s widowed father Jason Warwick (Silas Miracle). The old man is so impressed by the girl’s efforts that he arranges with her father to marry her. Reluctantly, Barbara moves in with him. Meanwhile, Rob has enrolled Barbara in school and returns to collect her only to find that she is now his stepmother! He begs his father to let Barbara leave but when he refuses a fight breaks out and Rob is cast out into a storm. Barbara escapes by threatening Jason with an axe and she and Rob battle through floods and are last seen heading for the city and a new life.
Stark Love is something of a cinematic oddity, part rural melodrama and part anthropological study in the style, say, of Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922). The film details the historical antecedents of this isolated and primitive community, the life of drudgery for the women, the skinning of animals, the milling of flour, even the society’s interment procedures. Yet it is also a taut, moving and believable melodrama. Although director Brown had extensive experience within the movie industry, having learnt his trade as cinematographer from Billy Bitzer, worked closely with D W Griffith and demonstrated his ability as cameraman on The Covered Wagon (1923), this was his first film as director. For him, the project was a long-cherished ambition. The film was also particularly remarkable in that it was shot almost entirely on location in the North Carolina mountains and almost the entire cast were locally recruited amateurs. Helen Mundy was a 16-year-old schoolgirl who came from the nearby town of Knoxville as did Forrest James but the rest of the cast were drawn from the very community that Brown was portraying. Brown’s original script called for the film to end with a rape scene, presumably of Barbara by Jason, after which she and Rob escape to the city. But this idea fell foul both of the censors and Paramount’s insistence on a more spectacular climax so the film ends with Rob and Barbara battling the swollen river, much to Brown’s chagrin, who said that the film ended up “a pallid ghost” of what he’d intended.
Additionally, it would appear that the version of the film found in Prague also differed significantly from that originally screened in 1927. According to the renowned (and sadly recently deceased) film preservationist David Shepard “The foreign negative seemed to have been edited rather crudely from out-takes (there was only one camera) and when I showed our finished version to Karl Brown, he very politely said that he thought it bore sparse relation to the original domestic version, that in fact it was pretty awful, and was certainly no “lost masterpiece” in its present form. All we have today is a suggestion of what the film might have been”. And yet if the version of Stark Love that we saw this evening wasn’t necessarily a masterpiece it was certainly an exceptional piece of film-making, beautifully shot, tautly plotted and with uniformly good ensemble acting. But more than that, it was in many ways a film ahead of its time, one which tackled difficult subjects such as gender imbalance, the subjugation of women and domestic abuse and a forerunner of the genre of dramatised documentary with which we are now so familiar.
The performances of the two main leads was excellent. Helen Mundy was superb as Barbara, feisty, headstrong, industrious and not afraid to take on her indolent brothers, yet who reluctantly conforms to her father’s agreement to her marriage to Jason Warwick. But when threatened by Jason she could certainly handle the business end of an axe! As retold by Kevin Brownlow, director Brown regarded Mundy as the most difficult person he had ever worked with (and that included Pola Negri!). Learning from a diet of Hollywood fan magazines, she became a screen diva even before her first film was completed, demanding this or that or she would walk off the set. But by the end of the film it seemed that she had had her fill of movie life and, despite very positive reviews, she never made another picure, choosing instead to marry a Michigan band-leader and have four children. She died in 1987 aged 77. Forrest James was also convincing in his portrayal of Rob, almost a pariah in his own society due to his refusal to treat women, particularly his own mother, as slaves and yet almost powerless to prevent it happening. Yet, as with Mundy, he never made another film.
But it is the use of locally recruited cast that gives the film real authenticity, of people simply going about the never-ending grind of their daily life. Silas Miracle is excellent as the domineering but indolent Jason but the women in particular have that genuinely gaunt appearance, a result of years of toil and drudgery while many of the children look worryingly malnourished. And Brown manages to achieve emotional highs from just the smallest of scenes, for example, when the widowed woods-man leaves his children with the Warwick family as he leaves (forever?) for work on the city, the accusing look the small daughter gives her departing father and his guilt-ridden face as he turns away conveys a huge depth of feeling without a word ever being spoken.
Yet even when the film was completed its future remained in doubt. Paramount boss Jesse Lasky was reluctant to spend money to promote a film he felt to be a sure fire looser. In the end, Brown himself apparently agreed to finance its initial release. The film was an immediate critical success. New York Times critic Mordaunt Hall called it “An engrossing and trenchant pictorial transcript of the daily life of those slothful mountaineers of North Carolina and Tennessee…”. Other critics proclaimed it “An almost perfect picture” and implored readers to “See it at all costs”. Although not a popular failure the film did not make big money, partly due to an underfunded publicity campaign, but also a result of its unusual (for the time) documentary/drama mix and of the arrival of the ‘talkies’. Studio copies of the film were likely burnt by Paramount along with over a thousand other ‘silents’ in order to recover their silver nitrate content.
Yet even if this surviving copy of Stark Love isn’t, in Karl Brown’s own words, a patch on his original, it is still a film well worth watching. Kevin Brownlow’s book The War, the West and the Wilderness has a good account of his meeting with Karl Brown while an article by writer, historian, and filmmaker John White entitled Hollywood Comes to Knox County goes into more detail about the local cast. Karl Brown himself covered the film in his (apparently unpublished) manuscript The Paramount Adventure but a chapter, Hollywood in the Hills: The Making of Stark Love is available. John White has also produced a documentary about the making of the film, Lost Masterpiece – Karl Brown’s Stark Love which is available on DVD and is supposed to be available on-line but I have been unable to track it down.
(Stark Love is available on DVD and can be viewed on-line)
Piano accompaniment to tonight’s films was shared between the always excellent Lillian Henley and Meg Morley.