Kennington Bioscope at the Cinema Museum
12 February 2020
(Warning: Spoilers Throughout)
This was an evening in which the Kennington Bioscope more than lived up to its reputation for bringing the rare and the rarely screened to its audience, with a programme of films drawn from the library of film collector and historian Christopher Bird. Not only did we have what may well be the only extant 16mm copy of a 35mm original now believed to be too fragile to be copied let alone screened but we also had another film which is widely regarded as a lost picture.
But before the thrills and the melodrama, there was a little light relief in the form of Pruning The Movies (Dir. Unknown, US, 1914), an early take on the problems faced when someone sets themselves up to determine what the rest of us can and cannot see. In this short comedy, Colonel Bunk (Harry L Rattenberry) appoints himself as chief censor for this newfangled movie craze and, with his fellow moral majority-ists, seeks changes to a film being screened. The villain’s dagger is replaced by a flower, drinks are spiked with castor oil rather than cocaine and the shocking sight of a ladies’ ankle is quickly concealed. This was an amusing and clever little film, with each clip of the movie-within-a-movie being shown twice, in before-and-after censorship versions. But the picture also had a harder edge, highlighting already in 1914 the absurdity of censorship and in particular mocking the wonderfully named Major Metellus Lucullus Cicero Funkhouser (image, right) who was appointed as Chicago’s chief censor and ‘guardian of public morals’ in 1913. Funkhouser achieved national notoriety as he became synonymous with narrow minded and over zealous censorship. But he himself wasn’t exactly clean cut, reportedly taking bribes from film producers to leave their output untouched. Funkhouser finally fell from office in 1918 when it was discovered that he was holding private parties to screen material he had censored out of the films that came before him!
Live and appropriately lively piano accompaniment for the film came from John Sweeney.
Next up, we were into the realms of ‘lost film’, although clearly not quite as lost as some people seemed to think. The film in question was The Best Man (1919), a crime drama but one done very much tongue in cheek. When vital coded government information is stolen by an international criminal gang, Washington special agent Cyril Gordon (J Warren Kerrigan) is tasked to find and return the code before the criminals can decipher it. Gordon’s boss emphasises ‘Let Nothing Hinder You’, and he is instructed to take the place of one of the criminals, George Hayne (Clyde Benson) who is returning to America from Britain. Hayne, the gang’s chief code breaker, is fleeing from Scotland Yard and intends to forcibly marry his childhood friend Celia Hathaway (Lois Wilson) who he has not seen for 15 years and who he is blackmailing with incriminating information he holds about her father.
Gordon, disguised as Hayne, meets with the criminals and manages to purloin the stolen code but the real Hayne, who the police have failed to apprehend, gives chase. Gordon escapes in a taxi that had been pre-booked to take Hayne to church to marry Celia. Arriving at the church, and remembering his instructions ‘Let Nothing Hinder You’, Gordon allows himself to be married to Celia while planning how he will escape. With the crooks still in hot pursuit Gordon then has no option but to depart with Celia by train on their honeymoon. On the train, she berates Gordon (who she still believes to be Hayne) for blackmailing her into marriage but can’t help but being attracted to him.
While changing trains Gordon and Celia are captured by the criminals but manage to escape, during which Celia learns the truth about her new husband. Returning to Washington, Gordon hands the coded material to his boss before he and Celia are happily reunited.
While clearly not a ‘lost film’, not quite all of The Best Man has survived, with about one reel of material missing, mainly from the film’s beginning but it wasn’t too difficult to pick up the plot and what followed was a light hearted thriller which fairly rattled along. The film was based upon an original novel of the same title by Grace Livingstone Hill. Hill came from a family of Presbyterian ministers and wrote syndicated columns in religious magazines as well as turning out a stream of novels with strong religious themes but in this case the religious element clearly failed to find its way into the screen adaption. The Best Man was remade in 1925, this time re-titled Marriage in Transit and starring Carole Lombard and Edmund Lowe but this definitely remains a lost film.
Although the basic premise of The Best Man, that no one would recognise anyone else after a fifteen year absence, was a bit of a stretch the film was nevertheless fun to watch, particularly Gordon’s ‘Let Nothing Hinder You’ dedication to his job. J Warren Kerrigan puts in a solid performance in the lead role, playing it straight rather than for laughs. His popularity was probably beginning to wane by the time of this film, not helped by some ill-judged comments when America entered the First World War that it was ordinary people who should be enlisting rather than artists like himself. But he still had one or two big roles to come, including The Covered Wagon (1923 ) and Captain Blood (1924) before quitting the film business, supposedly to live out a comfortable retirement but possibly also because of his refusal to accept a lavender marriage in order to conceal his long-standing relationship with partner James Vincent. Lois Wilson (image, left) as Celia made an attractive female lead although she didn’t have a great deal to do. After a few minor roles, Wilson was discovered by Lois Weber and had an uncredited role in The Dumb Girl of Portici (1916) after which her career really took off. She again starred with Kerrigan in The Covered Wagon (1923) as well as with Valentino in Monsieur Beaucaire (1924) eventually making some 150 silent and sound films. Although a big Hollywood star in the traditional sense, she was also one with genuine acting ability, exemplified by her wonderful performance as Miss Lulu Bett (1921).
Providing live piano accompaniment to match the pace and excitement of the film was Colin Sell.
The final film of the evening might not have been ‘lost’ but it had survived by barely a hair’s breadth. Copied from a badly decomposing 35mm original, the 16mm print we saw tonight may well now be the only surviving copy of the film in existence (although an unverified sources claims another copy exists in the GosFilm archive in Moscow). The film in question was The Whipping Boss (1924), a fairly serious slice of social drama centered on the practise of prison inmates being leased out by the state to private companies and worked under atrocious conditions as virtual slave labourers.
The film opens with Jim (Eddie Phillips), a young drifter, arrested in Florida for riding a freight train and sentenced to 90 days on a chain gang. He and fellow prisoners are then leased out to a local lumber company working the cypress swamps. However, the president of the lumber company and his manager, Livingstone ( J P McGowan) are worried over the activities of lawyer and American Legion member Dick Forrest (Lloyd Hughes) who is trying to get the prisoner leasing scheme banned. The president offers Forrest a job in an effort to buy him off but when Forrest visits the lumber works he sees the foreman, the whipping boss (Wade Boteler), beating a prisoner and intervenes. When use of the whip is subsequently banned Livingstone tells the whipping boss to ignore the order.
Meanwhile, Jim’s mother arrives at the American Legion seeking help to find her son. Forrest gets a court order for Jim’s release but by this time he has been so badly beaten that his life is in danger and Livingstone and the whipping boss seek to conceal Jim from Forrest. That night they set fire to the shackled prisoners’ sleeping quarters in order to kill the prisoners and conceal evidence of Jim’s mistreatment. However, Forrest and the American Legion arrive in time to free the prisoners and Jim is reunited with his mother. Livingstone and the whipping boss are arrested while Forrest marries the president’s daughter (Barbara Bedford), while the president himself vows to outlaw the inhumane conditions in the lumber camps.
The Whipping Boss was based upon the true story of Martin Tabert (image, right), a 22 year old who was beaten to death in 1922 by the whipping boss of a Florida lumber company while serving a sentence for riding a train without a ticket. The subsequent public outcry resulted in the termination of Florida’s convict leasing scheme the following year, although the practise continued in other states for much longer. While The Whipping Boss may be seen as but one of a number of films made during that era promoting prison reform (for example, The Convict’s Parole (1912) and Unprotected (1916)) it is not without certain inconsistencies. Firstly, the focus both of the film and of the wider public outcry over the Tabert case probably reflected largely on Tabert himself being white. In contrast, there was little or no outcry over the treatment within the convict leasing system of black prisoners, who were by far the most numerous victims of the scheme. Secondly, although the lumber company manager and the whipping boss end up being arrested for their actions, where is the comeuppance for the company president who is at least as complicit in the whole scheme. Instead, he’s heralded as a beacon of light for vowing to stamp out such inhumane treatment. Clearly in capitalist America you can’t go around apportioning blame too high up the corporate pyramid. Lastly, what of the American Legion, for which the film is an obvious propaganda piece. Known more for its conservatism than for its reformist zeal, the American Legion and this social drama at times made for somewhat odd bedfellows.
But what of the film itself. Sadly the damaged quality of the surviving print at times made it difficult to follow. One or two significant plot elements were missing while at least one sub-plot started and finished without us ever being the wiser. Yet while some of the brutality may have been edited out, the film did give a good idea of the terrible conditions under which the convicts worked, with most of the cast and crew certainly earning their keep for making a film in these exacting conditions. Amongst the villains both J P McGowan and Wade Botelar were excellent as Livingstone and the whipping boss respectively. Between 1919 and 1941 Botelar (image, left, with Lloyd Hughes) made almost 450 film appearances, usually in minor and often uncredited roles. Perhaps the high point of his career was a second lead role as the none too smart police detective Michael Axford in Universal’s Green Hornet and Green Hornet Strikes Again movie serials of the early 1940s. Australian born actor-director J P McGowan (image, right) made his way to America via a stint fighting in the Boer War. He joined the newly established Kalem Film Company in 1909, travelling to Ireland to make films on location. Starting in 1914 he directed and starred in the first 33 episodes of The Hazards of Helen serial, alongside actress and stunt woman Helen Holmes, whom he married shortly after. McGowan eventually went on to direct almost 250 films, mainly ‘B’ westerns as well as acting in a similar number of films, but as far as I can see this was pretty much his only venture into social realism cinema. He remains the only Australian to achieve life membership of the Director’s Guild of America.
Playing Dick Forrest, Lloyd Hughes was a little too much the clean cut all American boy to be believable but he would go on to star in such films as The Lost World (1925) alongside Bessie Love and Wallace Beery and in Ella Cinders (1926) with Colleen Moore. Barbara Bedford (image, left) , who played the president’s daughter, wasn’t called upon to do a great deal which was something of a shame. In one of her first starring roles she was superb as Cora in Last of the Mohicans ( 1920) but her career never really took off from there and although she eventually appeared in some 200 films it was usually in minor roles in fairly insignificant productions.
Ramping up the tension and the drama with his excellent live piano accompaniment was Costas Fotopoulos.
So this sure was a great night for rarities at the KenBio, in all likelihood the only chance we would ever get to watch these three films. Thanks go to Christopher Bird for an opportunity to see them and to all at Ken Bio and the Cinema Museum for another great night. The next KenBio Wednesday screening is on 11 March when they will be showing the almost equally rare Tatjana (1923) a German melodrama set in the days of Russia’s Bolshevik revolution. And don’t forget that you can now book tickets for their Comedy Weekend on 18-19 April, featuring a whole host of comedic gems.