Kennington Bioscope at the Cinema Museum
3 May 2017
We were back at the Cinema Museum tonight for our regular fix of KenBio rarities and what a treat they had in store, a melange of childhood fantasy, social conscience, labour exploitation and cross dressing! Who could resist such a combination. Tonight’s films were introduced by KenBio stalwart Amran Vance.
First up was a charming short, The Land Beyond the Sunset (Dir. Harold Shaw, US, 1912), featuring Joe (Martin Fuller) a penniless newspaper boy living with his abusive and alcoholic grandmother (Mrs William Bechtel) (image, right). Any money he makes, his grandmother takes to buy drink but he manages to conceal from her a ticket from the Fresh Air Fund (a still extant charity which provides rural daytrips and holidays for city slum kids) for a picnic in the countryside. The next morning, Joe sneaks away to the picnic. After the meal, he listens to one of the helpers tell a story and imagines himself in a fairy-tale land where he is rescued from a wicked witch (his grandmother) by fairies and taken by boat to the ‘land beyond the sunset’. When the story is over, reality sets in and Joe pictures the reaction of his grandmother when he returns home. So he hides away while the rest of the picnic group return to the city. Walking along the river bank he comes across a small boat. Climbing aboard, he begins to drift away from the shore, towards the setting sun…
Right from the outset, there is something a little different about this short but deeply poignant film. Joe is seen trying to make a penny by selling his newspapers, but there is no backdrop, just the forlorn child on a black background. Then it drops into reality with Joe on a busy city street. Part funded by the Fresh Air Fund, the film effectively promotes the charity’s work, although leaving Joe behind at the picnic might tempt one to question their reliability! Unlike most of the films of the period, with their frenzied pace and plotline, The Land Beyond the Sunset adopts a much gentler tempo, building to a climax described as ‘hauntingly ambiguous’ as Joe drifts further off-shore and an unknown fate in what is a moving and beautifully filmed finale. The young Martin Fuller puts in a pretty good performance as Joe, particularly in the scenes with his grandmother and when first experiencing the countryside. Nothing more is known about him other than that he made five further films in 1912/13. This particular film came fairly early in director Harold Shaw’s career, with him going on to direct around 75 films before his death in 1926.
(NB The Land Beyond the Sunset is available on disc in a Treasures from American Film Archives DVD boxed set or can be viewed online in a non-tinted version.)
Next up we had Toil and Tyranny (1915), the final installment of a twelve-part series which had the generic title of ‘Who Pays?’. Not a serial in the Pearl White tradition, with a continuing storyline and a cliff-edge climax at the end of each episode, Who Pays? was a series of twelve, three-reel dramas utilising the same basic cast with a common thread of thought provoking social drama, questioning “who was morally responsible for the various and sundry misfortunes suffered by the principal characters”. In Toil and Tyranny, the story is focused on over-worked lumber mill employee Karl Hurd (Henry King) who strikes the tyrannical mill foreman. Badly beaten by the foreman, Hurd he is unable to work and his wife’s health suffers as she becomes the sole bread-winner. When he eventually tries to return to his job he is sacked by mill owner David Powers (Daniel Gilfether). When Hurd’s wife dies, he blames it all on Powers and he seeks revenge. Meanwhile, Powers’ daughter Laura (Ruth Roland, right, centre figure) lives a life of indolent luxury, unaware of the plight of the mill workers. With the price of timber falling, Powers imposes longer hours and lower wages on his workforce and they go on strike (left). But Laura eventually becomes aware of the mill workers situation and is appalled when Powers’ lawyer advocates evicting the worker’s families from the company housing. She leaves the Powers mansion in the family limousine to go and help the mill workers just as Hurd arrives with a stolen gun. Thinking that Powers is in the limousine he opens fire, Laura is killed and Hurd arrested. The film ends with the question of who is responsible?
Described by Kevin Brownlow as “a solid piece of work, well photographed on authentic locations” and a “powerful piece of Socialist propaganda” Toil and Tyranny certainly presents its case in very black-and-white terms. The exploited mill worker, his sick wife and appealing daughter on the one hand and the exploitative mill owner, shyster lawyer, tyrannical foreman and indolent daughter on the other. Although made, according to Mr Brownlow, as something of an experiment by the Balboa Studios in Long beach, California, the film was apparently quite successful, despite what he regarded as performances “of the shaking fist variety”, although these didn’t seem to be noticeably more ‘theatrical’ than those in most of the films being made around this time. What was perhaps more surprising was the intensity of the anti-capitalist message in the film although, again according to Mr Brownlow, the same studio subsequently came up with a film focused upon how the actions of a belligerent workforce sabotage the efforts of a benevolent factory owner.
Although Henry King (image, right) is of course much better known as a director than an actor, he had appeared in over a hundred films before he gradually switched over to directing by the late 1910s. His long subsequent directing career would produce quality silents including Tol’able David (1921), Stella Dallas (1925) and The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926) as well as a successful transition to sound films ( The Song of Bernadette (1943), Twelve O’Clock High (1949), The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952), Carousel (1956) and The Sun Also Rises (1957) ). Ruth Roland was, along with Pearl White, the queen of the early serials (or series). She made her first film for the Kalen Studio in 1908 aged 16 and was soon billed as ‘The Kalem Girl’. Moving to Balboa Studios in 1914 she eventually appeared in some 200 films. A shrewd businesswoman, she established her own successful production company. Although apparently successful in early talkies she gave up film acting to concentrate on stage work before her premature death from cancer in 1937.
(NB Toil and Tyranny is available on DVD as part of a series, American Film Archives: Volume 3. It can also be viewed on-line. The other 11 episodes in the ‘Who Pays’ series are also preserved but do not appear to be available for sale or on-line.)
Live piano accompaniment to both these films was provided by Meg Morley which, in particular, added greatly to the wistful charm of The Land Beyond the Sunset, before setting a more sombre tone for Toil and Tyranny.
We then moved on to the evenings main feature, The Trail of the Law (1924), a little-known action romance drama. So little known in fact that some sources refer to it as a lost film. However, the BFI has a copy, so perhaps not as lost as some might think! It is, however, little seen, with Amran speculating that this may be the first time it has been screened since its initial release. And despite Google’s best efforts I could come up with but one still photo from the film (right), although that does provide a good excuse to pad out the text with some nice publicity shots of star Norma Shearer.
In the film, Jerry Varden (Norma Shearer) lives with her father Alvin (John Morse) in a log cabin in remote woodland. As a child, Jerry’s mother died during a robbery by a wanted criminal so during the day Jerry dresses like a boy to avoid drawing attention to herself. Three strangers move into a nearby cabin. When the youngest comes to the Varden’s home to borrow some flour he mistreats a pet goat and a fight ensues with Jerry until the Varden’s servant chases him off and he vows revenge. Meanwhile, another stranger, Fraser Burt (Wilfred Lytell) arrives, seeking solitude from life in the city. Jerry is immediately attracted to him but he still sees her only as a boy. When the youngest stranger shoots Burt, mistaking him for the Varden’s servant, it is Jerry who saves him. Back at the Varden’s house that evening Jerry reveals herself as a woman, but the other strangers also discover the truth about her. When they attack Jerry the next day Alvin realises that their leader is the same wanted criminal responsible for his wife’s death. After a beating by Alvin, he is arrested and Burt and the Vardens decide it is time to return to the city.
Although Trail of the Law might not be a great film, it’s not a bad little action adventure picture…. apart from one glaring anomaly, the fact that nobody in their right mind could mistake Norma Shearer for a boy, no matter what clothes she’s dressed in! The film is nicely shot on location, apparently in the forests of Maine and if I was going to live in a log cabin it would be one like the Varden’s, complete with luxury furnishings, butler and a harp for entertainment. Director Oscar Apfel keeps the plot moving at a pace and the film never drags. As for the cast, Richard Neill as the chief baddy was sufficiently sinister and menacing. British born Richard Neill as Tom the butler was amusing and truly acting in character, having played ‘the butler’ repeatedly in a film career spanning some thirty years. As for Wilfred Lytell as Burt, he was a nice enough chap (he did, after all, carry a picture of his mom in his pocket watch) although one had to question either his eyesight or his intelligence for believing Jerry could be a boy!
But it is Norma Shearer (at last, time for those publicity shots!) who lights up this film as the feisty and free-spirited Jerry, aiming to out-shoot, out-fight or out-fish anyone who came along. Even as the butler sees off the youngest stranger for fighting with her, Jerry manages to get in one last kick of his rear-end! Determined from a young age to become an actress, by the time of Trial of the Law, Canadian-born Shearer had been appearing in films for about five years, largely in uncredited roles. In 1922 (undeterred by D W Griffith’s assessment that she would never make it in the industry) she starred in another Apfel directed picture, The Man Who Paid, also with Wilfred Lytell, and her career started to blossom. The same year that Trail of the Law was released she got second billing to Lon Chaney in He Who Gets Slapped (1924) and she never looked back (although marrying producer Irving Thalberg can’t have hampered her prospects either (image right, together)). With the arrival of the talkies she became an even bigger success with an Academy Award for Divorcee (1930) plus five other nominations and she was one of MGM’s biggest stars throughout the 1930s. She was one of many actresses considered for the role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind (1939). However, she apparently expressed no interest, joking, “Scarlett is a thankless role. The one I’d really like to play is Rhett”. Feisty indeed!
Live piano accompaniment for the film came from Cyrus Gabrysch who helped capture both the backwoods feel and the excitement of the film.
(NB Sadly, not a trace of Trial of the Law either on retail or online. Maybe not a lost film, but certainly one with a very low profile! )
And that was it, another fascinating evening at the KenBio. Maybe not an evening of classics, but entertaining nevertheless. The next KenBio on 24 May will be a tribute to David Shepard, the renowned film preservationist who died in January and includes The Regeneration (1915) and Battle of the Century (1927).