Sherlock Holmes (1916): Romance of the Impossible

William Gillette Sherlock Holmes“MARRY HIM OR MURDER HIM OR DO WHAT YOU LIKE WITH HIM.” With this 1897 cable Sir Arthur Conan Doyle placed his most famous creation in the hands of another. It was a shrug for the ages, a non-decision that would forever shape the public’s perception of Sherlock Holmes.

The telegraph’s recipient, American actor and playwright William Gillette, took Doyle at his word and recast the immortal detective as such stuff that matinee idols are made of. He turned Holmes, an object of curiosity and awe, into an explicit, if unlikely, object of desire.

Gillette opened up the Holmes character for generations of actors to come by giving him flexibility and humanity. He proved that the sleuth was not only fascinating on the page, but also bankable on the stage—and screen.

The Reappearance of the Reels

In 1916, with over a thousand performances of his theatrical hit Sherlock Holmes behind him, 63-year-old Gillette traveled to Essanay Studios in Chicago to shoot a movie adaptation. It would be his first and last performance in a feature film.

And, for almost a century, Gillette’s Sherlock Holmes went unseen. Until last year, when a nitrate print of the film—long presumed lost—turned up in the Cinémathèque Française’s collections.

Last month at New York’s Film Forum, I was lucky enough to attend a screening of Sherlock Holmes, lovingly restored by Flicker Alley and tinted according to handwritten notes on the original negative, with live accompaniment.

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Now, when a film reappears after so long a hunt, the initial jubilation yields to creeping anxiety. The question begs to be asked: “But is it any good?” The possibility of disappointment runs high. Of course, all movies have value as documents of their time, but entertainment value? Not necessarily.

So, let me say this at the outset (well, sort of). I had high expectations for Sherlock Holmes. And I loved it.

Directed by Arthur Berthelet, Sherlock Holmes packs enough action, intrigue, and humor to show even skeptical modern viewers how delightful an early feature film can be. Kidnappings, tense confrontations, sinister lairs, nasty henchmen, cunning disguises—you can expect all the ingredients of an exciting thriller.

From the “lowest and vilest alleys in London” to the “lonely houses” of the countryside, Berthelet conjures up a bygone world both warmly nostalgic and fraught with peril. Characters rove the smoky, burnished universe of Doyle’s canon, instantly familiar to a century’s worth of readers.

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The cast’s wildly uneven approaches to movie acting add some unintentional amusement to the film, but don’t generally detract from the story. The extremes on the melodrama-to-naturalism spectrum balanced each other out neatly, pitting caricatured miscreants against more subtle good guys.

Taken as a whole, Sherlock Holmes is a treat. But the film is ultimately a fine gold setting for the star sapphire that is Gillette’s performance.

A Study in Sherlock

It seems nothing short of miraculous that a man who’d never before acted for the camera could deliver such a compelling screen debut. However, throughout his stage career Gillette won a reputation for subtlety, and his celebrated style of underacting transitioned seamlessly to cinema.

He inhabits the role of Holmes, body and soul. Doyle wrote about eyes that “fairly glittered” and a body that can spring “like a tiger” and let readers’ imaginations do the work, but Gillette made Holmes real in a way that satisfied legions of fans. As Orson Welles remarked in 1938, “It is too little to say that William Gillette resembles Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock Holmes looks exactly like William Gillette.”

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Indeed, Gillette not only lent his aquiline profile to the character, but also contributed to the public image of Holmes by adding the drop-stem pipe and the lavish dressing gown. He also adopted the iconic deerstalker and ulster jacket and made them Holmes’s uniform for outdoor scenes.

Although this costuming decision would’ve been a faux-pas in Victorian England—Country attire in the city? Quelle horreur!—it reflects the character’s worldview perfectly. The city is the detective’s hunting ground. He stalks his prey through the mean streets of London just as a country squire would track a fox in the forest.

More important, Gillette (even in his sixties) translated Holmes’s languid yet powerful physicality into flesh. His Sherlock can believably stride unarmed into a criminal’s headquarters and, with one intimidating step forward, slap a gun out his foe’s hand, making the bad guy draw back in fear.

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In writing and acting Holmes, Gillette also distilled and elegantly evoked the personality traits that have defined every major interpretation of Sherlock Holmes since: incandescent arrogance, brooding melancholy, inventive eccentricity, rigorous focus, and, of course, massive intellectual acuity.

When the spectator first sees him in the film, Holmes is wearing a white lab smock, pouring chemicals from one flask to another. Flames leap rhythmically upwards with each careful drop he adds. Such is the precision of Gillette’s timing that this display of chemistry elicited chuckles from the Film Forum audience. This introduction also echoes the first time Watson lays eyes on Holmes in A Study in Scarlet, heating test tubes over Bunsen burners and exultantly crying, “I’ve found it!” From the beginning, Gillette grounds Holmes the modern myth, Holmes the Victorian superhero, with a sense of wit and whimsy.

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Throughout the movie, Gillette infuses humor into the story through Holmes’s sardonic conceit, his slight swagger, the glimmering pride that endears him to the audience.

Surrounded by thugs, Holmes practically yawns in boredom, “All of these maneuvers have been entirely commonplace. Can’t professor Moriarty show me anything new?” Then the lights go out and, in the blackness the point of light at the tip of his cigar traces zigzags around the screen, a ruse to distract the baddies while he escapes. This puckish cinematic touch conveys the quirky brilliance of Holmes’s mind.

In the film’s most mesmerizing scene, Holmes cheerfully defies Moriarty when the menacing nemesis barges into his flat. Ernest Maupain’s fuming, grimacing, scenery-chewing turn as the Professor fares surprisingly well, since his over-the-top malice contrasts with Gillette’s underplayed strength. When Moriarty leaves in exasperation, Holmes kicks one leg up on his ottoman in a stance of sublime nonchalance and triumphantly puffs smoke from his pipe. It’s the gestural equivalent of a “sick burn.”

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Gillette engages the new medium with virtuosic intimacy. This is a man who transforms the act of taking off gloves into a cinematic event.

The challenge of playing Holmes lies in visually communicating his formidable logic and intellect. Any adaptation runs the risk of getting bogged down in talky deductions or of excluding the viewer from the processes of the detective’s mind. The 1916 Sherlock Holmes avoids both pitfalls, since the lightning-fast current of the great detective’s thoughts expresses itself through Gillette’s elastic face and posture—sometimes changing at breathless speeds, sometimes freezing into a tightly-coiled enigma.

Most daring of all, Gillette took Holmes the “automaton” and gave him a heart.

The Case of the Lovelorn Detective

You can think of the movie’s plot as Sherlock Holmes’s Greatest Hits. It cobbles together elements from “A Scandal in Bohemia,” “Copper Beeches,” “The Final Solution,” and other Doyle stories along with some of the old standbys of stage melodrama. (The surviving version of Sherlock Holmes also displays the influence of the policier serial, since French distributors chopped the narrative feature into multiple parts.)

Spirited Alice Faulkner inherits a packet of incriminating letters from her sister, who’d been seduced and discarded by a European prince. Mr. and Mrs. Larrabee, leaders of a notorious band of criminals, overhear Alice refusing to sell the letters to the aforementioned caddish potentate. The dastardly duo befriends poor Alice then whisks her off to a secluded estate. Though a virtual prisoner, the clever girl hides the letters before her captors can get at them.

Hired to retrieve the letters, Sherlock Holmes storms the villains’ stronghold and discovers the documents. Yet, confronted by Alice’s fierce loyalty to her sister, Holmes falters. He cannot bring himself to take the letters by force.

Wait, what? The man who “never spoke of the softer passions, save with a gibe and a sneer”?

Indeed. There are two things going on here, both of which I approve. First, Holmes respects a woman as—get this—a human being with rights and opinions of her own. Second, that respect blossoms into love.

Some might argue that any emotional involvement is a bad move for a Sherlock adaptation. This line of reasoning suggests that Holmes is inherently rational and thus cannot be romantic without betraying his primary attribute. I disagree.

Gillette Sherlock Shooting UpAbove all, Holmes thirsts for complexity. He yearns for new sensations, stimulations, diversions, preoccupations, “all that is outside the conventions and humdrum routines of daily life.” This is a man so addicted to excitement that he’ll pick up a grisly 1890s hypodermic and jab it into his vein to deliver a rush of artificial elation—three times a day, mind—rather than risk boredom.

The great detective regularly shoots up, yet recoils from emotion, lest it interfere with the delicate apparatus of his mind?

Please. Love can’t mess you up any worse than cocaine, Sherlock. (Probably.)

By forcing the great detective to wrestle with his emotions, Gillette used Holmes to explore the dilemma of the quintessential modern individual: he’s hyper-aware of life all around him, yet emotionally disconnected. Gathering data to grasp the big picture, the sleuth shuns the messy mysteries of human experience.

Perhaps Holmes and cinema were meant for each other: the man who’s uncannily like a machine and the machine that produces uncannily lifelike illusions. But if art can come from a contraption, then love can certainly come from “the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen,” as Watson describes Holmes in “A Scandal in Bohemia.”

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The romance unfolds organically within the plot. It builds up not to a love scene but to a third-act confession that brings together Holmes’s two most significant relationships: his growing bond with Alice and his longterm friendship with Watson.

Holmes explains how he’ll let Alice decide the fate of the letters. “Holmes, my good man, you’re in love!” Watson chuckles. The sleuth starts to protest. Instead, he glances down. Bashfully, he puts a hand on his friend’s jacket pocket, close to the heart. Then he looks Watson in the eye and nods, as if to say, “Yes. Yes, I am.”

This small gesture produced gales of rapturous, approving laughter from the audience I watched with. Gillette paces the reaction beautifully, tenderly. By recognizing his feelings for Alice, Holmes doesn’t distance himself from his comrade. Instead, he shares a hitherto-unsuspected piece of his humanity with the good doctor and deepens their confidence.

One understands that Holmes has found the excitement, the tingle, the sense of stimulation he’d been seeking for so long in a romance of the impossible.

His Zen-like detachment yields to his “love of all that is bizarre.” And what could be more bizarre than Sherlock in love? That is the paradox, but, let’s face it, Sherlock has never been one to shy away from paradoxes.

Just as the immortal sleuth returned from his presumed watery grave in the Reichenbach Falls to continue his adventures, the 1916 Sherlock Holmes came back to us from the land of the lost to enchant a new generation. The game’s afoot again for Gillette’s detective, and it’s an adventure to remember.

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A Reel Pleasure: Day Two of Capitolfest 12

reelsI’m not the kind of person who’d get up before 10:00 on a weekend if you were giving out free money. For Capitolfest, however, I arose at 7:00 sharp with a smile on my face, breakfasted with a coven of fellow film geeks, and headed to the Capitol Theater for another round of ultra-rare films. Movies are more important than sleep.

My favorite day of the festival, Saturday also afforded my friends and I the chance to tour the Capitol Theater. Ornamented in neo-Moorish style with some later deco embellishments, the movie palace harbors all sorts of redolent treasures. Vintage seats with built-in hat racks line the upper balcony. A patriotic display on the second-floor lobby urges spectators to buy war bonds. A shift schedule from the 1940s hangs from a cabinet in the projection booth. It’s time warp in the best sense.

Although the theater plans to accommodate digital in the future, screening 35mm prints for audiences is a top priority for the Capitol team. Up in the projection booth, Jack Theakston, assistant manager of the theater and general fountain of cinema knowledge, demonstrated the inner workings of the Capitol’s carbon-arc projector. Arc lamps, emitting light from extremely hot carbon electrodes, illuminated motion pictures during projection for the first half of the 20th century. As Theakston explained, “I like the fact that we’re running movies in the format they were originally seen in. We’re a movie theater and an entertainment showcase, but we’re also a museum since we present these films in a historically accurate fashion.”

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A visit to the Capitol Theater reveals that the value of film as a tangible thing extends far beyond nostalgia. On the contrary, whenever the screen darkens slightly with a projector mishap or a reel countdown interrupts the story, we’re reminded of the tenuous mixture of art and technology bound up in filmmaking. Not only does 35mm look better, but the materiality behind the images—strips and reels and “cigarette burns” in the upper right-hand corner of the screen—also brings us back to André Bazin’s concept of film as the fingerprint of reality. When I pop a DVD or Blu-Ray into a player or tune into a stream of images online, it’s easy for me to mystify classic Hollywood and avoid thinking of the sheer man hours and effort that went into producing, distributing, and exhibiting old movies. Something about seeing the flicker on a big screen teaches you respect for all that toil and trouble, whether you’re aware of it or not.

Without further ado, here are the features I saw at Capitolfest, part II. Click here to read part I.

The Czar of Broadway (William James Craft, 1930)

On the surface, this Universal gangster drama reheats one of the stalest dishes on the pre-Code menu: a ruthless gangster’s young protégé falls for the boss’s moll (Betty czarCompson) and ends up betraying his mentor in crime. However, the devil’s in the details—and speaking of devils, Czar‘s titular gangster (John Wray) added a pulpy, deliciously over-the-top idiosyncrasy to his character with bouts of diabolical giggling. This mobster’s so organized that he sells life insurance policies to his victims before he has them whacked. Pretty neat, huh?

A fashion-obsessed gay hit man and the close bond between the gangster and his friend endow the film with unusually upfront homoerotic overtones. Plus, this splendid rarity busts the myth that early talkie cameras couldn’t roam if they wanted to. Numerous restless camera movements and a fantastic shot of a poker game—through the bottom of the card table—distract you from the fact that this movie was probably made for a song on recycled sets.

Bottom Line: A killer-diller entry into the canon of 1930s gangster movies. I wish you all could see it.

High Treason (Maurice Elvey, 1929) 

What if an eccentric, monocle-wearing British inventor/politician wrote a futuristic epic as a vehicle for his own singular views on militant pacifism? We don’t have to wonder, actually, because Noël Pemberton-Billing penned the story of this whacky sci-fi drama, set in 1940, about the necessity of stopping future world wars. You can see clips of the original silent High Treason in the excellent documentary Silent Britain, but Capitolfest projected the talkie version, the first all-talking movie shot in Britain.

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Now, I’m a sucker for cult movies, so I lapped this up—clunky dialogue, metallic cloche hats, swagged-out jet-cars, and all. Britain’s answer to Lang’s Metropolis, sadly High Treason doesn’t come close in terms of quality. It does, however, feature an extended scene of Benita Hume’s scantily clad ablutions in a Flash Gordon-ish deco bathroom, which ought to keep anyone happy. The anti-war message and an apocalyptic bombing montage struck me as startlingly modern. And, hey, Billing predicted Skype, TV as we know it, and the Chunnel. In fact, during the film’s finest sequence, a nail-biting, Hitchcockian piece of suspense, a hidden bomb planted by terrorists ticks away and finally explodes the underwater train to Kingdom come. Unfortunately, the stilted performances brought the movie right back to the dawn of the talkies. Is this the future? Um, it’s the future of the past.

Bottom Line: Part ludicrous, part prophetic. Imagine the bastard child of Fritz Lang and Ed Wood and you won’t be far off.

Morals (1921)

Directed by William Desmond Taylor, better known today as a murder victim than as a highly respected filmmaker, Morals won me over with the vivacity of its heroine and the comic stuffiness of its hero. A British orphan raised in a Turkish harem, Carlotta (May McAvoy) flees from an arranged marriage and, through a chance encounter, becomes the ward of Sir Marcus (William Carleton), a curmudgeonly British noble. Vexed by Carlotta’s excitable disposition and her foreign customs, he sniffs, “I don’t believe that her father was a British Vice-Consul. I think he was Satan!”

coupleBefore you can say “meet-cute”, Sir Marcus has grown accustomed to Carlotta’s face, but will he have the courage to profess his love before one of his backstabbing friends wrecks their relationship? Puckish McAvoy walks a fine line between adorable and annoying, but carries it off swimmingly, especially with the counterbalance of Carleton’s cynical Sir Marcus. Given William Desmond Taylor’s notorious liaisons with younger women, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that he could lend credibility, not to mention humor and tenderness, to a May-December romance onscreen.

Bottom Line: An unanticipated highlight. So many silents—even the ones we haven’t necessarily heard of—are golden.

Steady Company (Edward Ludwig, 1932)

My least favorite movie of the whole weekend, this noncommittal programmer romance set against the world of boxing would take a dive in the first round if not for the miraculous likability of two character actors. As the heroine’s best friend and fellow switchboard operator, Zazu Pitts demonstrates her talent for bone-dry comebacks. Hit on by one of those ubiquitous Depression-era creeps, she drolly replies, “I’m sorry, but your line is out of order,” and turns back to her switchboard. Henry Armetta, the most Italian Italian in the history of Hollywood, steals his share of scenes as a cuddly old cobbler. The unflinching ferocity of the boxing ring scenes stood out, but a saccharine conclusion majorly undercut the movie.

Bottom Line: Didn’t pack enough of a punch for me.

Forgotten Faces (Victor Schertzinger, 1928)

I appreciate and praise all kinds of movies for all kinds of reasons, but movies that blow my mind on pretty much every level come along only once in a blue moon. They are rare. They are precious. This, folks, is one of them. In my opinion, it belongs in the pantheon of great silent movies.

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Gentleman thief Harry ‘Heliotrope’ Harlow (Clive Brook) comes home from a heist one night to find his wife Lily (Olga Baclanova) in bed with her lover. Harry shoots the other man and, not wanting his infant daughter to be raised by her wicked mother, secretly entrusts the baby to a rich couple who’d recently lost their child. Leaving his sidekick Froggy (William Powell) to watch over the girl, Harry turns himself in. Fast forward 20 years: Lily discovers her daughter’s new identity and threatens blackmail. After winning release from prison, Harry vows to stop his spouse’s plans at all costs… while keeping his promise to the prison warden not to lay a hand on her.

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Though the plot might sound needlessly contrived, Forgotten Faces exemplifies the unrivaled art of silent movies in their final flush. It uses the film medium to the fullest, evoking both the seen and the unseen to draw out the audience’s emotions. Even the lack of sound, theoretically a disadvantage, bends to serve the film’s aesthetic—for instance, a key gunshot, unheard by the audience, lends an eerie stillness to the murder scene. Expressive, fluid camera movements gracefully tell half the story with jaw-dropping long takes that echo the exacting elegance of its protagonist.

I can barely scratch the surface of this movie’s brilliance in a paragraph or three and hope to devote an entire post to it soon. Stay tuned.

Bottom Line: Hey, Criterion Collection—get on this, will ya? Forgotten Faces has been forgotten for too long. Far and away the best of the program.

Laughter in Hell (Edward L. Cahn, 1933)

If I were a little 1930s shop girl or factory worker who toiled ridiculous hours all week, I wouldn’t want to see Pat O’Brien being beaten and whipped on my day off. As much as I’d like to assume the condescending tone of a contemporary highbrow and start whining about how this movie didn’t get the respect it deserved in 1933, I can understand why. My inner mogul shrugs and thinks, well, ambitious as it is, commercial it ain’t. 

hellLaughter in Hell stands as a testament to harsh social criticism that pre-Code movies could pull off. I consider it even more daring and ambiguous than I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, not least of all because our protagonist really is guilty of a double homicide. And, as the film shows, even he doesn’t deserve the inhuman punishment of a southern chain gang. Too strong for its era—and maybe too strong for many people today—a horrific lynching sequence hits you with all the impact of a martyrdom shot in real time, the visual equivalent of “Strange Fruit.”

Bottom Line: It hurts and it should. Concession stand candy will be needed to sooth your nerves.

Crime Spree: The Wicked Darling (1919)

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The streetwalker sits on the edge of the gutter, rubs her tired feet, then slips them back into her worn shoes. She scans the street with the relaxed resignation of someone accustomed to sizing up meager and often dangerous prospects. A trace of anxiety lines her mouth only as she pauses to size up a dope fiend shambling out of a nearby store. This is a tough part of town for selling anything, much less yourself.

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Then two legs come up behind her, stepping almost daintily into the frame, legs which she seems to sense as much as hear. She turns her head slowly to look at them. We haven’t seen the man’s face yet, but the intertitles inform us that he’s a thief who’s served time—a crook called “Stoop” Conners.

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Stoop’s face fills the screen. It’s a face you might call kind. If you’re used to Easter Island statues, maybe. With a contemptuous glance around, Stoop orders the woman to get up. As he towers over her in a wider shot, the hooker pokes up at the bottom of the frame and steps up on the sidewalk to face this creepy thug. To put it mildly, they know each other.

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And so Lon Chaney made his first appearance in a Tod Browning film, The Wicked Darling, sparking a partnership that would come to define the grotesque in cinema.

Even in this brief character introduction, Browning aptly sculpts Chaney’s potential for menace through cinematic space. The legs ominously enter from the side, the upper half of Conner’s body is only disclosed after the intertitle, and Conner’s presence suddenly places the prostitute in a lower relation to another character. Chaney, in turn, maximizes the value of each shot through his stiletto-sharp focused movements. As Conners proceeds to tell Mary Stevens where she should be plying her trade, his ugly facial contortions, pointing gestures, and invasion of her space all complete the portrait of a swaggering lowlife, the kind of man who really does think he can own a woman.

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The Wicked Darling, recently rediscovered in the Netherlands Filmmuseum after many years among the lost, probably won’t ever receive recognition on a par with Chaney’s later, more horror-inclined films. I myself only dug this one up out of interest about the beginning of the Chaney-Browning collaboration. On the surface, the plot sounds like a sentimental cliché: a prostitute steals some jewels, but falls in love with a decent man and tries to go straight—but her criminal associates won’t let her escape that easily.

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Boy, was I in for a shock! Compared with even an excellent gangster thriller of the time like The Penalty, The Wicked Darling strikes me as a much more modern, uncompromising depiction of crime. The seediness of Browning’s ultra-realist underworld, the ferocity of the acting, and the subtlety of the crescendoing suspense bowled me over.

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In addition to Browning’s brilliantly askew direction, the fierce energy of Priscilla Dean also brought out the best in emerging movie actor Chaney. Though sadly little-remembered nowadays, Dean was a top female star at Universal when The Wicked Darling was made. Neither a flapper nor a glamourpuss, Dean was a fearless actress, willing to look downright sullied and unattractive to boost her credibility in a role. Chaney’s female co-stars tended to play second fiddle to him, but Dean was that rare actress whose spitfire energy and rubber-face range of expression could counterbalance his own. Their antagonistic onscreen chemistry threatens to burn a hole right through your screen.

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Browning’s penchant for all things freakish, Dean’s tough honesty, and Chaney’s vicious intensity synergized to produce an extraordinary crime melodrama. Their pooling of gutsy talent layered on the despair and grime of a celluloid skid-row more sordid and gritty than most of what moviegoers would see for another half-century.

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In this story of love and redemption, Chaney incarnates—surprise, surprise—all the obstacles to Mary’s rise from gutter. Reading between the lines, we understand that Stoop Conners not only helps Mary work her pickpocket routine, but is also one of her regular johns who also works with Uncle Pet, her stringy pawnbroker pimp. In this supporting role, Chaney bravely confronts us with a morally defunct man, lacking in anything we might latch onto as likeable. Devoid of the qualities that make most of Chaney’s characters so charismatic, like Blizzard’s satanic gumption or the Phantom’s creative madness, Stoop would come last even in a scrawny punk competition.

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There’s nothing romantic about his two-bit gangster; he comically turns a 180 whenever he sees a cop coming and gets trounced no less than three times by big burly dudes with whom he tangles. And just because he’s attached to Mary in some way doesn’t mean he’s above slapping her around; actually, his strange brand of affection practically guarantees it.

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Dean and Chaney give us a cringe-worthy duet of scorn when Mary returns from stealing some pearls. Unbeknownst to her, Stoop has been negotiating with her pimp—if he turns over the pearls, he gets her and a nice chunk of cash in exchange. Leaning back, his thumb tucked in the armhole of his vest, he coyly questions her about the whereabouts of the loot that he implies they stole together. “We! Where yuh get that ‘we’ stuff?” She retorts, claiming she lost the pearls. He shrugs, assuming that she doesn’t want to talk about the stash in a public place.

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Then Stoop leans forward with a gesture that could only come from a hustler trying to imitate something he saw in a movie, flopping his hand on Mary’s and leaning in with a goofy grin. Chaney makes this awkward come-on both risible and lewd, like Al Capone trying to ape John Gilbert. When Mary pulls away in disgust, he informs her that he’s “picked out a nice pretty flat” where he plans to install her without delay. Her face modulates from mocking disdain to horror as she realizes how she’s been betrayed by her pimp.

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She jumps up to leave, but Stoop yanks her arm and screams right into her face. Though there are no intertitles, we can read his lips and his aggressive pointing. “You’re gonna move in with me. TONIGHT!!!”

She slaps him, not with the fury of offended honor, but with the anger of a woman who’d rather take her chances as a freelancer than have to put up with one very nasty client full-time. He hauls back, prepared to belt his lady love square in the face when the bartender, built like a tank, grabs his arm in mid swing. Real smooth proposition, Stoop. Real smooth.

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Throughout The Wicked Darling, Browning goes out of his way to depict Stoop as a real-life monster. Chaney, gnashing his teeth and grimacing, basks in almost as many close-ups and medium close-ups as Priscilla Dean! The shots of Chaney are enclosed moments of contemplation. They sometimes run the risk of diverging from the plot, like a mini freak show, as if the director and actor really want the audience to think, “Holy sh*t, do people this awful really exist?”

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For instance, in the midst of the climactic interrogation scene, as Conners pushes Mary around and twists her wrist to extract information, he breaks away after a particularly nasty blow and we get a cut to this medium close-up. Stoop, his teeth bared, draws the back of his balled fist across his mouth, wiping away the spittle he salivated while beating his ex-gal. If there’s a more potent, unpleasant face of male sadism out there, I haven’t seen it.

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In these close shots, Chaney’s mug is also carefully framed for maximum dissonance—he’s usually far off to one side. He also sticks his face quite close to the camera. We recognize a total incomprehension of boundaries and personal space as one of Stoop’s strongest mannerisms. He sidles right up to whomever he’s addressing, even if that means sitting on their desk or edging his chair right up to theirs.

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Most frightening, when he turns up at now-reformed Mary’s workplace, he sneaks up right behind her and doesn’t budge except to smile, immediately crowding her with an air of entitled possession. Through a number of tight close shots, Stoop makes the audience feel like he’s invading their personal space, too.

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Now, Browning as a director tended to focus on outsiders, lost souls living on the margins of ordinary, tax-paying society. While the director often portrayed these living jetsam with tenderness and warmth, Stoop elicits no such warm and fuzzy feelings. Rather than facing up to his own slum exile from normalcy, he drags Mary downward to have someone he can place below him…. on the food chain, that is.

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Interestingly, though, Stoop manipulates the audience and Mary, knowing that we all want to believe that there’s a glimmer of goodness in everyone. In a key scene toward the conclusion, he lures Mary away from the edge of a pier where she’s about to commit suicide… so that he can get her back to Uncle Pete’s lair and wring information out of her. Stoop’s subtly downcast eyes, his gravely fidgeting hands, and slightly bent stance all convince even wary Mary that he’s solemnly summoning her to her pimp’s deathbed. He tricks her into seeing the decency that she aspires to reflected in him. But whenever Mary isn’t looking, Stoop’s eyes flick over to study her reaction with merciless glee.

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In a lot of prostitute-with-a-heart-of-gold sagas, the heroine acts like she wants to flee her immoral existence for rarified philosophical reasons. It’s a life choice for Garbo, Crawford, and co. when they turn the red light off. By contrast, Mary Stevens wants not only to better herself, but also to get the hell away from violent slimeballs like Stoop. Thus Chaney provides the muscle to back up The Wicked Darling’s brutal commentary on the hardship of a woman’s life, once she’s cut off by society and written off as “soiled.”

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Chaney’s true-to-life boogeyman, a sleazy, self-pitying, abject son-of-a-bitch, makes the viewer’s blood boil. In real life, Chaney empathized with criminals but despised bullies and often took it upon himself to protect vulnerable young women when he saw them being mistreated in Hollywood. I think he channeled a lot of his hatred for men like Stoop—and their high-ranking relatives—into one of the few utterly unsympathetic performances of his career.

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With all of his limbs at his command and a face barely touched with makeup, Chaney crafted what might be the most real and horrifying character in his gallery of nightmares.

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This post is part of the Lon Chaney Blogathon, hosted by Movies Silently and The Last Drive-In. Be sure to check out the other posts and explore the thousands of faces of Chaneys Sr. and Jr.!

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Lost and Found: Reflections on an Evening with Mary Pickford

cameraLast night, I was part of the first audience to see a long-lost film for over 80 years.

I’m still trying to wrap my brain around that.

This story starts with a condemned barn in New Hampshire, marked for demolition. In 2006, contractor Peter Massie did a routine sweep of the site. Let’s just say it’s a good thing he did, because, to his surprise, Massie discovered a 1920s Monarch projector and seven reels of film.

How those films ended up in the barn remains a slight mystery, although they were probably shown as part of a boy’s summer camp once located on the land there. Massie contacted Dr. Larry Benaquist of Keene State College, who sent the fragile nitrate film—the strips stuck together and the sprocket holes shredded—to Colorlab Corp. for the challenging restoration. Out of the cache, the lab identified four films presumed lost, including the 1911 Mary Pickford vehicle “Their First Misunderstanding.”

It’s difficult to pinpoint the last time when this film was shown; it might have been reissued a few years after its initial release. It might have been seen sometime in the 1920s, but it had almost definitely not been projected since the dawn of the talkies.

Until last night, when “Their First Misunderstanding” saw the light after so many years of darkness.

At Keene State College, this short film had its re-premiere, projected on a big screen from a digitized copy. Professor Benaquist and Christel Schmidt, a Pickford scholar and editor of Queen of the Movies, introduced the program. In addition to the rediscovered film, the screening included another Pickford one-reeler, “The Dream” (1911), and perhaps her greatest film performance in Sparrows (1926), all with live accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis.

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(Poster design by Caitlen Brown.)

“Their First Misunderstanding,” a concise one-reel marital dramedy, might not seem like anything special out of context. However, Schmidt explained the significance of the rediscovered film. The short movie represents a crucial piece of cinema history: it’s the first film that gave Mary Pickford billing under her real name, as well as her first film with the Independent Moving Pictures Company, or IMP.

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(Frame from the collections of Keene State College and the Library of Congress.)

Pickford also wrote the scenario for “Their First Misunderstanding.” This wasn’t particularly unusual, since she shrewdly sold many scenarios to the production company she worked for, as well as to others, as a way of earning extra income. Nevertheless, I enjoyed knowing that Mary’s genius for cinema pervaded the short film, not only through her performance but also through all of the “bits of business” she had concocted. When Mary toyed with a cigarette, beat the hell out of a suitor with an enormous bouquet, or snuggled sadly by a fire, all of those actions came from her nimble, vivacious mind.

Although “Their First Misunderstanding” survives astonishingly intact for having languished in a New England barn (without the protection of a film canister) the years had taken their toll. The one-reeler begins and ends a bit abruptly due to missing footage.The opening scene of the film, which mostly likely started with a scene of the couple’s wedding, has not survived. However, in its present state, it opens with a brief shot of Owen Moore’s character frantically packing for his honeymoon.

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(Keene State College/Library of Congress.)

From there, the newlyweds meet at a train station where their families ambush them with well-wishes and a cascade of rice. From her first appearance, luminous Mary Pickford looks elegant in a luxurious travel outfit of white fur, which she adjusts and preens daintily, the image of a new bride wanting every last detail to be simply perfect. Among the crowd on the train platform are an unrecognizable Ben Turpin (with nary a googly eye in sight!) and a very recognizable and dapper Thomas Ince who bobs up and down like the center of attention, seemingly unaware that he is not the star of the film. The newlyweds embark on their honeymoon, filled with hope and love.

But the intertitles warn us that marital bliss doesn’t last forever: “One Year Later: Oh! How Different It Is!” It’s always a joy to listen to a modern audience laugh at intertitle jokes, and, last night, we roared at this 1910s equivalent of the CUT TO: juxtapositions that movies still use as punchlines.

Apparently, one year later, the husband has grown into a self-absorbed lout who mostly ignores his chic wife. Mary tries various tactics to get his attention—pretending to smoke one of his cigarettes, massaging his scalp, and going into full-on melodrama mode—but none of them work. When the couple attends a party, hubby goes off into another room with a society cutie, leaving poor Mary alone to fret and worry. Never one to sit around and do nothing, she decides to do a little flirting of her own with the ludicrously caricatured poet-pianist—think Snidley Whiplash as Romeo—who’s playing at the dinner party.

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(Keene State College/Library of Congress.)

To his dismay, Mary’s husband walks in on her intimate conversation with the poet. Soon the would-be romancer is visiting the couple’s home. The husband decides to rig up a little bell on the house door, so that he knows when any visitor comes to call. This, of course, leads to a number of false alarms, as the husband nearly suffers a fit of apoplexy… only to discover a deliveryman at the door. In another adorable scene, the poet does come for a visit, but has to do his wooing from the entrance of the room to keep the bell from ringing. Is this seeming like a lot of plot developments for 11 minutes? Because it’s not over yet. Mary’s scenario packed in an abundance of comedy and drama in an impressively short time.

The husband finally buckles under the suspicion and decides to leave his wife, writing, “You’re not the woman I supposed you were.” He leaves her to the poet. Mary, however, had no intention of going away with the second-rate scribbler. When the fawning suitor appears, she whips him out of the house with a bouquet of enormous flowers!

curlsDesolate over the loss of her husband, Mary crawls into his study (read: mancave, circa 1911) and curls up with his smoking jacket to comfort herself. Let me mention that the naturalistic light in this final scene, seemingly from the single source of a fireplace, resembles a moving Rembrandt: hauntingly exquisite and warm.

The husband returns, shambling in, filled with remorse; as he looks down, he unexpectedly sees his wife. Overcome with happiness at finding that she never ceased to love him, he goes in for a kiss and she shares his joy. Until she smells the tobacco on his breath and coughs. But snuggles with him anyway. The sophisticated mixture of melancholy and humor in this conclusion save it from pure sentimentality. (One suspects that Chaplin picked a thing or two from watching Pickford one-reelers.) We realize that these flawed young married people have lost a few illusions, but gained a firmer bond of friendship and consideration. Knowing how it feels to get hurt, they will try not to hurt each other anymore.

You can watch “The Dream,” the second film on the program, online, and I eagerly recommend that you do, if only for the pleasure of watching alternate-universe Mary Pickford totally trash a living room. In the brief fantasy-allegory, another less-than-ideal husband goes out drinking and treats his wife horribly. Crashing on the sofa, he has a dream where his wife acts like him—a brazen, sardonic lush, who goes about drinking, shattering the china, and staying out late partying. He wakes up screaming, relieved to find his sweet real-life wife just as she was, and recognizes the treasure that was under his nose all along.

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(Library of Congress.)

Both short films humorously advocate for equality and trust within marriage. The one-reelers focus on women who start to behave like their wayward husbands (whether in real life or in fantasy) and, in so doing, force their husbands to recognize the error of their own ways. Ironically, Pickford’s life mirrored her art—but without the happy ending. According to Schmidt, Pickford married her co-star Owen Moore two days before the release of “Their First Misunderstanding.” The nightmare marriage paralleled the bad relationship that we witness at the beginning of “The Dream” and ended in divorce. Alas, Moore didn’t learn from his onscreen acts of repentance.

It’s hard not to detect feminist undertones in the onscreen depiction of macho spouses who neglect their wives and expect them to deal with it—but who freak out when their wives pay them back in kind. The movies astutely illustrate how a husband’s lack of respect for his wife, combined with the abuse of his greater social freedom, can ruin an otherwise happy union.

I especially appreciated the nuances that Pickford brought to her character in “Their First Misunderstanding.” Unlike the droll polar personas in “The Dream,” she doesn’t strike us as either a passive bride or a scarlet woman, and flirts with another man only after her husband starts misbehaving. She may not be perfect, but she certainly comes closer than her husband. Pickford’s light touch for this sort of romantic farce comedy makes us sympathetic to her plight; we enjoy her enjoying herself, but ultimately root for her to make the right decision and turn her husband back into the man she married. Because she is clever, beautiful, and loving, she succeeds.

While these films still place most of the burden of keeping a marriage together on the women, at least they honor that burden. I imagine that Pickford’s performances and scenarios motivated quite a few husbands in the audience (in 1911 and last night) to appreciate their wives more, lest they threaten to run off with the next leering poet they meet!

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William Beaudine’s Sparrows features one of the strongest, feistiest female protagonists I know of. Pickford’s performance as Molly, a spunky teenager who leads a group of orphans through miles of dangerous swamps in a desperate escape from a brutal “baby farm,” inspired the steely role of Miss Cooper in Night of the Hunter (1955). Lillian Gish immortalized that part, but as Christel Schmidt noted, this was unusual, considering her frail star image in the silent days, in contrast to Mary Pickford’s up-by-her-bootstraps persona. “Lillian Gish would get trapped on an ice floe and need to be saved by Richard Barthelmess, whereas Mary Pickford might save Lillian Gish from an ice floe.”

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It was inspiring to savor the audience’s vibrant reactions to the film. Some of us even hissed and booed the vile Mr. Grimes and his nasty family. Unfortunately, the DVD print projected was not a good one, but accompanist Jeff Rapsis more than compensated for this by creating a delightfully suspenseful score. Having seen the film on DVD with a recorded score, I admired how Rapsis delicately underplayed the maudlin aspects of the film, instead highlighting its rich blend of poignant humor and tense action, all graced with glimmers of tenderness. I also have no idea how Rapsis managed, at certain key moments, to ring a bell WHILE playing his keyboard, but somehow he did. He’s also written up a wonderful piece on his blog about creating a score for the rediscovered one-reeler, which makes for terrific reading.

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Without a doubt, the entire evening will take an honored place among my filmgoing memories. However, I keep circling back to those 11 minutes that no audience had collectively experienced for almost a century. As Christel Schmidt said, “This film wanted to come back to us.” This encounter was meant to be.

I found my mind drifting to the Japanese concept of ichi-go-ichi-e, or “one time, one meeting,” the idea of something that happens only once in a lifetime, that acquires a tremendous weight of destiny through its uniqueness. Cinema is almost the opposite of this—a film is the same every time you see it. Or is it? You never see the same film twice, because you are different each time. The screening of “Their First Misunderstanding” brought on this epiphany, because of the sheer onceness of that particular encounter. We live in the midst of this onceness and never quite realize it. The moviegoers who went to see that film in 1911—could they have imagined how irreplaceably precious it would become to us?

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(Keene State College/Library of Congress.)

Cinema is my personal religion, so I can only describe what I felt last night as a vision, in many senses of the word. The imprint of light, of time, is caught on celluloid. Once that celluloid is gone, the soul of that moment returns no more. What was rescued from a little New Hampshire barn, then, wasn’t merely a museum piece, but a relic, something saturated with long-lost memories. At the risk of sounding a little too Proustian, the screening of “Their First Misunderstanding” last night was the restoration of lost time, the opening of a portal to another world that had been closed to us for longer than the span of the average human life.

In 1911, there were still a large number of people who scoffed at the idea that images produced by a machine could provoke laughter, tears, affection. But Mary Pickford knew different; she publicly heralded film as an art when few others would’ve dared to use the word. I think that she would have been proud to witness her films flood into a theater so removed from their time and place, yet magically connected to those bygone days through the power of the seventh art.

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