Hands Up! (1926): Top Secret

rayIn 1926, two silent comedians made movies set during the Civil War. One was panned at the time, but went on to win its rightful place among the greatest movies ever made.

The other, praised upon its release, is all but forgotten.

Indeed, I’ve heard more than one silent movie devotee refer to Hands Up! as “the funniest movie you’ve never heard of.” Well, we really need to do something about the “you’ve never heard of” part.

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Sure, Raymond Griffith’s masterpiece isn’t as great as The General—and you’d have a hard time convincing me that anything is—but it comes mighty close. There was plenty of greatness to go around in that golden age of comedy. A contract player at Paramount, Griffith turned out hilarious, original comedy confections even within the constraints of the studio system. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the snide brilliance of the so-called silk hat comedian deserves to be rediscovered and enjoyed today. Modern audiences might even be surprised by how morally daring his comedy is.

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Unlike his contemporaries, Griffith rejected the role of the underdog, the harried little man you root for without reservation. By the time he was making feature films, Chaplin wanted you to like him, even when he was behaving badly. Keaton wanted to earn your esteem and to earn it the hard way. And Lloyd wanted to be your personal hero. That contrarian Griffith, far from trying to attract our sympathy, often goes out of his way to make us dislike him. He invites us to question his ethics and to savor his pratfalls all the more because of his doubtful motives and his urbane appearance.

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The comedian himself cited schadenfreude as a central ingredient of his humor. As he told Motion Picture magazine, “the high hat stands for aristocracy, for snobbishness, for aloofness. The boy in the street would rather fire a snowball at a silk hat than at any other type of headgear. In reality, he is taking a whack at what the hat represents, not merely at the hat itself.”

Griffith’s character does appeal to the audience through his competence and panache, but, boy, is he a smug, unscrupulous fellow. His one saving grace is that he makes us laugh with his pride as well as with his falls. It might not be off the mark to identify his persona as a proto-playa. Impressing us with his sheer nerve, he wins the audience over with his vices rather than his virtues.

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Directed by Griffith and Clarence Badger, Hands Up! takes full advantage of the star’s slippery charm. In the role of a Confederate spy known only as Jack, he inveigles to divert or destroy a shipment of gold that would save the Union cause. Brave, but decidedly not heroic, Jack literally carries a couple of aces up his sleeves, woos two women simultaneously, and cheats a Native American chief out of his headdress with a pair of loaded dice. He’s the man we hate to love.

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With his diminutive height and dapper style, Griffith accentuated the comic potential of his starkly un-rugged brand of manhood. In one of the most quietly funny moments of the film, Jack’s primary foe, burly Captain Logan (perennial villain Montagu Love) attempts to intimidate the spy in a stagecoach. Logan pulls out his enormous Colt revolver and casually examines it.

Never one to back down, Jack whips out his firearm—a dainty two-shooter, you know, like saloon madams keep in their garters—and fussily begins polishing it. The enemies sit as mirror images of each other, insouciantly posed but with the hypothetical line of fire from each of their guns trained unmistakably on the other.

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On the most obvious level, the wordless, macho exchange tickles us because of its, ahem, symbolism. (Oh, you men, always trying to prove who’s got the biggest, bestest gun!) More important, this bit of business illuminates an amusing contrast between the characters and how they fit into the movie’s historical context. Captain Logan fully embodies the robust masculinity that we tend to associate with our gun-totin’, hard-drinkin’ Civil War-era forefathers.

Griffith’s Jack, on the other hand, might strike us as comically effete for that period—and as rather unprepared for the toughness of his opponent. Yet, like his miniature pistol, he’s discreet and surprisingly useful in a jam. In a later scene, Logan holds a man at gunpoint, the tip of his Colt on the hostage’s head… whereupon Jack darts out from behind and jabs his foe in the belly with the ladylike pistol that looked so innocuous.

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In other words, Hands Up! suggests that caliber doesn’t matter; it’s the dexterity of the spy that counts.

The wit of Hands Up! often emerges from clever repetitions: sets of two parallel sequences, shown in succession, become outrageously funny as the differences (or the similarities) between the variations pile up. For instance, the film opens with scenes of the Union and Confederate agents receiving their orders respectively from President Lincoln and General Lee. First, bulky, straight-faced Captain Logan accepts his mission in a static conference room. Lincoln turns to Logan and to Allan Pinkerton, head of the Union Intelligence Service and future founder of the famous detective agency. The President confides, “Gentlemen—this is a secret between the three of us.”

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Immediately afterwards, Jack obtains his instructions in a scene that begins the same way, but ultimately overflows with kinetic hilarity. A succession of classics from the slapstick playbook embellish an interaction that, just a moment ago, served as standard exposition. As General Lee and his aide wait in a cabin under heavy Union fire and bombardment, Jack bounds off a horse and darts into the meeting place in a whirl of dust.

64Lee explains the commission and Jack accepts, just as a bomb detonates the cabin sky-high, leaving Jack and the General shaking hands in the debris. By leading us to expect identical (and thus rather tiresome) scenarios, Griffith and Badger undermine the viewer’s expectations—and then literally blow the roof off of them.

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Unfazed by the explosion, Lee echoes Lincoln’s words exactly, “This is a secret between the three of us!” An errant bullet mows down Lee’s aide.

Jack doesn’t flinch and dryly corrects the General, “The two of us, sir.”

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Now, that update is funny, but a pretty damn morbid kind of funny. Even Lee looks a trifle scandalized by Jack’s lack of shock. Griffith engineers a joke that depends on the audience’s desensitization to onscreen death, or at least to the deaths of characters we don’t know well. His barely-there quip reminds me of the wry James Bond one-liners that make us chuckle just after 007 has dispatched a henchman.

While I’m on the subject of everyone’s favorite super-spy, I’d note that our Jack comes across as downright Bond-ish in his luck with the ladies. The most fertile running gag of Hands Up! involves Jack courting two daughters of a pro-Lincoln mine owner with a series of identical gestures. Towards the end of the film, he’s trying to make a getaway with the gold when each sister stops him. Within the space of a few minutes, he proposes to not one, but both of the girls—in the exact same manner!

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Played through once, the mini love scene might provoke titters of laughter by gently lampooning melodramatic love scene tropes. Played through twice, with recycled intertitles and all, the scene’s satire on relationships ascends to a truly farcical level.

I won’t tell you how this love triangle resolves itself, but let me say if you’re thinking, “Um, threesome?” you’re actually quite close. I usually have no qualms about spoilers, but the ending of Hands Up! is as unexpected as it is uproarious, so I’ll keep that one top secret for now. It’s worth tracking down a copy of the film just to find out for yourself how the romantic subplots conclude.

28Cunning as its saboteur protagonist, the comic style of Hands Up! also draws deftly on illusion and ellipsis. For example, early on in the film, Jack is discovered as a spy and about to face a firing squad. The entire execution scene revolves around Jack’s clever ruses to distract his would-be executioners. We neither see him being caught, nor do we actually see him escape. The sections of narrative that most silent comedians might be inclined to emphasize and elaborate on have been omitted entirely.

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In fact, the audience only learns that Jack has escaped when the head of the firing squad does—and it gives us a moment of supreme tension. The line of gunners fires and we wince. Huh? What? Who kills off the protagonist? But Jack, apparently tied up and facing a wall, doesn’t collapse. The soldiers fire again. He’s still standing? How is that possible? The head of the squad steps forward to check—and realizes that his men had been shooting at a trompe l’oeil painting that the prisoner had daubed on the wall. (Evidently, Confederate spies are forced to take a course in rapid-fire oil painting before entering the field.)

54Later in the film, Jack relies again on the power of illusion to save his hide by tricking an enemy to fire at his reflection instead of him. Because the audience only sees into a fragment of the room where Jack is hiding, we can’t know that he’s stowed behind the door—away from the line of fire. In this instance, an illusion plus a spatial ellipsis generates tension and then relief. While the gunpowder clears, we see Jack hastily making his getaway.

mirrorNow, I’ve really only scratched the surface of this rich, action-packed classic. You really owe it to yourself to see the movie. Like many of the best things in life, Raymond Griffith’s best work demands a little effort—to track down a scarce DVD or scout for an even scarcer screening. I’m sending you, dear reader, out on a little mission like Jack’s: retrieve the comedy gold. Perhaps then this movie, and the sublime comedy of its secret agent protagonist, won’t be such a secret anymore.

44(Note: Hands Up! is not by any means politically correct by today’s standards. Duh. It was made in 1926 and was cartoonishly depicting 1864. That said, I refuse to make any apologies for a movie that’s still less offensive—and way more funny—than plenty of what you can watch on TV right now.)

This post is part of the Snoopathon, a blogathon celebrating spies in classic cinema, hosted by the amazing Movies Silently. Click the banner below to check out the other entries!

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Day-Time Wife (1939): A Little Too Perfect

dtwposterIf you asked just about any American girl in 1939 to describe her fantasy of “happily every after,” the odds are good that Tyrone Power played a starring role in those daydreams.

He was, as Hollywood reporter Ruth Waterbury gushed, “more than any other man on the screen, the true Prince Charming.”

Which is why Gregory Ratoff’s Day-Time Wife, in its own humble way, strikes me as subversive—scandalous even. It dared to suggest that life with such an outwardly perfect man might not turn out to be so happy after all.

In retrospect, when we think of Tyrone Power rebelling against his studio-endorsed pretty boy image, a number of courageous performances come to mind: the sensitive, disillusioned seeker of The Razor’s Edge, the pathologically selfish carny of Nightmare Alley, and the duplicitous husband of Witness for the Prosecution, to name only a few.

While Day-Time Wife certainly doesn’t offer up a performance of that magnitude, the gossamer comedy nevertheless intimated how convincingly Power could override his godlike charms to portray a 24-karat jerk.

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Judging by the polarized reviews I’ve read, Day-Time Wife represents something of a love-it-or-hate-it proposition. Although it’s far from a masterpiece, I personally find a lot to love about the movie, even apart from Ty. I can only assume that the caustic nature of its humor alienates a certain segment of viewers. Interestingly enough, Raymond Griffith—the greatest silent-era comedian you’ve probably never heard of and a damn fine script doctor to boot—got a producer credit on this underrated marital farce, and I definitely detect some of Griffith’s irreverent, topsy-turvy wit here.

20th Century Fox originally envisioned the project as another showcase for Power and frequent co-star Loretta Young. However, when Young refused a second-billing assignment, without missing a beat the studio replaced her with fifteen-year-old Linda Darnell. Anecdotes about the filming of Day-Time Wife tend to focus on Darnell’s immaturity. Love scenes would be interrupted so that a studio tutor could drag Linda off to a history less. A manicurist had to follow her around and constantly repair the damage of her nail biting habit. Stepping in like an older brother, Power would cover for her when she messed up her lines and ask for another take. Still, you’d never guess it from watching the film. Amazingly, Darnell holds her own against Power in terms of screen presence and brings a refreshing combination of cunning and naïveté to a demanding leading role that I don’t think Young could’ve embodied as effectively.

On her second wedding anniversary, Darnell’s character, Jane Norton, discovers that her lying hubby Ken has not only forgotten the occasion, but is also apparently cheating with his secretary. Rather than confront him, Jane undertakes a little research mission in order to understand why men stray from their wives… and secretly starts working as a secretary herself.

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And who hires her as a secretary? Why, none other than Barney Dexter—played by the lascivious Warren William! Fairly bursting with pent-up lechery after five years’ worth of Joseph Breen-enforced good behavior, William gets to lick his chops repeatedly over underage Darnell. Almost like old times, huh?

In fact, it’s not an enormous stretch to call Day-Time Wife a pre-Code film miraculously realized in post-Code Hollywood, complete with a gratuitous lingerie scene and a modern moral takeaway. Because, it so happens that Ken and Barney are about to collaborate on a deal, and, when they decide to double-date with their secretaries, Ken squirms as his wife reflects his own sins back to him.

I especially treasure Power’s performance in Day-Time Wife, because, with little more screen time than the supporting players, the matinee idol embraces the opportunity for smarminess afforded by a smaller role. He slips right into the skin of Ken Norton, your above-average, suit-wearing young man on the rise, a proto-Mad Men office-dweller that smokes cigars in his twenties and wears a silk sleep mask to bed. Our boy Ty also totally mastered the physical lexicon of boardroom machismo, from the over-confident chin jutting to the sales-pitch hand gestures.

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Power between takes with director Gregory Ratoff

Decades before audiences started getting lectured on the dysfunction of mid-century masculinity, Power hinted at that hollowness through his comic superficiality. He swapped his naturally joyful megawatt smile for a grin so knowingly fake and businesslike that he might’ve pasted one of his worst publicity stills onto his face. Most actors have to strive to make audiences like them; for Power, the difficulty lay rather in making himself unlikable. And in Day-Time Wife, he rose to the challenge.

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The problem is, Ken’s not an unusually bad guy. He’s something much more insidious: a casual sexist, the sort of man who brags that he’s got his wife “well-trained” then goes out with other women for adventure. We all know people like Ken: so good-looking and talented that we’re inclined to overlook their faults. Well, gee, wouldn’t it be worth putting up with [fill in the blank] to be married to a man like that and live like that?

Um, no. No, it wouldn’t, as Day-Time Wife reveals by faithfully siding with Jane and communicating her emotions as she vows to teach Ken a lesson. For instance, towards the beginning of the film, after she catches him in a lie and doesn’t let on, Ken leans in for a kiss. We’d typically brace ourselves for a swoony Ty Power soft-lighting liplock, but the mood isn’t right. Instead, as he smooches the side of her face, the camera looks hesitantly over his shoulder, sharing the moment with Jane as she wrinkles her nose in distaste. Instead of building up romantic impetus, the film cultivates sympathy for its deceptively strong female protagonist. Even the trademark lulling sheen of the elegant Fox production design doesn’t assuage the quiet, but very real resentment that the film continuously expresses on behalf of neglected wives.

linda&tySimilarly, when Ken comes home late after an evening with his secretary, Jane spritzes the dog with his mistress’s perfume to make him think that he smells of the other woman. Playing innocent, the demure wife sits down to dinner and enjoys watching her husband squirm, sniff himself, and light a cigar as he eats to cover the odor. Thanks to leisurely paced shot-reverse shot exchanges from opposite sides of the dinner table, the audience enjoys Darnell enjoying Power’s hopelessly obvious charade. The funniness of the scene derives from the fact that Ken clearly believes that he’s fooled his wife. He possesses the utmost confidence in his own sneakiness. Such genial obnoxiousness coming from Mr. Happily Ever After doesn’t fail to shock me… or make me snicker.

Moreover, the movie derives much of its comedy—and its social commentary—from the ironic symmetry of the characters’ relationships. At the end, Ken wants to vent his anger at his wife for going behind his back… but isn’t that what he was doing all along? He reacts with outrage as married-man Barney slobbers over Jane… but in condemning Barney, Ken condemns his own dalliance with his secretary. Tyrone Power and Warren William make unlikely mirror images, but the film does discreetly equate them. In one significant shot, the two working swells stand together, surrounded by the masculine trappings of a stylized office, and clap each other on the shoulder with identical jocular pats. Only a few years of unrepentant sleaze, we recognize, separate Prince Charming from becoming the Big Bad Wolf.

The final act of the film pays off with a delicious humiliation of the wayward hubby. The simultaneous presence of his wife and his mistress forces Ken to evaluate his actions and admit what an ass he’s been.

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We all have moments when we feel as though we’re watching our own lives unfold, as though we were spectators, and suddenly recognize how absurdly we’re behaving. Power hilariously conveys this level of mortification, as Ken’s remorse rankles his pride. In a series of wonderful medium close-ups, he cringes, winces, and rolls his eyes at the cooing advances of his crass girlfriend. At one point, when the amorous secretary embraces him, he struggles in the same manner that girls usually do in films when some bold fellow makes advances—flailing his leg around and pulling his lapels together, as if to cover his bosom! Observing his embarrassment, we perceive a self-deprecating, decent man start to emerge from the chrysalis of a one-dimensional dude.

If Day-Time Wife deals a bit leniently with Ken, letting him regress to a contrite little boy who reiterates his love and need for his wife, the film distinctly admonishes the straying husbands in the audience. Not too bad for a trifling comedy.

tylindabedroomThis post is part of the Power-Mad blogathon, in honor of Tyrone Power’s 100th birthday, hosted by Lady Eve’s Reel Life and They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To. You’re strongly encouraged to click on the banner below and explore the other entries!

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High Hat: Raymond Griffith and Paths to Paradise (1925)

rayhatYou may have never heard of Raymond Griffith, as I hadn’t until a few weeks ago, but you’ve probably seen him. His brief role—as the mortally-wounded French soldier Gérard Duval in All Quiet on the Western Front—ranks as one of the most memorable uncredited parts in all cinema.

This heartrending turn would be his last appearance before the camera, an ironic final act for one of the greatest laugh-makers of the silent screen.

Hollywood’s transition to talkies put a definitive end to Griffith’s stardom, not because he had an incongruous voice, but because he barely had one at all. Though an avid conversationalist, he couldn’t speak above a hoarse whisper, “the ghost of a voice” as one fan magazine described it.

The handicap was occasionally blamed on his show business childhood spent screaming in melodramas night after night. In point of fact, it was diphtheria that probably caused the permanent damage to his vocal chords and set an expiration date on his acting career. As adaptable as his celluloid persona, in the early talkie years Griffith transitioned smoothly to the roles of producer and sought-after script doctor and never looked back.

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During an era of imposed silence, however, the dapper, blasé Griffith rivaled the greatest comics of the 1920s. This feat speaks to his glittering intelligence and resourcefulness, since he produced his films at a major studio, Paramount. You might say that Griffith rose from the same conditions that proved the downfall of certain other silent geniuses. As Motion Picture magazine observed in May 1926, “If all the truth were told, his presentations would read something like this:

Raymond Griffith in ‘So and So’

Adapted from the story by Raymond Griffith

Directed by Raymond Griffith

Photographed with suggestions by Raymond Griffith

Titles by Raymond Griffith

A Raymond Griffith Production.”

So, even in his own day, he wasn’t perceived as solely a gifted comic actor, but as a bona fide auteur.

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Griffith’s Paths to Paradise, released into theaters the same month as Chaplin’s The Gold Rush and Lloyd’s The Freshman, held its own in the eyes of the critics. Compared to those two better-remembered films, Paths, co-directed by Clarence Badger, blazes a completely different path for comedy. Whereas Lloyd and Chaplin stabbed the public cleanly in the feels with tales of toil and woe made unexpectedly funny, Griffith cleansed viewers’ palates of pathos and sentiment.

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Interestingly enough, although Griffith plays a congenial crook, the viewer never feels manipulated by him. His unfazeable (it’s a real word because I say so) persona exists solely to entertain us. The phenomenal silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis (who put Griffith on my radar) has noted that the comedian plays especially well to audiences today, since his films can seem “a bit more cynical and so perhaps more modern” compared to those of his contemporaries.

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An autodidact and classic literature junkie, Griffith cited Aristophanes and Molière as two of his favorite slapstick masters. One can discern the indiscriminate wit and nothing-sacred mentality of those timeless playwrights in Griffith’s worldview. The “silk hat comedian” demurs to deliver any broad moral vision, apart from the idea that we live in a shyster world and it behooves us all to be the most competent shysters we can be. If that’s not a message for our day and age, I don’t know what is.

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Paths to Paradise revels in dissembling and chicanery. It’s a veritable millefeuille of fakery: airy, yet carefully structured. As “the Dude from Duluth,” a debonair confidence trickster, Griffith wafts about, assuming a dozen different aliases and cheerfully pursuing other people’s wealth.  For the greater part of the story, the Dude and Molly—the delightful Betty Compson as a fiery lady criminal—vie for the chance to swipe a valuable diamond necklace.

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This sadly neglected classic peppers its discreet Lubitsch-esque interplay with bits of action-comedy that might make even Buster Keaton crack a smile. The Dude and Molly’s rivalry and eventual alliance, set against the backdrop of a society wedding party, is sandwiched between two dazzling set pieces. The film begins with an elaborate triple-cross scenario in a seedy corner of San Francisco’s Chinatown and ends with a chase involving hundreds of policemen on motorcycles.

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These bookend stunners cleverly use cinema’s complex balance of illusion and reality to make us laugh. Blissfully innocent of exposition, the opening sequence quickly establishes the Bucket o’ Blood saloon as a generically nasty underworld watering hole. Hatchet-faced thieves scowl at each other and some tough dame, the Queen of Counterfeiters, is making money in the corner. We notice these things especially because a tour guide—and the camera—points them out to a small group of wealthy sightseers.

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Their curiosity satisfied, the thrill-seekers depart, whereupon the Queen of Counterfeiters serves up the results of her labors: she was only making waffles. Despite the “genuine” textures of the gangland saloon, we realize that it was all just an act, staged to extract dollars from gullible tourists. The guide sticks his head into the saloon and announces their next customer. Some poor goof wants to see a Chinese joint. In a matter of seconds, the small army of cons transforms the saloon into an opium den, bringing out lacquered crates and scrambling up into bunk beds with long pipes.

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And in steps our hero. First seen in a mysterious, imposing silhouette, the Dude from Duluth rather underwhelms us when he appears in person. Another trick. Another chuckle.

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The crew of racketeers proceeds to put on a new show for the Dude. Through it all, he overreacts to each fresh exotic shock: cowering dope fiends begging for money, an overly solicitous Tong proprietor, and the agonized pleas of the Queen of Chinatown.

The fakers manage to extort an ungodly sum of money from the Dude and send him scuttling away…but he stops at the door, lets his lackey in, and flashes a badge. What a sting!

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After roundly lecturing the group of flimflammers, the Dude graciously accepts a bribe in exchange for not hauling the lot of them to the station. The Dude saunters out. Oh, he left something behind: his badge. But wait…

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He’s no policeman. He conned the cons with nothing more than guts and a gas inspector’s badge.

Within the space of a few minutes, our perception of the protagonist thus radically changes—twice. His modulation from startled gentleman slummer to wily undercover cop to consummate scoundrel impresses the audience. His nimbleness of identity wins over our good humor in spite of—or maybe thanks to—that reptilian glint in his eye and his beastly indifference.

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More important, a lot of the comedy of the scene depends on our brain cache of movie-going experiences. The racketeers expertly summon up a bunch of cues that signify certain romanticized locales, not as they really are (probably) but rather as they’re typically depicted. These hustlers know how we’ve been conditioned to read and anticipate these cues.

In this way, the fake-outs within the film remind the audience of the fake-out that is film, of the thousand-and-one times we’ve seen a dive like the Bucket o’ Blood or an exaggerated Chinatown hovel in a movie and accepted it as reality. Paths to Paradise celebrates the creativity of crooks even as it debunks the clichés which Hollywood, that great community of swindlers, puts over on us regularly.

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The conclusion of the film, as the Dude speeds towards the Mexican border with the jewels and the girl, also riffs on this concept of pushing movie-land fraud to extremes. Road signs announcing DANGER! fly right into the camera. Spectacular high angle shots show a fleet of motorcycles careening around curvy mountain paths in pursuit of our hero—ahead by a nose.

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As the brilliant Walter Kerr explains in The Silent Clowns, “The business is flatly impossible… a gleeful seizing on silent-comedy permissiveness… Griffith’s planning eye has told him precisely what camera angles are needed to validate the gag while reveling in its preposterousness.”

The joke’s on you and me, the viewers who inevitably recognize but condone the shenanigans. And unlike a lot of today’s “meta-humor,” this dose from 1925 is actually funny. Griffith exposes filmdom’s cheating—then uses it to his and our benefit.

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My favorite moment from the film savors a less flamboyant flavor of flimflamming. At one point, a few policemen happen across the Dude and Molly (disguised as a maid) fighting over the diamonds. Improvising with the reflexes of professional crooks, they can’t just act like nothing was going on. There’s too much electricity in the air. So, the Dude and Molly break apart and proceed to make eyes at each other furtively, as if they’d just been caught in flagrante. We get this wonderful suite of leisurely-paced, evasive, eyeline-matched shots as the Dude and Molly fidget and feign to avert their gaze.

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Don’t get me wrong: they’re not pretending they were just canoodling. They’re pretending that they’re pretending they weren’t just canoodling. Griffith and Compson’s sophisticated performances convey a micro version of the film’s layering of charades that proves a total joy to watch.

Now, I write about a lot of movies that I think you all (or those of you who make it to the ends of my posts, you brave souls) should seek out. But this one really needs you to go and buy it. I think the time is right for a Griffith rediscovery.

This man and his work have dwelt too long in silence.

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