Blue Jeans (1917): Against the Grain

blue_jeans_poster_1917There is something very wrong with the following “silent movie cliché.” See if you can spot it.

The saw blade glints and turns hungrily as the damsel in distress, bound and gagged, inches closer and closer towards certain death. Suddenly, the hero (you may be imagining him in a Mountie uniform) bursts into the sawmill and unties the damsel in distress, preferably at the last possible minute.

What’s the flaw? Simple: in the most famous sawmill scene of the silent era, the finale of John H. Collins’s Blue Jeans, the heroine saves the hero, not the other way around. As June, the film’s ragamuffin protagonist, Viola Dana not only rescues her husband from being sliced in half at the end, but also battles corrupt politicians and defies small-town hypocrisy.

Last weekend, Capitolfest screened a 35mm print of Blue Jeans from the George Eastman House. Unavailable on DVD, this forgotten classic invests the stock types and baroque storylines of 19th century melodrama with rawness and urgency. Although hampered by an uncharismatic leading man, the film has lost little of its rousing entertainment value and suspenseful momentum almost 100 years after its release.

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Most important, Blue Jeans bequeathed to us one of the great silent movie heroines. June abides in a world that considers her worthless. She fights for happiness and charts her own moral path although her community shuns her. And she has the resourcefulness to smash her way out of a locked room and push her man away from a buzzing saw blade.

It’s a sad commentary on our culture that the myth of the flailing, fainting, utterly useless silent movie heroine has persisted for so long when nothing could be further from the truth. Pre-sound films featured some of the strongest female characters you’re likely to meet. (Watch Mary Pickford in Sparrows, Lillian Gish in The Wind, and Pearl White in The Perils of Pauline, to name just a few, and see for yourself.)

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Moreover, female stars, writers, producers, executives, and directors shaped the hugely influential and developing medium behind the scenes. Women wielded arguably more power in the silent era than they do in the industry these days. Only around 11% of Hollywood movies have female screenwriters these days, whereas more than 50% of movies made before 1925 were written by women. With a scenario co-written by June Mathis (who would become Hollywood’s first female executive), Blue Jeans belongs to that 50%.

Based on a hoary stage melodrama, Blue Jeans crackles with big-screen energy, thanks to Mathis and Charles A. Taylor’s taut adaptation and the dynamic vision of director John H. Collins. As Brownlow and Gill’s Hollywood documentary notes, had Collins not perished in the 1918 Influenza epidemic, we might remember him along with Griffith, DeMille, and company as one of the great auteurs of the silent cinema.

According to Viola Dana, who married Collins in 1915 and made several films with him, “He was a very sensitive person, sensitive with actors. He cut the films, even took over the lighting. He did everything.” In Blue Jeans, Collins skillfully harnessed Dana’s dramatic talents, showcasing her range from tomboyish mischief to heart-wrenching sorrow to rousing determinate. Whether or not he set out to make a feminist thriller, that’s exactly what he did.

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John H. Collins (right) directs Robert Walker and Viola Dana for Blue Jeans.

The story centers on June, a homeless waif wandering in rural Indiana. One day, June happens to meet local lawyer and aspiring politician Perry Bascom, who apparently likes to take a long lunch in the fields. Starving June tries to steal his cake… and his sandwich… and his apple.

When Bascom begins to lecture her, she tells him all about her hard-knocks life, the death of her mother, and her run-in with police brutality. Bascom understandably feels like a jerk, and, moved by her circumstances, he helps her get a job in the town where he lives. June also moves in with an elderly couple who lost their daughter (read: kicked her out when she got pregnant outside of wedlock) who happened to look an awful lot like June’s mother…

June and Bascom fall in love and secretly marry. Little does June know that Bascom is already married—albeit in an invalid union to a bigamist—and that he may be related to the n’er-do-well who impregnated and abandoned June’s mother.

Bascom’s wicked political rival Boone cannily exposes this news on election day and swings the vote, prompting the defeated politician to depart and hunt down proof of his innocence. Meanwhile, ostracized by the townsfolk, June cares for her newborn baby alone.

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From its first shot, which introduces June, Blue Jeans challenges traditional notions of femininity and suggests the complexity of its protagonist. The audience initially sees her in a long shot from behind: an androgynous bundle of denim and flannel hunched on a fence. The next shot comes as something of a surprise: the face of girl too young to be wearing such a look of weary sadness.

By portraying June from two different, conflicting sides and forcing the spectator to reconcile them, Collins presents her as both a seasoned vagabond and a fragile teenager. We see her as a person first and a woman second. Her identity is not bounded by her beauty. She is a survivor above all, and many things besides.

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The film’s opening also calls out the dubious politics of empathy. Our first view of her is distant and distancing. It acquires pathos only retroactively through the second image, a close-up that draws us into June’s emotional state. Nobody cares about a shapeless unfortunate in overalls, but our hearts go out to a pretty girl in distress. Taken together, the two shots deliver a subtle social criticism, revealing how easy it is to ignore the plight of a displaced girl like June.

Collins reserves the most damning social criticism for the scenes in which June herself is condemned, first by her grandfather, second by her minister. As it turns out, the elderly couple that agreed to house June are her grandparents. When they discover Bascom’s identity, they forbid June from going to live with them. June trusts her husband and refuses to listen to her grandfather’s commands. The old man strikes June on the cheek, declaring, “I never want to see you and I never want to hear from you again!”

Throughout the renunciation scene, Collins pulls the audience into the heroine’s anguish through 3 or 4 extreme close-ups of June with large teardrops quivering on her cheeks. These shots, foreshadowing the surreal melancholy of Man Ray’s photograph “Larmes,” transfigure June’s pain, imbuing her with the aura of a weeping saint. The universality of her suffering blazes off the screen and accuses the inhumanity and inflexibility of her grandfather.

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The old man’s “morality” really boils down to a kind of possessive pride, the desire to control the women in his life and ensure that they don’t reflect negatively on him. His warped sense of honor erases the compassion he should feel for his own flesh and blood—whether she disobeys him or not.

In a later scene, June’s grandmother finds the courage to break with her husband’s orders and bring food to June, eventually bringing about a reunion. The wisdom, forgiveness, and tenderness of women triumphs over the rigid, selfish ethics of a patriarchal society.

June faces humiliation again when she carries her baby, considered illegitimate by the townsfolk, to the church to have her baptized. The minister refuses the young mother, coldly pronouncing, “She is damned.” No one in the church moves a muscle to defend June, save her grandmother who is quickly restrained by the old man.

As a rebuke to the closed-mindedness of the village, Collins reveals a stained-glass window in the church that shows Jesus with the verse, “Suffer the little children to come unto me.” The so-called good Christians in the pews have failed to observe Christ’s teachings.

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Though mistreated, June is much more than a symbolic martyr. Dana communicates her confusion, her love for her child, and her fear over what will happen to both of them with gut-wrenching naturalism. Collins illuminates the paradox of Dana’s face, possessed of girlish round cheeks and womanly, dolorous eyes. She’s little more than a child herself, we realize, and Dana ploughs into the character’s devastation with the honesty and unselfconsciousness that we expect from the unvarnished June. It’s as though we’ve sneaked into this woman’s life and watch as mute, ghostly spectators, unable to help.

Choking back tears as she rocks her unbaptized baby in a cradle, June expresses the very real hardship that unwed mothers endured—and continue to endure.

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June’s emotions do not classify her as a victim, but rather call attention to her fortitude, to the quiet, maternal strength that doesn’t call attention to itself as much as the derring-do associated with male bravery. However, in the movie’s final act, Dana gets to demonstrate that more active kind of courage, as well.

Since Brownlow and Gill’s documentary included the famous sawmill scene, I’ve been able to extract it for your edification (with Carl Davis score, no less).


Notice the dizzying pace of the editing and how Collins juggles at least 3 trajectories throughout the whole sequence: the escaping villains, the unconscious hero, and the desperate heroine.

Of all the “threads” interwoven in this short sequence, June gets the most time, as she struggles to escape the locked room and save her husband. On a stage we wouldn’t see her, but here she’s the focus of our attention, the single variable that determines the outcome of the whole equation.

When we’re with her, we can’t see the blade; we don’t know how much time she has left and share her anxiety. The rhythm of the cutting pulses adrenaline through the viewer’s veins and cements our identification with June—waif, wife, mother, survivor, martyr, heroine, and lone voice of logic in a mean, bad world.

So, watch the clip. Share it. Let’s slice a silent movie myth to smithereens.

This post is part of the Anti-Damsel blogathon hosted by Movies Silently and The Last Drive-In. Check out the other entries about badass babes of the silver screen!

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Sympathy for the Devil: The Penalty (1920)

Wallace Worsley’s The Penalty packs a real punch. And not just for a silent movie.

This sicko gem features, among other things, a stark naked woman, a junkie killer, prostitutes, a chase through San Francisco’s seedy “Barbary Coast,” and a Lon Chaney performance so wicked and ferocious that it borders on possession.

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This is one bad dude. Even by today’s standards.

Even I, who proselytize the glory of the silent era, am recurrently shocked by the intensity and dead-on brutality of this film—an astonishingly raw point of reference for all horror and crime films that followed it.

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See that lady on your left? She’s nude. Really. And this was for general admission!

When I give it a thought, and I often do, I realize that horror films and gangster films have a lot in common. They both emerged, in the forms we recognize today, from genre cycles in the 1930s after some strong foundations were put down in the silent era. They both tend to feature linear, predictable plot trajectories—rise-and-fall for the gangster film, unleashed-amok-destroyed for the horror film.

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Do we love to hate him? Or do we hate to love him?

The horror and crime genres also inspire a mixture of revulsion, pity, sympathy, and, dare I say, admiration for their grotesque protagonists. Monsters and criminals entice us to join (vicariously) in their savagery—there’s something liberating about their intoxicating, anarchic hubris. And, most of the time, they let us indulge whatever aggression many of us harbor towards authority figures—doctors, policemen, community leaders, and the better angels of our nature, our own morally-upright doubles.

And, so, at the crux, the crossroads of all of these emotions we experience in contact with the gangster and the monster, we arrive at The Penalty.

The story starts with a little injured boy, “a victim of the city traffic,” as the intertitles tell us, lying unconscious in a doctor’s office.  Dr. Ferris had to amputate the kid’s legs.

Well, he thought he had to.

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It turns out that the inexperienced surgeon made a mistake, an older doctor informs him, as the now legless little boy wakes up and listens with horror.

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However, even though the boy knows the truth, the doctors decide to cover for each other. Yup, that’s right, the doctor gets off free as his colleague backs up his malpractice—while the “mangled” child screams the truth to his parents in vain.

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Okay, so raise your hand if you wouldn’t try to exact demonic retribution on someone who not only took away your legs and all hope of a normal life (this was the 1920s), but also made it so that you could never, ever talk about what happened?

I really hope no one raised his hand.

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This opening scene, unusually poignant for a gangster film, immediately establishes our sympathy with the future bad guy. The anguish of the child sucks us right in—and we get several flashbacks to this scene throughout the film to remind us of that irredeemable loss and sickening injustice. What’s been done can never be made right—so who can blame that little boy for not having any particular concept of wrong? He lives the wrong every day of his life.

The Penalty squirms around this uncomfortable question of the world’s wronged and the rage that germinates within them. I think a lot of people just quote Alexander Pope’s famous line, “To err is human; to forgive divine,” without giving it too much thought. In the end, forgiveness isn’t human. It’s not natural. It does not come easy—and perhaps it shouldn’t, since I could rattle off a few things that I consider unforgivable, and I’m not talking about dissing black-and-white movies. Forgiveness isn’t half as human as vengeance. If you’ll pardon me for ripping an idea from the Rolling Stones, I think most people would find it far easier to relate to proud, self-centered, dissatisfied Satan than to God, in his infinite, incomprehensible wisdom and goodness.

And Blizzard, “lord and master of the underworld,” the warped man that grows out of that amputated boy, could probably teach the devil a thing or two. And he happens to look a lot like him! Blizzard sets out to destroy Dr. Ferris by ingratiating himself with Ferris’ daughter, Barbara—a sculptor who hopes to achieve artistic immortality through a depiction of the devil. She even puts an ad in the newspaper.

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As he reads this ad, Blizzard does look positively diabolical.

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Then, remembering the cause of all of his suffering (we get a brief flashback to the opening scene), Chaney’s face shifts through so many transformations—from anticipation to self-congratulatory glee to pensiveness to frightening resolve.

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Then he turns to his henchmen and asks them probably the most darkly funny question ever put on an intertitle. One thinks of the “I amuse you?” scene from Goodfellas!

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“Uh… do we tell da boss he looks like Satan?”

Once Blizzard infiltrates Barbara’s studio, he sets about winning this young woman’s confidence while she works on the aforementioned bust of Satan. Their discussions take on a strangely allegorical ambiance as they talk in the midst of half-made statues and grotesques.

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The act of creation in tandem with an ongoing process of manipulation and destruction gives the film a surreal headiness that counterbalances the realistic grittiness of the street scenes. In this way, The Penalty reminds me of Kurosawa’s almost unbearably good High and Low (sometimes entitled Heaven and Hell) since both films combine squalor and art—to recast squalor as art.

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The Penalty, too, relies on a Heaven-and-Hell motif that zeroes in on the origin of all horror and gangster films. Because, what are horror and gangster films if not variations on the story of The Fall… but from a perspective uncomfortably close to the devil’s? Both genres tend to look up from the filthy underworld and inculcate more that a little sympathy for the devil.

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Blizzard is an especially interesting gangster (and monster) because his physical limitations emphasize his mental prowess. He recalls Milton’s Satan of Paradise Lost who is, to borrow his own words, “A mind not to be chang’d by place or time./ The mind is its own place, and in itself/ Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” (Book I, Line 253) Like the scariest kinds of monsters, our disabled movie villain corrupts others with his charisma and manipulates his victims to do his bidding. In so doing, he foreshadows the mind-control techniques of Lugosi’s surprisingly hands-off Dracula—and also, I would argue, of Don Corleone who rules his empire by loyalty and psychological terror as much as by real physical force.

Even apart from its rather deep thematic undercurrents, The Penalty stands out as a finely constructed film. Immediately after the opening scene in the doctor’s office, the film plunges us right into an action sequence and a killing in the sordid “Barbary Coast” district of San Francisco. Interestingly, the intertitles describe the Barbary Coast as “a hideous blemish” on the face of the city, making the use of disfigurement as a metaphor for crime and vice even more obvious.

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Prostitutes ply their trade in the Barbary Coast… and get into trouble.

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In this den of iniquity, Frisco Pete, played by perennial silent brute James Mason (not to be confused with James ‘Soulful British Eyes’ Mason), stabs a hooker “Barbary Nell” in a dance hall and flees the police through the maze-like, shabby streets of the town.

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The crazy doorways and alleys of San Francisco’s “Barbary Coast”

Finally, Pete runs into Blizzard who agrees to hide him. A movie that throws you right into a chase sequence—hmm, where have I heard of that before? Oh, yeah, almost every single modern gangster or cop film!

The Penalty also interweaves between several “time bomb” plot devices, juggling Blizzard’s twisted personal revenge scheme, which I won’t spoil, with his larger ambition of looting San Francisco. We actually see the realization of this ambition in the eye of Blizzard’s mind, as flames and smoke engulf the city and Blizzard (with legs, since this is his fantasy!) directs his hoodlums to sack and pillage the city.

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So, in its own quiet way, The Penalty paved the way for large-scale heist sequences. More important, with its “hypothetical heist,” a big robbery that takes place only in the mind of a character, the film experiments with the psychological and narrative complexity of crime strategizing.

In another interesting (if not entirely satisfying) subplot, a female police operative, Rose, goes undercover as one of Blizzard’s dance hall girls/sweatshop workers. As Rose races against time to discover Blizzard’s plan, she lingers in the shadow of The Fate Worse Than Death and the danger of being discovered.

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“I like your spunk. I think I’ll wait to kill you tomorrow.”

The undercover cop angle works generally well and infuses the film with suspense—especially as the hardened young policewoman begins to fall for the magnetically evil Blizzard.

Like Richard III, Shakespeare’s great archvillain and another Satan variant, Blizzard handles women with supreme skill.

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Blizzard is not exactly a one-woman man…

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He doesn’t just compensate for his lack of legs. Instead, he uses his “deformity” to his advantage, cultivating pity and catering to a weirdly fetishistic attraction. When Barbara Ferris first sees him and recoils slightly, Blizzard responds to her shock by suavely looking down at his stumps as though noticing them for the first time.

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He then returns her gaze with a flirty smile, as though to imply that there’s enough of him for anything really critical.

(Incidentally, the leg harnesses that Chaney had to wear to portray Blizzard’s disability were so painful that he could only act for about 20 minutes at a time.)

Blizzard also loves to play the piano, but, since he can’t reach the pedals, his current favorite among the dance hall girls has to push them for him. Woe to the dame who doesn’t press those pedals in time with the tune!

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You don’t need to watch to film to recognize this as an oddly sexualized act of subjugation—especially given how much enjoyment and excitement Blizzard derives from playing.

Classic horror films derive much of their bite (pun intended) from the sexual menace of the monsters. (Duh. They did it so well that ghastly, slushy versions of these Gothic tales are mega-hits even these days.) The sex and/or love lives of the gangster also provide inexhaustible subject matter for crime films. Is there a more iconic 1930s scene than Cagney smashing girlfriend Mae Clark in the face with a grapefruit at breakfast, the sleaziest meal of the day in Pre-Code cinematic lingo?

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Well, Blizzard, a freak, a seducer, and a criminal mastermind, connects the two strands of creepy, sadistic fascination—he is the missing link between the gangster and horror genres. Through a clever cinematic presentation and Chaney’s incandescently ugly performance, The Penalty provokes every kind of emotion that a monster or crime film might hope to tease from a spellbound audience.

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(A word of warning: I have no intention of spoiling the ending of The Penalty. The ending spoils itself. A lame, apologetic, neat-as-a-librarian’s-sock-drawer denouement amputates this masterpiece manqué and leaves it as incomplete as its fierce antihero. Don’t say I didn’t tell you. But, come on, it was 1920. Try and show me a film this gritty and disturbing made in Hollywood in the last ten years. Please, make my day.)

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Frisco Pete, what was once quaintly termed a “hophead,” begs Blizzard for a fix.

Also, for great, thought-provoking writing about crime films, you should totally check out the Scenes of the Crime Blogathon! It’s so cool, it’s criminal!

Scenes of the Crime Blogathon