Saturday night I made a trip back in time to enjoy early cinema; I caught the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum‘s program. Judith Rosenberg, who’s well known in the Bay Area and beyond, she participated in the Master Class for silent film musicians at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival, played piano scores for each film. Featured were two short comedies and the one full-length drama.
Swiss Movements (1927)
Directed by Robert P. Kerr
Written by Frank Roland Conklin
Starring Jimmie Adams, Doris Dawson, Billy Engle, William Irving, Cliff Lancaster, & Stella Adams
Production Company: Christie Film Company
This comedy short stars Jimmie Adams, sometimes called the poor man’s Charley Chase. The premise is very simple. Jimmie’s character Freddie wants to marry Doris Dawson’s character, but she’s thrown him over for a blowhard called Yodel. The two men compete for her hand in a mountain climbing contest. Scrawny Freddie looks like no match for his burly lederhosen-clad foe. Freddie’s tethered to his potential father-in-law, and even then two cannot compete against one, but their opponent isn’t content to rely on his athleticism to win. Yodel cheats multiple times mostly in telescopic view of their sweetheart, who refuses to cheer on someone who won’t play square. One of his tricks elevates this climbing comedy from purely being pedestrian. He enlists a friend to dress in a bear costume to scare off his opponents. The bear scenes and those of a mountain goat bring the greatest laughs in a picture that could use a few more.
Dog Shy (1926)
Directed by Leo McCarey
Written by H.M. Walker (titles)
Cinematography by Floyd Jackman
Starring Charley Chase, Stuart Holmes, Mildred June, Josephine Crowell, William Orlamond, & Buddy the Dog
Production Company: Hal Roach Studios
Mildred June’s The Girl has a problem. Her family wants to marry her off to a nobleman. The Duke’s an older, self-absorbed bore. Lucky for her Charley Chase intercepts a phone call and hatches a plan to help the honey sight unseen, but her mother hangs up before he can get an address, phone number, or even a name. As filmic luck will have it, Charley accidentally gets a job as a butler–in her house and finds the girl! Adding to his troubles, he’s been dog shy his whole life, and chief amongst his duties is taking care of the family dog, Duke. Charley the actor’s funniest scenes are the ones he shares with the dog. They work well together. The comedic potential of having The Duke in a house with Duke are further wrung out when Charley misunderstands the command to bathe the dog. A plot twist allows Charley to become the hero to his future in-laws. Before Charley saves the day, there’s a very silly, but fun scene of six adults pretending to be howling dogs.
The Valley of the Giants (1927)
Directed by Charles Brabin
From a Novel by Peter B. Kyne
Written by Wid Gunning & Gordon Rigby
Cinematography by Ted D. McCord
Starring Milton Sills, Doris Kenyon, Arthur Stone, George Fawcett, Paul Hurst, Yola d’Avril, Phil Brady, & Charles Sellon
Production Company: First National Pictures
This was my second viewing of Valley of the Giants, and I remain baffled why its director Charles Brabin became a footnote in film history. He’s often referred to as Theda Bara‘s husband, but he was a director before and during their marriage. He worked in film for over three decades. Even if his other movies were lost or not as strong as Valley of the Giants, he deserves credit for making a film that plays well in any era.
This was the second adaptation of the novel by Peter B. Kyne. The first was made in 1919 and starred Wallace Reid. A train accident during that filming led to his morphine addiction. At least two other adaptations followed. One was made in 1938 and starred Wayne Morris, and the other was made in 1952 and featured Kirk Douglas.
In this adaptation, Bryce Cardigan (Milton Sills) returns from Europe to his hometown Sequoia in Northern California. His father John Cardigan (George Fawcett) is a lumber baron of Humboldt county. Bryce returns to problems. His father has gone blind, and even worse an unscrupulous competitor named Seth Pennington (Charles Sellon) wants to destroy the Cardigans and monopolize northern lumber. Romantic complications are added in the form of Pennington’s niece, Shirley (Doris Kenyon). Bryce and Shirley fall in love during and despite the business battle between their families.
One of my main pleasures in watching this film is the location shooting. This outdoors film was shot in Humboldt county amongst the redwoods. Scenes of the trees, the coast, and the lumber industry give the movie an authenticity of place that’s also enticing to the eye. There’s a certain privilege in seeing a landscape before it changed more over time due to the logging industry and development. Today’s vantage point makes the in film threat of felling the Valley of the Giants particularly anxiety provoking.
Real-life husband and wife Milton Sills and Doris Kenyon have screen chemistry. Playing romantic foils doesn’t often work for spouses. Some actors hold back, afraid to exploit intimacies, preferring to keep the personal personal. Other pairings are so awkward onscreen they give off the whiff of contract relationships arranged to bolster careers. Not so here. There’s a sweet moment after Bryce saves Shirley’s life during a train accident. As they wait for rescue, she looks down. He leans toward her to sniff her hair a moment, but changes his mind and tries to kiss the top of her head. She looks up and ruins that moment, but when she realizes what was about to happen, Kenyon radiates happiness, which in response is reflected back at her by Sill’s Bryce. They seem like two people falling in love and connecting.
Kenyon makes an impression. Her part is essentially a supporting one. She doesn’t have the same amount of screen time as Sills, and her part is not as fleshed out. She looks beautiful and is believable as the romantic interest, but also she makes her character a presence even during her quiet moments. There’s a scene when Shirley thinks Bryce won’t like her anymore because of her uncle. She sits, and her body language shows dejection. The tilt of her head and shoulders combined with stillness conveys her upset.
Sills takes advantage of his big role as the loyal son driven to save the family business. He’s likable and believable playing the All American good guy. He’s a Romeo to his Juliet. He’s a fighter for the cause in some brutal and well choreographed fight scenes. Any viewer will want him to win the fight and the girl.
The supporting casting is great. Arthur Stone’s Buck Ogilvy, Bryce’s friend, is convincing as a city playboy who grows up and becomes dependable as he aids his friend. Paul Hurst’s Jules Randeau oozes despicability and brings menace. Phil Brady’s Half Pint adds some comic relief as does the corrupt city council won over by spiked lemonade. Even George Fawcett whose role’s actions are limited by his character’s blindness makes his presence felt. He’s a combination of determination, saintliness, and paternal love.
Briefly there’s a sense that foreigners of different sorts are the causes of problems in Sequoia. Seth Pennington is an Easterner. Jules Randeau is likely French Canadian. Even a member of the city council is suspicious of Buck as a “furrignor.” Buck and Shirley disprove that “outsiders” are the problem, and the council demonstrates that many insiders are.
What’s really being examined are two kinds of capitalism. John Cardigan started his business from scratch with only the love of his wife to support him. He remembers and honors his wife and how he started. He has made his fortune but he shares his profits with the men who work hard for him. He thinks of them, their families, and homes when his business is threatened. He’s an ideal model of compassionate capitalism.
Seth Pennington is the model of an out of control, dehumanizing capitalism. He implies that John is a fool that overpays his workers. It’s not enough for Seth to do well. He has to maximize his profits even to the detriment of his men, and he attracts a motley, violent crew. He doesn’t want to continually expand his business and his market share. He wants to drive any competitor out of business. It’s not enough for him to do well. He has to make others do poorly in comparison, and he plays dirty.
Besides business dealings, romance, and scenic shots, there’s a great deal of action in this film. A runaway train scene is made even more impressive by not resorting to models. There are multiple fight scenes. During the first scrap between Bryce and Randeau, there’s a moment when he tries to jump on Bryce’s head. The camera cuts to the metal cleats coming toward the audience giving an almost 3D effect. During their last fight, extreme close-ups of their sweaty and bloody faces are intercut with fuller body action shots, making their battle personal and its outcome determined by drive and will. You’ll want to see who wins these smaller battles and the bigger one.
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