An unhappy fisherman’s wife tells her young daughter a fairytale of thwarted love while the two sit on the rocky shore, staring out to sea. A rich man overhears the story and reflects on his own romantic troubles…
Short, silent subject that remains as a two-reel fragment of approximately 13 minutes, with approximately the last 6 minutes being lost. That’s quite unfortunate as it remains the first surviving appearance of future horror icon, Lon Chaney in one of his grotesque makeups, albeit in what is essentially a dream sequence. The story, written by Ida May Park, also has points of interest and it’s frustrating not knowing how it was resolved.
Fisherman’s wife Cleo Madison isn’t happy with the cards that life has dealt her. Living on a barren shore by the ocean, her one joy appears to be her fresh-faced infant daughter (Mary Kiernan). The days are long and uneventful while husband (Chaney) is out in his boat, and she longs for something more. When Kiernan asks her what makes the noise inside a sea shell, Madison begins to tell her a story of a Princess (Madison, again) who meets and falls in love with a handsome Prince (Arthur Shirley). Although he reciprocates her feelings, they are separated by a wicked fairy who summons the hunchback, Fate (Chaney, again). He kidnaps Madison and imprisons her inside a giant seashell.
Madison’s tale has been overheard by a rich man out for a stroll (Shirley, again) who is captivated by the tale and, more particularly, by the storyteller. When they meet, the attraction is obviously mutual and she give him some flowers before they part. Back on his offshore yacht, we discover that Shirley is also unlucky in love; married to a bored, indifferent woman, played by Margaret Whistler. The footage ends with Chaney returning from his day’s toil on the waves and Madison mending one of his nets, her mind obviously on other things.
Given the vintage of the film and the moral climate of the time, it’s hard to believe in a happy ending for Madison and Shirley – after all, they’re married to other people! – but it’s fascinating to see an early film like this address these kinds of issues. Madison’s story of the Princess being trapped in the shell is an obvious parallel of her own circumstances and, although Whistler is not a sympathetic character, she’s similarly stuck in an unfulfilling rut, albeit surrounded by the trappings of wealth. Ironically, the missing part of the film may well have settled these questions in an obvious and disappointing way. Perhaps the fisherman’s wife just misses her husband when is away and it’s all hearts and flowers when he walks through the door, thus reinforcing the sanctity of the family dynamic? On the other hand, perhaps he is a total blackguard, abusive and violent, and she is rescued by Shirley on a metaphorical white horse? The likelihood is we’ll never know, but it’s interesting to speculate.
At this point in his career, Chaney was slowly working his way up the film industry ladder. Although distributed by Universal, projects like this were still made by independents, this one a production of the Rex Motion Picture Company. Chaney had also been trying his hand at directing, turning out half a dozen short subjects that year, even penning the scripts for two of them, ‘The Oyster Dredger’ (1915) and ‘The Chimney’s Secret’ (1915). Although all of these films are unfortunately lost, the synopsis of ‘The Chimney’s Secret’ (1915) has survived, and it makes for interesting reading. Chaney crafted a leading role for himself that involved the use of his makeup skills, and it’s highly probable that the climax was a stab at the kind of ‘big reveal’ that made him a star four years later in ‘The Miracle Man’ (1919).
This film’s leading lady, Cleo Madison, was a product of the stage who found work at Universal in 1913 and became a star thanks to her leading performance in serial ‘The Trey o’ Hearts’ (1914) where she played the heroine, her evil twin sister and their mother! She began directing her own short pictures in 1915 and graduated to features, helming ‘Her Bitter Cup’ (1916) and ‘A Soul Enslaved’ (1916), both of which are well-regarded by modern critics. Rather than carrying on behind the megaphone, it seems she diverted her efforts into trying to form her own production company while still pursuing an acting career in films such as ‘The Romance of Tarzan’ (1918), a movie which is unfortunately lost. It’s rumoured that she suffered a nervous breakdown in 1922 due to overwork and, after a brief return two years later, she retired from the business. Madison was very vocal about the creative role of women in the film industry, which does make it interesting to speculate on what drew her to this film and how her participation might have influenced how the story turned out. Having noted that, the film was directed by a man, Joseph De Grasse.
As for Chaney, it was probably just another job, although one suspects that he relished the idea of delving into his makeup box to create the hunchback. Unfortunately, it’s hard to comment on the effectiveness of his work here as we don’t see the character close up. The film was released in October 1915, a few weeks before Chaney’s marriage to the former chorus girl, Hazel Hastings. This change of circumstances finally allowed him to provide a stable home environment for son, Creighton, who had spent much of his childhood at boarding school due to the problems between Chaney and his first wife, Cleva. So, regular work for Chaney was a must at this point in his life and his credits over the next few years reflect this, with over 40 productions before his breakthrough in ‘The Miracle Man’ (1919).
A must-see for Chaney completists, of course, but also an unusual relic of its time that reflects a more modern sensibility than might be expected.