‘Speaking of signs, a woman who powders her nose is not entirely without hope.’
The son of a famous writer has lived in self-imposed exile on a tiny island in the Dutch East Indies for two years. Making a final trip to the nearby island of Soerbaja to complete cutting his last ties to civilisation, he meets a girl playing in the orchestra at the local hotel…
Romantic drama based on the novel of the same name by Joseph Conrad that features Lon Chaney in another villainous supporting role. Despite his breakout performance in ‘The Miracle Man’ (1919), the soon-to-be horror icon was still working his way up the ladder to leading roles but, once again, steals the show from the more established names in the cast.
Axel Heyst (Jack Holt) has spent the last two years in isolation, his head filled with the writings of his later father. Heyst Sr maintained that a man could only find true happiness in complete solitude. Holt has taken this to heart, his only companion in all-time being a houseboy (because I guess all that housework might interfere with his lofty contemplations, and you need someone to throw the cat off the verandah from time to time.) To complete his final removal from the society of humankind, Holt travels to the main island nearby, where he is the subject of gossip fueled by belligerent hotel owner Schomberg (Wallace Beery).
Beery’s establishment boasts some unusual entertainment in the tropics; an all-girl orchestra under the direction of the creepy Zangiacomo (William Bailey) and his wife (Ruth Renick). Holt sees Renick mistreating first violin Alma (Seena Owen) and soon learns that both Beery and Bailey are trying to force their attentions on her. Simply wanting to help, he spirits her away to his island, leaving a frustrated Beery incensed and out for revenge. When a trio of obvious crooks take rooms at the hotel, Beery convinces them that Holt has a fortune hidden on his island, and they determine to obtain it by any means necessary.
This 1919 film was the first attempt to turn one of Joseph Conrad’s literary works into a motion picture, and it turned out to be the only example that the author lived to see. As the filmmakers took great liberties with the source material, his opinion would have been interesting, but it seems unrecorded. The plot is greatly simplified. In the novel, Heyst does not live in complete isolation; by the time he meets Alma, he has already gone into a coal company business with a down on his luck sailor named Captain Morrison, who eventually dies, along with their enterprise. This part of the story is entirely omitted by screenwriter Jules Furthman, here credited as Stephen Fox. However, given the film’s brief running time and the inevitable focus on the story’s more commercial aspects, it’s understandable. The other significant change revolves around the resolution of events, which is one of the more extreme examples of the ‘Hollywood ending’ that I can recall, being as far removed from the novel’s conclusion as could be imagined.
The film’s director was Maurice Tourneur, who had once been an assistant to world-famous sculptor Auguste Rodin. He certainly displays a refined visual sensibility with his framing and shot selection, even if his camera sometimes lacks mobility. What he does bring to the story is a crisp, economical pace and his cast refrain from the usual histrionics that can mar silent productions when viewed today. Tourneur was a vocal opponent of screen acting techniques that used overblown theatrical gestures with the result that his pictures have aged far better than some of his contemporaries. He also makes good use of the locations.
However, it’s Chaney’s performance that takes centre stage, even though it’s ostensively a supporting role. Of course, it’s easy to single out a ‘star in waiting’ with the benefit of hindsight, but he commands the screen when he appears, his ruthless strongarm Ricardo easily dwarfing the impact of fellow stooge Pedro (Bull Montana) and their boss, Mr Jones (Ben Deely). Chaney’s occasional acting excesses are held firmly in check by Tourneur, and we get a sly, vicious thug who enjoys his work too much and stalks through the drama like some kind of ape or giant insect. Chaney suggests violence as much with his body language and slow, creeping smile as with his actions. Despite giving the orders and his memorable blonde hair and tiny sunglasses combo, it’s evident that Deely’s only in charge of the gang as long as Chaney finds it convenient. Given that this type of villain had become Chaney’s stock in trade at this point, it’s a testament to his acting skill and commitment that he is still looking for new wrinkles in such as character and, what’s more, finding them.
Tourneur enjoyed a long career in the film business, reaching the commercial pinnacle of his Hollywood career with ‘Aloma of the South Seas’ (1926), the top-grossing film of that year. By the time the industry had switched to sound production, though, he had returned to Europe, a move perhaps prompted by his association with disastrous MGM money pit ‘The Mysterious Island’ (1929). His son, Jacques, also found success in Tinseltown as a director. His big hits included ‘Cat People’ (1942), ‘Out of the Past’ (1947), ‘The Flame and the Arrow’ (1950) and ‘Night of the Demon’ (1957). He worked with stars like Gregory Peck, Hedy Lemarr, Robert Mitchum, Burt Lancaster, Ray Milland and Dana Andrews.
It may not be very faithful to Conrad’s novel, but this is a brisk, pleasing drama with a standout performance by an actor on his way to stardom.