Les Vampires (1915)

Les Vampires (1915)‘In five minutes, the house will jump, and they’ll find this note on your corpse.’

A journalist for one of the top newspapers in Paris focuses on writing an exposé of a gang of notorious criminals known as Les Vampires. However, his investigations start to inconvenience the crooks, and they determine to eliminate him at all cost. An epic struggle of wills begins…

French director Louis Feuillade had hit the jackpot with ‘Fantômas: In the Shadow of the Guillotine’ (1913), an adaptation of the wildly popular novels written by Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre. As well as pursuing other projects at the time, he had continued the series with another four films about the infamous master of disguise, eventually delivering a series of films with a length of over five hours. Not unreasonably, he decided to turn the trick again with this serial, only focusing more exclusively on the project, producing ten films of varying lengths with a combined running time of more than seven hours.

Investigative journalist Philippe Guérande (Édouard Mathé) is dismayed when he finds that all his notes on his latest story have been lifted from his desk at The Globe where he works. Suspicion immediately falls on colleague Oscar-Cloud Mazamette (Marcel Lévesque), who is acting oddly. The widower confesses almost at once, explaining that he needed money to keep his young son at boarding school. Mathé decides to take matters no further, and Lévesque swears to help him however he can, the two eventually linking up to take on the mysterious gang. An early clue takes them to dodgy cabaret ‘The Howling Cat’ where the headliner is femme fatale Irma Vep (Musidora). Sharp tack that he is, Mathé immediately realises that ‘Irma Vep’ is an anagram of ‘Vampire’ and battle is joined.

Les Vampires (1915)

‘I’ before ‘E’…except after ‘C’…

The early chapters of the serial focus heavily on Mathé and his investigation, mainly when the gang kill his fiancée, ballerina Marfa Koutiloff (Stacia Napierkowska), on the orders of The Grand Vampire (Jean Aymé). This villain is another ‘master of disguise’, much in the manner of Fantômas, but, just when this is threatening to become repetitive, Feuillade introduces a rival villain in the form of Juan-José Moréno (Fernand Herrmann). The action then switches to the battle for supremacy between these two criminal masterminds, and, surprisingly, it’s Herrmann who is victorious and assumes the mantle of Mathé’s primary opponent. The leadership of the gang then changes twice more before the end of the serial, which is highly unusual. This was probably caused by the unavailability of cast members, given France’s involvement in the First World War. Indeed, the only constant principals in front of the camera over the entire serial are Mathé, Lévesque and Musidora.

Feuillade scripted himself and, by all accounts, provided the cast with only rough outlines for each scene, encouraging them to improvise. He also favoured a stationary camera, apparently to promote a feeling of realism. Each scene begins with an establishing shot that rarely changes, all the developing action taking place within this initial framing. Although this can cause some scenes to drag a little, Feuillade compensates with pace. Apparent budgetary constraints did preclude a lot of action scenes, but there’s always plenty going on as Les Vampires pursue their agenda of robbery, kidnapping and murder. Feuillade was also careful to make each episode work as a ‘stand alone’ piece, so audience members unfamiliar with the overall story could still follow the tale and enjoy the experience.

Les Vampires (1915)

The party hadn’t been an unqualified success…

Viewed overall, the circumstances of the production do necessarily give the serial a somewhat uneven feel. The passage of time is not well-established, but it is evident that the story is supposed to be taking place over a considerable period. This problem is highlighted by two developments that come entirely out of left-field. Firstly, after losing his job with The Globe and the initial team-up with Mathé, Lévesque emerges in the third chapter as a man ‘gone straight’, a fully-qualified undertaker with a bunch of authorised testimonials! Similarly, in the ninth chapter, we discover that Mathé is about to marry Jane Brémontier (Louise Lagrange) even though she has never appeared previously, and no-one has ever mentioned her existence.

Curiously enough, this haphazard story structure does make for one interesting development. Despite being the somewhat half-hearted comedy relief, the balding, moustache-wielding Lévesque gets the story’s only character arc. In the beginning, he’s a weak-willed tool of the criminal gang; then he teams up with Mathé, becomes a respectable working man, gives that up to be a more committed collaborator in the cause of law and order, gets filthy rich off the reward money after foiling one of the gang’s evil schemes, turns into a drunken playboy, is forced to assume responsibility for his young son when he is expelled from school and eventually finds true love with the widow of one of the gang’s victims!

Les Vampires (1915)

‘I don’t think he got my nose quite right…’

It is worth questioning Lévesque’s parenting skills, though. It doesn’t seem all that appropriate to use his precocious 8-year old in a criminal investigation, especially when it involves the lad taking a potshot at the Grand Vampire with a loaded pistol! Another interesting aspect of the character is how Lévesque periodically stares straight into the camera as if inviting the audience to laugh at some of the more absurd moments in the story. It’s not a frequent device by any means, but it happens often enough that it’s clearly not a mistake. Perhaps it was intended as ironic commentary. Still, it’s unusual to see the fourth wall broken in a dramatic presentation of this vintage.

The impressive stunts in the film are also noteworthy, particularly the work on high buildings. These are carried out in real-life locations and without the use of rope or a safety harness. More than once, someone will ascend several storeys from street level by clambering up the exterior skeleton of the building. It looks pretty dangerous, and something that would invite serious Health and Safety concerns if attempted on a film set today. There is also an extraordinary moment when Musidora escapes from the seventh storey of a gang hideout. She exits with a spinning descent via a rope that uncoils quickly from around her waist. It’s a move that would now probably be described as an aspect of ‘Aerial Dance’, although this example looks a fair bit more extreme. There is a cut at the end of the brief sequence when Musidora reaches the pavement, but this can easily be forgiven when you appreciate that the actress was a trained acrobat and did all her own stunts in the film.

Les Vampires (1915)

An interesting new member had joined the ranks of the Mouseketeers…

Despite receiving mixed notices at the time, the serial was popular with audiences and arguably influenced later filmmakers like Fritz Lang, whose exploits with Dr Mabuse would seem to owe a nod to Feuillade’s work. Les Vampires employ little in technological devices in their reign of terror, but certain elements foreshadow the more complex techniques of characters such as Lang’s mastermind. They employ coded messages, secret writing, hypnotic control and assassination by gas canister and portable cannon. The use of multiple chief villains may have also inspired the idea of Mabuse taking on different identities through the force of his diabolical will.

These serials, including the later ‘Judex’ (1916), remain Feuillade’s best known and celebrated works. Film director Olivier Assayas paid tribute to his influence with the well-received ‘Irma Vep’ (1996), a feature centred on a modern filmmaker trying to mount a remake of ‘Les Vampires’ (1915) and starring actress Maggie Cheung in the title role. The original serial helped to make a star of Musidora, who appeared for Feuillade again in ‘Judex’ (1916) and, after retirement, went onto a second career writing about film. Napierkowska, who appears only briefly here, went on to play Queen Antinea in Jacques Feyder’s ‘L’Atlantide’ (1921), the first adaptation of Pierre Benoit’s novel about members of the French Foreign Legion discovering the lost kingdom of Atlantis.

More interesting from a historical perspective than as entertainment, this is nevertheless an enjoyable enterprise, even though its conventions have become somewhat too familiar over subsequent years.

She (1911)

She (1911)‘She-who-must-be-obeyed, by her mystic powers, knows of their approach, and summons them.’

After wandering for years, two lovers reach the kingdom of a deathless Queen, who offers the promise of Eternal Life. But the gift is only offered to the man…

This 25-minute film may not have been the first screen version of the famous H Rider Haggard novel about the immortal Queen Ayesha, but it is the first attempt at a full adaptation that has survived. French movie magician George Melles juggled with the concept of ‘an eternal flame’ in ‘La Colonne de feu/The Pillar of Fire’ (1899) and ‘The Mystical Flame’ (1903). However, these were ‘trick films’ showcasing his fantastic facility with production design and early SFX and contained nothing else from the original story. Sadly, Edwin S Porter’s 1908 version, which likely did, is lost to time.

The time: 350 BC, the place: Egypt. Kallikrates (James Cruze) and Amenartes (Viola Alberti) are in love, but the prospects of a long-term relationship aren’t good. She is the Pharoah’s daughter, after all, and he is just a priest of Isis. They flee together; him on a camel, her jogging to keep up! Twice twelve moons later, with a baby in tow, they reach the coast of Africa and the kingdom of She-who-must-be-obeyed (Marguerite Snow). Unfortunately, Snow takes a shine to Cruze and offers him the chance to bath in the flame of eternal life with her. He prefers to stay with his family, though, and the next thing we see is Alberti running back to their camp, grabbing the baby and getting the hell out of there. A helpful caption tells us that she knows ‘her son or his descendants shall return to avenge her husband’s death.’

She (1911)

The mobile phone bill was never welcome.

Fast forward to the second half of the film and 1885 in Cambridge, England. Academic Horace Holly (William C Cooper) takes charge of a pre-pubescent Leo Vincey (actually played by a girl, Marie Eline), the son of a close friend now deceased. Eline grows up into James Cruze, of course (neat trick, that!) and on his 25th birthday, he and Cooper open the old box that forms his inheritance. A letter from his offscreen dad informs him that he is descended from Kallikrates and that the old man’s murderer is most likely still alive 2000 years later and living in a lost city in Africa. So, nothing unexpected there, then. The papers also charge him to avenge his ancestor’s death because a couple of millennia is never too long to hold a grudge!

It probably seems ambitious to attempt to cover the events of an entire novel in just 25 minutes. However, the enterprise may not seem too foolhardy to those familiar with the source material. Haggard’s original is slow, more than a little stodgy, and not exactly packed with incident. Of course, some things have to be discarded; our heroes time with the rock people, the character of Ustane and the guided tours of Kôr, but the main events remain. Director George Nichols even gives us the original Egyptian scenes, which are only told in flashback in the novel. There is also an attempt to show the journey to the Hall of the Eternal Flame, which is one of the book’s best sequences, rather than the chamber being close at hand (in the 1965 Hammer version, it seems to be in Ursula Andress’ basement). It’s also good to see the People of the Rocks armed with what appear to Roman spears and shields.

She (1911)

‘…and the Extra Point is good!’

The Thanhouser Film Corporation who were behind this production tackled ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1912) next and brought several of these performers back for that venture, including Cruze in the title role. However, it’s best remembered now as the film where Jekyll and Hyde were played by different actors, Henry Benham donning the fright wig and fangs for at least some of Hyde’s scenes. Cruze and Snow were married in real life, but Cruze was physically abusive, sometimes in public, and she divorced him in 1923. Gifting some valuable real estate to their daughter Julie in 1933 to avoid giving up to creditors, he began legal action in an attempt to get it back from her five years later. He was unsuccessful.

Rider Haggard’s novel was vastly influential in the fantasy genre, both literary and cinematic. This filmed version is, of course, rather primitive when viewed today. Leaps in technique, performance, staging and SFX were occurring at an accelerated pace in the early days of the medium, and this effort probably looked hopelessly dated within a decade or so. However, you can’t fault the filmmakers’ ambition taking on such a project and, bearing in mind it’s vintage, it delivers the goods on its, admittedly limited, level.

Certainly of historical interest.

The Wicked Darling (1919)

The Wicked Darling (1919)‘My hat’s off to you, old top! You’re some bird.’

A young woman, who is down on her luck, snatches a string of pearls from the street after a socialite drops them. Chased by the police, she takes refuge in the house of a rich man who has lost all his money. After they talk, she determines to turn her life around and go straight…

Sentimental crime romance that marked the first collaboration between director Tod Browning and horror icon-to-be Lon Chaney. It was a partnership that birthed more than half a dozen of the star’s best-known films, including ‘The Unknown’ (1927) and arguably the world’s most famous ‘lost’ film, ‘London After Midnight’ (1927). This is a very different kind of project, however, with a pre-stardom Chaney only billed third, although in an important role.

We meet our heroine Mary Stevens (Priscilla Dean) out on the street. The intertitles name her as ‘The Gutter Rose’; a good girl who has retained her virtue and a kind, if mischievous, heart, despite a life of petty crime. Unfortunately, she’s fallen in with a couple of hard cases; bad apple Stoop Conners (Chaney) and his pawnbroker associate, Fadem (Spottiswoode Allen). It seems that she’s working as a pickpocket for the duo, although it’s pretty apparent that Chaney wants to pimp her out. She’s having none of that, of course, because she’s still a ‘good girl.’

The Wicked Darling (1919)

‘She was like that when we got here.’

Meantime, businessman Kent Mortimer (Wellington A Playter) has lost all his money. He’s about to lose his big house too, and fiancee Adele Hoyt (Gertrude Astor) breaks off their engagement. She returns his ring because she can’t marry a pauper (obviously!) but keeps the string of pearls he gave her which she accidentally drops in the street instead. Dean seizes her chance and takes off with them, a crowd in hot pursuit. Of all the places to hide, she happens to chose Playter’s house and the mismatched couple meet when he discovers her lying behind the sofa. Dean’s quickly wise to the poor man’s circumstances and is stunned when he displays understanding and forgiveness towards his ex-bride-to-be. She keeps the necklace but passes up the chance to rob the premises later in the evening, inspired to go straight instead.

Sometime later, the two meet again when a jobless Playter is living in a cheap boarding house, and Dean is working as a waitress. An unlikely romance develops, but Dean keeps her criminal past a secret because she’s fallen for the meathead and knows he could never accept the truth. Worse still, Chaney and Allen are still hanging around, wondering whatever happened to the sparklers. So the stage is set for secrets to come tumbling out and the forces of good and evil to have a final showdown.

The Wicked Darling (1919)

‘I can pull a sillier face than you.’

Considered more than a century later, this is a confection of the purest Hollywood moonshine, undeniably entertaining to some extent, but completely removed from a credible reality. Although the film’s main asset is Dean’s sparking ‘little ray of sunshine’ charisma, it’s not easy to believe that a character in her circumstances could retain such a positive, carefree outlook on life. Sure, we can accept that she hasn’t taken up prostitution, but we never see any evidence of her criminal activities either, apart from lifting a silver button from a policeman’s coat for a lark. Of course, we don’t need a minute examination of her financial arrangements and circumstances, but it doesn’t help ground the drama when the main character has no visible means of support.

Similarly, the plot doesn’t bear too close an examination. Yes, Playter might conceivably turn up at the cafe where Dean works; it’s a coincidence but not beyond the realms of possibility. However, the idea that she just happens to take refuge in a house several streets away that belongs to the owner of the necklace she has just grabbed off the sidewalk pushes suspension of disbelief a little too far. Outside of the story, there are some other problems, too. Obviously, this was intended as a solo vehicle for Dean, but does Playter have to be so stolid and lifeless as her leading man? Perhaps the actor was going for a quiet nobility in his performance, but it often seems like he is barely awake.

The Wicked Darling (1919)

‘Never mind, Wellington. You can always be a stockbroker,,,or something?’

There’s also a problem with Allen’s moneylender. Although it’s not explicitly mentioned that he’s Jewish, there’s the familiar black clothes, long grizzled hair and hand-wringing. Allowances have to be made for when the film was made, of course, but these tired old stereotypes are bound to sit uneasily with a modern audience. Also, Allen has the worst’ poker face’ imaginable. How the character has made a living as a pawnbroker for years, I can’t imagine!

Criticism, in general, must be a little qualified, however. The remaining print of the film was discovered in a museum in the Netherlands, and it’s likely an abridged version released for foreign markets. The footage runs just under an hour and, although the story makes sense, it’s thought probable that about 15 minutes of the original film are missing. These sections may have ironed out some of the story’s contrivances, inconsistencies and other issues.

The Wicked Darling (1919)

‘Why can’t I do a romantic comedy?’

But it’s Chaney we’re here for, of course, and he doesn’t disappoint. His character is very much a small-time hood, rather than the head of a large criminal enterprise, only able to exert himself over the weak and powerless at the bottom of the ladder. The role of the bully was old, familiar ground by this point in his career but, as always, he’s excellent at conveying villainy with just a smirk or a look. It’s not a subtle turn by any means, but in terms of the times, it’s remarkably understated and effective. At the time, it was probably just another gig, with stardom still waiting in the wings in the form of ‘The Miracle Man’ (1919).

Dean was a big star in the silent days, scoring big in Universal serial ‘The Grey Ghost’ (1917), and it’s not hard to see why audiences would respond to the mixture of perkiness and self-sacrifice that she embodies here. She re-teamed with Browning on several occasions as his leading lady until the mid-1920s, and with Chaney for ‘Paid In Advance’ (1919) and ‘Outside the Law’ (1921), again directed by Browning. In 1927, her name was above the title for ‘Slipping Wives’ (1927), a 23-minute short where she was supported by an up and coming comedy double act called Laurel & Hardy. She stopped working for a couple of years with the coming of sound pictures, eventually taking the plunge with ‘Trapped’ (1931). This was a low-budget, independent crime drama from a small studio and passed unnoticed. She made just four more obscure pictures after that, the last in a supporting role, before retiring in 1932.

This is a silent melodrama rooted deeply in the storytelling conventions of its time, and most notable as the first collaboration between director Tod Browning and star Lon Chaney.

Broadway Love (1918)

Broadway Love (1918)‘You have been wonderful, Mr Chalvey! I have been rehabilitated before all the citizens of Beetville’.

A young chorus girl is taken under the wing of a Broadway leading lady, who knows all the angles when it comes to getting what she wants from men. Complications arise involving a young millionaire and one who has lost all his money…

Silent romantic drama directed and co-written by Ida May Park; one of the first women working behind the camera in the early days of the American film industry. It’s this fact that provides the most significant point of interest in the film today, along with the presence of horror icon Lon Chaney, appearing without aid from his makeup box a year before his star-making turn in ‘The Miracle Man’ (1919).

Cherry Blow (Juanita Hansen) is ‘first ballerina’ at the Garden Theatre on Broadway. She’s also the town’s most notorious ‘party girl’; holding wild, drunken soirees at her uptown apartment, breaking hearts left and right and leaving discarded lovers broke and suicidal in her wake. Smalltown girl Midge O’Hara (Dorothy Phillips) is new to the Great White Way and as nieve and innocent as they come, but her pretty looks get her a job in the chorus and an entry into Hansen’s wicked world.

Broadway Love (1918)

‘If being sexy was a crime, you’d be guilty as charged.’

Hansen invites Phillips along to one of her dodgy house parties, and the young ingenue soon finds herself consoling the handsome Jack Chalvey (Harry von Meter), who has determined to end it all after being thrown over by Hansen. Later on, she’s assaulted in a taxi by cynical millionaire Henry Rockwell (William Stowell) who believes that chorus girls will do anything for a couple of hundred dollars or less. Trying to escape, Phillips falls out of the moving vehicle and is hospitalised, a repentant Stowell paying all her medical bills. Hansen believes that it’s all a ruse to hook the wealthy tycoon, but von Meter is waiting in the wings.

This is a rather unsatisfying concoction, adrift somewhere between a serious drama and a romantic trifle. It’s tempting to think the former might have been Park’s original intention, but she had to compromise to some extent because of audience and commercial expectations. For a start, there’s no hiding what’s going on at Hansen’s wild parties. The rich men fold cash into the napkins at the girl’s places at dinner, and our hostess isn’t shy about explaining the facts of life to the young Phillips. Of course, nothing is stated explicitly, but it’s interesting to note how Phillips just accepts the situation. There’s no moral outrage, or even vague surprise, on her part; merely a resolution that the lifestyle is not for her. This aspect of the story gets watered down as the film progresses into far more conventional territory. Hansen repents, and it becomes more of a question of who will end up with who, rather than anything else.

Broadway Love (1918)

‘Anyone for Tennis?’

Where is Chaney in all this? He plays Elmer Watkins, the town bully of Beetville, USA, who has pursued Phillips to the Big City with a proposal of marriage. It’s quite unusual to see Chaney with a jacket and tie, straw hat and a full head of hair, but his character is fairly peripheral to the main action. It’s not exactly a multi-layered part either; he’s a blow-hard, who quails easily when challenged. It was most probably just another assignment for the hard-working actor and would be just a minor career footnote if it wasn’t for the fact that so many of his films have been lost to time.

There are a couple of other points of interest; although we see the girls in their dressing room backstage, we never see them performing, so we’ve no idea of the nature of this Broadway show. Hansen is described as a ‘ballerina’, and yet she drinks, smokes and parties as hard as any 1920s flapper; hardly the sort of behaviour in line with a calling that involves such dedication, long hours of hard work and discipline. And what kind of ballet has chorus girls? Perhaps the term ‘ballerina’ had a more extensive use back when the film was made? And then, of course, her character is called ‘Cherry Blow’. Perhaps another instance of words and phrases meaning different things in different eras?!

Broadway Love (1918)

Some Vamps cast reflections, after all..

The drama’s main weakness is its uncertainty of tone and poorly realised characters. Hansen does get a redemption arc, which is nicely underplayed, but, crucially, Phillips’ role lacks clarity. At one moment, we are supposed to believe that she’s just fresh off the boat, at another she exhibits far more calculating behaviour, and her dithering over her romantic options at the climax is hardly very engaging. Phillips does have quite a winning screen presence, though, which is extremely fortunate. Not so fine is Hansen’s maid; a typical ‘Lawdy, Lawdy’ servant of the early day s of Hollywood. To make things even worse, she’s played by a white actress in blackface.

Park began her career in the theatre and married fellow actor Joseph De Grasse. When he became involved in the film industry as a director, the two began collaborating on scripts at the fledgeling Universal Studios. She made her solo directorial debut with ‘The Flashlight’ (1917) which starred Phillips, who was the studio’s biggest star at the time. After the couple left Universal in 1919, they co-directed a couple of independent pictures, their final project being crime drama ‘The Hidden Way’ (1926).

There’s little here for Chaney aficionados, but fans of silent cinema and those interested in gender roles in early Hollywood may find some points to discuss.

The Scarlet Car (1917)

The Scarlet Car (1917)‘Dad, I know I’ve been a loafer, but now I’m a businessman.’

An elderly cashier finds a significant discrepancy in the books of the bank where he works. When he confronts the institution’s president and his son, there is a violent argument, and the cashier is knocked out. This provides the crooks with the perfect opportunity to get him out of the way and frame him for their crime…

Another step of the long ladder to stardom for future horror icon Lon Chaney, this crime thriller directed by Joseph De Grasse comes with a good solid slice of melodrama and romance. Although it does allow Chaney to show his prowess with the makeup box, he is sidelined for a lot of the film before appearing in the last reel to steal the show.

Bank cashier Paul Revere Forbes (Chaney) is a proud man. Descended from the legendary American patriot, he’s not likely to sit still for any shenanigans at the bank where he works as a cashier. Finding a black hole of $35,000 in the ledger, he goes back after hours to investigate. At the bank, he’s surprised to find bank president (Howard Crampton) and his gadabout son, Ernest (Sam De Grasse, brother of the film’s director) in conference with a stranger. Crashing the meeting in a righteous fury, he tries to grab the incriminating books and is knocked out after a struggle. Seizing their chance, the villainous father and son turn the unconscious cashier over to the mob man, who takes him for a ride in the vehicle of the title. When it turns up wrecked with the driver dead and Chaney missing everyone jumps to the conclusion that he’s absconded with the cash.

The Scarlet Car (1917)

‘He was like that when I got here.’

This is all bad news for Chaney’s daughter, Beatrice (Edith Johnson) who can’t get anyone to believe in her father’s innocence. She’s also being pursued by the slimy De Grasse, whose intentions might be marriage but still look a little questionable to me. After all, he has a moustache, and if silent movies have taught us one thing, it’s not to trust a man with facial hair. Johnson is far more inclined to hitch her wagon to local wastrel Billy Winthrop (Franklyn Farnum), but he’s not good husband material. However, when his latest escapade puts his father (Al W Filson) in hock with the bank, he realises it’s time to straighten up and fly right. Becoming a success in the business world almost overnight, he’s aghast to find that Johnson has agreed to marry De Grasse, and his efforts to stop the match soon lead him to suspect the truth about the bank fraud.

Unfortunately, only a 40-minute version of the film remains available for viewing today. However, we still get a complete story. Rather than an entire reel (or two) being lost, instead, this is a cut-down version of De Grasse’s original film. Most sources quote an original running time of 51 minutes, although some commentators have referred to a release cut of about an hour. Despite this, the story we get here still makes sense, but inevitably certain aspects feel very rushed. This is particularly true of the love-triangle element which is hardly established at the start of proceedings at all.

The Scarlet Car (1917)

‘Honestly, it’s a great idea. You play this skeleton dude who hangs out at the opera…’

What does emerge, however, is a relatively typical example of studio filmmaking of the time; technically efficient but without any noticeable flair or originality. The story relies on some pretty outrageous contrivances at times and includes the inevitable moral lesson; this time that hard work and the fair exchange of goods and services make for a true hero. After all, Crampton and De Grasse’s biggest sin is not against Chaney, but against the system and society as a whole, even though the audience isn’t shown any practical consequences caused by their theft of the money.

It’s not known how many films Chaney had appeared in by this point in his career. Almost all of his early appearances are lost and documentation is similarly non-existent, if it ever existed at all. However, validated information provides more than 100 titles. Many of these would have been short subjects rather than features, of course. However, the statistic still indicates the tremendous output of the early days of ‘the dream factory’ and the public’s insatiable appetite for film. In this example, Chaney gets to try out his ‘old man’ makeup, and it is remarkably convincing. When he does return to the drama in the final act, his performance as the deluded amnesiac is the best thing in the film. Occasionally, he resorts to the overly exaggerated gesticulating that was the tendency of silent movie players, but mostly his work is restrained and effective.

The Scarlet Car (1917)

‘You want me to do another 23 films this year…?!’

Johnson was born in Rochester, New York, which was also the headquarters of the Eastman Kodak Company, which was founded in 1888. Chosen as the face of the company, she appeared on all their promotional materials in the early 1900s and became known as ‘The Most Photographed Girl in the World.’ This resulted in a film contract in 1914, but success only followed after her marriage to actor William Duncan and their joint move under contract to Universal. They soon became known as the ‘King and Queen of the Serial’ appearing together in projects sometimes directed by Duncan. They retired from the business in 1924 and had a vaudeville act for a while but eventually settled down to raise a family. Duncan returned to pictures as a jobbing actor, most notably as an early sidekick to William Boyd’s ‘Hopalong Cassidy.’

An unremarkable silent crime drama that provides a welcome look at Lon Chaney in one of his earliest surviving roles.

Alas and Alack (1915)

Alas and Alack (1915)‘While Fate keeps guard at her crystal gate, and her tears are the pearls of the ocean grey.’

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.

Alas and Alack (1915)

🎵 I wish I was a fisherman, tumbling on the sea…🎶

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.

Alas and Alack (1915)

‘Can you tell me the way to the nearest cathedral?’

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.

Alas and Alack (1915)

‘Petrificus Totalus!’

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.

By The Sun’s Rays (1914)

By The Sun's Rays (1914)‘I am going to look around and will meet the posse at the crossroads.’

Shipments of gold are being stolen after leaving a remote mining community. Local officials call in a detective to apprehend the thieves, and he immediately suspects that the criminals have the help of an inside man…

Silent two-reeler short from the Nestor Film Company, which was distributed through what was then known as the Universal Film Manufacturing Company. It’s a Western drama that would be long forgotten if not for one important thing. The film features the earliest surviving screen appearance of Horror icon, Lon Chaney. It also provides a pretty typical example of the primary output of the American film industry at the time: a dash of intrigue, a dose of action, and a sprinkling of romance. All tied up in a neat package and delivered in under 12 minutes. For every film like D W Griffiths’ epic ‘The Birth of A Nation’ (1914), there were hundreds like this. Perhaps thousands.

John Davis (Seymour Hastings) is a worried man. As local Superintendant of the Deep River Mining Company, it’s his problem when their shipments of gold keep getting heisted in transit. Try as he might, he can’t figure out how the bandits, led by Dick Rosson, are always in the right place at the right time. A letter to the Head Office in Chicago brings detective John Murdock (Murdock MacQuarrie) to town. He immediately suspects mining officer clerk, Frank Lawler (Chaney) of being tied in with the crooks and sets out to prove it with the help of Hastings’ pretty daughter, Dora (Agnes Vernon).

By The Sun's Rays (1914)

‘Whaddya mean? I’m just enforcing a ‘clear desk’ policy…

Less than 12 minutes doesn’t provide much of an opportunity for a sophisticated and involving storyline, so plot and character development are necessarily rendered in very broad strokes here. However, there are still a couple of nice pieces of business here, courtesy of Chaney and Vernon. Yes, as the film opens, Chaney is acting so suspiciously in the office that’s it’s completely obvious to the audience that he’s in league with the bandits. He creeps backwards out of the door, cradling the piece of mirror that he’s going to use to signal his confederates that more booty is on the way. Subtle, he’s not. But then he walks outside and tips his hat to the arriving Vernon, and their very brief, understated interaction tells the audience all that it needs to know about their dynamic: he wants her, she hates him. Vernon shines again later on when McQuarrie arrives; just the movement of her eyes tell us that she’s interested in him.

After that, it’s a predictable series of events, with MacQuarrie setting up a gold shipment so he can follow Chaney and confirm his suspicions. It allows him to alert a posse and nab the brigands too. This is fine, if undemanding, stuff and would have no doubt pleased a contemporary audience. With such a short time to tell a story, it hits all the right dramatic beats with a dogged, efficient competence. But time was running out for this type of shorter film. The Nickelodeon theatres that had done much to popularise them, and ‘moving pictures’ in general, were in serious decline by 1914. Feature films were beginning to corner the market and audiences were demanding larger, more comfortable auditoriums where they could enjoy these much longer, more complex stories.

By The Sun's Rays (1914)

‘Hello, Big Boy!’

For many years, it was thought that the film was an early directorial assignment for Tod Browning, who would team with Chaney several times in later years on some of the star’s most significant projects, and also direct Bela Lugosi in ‘Dracula’ (1931). However, he’s now not considered as the director here, with Charles Giblyn being given credit. The finished production is fairly obviously limited by available resources, and was probably shot entirely outside (even the office scenes). The ‘locked off’ camera never moves, and there’s no real evidence of anything a modern audience would consider as more than very basic filmmaking technique.

It almost goes without saying that Chaney doesn’t have a realistic chance of creating a memorable villain in such a short space of time. However, he does effectively convey his unrequited love for Vernon without recourse to the grander, more extravagant gestures that can make silent films look hopelessly antiquated today. Perhaps he even manages to elicit a little audience sympathy for his plight before he inevitably attempts to assault her in the familiar silent movie tradition.

There is some debate amongst film historians surrounding Chaney’s early film appearances. It’s estimated that he had made just over 30 films before this one, but those, and many more, are lost forever. Lists of casts and credits have not survived either, with photographs being the only archival materials that remain. It is known that Chaney was working in the business without any contract at this time. When he wasn’t in front of the camera, he would take odd jobs on the other side, such as a prop man, and perhaps even doing makeup. Now, there’s an interesting field for speculation!

By The Sun's Rays (1914)

‘Oh, go on…I’m a nice guy when you get to know me…’

But change was in the air. Pictures were massively popular with the public, and the fledgeling industry was gaining a permanent foothold in both the business world and the cultural psyche. It was in this year that Carl Laemmle, the head of Universal, purchased a former chicken farm of 250 acres and began construction on what would become the world’s first purpose-built film studio. On the day it opened the following year, more than 20,000 members of the public turned up for the event. Chaney’s personal fortunes rose with both those of the studio and the wider industry, until his breakout appearance in ‘The Miracle Man’ (1919), made him a star. Sadly, that film is lost.

Interesting to film historians and fans of silent cinema, but essential for serious fans of the wonderful Mr Chaney.

Unheim Liche Geschichten/Eerie Tales/Uncanny Tales (1919)

Unheimliche Geschichten (1919)‘His mount is well beyond repair/We will rest him in this chair.’

An antiquarian bookseller is terrorised by ghostly incarnations of the devil, death and a prostitute after his store closes. The three spirits browse through his book collection and entertain each other with gruesome stories from the dusty old volumes…

Things go bump in the night in this compendium of five supernatural tales from German silent movie director Richard Oswald. The framing device finds us in the company of an old bookseller, who does a runner after the three paintings in his store come to life. It’s a sound decision, both for the character and the audience. Obviously, styles of acting have changed considerably in the last century, but this unidentified player delivers a truly demented turn, hopping around the set and gesticulating wildly like a giant frog having some kind of medical episode. But maybe it’s understandable when you consider that the invading spirits include Satan (Conrad Veidt) and the Grim Reaper (Reinhold Schunzel), although their presence on his walls does make you wonder about his choice of interior decorator in the first place.

Curiously the third member of this infernal trio is Anita Berber, a ‘woman of the night’ who is decked out in almost as much heavy eye-makeup as her two male colleagues. The fact that a sex worker apparently occupies the same moral ground as Death and the Devil is an interesting notion. ln fact, there’s a surprisingly unpleasant, misogynistic undertone to the proceedings here, which suggests that director Oswald may have had a few personal issues to work through.

There are five spooky tales in all, each clocking in at around 20 minutes, and with the principal roles in each taken by our star trio. The opening story is Anselma Heine’s ‘The Apparition’, which has Veidt and Berber meeting for the first time in a park as she flees abusive ex-husband Schunzel. This is followed by screenwriter Robert Liebmann’s ‘The Hand’, which features another romance that ends in murder. These are odd choices to open the film, being the two segments that most emphasise the project’s general shortcomings and deficiencies. Citing the period when the film was made is a reasonable argument to explain the static camera and stagey set-ups, of course, but other German films of the time demonstrated a far better grasp of cinematic grammar than Oswald is able to achieve here. As a result, the first half of the picture is frustrating, particularly given the potential of Veidt’s magnetic presence. lt’s also worth mentioning that audiences of the time may have found ‘The Apparition’ a little confusing.

Unheimliche Geschichten (1919)

‘…and you should put the Chinese Crystal Tree of Life right here…

Thankfully, things do improve. Next up is Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Black Cat.’ This time, Schunzel is the drunken husband who kills wife Berber in a rage after Veidt’s family friend makes advances in her direction. Beyond those minor details, it’s a faithful adaptation, although Schunzel’s take on the killer seems a little muddled. Is he genuinely sorry after the murder, or just afraid of getting caught? His subsequent boasting in the cellar when he thinks he’s got away with it also seems like a sudden switch.

The best story is next; a rather loose adaptation of ‘Story of the Young Man with the Cream Tarts’ by Robert Louis Stevenson, more commonly known as ‘The Suicide Club’; the title of the story cycle in which it belongs. This provides an opportunity both for production designer Julius Hahlo and for Veidt, who gives a restrained, suave performance as the Club President, much in the manner of Stevenson’s original creation. Otherwise, the story deviates wildly from the original source, crowbarring in a role for Berber and having Club members die by some odd, electronic contraption rather than kill each other at the turn of a card.

The final tale is an original of Oswald’s own invention; a lightweight concoction called ‘The Spectre’ in which Viedt teaches Schunzel a lesson after he gets fresh with his wife, played by Berber. This is a period piece and is most notable for the fact that the dialogue (and intertitles) are delivered in rhyming couplets! Thematically, it’s completely at odds with what’s gone before, but was probably intended to give the audience some relief and send them out of the theatre with a smile on their faces. Unfortunately, it was likely too little too late.

Unheimliche Geschichten (1919)

Peter, Paul & Mary’s new look was the talk of all the coffeehouses…

This is a very uneven collection of tales that would have benefitted greatly from either the kind of technical innovations being pioneered by other German filmmakers of the time, such as cameraman Karl Freund, or the more vigorous, energetic style of a director like Fritz Lang. Yes, there are some close-ups of the principals shot against black backgrounds, but this one effective stylistic touch cannot hope to carry the whole film.

There are also problems with the script, principally the restrictions imposed by featuring all three leading players prominently in each story. With the exception of ‘The Suicide Club’, this results in a heavy focus on ‘love triangles’ with either Veidt or Schunzel trying to steal Berber from the other. And here’s where our leading lady gets no favours from Oswald, who presumably scripted. In ‘The Apparition’ she’s the cause of Veidt’s mental and physical collapse. In ‘The Hand’ she strings both men along until one murders the other, and in ‘The Spectre’ she gets her head easily turned by blow-hard Schunzel which leads her to neglect her wifely duties. Even in ‘The Black Cat’ when it’s Veidt who aggressively pursues her, she’s the one who ends up murdered and bricked up in the basement! Serves her right for being an attractive young woman, I suppose! Oswald never paints her as an actively evil character, but it’s always her presence and faithless nature that is the catalyst for the men’s descent into sin and damnation. lt’s Adam and Eve in the garden all over again.

Oswald actually remade the film in 1932, making the sensible decision to cut the weaker stories, retaining only ‘The Black Cat’ and ‘The Suicide Club’. To those he added another Poe tale ‘The System of Dr Tarr and Professor Fether’ and had ‘Golem’ star Paul Wegener replace Veidt as the lead.

This is a minor footnote in German supernatural cinema of the silent era, which betrays no evidence of the creativity of the expressionist movement, but does exhibit some rather worrying attitudes towards women.

When Bearcat Went Dry (1919)

When Bearcat Went Dry (1919)‘You cannot die! First I have a bone to pick with you!’

A small town in the Cumberland Mountains has fallen behind the times and descended into lawlessness. Salvation seems possible when the railroad company send a surveyor to the area, but he is brutally attacked by one of the local gangs…

Six-reel silent melodrama that was thought lost for many years until an incomplete print surfaced, with Dutch intertitles, via a private collection in 1996. As it is, we do have most of the film with only the 1st and part of the 2nd reel missing and what remains runs almost an hour in length. Why is this film of particular interest to aficionados today? Because it stars cinema icon Lon Chaney in one of his last ‘straight’ roles before stardom beckoned.

The setup here should be very familiar to anyone who’s spent a rainy afternoon watching an old Hollywood Western from cinema’s Golden Age. We have the ‘wide-open’ town run by local gangs, the ‘bought and paid for’ sheriff turning a blind eye and the local, upright citizens desperate to install some kind of law and order. One of these miscreants is local rabble-rouser Turner ‘Bearcat’ Stacy (Bernard J Durning) who likes to mix it up with the best of them but has a softer side thanks to the influence of pretty gal Blossom (Vangie Valentine). She returns his love but her father is local preacher Joel Fulkerson (Walt Whitman – no, not the poet!), and so she persuades Durning to clean up his act. This involves staying off the booze, hence the film’s title. But the course of true love doesn’t run smooth…

What shakes things up is the arrival of railroad man Jerry Henderson (M K Wilson). The town elders are all for him, as the iron horse will bring prosperity, schools and tougher laws, but the gangs aren’t so keen, particular the roughnecks led by local saloon keeper Kindard Powers (Chaney). On the run from their somewhat enthusiastic attentions, Wilson takes shelter overnight in the Fulkerson house. Unfortunately – gasp! – Valentine is there alone and, as they are unchaperoned, obviously they have to get married afterwards. lt’s the law of the mountains, or something! Durning’s rather put out about this, but when Wilson is badly injured in a gunfight, he vows to put an end to Chaney’s reign of terror forever.

When Bearcat Went Dry (1919)

‘Stop exaggerating! It’s only a cold…’

This is a fairly typical frontier tale of good against evil. Chaney isn’t called to do anything more than snarl, look menacing and be nasty, which he manages effortlessly, of course. Technically, the camera is fairly static, but there is a decent mixture of long and medium shots (no real closeups) and there’s a lot of good location work, the film being shot in the mountains of Kentucky.

Durning’s solution to the problem of driving out Chaney’s gang is to form a band of vigilantes, who are effective, if not popular with the state authorities. My biggest concern about them, though, is more to do with their appearance. Hoods and burning torches bare rather too close a resemblance to the Ku Klux Klan, who had reformed as recently as 1915. Also timely was Durning’s sobriety pledge; the misguided Wartime Prohibition Act had come into force earlier that year and led shortly to the full-blown Volstead Act and the subsequent rise of bootlegging and organised crime.

This film was released barely two months after Chaney’s breakthrough performance in ‘The Miracle Man’ (1919), a film which is now sadly lost. He starred in seven films released in 1919, and it’s interesting to speculate as to whether Chaney was aware of the sudden change in his fortunes while he was making this one. It was pretty much the last generic villain role he ever got to play.

One for Chaney enthusiasts and film historians only.

Fantômas: The False Magistrate/Le Faux Magistrat (1914)

Fantômas - The False Magistrate/Le Faux Magistrat (1914)‘My husband has a fever. I had to turn on the gas heater.’

A seemingly impossible jewellery robbery sees the gems disappear from a locked hotel room and their buyer robbed by daring thieves on the road. Fantômas is suspected but how can he possible be responsible when he’s locked up in a jail cell in Belgium?

The fifth and final of director Louis Feuillade’s series of films based on the popular character created by authors Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain. Sadly, this is not so well preserved as the other entries, and there are a handful of lost scenes replaced by explanatory captions. It’s actually based on the twelfth volume of the books, which the authors turned out at such a rate they delivered over 30 of them in three years! The reason behind this was that there were published monthly in a magazine format, which must have been financially lucrative for all concerned but did mean that the writers had little or no chance to plan their overall story ahead.

The film begins with a daring theft carried out by villains Laurent Morléas and Jean-Francois Martial; lieutenants in the Fantômas gang. Meanwhile, Inspector Juve (Edmund Breon) is still obsessed with putting his hand on the collar of the masked man, even though he has been arrested and is safely jailed in Brussels. Determined that he stand trial for his crimes in France, he arranges for Fantômas (René Navarre) to escape, taking his place in the Belgian jail! This is a plot device almost ridiculous beyond words, and was gently spoofed over half a century later when Inspector Andrea Bosic arranged for Glenn Saxson to escape the hangman’s noose in ‘Kriminal’ (1966). That title character owed more than a slight debt to our main man here.

Breon’s ‘cunning’ plan is that two of his men will track Navarre and arrest him as soon as he steps onto French soil. It all goes wrong, of course, and the masked man is soon on the loose again. Which begs a question…well, several of them, in fact. Why don’t the prison guards notice the switch of inmates, and what exactly was Breon’s plan anyway? Now he’s stuck in this Belgian prison, and presumably for a very long time. After all, I doubt that Navarre was arrested for a traffic violation. But Breon can secure his release by proving his true identity to the prison authorities, right? Well, I don’t know, because he doesn’t even try. Ok, so he’s just helped a prisoner escape which would make for a tricky diplomatic situation, I guess, but is he just going to sit there for the rest of his life? It is probably the least secure prison in movie history so he can probably just walk out any day, but, again, he doesn’t even attempt to leave. Maybe he likes the food.

Fantômas - The False Magistrate/Le Faux Magistrat (1914)

‘Think it over, creep!’

We’re also faced with another idiotic plot contrivance later on. On the run, Navarre needs a new identity so he kills an old man for his papers. It turns out his victim just happens to be a magistrate on his way to a take up a post at the Paris law courts. Convenient, eh? He’s soon settled into his new office, blackmailing a Marchioness and reconnecting with his old gang. This means teaming up with Morléas and Martial to retrieve the booty from their jewellery heist.

Rather brilliantly, they’ve stashed the gems inside a church bell, which is only accessible by climbing more than 50 feet into the air on a rickety ladder! Visually, these are the film’s most impressive moments, but, again, it’s a pretty silly setup and more suited to the comedic sensibilities of someone like Buster Keaton than a serious thriller. It does make for a rain of pearls, diamonds and blood on a funeral party later on though, which is a nice touch.

Presumably, it was the advent of the First World War that temporarily put an end to the exploits of Fantômas, but, truth be told, things were beginning to look a little tired anyway.

The film is technically impressive at times but does suffers from rather muddled plot development, perhaps inevitable given the circumstances surrounding the creation of the original source material.