A poet sets out to walk to Paris along with a friend, but blows all their money on the way to help out an elderly couple who are being evicted from their home. To restore their fortunes, the duo rob two monks on the road, but are arrested soon afterwards in a local tavern.
This was the third 30 minute silent picture following the adventures of real-life 15th Century French poet François Villon. Although historical details are understandably a little sketchy, Villon seems to have been a habitual criminal, and was actually condemned to death in 1463 after getting into a street fight whilst on bail for another offence. He had already published his most famous poetical work by then (‘Le Testament’ in 1461), and whether this helped his case or not, his sentence was commuted to banishment after which he vanishes from the pages of history. Still, he does seem a somewhat dubious figure to cast as a hero in a series of pictures, although I guess the passage of time has probably leant a romantic slant to his exploits, even if he was convicted of killing a priest in 1455 (being pardoned later on by the King!)
The film opens with Villon (Murdock McQuarrie) taking an exuberant leave of his friends to hit the road with brilliantly named sidekick Colin (Chester Whitney). Unfortunately, exuberant is probably the kindest way to describe McQuarrie’s acting technique which resembles someone guiding a plane down onto an airport runway. After smoking crack. He calms down enough to bail out the old man and his wife who are being thrown out on the street, but then assaults a pair of holy men and their donkey, assisted by the redundant Colin. If this seems a strange occurrence to appear in a film of this vintage then this was before the Production Code really got started (censorship in other words) and it’s fair to say that monks in the middle ages were more concerned with gaining a stranglehold on the local economy and levying heavy taxes, rather than bothering themselves with anything as unproductive as matters of a spiritual nature.
Later on, our caped crusaders get pinched by the rozzers but our leading man escapes, leaving Colin to his fate on the gallows (Villon is such a hero, isn’t he?!) But he does intervene on behalf of heroine Pauline Bush (I guess she’s prettier than Colin). She’s been kidnapped on the road by a dastardly villain whose plans for her probably include something other than a candlelit dinner for two and an evening watching Netflix. And this is why the film is of interest to us now (bet you were wondering, weren’t you?!) You see, this damn bounder is played by none other than silent screen legend Lon Chaney in one of his earliest surviving films. His screen time is disappointingly brief, and director Charles Giblyn obviously didn’t believe in close ups so we can’t really judge if he’d done anything special with his makeup for the role either. However, we do see him fight with a sword and fall from a first floor balcony onto a table, a stunt which he carried out himself. Although it’s not one of the most daring you’ll ever see, given the era and the likely absence of any health and safety procedures, it was probably quite dangerous.
A print of this film was only discovered in 1983 (by a couple rebuilding their porch!), giving hope that other Chaney lost films might be rediscovered, in particular ‘London After Midnight’ (1927), the last copy of which was supposedly destroyed in the great MGM studio ﬁre of 1967. Unfortunately, this picture is no showcase for his great talent, being a stilted, rather dull melodrama, not assisted by the performance of our leading man or any notable talent behind the camera.
Director Giblyn delivered over 100 silent pictures from the canvas seat, but immediately returned to the acting profession when sound pictures arrived in the late 1920s. A string of unbilled character parts followed in ﬁlms like ‘The Mysterious Dr Fu Manchu’ (1929), ‘The Bad Sister’ (1931) (with Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis in early roles) and ‘Sons of the Desert’ (1933) with Laurel & Hardy. Leading lady Bush played in an unbelievable 248 pictures from 1910 to 1917, although you’ve probably already guessed that nearly all of them were shorts, rather than features.
This is one for Chaney completists only. Oh, and if you were wondering what on earth an ‘Oubliette’ is, then wonder no more. lt’s a dungeon only accessible by a trapdoor in the ceiling. Presumably this relates to the cell where McQuarrie is imprisoned toward the end of the picture. Which he leaves through a hole in the wall.