Cinesation 2009 Festival Report, Part One
by HELEN GEIB
The silent film program for Cinesation 2009 offered a strong lineup of star vehicles featuring Mary Pickford, Constance Talmadge, Ronald Colman, and Sessue Hayakawa. Colleen Moore appeared in an early supporting role while veteran character actor Edward Everett Horton was elevated to the starring part. There were also several of the obscure titles favored by the festival organizers, some of which were good.
M’Liss (Mary Pickford) is the wild girl of Red Gulch, one of the rough and ready mining towns in the Western stories of Bret Harte. Although she is the heroine of the film, she is also one of the town’s “characters” and takes the stage with them in a series of introductory vignettes. Some of the others are M’Liss’s father Bummer Smith, an old drunk who founded the town but didn’t make a penny from it, coddles his pet hen Hildegarde, and sees a menagerie in the cabin courtesy of the DTs; the local judge, who when he’s accused of having no sense replies stoutly that the “statoots” don’t require him to have any; Yuba, the tough stage driver for the Slum Gullion mine who has a fatherly soft spot for M’Liss; and a Boston preacher who evangelizes at gunpoint (he’s the one holding the gun) in the saloon. M’Liss takes a liking to the new schoolmaster (played by Thomas Meighan). Although he doesn’t fit the “town character” label, he’s sufficiently unconventional to fit right in.
M’Liss more than holds her own in this crowd; she can swear up a storm and packs a mean slingshot carried in a gun holster slung around her hips. She’s also a thorough charmer, rough edges and all. When she loses some of her wildness after meeting the schoolmaster it’s because she’s growing up, not because she’s been “tamed:” she stays the same spirited, dauntless girl. There is a lovely scene in the second act when M’Liss visits her young man in jail and they talk through the bars on the window. Her curls are backlit in the way Pickford liked to be photographed and that always made her look so pretty, and when the schoolmaster starts to treat M’Liss as not so much of a child after that, well, it’s no wonder that he does.<
A plot is eventually introduced (nonsense around a rich man’s will, and you don’t need me to tell you who the long lost relatives are, do you?), but the focus is always on the characters. While the film revolves around Pickford’s performance, she is ably supported by Frances Marion’s scenario and Marshall Neilan’s direction. Both have a good eye for the comic value of the ensemble and the “local color” of Harte’s Red Gulch, and Neilan directs with a light touch that holds the story together through the serial transitions between comedy and melodrama.
The Great White Trail (1917)
When The Great White Trail was over, after we had studiously not clapped for the movie and had clapped for Phil Carli’s better-than-the-movie-deserved accompaniment on piano, my movie-watching companion asked me if I ever watched Mystery Science Theater. Funnily enough, I had made the exact same mental association. The Great White Trail is deliriously bad. The program notes said the film was made by a mid-teens independent production company that specialized in serials. While the program notes are not always reliable, I trust them on this point. The plot has the cliffhanger structure, defiance of plausibility (not to mention logic), and barely there production values of a serial coupled with the worst excesses of period melodrama.
The one redeeming feature is the heroine. The character is less than promising at the beginning, a wronged upper-crust wife who abandons her baby in a hollow tree in a fever-induced delirium after her husband drives her away under a false imputation of adultery. (Characterization all around is a prime victim of the aggressively illogical story.) However, shortly after arriving in the Klondike – don’t ask, and yes, the “great white trail” is the arduous trek to the Alaskan gold fields, only upstate New York is the location stand-in – she’s driving a dogsled like an old pro and facing down rowdy miners and villainous white slavers with aplomb. If I had paid good money to see this film in 1917, I might have demanded my money back. At nine decades remove, curiosity value just justifies a festival screening. At least it isn’t boring.
Her Night of Romance (1924)
In current parlance, American heiress Dorothy (Constance Talmadge) and impoverished English peer Paul (Ronald Colman) meet cute when she falls into his arms at the bottom of the steamship gangplank. Many complications ensue in the delightful romantic comedy Her Night of Romance. Some of the complications are noticeably contrived, but that’s forgivable in a sprightly farce, and this is an all-around well-made movie. The titles are witty, the clothes (his and hers) are gorgeous, and Dorothy’s doting millionaire father is a gem. For all its merits, however, the film is carried by the stars. Talmadge is charming and Colman is irresistible. Dorothy and Paul are likable as individuals and perfect as a couple; we’re rooting for them all the way. Although it faced stiff competition, this was my favorite film of the festival.
Pillars of Society (1916)
Pillars of Society has a scenario by D.W. Griffith based on a play by Henrik Ibsen. I suspect there’s more of Griffith than Ibsen in the final product. There’s no doubt that the strength of this morality play is diluted by the film’s own skewed moral sense. Flawed protagonist Bernick proves it’s lesson learned with a climactic public confession of wrongdoing after which he and his family, sadder but wiser, will soldier on supported by the knowledge that Truth is the true pillar of society. Problem is the wrongdoing he confesses to is having created a situation that carried the appearance of impropriety and convincing his brother-in-law to take the rap for it. Left un-confessed, and for the most part unrevealed to family and community, are the decidedly more serious crimes, moral transgressions, and financial finagling that underpin his worldly success. These include having an affair with a married woman, jilting the woman to whom he was engaged in order to marry her sister for her money, conniving with other local businessman in shady financial dealings, sending an unsafe vessel out to sea with unsuspecting passengers and crew aboard, and paying arsonists to set fire to that same ship to collect on the insurance and incidentally drown the troublesome brother-in-law and his new wife.
Other aspects of the film are far more successful. The performances are generally quite good, led by Henry B. Walthall’s excellent character study of the weak, unprincipled Bernick. Raoul Walsh’s direction is very fine. While a dramatic cop-out in the larger scheme of the story, a speedboat race to the rescue of a victim of the sinking ship is exciting and dramatic as a standalone sequence. Another Griffithian scene, the censure of the self-righteous “pillars of society” by a good old woman, is effectively realized in alternating close-ups.
The Down Grade (1927)
The Down Grade is a forgettable programmer starring William Fairbanks as a railroad magnate’s son who foils an attempted train robbery and coterminous kidnapping of the woman he loves. One would not have thought the high-living nightlife lifestyle would have prepared a man so well for Tom Mixian feats of physical prowess. The climactic race to the rescue by car, train, motorcycle, and biplane (in sequential series) is more impressive in concept than in execution. Guinn Williams co-stars as the double-dealing railroad detective bad guy. Not the worst silent film of the festival, but the one least worth watching. The Great White Trail isn’t boring.