These two full-length features (albeit short by modern standards) were presented with a short film and some amusing historical anecdotes by the film historian Kevin Brownlow to a packed audience of avid silent film fans at South London’s Cinema Museum, part of the regular ‘Kennington Bioscope’ night. Piano accompaniment was provided by Lillian Henley for ‘The Passer-by’, Cyrus Gabrysch for William S. Hart western ‘The Return of Draw Egan’, and John Sweeney for the Rin Tin Tin adventure ‘The Lighthouse by the Sea’. Although on such a sweltering Summer evening it was warm in the room, the evening was enjoyable enough that any discomfort was almost forgotten. As these were prints from Brownlow’s private collection they may not have been in the best condition (and their running time may have differed from the times given below), but all were projected very capably by the Cinema Museum staff. I should be clear that my ratings and reviews below are a rather futile attempt to judge the films like any others I’ve seen this year, and though they may have been hoky melodramas, the evening was superbly enjoyable and I’m glad to have seen all three.
SPECIAL SCREENING FILM REVIEWS | Seen at Cinema Museum, London, Wednesday 4 September 2013
The Return of Draw Egan (1916) || Director William S. Hart | Writer C. Gardner Sullivan | Cinematographer Joseph H. August | Starring William S. Hart | Length c50 minutes || My Rating likeable
By the time this Western was made, a couple of years into his film career, William S. Hart was already in his 50s but also one of the biggest box office draws in the country. Of course, the ‘Draw’ which is his character’s nickname in this film is less to do with his popularity, as with his quick-draw skills. Despite this, the life of an aging gunslinger is a solitary one, and Hart basically inaugurated the kind of weathered frontier cowboy image that would become a staple of the genre, tracing a direct line through to — taking some random examples — Randolph Scott’s collaborations with Budd Boetticher in the 1950s, or Clint Eastwood’s hard-bitten outlaw in Unforgiven (1992).
Here too, typically, ‘Draw’ Egan starts out as the ringleader of a band of outlaws. When their gang is rounded up in a remote cabin, he slips through a trapdoor and makes his escape. Holing up in a one-horse town where the greatest affront (so the intertitles relate) is to ask a man’s background, he gets involved in a bar-room fight, but his quick gun skills see him through and also impress a visiting mayor who recruits him as Sheriff for his town of Yellow Dog. Taking the name of “William Blake” as Sheriff (shades of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man), Egan is almost reluctant to sort out the violent young gunslingers that overrun Yellow Dog, but the love of the mayor’s daughter convinces him to stick around. Discontented by this new lawmaker, the locals turn to an old member of Egan’s gang, Arizona Joe, who shows up out of the blue one day, drawing Egan’s propriety and (new-found) morals into question.
There’s a lot of plot there, but through it all the one constant is the solid-jawed laconic Hart, whose craggy face admits little overt emotion. In some ways, Hart has mastered better than many of the younger, more famous actors of the era the ideal film acting style, with little use for grand hand-waving gestures, while imparting plenty of his character’s existential weariness. He wears the mantle of one who has been disappointed in life and feels conflicted about his newly-conferred legitimacy, yet the arrival of his old outlaw compatriot (no such compunction at melodramatic gestures for this actor) spurs him to confront this moral quandary.
From a technical standpoint, this is still early cinema. The camera viewpoints are simple, frontal set-ups, but there’s some nice use of coloured tinting. Occasionally, the images even attain some of the conflicted solitude of the character — I liked a scene where Hart walks past the camera framed by bare walls and emptiness, in a bleak moment of the soul. At times of particular moral crisis, the camera even ventures in for some soulful close-ups on Hart’s expressively still face.
It’s a slow film that emphasises the title character’s moral development more than action and gunplay, but in it we can see some of what made Hart quite so popular a figure in the contemporary cinema. It also shows that even at this early stage in his film career (not to mention the development of cinema itself), Hart was both an accomplished actor and director, though it wouldn’t be long before his star was eclipsed by others — including even a plucky canine.
The Lighthouse by the Sea (1924) || Director Malcolm St. Clair | Writers Owen Davis and Darryl F. Zanuck (as “Gregory Rogers”) | Cinematographer Lyman Broening | Starring Rin Tin Tin | Length c70 minutes || My Rating likeable
Rin Tin Tin was a huge star whose success, as Kevin Brownlow wryly pointed out in his introduction to this silent film, helped to fund experiments into the coming era of sound reproduction, not to mention advancing the career of his screenwriter Darryl F. Zanuck (later to be a studio head and major figure in the golden era of studio filmmaking). Rin Tin Tin was a star greater than many others in world cinema, but (as a quick skim through the film history books on my shelves indicate) he’s often overlooked in histories of cinema, for after all he was a dog, a German Shepherd to be precise. And yet he was not really just one dog (though that original, found on the battlefields of World War I, was at the heart of the ‘brand’) — different dogs stood in depending on what needed doing in the film, and when the original Rin Tin Tin died in the early-30s, others took his place.
As a star vehicle, The Lighthouse by the Sea is not a million miles from the kind of hokey confection you’d get today for whomever is top of the box office heap. Rin Tin Tin is set up as a decorated war hero (yes) who literally washes up on shore with his rather unheroic human owner to help save a local lighthouse keeper from a twin threat. On the one hand, being elderly and quite blind, the lighthouse keeper is in danger of forced retirement by his bosses, and yet his lighthouse patrols a key location for some rum smuggling local crooks, who’d rather prefer darkness for their operations.
As a set-up, it’s no more or less ridiculous than much else Hollywood is responsible for. There are matched visits to the lighthouse — each threatening in their own way — by a pair of both the wary officials and the lowlife crooks, the latter of whom have inveigled themselves into the affections of the keeper’s daughter. In the end, these and other machinations are easily forgotten, for it’s all about the dog (in this particular case, having tied up Rin Tin Tin and his master on a boat, they just break in and put out the light). Zanuck found success as a studio head; I’m not convinced he would have made it much further as a writer.
There are in any case plenty of setpieces to show Rin Tin Tin’s cunning and indefatigability. He breaks through doors, bites through ropes, carries burning rags, swims through the water helping to drag men ashore, and engages in a spot of dogfighting (though more often he’s tackling bad guys). Possibly the most memorable setpiece is when the old man loses his cane and stumbles towards certain doom on the rocks by his lighthouse, so Rin Tin Tin digs out the post he’s tethered to and rushes to the old man’s aid. Part of what’s wonderful is that at no point does logic enter into the set-up: the reason the daughter sends her father away (she’s entertaining one of the crooks) is quickly forgotten once the peril begins; the reason why Rin Tin Tin is tied up is never clear (perhaps there are some missing scenes); and quite why the old man continues stumbling on to the treacherous rocks after losing his cane is most perplexing. Yet none of that seems to matter: the pay off is a wonderfully-staged scene in which Rin Tin Tin takes his tethering post back to the spot where it was lodged and digs it back in, while casting baleful looks, apparently pregnant with meaning, back towards his neglectfully apologetic master.
The film is filled with similar credulity-stretching incident, but its very age lends it a charm that perhaps in a film of recent decades would be lacking. The filming itself is proficient, cutting together these canine setpieces at a snappy pace, but the staging is still fairly prosaic — when the old man is bundled off a staircase by the bad guys, for example, the clunky frontal set-up seems to drain the scene of peril, pushing the emotional affect closer to comedic bathos. But there’s no doubting the reason for contemporary audiences’ enjoyment of such films, filled as they are with ridiculous incident and no time for reflection, and it’s not too far-fetched to imagine a similar star being a box-office draw 90 years on.
The Passer-by (1912, short film) || Director Oscar Apfel | Writer Marion Brooks | Cinematographers Otto Brautigan and Henry Cronjager | Starring Marc McDermott | Length 12 minutes
Like a lot of short films, there’s a strong idea at the heart of it, but that idea is as much about a formal innovation as anything in the story itself. At two points in the film, the camera is untethered from the static frontal position that is so common to early films, and moves in for a close-up on the shabby-looking eponymous passer-by (Marc McDermott) as he tells an anecdote at a dinner. He’s been pulled in off the street by a group of entitled bankers because one of the guests has cancelled, and that camera movement is combined with an almost seamless matched lap dissolve to him several years before at a similar dinner, significantly more well-dressed. The film then charts the fall from grace that brought this man to his current wretched state (cue dissolve back to the original dinner scene as the camera tracks out). A rather improbable coup du théâtre provides the conclusion, but the real drama is in that understated yet elegant pair of camera movements.