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Little Mary, Young Hitch and the Mystery of William Beaudine

In the New York Times this week, some notes on Mary Pickford on the occasion of Milestone’s release of “Rags and Riches: the Mary Pickford Collection,” a Blu-ray collection that includes fine transfers of Maurice Tourneur’s “The Poor Little Rich Girl” (1917), Sidney A. Franklin’s “The Hoodlum” (1919), and that single, astonishing work of art signed by William Beaudine, the 1926 “Sparrows.” Just how Beaudine went from this plateau — which anticipates “Sunrise” in several intriguing ways, and seems to me a possible inspiration for Charles Laughton’s “The Night of the Hunter” — to directing “Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla” remains one of the great mysteries of the American cinema.

One of the very few other silent films (of several dozen) directed by Beaudine that can be seen today is “Why Husbands Flirt,” a two reel Christie Comedy that was among the American films discovered in the New Zealand Film Archive in 2010. It’s now available for online viewing here, courtesy of the national Film Preservation Foundation, along with several other titles from that trove — including “The White Shadow,” a 1924 British film directed by Graham Cutts and boasting, as assistant director/editor/art director/scenarist, a young Alfred Hitchcock. The three surviving reels (of six), as preserved by the Academy Film Archive with NFPF funding, can be seen here.

41 comments to Little Mary, Young Hitch and the Mystery of William Beaudine

  • Shawn Stone

    Great essay. 1926 seems to have been Beaudine’s year. THE CANADIAN, which he made at Paramount, is also quite sensitive and anticipates THE WIND.

    Watching a lot of Pickford is rewarding, and Milestone’s ongoing Pickford releases have made it possible. Marshall Neilan’s STELLA MARIS, in which she plays a another sheltered “poor little rich girl” and an abused orphan (these scenes are harrowing) is right up there with SPARROWS.

  • Barry Lane

    Yes, Dave, but is the academic leg work going to be done, and are there elements available that might make that possible. The mystery of William Beaudine is worth a resolution.

  • The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917) has features that link it to Maurice Tourneur’s film of The Blue Bird to come:

    Both have child protagonists.
    Both look for the secret of happiness.
    Both condemn the search for riches and worldly success.
    Both have large scale dream sequences, in which the protagonists’ dream transforms the world around them.
    Both dreams have cemetery scenes.
    Both have melodrama about sick children.
    Pet birds.
    “Animals” that are humans in animal suits: bears and the Silly Ass in The Poor Little Rich Girl, the dog and cat in The Blue Bird.
    Neighborhoods with both rich kids and poor kids.
    Sugar imagery: the servants putting sugar in tea in The Poor Little Rich Girl, Sugar coming alive in The Blue Bird.
    Spectacles of characters: the procession of servants near the start of The Poor Little Rich Girl, anticipates some of the pageantry of The Blue Bird. Each servant is carrying an object related to their work.

    “Young women in trouble while traveling through an eerie forest” returns as a Tourneur subject in The Last of the Mohicans.

    Taking care of children is a key Tourneur virtue. The Poor Little Rich Girl shows the reverse of this: what happens when a child is unloved and neglected. It is pretty grim.

    The father in the Wall Street dream is seated at a huge machine, that literally turns out money. It’s a striking metaphor. One wonders if it were a bit of an influence on Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926). Metropolis has even bigger machines, and a title card talks about how they and the city produce money for the rich.

  • One might add that Geek Culture has a long history.
    The love of the fantastic, science fiction and science itself has deep roots.

    Before Fritz Lang triumphed in the 1920’s with fantasy like DESTINY and science fiction like METROPOLIS and WOMAN IN THE MOON, Maurice Tourneur made remarkable dream-films like THE POOR LITTLE RICH GIRL and THE BLUE BIRD in the 1910’s.

    He also made technology-oriented films, like A GIRL’S FOLLY, which takes us backstage in the US film industry (in New Jersey at the time).

  • Barry Putterman

    I would imagine that some academic leg work has been done on SPARROWS. Pickford’s life and career has been been covered in numerous articles and books and the production history of SPARROWS must be documented in some detail. The fact that there are three excellent but dissimilar cinematographers credited on the film and the star/producer was such a powerful force leads me to believe that it is quite possible that Pickford is the guiding spirit behind the film and she just wanted a passive, if competent, director who wouldn’t mess up what she had in mind.

    More would have to be known about Beaudine’s work in the silent era to make any definative judgments about his style and accomplishments at that time. We do know that, like Allan Dwan and Raoul Walsh, he went to England in the mid 30s. And, like Dwan and Walsh, that move damaged his Hollywood status. However, while Dwan and especially Walsh eventually regained momentum, Beaudine’s career just kept spiraling downward.

    I had heard that he was financially wiped out by the stock market crash and he lived in panic ever afterwards; grabbing whatever jobs he could get regardless of the conditions imposed. But something more definative would have to come from “The William Beaudine Story.” However, since there are no stories about his possibly murdering his wife or sexually assaulting his leading ladies, we might have to wait a while for that.

    Speaking of passivity, it is interesting that the kind of void that Dave identifies at the center of the Perry Mason film series actually worked towards the success of the following television series. “Perry Mason” became sort of the model for a series built around the stories of the characters in each episode with the series regulars adding just enough presence to hold the audience over the long haul. Sort of anthologies with one or more recurring characters. “Route 66” is a good example of what followed in “Perry Mason’s” wake. Of course, they had to basically neuter one of the greatest film villains of all time in order to accomplish this. But that seems to have work out to his benefit, if not to ours.

  • I don’t believe there has been much academic leg work done on “Sparrows,” Barry — or at least, I haven’t been able to unearth it. Pickford’s propensity for dominating her directors is well known, but her focus was always on the acting — and indeed, those are the stories that circulate about “Sparrows” — that she objected to Beaudine’s direction of the kids, and gave him such a hard time about it that he left the film before it was completed. One sources suggests that he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown as a result of his conflict with Little Mary. She had trouble with Lubitsch on the same score, and supposedly hated “Rosita” so much that she wouldn’t allow it to be preserved during her lifetime (it is still missing from the otherwise extensive collection of films that the Pickford Foundation has released to video). And yet “Rosita” remains a Lubitsch film in its visual and narrative design, just as “Poor Little Rich Girl” carries Tourneur’s distinctive mark on every frame, so it does not seem too much to me to assume that the directorial choices in “Sparrows” — and in particular, the intricate design of the swamp sequence, with its multiple angles and carefully timed cutaways and inserts — are those of a filmmaker rather than someone simply focused on performance. But of course, we will never know, given how little of Beaudine’s silent work survives.

  • Barry Lane

    There seems to be more than a hint re Beaudine: Possible financial and emotional instability. They provide places to start. Thank you for the insight(s).

  • Dave — Can we hope that Rosita will ever show up on home video (in some format or other). I’ve been wanting to see this for ages.

    BTW — Great review of Milestone’s great Blu-Ray set. Now I have to decide to wait for more Pickford blu-rays — or just buy the existing Milestone DVDs.

    Query — what are the other “essential” Pickford films?

  • alex r

    There is a book on William Beaudine by his daughter-
    William Beaudine: From Silents to Television

  • Robert Garrick

    That book on Beaudine, which you can read about here–

    –is supposed to be good, and not overly full of puffery notwithstanding that the author is Beaudine’s granddaughter.

    We talked about Beaudine a little bit here a few months back, in the thread dealing with Republic Pictures and George Sherman. Beaudine directed many of the half-hour “Lassie” episodes with Jon Provost, from 1960-1968. (The IMDB says he directed 75 of them.) Beaudine did other television work too, including many shows for Disney.

    Those “Lassie” episodes were competently directed. They were suspenseful and often frightening (at least to me, at that age) and the characters had some dimension. They share the “children in peril” theme with “Sparrows,” and there was a lot of that in Disney, too. Beaudine seemed to like that type of material, and he was good with it.

    Beaudine’s films from the sound era are not “auteur” material, as far as I can tell, though I haven’t seen them all. They can be entertaining, though, and they often feature stars like Bela Lugosi, John Carradine, and the Bowery Boys. Joseph H. Lewis worked with some of the same stars and on some of the same series, and it might be an instructive film school project to compare (for example) Beaudine’s “Ghosts on the Loose” (1943) with Lewis’s “Pride of the Bowery” (1940).

    The Library of Congress’s small but technically excellent movie theatre–the “Mary Pickford Theatre”–is located in the newer Madison Building, and about twenty years ago the Library showed most of the extant Pickford titles, all in pristine prints. (I believe they were all 35mm.) “Sparrows” was excellent, but so were many of the others, and it was easy to see how Pickford became such a star. She was adorable, but also intelligent, and attractive but not in a way that was threatening to women. Like certain other actresses (Julie Harris, Teresa Wright, Joan Fontaine) she often played characters much younger than her actual age, and she was able to pull it off. In “Sparrows,” Pickford played “the eldest child at a baby farm,” but she was already 34 years old.

  • jbryant

    Michael Kerpan: I haven’t seen enough Pickford films to be remotely authoritative about what’s “essential,” but I greatly enjoyed the two I’ve seen: Marshall Neilan’s DADDY-LONG-LEGS (1919) and Sam Taylor’s MY BEST GIRL (1927). I found Pickford to be lovely and talented – adept at both physical comedy and subtle dramatics. In the former film, she ages from a 12-year-old to a college graduate, and makes you believe it. The latter is a charming blend of romantic comedy and melodrama, with Mary pulling out all the stops (maybe one stop too many) in the climactic scene. It’s rather amazing that it didn’t land her among the first group of Oscar’s Best Actress nominees.

  • patrick henry

    Re Barry’s comments about the TV Perry Mason’s “passivity”: I think that Raymond Burr and the Mason show in general were hampered by Erle Stanley Gardner’s close, perhaps obsessive supervision. In the 50th Anniversary DVD set, Barbara Hale tells of Gardner disliking a scene where she sat on Perry’s desk (while he was sitting at it) and ordering it reshot because “a secretary doesn’t do that.”

    In a 1958 episode “The Case of the Daring Decoy” Perry interviews a Sophisticated Lady (Marie Windsor, with a cigarette holder) in her apartment. Windsor makes it entirely clear that she has carnal designs on Perry, but he seems unaware of this and continues with his bland questioning. It has the odd feeling of Windsor and Burr acting in two different movies. I think Gardner must have decreed that Perry could not show other than a professional interest in any of the women he comes in contact with.

  • Michael Kerpan (November 20, 2012 at 2:25 pm): Mary Pickford’s great Griffith shorts include THE LONELY VILLA, THE UNCHANGING SEA, RAMONA, THE INFORMER, and THE NEW YORK HAT. Cecil B. DeMille’s A ROMANCE OF THE REDWOODS and THE LITTLE AMERICAN are worth seeing. The great feature films include THE POOR LITTLE RICH GIRL, REBECCA OF SUNNYBROOK FARM, STELLA MARIS, AMARILLY OF CLOTHES-LINE ALLEY, DADDY-LONG-LEGS, HEART O’ THE HILLS, and SPARROWS. There are many others I look forward to see. Ernst Lubitsch’s ROSITA (all prints of which are based on a highly duped, low contrast Russian print) is worth seeing side by side with Herbert Brenon’s THE SPANISH DANCER, starring Pola Negri! Frank Borzage’s remake of SECRETS is a worthy finale to a remarkable career.

    Based on the usually mawkish stills I had prejudices about Mary Pickford for a long time. What a surprise it was to realize how stark those movies really are. Pickford was a resourceful businesswoman, and it is interesting how deeply concerned she was with social injustice. That is the biggest difference with Shirley Temple movies who covered many of the same titles in the sound era (of course Shirley Temple was not the author in the way Mary Pickford as the producer-star certainly was).

  • Barry Lane

    Patrick Henry re Perry Mason Burr and Hale

    I believe what you have written is essentially true but Burr and Hale communicate their mutual affection over the course of the series despite that. Della is always with Perry. On cruises. Camping out. Wherever couples go. As for Windsor…he doesn’t respond to anyone other than Della. And a woman with a cigarette holder doesn’t seems so appealing.

  • Alex

    The “Pickford” auteur..?

    Well, just as well she didn’t star or write for Lang.

    Not much inclined to believ that Speilberg’s fine LINCOLN has any more auteurs than Kushner, but sometimes an impresario orchestrating the right talented assistants will do.

  • I’ve tried repeatedly to watch the 1930’s Perry Mason films, but never made it through more than 20 minutes of any of them. Bon vivant Warren William is badly miscast as archetypal middle class workaholic and bourgeois icon Perry Mason, a man with a skepticism towards the rich and powerful, and a strong sympathy with the working class, especially working women.

    Perry Mason is shown (in the books) almost exclusively at work. We see him at a vast array of law work and detective work, but never in his personal life. He is well characterized as a reasoner, a worker, a detective, and as the friend of working people. But all other aspects are deliberately invisible.

    Best place to start reading Perry Mason: the short story “The Case of the Irate Witness” (1953). It is found in the book of the same title, in an audio version on the internet, and in anthologies like THE OXFORD BOOK OF DETECTIVE STORIES.

    The best classical period adaptations of mystery novels (original author follows movie and director):

    The Bat (Roland West, 1926) Mary Roberts Rinehart
    Miss Pinkerton (Lloyd Bacon, 1932) Mary Roberts Rinehart
    The Penguin Pool Murder (George Archainbaud, 1932) Stuart Palmer
    Murder on the Campus (Richard Thorpe, 1933) Whitman Chambers
    Remember Last Night? (James Whale, 1935) Adam Hobhouse
    The Plot Thickens (Ben Holmes, 1936) Stuart Palmer
    Two in the Dark (Benjamin Stoloff, 1936) Gelett Burgess
    The Witness Chair (George Nicholls, Jr., 1936) Rita Weiman
    The Patient in Room 18 (Bobby Connolly, Crane Wilbur, 1938) Mignon G. Eberhart
    The Lady Vanishes (Alfred Hitchcock, 1938) Ethel Lina White
    The Hollywood Stadium Mystery (David Howard, 1938) Stuart Palmer
    Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase (William Clemens, 1939)
    The Case of the Black Parrot (Noel M. Smith, 1941) Burton Stevenson
    I Wake Up Screaming (H. Bruce Humberstone, 1941) Steve Fisher
    Journey into Fear (Orson Welles, 1942) Eric Ambler
    Ministry of Fear (Fritz Lang, 1943) Graham Greene
    Phantom Lady (Robert Siodmak, 1944) Cornell Woolrich
    Laura (Otto Preminger, 1944) Vera Caspary
    Fallen Angel (Otto Preminger, 1945) Marty Holland
    Green for Danger (Sidney Gilliat, 1946) Christianna Brand
    The Spiral Staircase (Robert Siodmak, 1946) Ethel Lina White
    Crack-Up (Irving Reis, 1946) Fredric Brown
    Secret Beyond The Door (Fritz Lang, 1948) Rufus King
    The Lady From Shanghai (Orson Welles, 1948) Sherwood King
    Intruder in the Dust (Clarence Brown, 1949) William Faulkner
    Stage Fright (Alfred Hitchcock, 1950) Selwyn Jepson
    Lightning Strikes Twice (King Vidor, 1951) Margaret Echard
    The Blue Gardenia (Fritz Lang, 1953) Very Caspary
    Dangerous Crossing (Joseph M. Newman, 1953) John Dickson Carr
    Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich, 1955) Mickey Spillane
    The Trouble With Harry (Alfred Hitchcock, 1955) Jack Trevor
    23 Paces to Baker Street (Henry Hathaway, 1956) Philip MacDonald
    Cheyenne: Big Ghost Basin (Joseph Kane, 1957) Steve Frazee
    Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958) Wade Miller
    Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958) Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac
    Witness For the Prosecution (Billy Wilder, 1958) Agatha Christie
    The Man in the Net (Michael Curtiz, 1959) Patrick Quentin
    The Burning Court (Julien Duvivier, 1962) John Dickson Carr

  • Recently I have been working on Mae West’s reception in Italy, reading many film magazines from the mid-30s. According to some surprising press-releases, Mary Pickford wrote additional material for West’s Belle of the Nineties (1934)… Has this ever been confirmed?

  • Barry Lane

    Mike Grost:

    You excluded And Then There Were None…(1945). And may as well add The Saint In New York.,,(1938).

  • Barry,

    I’ve never seen any of the film versions of “And Then There Were None”! Have read the book.

    By the way, the list is mainly confined to “mysterious situations solved by detectives”. It excludes thrillers and suspense stories without mystery, such as The Big Heat or North by Northwest. Great films – but not mysteries.

    Happy Thanksgiving, to those who celebrate it.

  • Alex

    Mike Grost,

    Nice list, but surely “The Kennel Murder Case” (Micheal curtiz, 1933),S.S.Van Dines, is as good as “The Penguin Pool Murder.” Do such (detectiveless?) espionage thrillers as “Journey into Fear” and “Ministry of Fear” really have anough mytery elements to qualify as mysteries at all, or if they are, can they fairly be judged superior to such other espionage thrillers with a mystery touch as “The 39 Steps” (Buchan) nd “Man Hunt” (Geoffrey Household)?

    Are “The Trouble With Harry” “Secret Beyond The Door” mysteries or thrillers at all?

  • Barry Lane


    Surely The Saint qualifies…Yes? And The Saint In New York is superior. Re And Then There Were None. In the film, not the original novel, Philip Lombard clearly meets most if not all your requirements. Also, well worth watching–at least Rene Clair’s version.

  • alex

    Claire s …Then There Were None is great!

    Don t know Saint films well though Saint in London sits on my dvr queue.

  • With Mary Pickford and directors, it’s important to remember that Mary had years of experience on stage before she went into cinema. From the very start, she disagreed with D. W. Griffith and then Maurice Tourner and Cecil B. Demille about her acting style and her portrayals. And considering that her style was so “modern” in comparison to many other screen actors of the time, she was right. No one knew Mary’s strengths and weaknesses than she herself did. It was with Poor Little Rich Girl where she and Frances Marion fought for their version and the film’s enormous success bolstered their opinion that they should control their own destiny. Even then, Pickford worked fantastically well with Mickey Neilan, Sam Taylor and Beaudine. It was the directors who didn’t understand her appeal and tried to impose their own view where she would have disagreements. And with Lubitsch, although she was miscast, their relation and the film is far better than the later myths imply.

    The best places to start with Mary Pickford are Scott Eyman’s book (for her film life), Eileen Whitfield (for her theatrical life) and Kevin Brownlow (for the making of her films).

  • alex

    Not to speak of films of Hammer s Thin Man and Maltese Falcon

  • Robert Garrick

    Dennis, thank you for that great post.

    Mike, that’s a good list but it certainly isn’t complete. No Raymond Chandler, for example. Chandler’s books are the basis of “The Falcon Takes Over” (1942); “Murder, My Sweet” (1944); “The Big Sleep” (1946); “The Lady in the Lake” (1947); “The Brasher Doubloon” (1947); and a few others. “Chinatown” (1974) was inspired by Chandler’s work. Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye” (1973) (a film I like a lot, though I wouldn’t bet on Dave agreeing with me there) also comes from a Chandler novel.

    I don’t want to start picking away at your list–as the guy says on the infomercial, “we can’t do this all day.” But Chandler is pretty important; I wanted to correct that omission.

    And by the way, there’s also this guy named Sherlock Holmes . . .

  • jbryant

    Off-topic, but of potential interest to some here: Netflix has just started streaming about 90 episodes of SUSPENSE, the live anthology series that aired from 1949-1954. I think these may be all the extant episodes of the 260 that were made. A bunch of them were directed by Robert Mulligan.

  • “The best classical period adaptations of mystery novels”

    The key word here is “best,” so perhaps Mike’s omissions are of lesser adaptations or adaptations that aren’t faithful to their sources (which would account for the absence of many Sherlock Holmes titles out of 100s of adaptations.) Hawks’ version of “The Big Sleep” may be missing because an important plot point is changed, and Altman’s “The Long Good-bye” not only changes the ending of Chandler’s novel but is entirely opposed to the spirit of the book.

    But the 1941 version of “The Maltese Falcon” is certainly a faithful adaptation and a pretty good movie too.

  • I clearly overreached by using the word “best”. That implies some definitive list of objectively provable superior films!
    Actually, the list should be called “favorites”: films I personally liked.

    Have seen a lot of Hammett and Chandler adaptations, and generally didn’t like them. “The Big Sleep” (Hawks) should be on the list though. Hammett and Chandler are talented writers, but I don’t like Huston’s Maltese Falcon film, for example.
    Would like to see “The Brasher Doubloon”. If only to learn what George Montgomery looks like in a suit, rather than cowboy clothes 🙂

    I’ve watched very few Sherlock Holmes adaptations. I disliked what seen of the Basil Rathbone/ Nigel Bruce versions.

    Rather than trying to lay down the law about what was good versus bad in mystery, the goal of my list was to remind everyone of the many creative, inventive adaptations of whodunit mysteries that have been made. Outstanding films like Lightning Strikes Twice (King Vidor, 1951) have a tendency to be forgotten. The list was intended to bring them back into discussion.
    What little I’ve seen on Mulligan’s work for SUSPENSE is often remarkable: THE BLUE PANTHER, F.O.B. VIENNA are gems.

  • Ministry of Fear (Fritz Lang, 1943) has a hidden villain, whose identity is revealed at the end. This places it among the who done it mystery, as well as espionage genres. It also has subsidiary mystery puzzles: what is going on with the cake? Who is that mysterious man following people around?

  • Robert Garrick

    Speaking of directors who might have murdered their wives or girlfriends, I see that the first film on Mike’s list is “The Bat” (1926), directed by Roland West. I’ve seen it and it’s a charming film, with one of those smart old ladies who solves the mystery in the last reel.

    West remade his own film four years later as “The Bat Whispers” (1930). Film critic Elliott Stein (who wrote for the Village Voice and elsewhere) voted it one of the ten greatest films in a past Sight & Sound poll–I think it was 1991, and some years back Stein hosted a Brooklyn screening of the widescreen version of the film. West made two versions of “The Bat Whispers,” one in normal ratio and a second (with different angles and set-ups) in widescreen, approximately 2:1 ratio, on 65mm film. For years “The Bat Whispers” was thought to be a lost film, but good copies of both versions of the film turned up about twenty years ago, in the archives of the Mary Pickford estate. Pickford had purchased the rights to the film with the intention of having it remade, perhaps with Humphrey Bogart. UCLA restored the 65mm “Magnifilm” version from the Pickford materials.

    Elliott Stein died earlier this month, by the way. I will miss his writing, because he often championed oddities (like “The Bat Whispers”) that were off most critical radar screens.

    For its time, “The Bat Whispers” had some amazing effects. There were scenes of the title criminal swooping, Spiderman-like, from building to building in a way that seemed impossible in 1930. This type of quick movement in space was a feature of West’s films: remember the death of the villain in “Alibi” (1929), who died during a failed jump between high rises, falling into a vast space between buildings.

    West was obsessed with master criminals and with the notion of the perfect crime. Bob Kane said that his character “Batman” (introduced in the late 1930s) came from “The Bat Whispers.”

    Roland West is an important director. Of the people ranked favorably by Sarris, he’s perhaps the least well known, probably because he retired after 1931’s “Corsair.” He’s in the “Expressive Esoterica” section of The American Cinema, right alongside Jacques Tourneur, Frank Tashlin, Robert Siodmak, and Joseph H. Lewis.

    “The Bat” was remade a third time in 1959, with Agnes Moorhead and Vincent Price, in a stagebound treatment directed by Crane Wilbur. It’s not interesting cinema but I loved watching it as a kid on Saturday afternoon’s “Chiller” horror show in Los Angeles (KTTV Channel 11), and I’ll bet X saw it the same way. I watched “The Bat” again recently and it’s still entertaining.

    Roland West’s Wikipedia entry makes fascinating (and quick) reading.

    And . . . while in Hollywood visit the site of “Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Cafe,” 17575 Pacific Coast Highway, just west of Sunset Blvd.

  • Mike Gebert

    I honestly don’t think there’s any great mystery to Beaudine’s career, and it’s not atypical, if maybe at the end of the bell curve, for directors of his era.

    I’ve seen a small handful of his early films– including a quite good pre-Code comedy-drama called Three Wise Girls– and he seems capable and intelligent as a director. That said, if he was most capable and most intelligent when he had Mary Pickford as producer-star and Mohr, Rosher and Struss as his cinematographers, well, that happens and he’s not the only director who tended to be at his best when Struss in particular was at his side– Erle C. Kenton and even Cecil B. DeMille might well qualify as examples.

    One thing that I think is not widely recognized is that just as movie stars often saw their careers ended in the early years of sound, so did directors. A lot of notable silent names, and not just Griffith or Stroheim, directed their last film in the early 30s– people like Irvin Willat, Rex Ingram, Reginald Barker, John S. Robertson, Roland West, etc. It was an up or out moment, we know who made it up (Ford, Walsh, etc.) but we pay less attention to those who just managed to hang on, working but never again to enjoy prominent projects. Like the Lewises and Pevneys who went into TV in the 50s and 60s, they weren’t big enough in outlook or ambition to become names above the title, but they weren’t washed up, either, they were able to shift into assembly line production, get the job done, and enjoy a comfortable life. Which may have led to mordant humor on occasion (“You mean somebody out there is actually waiting for this sh*t?”)… but hardly ranked as bleak enough to lead to a Sunset Boulevard– or even a Byrds song.

  • Alex

    I suppose that Ministry’s initially mysrterious exploding cake, the Willi Hilde character to be found behind the explosion, plus a number of Scotland Yard inspectors, suffice to qualify Ministry as a mystery of sorts.

    But are all espionage thriller’s mysteries that have a spy or an espionage plot to uncover?

    Alas, Ministry’s not nearly as good as Lang’s Man Hunt nor nearly as stylish as Greene’s original (“There was something about a fête that drew Arthur Rowe irresistably…..”)

  • Robert Garrick

    Mike makes an excellent point about directors whose careers ended with sound–another one would be D.W. Griffith, and Tod Browning fizzled out with sound too, though he lived until 1962.

    As for Karl Struss, there’s no question he’s a great cameraman, but Struss was only second camera on “Sparrows,” and from what I’ve read Hal Mohr played a larger role in the look of the film. Mohr also designed many of the sets, including the lake. According to Mohr, the cameramen on the film often worked independently. There were sequences that were shot entirely by Mohr, and others that were shot entirely by Struss. (Charles Rosher also did cinematography on the film.)

    Mohr has an incredible filmography. He shot “The Monster” (1925) with Roland West; “Little Annie Rooney” (1925) and “Sparrows” with Beaudine and Pickford; he was selected to shoot “The Jazz Singer” (1927), which presented some unique challenges; he worked with Erich von Stroheim on “The Wedding March” (1928); he shot “Broadway” (1929) for Paul Fejos; he shot “The Last Warning” 1929) for Paul Leni; and he was one of three cameramen on “The King of Jazz” (1930).

    His sound credits go on and on, but some highlights were his work with Michael Curtiz on “The Walking Dead” (1936) and “Captain Blood” (1935). Mohr (and W. Howard Greene) did the beautiful technicolor work on the Claude Rains “Phantom of the Opera” (1943). Mohr worked with Joseph Losey on “The Big Night” (1951); with Fritz Lang on “Rancho Notorious” (1952); with Max Ophuls on “The Exile” (1947), where he did some uncredited work; with Don Siegel on “Baby Face Nelson” (1957) and “The Lineup” (1958); and with Sam Fuller on “Underworld U.S.A.” (1961). He was in charge of photography when Andrew Stone sank the Ile de France, terrifying his cast and crew on “The Last Voyage” (1960). Mohr was 66 years old when he did that job.

    His Hollywood career began in 1912 and ended in 1968, paralleling Beaudine’s career, which started in 1915 and ended in 1979. The difference is that Mohr worked at the top of the profession for his entire career, while Beaudine worked the insect patrol for all but a few years in the 1920s.

    Mohr won the only write-in Oscar ever, for 1935’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and he won another Oscar for “Phantom of the Opera.” What I find interesting is that Mohr appeared to specialize in dark, horrific expressionism, particularly in the 1920s, in films like “The Monster,” “The Cat Creeps,” “The Last Warning,” and “Sparrows,” while simultaneously being a specialist in musicals, albeit ones with a dark edge: “The Jazz Singer,” “Broadway,” “King of Jazz,” and later “The Phantom of the Opera.” In the sound era he was more of a generalist, but his work was always high quality.

  • Maurice Tourneur’s films can have a self-reflexive quality. They are filled with images of “directing”. And with metaphors for directing.

    woman artists’ models costumed and given props for posing: Trilby,
    film director in studio, chessboard metaphor for blocking out actors on movie set: A Girl’s Folly
    related: boy’s magic hat makes souls of objects visible: The Blue Bird


    Men dressing other men:
    exhibit: Wax Figures,
    Squire puts gardener’s apron on hero, Earl is shaved and has gouty foot bandaged by servants: The Wishing Ring,
    Red waits for hero when released from prison with hero’s coat and hat, hero gets friends jobs with new clothes: Alias Jimmy Valentine,
    film director studying and approving actors’ costume and make-up, dresser helps actor hero: A Girl’s Folly
    related: heroine dressed as boy as punishment: The Poor Little Rich Girl,
    kids get clothes on by magic: The Blue Bird)

    Figures of people, often as metaphors for directing:
    wax figures in museum: Wax Figures,
    dolls arranged by girl: Alias Jimmy Valentine,
    sculpture in studio: Trilby,
    statue in Garden of Lonely Children: The Poor Little Rich Girl,
    statues in palace of Night: The Blue Bird

  • “It’s not interesting cinema but I loved watching it as a kid on Saturday afternoon’s “Chiller” horror show in Los Angeles (KTTV Channel 11), and I’ll bet X saw it the same way. I watched “The Bat” again recently and it’s still entertaining.”

    That’s right Robert. I also saw the West’s extraordinary 70mm version at UCLA too, and I think that print was also screened at the Cinematheque in more recent years.

    I believe that the 1959 version was Gavin Gordon’s last picture before he turned to the real estate business full time.

    As for Roland West, the handful of titles that I’ve seen place him as a major stylist in my view. But then maybe these were only his best works and the rest of his oeuvre has its share of routine assignments.

  • Mike Gebert

    My impression after seeing half a dozen of West’s films is that he was a guy who could pull off a few bravura sequences but the rest of the movie could be pretty pedestrian and a tough sit in talkies, or at best lightweight hokum in the silent era (which would be a fair description of both the ’26 The Bat and The Monster with Chaney). But it’s hard to judge somebody whose primary work is early talkies; maybe if he’d kept working through the 30s, he’d have solved that. Alibi, from 1929, certainly works hard to be dramatic and innovative, even if not all the innovations work; no talkie from 1929 is entirely a joy to sit through, as far as I’m concerned, so Alibi ranks among the better attempts.

  • Robert Garrick

    X, your mention of Gavin Gordon caused me to look him up. Holy cow.

    He plays the police detective in the 1959 “The Bat,” a major role in the film, and Gordon definitely has a presence. He’s the authority figure, the “safety” figure, but he also seems menacing somehow. And he looks like he might have had a childhood case of acne–a sure sign of adult dementia, in my experience.

    He’s not a terribly attractive guy, and I didn’t recognize him from other films. But it turns out he played the “fruity Lord Byron” (characterization courtesy of “Bright Lights Film Journal”)in “Bride of Frankenstein” (1935), and was the discreet companion of Edward Everett Horton for many years. He did appear in films after “The Bat”–Capra’s “Pocketful of Miracles” (1961) for example. Gordon had also worked with Capra in several early 1930s films.

    His filmography is rather hilarious. There’s “The Good Fairy” (1935), “Lone Cowboy,” “I Adore You,” and “Female,” all in 1933, “Man Against Woman” (1932), “All Steamed Up” (1929), and lest we forget, “Nefretiti, Queen of Egypt” (1952).

  • Barry Lane

    Nefretiti is a television program.

  • Some common subjects in Roland West movies:


    Secret tunnels in houses
    Laundry chutes or dumb waiter shafts, used as passages
    Characters moving on rooftops
    Huge sets, with high walls

    Film techniques:
    Shooting sets straight on, with the frame parallel to wall of set
    Rectangles, diagonals and straight lines in sets and composition
    Shadows projected on walls
    Characters lost and alone in large sets
    Steep overhead camera angles, in some shots
    Forward Camera Movement

    Deceptive men, leading double lives
    Information about characters only gradually revealed during story
    Deglamorized characters
    A discomfort with the police and their behavior

  • “Gordon definitely has a presence. He’s the authority figure, the “safety” figure, but he also seems menacing somehow.”

    Unforgettable as Captain Orloff in “The Scarlet Empress.”

    Mike, your catalog of visual motifs in West’s films is useful, but how many movies is it based on?

  • There is a brand-new book that came out about Mary Pickford which is edited by Christel Schmidt, “Mary Pickford: Queen of The Movies” (University Press of Kentucky). Just browsing through it it looks like an impressive collection: a large-format hard-cover book that includes a career overview, biography, contributions by Molly Haskell and Kevin Brownlow, and a lot of pictures from film stills, production notes, posters and so on. An important asset for future Mary Pickford scholarship.