Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Betty and Lon go boating… Nomads of the North (1920)

Betty Blythe and Lon Chaney
Sometimes you have to work a bit harder to really connect with a silent film: they don’t always contain ground-breaking techniques or anachronistic naturalism. With Nomads of the North it’s more a question of just letting go and trying to enjoy it for what it was intended to be in 1920.

The film certainly caught the attention of my two teenage “critics” and that, if anything confirmed that it is still viable entertainment after almost 93 years: pet bears, forest fires and a good man wronged by the cheats around him… all that and will he get the girl?

Directed with economy and some flair by David Hartford, Nomads of the North was based on the popular novel by James Oliver Curwood – a purveyor of dramatic “pot-boilers” featuring similar themes of love, betrayal and decency in the end. Things change but maybe not that much… popular entertainment still requires skill and they can’t all be middle-brow Euro art films.

The film is set in the wilds of Canada, “God's great wilderness” (not a million miles from Nell Shipman’s latest adventure no doubt…) in a small community thriving on timber and trapping. 

Here the main draw is Nanette Roland - the film’s star Betty Blythe, Theda Bara’s nominal replacement at Fox and accordingly later to reveal a lot more as The Queen of Sheba and She. Nanette not only attracts the attention of the local Mountie Corporal O'Connor (Lewis Stone) but also the sleezeball son of the local business leader, Buck McDougall (Francis McDonald)

But Nanette is pledged to Raoul Challoner (Lon Chaney: all limbs still attached, his real face uncovered… playing the romantic lead…), a fur trapper who has long been missing. She dotes on her gravely ill father (Spottiswoode Aitken) who is too infirm to work leaving his family in debt to the McDougalls.

Lon Chaney and friend
One of Buck’s men reports that Raoul has been killed and, following the death of old man Roland, Nanette is forced into marriage with Buck. But…! Just as she’s about to pledge herself, Raoul arrives to save the day.

The couple only gain brief respite as Buck continues to try and remove Raoul, attacking him with his side-kick. Raoul is too strong and fights them off but in doing so accidentally kills the other man. Accused of murder, he is chained in the room below the McDougalls’ house awaiting the sheriff and a host of phoney testimonies from the family’s hired hands.

Betty Blythe is armed
Nanette will not accept this fate and bravely rescues her man and the two head off into the wilderness with his adopted pets a Grizzly Bear called Neewa and a dog called Brimstone. These two get quite a lot of airtime but were still able to impress my youngsters…

Melbourne MacDowell and Francis McDonald

Time passes and Nanette and Raoul are seen in domestic bliss with their two animals and their new child.

It’s been over three years but sadly they get recognised by Buck. He waits for his chance and tries to blackmail Nanette into leaving Raoul for him but she fends him off with the aid of the pets. Then Buck tells Corporal O'Connor who sets off to arrest Raoul...

Lon Chaney, Betty Blythe and Louis Stone
The climax of the film is pretty impressive, as a forest fire ranges all around and we’re not sure which way the protagonists will fall right to the close. Apparently both Blythe and Chaney were injured during this fire which was actually set up on the back lot using fake trees. It served the drama very well.

No spoilers, you really should watch this as it was intended: a wholesome drama about love and steadfast morality.

This is melodrama and that can be problematic for the modern sophisticate… but both the leads do well. The style is pantomime and whilst not as subtle as the likes of Pickford, Gish and Talmadge, Blythe does a decent job. Chaney has the most expressive face but he seems to be holding back in this role…  was that script or direction? Maybe I’m too aware of the range he was to demonstrate in later roles.

Francis McDonald makes a good baddy as Buck but Lewis Stone almost steals the show as the decent Corporal O'Connor… the Mounties may always get their man but perhaps not always their woman… Stone had a long career and was one of the Stars of Grand Hotel, Queen Christina and other successful talkies.

Louis Stone
I watched the Image Entertainment DVD which is produced from a pretty good 35mm print – no restoration just good preservation. It features a fascinating score performed by Robert Israel on a vintage Fotoplayer – a multi-roll piano/organ equipped with sound effects, which was used to accompany silent films at the time.

The second film on the DVD is The Shock, which is more typical Chaney fare and again features an Israel score, this time played by an orchestra.

Both films from when cinema was fun, cast aside your preconceptions and just enjoy…

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