Monday, 24 February 2014

Wheel of fortune... The Wheels of Chance (1922)

Whilst I’ve seen quite a few late-period British silent films, I’ve seen very little from the early twenties (not for want of trying). Director Harold M. Shaw’s version of HG Wells’ novel is a gentle social satire that entertains whilst leaving you reading through the lines for its author’s original intentions.

Never-the-less, this is a charming, well-made film that serves as a time-capsule travelogue of Sussex and Hampshire in the days when they were opened up to cycling free spirits yet to be crowded off the highway by motor cars and heavy goods vehicles.

George K. Arthur
George K. Arthur (later to feature in von Sternberg’s The Salvation Hunters as part of a long career) plays Hoopdriver, an assistant at draper’s shop who has planned a week of freedom on his new bicycle. The only problem is he hasn’t quite managed to learn how to ride it yet.

Meanwhile over in the select suburbs, a couple who are planning an altogether more elicit adventure. Jessie Milton (Olwen Roose) has been persuaded by her man-friend Bechamel (Gordon Parker) to travel with him down to his sister’s house in the Sussex town of Midhurst. Her domineering mother (Mabel Archdale) would never countenance such a venture – such things are not welcome in Surbiton - and so, the two skulk off on their bikes in the early hours…

A question of balance...
Hoopdriver wends his wobbly way through picturesque lanes devoid of motor traffic and Shaw works some excellent mobile shots of pastoral perambulation even as you marvel how he’s managed to get so far. Arthur does very well at nearly riding his bike: almost as difficult as deliberately playing a piano badly only rather more painful.

He chances across young Jessie and the two engage in a brief conversation – he’s impressed by her refinement: she’s no shop girl. He leaves her waiting for her male friend and a few minutes later encounters Bechamel angrily trying to fix a puncture, the young man offers to help and gets a hail of invective in response – a wonderful title card graphic hinting at the language used.

Jessie and the bounder Bechamel
Hoopdriver reaches Midhurst and books himself into the hotel only to find that the couple have also arrived there. But all is not quite as it seems…

We already suspect the man is a bounder but the full extent of Bechamel’s caddishness is soon exposed as, after re-joining Jessie, he reveals that his line about his sister was a lie and that he has booked them into an hotel as man and wife! This is shameful… "You are mine! Netted and caught - but mine!”

Meanwhile Mrs Milton has noticed Jessie’s disappearance and sets off in pursuit accompanied by three male friends who are eager to please the comfortably off widow. The portly Widgery (Judd Green) leads the way on his bike whilst the cadaverous Dangle (Wallace Bosco) and monocled Phipps (Clifford Marle) stay in close attendance with the distressed mother.

Wallace Bosco, Clifford Marle, Mabel Archdale and Judd Green
Once Bechamel has revealed his full awfulness, Jessie looks for an escape. There are no more trains to anywhere and she decides that Hoopdriver is her only hope… persuading him to help her escape on their bikes whilst Bechamel awaits her surrender. They fly off just as Dangle arrives… the chase is on.

Jessie decides that she wants to continue her adventure and to free herself of her middle class shackles and, instinctively trusting Hoopdriver, she asks him to go with her. The young man is flattered and decides to paint an improved picture of himself, inventing a more impressive persona as Chris Carrington, colonial diamond mine owner who is considering standing for “Parleyment”…

The game's up!
They stay on the road to Fareham unaware that they are being pursued and that Widgery has guessed at their direction sending the others ahead by train whilst he follows by bike. The Surbiton party spots them and Phipps gives chase on a horse and trap. Unfortunately his control of both cart and horse means that having caught up he cannot stop… Jessie realises what is happening and the couple divert to Winchester.

The Wheels of Chance gives very good countryside and we are treated to lovely views of Hampshire and Sussex roads as well as the towns and villages – on through the tiny village of Wallenstock to Chichester.

Hampshire haven...
But the relationship between “Chris” and Jessie is perhaps not developed enough and there are only occasional hints of Hoopdrivers’ social awkwardness as Jessie notices his habit of almost waiting on her… he doesn’t have the right bearing for a diamond miner.

Jessie’s break for freedom is also never fully explained but then perhaps that’s the point: she’s a polite rebel without a cause… just in need of distraction.

No spoilers…  I won’t give away the ending as it’s less predictable than you might expect: this is more Ringwood than Hollywood.

George K Arthur is the stand-out performer investing Hoopdriver with a peculiarly-British mild heroism that sees him engage in slap-dash fist-cuffs in order to defend Jessie’s honour. He never gives up even though his self-confidence is defined by his position but maybe this adventure will ultimately give him a new direction.

 The Wheels of Chance is occasionally screened round London and the print I saw could do with a clean-up and digital release… but there’s a long queue for that.

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