Kevin Brownlow was in his element, retelling the tale of his pursuit of this print of The Signal Tower over many years with a recalcitrant collector, a self-made millionaire builder with a penchant for train films and fifties American TV shows. Mr Brownlow finally won over the covetous constructioneer who released his grip in the face of unrelenting enthusiasm and graciously agreed to pass on the treasure and all of his collection in his will.
You can understand the man’s own passion for this is a film to make the rail enthusiast’s pulse race that bit faster in fact, this is a film to increase everyone’s BPM as Clarence Brown winds the tension to almost unbearable levels: a runaway train speeding down towards a defenceless passenger train, a signal man fighting the elements and time to dislodge the tracks and faced with the horrific dilemma of having to save the many whilst his wife is under imminent threat from a boozed up Wallace Beery with only one thing on his mind with a very vulnerable Virginia Valli…
|Rockliffe Fellowes and Frankie Darro|
It’s a dramatic scenario and one that required a great deal of sinuous dexterity from accompanist Cyrus Gabrysch who provided the emotive musical fuel for this clash of metal, man and machines: a run-away pianist who matched the film beat for beat. For the musician every note’s a dead man’s handle – for the train, everything stops if you release your grip but the music is dependent on a thousand stabs of precise pressure: all the right notes and in the right order with Beery’s leery menace as much a threat as the speed of those locomotives.
The Signal Tower is a film of contrasts with glorious pastoral scenes of engine steam drifting through the mountainous woodlands being very reminiscent of Brown’s mentor Maurice Tourneur – the man KB reminded us he had approached for a job having virtually no experience: the former car salesman promising that he would become the perfect disciple an act of hutzpah that began the career of the man who would eventually direct so many Greta Garbo films.
Those misty mountains contain a signal box vital to the effective running of the railroads and manned by just two men each working twelve hour shifts. The splendidly-named, Rockliffe Fellowes plays one of those “Tower Men”, Dave Taylor, whose wife Sally (Virginia Valli of Wild Oranges and The Pleasure Garden fame) and young lad Sonny (Frankie Darro) live in an idyllic wooden house near the tower – three miles from the nearest town.
Dave’s partner Old Bill (James O. Barrows) is indeed old and one-handed and so is replaced by Joe Standish (Wallace Beery) a man who’s flash suit and polished shoes mark him out as self-obsessed from the start and who is referred to as a “railroad Sheik” by one of the company’s engineers.
Dave lets Joe take over old Bill’s old room and he soon sets his sights on Sally even though her cousin Gertie (Dot Farley) initially acts as a kind of shield for his unabashed “sheik-ness”. Sally sends Gertie away to pay more attention to her fiancé unwittingly removing her own last line of defence… Joe soon makes his move and Dave kicks him out…
A storm is brewing though and as events take a serious turn on the mountain, Joe arrives late and drunk in the heart of a crisis – forcing Dave to choose between Sally’s safety and his responsibilities to protect the passengers. In the wind and rain the family pull together as the tension bore down on the audience… we applauded long and loud relief expressed clearly in every clap of hands.
|Wallace Beery and Virginia Valli|
Beery does his usual top notch job – his intensity belying his lighter, more likeable edge whilst Valli was the perfect complement, resolution that cuts through febrile emotional response. Rockliffe Fellowes is the perfect heroic straight man to the chaos all around whilst young Darro plays well aided and abetted by Jitney the Dog.
A massive tip of the hat to cinematographer Ben F. Reynolds who had previously worked on Greed – no higher recommendation is necessary.
|Jitney the Dog is on the right.|
On the under card were a trio of curios from Mr Brownlow’s celluloid cellar… which broadly matched the themes of the main film.
First up was a British pastoral documentary A Day with the Gypsies (1920) directed and photographed by Cecil Hepworth. The film was a little treat featuring some lovely shots of twenties Sussex countryside although the location is uncertain and so felt they saw Kent?
A John Ford film was next, a confusing comedy called By Indian Post (1919) in which a love letter from gets stolen from Jode MacWilliams (famous Irish-American cowboy actor Pete Morrison) by a fellow ranch hand and only arrives at its intended target with the help of a native American called Two Horns much to the delight of intended target Peg Owens (Magda Lane).
The prelims were concluded with breathless final reel of The Lucky Devil (1925) featuring Richard Dix racing car number 13 to victory in a wacky race of relentless pace… John Sweeney accompanied all three and may well have broken the speed limit on this last film.