Thursday, 4 May 2017

Ich möchte kein Mann sein... The Trail of the Law (1924), with Cyrus Gabrysch, Kennington Bioscope

“I like you better as a girl Jerry…”

This film rests on whether or not you can really believe that Norma Shearer looks like a boy yet, no matter how much you dislike the double-Oscar-winning wife of Irving Hallberg – and I’m looking at you Joan Crawford – it’s a stretch.

Norma plays Geraldine – Jerry – Varden, who grows up in an isolated wood cabin with her, some might say, over-protective father Alvin (John P. Morse) determined to hide her from the male gaze – at least as a female. Following some unfortunate business with her mother (also Norma) and a passing psychotic, Steve Merrill (Richard Neill). They find Merrill near starvation and take them into their home only for him to later attempt to steal all Alvin’s money. He is thwarted but escapes whilst Geraldine’s mother never recovers from the shock and asks that Alvin bring her up as a boy to avoid unwanted attention from cruel mankind…

Now, as Variety said at the time, “…that’s all there is to the plot, and it can be seen that the brain is not seriously taxed keeping up with it…” but once you discount the story this is a well-made and enjoyable flicker. Significantly, it’s also a film that was largely believed lost but the BFI has a copy and we should be grateful.

Norma Shearer in Pleasure Mad (1923)
Young Shearer was only 21 at the time and a few years away from really breaking through but her easy, naturalistic charm is evident throughout and her style that would come to fruition with the talkies but still impress in silents such as He Who Gets Slapped and Lady of the Night (in which Miss Crawford briefly played her double). She’s full of pep and makes a good go of the shootin’, throwin’ and fightin’ required whilst all the while looking far too fair of face and fringe to pass muster as a lad.

She brawls with Bobby Willis (Herbert Holcolm) the younger brother of her and Pa Varden’s new neighbour Caleb (Charles Byer) who’s set up a small hunting cabin with a bearded-fellow name of Tom Frost. They don’t look too pleasant… certainly not as gentile as Alvin, Jerry and their man Mathew (George Stevens).

Jerry gets the better of Bobby and a forbidding truce descends on the valley… Peace is about to be disturbed on an together different way as a canoe arrives bringing a refugee from the City, burnt-out Fraser Burt (Wilfred Lytell) looking to get away from the rate race and to get it together in the country…

Tomboy circuitry? Norma in 1925
Fraser frazzles Jerry’s tomboy circuitry and her Dad reveals all as he speaks his story and Geraldine appears in evening gown to play harp must be a devil to keep tuned in these parts?). But sneaky Bobby sees all and the Willis’ hatch a plot to take advantage of this unexpected gender fluidity…

Is Geraldine still more of a man that Bobby and Caleb will ever be, can Fraser survive a sniper’s bullet in his canoe and just who is beardy Tom really?! All will be revealed… if, that is, you’re lucky enough to see this fine 35mm print projected again.

This was the probably first time The Trail of the Law had been seen since its initial release and relatively unambitious though it is, we should still celebrate the survival of this entertainment and not just for its stars and her glory to come. This was the every-week fare of our grandparents – a classic experience if not a classic film.

Oscar Apfel
Director Oscar Apfel co-directed Cecil B DeMille’s first features, The Squaw Man from 1914 and was a highly competent pro who makes this story flow really well, aided by some lovely scenic cinematography from Alfred Gandolfi. Variety was also impressed praising the “…pictorial excellence, adequate direction, good acting… “but, noted that as “Miss Shearer is appealing even in trousers and cap… more than the usual amount of imagination is needed to conceive her palming herself off as a boy.”

Accompanist Cyrus Gabrysch was up in the hills with them all the way charting a sure-footed path alongside the narratives gentile excitements and rural revelations – making a good “harp” when Geraldine reveals the full extent of her femininity through music.

Tonight’s undercard included some strange and wonderful shorts.

Land Beyond the Sun (1912)
Land Beyond the Sun (1912) as a film made on behalf of the still-extant Fresh Air Fund a body set up to get inner city children experience of the great outdoors: “get your son and heir some sun and air!” a later slogan may have run…

In this case, it is a poor Newsboy called Joe (Martin Fuller) starved of sunlight and even love by his harsh grandma (Mrs. William Bechtel) who gets his chance for a day of sunlit escape and is so captivated by fairy stories from the fund workers, that he escapes to the sea in a boat… or does he?

Henry King crowning Ruth Roland in still from Unto Herself Alone an earlier episode of Who Pays?
The next film was altogether harder-edged as Ruth Roland and Henry King stared in Toil and Tyranny (1915) episode 12 of Who Pays?  a serious seral with a difference from the usual cliff-hanger. There were four such serials from Pathé Exchange including Who’s Guilty? and Who Wins? all tackling social issues.

I this case it’s capital against labour as Henry King’s timber worker is abused by management leading to tragic consequences for his family and that of the business owner, whose daughter is played by Ruth Roland. The film is much more even-handed and frank than you might expect from Hollywood it’s worth remembering the year and the impact of wider movements and events on capitalism’s crisis of confidence.

“If they’re not satisfied, let them starve!”

Meg Morley played along for both impeccably-well: fresh air and industrial strife conveyed with equal relaxed expressiveness.

Another winning evening the Kennington Cinema Museum: where else can you see so much rare and unique celluloid?

No comments:

Post a Comment