Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Games with thrones… When Knighthood Was in Flower (1922), Ben Model, Undercrank Blu-ray/DVD

“Why doesn’t someone put that out on DVD?” one of the great questions for the modern silent film fan and I’ve asked that question myself many times. This was the film that put Marion Davies on the map and it was one of the big hits of 1922 returning its $1.5 million investment many times over, a commercial and critical success.

A trade advert breathlessly described the response to the film at the Scala Theatre in London where it “…drew such a tremendous crowd… that the police had to hold back the throngs and traffic was retarded for blocks…” whilst the New York Evening Mail thought it as “the most amazingly beautiful picture ever made.” All of which makes its absence from our digital libraries even more bewildering.

Lyn Harding and Marion Davies
Cue Ben Model, silent film accompanist and preserver of lost legacies through his company Undercrank Productions. Ben launched a crowd-funding campaign to release a restored Knighthood on Blu-ray and DVD and with the help of 317 backers (including myself) has put together a glorious tribute to Marion and one of the blockbusters of the age. The US Library of Congress did most of the heavy lifting on the 'preservation' end of the project and scanned the source nitrate 35mm's. Images were cleaned up and tints restored along with “hand-coloured” flames in the closing segment with the result that the film now looks as good as new. Mr Model also provided a new organ score to accompany the film along with the two surviving themes written for the film by Victor Herbert, the introductory theme and the Marion Davies’ March… you have to be a star to have your own march!

I’ve only previously been familiar with Davies’ work in The Patsy and Show People and given the legend of her beau William Randolph Hurst’s attempts to promote her as a serious actress, it’s so very interesting to see her sense of humour and comic brilliance shining through even in here in what feels like a very modern screwball adventure story. Marion could easily have been cast in Bridesmaids being part-Pickford with a twist of Talmadge but containing virtually zero Gish, no matter how much Randolph wanted her to be a drama queen.

Marion abides...
Marion maintained that her sugar daddy over-promoted her and prevented her from hitting the natural groove that would have seen more success but she loved him just the same and even lent him a financial assist later in life.

Davies’ Mary is inexhaustibly exuberant sticking her tongue out at the French ambassador, running away in drag with her lover and generally giving her exasperated elder brother, Henry VIII (Lyn Harding) the run-around throughout. She’s the ultimate younger sibling (so, more Constance than Norma…) but with such charm not even mean ol’ Henry can contain her for long.

Forrest Stanley, waiting to rescue damsels
Based on a true-ish story, Mary was indeed wed to the much older King of France, Louis XII but he was 52 and not 102 as portrayed by William Norris and she did indeed get her brother to promise that she could chose a second husband of her own even if the actual Charles Brandon was a worthy-but-dull as the one portrayed here by Forrest Stanley – who in fairness is simply out-played by Marion.

Gustav von Seyffertitz scaring the kids again and many others...
The only ones who come close to Davies are George Nash playing an adventurer who engages in swordplay with the effeminate diner he encounters in the tavern – Davies’ fights convincingly after learning some fencing skills – and William H Powell as young man in only his second feature who plays Louise XII’s nephew Francis with Rickman-esque glee.

But the whole picture is a romp, perhaps not up there with Robin Hood but lavishly upholstered and played out on massive studio sets that would not be out of place in one of Doug’s extravaganzas. Robert G. Vignola directs with wit and skill and having already worked with Marion he knew how to smuggle through the best of her spirit amidst the swords and scenery. He lets her shine brightly amongst a slightly meandering plot as she makes the most of every chance to express comic devilment.

Mary and the young-at-heart King Louis XII
Mary is supposed to be sweet sixteen and therefore of the right age to be married off to France to help cement an alliance but she spots the chivalrous Charles as he unseats the Duke of Buckingham (Pedro de Cordoba) – one of the King’s counsellors who is revealed later to be far more scheming than schemed against.

Mary goes off to seek the forbidden advice of the soothsayer Grammont (a nice spooky turn from Gustav von Seyffertitz) and Charles intervenes to stop Bucky’s plan to catch her in the act. He’s made a powerful enemy though as the Duke gets him arrested and Mary has to trade marriage in France for his life aided by Cardinal Wolsey (Arthur Forrest) who gives more balanced advice to the throne.

So it’s off to the French court and her new (very) old man and the lecherous threat of Francis… enabling Mr Powell to make the most of his opportunity to push some menace into proceedings.

Bill Powell's Francis, dreams his schemes...
When Knighthood Was in Flower is a valuable social document and we should be grateful for Mr Model’s efforts in restoring it and capturing the essence of success for audiences in 1922. His score is dutiful in taking tone and themes from the existing music and recreating on organ the sounds of period silent film accompaniment. He follows the sense and sentiment with expert ease and whilst to some ears, the organ may be too specific in sound to escape its historical context, that’s obviously a big plus for this kind of project. A fresh sound for a re-emerging star!

The Blu-ray and DVD combo is available direct from Ben’s site as well as other purveyors of plastic discs and that’s not all for Marion as he has now released two more of her films, the two surviving films made just prior to "Knighthood", Beauty's Worth and The Bride's Play both with his new music. They are just a few irresistible clicks away from being on your shelves… Don’t delay, Marion Davies is back and this Model business-model is surely the way to go forward with high-quality digital distribution for other overlooked silent gems.

You can't resist... this is bigger than both of us, dear reader.


  1. The two music pieces written for the film were by Victor Herbert. Peters furnished the rest of the 1922 score. KNIGHTHOOD is a must-see / must-have film for all fans of silents!

  2. Thanks for that - I was going to check the booklet again! But I agree this is an absolute must-have for all silent film fans and anyone who loves well-made, skillfully acted movies of any era!

    1. The film that made MARION DAVIES a superstar! The restoration is flawless!