Public Domain Treasure Hunt: Robert E. Sherwood fights for “The Last Laugh”

As he did with The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in 1921, Robert E. Sherwood, Algonquin Roundtable regular and the film critic for the first version of Life Magazine, dedicated a full page to F.W. Murnau‘s The Last Laugh, which was released in the United States in January 1925. Sherwood going to bat for a German production against a background of residual post-WW1 jingoism shouldn’t have been much of a surprise–as he mentioned in his Life review for Ernst Lubitsch’s Madame DuBarry four years previously, if the quality was there, that was justification enough–but as it happens sometimes when a writer feels the spark of a crusade, he was just getting warmed up.


(February 19, 1925)

It’s a good thing for the movie business that Germany wasn’t entirely obliterated in 1918; for German directors, actors and technicians have been responsible, directly or indirectly, for eighty per cent of the progress that the films have made in the past five years. The ideas that have come to us in cans from Berlin have been startlingly new, definitely advanced and, in most cases, genuinely fine. Hollywood has not always admitted openly the enormous value of these ideas, but it has shown the effects of them in countless ways.

The actual menace of German celluloid importations as competitors of the home-grown products has petered out; but we are still at liberty to live and learn and we can learn a great deal from our late neighbors in No Man’s Land. Take, for instance, “The Last Laugh”—-

Here is a marvelous picture–marvelous in its simplicity, its economy of effect, its expressiveness and its dramatic power. The men who were principally involved in its production–Carl Mayer, the author, Emil Jannings, the star, and F. W. Murnau, the director–have demonstrated that thought in Berlin is farther ahead of thought in Hollywood than the intervening seven thousand miles would indicate. These artists tell a humble story, devoid of photographic effects is simply astound flourishes or frills, and tell it entirely in eloquent pictures; there is not a subtitle in the entire film! Never once is the issue in doubt–never once is the motive obscure. We see what the characters are doing, and we know what they are thinking: we are permitted to fill in the whys and the wherefores from our own imaginations–a none too exacting requirement.

“The Last Laugh” is the story of a pompous, strutting old man who gains caste in the humble district in which he lives because he happens to be the commissionaire of the expensive Hotel Atlantic. He wears a gorgeous uniform, fit at least for an Admiral of the Grand Fleet, and as he passes through dingy streets on his way home he is awarded respectful salutes by all. He glories in his circumstance.

But the manager of the Hotel Atlantic notices that the old fellow isn’t quite so spry as he once was; he falters when he lifts heavy trunks from the taxicabs, and he is easily winded. So a new commissionaire is engaged. The unhappy old man is deprived of his uniform, and, as a mark of recognition of his long and faithful service, is given a purely honorary position handing out towels downstairs in the gentlemen’s lavatory!

When the full extent of this frightful fall dawns on the ex-commissionaire, and he realizes that he will be an object of derision in his own home–that there will be no more salutes–there appears in his eyes an expression that might well be stamped on every overworked ego: the fearful, bitter, shaming mark of deflated pride.

Emil Jannings plays this remarkable part with all the fine fervor that is his; but it is not to Jannings so much as to Mayer and Murnau that the real credit belongs. For they have done things with a movie camera that have never been done before. Their manipulation of photographic effects is simply astounding; they have used the lens as a great painter would use a pliant brush that produces broad strokes or fine lines, sharp angles or graceful curves. They have really made a moving picture that is really worthy of the name.

After “The Last Laugh” has run its legitimate course, a fantastic happy ending is tacked on, with the implication: “For those of you who can not take their liquor raw, here is a ginger-ale chaser.” This added conclusion does not affect the main picture in the least, for it is actually no part of it.

I understand that the happy ending was made in Germany solely for the benefit of possible American audiences–a gesture of contempt, and a justifiable one. When Rex Ingram produced “The Prisoner of Zenda” he ended it as Anthony Hope ended it–with a parting of the lovers. But exhibitors complained at this so vociferously that the parting was removed. The same thing happened in “Where the Pavement Ends,” another Ingram picture, in “Blood and Sand,” and in “Tess of the D’Urbervilles.”

I am not trying to argue that the happy ending is inartistic; such a contention is absurd, as various classical examples will instantly prove. But I do argue that the happy ending isn’t, or shouldn’t be, essential. It is forced upon all those who try to write for the screen and its influence is dangerously bad: it makes for obviousness and for that product of a rubber stamp which is known as hokum.

Evidently all movies (to be successful) must dissolve into a roseate sunset, with the pleasant announcement that all’s now right with the world. But is it? I’ve heard different.


(February 26, 1925)

There are conclusions to be drawn from “The Last Laugh,” which was reviewed with uncharacteristic ecstasy in these columns last week. Such conclusions, were I to pursue them as far as they might lead, would fill ten issues of LIFE from cover to cover, with no room left for the advertisements (which, obviously, would be a very foolish thing).

The fact is this: “The Last Laugh” could never have been produced in this country. Even if there were directors, actors and cameramen qualified for the heroic job (and it is my belief that there are such), there would be no producers with moral courage to back them up. What chance would Karl Mayer, the author, have in a movie studio with a story that included no love interest, no patriotism, no marital entanglements and no particular element of hope? And yet – it seems to me that the story of “The Last Laugh” is the finest dramatic conception that has ever come to the screen.

The movie industry in this country is too heavily saturated with “Yes Men”–time-servers–who believe, and justifiably, that the safety of their miserable jobs depends on their ability to salve the men next higher up. They must kowtow incessantly to jealous stars, pompous directors, cold-blooded distributors and executives whose ideals are cramped by the elastic bands which surround their bank-rolls.

Occasionally some real artist tears away from the stilling influence of the great film art factories, and produces on his own account something genuinely worth while: Charlie Chaplin, above all others, has done this, and so have D. W. Griffith, Douglas Fairbanks, Rex Ingram, Charles Brabin, Richard Barthelmess, the Rockett Brothers, Harold Lloyd, Robert J. Flaherty, Charles Ray, George Loane Tucker and Buster Keaton. Still more occasionally, intelligent creative effort has been turned loose within the mills themselves—by such men as James Cruze, Herbert Brenon, Frank Lloyd, King Vidor, Victor Seastrom, Erich von Stroheim, Ernst Lubitsch and William de Mille.

These are exceptions to a sorry rule. With the ubiquitous influence of the box-office and the utter ignorance of the producers (as a class), there is little chance for a good man to get going in Hollywood.

If we can’t afford to originate, then the best we can do is follow in the footsteps of those pioneers who have the courage of their artistic convictions. If we are incapable of producing “The Last Laugh” in this mighty nation, we are at least privileged to profit by it.


(May 14, 1925)

The letters are beginning to appear from those who went to see “The Last Laugh” on my earnest recommendation, and who are now hastening to hurl my glowing words back at me, with accumulated interest.

“So this is Art!” they murmur scornfully, implying that they go to the movies to be entertained and there is enough sordidness in life without trying to reflect it on the screen.

My answer to all comers is this: I never said that “The Last Laugh” was Art, (a) because I don’t know what Art is; (b) because I didn’t want to damn this worthy picture with a term that is, in the public’s estimation, opprobrious.

I, too, go to the movies to be entertained, and “The Last Laugh” entertained me. In view of this, what should I have said? I might have explained in my review: “I enjoyed ‘The Last Laugh’ intensely, but I advise you not to see it because you, unlike me, are not qualified to appreciate anything that is genuinely great.”

That would have been charming.

This department is not devoted to the cause of intelligent criticism; it is merely a page upon which the violent opinions of one solitary individual may find expression. I am not conductiong a service for movie exhibitors–telling them what pictures will make money and what will flop–nor am I engaged in the great profitable profession of uplift.

I am here to say what I think (on a catch-as-catch-can, take-it-or-leave-it, the-Marquis-of-Queensberry-be-damned basis), and no one can tell whether I am right or wrong–including myself; in matters of opinion, right and wrong simply don’t exist.

This, of course, is the answer of all highly opinionated individuals to those who dare to disagree, and should be accepted at its face value. I don’t really mean to be cross about it.

Now as to “The Last Laugh”:

It is revolutionary in technique–and by that I mean the style of its construction, direction, photography and performance. Where our American producers must use miles of subtitles, acres of expensive sets and mobs of extras to get over one idea, these Germans have used the simplest and most economical effects of light and shadow.

The public, of course, has been educated to accept the absurd exaggeration of Hollywood, and it can’t fathom this strange simplicity. When I saw Charlie Chaplin’s “A Woman Of Paris,” I heard a young lady in the audience remark, “The trouble with this picture is, the characters ain’t real–they don’t show any emotion.” She was so steeped in the movie tradition that she could think of emotion only in terms of heaving bosoms, quivering lips and cataracts of glycerine tears.

“A Woman of Paris” was a financial failure; so were “Broken Blossoms,” “One Glorious Day,” “Deception,” “The Marriage Circle” and “The Dramatic Life of Abraham Lincoln.” Yet these were all fine pictures–important pictures–and I don’t apologize for praising them.

As I have said many times before, and will continue to say as long as I have this space to fill, the public is never friendly toward pioneers in any field of endeavor.

The public laughed at Columbus when he said the world is round, at Roger Bacon when he postulated the equality of man, at Fulton, and Langley, and John Huss, and Walt Whitman, and John the Baptist and Socrates. The greatest tragedies in history are to be found in the lives of men who were born ahead of their time.

It is always the follow-up men who make the money. Columbus never saw any of the Inca and Aztec treasures that built the Spanish Armada; Lewis and Clark were the first to explore the Northwest, but it was James J. Hill who successfully exploited it; Lee De Forrest and Atwater Kent have made more money out of the radio than Marconi ever dreamed of; and I understand that H.C. Witwer’s income is larger than Ring Lardner’s.

So don’t crow too loudly because “The Last Laugh” is failing to earn fortunes at the box-office. Wait until we have had a chance to observe its effect on our more practical American producers–and then decide whether or not it was worth doing.

–R.E. Sherwood

Meanwhile, Life theater reviewer and fellow Algonquin Roundtable charter member Robert Benchley had obviously read all of this, probably heard even more of it up close, and couldn’t resist giving his friend a well-placed elbow to the ribs.


(March 5, 1925)

On the evening of the opening of “Cape Smoke,” we finished dinner early, and, tossing off a cordial, decided to spend the hour before theatre-time slumming in the movies watching “The Last Laugh.”

As a result of seeing “The Last Laugh” before “Cape Smoke,” we are now completely at sea about everything. Our whole system of dramatic valuations has gone to smash. This movie made the subsequent example of the theatre’s art seem cramped, tawdry, and old-fashioned. It made us feel that in a hundred years there will be nothing but movies, and that the spoken drama will then occupy the place that the Punch and Judy show now holds.

Of course, “Cape Smoke” is not a fair example of what the theatre can do, although it is by no means any worse than most of its genre. It has its moments, and an occasional not inconsiderable kick. But it does embody all that is clumsy and phony about the spoken word and fabricated scenery (very well fabricated in this particular case), while “The Last Laugh” embodies all that is easy and poignant in the unspoken word. (There is not a subtitle in “The Last Laugh.” Not one.)

We are told that “The Last Laugh” is by no means typical of movie art. That makes no difference. Here is a movie which can make almost any play seem like the markings on a Cro-Magnon cave wall. It may be the only movie which has done so, but the fact that it can be done should be a warning to playwrights and actors. We had much the same ominous feeling about written humor after seeing Buster Keaton in “Our Hospitality.” If the movies can capture humor as it was captured in that picture, and, with no evident effort, express it as it was there expressed, then we old writing-boys had better pack up our leaden words and wooden phrases and learn a new trade. Following our experience at that picture, we secretly began learning glass-blowing, and are ready any day now to duck.

–Robert Benchley

Benchley eventually became a screen personality himself, although he waited for the talkies before he stepped in front of the camera, when more words were in demand. In reviewing the Benchley short “The Sex Life Of A Polyp” in 1928, Sherwood noted, “I hope the money and the fame won’t go to his head. There are plenty of good actors in the world, but all too few good dramatic critics.”

Back on the art-vs.-commerce battlefront of 1925, Sherwood continued to push for The Last Laugh in his capsule descriptions of current films, although his defeated “The public be damned” of June 11th indicated that he knew his side was on the losing end.

And then came the harshest blow…


(June 25, 1925)

Word comes from Hollywood that the Universal Pictures Corp. has engaged Walter Anthony to write subtitles for “The Last Laugh.”

I understand that, after he has completed this great task, the British Government is to give Mr. Anthony a job in Bermuda, painting the lilies.

–R.E. Sherwood

The next week’s capsule review: “I’ve stopped recommending this since I heard that it has been equipped with subtitles.”

(edited June 28, 2021 for a “proper” ending)

The Night Before Easter, by Anton Chekhov

Hi, everybody. I made you a thing for Easter.

This week I took some time out to read one of my favorite short stories, “The Night Before Easter”. It was masterfully written by Anton Chekhov, skillfully translated in the early 20th century by Marian Fell, and now all that work gets pushed through the mushmouth of yours truly.

It’s kind of obvious listening back to my performance that I’m trying to lift a little bit above my weight class. It’s kind of wobbly and ragged, but aren’t we all these days?

(This work uses the introduction to the Akathist to the Blessed Virgin Mary, performed by the Saratov Orthodox Theological Seminary Choir. Wikimedia claims it’s free to use under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license, (, and as part of the deal I license this work under the same terms. God only knows why you’d want to reuse anything of mine, but there you are.)

Kuklapolitan Sunday, Week 4

Kukla’s Date (August 31, 1949)

Kukla’s up to something as we begin the fourth Kuklapolitan Sunday.  For starters, he’s in the tub and it isn’t even Saturday…

Fletcher Sorts Mail (September 1, 1949)

As September begins, the troupe reads viewer mail and Fletcher Rabbit sings the postal carrier blues.

Railroad Fair (September 2, 1949)

Inspired by the 1948-49 Chicago Railroad Fair (and especially the Wheels A’Rollin’ pageant), Ollie presents his own version of railroad history.

Labor Day (September 5, 1949)

Kukla and Ollie talk about the high times they had over the weekend. It’s a shame that showtime’s the first Fran’s hearing about it…

First Day Of School (September 6, 1949)

Schools are closing down left and right in the 2020 real world, but class is in session for Kukla and Ollie.

Ollie’s Old Trouble (September 7, 1949)

A meeting of the Kuklapolitan board of directors is disrupted by the necessity of Ollie carrying important things in a mouth that doesn’t always stay shut…and his lack of a gag reflex.

Screen Test (September 8, 1949)

And our week in review ends with Chicago’s Got Talent. Ducking into the frame on this episode: Russ Mayberry, at the beginning of fairly solid television career (and whatever Unidentified Flying Oddball counts as).

Kuklapolitan Sunday: Week 3

Because if you’re gonna be in for awhile, be in with friends…

Summer Theatre (August 19, 1949)

Madame Oglepuss does summer theater and Fran goes a little Tex Avery on us.

Well? Where did you first hear that song? Yeah, I thought so.

Amusement Park (August 22, 1949)

It’s a trip to a funland! And just to keep us at home guessing, the big complaint is that the games aren’t rigged enough!

Ollie Leaves but Comes Back (August 23,1949)

In which Ollie doesn’t get to do much of anything, and it’s kind of bumming him out.

Fascinato Time (August 25, 1949)

Jack Fascinato, this is your life! For what it’s worth, he had a few more tricks up his sleeve after he and KFO went their separate ways a few years later.

Summer Music Festival (August 26, 1949)

Our Heroes go to music camp!

Kinescope Show (August 29, 1949)

Kukla and Ollie demonstrate how the kinescope system works (for real this time…more or less). Meanwhile, NBC New York demonstrates how 1949 television works when they lose the picture from Chicago for the first five minutes.

Screenshot 2020-03-13 20.13.24.png

Yowtch. Off-model Kuklapolitans. Ted Drake would have kittens.

Screenshot 2020-03-13 20.13.29.png

Motoring (August 30, 1949)

As a theatrical troupe, the Kuklapolitans have trouble getting their heads around taking a vacation at any time but the summer, so they imagine the absolute madness and anarchy of taking off during the fall instead.

Bonus footage!

In honor of the endless Kuklapolitan flogging of the amazing new RCA Victor 45 rpm record system, not to mention the world’s fastest record changer, here’s (most of) an RCA Victor promotional film presumably made for sales meetings.

Personally, I like the cozy KFO pitch better, but there’s a little bit of indirect sniping at the beginning that Chicago’s finest wouldn’t get away with (not in the commercial, anyway): “Our engineers concluded that anything slower than 45 rpm introduces an unacceptable level of distortion. Isn’t that right, Columbia?

As a bonus to that bonus, here’s Mat from Techmoan to give us a quick trip through the 45 vs LP format war, probably the only one in the analog age that ended with both sides coming away with a win.

Kuklapolitan Sunday, Week 2

For those of you just joining us, in week one we went through the existing episodes that were recorded from season 2, because season 1 is still flying through space to parts unknown. Maybe one of our Voyager probes will catch up with it someday. So welcome to season 3, which (as I mentioned last week) the fates have kindly given to us in something resembling one piece.

Third Season Opening Show (August 8, 1949)

The Kuklapolitan Theatrical Troupe returns from summer vacation, broadcasting from a new studio which looks reasonably similar to the old one.

Luggage Arrival (August 9, 1949)

A pulse pounding packing catastrophe!

Fletcher’s Lecture (August 10, 1949)

Kukla lays down the law to the new members of the studio crew, while Fletcher Rabbit practices his TED talk.

Return of Buelah Witch (August 11, 1949)

A television dragon faces the music for flirting with college girls over the summer, while Buelah Witch catches a little heat from Fran.

Whaling Pageant (August 12, 1949)

The first theatrical engagement of the season is a tribute to the whaling lore of New England. Moby Dick it ain’t.

Birthday Party (August 15, 1949)

A surprise party! Several, in fact!

Lemonade (August 17, 1949)

From the description: “This was Burr’s favorite episode and one he showed often, in addition to performing it live numerous times at puppetry festivals.” You can tell this one was taken off the shelf more than the others we’ve seen so far, since the film has a different level of wear.

If you only have time to try one of these episodes on for size, this is the one you should make time for.

Kuklapolitan Sunday

I’ve fallen hard for a little slice of horse-and-buggy television.

The bare bones of what you need to know: Kukla, Fran and Ollie was launched as Junior Jamboree on Chicago’s WBKB in 1947. Kukla is a bald-headed boy with the big red nose, Ollie is a dragon with a “prehensile tooth”. Fran is…well, Fran, the one who isn’t a puppet. There are others (you’ll meet them eventually) and they’re a theatrical troupe.

There were a lot of different pieces to Junior Jamboree, which was an hour-long show, but the bits with the Kuklapolitan Players were the ones that stayed when the show went national. In classic Chicago style, the half-hour was loosely improvised around a general theme and a handful of music cues, because Burr Tillstrom, the puppeteer and performer for everyone who wasn’t Fran, kind of had his hands full to be following a script. It’s the type of good-natured show that doesn’t happen nearly enough in American broadcasting, but back when they were still trying to figure out what this “on television” thing meant, you had a little more latitude to test different approaches.

The reason I’m bringing this up is that there’s project happening right now: Every existing episode of the original Kukla, Fran and Ollie series, one a night every night at 7pm Eastern time on the KFO YouTube channel, until all 700 of them are available and free to view.  It’s being done with the full consent of the current copyright holders, so it won’t get buried one night under a snowstorm of takedown notices.

The project started last Monday, so you’ve only got a little bit of catching up to do. Get on the dragon wagon.

Babysitter Show (February 24, 1949)

In the earliest existing episode, our heroes say to themselves, “Television’s okay, but we need a side-hustle just in case.”

Back From Richmond (February 28, 1949)

The type of high-stakes television that 1949 was known for: talking about a trip to Virginia.

Income Tax (March 7, 1949)

The Kuklapolitans do their taxes. You know, like you do on a kid’s show.

Tele Transcription Show (March 8, 1949)

You might ask yourself, “How did they save TV before videotape was a thing?” Our heroes make a valiant effort to explain, but it all goes pear-shaped at some point.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (March 9, 1949)

Yes, that’s more or less the story they’re doing. No, I’m not making this up. Why do you ask?

Highbrow and Lowbrow (April 11, 1949, approximately)

A Life Magazine article provokes some intellectual soul searching. The first of these I saw back when Google Video was still a thing, and one of the reasons I’m still talking about it 15 years later.

Tonight (March 1st) they’re posting the third season premiere, which just happens to be the first season that has survived relatively intact. Since KFO was produced on a five-a-week schedule with no reruns, that means there’s a lot of them. I know I’ll be there, so here’s to hoping you make it in, too.

Dok’s Dippy Duck (July 2-4, 1923)

Our favorite public domain west coast duck (shut up, he is too) wraps up his European vacation.

Dok-s Dippy Duck - 07-02-23.png

Dok-s Dippy Duck - 07-03-23.png

Dok-s Dippy Duck - 07-04-23.png

We might as well go ahead and get this out of the way. The duck contest had a winner.

contest winner.png

From the Seattle Times, July 14, 1923:

Mary MacMillan, who’ll be 13 years old this month, has been scheming and saving for a vacation and dreaming about the fine time she would have if she went to the Y. W. C. A. summer camp.

When Dok Hager’s “Dippy Duck” started on his vacation a few weeks ago, naturally Mary, interested in everything pertaining to vacations, followed his peregrinations on the comic page of The Time each day.

And because she guessed every country the Duck visited, she has earned her own cherished vacation.

She was the only child, of the hundreds in Seattle and throughout the state who competed, to guess every picture puzzle during the web-footed character’s ramblings, and she will receive $25 for her effort.

“It was lots of fun to try to guess the country or city represented by the picture,” said Mary, who is a daughter of Mr. and Mrs. W. K. MacMillan of 1217 Eighth Ave. W. “And now I’ll enjoy my own vacation more, because I earned it.”

Mary, by the way, has a twin sister, Martha, and they look alike and usually dress alike. Both attend the West Queen Anne School, where they will be in the eighth grade when school reopens. Martha didn’t enter the contest, thereby simplifying the task of the Duck Editor. Martha was as delighted as her sister when told of the result.

Mary likes geography along with her other studies, and she knows how to make use of the encyclopedia on occasion, as she showed when she traced down the picture puzzles.

Besides the children who strove to associate remarks about the size of a bridge with the “Bridge of Sighs” in Venice, and perfumes with Cologne, Germany, and so on, several grown-ups sent in their guesses. Mary can have the added satisfaction in knowing that even these ineligible competitors–whose answers would not have been considered anyway–did not equal her perfect score.

The places visited by the “Dippy Duck” were Belgium (Brussels); Scotland, the quotation being from “The Lady of the Lake;” Turkey (Angora); Ireland; Germany (Cologne); Italy (Venice); Russia; Egypt; Spain; England; France (The Louvre); Denmark; Switzerland and Holland. The invitation to children to guess the place represented in the picture was published each day.

A lot of ink has been spilled over the decades to make words brimming with nostalgic nonsense about the innocence of days gone by, but roll this over in your head for a minute: Not only did they give a 13 year-old the equivalent of $380.78 in modern money (at least by one measure), but they told everybody where she lived and where she went to school. The past is a whole other country, isn’t it…as if “peregrinations” wasn’t enough to tell you that.

Meanwhile, elsewhere on the front page (and about a week earlier), one of the miracles of the age. No, not radio, the miracle of disturbing the peace in the name of gambling! Um, sports! Yeah, let’s go with that.

Seattle Times - banner - 09-14-23.png

I promise you this is relevant to our next installment of duck time. Whenever that gets around to happening.

Public Domain Treasure Hunt: More Movie Reviews by Robert E. Sherwood (1921, part 2)

Carrying on more or less where we left off...

I’m doing something a little different going forward. If a reviewed film exists (something like 80% of the silent era output has disappeared forever) and it’s streamable without going through a paywall, it’ll be linked in the title (with one notable exception). Otherwise, I’ll link to a reference source.

Jim the Penman

(April 14, 1921)

Theatrical Note

In New York recently an immortal tragedy, written by the greatest genius that the human race has developed, staged by the foremost American producer, and played by a leading member of the first family of our stage, was forced, after a miserable three weeks’ run, to give way to a vaudeville show which contained a song hit entitled, “She’s My Fat-Fat-Fat-Fat-Fat-Fat-Fatima.”

Whereupon the theatrical managers assembled to lament the deplorable demise of art, and to lease a few more of their Broadway playhouses to William Fox.



Which brings us — oddly enough — to Lionel Barrymore’s most recent development, “Jim the Penman.”

Much of the dramatic strength, however artificial, of the original play is lost in the movie. This is due to a faulty scenario, which concentrates upon the various denouements, and allows the incidental action to be slurred over badly — leaning too heavily upon sub-titles and not enough upon Mr. Barrymore’s rare genius for pantomime. The incoherence of the story keeps the players in a sort of bewilderment, so that they never seem to know exactly what they are trying to prove— or what they will gain by proving it.

Know Your Men

(April 14, 1921)


Pearl White has evidently been to see “Sally ” lately, for she has learned a new falling trick which could only have been acquired after a careful study of Leon Errol’s methods. In “Know Your Men,” she uses the fall for emotional purposes as it has never been used before. When, in reel one, her father turns out to be a crook— she falls to the floor. When her husband sends her out into the night — she falls to the floor. When her lover confesses his perfidy — she falls to the floor. And finally, when all ends well, she decides to celebrate the event by falling to the floor.

In fact, Miss White beats Errol’s record by some eighteen falls; and one is led to wonder why the public will pay eight dollars a seat to see “Sally,” when they can get more good laughs at their local movie palaces for a paltry four bits.

The Whistle

(April 21, 1921)

Every now and then some helpful friend comes up to William S. Hart and says, “Bill — old scout — it’s about time for you to ease up on these Wild West pictures of yours; give ’em something different for a change.” Whereupon Bill — remembering the porter scene in “Macbeth” — goes to the effete East in search of dramatic relief.

In “The Whistle,” he touches on the conflict between capital and labor, as exemplified in a small New England town (notable for its wealth of palmettos and other forms of semi-tropical verdure). Bill Hart, of course, represents Labor, in its truest-bluest form, as opposed to Capital, at its blackest. He is Robert Evans, who, with his son Danny, labors in the mill of Henry Chappie, a relentless maker of dollars and breaker of souls. It so happens that much of the machinery in the mill is defective, due to the avarice of the owner, with the result that young Danny is caught in some leather belting, with disastrous results. His father then proceeds to kidnap Chappie’s baby, as a means of avenging the death of his own son.

Up to this point, the picture resembles an animated cartoon from the Liberator; and, say what you will about the theory of the thing, it is extremely good drama. Toward the end, however, mawkish sentiment is allowed to intrude, and the sub-title writer cuts loose with such effusions as, “Proof of an age-old adage— the love bond.” The action of the piece stumbles over several anti-climaxes, and limps to an ineffective finish.

Hart gives a fine performance of a difficult role — but, personally, we shall be just as happy if he sticks to the saddle and six-shooters and leaves dramatic relief to the people who don’t know how to ride.

Religious Tolerance

(April 21, 1921)

A church has recently been founded in Berwick, Pa., at which all are welcome to come and worship— with the trifling exception of those who have ever touched alcohol or tobacco, played cards, danced, read Sunday newspapers, indulged in flirtations (mild or otherwise), or attended any form of theatrical or motion picture entertainment. — News Item.

Boy— dust off that “S. R. O.” sign.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

(April 28, 1921)


We are told that, what with Bolshevism and Anarchy and all that sort of thing, it is usually safest and wisest to err on the side of conservatism. Anything suggesting revolution and change should be viewed with the conventional alarm.

In spite of which, we could not help viewing “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”— which represents artistic radicalism in its most rabid form — with intense satisfaction. For, after sitting through miles and miles of films of the old school, we were ready to extend a hearty welcome to anything which attempted to be different.

“The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” comes from Germany, being the first big production to follow in the wake of the enormously successful “Passion.” The story concerns the fiendish activities of one Dr. Sonnow, the head of a lunatic asylum, who masters the secrets of somnambulism. Under the name of Dr. Caligari, he operates a side show at a county fair, using his trained somnambulist, Cesare, as Exhibit A. At night, when the fair has closed up, Cesare is sent forth by the overwhelming will of his master to murder certain persons who have been a source of annoyance to. Dr. Caligari during the course of the day.

That is a bare and inadequate outline of the idea, but we cannot enlarge upon it without giving away the ingenious trick which provides the whole motif of the story. It is a distinctly Poe-esque conception, and it is treated in a remarkable manner. The scenes are all represented by means of futurist art — it is not cubism or vorticism, but rather post-impressionism — so that the picture has the quality of a weird, horrible nightmare. Streets, buildings and trees are crazily crooked and grotesque — and yet terribly real.

Werner Krauss, as Dr. Caligari, proves to be an extraordinarily skilful pantomimist, and Conrad Veidt is imposing and terrifying as Cesare. These two characters, in their actions and their make-up fit in perfectly with the backgrounds; but most of the other players are discordantly normal in appearance, and do much to spoil the illusion. The picture suffers greatly by inexpert editing and cutting, presumably the fault of those who adapted it for American audiences.

We can think of no native producer (with the possible exception of Maurice Tourneur) who could do anything like this; nor should we care to see them make the attempt. But there are a few stories which deserve treatment in this strange medium (“The Fall of the House of Usher,” for example), and if we must go to Germany to get them, by all means let us continue to do so.

Dream Street

(May 12, 1921)


A lengthy foreword in the program of D. W. Griffith’s new picture, “Dream Street,” announces that the play is a conflict between the forces of darkness and light. It might better be described as a conflict between banality and bunk, in which the audience figures as the heaviest loser.

From which our readers will gather that “Dream Street” is not a colossal achievement of cinematographic art; and they will gather correctly. It is a thoroughly bum picture, and the fact that D. W. Griffith sponsored it makes it just so much more easily a target for criticism. For one is entitled to demand something better from the man who produced “The Birth of a Nation” and “Broken Blossoms.”

Thomas Burke receives credit for the idea back of the story (the word “credit” is used in a purely rhetorical sense), but there is really little of “Limehouse Nights” in “Dream Street.” Some of the characters bear faint resemblance to Burke’s people, but the resemblance is purely external. The atmosphere of the play — usually Mr. Griffith’s strongest feature — is woefully bad. The scenes and some of the costumes give a suggestion of the West India Dock Road, but the language and manners smack of 14th Street and Second Avenue. There are references to “stool pigeons,” “sweeties,” a request to “quit your kiddin’,” and a Scotland Yard detective remarks that somebody “croaked this guy.”

Many people (who claim to be “in the know “) have told us that the actors in Mr. Griffith’s productions are mere puppets, who do everything just as he tells them to, without knowing why they are doing it. If this is so, Mr. Griffith evidently had a series of off days during the production of “Dream Street,” for he has failed to inspire any of the cast with the emotional intensity of Lillian Gish, or the eloquent restraint of Richard Barthelmess. Carol Dempster, Ralph Graves and Charles Mack perform acceptably, but they are so utterly lacking in variety that they pall dreadfully after the first few reels. Miss Dempster has three tricks, Mr. Graves two and Mr. Mack one — and they use these over and over again.

There is somewhat more than the usual quota of Griffith allegory and symbolism, and, this time, it doesn’t ring true. In fact Mr. Griffith, who used to be known as “The Master” at this sort of thing, might now be designated more appropriately as “Symbol Simon.”

The Revival of the Fittest

(Birth of a Nation (and (deep inhale) this is where you’re on your own, buddy); May 26, 1921)

The recent revival of “The Birth of a Nation” at the Capitol Theatre, in New York, gave critical observers a good opportunity to see where the cinema had progressed, and where—if at all—it had retrogressed during the past seven years. For this seven years—though an inconsiderable span of time when compared to the palaeolithic age, for instance— has served to lift motion pictures from the nickelodeon class to the state of universality which they now enjoy.

An idea of the length of this time may be gained from an examination of the cast of characters of “The Birth of a Nation,” which contained the then unknown names of Lillian Gish, Miriam Cooper, Mae Marsh, Robert Harron, Wallace Reid, Raoul Walsh, and Alma Rubens. At the same time, the Talmadge sisters were unheard of, as were Charles Ray, Bill Hart, Fatty Arbuckle, Theda Bara, and nearly all the other present day luminaries. The rumor was just beginning to get about that there was a comedian, named Chaplin, who was almost as good as John Bunny. Mary Pickford was moderately famous, and Douglas Fairbanks was playing pool in the Lambs Club. Jackie Coogan was unborn. In fact, movie history may be said to date from the day when “The Birth of a Nation” was first disclosed before the startled eyes of the multitude. It was so immeasurably finer than anything that had been done before that there was no possible standard by which to gauge its quality. It set a new standard for itself, and for all subsequent productions.


Many miles of perforated celluloid have flowed through the projection machines since then. We have been privileged. to view many, many film plays, of many, many types—from “The Married Virgin” to “The Kid,” from “Man-Woman-Marriage” to “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” But “The Birth of a Nation” has lost very little of its original strength; it can still lift the audiences up out of their chairs, no matter whether the members of these audiences happen to be from Nashville, Tenn., or from Nashua, N. H. Were we to criticise it, as though it had just been released, we should say that it possessed a certain jumpy quality, due to excessive speed; that the scenario is lacking in continuity; that the acting is inclined to be too strenuous, too lacking in restraint; and yet, we should certainly rank the whole picture very near the top. Its effect is largely theatrical rather than dramatic—that is to say, it depends upon rather obvious trickery for its appeal— but there are very few photoplays to-day in which this theatrical trickery is worked to better advantage. Certainly, “The Birth of a Nation” has “Way Down East” beaten to a standstill.


The lamentable fact of the matter is that, while the movies have developed miraculously as an industry since “The Birth of a Nation” was produced, they have developed negligibly as an art. Their growth has all been in the box-office, due to the nature of the men who have controlled them, men who, twenty-five years ago, would have been selling gold bricks and running shell games at county fairs.

In many ways the movies have degenerated. They have lost the spontaneity which characterized the early productions, and they have tended to become machine made. Most of the film magnates have based their calculations on the assumption that every thought, hope, ambition, aspiration and ideal of the human race is centered upon the subject of sex, and they have acted accordingly.

Fortunately, this state of affairs is coming to an end, and there is hope in sight. Whatever else may be said of it, the censorship threat is having a decidedly sobering effect upon the industry. The sudden invasion of foreign films is proving that artistic merit does not necessarily interfere with a picture’s popularity—thereby causing most of the local wise guys to stop, for the first time, and think. Above all, there is growing up a new generation of producers and directors—men with ideas that are located above their bank rolls.

Some day, perhaps, the movies will fulfill the promise which “The Birth of a Nation” held out for them seven years ago.

I Am Guilty

(May 26, 1921)

Her husband, an expert criminal lawyer, had gone to Texas on business, so Connie Dreshon—an ex-chorus girl “of a different kind”—decided to attend an orgy given by a notorious roué who had become case-hardened at one hundred and twenty-five dollars a case. His money had “degenerated him into a connoisseur of just two things—wine and women.” He therefore burned Connie’s back upon an incense lamp in his den. Hysterical with pain, she clutched at the velvet curtains and found a revolver thrust into her fingers… Bang!!

The husband comes back from Texas and uncovers Connie’s guilt. Then it turns out that everyone has been fooled. The revolver had never been fired.

Louise Glaum plays the part of the wife who is wrongfully accused of murder. The crime should be charged to the scenario writer. The sentence should be death.

Peck’s Bad Boy

(May 26, 1921)

Having seen Jackie Coogan in “Peck’s Bad Boy,” we wish to go on record with a demand that Mr. Chaplin produce a sequel to “The Kid”—assembling the original cast (intact) for the event. Moreover, we can state with some conviction that our readers are arrayed in solid support of this suggestion.

For the Jackie Coogan of “Peck’s Bad Boy” is not the Jackie Coogan of “The Kid.” The restraint and sympathetic appeal with which Charlie Chaplin endowed him is gone, and he is just a fresh, precocious and occasionally annoying little boy. When, in “The Kid,” he threw stones at windows, he did it in such a nobly exalted way that one felt as though throwing stones at windows was a perfectly natural and commendable act. Throughout “Peck’s Bad Boy,” however, he seems to be gravitating toward a good spanking, and one is rather disappointed when he avoids it at the finish.

It may be argued that Jackie Coogan is more realistically human in “Peck’s Bad Boy” than he was in “The Kid,” but we can hardly consider that as a cause for congratulation. We hate to have our ideals shattered.

The Wild Goose

(June 2, 1921)


We have been told that there is a vast difference among typical audiences in various towns.

For instance a crowd of Hunyak mill workers in a movie theatre in Woonsocket, Mass., or half-breed Mexicans in Nogales, Ariz., will not have the same taste—or the same lack of taste—as a group of horn rimmed college youths in New Haven, Conn.

The film producers have to take this wide diversity of opinion into consideration, and regulate their bookings accordingly. That which is sauce for the goose is frequently embalming fluid for the gander.

Which impels us to observe that the new Cosmopolitan production—“The Wild Goose”—is really a solution of the problems described above. There is no difficulty in deciding where it will have its greatest appeal—for it will be just exactly as bad in Woonsocket as in Nogales, or even New Haven.

The story—which, at one time or another, was written by Gouverneur Morris —is based on the hypothesis that the wild goose is the symbol of marital fidelity. Whenever a wild goose is separated from his mate, we are told, he goes off and flies deliberately into the mouths of some double-barreled shotgun.

It is just about as foolish and footless an idea as has come our way in a long time, and, as though that were not enough, it is glorified by some remarkably ham acting. The action, what there is of it, drags terribly, and there is scarcely a spark of dramatic interest at any given point.

In fact, after seeing this picture, we know exactly why wild geese are wild; also why they are geese.


(June 2, 1921)

“J’Accuse” has just been imported from France, being the first big production to come from that source in many years. It justifies the eloquent advance notices that preceded it.

Abel Gance, the author and director, has created a drama of terrific strength and unquestionable appeal. If anyone can sit through “J’Accuse” without being stirred to the depths, he will be entitled to the adamant cross with six palms.

The film is not without its faults, all of which may be traced to the inexperience of M. Gance in motion picture construction. He possesses a fine artistic sense, and a rare degree of inspiration, but he has much to learn about the prosaic technicalities of his work.

The story starts out with scenes in the south of France before the war, and resolves itself into a triangle drama, involving the elderly François Laurin, his young wife, Marie, and a pacifist poet, Jean Diaz. who spends his time writing odes to the sun. François is called to war, followed by Jean; and Marie goes to the north of France, where she is captured by the Germans. The fortunes of these three are followed through four tempestuous years, but it is always their own affairs which command the interest; not the larger issues at hand. In the end, François falls on the field of honor, his wife returns from captivity with a baby daughter, and Jean, shell-shocked and crazed, dies— groping for the sunlight which had been his inspiration.

The great moment of the picture—and one of the greatest moments of all pictures—comes when the soldier dead arise from their graves and go forth to see whether the world has profited by their sacrifice, or whether they have died in vain. It is a marvelously impressive scene, particularly when the solemn march of the dead, silent and unobserved, is compared with the glorious parade of the living through the Arc de Triomphe. M. Gance, however, has permitted the idea to run away with him, and he spoils most of the illusion by overdoing it. He lays the lesson on a bit too thick.

The acting of Romuald Joubé as the young poet, and of Séverin-Mars as François, is incredibly fine, and in this respect, at least, “J’Accuse” is absolutely in a class by itself. Marise Dauvray, as Marie, achieves the feat of growing old by methods more realistic than the usual plastering of white grease paint over the temples.

M. Gance has had the good judgment to leave the Germans out of the picture altogether; only the shadows of the Huns are seen. “J’Accuse” is not an accusation of the Kaiser, or von Tirpitz, or anyone else in particular; it is an accusation of war.

As such, it will be of great interest to everyone who has paid any attention to the lessons of the last seven years.


(June 9, 1921)

Motion picture presentation is being developed into a fine art—more rapidly, perhaps, than motion picture production. In New York there are three men—Hugo Riesenfeld, Samuel Rothafel and Joseph Plunkett —who have had sense enough not to underestimate the intelligence of their patrons, and courage enough to support their theories with definite action. In the theatres which they direct— the Rialto, Rivoli, Criterion, Capitol and Strand—there is always a good show, regardless of the quality of the feature picture. Moreover, it is a show which, according to the standards of the average Broadway theatregoer, would be rated as highbrow.

Mr. Rothafel is really the pioneer in the development of symphonic presentation. At the Capitol, he supplements an excellent orchestra with a ballet and a large chorus of voices. His settings are in the Urban style, and are exceedingly well done.

Mr. Riesenfeld has introduced many novelties into the program at his various theatres; but his greatest value lies in his ability to arrange interpretative incidental music. He has done this for “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” and the score which accompanies this picture is a big factor in its success.

The result of all this is that the movie audiences in New York have been educated up to the point where they actually outrank the theatrical audiences in intelligence.

Truly a remarkable state of affairs.

Public Domain Treasure Hunt: Movie Reviews by Robert E. Sherwood (1921, part 1)

Neil’s notes: You can’t say I didn’t warn you this was going to happen eventually.

Presenting, over the next little stretch, a Whitman’s sampler of Robert E. Sherwood’s movie reviews from the pre-Henry Luce version of Life Magazine.

The Silent Drama

The Tenth Muse

(January 27, 1921)

Phoebus Apollo drew rein in the cobbled courtyard of the Olympian stables, and his fiery steeds clattered to a standstill. He stepped from his chariot, and strode into the marbled temple, mopping his brow the while, for it had been a hot day.

As the Sun-god sank down wearily upon a silken divan, Ganymede appeared with a horse’s neck of nectar, which his master immediately inhaled.

“There is a mortal would see thee, Sire,” said the perfect servant of the gods.

“Tell him I’m out, thou zany,” Apollo snapped, in very ungodlike exasperation.

“But she is most persistent; she says…”

“Oh. It’s a she, eh? That’s quite different. Produce her at once.”

Ganymede, harking unto his master’s voice, proceeded to usher in a young per son of rare attraction. Apollo surveyed her; she was indeed comely, with a little of the Mona Lisa in her whimsically enigmatic smile, and a little of the Bella Donna in her baby-blue eyes. Flaxen curls tumbled in semi-permanent waves about her immature shoulders.

“What would you of Apollo?” asked the Sun-god, affecting an impersonal tone.

“I come,” replied the maiden, wistfully, “I come to apply for admission into the society of the Muses.”

“But the membership is limited to nine, and each of the nine represents an art, such as music, sculpture, literature, and…and so forth. Surely there is not a tenth art…or is there?”

“There is.”

Apollo raised his eyebrows — indicating polite interrogation.

“I refer,” continued his young visitor, ” to the cinema — the motion pictures, the silent drama, the movies — or what you will. Under any other name, the box-office receipts would be just as large. The cinema is the tenth art, allied to the other arts in various degrees, and greater in its appeal than all of them. It embraces the young and the old, the rich and the poor, the strong and the weak — everyone, in fact, who possesses the price of admission, plus war tax.

“The cinema has conquered the earth, and is now looking around for new locations to shoot. That is why I have come to Olympus. As a symbol of the cinema, I crave recognition. I desire to break into the snobbish Muse colony.

“Tell me that you consent.”

Apollo was a trifle disconcerted.

“Your somewhat sweeping statements are interesting — if true,” he said; “but just how do you propose to substantiate them ? ”

Her face suddenly became beclouded, as though it had got out of focus, and little drops of glycerine glistened on her ashen cheeks. A strong light shone from behind through the golden wisps of her hair.

“So you doubt me,” she murmured, “and you wish to be convinced that I do not lie when I say I am the tenth art?”


“Then” — she was gradually fading out before Apollo’s startled eyes — ” then I advise you to read this page of Life every week (advt.), and find out the facts for yourself.”

With that she vanished from view…

And now, dear reader, you may go on with the story.

Trading with the Enemy

(January 27, 1921)


“Passion,” the first photoplay to receive attention in these columns, has aroused a great deal of discussion. There are those who resent its presentation in the United States, not, as one would suppose, because of its torrid title, but because of the fact that it was originally produced in Germany.

Our answer to this objection is that “Passion ” is a fine picture.

Others say that it is full of anachronisms.

Our answer to that objection is that “Passion” is a fine picture.

Moreover, every impartial bystander will agree that, thus far, we have all the better of the argument.

The story of “Passion” centers about the career of the colorful Mme. du Barry, who started life as a milliner’s assistant, became the favorite of Louis XV (known to musical comedy interior decorators as “Louie Kans”), did much to inspire the widely famous French revolution and ultimately went to the guillotine with the cream of the aristocracy; thereby proving that even the lowliest may climb to the top if they persevere. Du Barry is portrayed with great dramatic force by Pola Negri, who is the only member of the otherwise Teutonic cast to receive any local publicity. There may be some doubt about the authenticity of her Polish antecedents, but there is no doubt about her ability; she easily surpasses most of our home talent in the gentle art of vamping. The other players, in spite of their enforced anonymity, are uniformly excellent, especially he who appears as the sinister Marquis de Choiseul.

“Passion” is far superior to the average of American films in every respect except photography and lighting, and the fact that it established a new attendance record at the huge Capitol Theatre, in New York, would seem to indicate that our native producers are in for some lively competition from overseas.

Blind Wives

(February 3, 1921)


Mr. William Fox is a great showman. Whenever he produces a feature picture, he plasters the face of the globe with striking display posters, and invites everyone, including the Prince of Wales and Mayor Hylan, to a private showing of the film in the Grand Central Station. This is all very well — unless he happens to present something that isn’t quite up to scratch, for it is made to seem a great deal worse because of the blatant blare of trumpets which ushered it in.

Such is the case with “Blind Wives.” an inartistic production of a distasteful story, in which the suffering connected with the manufacture of women’s wear is described in various irrelevant episodes. For instance, it is shown that a certain Russian trapper doesn’t get along well with his wife, and that is advanced as a reason why ladies should not buy sable fur. A far more convincing argument is that the stuff costs too darned much.

“Blind Wives” is saved from being a total loss by Marc MacDermott’s acting, particularly his portrayal of a French silk weaver.

The Kid

(February 17, 1921)


When we announce that “The Kid” is a trifle better than anything Charlie Chaplin has ever done before, our readers can take it for granted that we have indulged in all the superlatives in the vocabulary. This superiority, strangely enough, is not entirely due to the great Charlot himself; for a goodly share of the credit must be wrapped up and handed to little Jack Coogan, whose rendition of the title role will serve to identify him as the Samuel Rzeschewski of the screen. He has a highly developed power of emotional appeal, and a genius for the droll which marks him as an apt pupil of his famous preceptor. A sympathetic child comedian is indeed a welcome anomaly.

Chaplin, as always, demonstrates the marvelous quality which, in the cinema world, is so exclusively his own — the ability to be coarse without being offensive; to mix Rabelaisian wit with Chesterfieldian delicacy.

That is where Charlie Chaplin differs from the rest.


(February 17, 1921)


Those who wish to retain some illusions about motion pictures will do well to pass gently over the following lines, with head averted. For we are about to discuss the world’s worst movie.

“Man-Woman-Marriage” is as crude, offensive, vulgar and dull a spectacle as we have ever witnessed on stage or screen. It is a grotesque hodgepodge about woman’s rights through the ages (interminable ages they are, too) with a great deal of ham allegory and cheap religious drool, used to cloud the real motif — which is sex appeal. An indication of the general qual ity of the picture may be gathered from one of the sub-titles, wherein a kiss is described as, “The sublimely beautiful by-play of the mating instinct.”

We are told that it cost half a million dollars to produce “Man-Woman-Marriage.”

Well, well!


(March 3, 1921)

There are possibly a few of our readers who agree with us that the culminating point in the develop ment of cinema art was achieved by a Mutt and Jeff comedy entitled “The Cow’s Husband”; and for the sole benefit of these miserable mezzo brows we shall publish, from time to time, a list of the short and frivolous films which have succeeded in tickling our battle-scarred risibilities.

The best of the current crop are “Number Please” (Pathe), with Harold Lloyd, and “The Slicker” (Sunshine) with Al St. John. Both of these two-reelers are superior in every way to the average long feature production. Honorable mention must also be made of Clyde Cook in “All Wrong” (Fox), Bobbie Vernon in “Back from the Front” (Christie), Buster Keaton in “One Week” (Metro), Larry Semon in “The Sportsman” (Vitagraph), “Bride and Gloom” (Federated), and all of Booth Tarkington’s “Edgar” comedies, which Goldwyn has produced. The last-named have the added distinction of being different from anything else in motion pictures, and a little more wholesome.

Mutt and Jeff, of course, hold a commanding position in the field of animated cartoons, and the talented pair are at their best in “The Hypnotist,” “Sound Your A” and “The Glue Factory.”

Just Out of College

(March 10, 1921)

We had intended to say a few words about “Just Out of College,” in which Jack Pickford is starring, but lack of space (that ancient ally and alibi of the editorial profession) conveniently intervenes. However, in this instance, silence is distinctly charitable.

Buster Keaton

(March 17, 1921)

It is just as well that Charlie Chaplin did not wait any longer before releasing “The Kid,” for, otherwise, he might have awakened one bright morning to find that his crown had passed to the pensive brow of Buster Keaton. This serious young man comes as close to being Chaplin’s rival as it is possible for anyone to come. In “The Saphead,” a long picture, his style is rather cramped, but in “One Week,” “The Scarecrow,” “Hard Luck,” and “The High Sign,” he touches the peaks of comedy.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

(March 24, 1921)


In a hundred years there will be no one left in the world who can give a first-hand account of the great war — no one who can say, “I was there; I saw it as it was” — and people will have to get their knowledge of it from the books and plays that it inspired. The vast maelstrom of words which has flowed since the machine guns and the typewriters first started clicking in 1914 will remain, in greater or lesser degree, throughout all time, and by them will we and our actions be measured.

It is quite important, therefore, that we get the record straight, and make sure that nothing goes down to posterity which will mislead future generations into believing that this age of ours was anything to brag about. Imagine the history which some H. G. Wells of the Thirtieth Century would write concerning the world war, basing his conclusions on such books as “From Baseball to Bodies,” such plays as “Mother’s Liberty Bond,” or such songs as “Hello, General Pershing, Is My Daddie Safe To-night?” It might be entertaining reading, but hardly instructive.

Rather let us hope that this future Wells will depend upon the books of Philip Gibbs and Henri Barbusse, and the poems of Rupert Brooke, Alan Seeger and John MacRae. And if, after reading these, he is still doubtful of the fact that war is essentially a false, hideous mistake, then let him go to see the production of “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” and be convinced. It took us a long time to get around to that statement, but the picture is well worth the trip.

* * *

Blasco Ibanez wrote the novel, and achieved widespread fame thereby. There are many, including the present reviewer, who believe that this fame was not altogether deserved. In fact, we must confess that we belong to that society (recently organized by F. P. A.) of “Those-who-started-but-did-not-finish The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”

The motion picture adaptation, however, succeeded in holding our undivided attention more consistently than any dramatic production since the day when, at the age of seven, we broke down at a performance of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and were carried out in a sinking condition.

The great strength and vigorous appeal with which “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” has been endowed is largely due to the superb direction of Rex Ingram, who produced it. His was a truly Herculean task, and he has done it so well that his name must now be placed at the top of his profession.

June Mathis did the work of adapting the story, and her scenario is coherent, and strongly constructed on logical lines, with a fine sense for dramatic values. At no time does the action drop or the suspense weaken, except for a few moments near the end when a crowd of frolicsome doughboys and Salvation Army lassies are dragged in just to give the orchestra a chance to blare out “Over There.”

The cast is uniformly good, and selected with such great care that every part — Spanish, Indian, French and German — is played by a character who is actually true to type. In the leading role is a newcomer to the screen, Rudolph Valentino, who has a decided edge — both in ability and appearance — over all the stock movie heroes, from Richard Barthelmess down. He tangoes, makes love and fights with equal grace. Both he and Alice Terry, who plays opposite him, will be stars in their own right before long.

It is impossible to detail the work of the others in the large cast, but more than passing mention should be made of Joseph Swiokard, Pomeroy Cannon, Nigel de Brulier, John Sainpolis, Stuart Holmes, Wallace Beery and Beatrice Dominguez.

The pictures themselves are at all times striking, and occasionally beautiful — for Ingram has evidently studied closely the art of composition, and almost any one scene, taken at random from the nine reels, would be worthy of praise for its pictorial qualities alone.

The four horsemen — Conquest, War, Pestilence and Death — are convincingly frightful figures, and the fleeting pictures of them galloping through the clouds in a stormy sky are decidedly impressive. Usually, when movie directors attempt to introduce an allegorical note, the result is little more than laughable.

* * *

Comparisons are necessarily odious, but we cannot help looking back over the brief history of the cinema, and trying to find something that can be compared with “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” The films which first come to mind are “The Birth of a Nation.” “Intolerance,” “Hearts of the World,” and “Joan the Woman”; but the grandiose posturings of David Wark Griffith and Cecil B. De Mille appear pale and artificial in the light of this new production, made by a company which has never been rated very high. Nor does the legitimate stage itself come out entirely unscathed in the test of comparison, for this mere movie easily surpasses the noisy claptrap which passes off as art in the box office of the Belasco Theatre.

* * *

It is our belief that the film will not be an unqualified success in the United States, where the entire war now resolves itself into terms of Liberty Loan Drives and George Creel. But in France, “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” will be hailed as a great dramatic achievement; one which deserves — more than any other picture play that the war inspired — to be handed down to generations yet unborn, that they may see the horror and the futility of the whole bloody mess. Ingram has recorded the martyrdom of France as no writer could have done.

Praise is difficult to compose, for it is always easier to be harsh than it is to be ecstatic. The reviewer’s task would be much simpler if every movie was of the calibre of “Man-Woman-Marriage,” for instance. Nevertheless, we have told our story, and we shall stick to it.

“The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” is a living, breathing answer to those who still refuse to take motion pictures seriously. Its production lifts the silent drama to an artistic plane that it has never touched before.

The No Longer Silent Drama

(March 31, 1921)

Word comes from Stockholm that a Swedish inventor, Sven Bergleuse, has perfected a talking motion picture.

Now that he has accomplished that much, he can set to work and think up a new title for this department.