Dangerous Money (1924)

For this week’s lost film we’re having a look at a vehicle which starred a lady who was going to be a regular co-star for William Powell – Bebe Daniels. As noted in this month’s Memorabilia of the Month, I’m leaving any in-depth discussion of Bebe Daniels’ life and career for my entry ‘Bebe Daniels – Silent Screwball’ in Paul S‘s Addicted to Screwball Blogathon, starting 23 May. 

As it is the review of Dangerous Money in Photoplay Magazine describes the picture as ‘flabby’, yet another tale of a ‘boarding house slavey’ who inherits a fortune. However William Powell is highlighted as the ‘scoundrel, who runs away with the entire opus.’ Playing a gold digger in his smarmy git oeuvre, can you see the pattern forming here? 

Also worth noting is that this was the first film that William Powell made for Paramount Pictures, although not under contract. He must’ve made quite an impression because, as outlined in William Powell’s Silent Villains, in 1925 Jesse Lasky signed Powell to a contract with Paramount – what an achievement after only three years in motion pictures. 

In and amongst my research for this film I happened upon an auction for these negatives (referenced below): 

The listing states that these pictures were taken for Dangerous Money and were Powell’s first sitting for Paramount Pictures.

I think Bill looks quite sublime in these pictures – the smile in the photo above is cheery but quite enigmatic also – as he stared down the camera, on the cusp of success, I wonder what was going through his head? Certainly, once he signed on the dotted line with Paramount, his financial pressures would be much alleviated. Indeed as I have alluded to elsewhere on this blog, Bill’s penury as a young actor lead to his reputation in Hollywood for being excessively careful with his money. That’s a smile as bright as his future!

References/Recommended Reading:



Photoplay Magazine, December 1924, p.53

Under the Red Robe (1923)

I hadn’t expected to write much more than a synopsis of Under the Red Robe – as you can see William Powell is billed 10th so his must’ve been quite a minor part. The notices are lukewarm to say the least, Photoplay Magazine describes the picture as ‘a bit draggy’ and Picture Play says that Cosmopolitan ‘spent too much money’ on the film, considering that the cinema going public are now ‘pretty well fed up with the Court of France’.

However, I hadn’t reckoned with the life story of star Alma Rubens – a story that is cautionary in extremis. I wouldn’t be surprised if E! Channel hadn’t made an E! True Hollywood Story about her. By the time Under the Red Robe was released at the end of 1923 Alma was two years into a multiple drug addiction that would see her descend from the pinnacle of Hollywood stardom into the violent desperation that dependency on cocaine, heroin and morphine often causes and which ultimately led to her early death in 1931. 

Her story, which you can read more fully from the references below, was very reminiscent of Barbara Payton and even to a certain extent Amy Winehouse, and I found it both incredibly sad but also very troubling insofar as the entertainment industry continues in this circular pattern of encouraging vulnerable artists to destroy themselves without much evidence of a duty of care other than a very generous cash remuneration. I accept I’m possibly being a little unfair and judgemental here, being a mere civilian, but Alma’s story is incredibly relevant to today and her experience seems sadly familiar.

References/Recommended Reading:

William Powell: The Life and Films – Roger Bryant

Picture Play Magazine, January 1924, p.55

Photoplay Magazine, February 1924, p.17

Screenland Magazine, April 1924






Tol’able David (1921)

While I’m on the subject of Richard Barthelmess I thought now would be as good a time as any to have a look at his classic drama Tol’able David, the story of a real sweetheart of a lad who shows real courage when facing up to a crew of bullying crooks. 

Tol’able David is often written about in terms of its whimsical and quaint Americana but don’t be fooled into thinking that the film gushes over into cloying sentimentality – what makes Tol’able David special is the film’s authenticity, particularly the attention to detail in the photography, it’s setting and even in its depiction of emotional, sexual and physical violence. The film is based on a magazine short story by Joseph Hergesheimer and as the film’s director, Henry King, was a Virginian who related strongly to some of the descriptions in the tale he was insistent that filming should take place on location in Virginia. 

Henry King, is also worth a mention as he formed the production company Inspiration Pictures with Richard Barthelmess and Charles Duell. Tol’able David was the company’s first movie and probably their greatest success, however he also directed a string of movies in the 1920s starring Richard Barthelmess as well as Ronald Colman’s first US movie, The White Sister, in 1923, Romola, with Ronald Colman and William Powell, and Stella Dallas and The Winning of Barbara Worth also starring Ronald Colman. 

Of course in reality there wasn’t much authenticity when it came to casting Richard Barthelmess in the role of the sweet natured country boy David Kinemon – the Photoplay Magazine review describes Richard Barthelmess as a ‘real city slicker’ in comparison to the sweet natured country boy David Kinemon. Additionally Barthelmess was 27 at the time of filming, playing an 18 year old. But when you have acting of this quality, obviously that’s immaterial as Barthelmess perfectly conveys a nice young boy, the pride of his family – in fact in my fevered imagination I’ve thought of Henry King holding up prompt boards for Barthelmess with ‘CREDIT TO HIS MOTHER’ written on it in big letters. Barthelmess brings to the screen the frustration of being the baby of the family, but then terror mixed in with reckless courage when faced with the reality that being an adult means getting into situations that we might find disconcerting, even frightening. I think most of us whichever era we grew up in can empathise with that, it’s a pretty standard experience for teenagers and young adults. Although obviously not involving being beat up by the 6’4 Ernest Torrence. Well not necessarily. 

Henry King filmed Greenstream as a beautiful idyll, to an urban Twenties audience this must have looked incredibly peaceful. However peace is shattered by the arrival of the three black sheep of the Hatburn family, escaping justice by stepping over the state line. Ernest Torrence makes a thoroughly convincing villain, his huge frame dominating the screen. 

Ernest Torrence was born in Edinburgh in 1878, and was actually a trained operatic baritone, however he moved into acting after issues with his vocal chords rendered his singing career redundant. He and his brother David moved to New York in 1911 to work on Broadway, but once he had made his first film, which was Tol’able David, he remained in Hollywood. The character of Luke Hatburn, a dopey psychopath who indulges in violence out of curiosity and warped enjoyment, was a complete contrast to the cultured and well-bred Torrence, and indeed Ernest Torrence also became very good friends with William Powell, Richard Barthelmess and Ronald Colman.

There is no doubt that Tol’able David is a motion picture of sublime quality – the care and thought that went into the storyline, casting and photography allows the film to retain its timelessness. It is shown regularly at silent film festivals, and possibly has particular resonance for a modern audience, as it explores recurrent movie themes as coming of age and the psychopathic hillbilly trope. Of additional resonance are more but contemporary themes like the realistic portrayal of the rural working class without idealising them and the brutalities of working class life and poverty. It also taps into concerns about a homogeneous society being threatened by lawless outsiders.

References/Recommended Reading:

Tol’able David and the American Heritage – Walter R Coppedge



The Parade Goes By – Kevin Brownlow

Photoplay Magazine, January 1922


The Bright Shawl (1923)

“Hello Bill?’ I asked. ‘Yes.’ ‘This is Dick. Bill, you blankity blank! You stole my picture, do you know it?’

“The reply came instantly back: ‘Certainly. I expected to. Goodbye.’ And he hung up.”

So recounted Richard Barthelmess in 1929 about his telephone call to William Powell on the night of the premiere of The Bright Shawl. Richard Barthelmess by this time was a major movie star, having been in motion pictures since 1916 and he’d scored a massive hit in 1921 with Tol’able David, that whimsical and romantic picture of Americana. Filming for The Bright Shawl involved a trip down to Cuba but Dick and Bill couldn’t stand each other on sight! As Bill remembered in 1930:

“I thought he was surly and he thought I was upstage. We went to the boat hating each other.”

The Bright Shawl was the tale of a young American, Charles Abbott, who sails across to assist the war for Cuban independence, while also finding time to fall in love with Narcissa, played by Mary Astor, and be the object of La Clavel’s affections, played by Dorothy Gish. Bill played dashing Spanish officer Gaspar de Vaca, needless to say a villain, but a stylish one.

“I remember the first picture we made together.” said Richard Barthelmess, “It was The Bright Shawl. We went to Cuba to make it and Bill and I formed a friendship that we enjoy to this day. I was the hero, a rather dub part, and Bill was the bold, bad villain who showed me up for fair. It was a great part and he played it splendidly. It was then, I believe, that critics first called him a picture stealer.” Indeed, the review in Photoplay magazine specifically mentions William Powell’s performance as ‘a real hit’ and you can see from the photos above that clearly the Powell charisma was starting to emanate.

Now mercifully The Bright Shawl is still with us, stored at the UCLA Film & Television archive, but hasn’t been released to the public. It is occasionally shown at silent film festivals though. I hope it will be soon because it sounds like an interesting picture and introduces another intriguing element as, on top of this being the picture that introduced William Powell to Richard Barthelmess, this was also Edward G Robinson’s second movie outing.

“Out of that trip came a close friendship and today Dick and Ronald Colman and I are buddies.”

References/Recommended Reading:

William Powell: The Life & Films – Roger Bryant



Photoplay Magazine, July 1923

Picturegoer Magazine, July 1923

‘Is Bill Powell a Picture Stealer?’ – Photoplay Magazine, March 1929

Outcast (1923)

Here begins my first look at one of William Powell’s lost pictures, Outcast, released in December 1922. This was Bill’s third movie, billed seventh. As you can see below all that’s left of this movie are lobby cards and reviews from newspaper, trade and fan magazines. It’s such a shame as it sounds an intriguing drama with an intriguing love triangle at its centre. The plot revolves around Geoffrey and Valentine, who were in a relationship until Valentine jilted poor Geoffrey for a rich husband. In the meantime, Miriam, played by Elsie Ferguson, is living in extreme poverty. Miriam happens to be passing Geoffrey’s apartment when one of his friends accidentally squirts her with a soda siphon! Needless to say, Miriam falls in love with Geoffrey, who becomes torn between Miriam and Valentine. Now given the circumstances I feel happy to insert a shameless plot spoiler, and in the finish up Geoffrey follows a heartbroken Miriam to Rio where they are married. 

Motion Picture Magazine, February 1923

By this time Elsie Ferguson was reaching the end of her motion picture career and the four picture contract she had with Paramount. Elsie was an enormous star on the Broadway stage, celebrated for her ethereal beauty, and although she made 25 films in total, theatre was her abiding passion. Her level of superstardom ensured a remuneration of $9,000 a week, generous even today! As such, Elsie could therefore be choosy about the projects she worked on. Her last silent feature was An Unknown Lover in 1925 and she made one talking picture, Scarlet Pages, in 1930, retiring completely from stage and screen that same year. Her success had enabled a Riviera lifestyle and she was able to split her time equally between the South of France and the United States.

References/Recommended Reading:

William Powell: The Life and Films – Roger Bryant 


Motion Picture Magazine, February 1923

Picture Play Magazine, December 1922

Exhibitors Trade Review, December 1922

The Lost Films of William Powell

Not surprisingly I appear to have hit an impasse in my silent movie experience – at this point so many of William Powell’s pictures are either lost, or stored in archives and private collections and therefore not publicly available. This is mostly because he made the majority of his silent pictures with Paramount, the dominant studio of the 1920s. Of the 1,222 silent pictures that Paramount made, only 361 remain, a few of which are incomplete or fragmentary.

The list below outlines those films that are lost or unavailable:

Outcast (1923)

The Bright Shawl (1923) – stored at UCLA

Under the Red Robe (1923) – stored at George Eastman House

Dangerous Money (1924)

Too Many Kisses (1925) – stored at the Library of Congress

My Lady’s Lips (1925) – stored at UCLA

The Beautiful City (1925) – not known

White Mice (1926)

Sea Horses (1926)

Desert Gold (1926)

The Runaway (1926)

Aloma of the South Seas (1926)

The Great Gatsby (1926)

Tin Gods (1926)

New York (1927)

Love’s Greatest Mistake (1927)

Senorita (1927) – private collection

Time to Love (1927) – private collection

Nevada (1927) – stored at the Library of Congress and George Eastman House

She’s A Sheik (1927)

Beau Sabreur (1928)

Partners in Crime (1928) – stored at the Library of Congress

The Drag Net (1928)

The Vanishing Pioneers (1928)

Forgotten Faces (1928) – stored at the Library of Congress and the Museum of Modern Art

I’ll still take a look at each film consecutively though – mercifully there are fan magazines, film stills and newspaper reviews to give us some context. And I’ve still a fair bit to go at, so over the coming months I’ll be giving you my views on Bill’s existing silent films – most of which you can find in varying degrees of quality on YouTube:

Romola (1924)

Beau Geste (1926)

Special Delivery (1927)

Paid to Love (1927)

The Last Command (1928)

Feel My Pulse (1928)

The Four Feathers (1929)

But oh! What a scant amount of work remains compared to those lost! I can only exhibit a mixture of sorrow and frustration because in amongst those lost pictures were some monster hits, and some true classics of the genre. There’s a few duds as well, but wouldn’t it have been nice to have the opportunity of forming our own view of them?

The list also highlights just how much William Powell’s career kicked on from 1926 onwards – he was firing out a prodigious amount of work which would have enabled a pretty decent Hollywood lifestyle. Powell’s early years on the stage were marked by a decade or so of struggle, particularly financial, which had led in part to his separation from his first wife, Eileen Wilson. Once in Hollywood, Bill maintained a reputation for being very careful with his money, assisted by his father, an accountant who also managed his affairs. Indeed, Bill eventually moved his parents to Hollywood and the three shared a flat together until Bill’s marriage to Carole Lombard. 

Bill’s career was transformed by the talkies and this gave him the power to be more choosy over which pictures he worked on and he reduced his output accordingly. He’d made the hard yards in the silent era and it was time to enjoy the fruits of his labour.

References/Recommended Reading:

William Powell: The Life and Films – Roger Bryant



When Knighthood Was In Flower (1922)

Later in 1922, William Powell got a lucky break, “…through the misfortune of Jose Ruben, who was to have played the lead in When Knighthood Was In Flower. It was my ambition to be a screen hero. When Jose Ruben, who was to have been the leading man, suffered an injury to his eye, I was offered a chance to test for the part. I didn’t get it. But I had a wonderful leer and a sneer which registered perfectly. So I became a villain.”

The story is pretty simple – Mary Tudor, Henry VIII’s cheeky kid sister, and ordinary geezer Charles Brandon fall in love at a jousting competition. Unfortunately Henry has her betrothed in a strategic alliance to the preposterous old coot, King Louis XII of France, much to the delight of his oleaginous cad of a nephew and heir, Francis I. 

Marion Davies gives a sparky characterisation of Mary Tudor – not taking any crap from either her brother, that foul fiend Francis I, or the love of her life, Charles Brandon. She could really wrap that daft old king round her little finger and she knew it. Marion Davies was a magnetic presence on screen, and her lightening quick comic timing is apparent here. This movie was the one that made Marion a star – supposedly the first $1 million picture, it was thanks to the largesse of William Randolph Hearst who set up his Cosmopolitan Productions as a vehicle for Marion as he longed for her to have a career as a dramatic actress. 

As I’m still acclimatising myself to silent film, I had to give this movie two shots as I struggled to maintain focus the first time. I’m learning that the power of silent film lies in the need for total immersion in the picture – if you look away for even a second you can end up not just missing an intertitle but a sideways glance or a look that can convey additional context that drives the story forward. However I realised that it’s not that much different from when I’m watching a Saturday night Scandinavian cop drama with subtitles, so I sallied forth with that in mind and didn’t feel quite so intimidated.

And any feelings of intimidation soon dissipated when I clapped eyes on Bill’s slender pins encased in tights and sporting a rather fetching Tudor style miniskirt. However, we know from her other pictures that Marion Davies’ superlative comedic skills were sadly underused during her career, and that is evident in this movie. Although she plays Mary Tudor with tomboy spirit, the historical setting of the picture is ill suited to Marion’s personality which I see as wholly situated in the 20th Century. Hearst’s wish for Marion to be a great dramatic actress was kindly meant in a difficult personal context but this type of boringly worthy material is beneath her talents. Therefore I’m going to seek out her pictures produced in a contemporary setting as I suspect I will find them more satisfying.

References/Recommended Reading:

William Powell: The Life & Films – Roger Bryant

Undercrank Founder Ben Model Discusses Marion Davies’ When Knighthood Was in Flower


Marion Davies: Of Hearst and Hollywood

Happy Birthday Marion Davies (January 3, 1897)

Sherlock Holmes (1922)


So here is my first foray into feature length silent pictures! And actually Sherlock Holmes wasn’t a bad place to start because it was known as one of the ‘talkiest’ silents due to the sheer amount of verbose title cards.

This film isn’t just well known for featuring the screen debuts of William Powell and Roland Young, but also for having been lost for many years. It was eventually discovered in various cans and painstakingly reassembled – luckily the director Albert Parker was still alive and just about remembered the correct sequence. Apparently around 26 minutes is still missing but you really can’t tell.

I wasn’t expecting silent movies to be absorbing but, although this picture isn’t brilliant, the silent aspect wasn’t an issue. I suspect that being used to certain Holmes tropes made me a bit incredulous watching this early version – the romance with Alice for example seemed unbelievable because I’m used to Holmes being asexual.

What I did enjoy about the picture was that amazing aerial shot of London and the other location scenes, such as one scene in front of a massive billboard advertising Bovril!


I was pleasantly surprised just how much William Powell had to do in this picture – I’d assumed being a mere debut that he’d have one blink and you’d miss it scene, but the role of Forman Wells was a meaty one that takes up a substantial and important part in the movie. Forman is the orphaned son of a crook who is groomed by Moriarty to carry out his nefarious activities. Holmes helps him to escape Moriarty’s clutches and joins Holmes in his plot to foil the evil criminal mastermind.


What is also pleasantly surprising is that even in these nascent beginnings of a film career, Bill already radiates natural charisma in every scene in which he appears. Parker had found Bill in the play ‘Spanish Love’ at the Maxine Elliott Theatre in New York and offered him the part, which was being filmed mostly in Long Island. Bill found that he preferred film acting, it was easier, without the need to learn text, and Bill was also very fortunate in having a those big, slightly bug like eyes. We can see in the movie he is able to naturally use them to convey emotion, but he’s also a very physical actor who uses his body to further express the character’s inner feelings. So Forman goes from a nervy, shifty little sod to a more upright, prouder character when he takes up with Holmes.

This is a historic picture on many levels, but it doesn’t do much for me. The screenplay is too confusing and I couldn’t get into John Barrymore as Holmes. Additionally the score in the version I watched although excellently rendered on the Miditzer Virtual Theatre Organ, I’ll grant you is very much in keeping with silent movie tradition, but it didn’t lend the required atmosphere of mystery for me – I just kept thinking of Reginald Dixon rising out of the stage at the Blackpool Tower Ballroom.

References/Recommended Reading: