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.
William Powell: The Life and Films – Roger Bryant
This month I’ve veered away from cigarette cards and moved onto postcards, starting with this gorgeous coloured number featuring Richard Barthelmess and Lila Lee. A romantic keepsake, don’t you agree?
Richard Barthelmess was a resounding success in motion pictures, both as an actor and producer. As a result, once talking pictures came on the scene he started to lose interest somewhat in the business of movie making and was content to allow his star to fade. However his preservation story is a little different to that of his friends William Powell and Ronald Colman. Dick Barthelmess had been a major star since the late teens, so his back catalogue is far more extensive and therefore as you can see from the list below, far more of his movies have been retained:
Snow White (1916)
Sunshine Nan (1918)
The Girl Who Stayed At Home (1919)
Broken Blossoms (1919)
Scarlet Days (1919)
The Idol Dancer (1920)
The Love Flower (1920)
Way Down East (1920)
Tol’able David (1921)
The Enchanted Cottage (1924)
Soul Fire (1925)
Shore Leave (1925)
Just Suppose (1926)
Ranson’s Folly (1926)
The Amateur Gentleman (1926)
The White Black Sheep (1926)
The Patent Leather Kid (1927)
The Drop Kick (1927)
Scarlet Seas (1928)
So that’s not a bad little number to work my way through. Lillian Gish said that Richard Barthelmess’ “…face was the most beautiful of any man who had ever been before the camera…” and this postcard certainly provides the evidence of that.
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.
The Parade Goes By – Kevin Brownlow
Photoplay Magazine, January 1922