❉ Jon Dear on a triptych of silents capturing 1920s America on the cusp of the Great Depression.
Universal’s ongoing restoration programme sees the release of three silent pictures from the mid to late 1920s. If these seemingly unrelated films have a connecting theme it’s the role of the man in society and how a patriarchal capitalist structure can rigidly define a man’s success or failure, whether it’s judging his salary, age or levels of empathy. Of course, no one uses the words ‘patriarchy’ or ‘capitalism’, that’s just how things are in 1920 America.
This is a time when the US is outstripping every other country industrially and economically, with both machinery and consumer goods that prove this system must be the only way to prosperity. And of course the ‘American Dream’ means that everyone has the opportunity to make it regardless of background or class. Yet before 1929 was out the Wall Street Crash would lead to the greatest economic depression the modern world has seen and destitution for millions.
Skinner’s Dress Suit (1926) is a comedy verging on a musical, no mean feat in silent cinema. It’s directed by William A. Seiter, probably best know now for his Laurel and Hardy film Sons of the Desert (1935). It stars his then wife Laura La Plante and regular leading man Reginald Denny, then best know for the Leather Pushers series of boxing shorts. Skinner (Denny) is a cashier at a “nuts and bolts” company, pushed by his wife to ask for a raise. He doesn’t get it but pretends he does and his wife starts spending.
To compound matters he’s made redundant but the lavish spending of his wife has moved him up in society and he’s seen as a success by the vacuous, shallow world he now inhabits. Seiter has little time for the elite, with captions like “I’ll bet he’s way up in society – look how bored he is.” But Skinner he knows how it’s all about to come crashing down as soon as the ever-increasing debts are called in. It’s important not to read too much into this ultimately light hearted piece and even the scenes with the bailiffs are treated more like farce than shame and social stigma, something that certainly wouldn’t be seen as comedic within a couple of years.
On the surface this is a genuinely funny comedy, treading ground that would be mined decades later in such series as The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, with the daily commute, both stressful and dull, tedious colleagues and psychopathic bosses. As a silent, the focus is of course entirely on the visual and the office scenes effortlessly convey easily identifiable behavour from the obsequious to the flirtatious. And there’s a laugh out loud dance instruction scene which may well be the progenitor to the dance floor scene in Airplane! where Elaine (Julie Hagerty) mistakes a dying man’s desperate gesticulations for help as dance moves and copies them.
As the film progresses so does the tension, and films like The Small World of Sammy Lee and Uncut Gems would refine this to almost unbearable levels. But these are seeming more innocent times and this is a comedy of misunderstanding that you know will have a happy ending. However the rather problematic portrayal of the Jewish tailor leaves a bit of a sour taste in the mouth.
However the opening homage to the American Police in Emory Johnson’s The Shield of Honor is little short of vomit-inducing. And if the themes of toxic masculinity in early cinema are well timed, this police propaganda picture could not be less so. An obvious love story, a dashing hero (Neil Hamilton) and an incompetent villain (Nigel Barrie) does little for the plot’s memorability but there’s some impressive sequences with planes and trains, an excellent John Williams-esque soundtrack from Alex Kovacs, and far more interesting subplot concerning the hero’s father, Dan (Jack Lewis) reaching 65 and being forced to retire from the Police.
He can’t face the shame of telling his family even though they’re seen to show him nothing but love and this hints at a similar theme from the first film with men defining their worth through their job. The villain’s plan, to steal diamonds from his company and sell them back to his boss requires the involvement of several work colleagues including the boss’s secretary, and it seems ironic that a film made in praise of the police should feature deep level corruption. So near and yet so far. Director Emory Johnson had started out as an actor but moved behind the camera in 1922, however he would only make two more films and was declared bankrupt in 1935. He later worked as a portrait photographer.
The director of The Shakedown, William Wyler, is certainly the best known director on this release and it’s no surprise that’s it’s the most visually accomplished film of the three, and cinematographer Charles J. Stumar, responsible for some of Universal’s best early horrors, shows his worth with some of the best boxing sequences this side of Raging Bull, and one particularly memorable shot on a huge hoist going up on top of an oil derrick. The plot, concerning a troupe of con artists going town to town running a boxing hustle and betting scam is masterly crafted, layered and presented, working in deceptions within deceptions and worlds within worlds.
There’s beautiful attention to detail too, look out for the scene where Dave (James Murray) asks Majorie (Barbara Kent) out while flirting over the cash register in a diner only for her to ring up NO SALE. In many aspects the film appears more New Wave than silent in its depiction of desperate poverty and childhood delinquency, and it’s here at the cusp of the silents and the talkies, that you realise how close this all is to the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression.
The film that probably owes the biggest debt to The Shakedown is Jawbone (2017), with the boxing and the dives a cover for male weakness and the greater bravery of caring for those with more to lose than you. The woman of these pieces fare less well overall, their primary functions including sewing buttons, being rescued and providing emotional justification for the heroes’ decisions.
Eureka’s presentation includes brand new scores, commentaries and writing, and are impressively restored. From the opulence of high society to rural grinding poverty, these three films present an uneven triptych portraying the disquieting fragility of men to the systems in which they operate and are powerless to influence. And it’s only now, nearly 100 years later that we’re even beginning to address that.
❉ ‘Early Universal Vol. 1’ released by Eureka Entertainment on Blu-ray from 13 September 2021, RRP £25.99. The first print run of 2000 copies will be presented with a Limited-Edition O-card Slipcase. Available to order from Eureka Store https://eurekavideo.co.uk/movie/early-universal-vol-1/
❉ Jon Dear is a freelance writer on television and film. You can find more of his writing at www.viewsfromahill.com. He also hosts BERGCAST, a podcast on Nigel Kneale which can be found at bergcast.room207press.com.