Silent Steve caught me unawares with this one. It’s over a hundred years old now, but feels weirdly modern. His Picture in the Papers is a silent movie with more set-ups and faster cutting than anything made before editing got crazy again in the 1990s. And it has a subject that smacks of Reality TV and all the ugly cravings that come with it: a lazy arse struggles for fame. Of course, this isn’t about fame for fame’s sake as exhausts the soul these days. no, this is about a man on a mission of self-aggrandisement…for love…
Lessons for those over mid-life’s ugly hurdle, you ask? Okay, not much. Old Jack here just wants to blether on about something so old being actually entertaining. Tell a lie: the hero is Douglas Fairbanks, the stocky original, as Peter Prindle. He is part of a Kellogg-like dynasty, helping his ill-tempered old man flog a vast list of vegetarian excrescences to the masses. Albeit times aren’t that great and (here’s the lesson) old man Prindle is pissed at his boy for not stepping into the firm with all his heart or grinding himself to the floor on his old man’s ideals. Demand it, don’t…raise your kids your way, folks.
Not that His Picture in the Papers is making this point. It’s 60 minutes of comedy, so Fairbanks turns up late at the office, arse-farts about getting his comforts ready for the day, then leans back and reads the newspapers. Angry Dad is Clarence Handyside as Proteus Prindle – a set of names you could rearrange and still sound unlikely. He storms in to his late-arriving son and tears him a pointless new strip of pantomimic disdain. Poor Dad. As a father of such a son I felt for him (he did good in the end, didn’t ya, Steve?). Not that the film cares.
Thankfully, young Fairbanks’ Prindle gets some woes dumped on him. He heads off to a café for a massive (massive) steak and meets Loretta Blake as Christine Cadwalader. He adores her. She adores him. Sigh. Alas, she’s the daughter of one of Proteus’s key colleagues, Cassius Cadwalader (the small, old and delicately funny Charles Butler). Down comes the hurdle for Fairbanks: get your face in all the newspapers, helping the Prindles sell green stuff, or you will never be allowed to marry Loretta Blake.
But enough to get Fairbanks tearing through a series of not-quite successful scenarios. As was his wont, he also scales a few walls with unlikely pace (his swashbuckling films were a decade away…so this is social commentary with gymnastics). He’s a man of energy, not shy of jumping over his bed because it’s there.
So off goes Fairbanks and the film: a faked car accident (down a rocky cliff no less) doesn’t quite work; comedy business on a train takes him to a boxing match, but the police intervene; and so on. Oddly, the business on the train implies that American train tickets of the time had a description of the traveller on them…that true?
Incidental to all this is Cadwalader fending off a gang of criminals including an uncredited Erich von Stroheim, film fans. They try blackmailing him and he sets a trap with the police – and gets stabbed for his efforts. His life is saved by a tin of Prindle’s Life Preserving Lentils and – old Jack’s favourite part of the film – he marches thereafter in formation with a bunch of bodyguards.
And then the plots all come together, but I won’t tell you how. It’s easy enough to find this film on the YouTube. And it’s fun. Trust me. Not great, but fun. More set-ups power the film to its end – from beaches, to boats, to train-tracks and a final, 100-year-old plus, appalling, they deserved punishment, pun.
Essentially a story of a young man chasing a girl through life’s hurdles, this is a light-hearted (the world was at war, people) romp framed by the urgencies and fears of old men. And all for a pretty girl.
Such is life.