There’s something about Victorian moralising that grates the soul; not least because that vilifying crap has come back. Old Jack here was pretty much on Lockdown before the rest of you started hiding from COVID-19 so is properly in touch with the audience of this film. Just imagine, a hit book in the 1800s about a man who turns drunk then back again is made into multiple silent movies and then relaunches a chunk of the way into America’s Prohibition. Smart commercial move? Nah. Cos if there was one thing the goodly folk of the United States were keen to do by 1926, it was spend Ten Nights in a Barroom.
But, hold hard, your smugness. Cos this 1926 version of the story is terrific. And fascinating. The story isn’t of wild importance: a travelling salesman tells a poncily smoking youth of a thing he saw in a bar ten years gone…Joe Morgan was tricked out of his mill by a bastard partner, Simon Slade. Slade is the core of evil and degradation. He also owns the local bar where Morgan turned to drink and card sharps and leches sucked on the morals of the town ’til the wretchedness invaded the streets. Cue flashbacks: along comes fate to wake Morgan back to sobriety, with no small amount of personal cruelty. Then along comes a crowds of pissed off townsfolk to take down the bar.
So far so quaint. In a country stuffed with religiosity and condemnation of the Devil’s drink, the plot is in its seventy-fourth pat year come 1926. And you feel it. But what’s terrific, and caught old Jack here unawares in the fortnights of BlackLivesMatter, is the cast. All black, free of stereotypes and playing for the camera not the stage, they are names we should remember.
For, it turns out, this version is one of four films produced by the Colored Players Film Corporation. I know! Why isn’t this jumping out of every film reviewer’s handbook as a fantastic thing skipped past by history? Much like the role of women in directing the first films of the 1890s, here we are thirty years later looking at another betrayed ideal: a film made for a clear audience, reflecting normal human life (well, in the way it was at the time, given the story, given the funds) with no racism). Modern prejudices firmly in place, old Jack here took an age to realise flinching at caricatures, maids and minstrels, wasn’t going to happen. And – in that – this film is simply lovely.
And then there’s the talent. Joe Morgan is played by Charles Gilpin, a massively successful stage actor who was the first black man to win New York’s Drama League award for contribution to American theatre. Not black theatre; American. And he adapts to film like a pro. His performance leaps from the pious, to the tipsy, to the drunken, to the horrified, guilty parent and back again. And he does this with silent subtlety and a blood-line reaching forward to today’s Oscar winners. And Lechy Lucy also pointed out he does it while being a little bit sexy. Well, he was into middle-age at the time, so what would you expect?
The evil Slade is played by Lawrence Chenault as a steady rock of nasty. Like Gilpin, he started his career on the stage, but with a different kind of success: vaudeville tours took him across the U.S. and down to Australia. He’s markedly less subtle than Gilpin, but inhabits the bad guy (and – ultimately – childslaughterer) with zeal. He destroys Morgan, hangs over the degradation of the town by letting the cheats and creepy flirts hold sway, then catalyses Morgan’s salvation…all with an air of small-businessman evil.
Also a delight are Morgan’s wife, daughter and fellow comedy-villager Mehitable Cartwright. Myra Birwell, the kid who plays the daughter and the terrific Arline Mickey draw sympathy and laughs with properly screen-friendly presence. The lack of films in their imdb listings is a crime. Mickey, here in her mid-teens, brings a modern comic-adolescence to a dime-novel obsession. The internet gossip of its time…?
The CPFC was not well capitalised, by all accounts (ok, Wikipedia). They spent their funds on cracking actors and quality sets, but the market didn’t hold. Ultimately it wasn’t enough to keep them afloat. Which is a real shame, because you feel this is a grown-up film for grown-ups (children need fathers, not drunks). Ok, the plot is pious, and old Jack here may be over-joyed by the lack of racist tropes, but it’s more than good enough. Given the time and the treatment of Gilpin in the real world, where he got ripped up by Eugene O’Neill‘s pedantry to the benefit of Paul Robeson‘s career and his own self-destruction, this is a sharp, bright twinkler in film’s firmament.
And it ends with a chase and a fire.