Lorraine of the Lions, Edward Sedgwick
Lorraine of the Lions (1925)

Silent Film Jewels About Mothers, Horses and Gorillas

A female Tarzan and her gorilla, a horse that revenges his murdered master, mothers, and comical aviators make the scene in these silent film jewels.

Accidentally Preserved Vol. 5
Undercrank Productions
9 April 2024

Accidentally Preserved Vol. 5, available on DVD and Blu-ray from Undercrank Productions, presents silent films preserved through a roundabout process. After silent films were released in theatres on 35mm prints, Universal offered 16mm “Show-at-Home” prints to collectors, and in some cases, these are now the only copies that survive.

It’s sad but symptomatic of film history that two of the features on this set are Universal Jewels, which is what the studio called its big-budget prestige productions. They were a big deal at the time, but many would no longer exist without the 16mm market.

The prints on this set, which seem to be the sole surviving copies, are owned by preservationist and composer Jon C. Mirsalis. After the Library of Congress made preservation copies, Mirsalis wrote scores for them and showed them free during the COVID pandemic as part of Cinecon, the collector’s festival conducted online.

Now, on with the Jewels!

Lorraine of the Lions (1925) Director: Edward Sedgwick

Lorraine of the Lions opens on the S.S. Queen Mary, a steamer traveling from Sydney to San Francisco with the owners and animals of the Livingston Circus. John Livingston (Frank Newburg) married his unsuitable lower-class wife (Rosemary Cooper) and ran away to found the circus, incurring the wrath of his rich father (Joseph J. Dowling). The scowling old curmudgeon has agreed to raise granddaughter Lorraine if her parents give her up.

As for Lorraine (Doreen Turner), we see the tyke playing with toy animals while the card informs us “an uncanny control over wild beasts had made little Lorraine the world’s youngest animal trainer”. Here, we begin to sense that the story of Lorraine of the Lions will throw many absurdities at the audience, and those suspicions will be confirmed.

We see an elaborate three-level set for the ship, while most of the sea action is conveyed via miniature models and tank work. A typhoon triggers a disaster that sinks everyone and everything, except that Lorraine is rescued by her fiercely loyal (and jealous) gorilla, Bimi. They escape to a palmy island along with an elephant and a crate of lions. Also shipwrecked is a boat of random “cannibals” (stereotype alert) who are promptly dispatched by gorilla and elephant.

But wait! At his San Francisco mansion, old Livingston experiences a Scrooge-like vision of the orphaned waif pleading for help. On the instant, he’s converted to a belief in spiritualism and spends many years seeking advice from carnival fortune-tellers. It might have been more sensible to charter a boat and begin searching islands along the tidal routes of the disaster, as he’ll finally get around to after many years, but then Lorraine (now played by Patsy Ruth Miller) wouldn’t have grown up as a happy if demure savage with her Bimi, played by Fred Humes in a gorilla suit.

The old fool finally performs the search after a crystal ball vision by Don Mackay (Norman Kerry), a handsome stranger Livingston put up in his mansion after nearly running him over and whose mystic predilections are explained by his birth in India. All this is a mere set-up for the discovery and rescue of Lorraine.

The rest of Lorraine of the Lions concerns her conversion from a wild maiden to a proper young lady who wears dresses and eats with a salad fork. The conflict is provided by the increasingly angry and recalcitrant Bimi, who doesn’t merely symbolize the wild part of Lorraine’s nature but acts as a full-blown “objective correlative” of her emotions and her father’s need to civilize and repress them.

For example, one of Lorraine’s “rescuers” is a slimeball (Philo McCullough as Hartley) who makes a play for the young heiress out of greed and lust, and Lorraine encourages Bimi to tear him apart behind some bushes. She has already seen Mackay knock Hartley out in a fight, so maybe she thinks he’s fair game. When the other civilizers react with horror to the corpse, she blames the lions, thus covering for Bimi and allowing him to come along to San Francisco.

We’re seemingly expected to overlook this disturbing bit of “savage innocence”, since we’re not sorry to see the Hartley gone, but the increasingly frenzied and uncontrollable Bimi will have to pay as Lorraine’s shadow-self or anima in the civilized city. For Lorraine implicitly to complete her civilizing process, the riotous climax must invoke the “pathetic fallacy” of another raging thunderstorm and a preview of what will become of a certain King Kong.

The tagline for Lorraine of the Lions could have been “the female Tarzan”, but the studios weren’t that blunt (since Tarzan was copyrighted). Lorraine’s fraught debut in civilization foreshadows scenes similar to those in Hugh Hudson’s Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984). We’re only sorry that Lorraine doesn’t display more feral qualities besides her ability to quell Bimi’s rampage.

The story of Lorraine of the Lions is credited to Isadore Bernstein (brother-in-law of Universal chief Carl Laemmle) and Carl Krusada (aka Val Cleveland). Bernstein had worked on the 1918 Tarzan of the Apes starring Elmo Lincoln. Krusada, a specialist in B westerns, had written for stuntwoman and serial queen Ruth Roland.

Sadly, Miller’s Lorraine is never required to be that active. Miller had achieved stardom for what’s still her most famous role as Esmeralda in Wallace Worsley’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), a Universal Super-Jewel that also survives thanks to 16mm prints. Her romantic lead in that was Kerry, so they’re being paired again to echo that glory.

Edward Sedgwick is remembered for his work with Buster Keaton, but he was a solid and prolific director of action, and that’s why he handled Lorraine of the Lions. While “taming” the wild young woman is an intriguing theme, the film doesn’t run with that so much as with the action sequences.

The Fourth Commandment (1927) Director: Emory Johnson

The Fourth Commandment is a fascinating example of a unique filmmaking duo that was big in the 1920s and forgotten today. Producer-director Emory Johnson and writer Emilie Johnson were a mother and son who collaborated on a string of popular hits.

A leading man for Universal during the Teens, Emory married actress Ella Hall amid much publicity. They raised their kids in the same house with Emilie, to whom Emory was devoted. The Fourth Commandment (“Honor thy father and mother”, for those who need to look it up) is clearly inspired by personal emotions of the strife between wife and mother-in-law. It’s a mistake to take this film too autobiographically, but still.

The multi-generational saga begins briefly in the 19th Century during some colossal earthquake and fire. Shortly thereafter, the widowed Mrs. Graham (Mary Carr) is left to raise her son Gordon, who grows up to be played by Henry Victor. The prolific and popular Carr specialized in elderly moms, such as the title role in the 1919 version of Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch and Aunt Em in the 1925 The Wizard of Oz. She’s not quite the star of The Fourth Commandment, although she steals it. The film is a vehicle for Belle Bennett, who made a splash as the self-sacrificing mother in the 1925 version of Stella Dallas, after which she also specialized in brave mothers.

In The Fourth Commandment, Bennett plays the frustrated, ambitious wife who causes all the problems. Virginia Graham doesn’t know she’s supposed to be satisfied in a dumpy apartment with the kid, especially while a wealthy banker courts her neighbor. First, she convinces Gordon to let her work as the banker’s secretary while Grandma takes care of the little boy, and then she gets jealous and causes a painful to-do because the boy likes Grandma better. Messages about women’s roles are mixed in a blender.

Virginia takes her son away for a divorce and a wealthy second marriage, but she can’t be rewarded for that behavior. Ironically, without a wife and kid around his neck, Gordon applies himself and gets rich. Apparently, he never takes up with anyone else; well, a boy’s best friend is his mother. Soon enough, it’s time for the next generation to repeat the same mistakes and learn the same lessons. Through decades of rapid developments, Gordon’s gray-headed mom never seems to get older.

These complicated relations between several female in-laws – and we haven’t mentioned them all – could try the viewer’s patience if the action didn’t move swiftly and effectively. Emory Johnson’s direction is full of excellent visual touches that convey everything vividly and succinctly, so he was a good silent film director. He was also good with actors and mise-en-scène.

Although the story of The Fourth Commandment has no dead children in it, researching its players reveals how common it was to lose children. Only the previous year, Emory Johnson lost a son in an accident that seems to have strained his marriage. Carr had lost a young son, and Bennett lost her teenage son while making Stella Dallas. Curiously, he was masquerading as her brother (!) so that no one would realize she was ten years older than she pretended. Hollywood is full of such real-life stories, just in case you thought the “women’s movies” plots were too far-fetched.

In the end, the various husbands and sons of The Fourth Commandment are convenient sideline characters who facilitate (or obfuscate) the relations between women, and the story exists to explore those women’s views. So-called “women’s movies”, which are basically domestic melodramas of marriage and success revolving around personal choices, are more revealing social yardsticks than most other genres. They hinge on clashes between tradition and modernity. Tradition tends to win, though not without taking a few knocks.

The Fourth Commandment was reduced by one reel for its Show-at-Home edition. Although we don’t notice missing material on this tinted print, some characters listed in the credits no longer appear. The film’s summary on Wikipedia is way off.

Hoofbeats of Vengeance (1928) Director: Henry MacRae

Hoofbeats of Vengeance wasn’t a Jewel but one of Universal’s workhorse productions. Literally. Rex, King of the Wild Horses, was a Morgan stallion who starred in about 20 features and serials. Untroubled by the transition to talkies, he galloped on into the 1930s until he died when he was about 20. And that, Dear Readers, is why Westerns were sometimes called horse operas. Rex even did team-ups with dog star Rin Tin Tin because Hollywood knew a natural crossover without being kicked in the head.

The human star of Hoofbeats of Vengeance is Jack Perrin as square-chinned Sgt. Jack Gordon of the Canadian Mounties. Jack is tracking down smuggler Regan (Al Ferguson), who killed Rex’s owner, as we see flashbacked inside a picture frame. Regan doesn’t hesitate to shoot his victim on that occasion, but this time, he ties Jack up and leaves him in a shed. Perhaps the reason is Regan’s haunted conscience, for he continually imagines Rex’s hooves beating like Edgar Allan Poe’s tell-tale heart.

For Rex, it’s personal, but his mission is complicated by the fact that Regan’s got a smart pinto named Markee, not to be confused with Jack’s white horse, Starlight. There’s a reason why the horses are the stars; they’re certainly more interesting than Helen Foster’s largely useless damsel. Rex and Markee even face-off, equine to equine, in the tail-chasing equivalent of a fistfight, and they have sassy dialogue cards.

Perhaps all this sounds absurd, as all the silent film plots recounted here may sound absurd, but this 50-minute oater gets the job done. Canadian director Henry MacRae is among those prolific pioneers whose obscurity today conceals their importance. His works include the first two films about lycanthropy (beginning with The Werewolf in 1913, written by Ruth Ann Baldwin), the first Thai-Hollywood co-production shot in what was then Siam, and the first Tarzan talkie. In the sound era, he produced the Flash Gordon serials. How is he forgotten? Because, as with so many silent filmmakers, most of his films are lost or unavailable.

Although Hoofbeats of Vengeance got its US release in 1929, it bears a 1928 copyright and seems to have played in England that year. This tinted print shows that silent films didn’t mind throwing around “hell” and “damn” in the cards. Unbelievably prolific western scripter George H. Plympton can take credit for that, and he even throws in a pun about drunken donkeys making asses of themselves.

Love at First Flight (1928) Director: Edward F. Cline

As a bonus among the three features in Accidentally Preserved Vol. 5 is Love at First Flight, a Mack Sennett two-reeler starring Joe Young, Lige Conley, Daphne Pollard, Madeleine Hurlock, Sennett’s Bathing Beauties, a cat, and a few bits of animation.

Directed by Edward F. Cline, the story is a take-off on aviator Charles Lindbergh, mentioned (and misspelled) in a title card. After Young and Conley perform some amusing antics in a little aeroplane with time out for shots of a Siamese cat who lands the plane. The two men bail out for the beach, where a bunch of bathing beauties are doing their thing. Pollard plays the dumpy, galumphy, man-hungry one who sets her sights on Conley’s clumsy clod while Young’s hero hooks up with Hurlock’s vamp. The latter two don’t do much, perhaps because they’re not wacky.

Pollard is the most magnetic presence, although her comedy is very basic. Well, Sennett wasn’t George Bernard Shaw. It’s always interesting to see female clowns in slapstick comedy, where a basic part of their fright-wig schtick is that their characters are funny and athletic because they’re unattractive. A gorgeous woman like Hurlock is rarely called upon to climb a tree or fall into a fountain, although she might take the odd pratfall. The svelte bathing beauties are posing, swimming, and dancing but not being funny; the two oversized ones are “funny”.

One of Love at First Flight‘s attractions is the insertion of early Technicolor dance displays by the beauties. The introduction explains that this footage, rescued from a private collection, is darker than it would have been in theatres. A sour note is the two-second appearance of the two large beauties as parodies of Little Eva and Topsy from endless productions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. While the reference would be clear to 1928 audiences (without necessarily being funny), today’s viewers see only a baffling blackface gag appearing from seemingly nowhere.

Love at First Flight‘s handsome lead, the utterly forgotten Joe or Joseph Young (also known as Roger Moore), has 250 credits on IMDB. Many are comedy shorts, and the rest are uncredited bits in features. Conley briefly became a star in hapless roles. Australia’s Pollard was a well-known stage and screen comic star, today best known for Laurel & Hardy films. Hurlock was also known for short comedies, often as a glamorous siren. She has a saucy bath scene in Laurel & Hardy’s Duck Soup (1927). Director Cline is most famous for working extensively with Buster Keaton, W.C. Fields, and many other comedians.

The “accidentally preserved” films on this Blu-ray and DVD collection haven’t been expensively restored and remain in merely watchable shape, which is probably the best they’ll ever be. For fans of silent cinema, it’s enough to find four diverse rarities in one place, each offering a different facet of the era. Undercrank Productions’ owner, Ben Model, was honored by the Online Film Critics Society in January for his efforts in promoting silent cinema, and here’s another example of the good work.