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Four early films by John H. Collins

Posted by keith1942 on February 22, 2017

John Collins with Viola Dana

John Collins with Viola Dana

 

The programme of film by John Collins was a revelation and a pleasure. I had enjoyed brief encounters before but here we had a programme of eight films [of varying length] and a display of impressive direction and a distinctive style. Collins started out with the Edison Company about 1910, working in a variety of roles. He progressed to direction in 1914. He immediately established himself as a talented and distinctive director. But his career was cut short by the world-wide influenza epidemic of 1919. He died only aged 29 years. He had 41 credits as a director, frequently writing the screenplays.

The opening programme, ‘The Early Edison Years’. offered four films, three one -reelers and a three reeler.

The Man in the Dark 1914. 18 minutes at 16 fps.

This was his third film as director and he also wrote the script.. The main character is Silver Joe, originally Joe Raymond (Frank McGlynn). He is now a destitute old man but a letter he finds on a rubbish heap takes him [and the audience] in a flashback to his youth. He was engaged to Flora Van Dyke. In the film we see him celebrating his forthcoming wedding with a bachelor dinner. However his best friend Jack sees Flora with an unknown man to whom she gives money. When Joe hears the story from Jack he breaks off the engagement. Flora writes an explanation in a letter which Joe refuses to read and which he returns. This is the letter that the older Joe has now found. He reads that the man with Flora  was her brother, in trouble with the law. The money was to enable him to escape retribution. Enlightened too late Silver Joe goes to Flora’s old house. He finds that she has died and that her funeral is taking place. All that he is left with is a rose that he picks up. He burns the letter and expires.

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The film is noticeable for the stylistic touches that Collins provides. The reference to the engagement is presented in a heart-shaped iris shot. When Flora receives the letter we see her reflected in a three panel mirror, emphasising not her duplicity but the different pictures held of her. And the lighting in the film adds to the dramatic feel of the story,.

The Everlasting Triangle 1914. 17 minutes at 16 fps.

The film was directed by Collins but scripted by Charles M. Seay, a

‘stock player and vaudeville performer … taking on the roles of actor, writer and director.’

The film is not as well produced as The Man in the Dark, some of the sets are ‘shoddy’. Jay Weissberg in the Catalogue ascribes this to Edison economising.

But the stock melodrama is rendered powerful by a plot resolution that seems to prequel Stroheim’s Greed (1924). Kate (Mabel Trunnelle) is an ‘Eastern girl in the West’. Santley of the West (Frank McGlynn) meets her and proposes marriage. Her other suitor, Philbin, of the East (Robert Kegerreis) leaves. But  a year on, Kate , now living in rural cabin, pines for the busy life of the East. A letter brings Philbin back and they run off. Santley follows them and catches them up in the desert. He shoots two of the three horses and then forces Kate and Philbin to draw cards with himself for the remaining horse. Kate is able to ride off. But Santley forces Philbin on into the desert where he expires. Finally Santley commits suicide. A grim but potent drama.

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The Mission of Mr Foo 2015. 18 minutes at 26 fps. Missing about 75 feet.

Directed by John H Collins from a story by Helen Chandler. This is essentially a film with a stereotypical Asian villain. However Jay Weissberg makes the point:

“The film deftly blends stereotypical “Yellow Peril” deviousness – Sax Rohmer’s ‘The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu’ was published just three years earlier , and the name “Foo” can’t be accidental – with a more positive depiction of the noble champions of the new Republic.” (Catalogue)

The cast includes a genuine Chinese actor, a Japanese actor performing as a Chinese character and [more predictably] Caucasian actors playing Chinese characters, including the villain.

Mr Foo (Carlton S. King) is an ant-republican plotting to restore the Chinese monarchy and also trying to undermine US power. The latter is done literally as he and his minions plot in secret underground passages below Washington DC. [A plot device that returned in the sound era].

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Tradition is emphasised in Foo’s commitment to the Buddha, seen in a opening sequence. Later there is a flashback to the now-departed Dowager Empress. Foo’s Buddhism does not prevent him threatening Florence (Gladys Hulette) , the daughter of an important diplomat (Bigelow Cooper) , with miscegenation. Bu the modern Republican Chinese are allowed to be active. The Chinese Ambassador Tu Sing (T. Tamamoto) and his secretary (Otto Kobe) are instrumental in the defeat of Mr Foo. Though the film ends with a slight reversion to tradition when Foo is forced to drink poison.

On the Stroke of Twelve 1915. 41 minutes at 20 fps, with some tinting

Director John H Collins. Script by Gertrude Lyon.

This is an early example of a three reel film, something Edison introduced in 1915. I was interested by the projection speed which seems quite fast for the period. The script writer, Gertrude Lyon, is also interesting. She appears in the lead role in the film, Irene Bromley, as Gertrude McCoy.  She both acted and wrote at Edison and later worked in England in Europe.

The film’s plot revolves around an amateur female detective, Irene. At the start of the film, on the death of her father, she inherits a fortune. In the first reel she acts as a spoilt and extravagant young woman. An aspect emphasised when her lawyers turn down an application by a penniless inventor but then happily allow her to spend $10,000 on a new car.

Irene is the object of attention by Sidney Villon (Bigelow Cooper again as villain) the lawyer who administers her trust. But she is also admired by young Arthur Colby (Richard Tucker), more attractive but also penniless. Reel one ends with a midnight event which will be important later.

“most remarkable is the way he [Collins] signals the striking of the midnight clock with a dozen flashes of light, rendering sound as visual form.” (Jay Weisberg in the Catalogue).

In reel two we see the conflict between Villon and Arthur, ending in a fight in Villon’s flat. Next morning two bodies are found, with a gun and a watch indicating the time of the fight. However, Arthur is alive and is immediately arrested for murder. here we have a familiar trope where an innocent man is found with a body and presumed guilty.

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Arthur is brought to trial and at this point Irene emerges not as a spoilt young woman, but an intelligent and resourceful person. In the course of the trial Collins uses several flashbacks to fill out the plot for the audience. It become clear that the scene with the penniless inventor was not merely background drama. And in following up the clues Irene is able to prove Arthur is innocent and their union is assured.

The sense of two characters described as ‘penniless’ adds emphasis to the film’s presentation of a distinction between wealth and moral emotion. Collin’s films are not radical inc content but they, as in many early US films, emphasise the merits of ordinary working people whilst privileging the benefits of wealth.

The film also displays Collins’ talent with production and lighting.

“It is in the film’s second half [mainly the event sin and alongside the court room drama] that Collins displays his directorial acumen, through dynamic angles and close-ups as well s very fine editing.” (Catalogue).

The last is apparent both in the use of the flashbacks and in the cutting between the court room and Irene’s detective work.

The four films all demonstrated Collins abilities in terms of direction, including in the pacing and rhythm of storytelling. Jay Weisberg suggests that,

“Clearly it’s time to reassess the standard dismissal of Edison films of the period. Contemporary critics were certainly more appreciative, and the studios roster of actors often receive high praise…” [Catalogue].

Whilst the plots were in many ways conventional the dramas were effective and, particularly in the longer film, one had a sense of some character development. All four films were screened from 35mm prints. The programme ensured that one would take care to catch all of the subsequent screenings of Collins’ films. And there were suitably dramatic accompaniments by Donald Sosin.

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One Response to “Four early films by John H. Collins”

  1. popegrutch said

    Nice to see an overview of some work by this oft-neglected director.

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