Early & Silent Film

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Blue Jeans, USA 1917

Posted by keith1942 on August 9, 2017

This was the fourth programme in the John H. Collins retrospective at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in 2016. Rather like Henry King’s Tol’able David (1921) this is a melodrama in which the protagonist overcomes both villainy and an image of self in ‘small town America’. Like that film this is also a fine piece of ‘Americana’. What distinguishes it is that the protagonist is a young woman. David Mayer in the Festival Catalogue notes how the film has transformed the source material, a play from 1890 by Joseph Arthur., one of his popular works.

“Quite possibly at the instigation of writers June Mathis and Charles Taylor, the play’s rube comic roles and broad comic dialogue were stripped away, the comical interludes largely expunged, and the narrative reshaped and smoothed out to create a taut drama of love, ambition, family woe, and female heroism in the rural south-east corner of bucolic Indiana bordering the Ohio River, “the Blue Jeans District”, which gives the drama its title. Crucially, in an act destabilising the former dominance of the male lead, reshaping the narrative to focus on the bravery, self-abnegation, and resourcefulness of the heroine June, providing a major role for Collins’s wife, the actress Viola Dana.”

The plot remains melodramatic. The heroine, June (Dana) is an orphan and in the course of the film she discovers the truth about her lost mother and is reunited with her grandparents. She also has to battle with the varied blows that fall on her romantic hero Perry Bascom (Robert Walker). He has returned to his family town of Rising Sun. Over the course of the film he has to battle politically and literally with the film villain, Ben Boone (Clifford Bruce). He also has to clear his name of a slander, that he abandoned a wife and committed bigamy. And, to regain control of the family mill, he has to overcome the town prejudices that stem from the time of an earlier owner, his uncle.

Viola Dana is fine as the heroine, and she expresses suitable range of emotions a she moves, from love, through adversity and to discoveries from the past. Walker plays Perry as a fairly conventional hero as he encounters one setback after another.

Stylistically the great pleasure of the film is the manner in which it captures the flavour of a small rural town and the surrounding countryside. The opening, as Perry bowls downhill on a bicycle back to Rising Sun, encountering June on his way, sets the scene beautifully. And the are many scenes in the surrounding countryside, in nearby woods and on a nearby river. Perry and June marry in a ‘little chapel; by the river’. The film also makes effective use of cross-cutting between actions and events and draws parallels between these through the use of superimpositions. And there are a number of flashback that fill in the ‘back stories’ of the characters: as for example as Perry unravels the slander about his earlier marriage and claims of bigamy.

The small town of Rising Sun typifies some of the contradictions in ‘small town America’. Perry is not the only one to encounter ‘small town’ prejudice. After her marriage and the birth a of a child June goes to the local church to seek baptism for the infant. But the minister and congregation set their faces against her because they hold ‘uncertainties’ about her conception. This leads to a round denunciation of the church prejudices by one of her only friends, Cindy Tutwiler (Margaret McWade). The point is emphasised by a shot of the church’s stained glass window bearing the  legend ‘suffer little children’. This question of legitimacy is dramatised by a photograph of Cindy’s daughter Lucy [later revealed as June’s mother) which Cindy’s husband Jacob (Russell Simpson) has turned towards the wall.

There is also a sequence set on the night before a local election with candidates’ hustings and large crowds. This makes good use of numerous extras and chiaroscuro effect. It is also the point at which a melodramatic revelation takes place as Perry’s ‘ex-wife’ Dora denounces him.

The film does retain quite a lot of the melodramatic plotting. The climax of the film takes place at the saw mill where Perry confronts Ben. It is Ben who proves the stronger and he ties Perry onto the machine saw whilst locking June in the mill offices. June breaks out of the office and rushes to the saw, rescuing Perry from his mortal threat. David Mayer points out the generic implication of this scene.

“Joseph Arthur’s famous third-act sawmill “sensation scene” (a melodramatic episode so stirringly iconic that it’s reprised in the final-reel of numerous 007 films …”.

This title confirmed the claims made for the retrospective and for Collins as both a fine filmmaker and an important pioneer in the development of Hollywood. Like The Girl Without a Soul this film was made for the Metro Picture Corp. It was also supplied by the George Eastman Museum but in a 35mm print. Donald Sosin supplied the accompaniment on the piano and including a song from the original play.

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