Early & Silent Film

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Riders of the Night, Metro Picture Corp. 1919

Posted by keith1942 on September 12, 2017

This was the final film in the John H. Collins programme at the 2016 Giornate del Cinema Muto and also the last film Collins wrote and directed for Metro. The film starred the actress [and his wife] Viola Dana. His regular cinematographer John Arnold filmed the title. The story was devised by Albert Shelby Le Vino, whose work we had seen earlier in the week in the serial Who’s Guilty? .

The 35mm print was tinted and had Dutch titles with a translation provided digitally. Unfortunately the first reel was missing. However, Jay Weissberg provided plot and character details in the Festival Catalogue. H also provided some background to the film which was set

“during Kentucky’s “Toll Gate Wars” of 1896 – 98, when angry locals violently destroyed the state’s ubiquitous tollgates erected by private companies to enrich their stockholders ….

The title’s “riders of the night” are the men who under the cover of darkness, destroyed the much-hated Kentucky tollgates. Whilst the elimination of these tolls was generally seen as a positive development, …[two historians] say this was a troubling fist instance in the state of violence leading to a seemingly progressive outcome.”

Viola Dana plays Sally, an orphan living with grandparents. Grandfather, a Confederate veteran, is kindly and supportive; her aunt is best described as a harridan who treats Sally brutally. Sally is the object of the affection of two cousins, Milt and John Derr, the latter owner of a local tollgate. Sally prefers Milt who himself has been cheated of an inheritance by John. Lots of tension and enmities here.

Reel 2 opens just before Sally’ birthday. Both Milt and John have bought her presents. The jealous John tries to smash the cake that Milt has bought. We then meet Jed, a local hunter, with whom Sally has trouble and Milt a fight, with Jed swearing vengeance. At home her aunt is in cahoots with John to make Sally marry him. When her grandfather defends her he is rounded on by the aunt. he has a stroke. The toll gate is the obstacle that prevents a doctor arriving in time and the grandfather dies.

Milt now joins the ‘riders of the night’ of which Jed is also a member. The riders wear white hoods and cloaks; immediately familiar to a modern audience. Meanwhile John offers Jed fifty dollars to remove his rival. He then double crosses Jed.

All four lead characters are now involved in a series of night-time confrontations in a mountain cabin. John is killed, shot by a 45 revolver. Sally believes Milt has killed John and when the Sherriff appears takes the blame. Sally is tried and found guilty and sentenced to hanging. As we approach the climax Sally is actually seen on the gibbet. But \Milt arrives with “The Killer”, Jed, who confesses. Sally and Milt are reunited.

The film has a number of recognisable tropes from Collins work. The ‘saved in a nick of time’ climax is presented in a series of cross-cuts that generate real drama. There are some very effective fades and dissolves between scenes. And the cinematography offers powerful close-ups, as with Sally’s hands clenching the bars of the cell as the execution nears. There is also excellent use of high and low key lighting, especially in the sequence in the cabin around the murder of John. The print had excellent tinting.

The ‘riders of the night’ are a problem aspect of this story. Presumably contemporary audiences must have seen a connection with the Ku Klux Klan. The original Klan had been suppressed in 1870 but it was set up once more in 1915. And the release of Birth of a Nation in that year, and responses to that film, made the organisation a controversial subject. Kentucky was not officially a secessionist state in the Civil War but it had a powerful slave and secessionist lobby. It does not seem to have been a notable base of the KKK. The film did not seem to address this issue directly. However, in Reel 2 there is a fairly stereotypical Black waiter. And  a black woman having problems with the toll gate opines ‘let the devil take him’ of John Derr.

The story is classic melodrama and uses the emotional tropes of the genre. There is the grandfather’s stroke and Sally’s several imperilments. Sally’s argument with Jed arises when he shoots some squirrels in the wood. Later Sally acquires a puppy, [from Milt perhaps]. Though in what became a Hollywood convention he disappears seemingly following Milt’s ride to find Jed and rescue Sally.

What did concern contemporary censors were the explicit scenes around the proposed hanging of Sally.

“the Chicago censors eliminated a number of shots, including testing the noose, along with scenes of her on the scaffold”

And some exhibitors and critics found the dramatic violence a little too much. One complained

“Too sensational for our patrons.”

Not so in Pordenone where the film made an entertaining rounding off to a fine and fascinating programme of films. Phil Carli rounded off the musical accompaniment with flair.

Collins is clearly a filmmaker worth seeing and his output will hopefully repay further exploration.

 

 

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