Friday, October 12, 2012

The Ne'er-Do-Well

US 1916. PC: Selig Polyscope Company. D: Colin Campbell; ass D: Al [Alfred E.] Green; SC: Lanier Bartlett (n.c., based on the novel by Rex Beach (1911); DP: Harry Gerstad; tech. dir: Gabriel Pollock; C: Wheeler Oakman (Kirk Anthony), Kathlyn Williams (Mrs. Edith Cortlandt), Harry Lonsdale (Stephen Cortlandt), Frank Clarke [sic; Clark] (Darwin K. Anthony), Norma Nichols (Chiquita Garavel), Will Machin (Locke) Jack McDonald (Allan Allan), Sidney Smith (Ramón Alfarez), Fred Huntley (Andres Garavel), Lamar Johnstone (Runnels), Harry De Vere (detective Williams); première: 19.4.1916 (Los Angeles); orig. l: 10 rl.; 35 mm, incomplete, 8447 ft [8.5 rl.], 125' (18 fps); print source: Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation, Culpeper, VA. English intertitles. Teatro Verdi, Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone (Selig Polyscope), e-subtitles in Italian, grand piano: Neil Brand, 12 Oct 2012.

Andrew Erish: "For his second 2-hour feature, Selig chose to follow up The Spoilers with an adaptation of another Rex Beach novel. The Ne’er-Do-Well is a Selig masterpiece. Instead of re-creating the novel’s Panamanian exteriors on his Los Angeles backlot and supplementing them with actuality footage, he followed the strategy begun in 1904 with his production of Westerns by incurring the additional expense and hardship of producing The Ne’er-Do-Well amidst the actual Canal Zone settings in Beach’s novel."

"On 4 January 1915, a company of 14, led by director Colin Campbell and stars Wheeler Oakman and Kathlyn Williams, sailed from New Orleans to Panama. Within the month they were joined by William Selig, who personally oversaw most of the production. In addition to the Selig contract players, the two-month-long production employed scores of American soldiers and Panamanian and Jamaican Canal workers as extras. The exotic location also benefited from the utilization of the old Panama prison, exteriors and interiors of mansions built by the Spanish aristocracy, shantytowns, jungle locations, and the actual Canal itself. The filming appears to have gone smoothly, with one tragic exception: Helen Castle, engaged to play the second female lead of Chiquita Garavel, became seriously ill during the voyage to Panama and was returned to New Orleans, where she died."

"Although advertised at 10 reels, the only known surviving print of The Ne’er-Do-Well runs 8½ reels. Wheeler Oakman stars as Kirk Anthony, the wastrel son of a New York millionaire. As a practical joke Kirk’s rowdy friends put the inebriated playboy on a boat bound for Panama. Aboard ship, Kirk is befriended by smitten socialite Mrs. Edith Cortlandt (Kathlyn Williams), whose husband has been appointed to a diplomatic post in Panama. Upon arriving in Colón, penniless Kirk learns his father has disowned him. He’s befriended by Allan Allan, who alerts Mrs. Cortlandt to Kirk’s predicament. Mrs. Cortlandt and Kirk take day trips inspecting the construction of the Canal, go horseback riding in the jungle, and spend the night together on a small island after missing the last ferry home. Kirk later falls in love with the beautiful Chiquita, the daughter of an aspiring politician. Shortly after Kirk and Chiquita secretly marry, Cortlandt accuses Kirk of having an affair with his wife, then returns home and begs for her love. Mrs. Cortlandt coldly orders him out of the house, and her distraught husband commits suicide. Kirk is accused of murdering Cortlandt and arrested. The film’s happy ending isn’t surprising, though how the resolution is achieved both cinematically and within the narrative is fraught with several unexpected nuances."

"Colin Campbell’s direction and the editing of The Ne’er-Do-Well are more sophisticated than The Spoilers, with much more cutting within individual scenes, tighter compositions, close-ups and inserts, and a greater tendency to photograph the subjects at more aesthetically pleasing angles rather than head-on. Dynamic tracking shots are also very much in evidence, from Oakman and friends driving down Broadway to several stunning images of Williams and Oakman aboard a train touring the Canal and traveling past discarded machinery and shantytowns."

"The production makes extraordinary use of its locations, from the throngs of black Panamanians filling the waterfront, slums, and redlight districts of Colón, to the aristocratic mansions of Ancón with verandas abutting the dense jungle. The employment of black extras stands in marked contrast to actor Jack McDonald’s blackface makeup, though a scene in which Kirk defends his friend’s decision to sit at the front of a railroad car in defiance of segregation policies indicates a particularly progressive attitude for 1915."

"Just as unique as the Central American location is The Ne’er-Do-Well’s attitude toward miscegenation. Only the father expresses any apprehension over the union of his white son with a brown-skinned Panamanian, which quickly dissipates. Chiquita’s rejection of the black-skinned policeman Alfarez is not the result of racial prejudice but rather because she loves another. Such acceptance of romance between the races would soon be forbidden during Hollywood’s “Golden Age.”"

"Sol Lesser, who earned a small fortune distributing The Spoilers in several Western states, paid $150,000 cash for exclusive United States distribution rights for The Ne’er-Do-Well, though no records survive to indicate how it performed at the box office. Rex Beach’s novel was filmed again in 1923 by Alfred E. Green for Famous Players-Lasky with Thomas Meighan, Lila Lee, and Gertrude Astor." ANDREW ERISH

AA: In the last Selig Polyscope screening I was struck by the audacity of the vision of society in these movies. Columbus is taken back to Spain in chains because he has failed to provide more gold for the Queen. The breakdown of justice in Alaska is total in The Spoilers. The West is quite wild in Selig's Westerns, and of course, the jungle is wild in the jungle adventures. The strong woman, typically played by Kathlyn Williams (star of the first American action serial, and inevitably Selig's Queen Isabella in their Columbus epic) is a recurrent figure.

I watched only the first of the two hours of The Ne'er-Do-Well. During the first hour the protagonist is an anti-hero. Kirk Anthony, the no good son of a railroad magnate, has constant trouble with the law, typically because of speeding. The stern father declares: "one more escapade and I'll disown you". But while celebrating a football victory Kirk participates in a rampage in which the revellers' car speeds right inside a restaurant, and they fight the policemen who try to calm them down. It is no joke since a police detective gets probably fatally injured. But there is a joke as Kirk's drink is spiked, and he is put into a ship to Panama with no money at all. He has received the ticket of one Weller who is wanted by the police for bank embezzlement.

In Panama we witness a seedy American consulate where the consul keeps a whisky bottle close at hand during office hours. We see views of the wreckage of early machines to build the Panama canal. We observe the squalor of the slums where a fire is ignited by a cigarette, the inept fire brigade arrives, and Kirk tries to instil American firefighting ideas. The scene is spectacular but very strange as it is played for slapstick.

Colin Campbell was a prolific director, but he seems to have lacked talent. There is no cinematic flair in Thor, Lord of the Jungle, The Spoilers and The Ne'er-Do-Well. In The Ne'er-Do-Well there is a curious uncertainty and unevenness of tone. Yet there are strong images in The Ne'er-Do-Well, including those of the fire brigade.

Rex Beach was a popular writer also in Finland, mainly because of The Silver Horde, translated as Hopealauma. The Spoilers was based on Rex Beach's first hand experiences and research in Alaska. I don't know about The Ne'er-Do-Well, but it would not be surprising if it would turn out that it too has a factual background. The Panama location shooting gives The Ne'er-Do-Well permanent value.

The print is choppy in the beginning. The visual quality is variable, but there is often a good definition of light, with occasional water / nitrate damage marks.

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