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Wednesday 11 April 2007

The Red Mill (1927) William Goodrich

Apparently a world television premiere on TCM, in a wonderful restored print and with a new score by Michael Picton, this is something of a curiosity. It's a Marion Davies slapstick comedy, always something to look forward to, with the bizarre choice of Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle as director, under the pseudonym of William Goodrich because his career was in the toilet after his trial for rape and murder only a couple of years before. Yet here he is working for William Randolph Hearst, the owner of the newspapers that shrieked the loudest for his conviction.

Marion Davies is Tina, the drudge working at the Red Mill tavern somewhere in Holland. You can tell that she's important not just because she's the lead but because her pet mouse, who lives in her shoe, gets a credit of his own: Ignatz as himself. Then again, he gets plenty of opportunity to shine, running around causing trouble for the mean landlord, demonstrating that Fatty Arbuckle had learned plenty about slapstick in the fourteen years since some of the early shorts of his that I've seen. Marion Davies was a great and expressive slapstick comedian, as evidenced in more than a few movies. In fact it was one of her greatest talents and she gets the opportunity to demonstrate it wonderfully here.

She's joined by a few other regular names from the silent era here. Owen Moore, whose 279 film career dates back to 1908 and who had another notable credit as Mary Pickford's first husband, plays a visiting playboy called Dennis Wheat who all the ladies immediately fall for. Tina wins an ice skating race with the fortuitous help of a dog that carries her most of the way but doesn't get to collect the kiss he owes her as a prize. Louise Fazenda had 277 films to her name, going as far back as 1913 though I remember her most from the bizarre musical wrestling comedy Swing Your Lady almost at the very end of her career. Here she's Gretchen, the burgomaster's daughter who is being saved up to marry the governor but who instead loves Captain Jacob Edam.

Edam is Karl Dane, one of the most prominent silent stars to completely fail to make the transition to sound. He's a star here in 1927, not a huge one but a star nonetheless, but by 1934 he had descended to selling hot dogs outside the MGM studio, the same studio for which he had been a star. He couldn't take the irony and so shot himself in the head instead. The mean landlord Willem is played by George Siegmann, with a mere 123 movie credits, almost nothing for the 1909-1928 timespan when movies were often churned out within a week and supporting actors could generate that in a couple of years.

Of course there's a comedy of errors in here. Tina swaps places with Gretchen to help her out and naturally that's when the callers come calling. Now Dennis Wheat is head over heels in love with Tina, who he thinks is Gretchen, and Tina is still head over heels in love with Dennis. Meanwhile Jacop comes to visit Gretchen and you can imagine the rest. It is stagemanaged very well indeed though and I'm happy to see Fatty Arbuckle up to the task to this degree. It had been done before, even at this point in time, and some of this is a little hokey but it's a good laugh nonetheless.

It's also great to see Marion Davies playing comedy this early. The only film of hers I've seen that dates to earlier than this is Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, in which she was just an extra. The earliest featured role I've seen her play was a year later in The Patsy and her performance here is well up to that level. In fact of nine films so far, including a few excellent movies, I think only Show People outclasses this one.

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