Saturday 2 December 2023

Tiger Rose (1923)

Director: Sidney A. Franklin
Writer: David Belasco, based on the play by Willard Mack
Stars: Lenore Ulric, Forrest Stanley and Theodore von Eltz

Exotic lands back in 1923 weren’t only those far to the east, as the Canadian northwest also counted, with a whole slew of adventure yarns and romances set in those distant woods. Here is another one, based on a 1917 play by Willard Mack and starring its star, Lenore Ulric, as the titular character. Rose is French Canadian and fond of dark make-up, so Ulric comes across as a sort of local Pola Negri.

We’re in Wutchi Wyum, the northernmost trading post in the Loon River Valley, north of Edmonton, then in the Northwest Territories, and Rose is brought into town by Sgt. Michael Devlin of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police, who found her in a river and had to dive in off a cliff to rescue her. They always get their man or, indeed, their woman, the two hitting it off wonderfully once she comes to.

Well, not always, as we’ll quickly learn when Bruce Norton shows up. Up until now, this has been a romance with a sense of adventure, as Rose and Michael look set for a happy life with plenty of background texture delivered by the supporting cast, like Fr. Thibault and Hector MacCollins, the latter of whom is so obviously Scottish that we can practically hear his broad accent even in a silent movie.

It’s an idyllic frontier landscape and all that we’re missing is a third wheel for an inevitable love triangle. Enter Bruce Norton, an engineer for the Canadian Northwest Railroad, which is coming through. Rose sees him surveying with his transit, which I now know is not the same thing as a theodolite—not a lesson I expected to learn watching Tiger Rose—and we think we know where we’re going next.

Instead, there’s another detail that we have to discover. Norton receives a letter that tells him that Lantry, that dog, will be in the camp that evening, hiding behind the fake name of Dr. Glendinning. It seems that Bruce has been searching for him for a long while.

We naturally assume that the bearded man who watches him with such overt suspicion is Lantry/Glendinning, but he isn’t. It’s another man entirely. “Helen—was my sister,” Norton tells him and they scramble for a gun. He gets the shot off, killing his nemesis, and hightails it out of there while the rest of the camp looks at the corpse, including the bearded man, who is the only one of them to recognise the doctor as Lantry. He’s sad. Clearly he wanted to kill him too and Norton stole his thunder.

And so, while Rose still believes that she’s in a romance, all dressed up and waiting for her beau, Bruce, so they can tell the factor of their love and intentions, the film has turned into a thriller. Norton’s on the run with Devlin on his tail and everyone else ready to take a pot shot at the murderer. So much for a love triangle.

While this is thoroughly generic, it’s rather fun, albeit possibly because its rapid pace may not be real. My copy runs sixty-one minutes and seems to be consistently fast paced, even including the intertitles. Records suggest that the film actually ran eighty and I wonder if my copy is the entire eighty minutes sped up.

Given that the bearded man is still without a name and he does everything deliberately and in sinister fashion, even with everything else a little faster than it should be, we surely must accept him as the hidden villain of the movie. He certainly knows things that he’s not telling and we ache to find out what they are.

We do find out eventually, though I have no interest of spoiling the revelations. I’ll merely highlight that they and what happens because of them was clearly designed for a stage, with all the subsequent entrances and exits of key characters, not to forget neat ways for Norton to hide believably on stage without characters realising it. It becomes a choreography game and anyone who’s worked amateur dramatics will see this in a very particular way.

I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy this, but it does precisely nothing that hasn’t been done before many, many times, even factoring in that it’s a hundred years old.

There are positives. Ulric certainly does her job as Rose, who doesn’t acquire the Tiger for much of the movie. Forrest Stanley is a decent Sgt. Devlin, which works because Sgt. Devlin is a decent man, right down to that cliff dive that we see in longshot. Theodore von Eltz gets the most opportunity as Bruce Norton and he does well with it, but he can’t bring the same level of character to his role as a fugitive that David Janssen did, let alone Harrison Ford. There’s a Native American servant who actually appears to be played by a Native American actress, one annoyingly uncredited though.

Behind them is wonderful scenery, even if it often seems painted, and it’s given a boost by excellent cinematography by Charles Rosher, one of the fifteen co-founders of the American Society of Cinematographers. Mary Pickford especially liked his work, so he shot all of her silent films from 1918 to 1927, the latter also the year in which he, with Karl Struss, moved the art forward in F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, which won them a well-deserved Academy Award for cinematography each, the first two to be given out.

There are negatives too. Some of it is much too clich├ęd, even for its time. Of course, one of the locals manages to wing Norton, so he’s not just on the run, he’s on the run while injured. There’s a convenient storm that even distracts the searchers at exactly the most pivotal time for Norton to avoid discovery, using that time honoured tree branch bursting through the window in the next room ploy.

It’s also not unashamed to get melodramatic and desperate and sentimental, all to play on our emotions, and every moment of it is much too deliberate for us to truly fall for, at least with a century of hindsight. I have a feeling it wouldn’t have persuaded a lot of moviegoers back in the day either but maybe we’re a more cynical bunch nowadays.

Mostly, it sits in between those extremes, as a thoroughly capable but also thoroughly run of the mill movie that would have worked well as just another film on the schedule. It doesn’t try to be anything it isn’t and doesn’t manifest any delusions of grandeur. It’s entertainment, pure and simple, almost the definition of what we might call a popcorn flick today.

It would be hard for audiences not to enjoy it, but it would be hard for them to remember it too over however many other films they saw in 1923. Frankly, that holds just as true now as it did a century ago.

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