Thursday, November 10, 2016

Adventures in Blu-ray: The Phantom Honeymoon (1919)


Professor Juno P. Tidewater (Leon Dadmun), is a respected member of the Psychological Research Society—and part of his job title with that outfit is debunking ghosts.  He’ll get the opportunity to engage in this pastime while touring Ireland with nieces Vera (Harriet Cox) and Caroline (Katherine Perkins); while the three of them are sightseeing, they happen upon Belmore Castle, where an Indian manservant named Sakee (Harry Guy Carleton) spins an intriguing tale to Tidewater.  (The nieces, on the other hand, skedaddle and head for the safety of their transport.)

The legend of Benmore is as follows: it’s owned by James R. Claven (Hal Clarendon), who is vying with old friend Captain Bob Lambert (Vernon Steel) for the hand of the lovely and charming Betty Truesdale (Margaret Marsh) at a swanky soiree being hosted by Ma (Grace Bryant) and Pa Truesdale (Charles P. Patterson).  Bob has the inside track as far as the further stroll down the aisle goes (he’s popped the question to Betty, and she’s said “yes”), which has put Claven’s aquiline nose out of joint.  J.R. tries to dissuade Captain Lambert from marrying Betty by telling him his mother was “a full-blooded Negress,” and Bob’s pretty certain Claven is full of it.  So, they decide to settle it like gentlemen: an hour before the wedding, both men sit in opposite chairs…as Sakee lets loose a deadly snake.

Charles Ogle in Frankenstein (1910)
The Phantom Honeymoon (1919) was the first and only feature-length film that bore the imprint of J. Searle Dawley Productions—Dawley is best known among silent cinema fans as the director of the Thomas A. Edison-produced Frankenstein (1910), and he later went on to oversee such movies as Snow White (1916—which would later inspire a young Walt Disney) and Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1918).  (These two films, along with a few others, starred Marguerite Clark—a particular favorite of the director.)  J. Searle also boasted at times that he was “the first motion picture director”; if anything, he was undeniably one of the first in the U.S.  Filmmakers today do owe him a debt of gratitude in that J.S.D. did help establish the Motion Pictures Directors Association—which later became the Directors’ Guild of America.

Marguerite Marsh
Without giving away too much of the plot, I’ll confess that The Phantom Honeymoon does contain an incredibly suspenseful scene in which the two men await the strike of the venomous snake.  This sequence occurs in the first part of the movie, and then Honeymoon continues with a little expository to clarify just why Claven and Lambert are dueling to the death.  This section of the film is a little on the dull side, and it’s not until Honeymoon reaches its conclusion that the viewer realizes why the narrative took the long way around; the final scenes are so…well, let me put it this way: if it were a Monty Python sketch, Graham Chapman would have burst in and stopped it around the midway point.  (On the film’s original release, Variety remarked: “A lot of the footage is…padding, and the picture would be just as well off had it been cut to five reels.”)

The acting in The Phantom Honeymoon is adequate, but no great shakes; Marguerite Marsh (Betty) was a member of the same dynasty that produced Mae and Mildred (Marg was the elder sister), but her career came to an end in December of 1925 when she was felled by pneumonia (Marguerite was Harry Houdini’s leading lady in the 1919 serial The Master Mystery).  Variety apparently had trouble finding the vocabulary to praise her performance, observing “Marguerite Marsh is the star of the picture, which is in six reels.”  (That’s gonna leave a mark.) 

J. Searle Dawley
The write-up on Honeymoon in American Silent Horror, Science Fiction and Fantasy Feature Films, 1913-1929 is good for a chuckle: “The film itself appears to exist only in abbreviated form—a 16mm print with about an hour’s worth of footage may be found in the holdings of the Library of Congress—and there are only the sparest of critical remarks left with which to make breakfast.”  (That would explain the dearth of photos from the actual movie in this essay: I can’t do screen grabs of Blu-rays on my computer…in fact, I can no longer play Blu-rays because the people who make the software want me to pony up for an upgrade, and I’m a cheap essobee.)  Here’s the kicker: “There is no extant record of the credits crawl (and the Library of Congress print is missing the main titles), but we assume Dawley must have hired someone to help on this picture, if only to double check that the doors were locked when he called it a night."

I purchased The Phantom Honeymoon from Grapevine Video because the e-mail shouted that it was “a limited edition Blu-ray”—the first in what will be many releases from the company (it’s also available on DVD).  (The price was right, and I didn’t have to pay extra for shipping.)  I’m not sure this is the film I would have chosen for their premiere Blu-ray treatment…but then I’m not running Grapevine.  Apart from the wrap-up (and the fact that “Honeymoon” is in the title should have tipped me off to where it was going) it’s not a bad little feature (that snake sequence gave me the willies, because I’m not a snake-lover); so, let’s raise a glass to Grapevine Video—here’s to future… (echo chamber) Adventures in Blu-ray!

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