Intertitle of the Week: Highland Reels

ANNIE LAURIE was the rattiest recording of anything I’ve looked at lately. The movie itself had a big timecode stuck on it, and the disc I was watching had evidently been produced by somebody with a video camera filming a TV screen playing the movie on VHS. At first I was irked, thinking the anonymous pirate ought to have at least used a tripod, even if he couldn’t simply connect the VCR to a DVD recorder. Then I surmised, from the timecode, that the movie was probably the property of some archive, and the intrepid crook had smuggled a handicam into a little screening room to filch the movie’s image. Of this, I heartily approved. Archives are great things, preserving the physical substance of cinema history, but too often it’s difficult for us mortals to access the goodies within, for geographical locations, and the archives make it difficult or impossible for us to get our hands on recordings, for copyright reasons. So larceny is the remaining option for cinephiles with hungry eyes.

Credit to the mysterious source: whenever his arm got tired, resulting in violent jostling of the image, he would rewind the tape in order to get a better version of the ruined sequence. I presume he intended to edit the faulty “takes” out, but never got around to it. A shame there was no soundtrack though — I can imagine a score making deft/cheesy use of not only the title song, but also “The Bonnie, Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond” and “Auld Lang Syne”.

Anyhow, the movie posits Lillian Gish in the Scottish Highlands, as the titular Annie, she of the beautiful ballad heard in both Elia Kazan’s A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN and Takeshi Miike’s THE BIRD PEOPLE OF CHINA. So, I was of course thrilled at seeing La Gish impersonate one of my countrywomen. And then I was doubly, triply, quadruply thrilled that this studio Scotland was a dank, papier maché affair highly reminiscent of Orson Welles’ MACBETH. I doubt it was an actual influence — I prefer to think that both films accurately reflect the way denizens of Hollywood imagine my homeland — heaps of muddy canvas draped over boxes, molded pulp mountains, crooked castles of permanently wet clay. Come to think of it, that’s often how *I* think of the place, and I live here.

The story is set at the time of the Campbell-MacDonald feud, leading up to the infamous massacre of Glencoe, when the English-loving Campbells treacherously murdered a batch of sleeping MacDonalds. Lillian plays a Campbell who falls for a MacDonald, leading to kilted Romeo & Juliet antics.

Wouldn’t be surprising to see a trio of witches atop this outcrop.

Gish is more than usually pert and perky and pixieish here. One saucy scene has her serenaded by her effete Campbell beau, while she sits on the castle wall and smiles down at her rough, manly MacDonald suitor, who’s sitting on a rock amid a babbling brook. It’s surprising to see Lillian so fickle.

By the film’s climax, the Campbell’s have pretty much disgraced themselves via treachery, except for maybe Lillian’s Walter-Brennan-like grizzled protector, so she jumps ship and heroically lights a beacon to call rescuing clansmen. The climax is really thrilling, helped by the fact that both history and Gish’s rep as a tragedian really push us to fearing the worst possible outcome. In the end, this follows the MGM model and averts disaster, so we get a lovely two-strip idyll instead of heaps of corpses. Whatevs!

Colour hasn’t aged too well, alas. But by a happy coincidence, the MacDonald tartan uses the same hues as Two-Strip.

Praise to John S Robertson (a Canadian, probably with Scottish roots) for spectacular battle/chase action. We can see his film technique has grown more sophisticated since his (excellent) Barrymore DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE.

Leading men — Norman Kerry (Lon Chaney’s strongman rival in THE UNKNOWN) is a dignified MacDonald, triumphing over a deeply-scooped waistcoat which allows his nipples to peep shyly forth. Creighton Hale (THE CAT AND THE CANARY) is a suitably poncified Campbell. He may be best known today for Kenneth Anger’s completely unfounded allegation that he fucked a goat in a porno movie. All the more reason for joy at the liberation of this charming curio from its dusty canister.

10 Responses to “Intertitle of the Week: Highland Reels”

  1. Dan Callahan Says:

    I’d always thought that this movie was lost; very glad to see it’s still around. But someone should release it legitimately—it looks very interesting.

  2. It’s a really nice example of late-silent Hollywood tackling an unusual setting, and a better presentation would no doubt unlock more visual pleasures. Gish is of course excellent as always, and it’s nice to see her as more minx than martyr for most of it.

  3. Needless to say, Little Kenny Angerim knows a lot about goat-fucking.

  4. Hmm. Psychic dissonance now. Annie and goat fucking. Such breadth of fiction in one post. Applause! I, too want to see Annie Laurie, it looks fun. Not so the goat, but thanks anyway.

  5. Tony Williams Says:

    Wow! Scottish historical noir. I remember seeing a still of Gish as Annie years ago, perhaps in her autobiography. It is really good to know that it has surfaced.

  6. David Boxwell Says:

    Goat-fucking has inspired great art by the likes of Edward Albee.

  7. “We’re gonna need a bigger goat.”

    I’d say the film has “half-surfaced” — I wonder where my copy originally came from? My source shrouds it in mystery.

  8. Christopher Says:

    MOVIE SCOTLAND!!..why..I’m on my way.. ;o)
    folks here in the SOUTH look at Scotland and Ireland like they do Dixie..

  9. “Are YOU from the South?”

    Once met a film editor from Texas who’d come to Edinburgh after having a dream about a clan massacre. I suggested he was probably a couple of hundred miles south of where he needed to be for that deja vu feeling, I believe he had a good time, though.

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