The Sunday Intertitle: Mixed Signals
Clarence Brown’s THE SIGNAL TOWER seemed quite a bit more old-fashioned than THE GOOSE WOMAN, but this was almost certainly because I saw the former at the plush Hippodrome in Bo’ness with a well-dressed audience and a spiffing live accompaniment, whereas I saw THE SIGNAL TOWER as a ratty print telecined to VHS, transferred to AVI and then to DVD and screened on a tiny television at our friend Marvelous Mary’s house. A television that may be older than Brown’s film. One is aware that the slightly antique feeling has nothing to do with the film-making itself, but one can’t help but be influenced.
In the days before the World Wide Web, intertitles had to be transmitted by telegraphy.
It’s not fair to judge under such circumstances, but I suspect the movie is not quite as good as THE GOOSE WOMAN, which has an unconventional heroine, a twisty plot, and twisty storytelling including flashbacks, one of them false. THE SIGNAL TOWER tells a very simple story, with Wallace Beery an obvious heavy from the start (we all admired the wisdom of dressing him in a stripey shirt, thus making his evil manifest), but it builds to an extremely exciting climax whereby the railroad employee hero must struggle to derail a runaway freight car in a thunderstorm to prevent a catastrophic crash, while his wife repels Beery’s vile advances a short distance away. Will our hero rescue his wife at the expense of his official duty? Or what? As the movie has been content to show us one thing happening at a time, and quite slowly, this parallel montage suspense sequence feels all the more exhilarating.
It’s beautifully shot too, with big blasts of movie lightning smacking the scenery, the eerie sputter of signal flares, and scary POV shots from the oncoming train, hurtling along the tracks. The movie shows us a large-scale collision earlier in the story, just as a sort of illustration of what could happen — it’s arguably even more impressive than the bridge collapse in THE GENERAL, though it’s insubstantial context (a flashback as dad (the inspiringly-named Rockliffe Fellowes) tells kid about what happens when signalmen blunder) means it doesn’t carry the same impact.
Following in the size twelve footsteps of door-smashing pugilist Donald Crisp in BROKEN BLOSSOMS, Beery smashes through not one but two doors in an attempt to satiate his vile lusts upon the person of Virginia Valli (from Hitchcock’s THE PLEASURE GARDEN, made the following year).
Thanks to Christine of Ann Harding’s Treasures for recommending this one.