The Monday Intertitle: Oscar Night

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If ever an inquiry invited the response “He’s behind you!” this would be it.

SOUL OF THE BEAST (1923), a tale of a girl and her elephant, is awful drivel really, but diverting, mostly thanks to Oscar, the titular beast. Madge Bellamy, archetypal ringletted waif, runs away from the circus, into the wilds of Canada, pursued by her nasty stepfather. Oscar comes with. They’re separated for much of the movie and she goes to work for some meanies in a tiny town. I suspect the only reason the film is set in Canada (but filmed in California) is because all the people apart from our heroine and her beau are so horrible. Maybe a misanthropic world view was easier to accept in Canuck form.

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For much of the film, young Oscar, who is very cute, wanders the woods asking other animals for directions. Yes! From twenty minutes into the story, he is equipped with his own intertitles. I guess he bided his time for fear of making the whole thing unbelievable. The only sop to realism is that the humans never acknowledge anything he says. So we take it as a kind of internal monologue, like Snoopy’s. Translated from the original elephantese.

But other wildlife has no trouble interpreting Oscar’s bellows, as in a scene where he asks for news of his lady friend from a passing bear.

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Quoth the bear, “No, I never heard of her.”

Like Nicole Kidman in THE HOURS, Oscar also sports a prosthetic schnozz for a scene where he has to give villain Noah Beery a punitive hosing-down. A fire hose has been artfully positioned in place of the pachyderm protagonist’s trunk, the camera filming over his shoulder to disguise the trick.

Madge and Oscar seem to have a great rapport. One worries about how he was trained, and what he was put through making this, but it’s a bit late to actually do anything about it.

2 Responses to “The Monday Intertitle: Oscar Night”

  1. In Billy Rose’s Jumbo — the original stage version — the biggest laugh was Jimmy Durante trying to sneak away from a circus with the title character, played by a live elephant.

    GUARD: Where ya goin’ with that elephant?
    DURANTE: (with Jumbo standing right behind him) What elephant?

    The gag was repeated in the film, where it lost a lot despite the presence of Durante and another live elephant. But the film did achieve a certain immortality as the movie Ignatius T. Reilly loves to hate in “Confederacy of Dunces.” And you need to see the endless closing number once in your life.

  2. I’ve been meaning to catch up with that one.

    I would think the “What elephant?” line would benefit from the perpetual longshot of theatre. Cut into closeup and then back out to show the elephant and you’ve kind of wrecked it. Buster Keaton would have known how to sell that gag in one shot.

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