The (American) Mother’s Day Intertitle: Bride and Butter

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The 1920 Al Christie production HER BRIDAL NIGHT-MARE is a nifty little short starring Colleen Moore. Her marriage is delayed when her fiance’s bitter rival contrives to get the groom arrested and has Dopey Dan, a hired assassin, steal the wedding presents (a little out of his line, but he’s a flexible fellow).

Believing she’s been both jilted and robbed, Colleen resolves to incontinently drown herself, but can’t muster the gusto, so, on meeting Dopey Dan, she borrows a leaf from Jules Verne’s Tribulations of a Chinese Man in China and hires him to bump her off. A master of disguise, Dan promises to jump out in a false beard when she’s not expecting it. Of course, Colleen soon finds reason to live, and is jumping in terror whenever she sees a set of whiskers.

Al Christie directs with great energy and imagination. He’s less likely to offer the crisp compositions of a Keaton than to barrel down the street after his fleeing heroine, apparently using a shopping trolley with a wonky wheel. When Moore reaches the heights of pogonophobia and the streets seem to throng with sinister beards, Christie suggests her disorientation in a way even Hitchcock might shy away from, rotating his star on a carousel upon which the camera is also mounted, so that the world and all its beards seem to whirl giddily around her — this actually anticipates Machiko Kyô’s strange movements during her freak-out scene in RASHOMON. (You know, Kurosawa was ten years old and a keen movie-goer in 1920…)

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Moore had not yet hit the heights at this point — her filmography shows her darting about, playing straight romantic interest roles (to Tom Mix, for instance) or whatever came along. Comedy was just one more way of earning a living. But the charm and skill are already in evidence. She gets to drag up. One surprise: though in early scenes her hair is apparently tucked up into headgear, allowing it to frame her face like the trademark bob we associate with her “mature work,” when she whips off her derby to reveal her true feminine identity, a great black mane tumbles forth. Colleen Moore with that much hair doesn’t seem quite right. Perhaps it was her new-found fear of beards that convinced her to shear it?

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9 Responses to “The (American) Mother’s Day Intertitle: Bride and Butter”

  1. DeBroca did the Verne awhile back with Bebel et Ursula

  2. It’s a plot gimmick which has been recycled a lot, usually without due credit. Marc Behm pitched it as the plot for the second Beatles film but Broca’s movie nixed that. Lester didn’t realize Behm had borrowed the story until I told him. Behm then successfully pitched the Ringo’s ring yarn, but if it hadn’t been for Jules Verne he might not have gotten the chance.

  3. In some quarters Al Christe still has the reputation of a sitcom merchant, but I’ve enjoyed what I’ve seen from him. The addition of Colleen Moore makes this film even more appetizing. Apparently the stick figures in the intertitles were drawn by Norman Z. McLeod.

    The NFPF also has three Christie productions online, directed by Allen Watt and William Beaudine:
    WHY HUSBANDS FLIRT (1918) (www.filmpreservation.org/preserved-films/screening-room/why-husbands-flirt-1918)
    A BASHFUL BIGAMIST (1920) (www.filmpreservation.org/preserved-films/screening-room/a-bashful-bigamist-1921)
    A HUSBAND IN HASTE (1920) (www.filmpreservation.org/preserved-films/screening-room/a-husband-in-haste-1921)

  4. Actually Help ! is an adaptation of “The Moonstone” by Wilkie Collins.

  5. I shall check out those Christie films as soon as I can manage. Here he seems like an avant-garde wizard.

    Lester has described Help! as The Moonstone as painted by Jasper Johns, although he later admitted that Roy Lichtenstein might be a neater fit. The plot doesn’t really have a huge amount to do with Wilkie Collins, and is probably just as close to The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God.

  6. DBenson Says:

    “Flirting With Fate,” a Douglas Fairbanks feature from 1916, has struggling artist Doug hiring a hit man after he loses the girl he loves and the portrait he painted of her. This one sets up a counter-plot of the hit man getting religion at his dying mother’s bedside, and chasing down Doug to return the money. Odd mix of early Doug comedy and melodrama.

    The theme of bright but impoverished young men in love with girls not allowed to marry below their stations was used heavily in the silent and early sound era, often in conjunction with mothers forcing said girls to marry old-school Eurotrash (Marrying titles was always a peculiar obsession among vulgar American rich). Heroics and/or financial success would turn the tide; at the very least the opposing suitor was exposed as a fake or a bounder.

    It remains a standard romcom cliche (decadent but native old money now replacing foreigners), but for a while it was almost a formal genre with hard and fast rules. A one-reel short could lay down the plot in under a minute.

    The flip side was Cinderella, usually beginning with the girl falling for Prince Charming without knowing who he was. Here, the main obstacle was generally contrived misunderstandings. Moore’s “Why Be Good”, Mary Pickford’s “My Best Girl” and Clara Bow’s “It” all pursue the same basic story, with all three being shopgirls involved with their employers’ sons.

    Telling differences:

    Moore sets her beau straight with a frank, angry lecture on how girls have to play bad because boys demand it, but they AREN’T bad. Although she was appealingly saucy as hell until that moment.

    Bow schemes to meet and marry the boss’s son, dating his silly-ass buddy to get within vamping distance. The complication isn’t her upfront golddigging but a false story of unwed motherhood.

    Pickford, the sweet and virtuous backbone of a family you might find in a W.C. Fields film, must reject her love for their sake (and a bribe from the boy’s father). She pretends to be immoral, which drives him away in tears. The family rallies comically to set things right.

  7. The one I haven’t seen is My Best Girl, which sounds enticing.

    I covered Flirting woth Fate here: https://dcairns.wordpress.com/2010/08/29/the-sunday-intertitle-late-august-early-september/

    Her Bridal Night-Mare also uses the idea of the assassin undergoing a moral conversion, although he still nicks the groom’s father’s cigarette case just before fade-out.

  8. DBenson Says:

    A note on My Best Girl: Eons ago I found it on VHS, and lent it to my parents. Dad was born in 1913 and his family ran a small movie house for a while; Mom was slightly younger and grew up with early talkies.

    Mom reported that Dad kept asserting that silents were usually more sophisticated than this. Almost defensively, she thought. Myself, I found it slick and amusing — the attitudes may have creaked even then but it wasn’t primitive by any means.

    Incidentally, Dad — a physician, poet and extraordinarily well-read man — could barely abide Chaplin, except in “Tillie’s Punctured Romance” which was mostly about kicking people. His comedian of choice was Fields, and later Mel Brooks.

  9. Chaplin never really gave up “kicking people up the arse,” as Paul Merton always calls it. Though he did broaden his range. My favourite arse-kick is in The Pawnshop, where Chaplin receives it mildly, raising his bowler in polite acknowledgement of his due.

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