The Sunday Intertitle: Hazard Lights


Youtube. I was looking for one thing and found another. You know how it is.

Having enjoyed a stimulating Warren William Weekened double feature with the Starving Lion as Philo Vance in THE DRAGON MURDER CASE and THE GRACIE ALLEN MURDER CASE (no, really) I was searching for glimpses of either of WW’s silent movie appearances, in which he played as Warren Krech, an impossible name for a leading man, you would have thought.


It turned out that the second of these, PLUNDER (1923) was Pearl White’s last adventure serial. I did manage to track down an extract, but White was such an independent heroine that long stretches are Krechless.

That led me on to my longstanding search for THE EXPLOITS OF ELAINE, which appears in Dennis Gifford’s Pictorial History of Horror Movies and therefore must be viewed. I found a few clips but not what I was looking for. But then ~

At 6.30 we can see something often described as a myth: a serious melodrama featuring a woman tied up on a railway track. Since the earlier myth was that silent films were full of such contrived scenarios, it was a relief to be able to say that the only actual example was Gloria Swanson and the Sennett team spoofing the practice in TEDDY AT THE THROTTLE.


But then, what were they spoofing? It didn’t seem an obvious activity to have presented on the stage. You could tie someone to some fake tracks, but the impossibility of a locomotive actual trundling onstage to kill the captive would surely diminish the suspense.


Helen Holmes, railway adventure-girl, in THE HAZARDS OF HELEN, seems to provide the spark, though it’s notable that she’s tied up on the tracks rather than tied TO the tracks as later cliché would have it, and she rescues herself. The world’s collective faulty memory portrays the serial heroines as in constant need of salvation by brawny he-man types, and so we get the Penelope Pittstop of cartoon infamy, but in fact the followers of Pearl White were as self-sufficient as any Flash Rogers or Buck Gordon.

As for my original Starving Lion hunt, the only image I turned up of a silent WW is a poster for THE TOWN THAT FORGOT GOD, a William Fox production in which the young Krech can be seen on the upper left, a ghastly apparition, with his hair mussed in a way which vividly recalls his appearance in, of all things, THE GRACIE ALLEN MURDER CASE (Gracie has just thrown a handbag at his head).



6 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Hazard Lights”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

    “The Gracie Allen Murder Case” is truly wonderful. Gracie’s “Pretzel Logic” is perfect for dealing with murder mystery clues. There should have been a whole series of them.

    (Our new downstairs neighbors have a dog they’ve named “Gracie Allen”. This delights us enormously as they’re rather young, yet fans of the great Gracie)

  2. Gracie teaming up with a different detective each time would be good… Warren William could play all of them.

  3. bensondonald Says:

    Tying somebody to the tracks is generally traced back to “Under the Gaslight”, an 1867 melodrama. In that play, the party tied to the tracks is a one-armed secondary character. The heroine, locked in a shed nearby, breaks out to rescue him just in time.

    Upping the stakes by putting the heroine herself on the tracks seems a no-brainer, and evidently competing producers did just that. One source claims the scene was so widely imitated the playwright tried to copyright the concept of a character tied to the tracks. I’ve seen dime novel covers of children and pretty ladies being rescued from oncoming trains, although those near-misses looked like careless pedestrians rather than victims of villainy.

    In the days before musical comedy, big Broadway plays would deliver not only persuasive trains but all manner of spectacle. Traveling stock companies would finesse the narrow escape with a train whistle, a moving light and a fast curtain. Small town audiences had to resign themselves to modest approximations of what was shown on the posters, usually copies of art from lavish original productions.

    Early filmmakers figured out they could compete head-on with stage spectacles by using real trains, real horses, real ships, real precipices, etc. — and do so for a price. So familiar stage cliches were reproduced, in parody and in earnest.

  4. Fantastic! But you omit to mention that the one-armed track-binding victim is called Snorkey, a key point, possibly THE key point.

  5. bensondonald Says:

    Gracie Allen starred in “Mr. and Mrs. North”, a 1942 programmer based on a series of books and a popular radio show. It’s a total misfire.

    Mr. North is played by a bland leading-man actor, and by this time I doubt audiences would accept beloved Gracie being mated with anybody else but George Burns. Also, Mr. North is frequently short and irritable with her, and she’s cowed by him. You just want to slug him for hurting Gracie’s feelings.

    In their own act, Burns and Allen developed two well-defined characters that worked in a fairly precise way, whether they were married couple or shopper and clerk. It was like a fox and a goose, the fox confused and distracted while the goose, happy and confident, explained something.

    With very good writing Warren William — who, like Burns, had a whiff of the grifter about him — might have worked as a costar.

  6. Warren William is weirdly effective — he plays it like a serious detective continually interrupted by idiocy, and he can’t quite believe this is happening to him.

    With the aid of writer Al Boasberg, I believe, Burns & Allen had worked out that the audience didn’t like it when he was mean to her, and she always had to win the argument with her special brand of logic.

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