Tuesday, February 07, 2023

Silents, Please!: Within Our Gates and The Other Woman's Story

Hey, "Silents, Please!" is back! I think this is the first official entry since the Rin Tin Tin double feature in early 2020 that was still on the showtimes board throughout the Somerville's pandemic closure and renovation. It's not the first silent they've shown since then, but it's the first with 35mm and Jeff Rapsis on the organ. The schedule for the year is up, mostly odd-numbered months, with this playing catch-up for January and also letting them do a Black History Month selection.

That would be Within Our Gates, which is kind of a ride, as is The Other Woman's Story, whose connection to that theme is not exactly strong - it was a scandal that star Helen Lee Worthing had a African-American husband, and her biography reads like the fallout eventually sent her down a massive spiral - but which got added to the bill when the Library of Congress shipped it to the theater alongside the other film without explanation. Since both are fairly short by today's standards - together, they probably add up to the length of the film that had the screen next, Everything Everywhere All at Once - and both are safely in the public domain, no reason not to show both!

Anyway, it's a strong line-up; hope to see folks there later in the year!

Within Our Gates

* * * (out of four)
Seen 5 February 2023 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Silents Please!, 35mm w/ accompaniment)

Within Our Gates is 79 minutes long but just packed full of movie, enough to make me wonder if filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, a Black man who had already spent much of his adult life bouncing from one business to another, figured he might not get a chance to make many more movies, or if he had been a writer of big, sprawling novels, and this was just working in the same tradition. It could very well be both, or neither, or just him learning as he went, that led to this sometimes feeling like parts of three movies stitched into one, but they're at least three pretty good movies that come together into something interesting.

It all centers around Sylvia Landry (Evelyn Preer), an educated Black woman from the south who is visiting a cousin, Alma Prichard (Flo Clements), in Boston at the start, though Alma has her eye on Sylvia's absent fiancë Conrad (James D. Ruffin) and Alma's stepbrother Larry (Jack Chenault) has his eyes on her. She eventually makes her way back south to Piney Bluff, where she assists Reverend Wilson Jacobs (S.T. Jacks) at the school he has opened, although Black children are signing up faster than he can afford to take them on, so she returns to Boston to find financing. She meets a decent-seeming white philanthropist (Bernice Ladd), although that may be derailed when Mrs. Stratton asks her southern friend Mrs. Elena Warwick (Mrs. Evelyn) about the best way to help. She also makes the acquaintance of a pleasant doctor (Charles D. Lucas), who eventually learns from Alma about a dark secret in Sylvia's past.

It's a lot, and there are more side stories than that. Some, such as a detour with the preacher Mrs. Warwick recommends, using the pulpit to tamp down his flock's ambitions to curry favor from his white sponsors, are clearly there because Micheaux wants absolutely no doubt about his message about education being the most important priority to the point of negating potential counter-arguments right then and there. Others, such as a detective investigating Larry, feel like scraps from storylines that were mostly deleted but kept because they had some of the most elaborate scenes to shoot. None of the romantic melodrama ever particularly comes to much. The question of whether Sylvia will get Mrs. Stratton to fund the school is more or less resolved without Sylvia being around for it.

And then you get to the big flashback that makes up much of the film's last act, which explains some things but can feel like a digression from the "main" story, but which also seems like a large chunk of the reason for the film: It's an exceptionally clear-eyed look at how education can empower Black people, especially in this time when it wasn't presumed, but that the powers that be would fight that empowerment tooth and nail. There's other material in there, but mostly it's a nightmare, a depiction of lynching that pulls no punches because most of the folks making it know what they are talking about, even if there is probably nobody on screen quite old enough to have been born a slave. Some of the more horrific violence takes place just off-screen, perhaps more because Micheaux doesn't have the means to simulate it than wanting to hold back, but it's strong, quite modern-seeming filmmaking; this is Micheaux's second film but he knows well what to do with his camera and how to cut it together to make things feel more frantic, capturing the feeling of this whole town hunting down this small family.

(For this viewing, it didn't hurt at all to have accompanist Jeff Rapsis throw himself into this sequence in particular; it's not a spot that rewards holding back!)

Actress Evelyn Preer is the glue holding all three pieces together, and she certainly does that well enough, a charming presence that makes it very easy to see why most of the men in the movie fall for her at one point or another with quiet strength. It's a bit of a shame that there isn't more with her and Charles D. Lucas's handsome scholar; they make a very nice pair, while Jack Chenault is a slick scoundrel and William Smith makes a good lawman chasing him.

Though Micheaux had been a farmer, novelist, and salesman before he got into the movies, it would turn out to be his calling, with 42 films made over a 30 year career, though many are lost. This, his oldest surviving effort, is raw in points but everyone was new at making features in 1920, and it's impressive often enough to mark him as possibly one of the major talents of early cinema, even if his ethnicity kept him out of the mainstream.

The Other Woman's Story

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 5 February 2023 in Somerville Theatre #1 (Silents Please!, 35mm w/ accompaniment)

Accompanist Jeff Rapsis mentioned that he hadn't seen this film before accompanying it, but threw himself into it, which is good, because it's the sort of silent that could be deadly without something like that. It's not available anywhere - couldn't even find it on YouTube - but the way it's put together is just unusual enough to be of interest even if the execution is iffy, needing some smoothing over.

It's a murder mystery that doesn't necessarily play like one early on: Built as a courtroom drama, it jumps right into the trial of Colman Colby (Robert Frazer), accused of killing his wife's divorce lawyer Robert Marshall (Mahlon Hamilton) during a confrontation. Mrs Colby (Alice Calhoun) was splitting with him soon after their marriage because he wouldn't kick Jen Prentiss (Helen Lee Worthing), his partner in an interior decoration business, to the curb.

The filmmakers start right in the middle of the trial, showing a card with a list of witnesses who are checked off as they take the stand and give their testimony, which leads to flashbacks. It could, at this point, play as a tragedy, of how either marrying a jealous woman or allowing himself to have a woman not his wife as such an important partner has brought Colby to misery, but the triangle (or perhaps quadrangle) is never terribly well-constructed; Mrs. Colby is so snotty toward the nice-seeming Jean and dropping ultimatums so quickly that it's hard to imagine this ever working. It's an interesting structure but one which the filmmakers eventually need to break out of, having Jean do some amateur sleuthing, cramming a proto-Phantom Lady story into the length of jury deliberations. Helen Lee Worthing gets to take center stage at that point, and she's easily the most compelling presence for a while, at least until the murderer is revealed and someone else can take an active role.

It's not exactly bad up until then, with writers Peggy Gaddis & John F. Goodrich giving director B.F. Stanley some room to warm up before taking off, and the whole thing fitting into a nice, compact hour. Some of the cast are fun to watch; Riza Royce, for instance, plays the Colbys' maid as very respectful on the stand but seeming more mischievous in flashbacks. Despite few of the people involved having particularly long or distinguished careers, it doesn't stumble much. The film is hobbled a bit by its structural ambitions, but it's pretty good scene-to-scene.

That includes the scenes with the jury, mostly comic relief that also serves as a ticking clock, which sort of serve as a reminder that, while jury trials are a good idea in theory, nearly every movie or story that goes into the jury room winds up showing how impatience, peer pressure, and prejudice as opposed to the evidence, and it's a shame we don't have anything better. That's just a piece of the film, though, almost a distraction from the main mystery.

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