John Grey

The Grim Game (1919, Irvin Willat)

Some of The Grim Game is spent on Harry Houdini’s illusions. The film puts Houdini, playing a reporter, in various tight spots where he has to escape from one thing or another. By the third act of the film, Houdini’s escapes aren’t even the focus–though there is a fantastic mid-air plane sequence. The plot gets in the way.

The film gives the illusion of great complexity. Houdini’s rich uncle (Thomas Jefferson in the film’s only weak performance) is an awful miser and is planning on shutting down Houdini’s newspaper (Houdini’s the star reporter). So Houdini hatches a plan to save the paper. It requires Jefferson to go missing; of course, all the good guys will know where he’s gone.

This development comes after Game spends a lot of time setting up Jefferson, setting up Arthur Hoyt as his doctor, Ann Forrest as his ward (who Houdini romances but who Hoyt wants to marry for her eventual fortune). Most of this setup is a waste of time (especially in the case of Mae Busch as a cabaret star who gets involved). Walter Woods’s script meanders, oblivious to its lack of suspense.

Obviously, things go wrong–way too quickly–and Houdini ends up in jail. Director Willat does all right with the action, but he has no time for anything else. He rushes, almost nervous about giving away too many clues to the eventual mystery. Except, without clues or questions, the mystery resolves lamely.

Hoyt’s excellent, Forrest’s likable (even if she barely has anything to do–it’s not even clear she knows Hoyt is a suitor). Houdini’s confident and thorough. The film never takes itself too seriously, which is swell, except that lack of self-interest hurts once it gets to the “who cares” resolution to the mystery. It needed a better script. And more Houdini escapes.



Directed by Irvin Willat; screenplay by Walter Woods, based on a story by Arthur B. Reeve and John Grey; directors of photography, Frank M. Blount and J.O. Taylor; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Harry Houdini (Harvey Hanford), Ann Forrest (Mary Cameron), Arthur Hoyt (Dr. Harvey Tyson), Augustus Phillips (Clifton Allison), Tully Marshall (Richard Raver), Mae Busch (Ethel Delmead) and Thomas Jefferson (Dudley Cameron).

The Freshman (1925, Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor)

The Freshman has one of the most peculiar approaches to storytelling I’ve seen. It has very little establishing exposition–a few lines on a title card about maybe four of those exposition title cards throughout–and its scenes are gag-centered and the film is these gags strung together. Maybe the approach isn’t so peculiar (arguably, it’s the same approach used in say… The Waterboy), but The Freshman is successful and other films with such strings are not.

Most of the success is due to Harold Lloyd. He plays an incoming freshman desperate to be popular, but he’s full of geeky ideas of college he’s picked up from a movie. The Freshman is so lean, it doesn’t even bother giving Lloyd fellow geeks to hang around (he’s the star after all), just the antagonists, who vary in terms of hostility. There’s only one real bully in the film, actually, but it’s not too concentrated on Lloyd making friends with specific folks, just in general. Also in The Freshman is the touching love story between Lloyd and a town girl, played by Jobyna Ralston. There’s little tension to the love story–by the hour-mark, the two are a couple–and it gives Lloyd his confidant, as well a greater goal.

The gags vary in terms of athleticism. There’s a football game and a football practice and I kept remembering M*A*S*H throughout those scenes, but otherwise Lloyd’s not doing much in the way of acrobatics. The comedy’s not particularly physical and it made me wonder why if the film even qualifies as “slapstick.” It’s a real achievement how affecting the film ends up being, given how hard-pressed I am to think of any characters besides Lloyd and Ralston’s who leave any impression. Besides the two of them, I think the football coach gets the most screen time, though he’s not really a character….

Lloyd’s films are finally readily available (I remember, when I worked at a video store in the late 1990s, they were not, nor was there any hope for them to be) and The Freshman is a good entry point to silent films for newcomers. The Freshman moves incredibly fast–since it is that gag string–and it’s constantly entertaining. It does demand close attention, as Lloyd’s a busy comedian, but in structure, it has more in common with modern comedies than other silent comedies do.



Directed by Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor; written by Taylor, John Grey, Tim Whelan and Ted Wilde; director of photography, Walter Lundin; edited by Allen McNeil; produced by Harold Lloyd; released by Pathé.

Starring Harold Lloyd (The Freshman), Jobyna Ralston (Peggy), Brooks Benedict (The College Cad), James Anderson (The College Hero), Hazel Kenner (The College Belle), Joseph Harrington (The College Tailor) and Pat Harmon (The Football Coach).

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