Over the week of the 38th Giornato del Cinema Muto in Pordenone (October 2018), nine of Stahl’s silent films were screened – if we count the eight surviving short films of the Lincoln Cycle as one – to great attention and applause, an occasion marking a turning point in the revival of interest in this significant director. In Old Kentucky (1927) was the last of the films shown, the last silent that Stahl directed. Restored by the Library of Congress, its presence at the festival came as a late surprise since until very recently it seemed hopelessly lost.
In The Call of the Heart: John M. Stahl and Hollywood Melodrama, I assumed that, like the three Louis B. Mayer Productions filmed with MGM resources after Mayer moved to the studio in April 1924, the three MGM films, made when Stahl officially joined the company towards the end of 1925, The Gay Deceiver (1926), Lovers (1927), and In Old Kentucky (1927), were produced as well as directed by Stahl, through a continuation of the “independent” production unit Mayer awarded his number one director in 1921. (See, for instance, the credit given for Memory Lane to “John M. Stahl Productions”). However, the American Film Institute is most likely correct in giving Stahl no producer’s credit on any of them, and IMDb mistaken in crediting Stahl as producer of In Old Kentucky. This comedown must have been a major disappointment for Stahl. Welford Beaton, in his review cited below, wrote that Bernie Hyman “supervised” the film, which is surprising because there seems to be no record of Hyman – later the producer of San Francisco, Marie Walewska and Camille – in such a role before two uncredited production assignments in 1932 (see IMDb). However, Beaton’s insider knowledge of the studios was intricate and his report is confirmed by the Los Angeles Times (22 July 1927, 24).
The point is important because the relative freedom that Stahl enjoyed in his early partnership with Mayer is certain to have been, if not immediately, then increasingly, curtailed by MGM’s supervisory structures, meaning that, no longer Mayer’s most valuable property and near co-equal, his position was considerably diminished in a studio with many other prestigious directors, and where stars rather than directors were the basis of publicity. Also, In Old Kentucky seems an odd project for Stahl to have taken on after two highly sophisticated films, The Gay Deceiver and Lovers (both lost). With Mayer having had earlier success in 1919 with a previous version of the famous old Charles T. Dazey melodrama (1893), starring Anita Stewart and directed by Marshall Neilan, it is likely that it was much more Mayer’s choice than the director’s. Stahl’s feelings about being assigned the remake can only be speculated on; while he may have seen it as an encroachment on his previous degree of independence, it’s also arguable that he might have welcomed, after his recent bereavement, a lighter, less taxing project, and enjoyed the cinematic opportunities for race track spectacle, for which he did considerable preparation, filming the Kentucky Derby and other races, and apparently much unused footage at a famous race horse nursery near Lexington ( The Morning Call, Allentown, Pennsylvania, 3 December 1927, 10). A clue as to Stahl’s possibly diminishing interest in the film may be seen in the unusual credit for two Assistant Directors, which suggests that Stahl may have carried out less of the shooting than usual. In the abridging of his former producer’s authority, which he surely thought would continue at MGM, the conditions for dissatisfaction, which underlay his termination of his short stay at MGM, and his long and profitable partnership with Mayer, were laid.
In Old Kentucky was left at the start on release by an insulting review in Variety (23 November 1927) – “inconceivably asinine in story and with kindergarten technique” – which resulted in MGM’s Press Office demanding a second review ( 14 December 1927, 23). This was a little more moderate, but not much of a recantation. (The original review is very difficult to access because of missing pages in the online editions). The animus against the film was marked enough to make the whole episode mysterious. Was there a back story of some grudge against Stahl at Variety or held by a particular reviewer? But it may simply have been a case of the bad luck of getting an unfriendly reviewer. MGM seems to have been very careless about the film’s release, as evidenced by the trades’ neglect of it, but at the same time pressed for the second review, contradictory behaviour from which it is difficult to untangle clear motives. My first thought was that perhaps the Variety critics saw the Library of Congress print, with the missing sequences detailed below, but the second review, which is specific in its criticisms, mentions nothing that suggests this – its complaints being aimed at the unlikeness of the battered old war horse, Queen Bess, winning the Derby and, extremely prissily, at the impropriety of representing Major Jimmy being drunk in uniform when being greeted by the family.
Neglected by the trades (no reviews except the twin Variety pieces and the short Film Daily one), more information about the film’s mostly low-key reception is found in newspaper advertisements, previews, material announcing local screenings, and the rare review. These show the film didn’t disappear after the Variety fiasco, but screened fairly widely in 1927-1928 – e.g. Baltimore, Key West, Hartford Connecticut, Sheboygan Wisconsin, Muncie Indiana, Racine Wisconsin, and even southern venues in Missouri, Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama, where the “darky” comedy (the scenarist A.P. Younger’s word) and Lily May’s Tara-esque devotion to the Brierly family might have gained approval, along with Stepin Fetchit’s less recuperable characteristics. But the black lovers’ relationship, though comedically filtered, risked controversy. In Old Kentucky also showed in England, Australia, France and elsewhere.
Most newspaper writing on films of the period was preview material posted before the film was viewed. That on In Old Kentucky typically stressed one or more of the following – freckled ex- child star Wesley Barry’s graduation to an adult role; James Murray as King Vidor’s “find” in the yet to be released The Crowd; the female star, Helene Costello; the filming of the horse racing sequences and the presence on screen of the 1927 Kentucky Derby winner, “Whiskery”. Among the newspaper reviews, the popular critic “Mae Tinée”’s Chicago Tribune review ( “Racing Story Makes Fascinating Film”, 18 December 1927, 49) was the most approving, by a short head from The Sheboygan Press‘ s praise of “one of the best racing pictures which has ever come to the screen”, in which “John M. Stahl never fails to insert all the little human touches which make stories seem real and not the figment of somebody’s imagination” (5 December 1927, 14).
In The Call of the Heart I addressed the question: Why did Stahl leave the security and prestige of MGM for the risky venture of taking charge of Production at the small “independent” studio Tiffany, renamed Tiffany-Stahl for his arrival? I made several suggestions, all of which still seem to me partially valid. I ventured that the trauma of the death of his (second) wife and credited writer on five of his films, Frances Irene Reels, was a factor. Also an associated feeling of directorial burn-out making a producing role inviting, with only a small amount of directing – which in fact the pressures of his new job prevented. I noted too that Stahl thought of himself as a producer-director and also the pattern throughout his career of announcing plans for (and in this one case actually achieving) “independence”, though the “independence” that the new studio offered him was hugely constrained. Doubts that he should have had as to the viability of the move were perhaps overcome by the company’s optimistic 1928 prospectus which suggested a studio on the rise with the capacity to compete with the majors. Further there was the monetary factor. Though we have no knowledge of the salary he was offered, or what he earned at MGM, Stahl’s known financial acumen and Tiffany’s valuation of Stahl, as evidenced in the publicity they created surrounding his shift, would suggest that Tiffany’s offer was substantial.
I also cautiously (I now think too cautiously) suggested that Stahl’s relations with Louis B. Mayer, with whom Stahl had worked very successfully since moving to Hollywood to join him in 1920, had deteriorated and that this played an underlying part in his decision to leave. When in 1924 Mayer moved to the newly-formed MGM, Stahl made three films with him with MGM resources but not MGM credits. The two survivors, the brilliant marital comedy Husbands and Lovers (1924) and the charming sentimental comedy Memory Lane (1926), were among the hits of the Pordenone season, surprising audiences becoming adjusted to early Stahlian melodrama with their comic finesse, suggesting not only that Stahl’s mid-1920s reputation as the comic peer of early De Mille and Lubitsch was not exaggerated, but that the Stahl-Mayer partnership was still in good working order. Stahl then moved officially to MGM in late 1925 for his next three films, The Gay Deceiver (1926), Lovers (1927) and In Old Kentucky (1927). I intuited that Stahl whose well-known film making idiosyncrasies – such as extensive preparation in casting, and expensive indulgence in retakes – caused difficulties with Mayer even during their golden period of maximum cooperation in the early 1920s, found working under Mayer in the larger studio regime in which he was no longer the pre-eminent director, secondary to the roster of stars, and subject to greater production supervision, growingly unsatisfactory.
Apropos of problems at MGM, I cited a piece by that interesting critic Welford Beaton in his magazine The Film Spectator (12 November 1927, 5-6) “Louis B. Mayer and an Old Friend” which, in line with his various attacks on Hollywood’s most powerful producers, cited Mayer’s cheating King Vidor of profits from The Big Parade, and then described Mayer’s treatment of his old friend and colleague of some seven years, John Stahl.
“When he joined the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer merger of a few years ago, Mayer’s only contribution to its strength were the pictures of John Stahl. This able director was under contract to Mayer and was so faithful to the spirit of the contract that at times he had in his possession half a dozen of Mayer’s checks for which there were not sufficient funds in the bank. Metro took over the contract. Stahl promised to renew it, when it expired. After its expiration, and before he renewed it, he received a much better offer from another producer, but he is a man of his word and kept his promise to Mayer. Since signing the new contract his treatment by the Mayer organisation has been such that he has been anxious to leave the lot. His pictures were ruined by ignorant editing and titling and his protests went unheeded. Finally, with one more picture to do under his contract, he declared that he could stand it no longer”.
Beaton went on to relate that Stahl asked Mayer to release him from his contract, but Mayer, in agreeing, imposed unfair financial penalties on his old colleague, “an outrageous transaction” which Stahl accepted, so eager was he to leave the studio.
My reasons at the time for not giving greater force than I did to Beaton’s claims that the studio “ruined” his films, were, in the circumstances, understandable.
(i) Of Stahl’s three MGM films, The Gay Deceiver, Lovers and In Old Kentucky, the first two are lost and therefore could provide no direct textual evidence for his claims about Mayer’s and the studio’s treatment of the films. Additionally, the knowledge that In Old Kentucky was being restored by the Library of Congress for screening at Pordenone, was last-minute news, coming too late for it to be examined in the light of Beaton’s statements, though Imogen Sara Smith, who wrote numerous excellent, ground-breaking chapters in the book, was able to view and write about it with customary elegance, but with the shortest notice and without knowledge of Beaton’s claims. Until its showing at Pordenone, with the revelations described below, the film was wholly new to the audience and to The Call of the Heart‘s editors.
(ii) As regards the claim that the films suffered from “ignorant editing and titling”, even those, like myself, who admire Beaton’s querulous independence, would have to admit that his much-repeated attacks on many films’ titling tend to be unconvincing, referring to matters of punctuation that seem pedantic and minor (especially his dislike of the dash), and that his rather obsessive critiques of 1920s Hollywood editing were largely of a perceived overuse of close-ups, not likely to be unquestioningly shared then or now. Further, by his own admission Beaton knew little about Stahl’s films, revealing surprisingly that Lovers was the first that he had seen, which means that In Old Kentucky was probably the only other, so that he had little experience of Stahl’s narrative and stylistic characteristics on which to base his judgements.
(iii) Additionally, the Film Spectator reviews he wrote of Lovers and In Old Kentucky before his statements about Stahl and Mayer, add little evidence. The review of Lovers (11 June 1927, 8-9) was rather harsh, noting, though, that he is “convinced that his [Stahl’s] reputation is based on better work than he shows in Lovers”. His criticisms were those he made of many other films – “Close-ups that destroyed the unity of the groups”, “The utmost ignorance is reflected in the punctuation of the titles in Lovers, and there are scenes of idiotic close-ups”.
Here blame for these perceived deficiencies is placed on Stahl, though Beaton would change his mind about that. The later review of In Old Kentucky (29 October 1927, 14) was more generous, though anodyne, “To the extent that its mission is to entertain…… [it] is successful, although it has in it a lot of little things that detract from it”. It is “a very fair picture”, though “it will not stand searching analysis”. Regarding this, he wrote that “no real reason [is] given for Jimmy Brierly’s (James Murray’s) demonization”, though a combination of juvenile selfishness, sense of entitlement and the wartime shell-shock stressed by Imogen Sara Smith is surely suggested. On the credit side he noted that “Stahl’s direction plumbs human depths in several places” and registered his appreciation of Stepin Fetchit and Snowden.
Beaton often attended trade showings and previews, reporting of In Old Kentucky that “I saw it before it was ready for release and I presume that the weakness will be eliminated before it reaches the public”. Part of this weakness were “some weird mistakes” in the titling, though these are annoyingly unspecified. In the absence of more detail we can only conclude that the preview print differed substantially from the surviving one, since Beaton, among his criticisms, made no mention of the glaring narrative incoherencies noted below.
At the showing of the Library of Congress print in Pordenone, In Old Kentucky, though clearly not in the first rank of Stahl’s films, displayed many attractive features – e.g. the spectacular rainstorm falling on the crowds at the Kentucky Derby which turns the track into the heavy surface suitable to the old “mudder”, the war horse Queen Bess; the dynamic filming of the race’s start, with, as Imogen Sara Smith wrote in The Call of the Heart, “the jostling closeups of horses’ hooves churning and splashing the mud, bringing an unusual degree of physicality and excitement”; the winning performances of the black players Stepin Fetchit and Carolynne Snowden and of Edward Martindale and Dorothy Cumming as the Brierly parents; as well as highly effective moments such as the nostalgic blue grass state (and cotton field!) memories of the party goers stirred by Highpocket’s harmonica playing; the sudden news of America’s joining the Great War, paralleling the Confederate call to arms; and the rift between Brierly Senior and Junior when the son mocks the ancestral portraits. But, as the showing proceeded, it became clear that this print was seriously compromised, for all that “the visual quality is beautiful in this excellent Library of Congress restoration” (Antti Alanen: [online] Film Diary, October 13, 2018).
No print in better order survives to be compared with the Library of Congress sole survivor, preventing any straightforward comparison, and necessitating hypothesis and inference, but what is centrally missing in the reduction from 6646 feet (AFI Catalogue) to this print’s 6154 feet (Pordenone Programme, 2018), can be easily discerned, both from narrative logic and, backing this up, from A.P. Younger’s continuity, held in the USC John M. Stahl collection. The pre-narrative dedication to “The Horse, mankind’s best ally and most loyal friend”, with a montage of heroic equines bringing news of the British coming in the Revolutionary War, then delivering the overland mail, down to the present day nadir of pulling milk floats, but with memories of former heroics persisting in “the Sport of Kings”, missing from the surviving print, seems unlikely, at least to my intuition, to have been in the uncut original. But, for the most part, the surviving print follows the continuity closely enough to clarify lost aspects of the eventually disrupted narrative. The missing 500 feet may have included some other minor lost elements, but can be securely said to have lost two key contiguous moments – Jimmy’s forcing himself on Nancy and the breakup of the two boyhood friends as a shocked “Skippy” confronts the Major. Younger’s continuity reads as follows:
He [Major] sits on the grass and pulls the girl beside him. She gives herself to his
arms conscious herself only of the purest love for him, and Major simulates a love as pure
as hers, though in reality he is filled with lust. Elsewhere Skippy, in his room, dresses with
care to see the girl of his dreams.
Suddenly Major sweeps Nancy into an embrace, vows his love, and hears her vows in
return. He crushes her to him madly, and she yields to his kisses. But when the kiss is
prolonged, and his lips are hot with passion, and he forces her backward, the girl knows
this is not the Major of old. She tries to pull away, but he ignores her pleadings and
crushes her to him. He forgets all but the lust to possess the girl.
But a hand reaches down, and Major is yanked out of the scene and faces an outrages [sic]
Skippy. Major blusters and demands the reason for it all, and as Skippy sees that it is his
friend and that Major has been drinking, his anger vanishes. Nancy walks away, sobbing
bitterly. Skippy tries to tell Major that he does not realize what he has been doing, for he is
drunk and Major is infuriated. How dare the dirty stinking son of a stableman tell him he
is drunk! Skippy is stunned. True he was born in a stable, but that stable was in Kentucky,
and as a Kentuckian he cannot stand to see a woman insulted. He turns as tho [sic] to
follow Nancy, but Major jerks him back and strikes him across the face. Nancy, sobbing
for that the youth she loves has disappointed and insulted her, hears the sound of the
fight and looks back in horror and runs to Skippy when he falls helpless to the ground.
Major regards them both for a moment, goes gloomily to his car and drives away……….
This, of course, is only the scenarist’s outline of actions, key scenes which one may think Stahl would have realised more subtly, in which the Major loses both Nancy and his oldest friend, and in a scene following on quickly, his father also. The further notable difference from the continuity in the Library of Congress print, in this case an addition rather than subtraction, or rather, addition following subtraction, is that in the dramatization of Major Jimmy’s remorse – and at this point in the surviving text anyone watching would be unaware of what he has done to Nancy and Skippy – the briefest subjective montage is inserted, so brief as to be all but subliminal, with fragments of the sexual assault and Major Jimmy knocking Skippy down shown in the Major’s tortured consciousness, but hardly comprehensible because of their near-subliminal nature and because they are unanchored in any previous scenes.
There is a beautifully designed, if somewhat regressive, French poster for the film, which has in the foreground a rather grotesque representation of the black lovers kissing on a park bench, while in the background, much smaller, are the white couple courting much more restrainedly and graciously. The poster, in literally foregrounding Highpockets and Lily May, and backgrounding Murray and Costello, parallels what the surviving print does, paring away the central love triangle of Skippy, the jockey, Jimmy and Nancy, so that it is only moderately exaggerating to say that the dominant couple are less Major Jimmy and Nancy than Highpockets and Lily May. But even viewing what must have been a fuller print, the Film Daily reviewer seems to have felt this, writing “In fact the romance of Lily May and her dark boyfriend is more interesting than the southern colonel and his race horse, Queen Bess”, not even making Murray and Costello part of the comparison, though we know that pre-film publicity made a great deal of King Vidor’s discovery of Murray and there was a search publicised for the actress to play Nancy’s part.
The Sa Dernière Course poster for the film’s French release, like the Film Daily review, cannot really be taken to show that the film was seen in the same condition as the Library of Congress print. The French poster’s ambiguous receptiveness to and foregrounding of the black actors, came out of French interest in American négritude, embracing Parisian-based figures such as Josephine Baker and Jack Johnson, and Montmartre’s jazz club ambiance. Stahl’s racially sensitive sympathies were evident in his later use of the two black actors in minor roles at Tiffany-Stahl, his talk at the time of starring them in an all-black story, in aspects of The Lincoln Cycle (noted by Richard Koszarski in The Call of the Heart), in Imitation of Life and in the much later The Foxes of Harrow. These are evident in In Old Kentucky in the balancing of the more regressive elements of “darky” comedy (“Mae Tinée”, like Younger, used the word in her warmly approving Chicago Tribune review), southern sentimentality about black servants loving their white masters, and the playing of “Uncle Bible” – Lily May’s father – by a white actor, Nick Cogley, in blackface, with more egalitarian aspects, e.g. Stepin Fetchit exhibiting a roguish charisma amidst demeaning antics and possessing Orphic powers of music through his harmonica, and Carolynne Snowden, an innate dignity. However Stahl can hardly have planned for the main white plot to all but disappear and for the black underplot to virtually secondarise it as in the poster.
So, though the details of events and their order are impossible to reconstruct in the absence of MGM’s lost records, what is clear is that at a certain point, a fuller text was interfered with, signalled by the 6646 feet given in the trade reviews, and the 6154 feet of the Library of Congress print. That Beaton saw at the preview he attended a fuller, more coherent original than the one that survives seems certain since one of his specialities as a critic was picking up on the kind of illogicalities and narrative errors that mar the later part of the surviving print, and he reported nothing of consequence. Something else that made me (who, as stressed, had no opportunity to see the film in advance) hesitate over Beaton’s claims of studio-induced problems with the last three films, was the fact that In Old Kentucky was edited, like The Gay Deceiver and Lovers, by Margaret Booth (in the case of In Old Kentucky alongside Basil Wrangell). Booth not only became a famously accomplished and enduring MGM editor, but was also professionally indebted to Stahl whom she famously credited with teaching her the art of editing (see the interview in which she talks about working with Stahl in Kevin Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By, 342-3). One would not expect such a botched job, or disloyalty to her mentor, from her. This makes it even more probable that an original version, edited well enough not to elicit any major criticism from Beaton and other reviewers, except Variety‘s (who, however, wrote nothing to indicate lacunae caused by faulty editing), was released on 29 October after Stahl had left the studio for Tiffany-Stahl. Either later, or possibly even before, it seems that it was edited into the only surviving print, in circumstances, and for purposes, that remain opaque, with the major cuts being Jimmy’s crude sexual assault on Nancy and Skippy’s confronting Jimmy over it and being knocked down by him. This then seems to have been followed by a clumsy attempt to give some kind of minimal coherence to the later part of a narrative which had lost important scenes by inserting an extremely brief montage alluding to the absent events, whether by Booth (unlikely) or/and Wrangell , or by some other editors.
Had I seen the Library of Congress print before its Pordenone showing, it would have pushed me further towards concluding that, whatever else contributed to Stahl’s decision to move from MGM to Tiffany, the breakdown of relations with Mayer, as described by Beaton, who knew a great deal about the producers he often attacked, was a major factor, though I would still have concluded that interference with Stahl’s films while he was still at MGM must have been less extreme than that evident in the Library of Congress print. Nevertheless, the striking of such a print after Stahl left is ex post facto evidence of a major decline in what had been a successful partnership. The lost Lovers and The Gay Deceiver obviously cannot provide textual evidence, and there is nothing in their reviews (including Beaton’s of Lovers) that is particularly enlightening, though it’s notable that the release print of Lovers at 5291 feet, i.e. well over 1,000 feet less than the full print of Kentucky, seems extremely short for an MGM production of the day with major stars (Roman Novarro at his peak and Alice Terry), leading to a suspicion that it must have been substantially cut before release, which one cannot imagine Stahl being pleased with. If you compare its length with that of other MGM releases of 1927, it is certainly anomalous (though, curiously, no reviews remarked on this).
JUDGES’ DECISION: INCONCLUSIVE CONCLUSION
Lacking studio and Stahl’s personal records, without the lost Lovers (and also The Gay Deceiver), and the lost full version of In Old Kentucky which the evidence insists on, there can be no certain solution to the mystery of the Library of Congress print. Thus, you can take your pick from the following possibilities (or more, if you can imagine them).
(i) It is the print that was generally released and exhibited.
But this seems extremely unlikely in that none of the reviews, even the most unfavourable, mention the obvious missing elements in the narrative, the cursory montage operating in their place, and the subsequent depletion of the roles of the stars – James Murray, Helene Costello, and, in his first mature role, the return of Wesley Barry – all strongly featured in the film’s publicity. At the time of release the studio would have thought that the film might do well, so release in a form that would guarantee failure is not plausible. However bad relations between Mayer and Stahl were, the profit motive would have held sway.
(ii) It is a trial cut, arguably bearing the marks of Mayer’s spleen at Stahl’s intention of leaving.
A wild guess that has too much to be said against it to carry much weight, including the unlikelihood of Booth and Wrangell doing such a job, and of Mayer going beyond neglect of his once premier director to actually sabotage one of his films. It also very much depends on the supposition that Stahl, in the process of leaving MGM, disillusioned with filming conditions and preoccupied with his negotiations with Tiffany, had lost interest in the film. But, again, can one see Booth and Wrangell executing such a crude piece of work? Did others do it? Whoever, in this hypothesis, did, it must have been abandoned quickly and the fuller print released. Somehow it survived while the release print didn’t, which is true, however, of any other theory.
(iii) It is a crudely cut version destined for inferior non-metropolitan cinemas, either as a single feature or as half of a double feature.
While this seems to make much more sense, it still doesn’t wholly account for the cutting of such
vital material from the central love plot, material affecting the impact of the film’s stars, which would be felt in all venues, prestigious or otherwise, and the obvious coherence of the scenario.
Of these possibilities, (iii) seems much the most likely, with the creation of the surviving print probably dating from late 1928, or even 1929, when regional cinemas without newly installed sound systems were an obvious market for silents left behind in the rush to sound. One might speculate that with Stahl having left the studio, and without influence over what happened to his film, and perhaps, after its chequered history, with little remaining interest in it, it was quickly recut for that market by other editors than the original ones, and that, when it was realised that the omission of the important scenes that now lay on the cutting room floor, was disastrous, a montage of fragments from those scenes was inserted in a clumsy and unsuccessful attempt to repair the narrative damage. I would not stake too much on this explanation, but until someone comes up with a more convincing one – which is doubtful, given the paucity of evidence – it seems massively more likely than (i) and (ii).All that we can be absolutely certain of is that In Old Kentucky was released in a fuller form than the one surviving print in the Library of Congress shown at Pordenone.