After renting Perch of the Devil on Amazon Prime Video for $1.99, I was very confused when the voice of a narrator began telling me about the miners of Butte, Montana. It was at this point that I learned the original Perch of the Devil, the silent film adapted from Gertrude Atherton’s novel of the same name, is one of the thousands of silent films lost to time. I had mistakenly rented Perch of the Devil, the 1960 documentary about the copper miner strike of ’59 and the hardships of the Western Rockies mining camps but that has nothing to do with the subject of this blog. I was very disappointed to learn this because the novel got such shining reviews. But even with the original film, possibly but hopefully not, gone forever we still know nearly everything about it. Strange how that works with these lost films. We can know everyone involved in writing and directing it, every actor that appeared, what studio funded the whole project, when it was released; we can read the reviews but can never lay eyes on the product ourselves.
The film of Perch of the Devil may be lost but at least the names involved are remembered. The original novel was written by Gertrude Atherton in 1914. Come 1919 her writings began being adapted to film in a joint effort with Eminent Authors Pictures Corporation. Eminent Authors Pictures Corporation was an ambitious studio project that put out very well received films but only lasted a few years due to creative disputes between the writers (who were all best selling novelists at the time) and the directors. Studios continued to adapt Atherton’s novels.
In 1927, Universal Pictures released Perch of the Devil adapted to screenplay by Mary O’Hara, directed by (his heiness) King Baggot, and produced by Carl Laemmle. The film stared Mae Busch as Ida Hook, Pat O’Malley as Gregory Compton, and Jane Winton as Ora Blake. It was disappointed to find out the film was lost not only because the novel received great reviews, but just from the summary the film sounds like a wild ride. You can read it on IMDB (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0018256/plotsummary?mode=desktop&ref_=m_ft_dsk) but i’ll summarize the summary. Ida, an uneducated hick, is married to Montana prospector, Gregory Compton. She is bored with her life so she convinces her wealthy, worldly friend Ora to take her on a trip to Europe. Ida lives the high life, attracting many wishful suitors, but she grows weary of the pleasantries and carefreeness and wants to return home to her true love, Gregory. Meanwhile, Gregory has been busy striking gold. He telegraphs to Ida of his luck but Ora, a conniving bitch, has been secretly in love with Gregory the whole time. She sabotages Ida’s response by rewriting it saying that Ida will only return for a share in the gold. Gregory sees the evils and backstabbing that comes with great wealth and only wants his old life with his true love again. Ida and the bitch return to Montana and Ida figures about about the backstabbing. Ida and Ora duke it out in the mine, but unaware of their duking, the now disillusioned Gregory intends on blowing up the mine at the same time. Fucking. Wild.
With that love and conspiracy fueled roller-coaster lost to time, I decided to watch a different film adapted from Gertrude Atheron’s best selling Black Oxen, a fantasy drama described as “subtle science fiction”.
Black Oxen is a silent film released in 1924 starring Corinne Griffith, Conway Tearle, and Clara Bow, and directed by Frank Lloyd. The original is long lost, thanks to Default Name, you can watch the 60 minute version on YouTube. However it is incomplete, missing the full ending, cut short almost 20 minutes. The film is still enjoyable but inevitably in this state, a bit of an unsatisfying ending.
To be completely honest, I was expecting watching an hour long silent film to be a grueling task. But early on in the film, I found myself captivated by the drama, expressive performances, and sprinkled in humor. Spaces between dialogue frames were never too short or too long; they were never unnecessary and often witty. The film used basic still shots, but had very good use of medium and closeup shots to establish emphasis on a character and their expression. Cuts and perspective change were frequent enough that no single still shot became stale.
The film is built with extremely relevant relationships of the time- the traditionalist, conservative matriarch and her frequent scolding and disapproval of her flapper granddaughter (Janet Oglethorpe played by Clara Bow). X-rays were still considered a new technology. Gertrude Atherton elevates this new technology to the science fiction level of x-ray surgery being used to reverse aging, to set up an interesting and extraordinary twist. The main themes explored are love and age, and how the two relate. Do they go hand in hand, or are they enemies? Is love only for the youthful? Can an older woman who never married still find love with her diminished looks? Is love only visual? Black Oxen explores these questions but without a proper ending, it’s difficult to know how the film would answer them. It’s difficult to know how anyone would answer as these have been the questions of dramas and love stories for hundreds of years. The technology we use to pose questions of life has advanced dramatically but the nature of love and aging, or even the bickering between generations will never change.