Happy National Silent Film Day!
There’s nothing new under the sun, of course, and this year I thought I’d revisit the 1923 film, White Tiger, a Tod Browning tale of murder, mistaken identity, mayhem, and a chess-playing automaton. I couldn’t make this up if I tried.
The movie opens in a London suburb, where a young Roy Donovan has just come home. He has a happy life with his sister, Sylvia, who’s his best friend, and his dad, Mike (Alfred Allen). Also hanging around is Hawkes (Wallace Beery), whose sole purpose seems to be to stir up trouble. In fact, he frames Mike and has him shot, spiriting Sylvia away to Paris. Meanwhile, Roy stews as he watches his house burn, vowing to get revenge on Hawkes.
Fast forward fifteen years. Hawkes is now calling himself Count Donelli and Sylvia (Priscilla Dean) is posing as his daughter for her own reasons. Hawkes makes his living pickpocketing and playing the part of the Count. Hawkes and Sylvia like hanging around the local street fair, where the chief attraction is Roy’s (Raymond Griffith) chess-playing automaton. To the delight of a sizeable crowd, Roy hides under the thing manipulating the arms and playing perfect games.
Yep, the automaton is really a puppet and it’s all a big trick, that sneak. 🙂
Roy has made friends with Sylvia, who he hasn’t seen in fifteen years and naturally doesn’t recognize, or at least that’s what he says. Sylvia invites Roy over and Hawkes invites Roy and the automaton to go to America, where they’ll charm their way into posh houses and steal their jewelry.
The plan works a little too well, and our gang of hoodlums goes up to their cabin to hide out with their loot. They’re all tense and cranky, Sylvia wants to bolt, and each one of them are wondering how big their respective hauls are going to be because they made off with thirteen pieces of jewelry.
Then Dick Longworth (Matt Moore), the brother of the woman whose jewelry our three stole shows up, and naturally Hawke doesn’t want to let him go, so it’s now the four of them holed up in the cabin and secrets begin to be revealed. And Roy gets stabbed. And Sylvia fantasizes about going all Spanish Inquisition on Hawkes because she’s mad at him for what he did to her dad.
This movie is fun, although the acting can get slightly hammy. Wallace Beery is such a scene-stealer and not just because of the Popeye face he wears for the first few minutes. He really, really wants the camera to look at him so his gestures have to be big and his expressions have to be bigger. He’s got healthy competition with Priscilla Dean, though, who glowers her way through the latter half of the movie as if she’s Chester Morris’s long-lost cousin or something.
However, I think Raymond Griffith was my favorite because his face can be hilarious. He was a comic actor who had to play it straight as Roy, but sometimes a little impish glimmer comes through and he wiggles an eyebrow or makes a face. I want to see more of Griffith’s work, to be honest, because he looks like he could really bring it.
Other than that, I had to wonder how far the movie would take the whole Roy-and-Sylvia friendship thing. They don’t know they’re brother and sister, at least not at first, but we know, and it can bring up some slightly icky Luke-and-Leia feels.
Fortunately, the movie doesn’t go there, and not to give any spoilers, but the characters know more than they let on and that changes the dynamics, plus Sylvia’s in love with Dick anyway. It also helps that the movie waits until the last possible moment to reveal to these characters who they really are, and then it winds up pretty quickly. It’s almost like a magic trick, with the setup, the buildup, and then the prestige.
Amazingly enough, director Tod Browning started out his career at sixteen working in circuses, carnivals, and vaudeville, and according to Britannica, he was a clown, contortionist (!), magician’s assistant, barker, and blackface comedian (!). He got his first big break in films working with D.W. Griffith on Intolerance, after which Browning became a director. Naturally, Browning worked his experiences into his work, which naturally featured various kinds of misfits as major characters. White Tiger was the last of nine movies he made with Priscilla Dean and not the first to feature pickpockets.
The only thing I would say about White Tiger is I wish there could have been more done with the puppet automaton because it’s fun watching Roy manipulate it and getting the crowd going. Once the group has their first major haul they run for the hills and we never see the automaton again.
Maybe this was was because Browning knew he’d be criticized for doing too much with it, seeing as in the world of performance and magic it’s a huge no-no to show the inner workings of an illusion. Browning can be forgiven, though, because the character of Roy as an adult had to be established somehow, so revealing where the automaton got its magic from was unavoidable.
All in all, White Tiger is a very interesting and enjoyable film, and for those who are most familiar with Browining’s work on Freaks and Dracula, it’s a nice change of pace.
For more silent goodness, please see Lea at Silent-ology. Thanks for hosting this, Lea–it was great as always! Thanks for reading, all, and I hope to see you tomorrow for our ninth Shamedown…
White Tiger is available to own on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon. It can also be seen on YouTube.
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If you’re enjoying what you see on Taking Up Room, please look for additional content on Substack, where you’ll find both free and subscriber-only articles. I publish every Wednesday and Saturday.
Thomson, David. The New Biographical Dictionary of Film: Sixth Edition. New York: Knopf-Doubleday Publishing, 2014.
7 thoughts on “Checkmate”
I’d never heard of this film before, and it does sound like a grand time. Wallace Beery always gives a person their money’s worth, doesn’t he?
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He really does!
Leave it to Tod Browning to come up with an odd grab-bag of a plot like that, ha ha. Thanks for covering this little-known film for the blogathon, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it so now I have to check it out!
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Very cool–hope you enjoy it!
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I had no idea Raymond Griffith did any straight roles. I’ve enjoyed the little I’ve seen of his comedies so I’ll have to check out this for his dramatic work.
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That’s great–hope you enjoy it!