Thursday, August 31, 2017

“…timber!”


Lumber baron Thomas De Quincey (James Gordon) is excited to welcome home his son Jack (Kenneth Harlan)—newly graduated from Oxford, you know—because he needs a man to ride herd at his lumber camps and apparently De Quincey’s outfit is not a meritocracy.  “Bootleggers, bullies, and bolsheviks [sic] have about disorganized my camps!” he wails to Jack in a title card that made me giggle.  Jack is not entirely certain he has the right stuff to take on the family business…but one thing he does know is that he doesn’t want preferential treatment because his lineage.  His old man decrees that Jack won’t last a week without his protection, and the two men wager $10,000 on that outcome.

Viola Dana and Kenneth Harlan
Arriving at one of the camps, Jack soon becomes smitten with Marie O’Neill (Viola Dana), the daughter of the camp superintendent (DeWitt Jennings).  He’ll also run afoul of the bullying Pete (Frank Hagney), the self-proclaimed “boss” of the camp, and the two men eventually come to blows in a display of fisticuffs at a camp dance, which erupts after Jack commits a social fox paw by daring to dance with Marie even though Pete called first dibs.  Pete and his toady, “Dumb Danny” (Norman Deming), later attempt to bump off Jack but our hero is made of sterner stuff.  Yet Jack not only has to foil the misguided scheme of these two ineffectual villains…he must rescue Marie, who’s tied up in a boat that’s directly in the path of…The Ice Flood (1926).

Author Johnston McCulley cranked out hundreds of stories—not to mention fifty novels and an impressive outlay of movie and TV screenplays—during his lengthy literary career, and is perhaps best known for creating the masked avenger known as Zorro…who appeared in feature films, serials, and TV series on his journey to becoming a pop culture icon.  McCulley’s 1918 novelette, The Brute Breaker (published in the pulp magazine All-Story Weekly), was adapted for the silver screen a year later in a Universal film starring Frank Mayo and Harry Northrup.  Because Hollywood loves to “adapt, adopt, and improve” its releases from the past, Universal decided to remake Breaker seven years later as The Ice FloodFlood was one of the studio’s “Jewel” productions—the name they gave their prestige product, for which they charged roadshow ticket prices to compensate for the bigger budget.  Universal’s Carl Laemmle apparently believed that the stature of a “Jewel” would invite SRO crowds to movie palaces…but it turned out to be a complete bust, and the studio abandoned “Jewels” in 1929.

Viola Dana
The Ice Flood isn’t a great silent film, but I cannot deny it’s not an entertaining one.  It’s simple and straightforward mellerdrammer, with a two-fisted he-man and starry-eyed ingenue predictably getting together by the time the closing credits roll.  The characters are drawn in broad strokes; for example, we know Pete is a complete potzer because in one scene he’s riding a seesaw with camp mascot Billy (played by Billy Kent Schaefer) and he allows the handicapped youngster to fall to the ground by quickly getting off his end.  (Later, Pete steps on Billy’s injured foot, complicating things further for the innocent tyke.)  Kenneth Harlan is the dependable leading man of Flood, with a long movie career (he appears in such films as The Penalty [1920] and The Toll of the Sea [1922] that began in silents and ended up in B-westerns and serials (he did a ton of chapter plays) before hanging it up to become an agent and restauranteur.  Viola Dana, last seen here on the blog in Open All Night (1924), is serviceable as Harlan’s love interest…though she seems a little subdued during Flood’s exciting climax (girlfriend, get your ass out of that boat!).

My Facebook compadre and fellow classic movie blogger Chris Edwards did a nice write-up of this movie on his Silent Volume blog in 2013, observing: “The Ice Flood packs a lot of action into sixty minutes.  Exuberant, if not breathless, action.”  (Chris also mentions a similar film, The White Desert [1925], that I’ll need to track down one of these days.)  It was co-scripted and directed by George B. Seitz, a veteran known for serials during the silent era (The Exploits of Elaine, The Lightning Raider) and with the advent of talkies helmed a substantial number of the Crime Does Not Pay shorts and features in the Andy Hardy franchise.  Seitz is not a showman, but he adds some nice touches to the narrative—particularly in the beginning; the elder De Quincey is bragging to his bidness associates that his son will soon be running things and one of them asks if that’s the one who “writes poetry.”  De Quincey replies in the affirmative, and above the heads of the two men is an image of a Nancy boy in Little Lord Fauntleroy clothing, dancing about with wild abandon.  (Seitz also does some effective cross-cutting between the impending ice flood disaster and the action at Harlan’s camp, commenting on the action with risible title cards like “A resistless, mighty monster straining at its Wintry leash!”)

Chris had the good fortune to see The Ice Flood at Syracuse’s Cinefest 33 in 2013…whereas I had to settle for sitting down with the just released Alpha Video DVD.  (On the plus side—I didn’t have to share my popcorn with anyone.)  The Ice Flood remains a first-rate example of why I love silent films so—it tells a cracking good story with a happy ending and gets the job done in 70 minutes without overloading my senses with a lot of purposeless CGI.

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