Victor Fleming | When the Clouds Roll By
| The Mollycoddle
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Victor Fleming was a Hollywood film director.
When the Clouds Roll By
When the Clouds Roll By (1919) is a comedy starring Douglas Fairbanks.
It is the first film directed by Victor Fleming. Previously,
Fleming had worked as a cameraman on Fairbanks pictures.
Ancestors: Fairbanks Films
The flood in When the Clouds Roll By recalls the hurricane in an
earlier film starring Fairbanks, A Modern Musketeer (1917),
directed by Allan Dwan. In both films, the natural disaster
is linked to a rainstorm. In both it destroys a small town.
The flood in When the Clouds Roll By is bigger in scale, and occurs at the climax of the picture,
unlike A Modern Musketeer.
Fairbanks does a great deal of climbing up and down building facades, as he did in
A Modern Musketeer and Dwan's He Comes Up Smiling (1918).
The dream and "inside the mind" segments recall The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917),
directed by Maurice Tourneur. This Mary Pickford vehicle:
Please see my list of Best Films that Visualize Dreams, Fantasies or Literary Works.
Both The Poor Little Rich Girl and When the Clouds Roll By are part of this tradition.
- Had her visualizing imaginary creatures, a bit like the food seen at the start of When the Clouds Roll By.
- Concluded with a long fever-based hallucination, which is a bit like
the indigestion-caused nightmare in When the Clouds Roll By.
The fantasy scenes are the most creative parts of When the Clouds Roll By.
The remind us that Fleming would go on to direct The Wizard of Oz.
When the Clouds Roll By falls into sections:
These sections are quite distinct in their subject matter, settings and approaches.
- A prologue showing the evil doctor addressing the scientific audience.
- The bad meal and the dream it causes (the film's most brilliant sequence).
- The hero persecuted at home, by the conspiracy.
- The hero has trouble with his stern uncle at work.
- The hero and heroine meet and fall in love.
- The hero persecuted at the wedding party.
- The battle at the docks for the hero's mind.
- The hero chases the heroine on the train and in the flood.
It is possible that the first four sections above should be considered
parts of one long unit. All show the trouble that has engulfed the hero's life.
The tone of the film changes drastically when he meets the heroine, in a long section that is upbeat.
When the Clouds Roll By shows the hero's life being manipulated without his knowledge or consent,
by the sinister scientist. Fleming's Bombshell (1933) will have its heroine's life similarly manipulated
by her obnoxious press agent. In both films, this is played for uneasy laughs.
The film is unusually negative about its treatment of both scientists and businessmen.
The scientist's colleagues in the auditorium seem to be going along with the scientist's evil scheme.
The opening epsiode where the scientist lectures perhaps anticipates lecture scenes in
Fritz Lang films, such as Dr. Mabuse Der Spieler (1922),
Woman in the Moon (1929) and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933).
Dr. Mabuse, who is as evil and ultimately as crazy as the scientist in When the Clouds Roll By,
is the lecturer in Dr. Mabuse Der Spieler.
Both the mayor from Oklahoma and the businessman uncle from New York seem to be complete crooks and scoundrels.
The provide a totally negative portrait of business people of their day.
The Mollycoddle (1920) is a comedy-adventure movie. It is
Fleming's second and last film starring Douglas Fairbanks.
A Rich Guy Forced into a Working Class Job
When the Clouds Roll By had elaborate episodes of the hero being placed in bad situations
by a secret conspiracy. The Mollycoddle has a simpler but dramatic scene in which the
aristocratic hero is forced to work as a ship's stoker. Both of these episodes seem like sadistic fantasies.
The simpler, shorter scene in The Mollycoddle is more effective, perhaps showing once again that "less is more".
The way the hero is forced to work in the filthy stoker's hold, while wearing his originally spotless white dress clothes,
is visually striking. Such ship's holds, with filthy men shoveling coal into fiery furnaces, would soon
be the setting for Eugene O'Neill's working-class play The Hairy Ape (1922), and episodes in
the films The Blue Eagle (John Ford, 1926),
The Docks of New York (Josef von Sternberg, 1928).
The scene in The Mollycoddle was clearly thought to be of special interest to the public,
by the film's makers. Illustrations of Fairbanks covered with soot in the fiery stoker's hold,
were used on the poster for the film. He has his shovel, indicating he is working there.
Related books and films:
The protagonist of Big Image...Little Man has moral failings that go beyond the
"spoiled rich guy who doesn't work". These include such sins as sexual exploitation of women,
and irresponsible business practices that hurt ordinary workers. He has to correct these as part of his reformation.
These are dimensions not found in films like The Mollycoddle and Moran of the Lady Letty.
Fairbanks in The Mollycoddle and Valentino in Moran of the Lady Letty are spoiled,
but neither has the moral failings that plague the protagonist of Big Image...Little Man.
- Frank Norris' novel Moran of the Lady Letty (1898) deals with a rich young man forced into a
common sailor's role. It would be filmed with Rudolph Valentino in the lead in 1922, by director George Melford.
Like The Mollycoddle, this is one-half sadistic fantasy, one-half a moralistic tale
in which a pampered young man learns to toughen up, and actually work.
- The Source (George Melford, 1918), based on a tale by Clarence Budington Kelland,
seems to be a lost film.
It is reportedly about a young Society drunk (Wallace Reid) who becomes a lumberman in the mountains.
- Always Audacious (James Cruze, 1920) has the identity of
Wallace Reid's Society heir stolen by a lookalike crook. The crook has Reid shanghaied to Hawaii
and forced to work as a common sailor. This also seems to be a lost film. It is based on
the prose story "Toujours de l'Audace" (1920) by Ben Ames Williams,
a serial that appeared in the magazine The Saturday Evening Post. This magazine was hugely popular.
As an ad for the movie said, "Ten million people read the story and pronounced it one of the best ever."
- This sort of story was still being made many years later, in the well-done episode
Big Image...Little Man (William Witney, 1964) of The Virginian TV series.
A rich spoiled young man (Linden Chiles) is forced to be a cowboy.
- Behind all these works is Rudyard Kipling's
similarly plotted novel Captains Courageous (1896-1897), which Fleming would film in 1937.
In actual fact, I liked Big Image...Little Man more than
either The Mollycoddle and Moran of the Lady Letty.
While not a triumph of visual style, Big Image...Little Man is a highly effective work of storytelling.
By contrast The Mollycoddle and Moran of the Lady Letty are more curiosities than classics -
although The Mollycoddle is fun to watch. Both are far from the pinnacles of silent cinema.
One might note that Douglas Fairbanks, Rudolph Valentino, and Wallace Reid were three of silent cinema's
most glamorous leading men. They were actors the public thought were especially good-looking and attractive.
Valentino and Reid were especially purely regarded as good-looking, while Fairbanks' appeal was
partly looks, but partly also his upbeat personality.
Linden Chiles of Big Image...Little Man was not as famous as these three.
But he was also a very handsome leading man. Linden Chiles also had a patrician quality,
that made him believable as a spoiled heir. In 1964, he had just come off a stint as a dynamic congressman
in eight episodes of the prestige TV drama series East Side/West Side.
One reason that so many of these tales take place on ship: there is no way for the hero to escape
from a ship at sea. By contrast, the protagonist of Big Image...Little Man
attempts to escape from the cattle drive the Virginian forces him to take part in.
The Virginian keeps having to prevent these escapes.
The Mollycoddle is atypical, in that the hero is forced to do his filthy job in his own expensive clothes.
More usually in such films, the hero is forced to wear new working class clothes, appropriate to his new job.
The protagonist of Big Image...Little Man starts out in his gray business suit, but is soon
dressed as a cowboy.
The Three Typical Americans
Three men in the film are billed in the opening credits as "American College Boys".
They can be seen as "typical American men", or at least typical of the refined men who go to college.
They mainly function as a group, throughout the film.
When introduced, we first learn they are Americans. Then we soon learn that each is a member
of a different ethnic minority: an Irish-American, a Swedish-American and a Jewish-American.
The film continues to regard all three as real Americans, good Americans and typical Americans.
There is some pointed pro-immigrant commentary here.
We already know that the hero (Fairbanks) is a WASP - he has a WASP name Marshall.
And that his ancestors were in the US from before the Revolutionary War.
WASPs were the dominant group in the US at the time. And many thought they were superior
to anyone ethnic. But as the film goes on, we learn that the trio are better Americans
than the hero. And better people. Even though they are members of immigrant minorities.
This is really fierce social commentary, for 1920.
Boots: in Silent Film
The three "typical" American men in The Mollycoddle are in a whole series of good clothes,
that show what the well-dressed young man wears. They start out in good suits,
then move on to tuxedoes, sports jackets and visored caps for the yacht, and finally action gear out West
that includes tall, lace-up boots. Paul Burns, who plays Samuel Levinski, would go on to be
the costume designer for many of Fairbanks' 1920's swashbucklers. This is a rare acting role for him
in front of the camera. Burns presumably designed Fairbanks' giant boots for Don Q Son of Zorro (1925),
which are even bigger than the boots the three men wear in The Mollycoddle.
(See also the giant boots worn by Richard Dix while uniformed as European royally in
Say It Again (Gregory La Cava, 1926).
There was a sort of arms race to make boots bigger and better.)
The three men often seem to be on elevated platforms, looking down on Fairbanks and standing in judgment over him.
Their "ideal American" clothes are what the film suggests Fairbanks should be wearing,
instead of his pretentious European outfits.
Fairbanks wore boots along with a jacket and tie in Manhattan Madness (Allan Dwan, 1916).
So did a man in Dwan's earlier The Commanding Officer (1915).
Boots worn by heroes appeared in other films too, worn both with suits and uniforms:
- Mary Pickford's gentlemanly leading man Edwin August wears tall boots with his suit in
A Beast at Bay (D.W. Griffith, 1912).
and a hero (James K. Hackett) impersonating nobility for a good cause in The Prisoner of Zenda (Hugh Ford, Edwin S. Porter, 1913).
- The poster
shows George Walsh in uniform with a giant uniform cap and shiny boots in
The Pride of New York (Raoul Walsh, 1917).
- An ad
shows hero J. Warren Kerrigan in spectacular shiny boots for Live Sparks (Ernest C. Warde, 1920).
- George O'Brien wears spectacular patent leather boots as a small kingdom's Prince,
in Paid to Love (Howard Hawks, 1927).
Costumes and Characters: The Three Typical Americans
One of the scenes contrasting the noble trio and Fairbanks, has the trio in tuxedos, while Fairbanks
is in white tie and tails. The implication is that white tie and tails is "over-dressing", while
American Good Guys wear tuxedos instead. However, this is the only film I've ever seen that criticizes white tie.
Nearly everybody else says men look good in it, and depict white tie and tails as the ultimate clothes for men.
The Mollycoddle is one of the few exceptions to this point of view.
Perhaps Mr. & Mrs. Smith (Alfred Hitchcock, 1941) is another.
Costumes and Characters: The Assistant
The villains in both When the Clouds Roll By and The Mollycoddle
have a good-looking assistant or henchman who is really well-dressed:
Both of these men are rugged looking leading man types. Neither is violent or vicious;
in fact, the First Mate tries to prevent his boss's violent actions.
- The man who shadows the hero in When the Clouds Roll By is in a good suit.
- The ship's First Mate (Lewis Hippe) in The Mollycoddle is in an exceptionally snazzy yachtsman's uniform.
Lewis Hippe was an actor, but he was also Fairbanks' personal fitness trainer.
Lewis Hippe had a long career as a trainer, personally shaping up many Hollywood stars.
The film is based on a short story by Harold MacGrath, a well-known novelist of the day,
who worked in both crime fiction and other genres. MacGrath's "The Mollycoddle" appeared in
The Saturday Evening Post, May 10, 1913.
Harold MacGrath's prose fiction book The Blue Rajah Murder (1929-1930)
deals with attempts to steal a fabulous diamond known as the Blue Rajah.
The diamond smuggling plot of The Mollycoddle thus fits into MacGrath's personal traditions.
Ancestors: Wild and Woolly
Both The Mollycoddle and Wild and Woolly (John Emerson, 1917)
show a sophisticated cosmopolitan who goes to Arizona and has cowboy adventures.
The first half of both films take place in the sophisticated world
(Monte Carlo and at sea in The Mollycoddle, New York City in Wild and Woolly).
Ancestors: A Modern Musketeer
Like his earlier Fairbanks picture When the Clouds Roll By,
The Mollycoddle shows the influence of Dwan's A Modern Musketeer.
Both films have scenes near the start showing Fairbanks in heroic roles:
a Musketeer in A Modern Musketeer, cowboys in The Mollycoddle.
These characters are distinctly different from the modern-day, romantic comedy heroes
Fairbanks usually played in his films up through that time. They are action heroes,
live in past eras, and are idealized archetypes. In both films, these scenes are
marked off and separated from the main modern-day plots of the films.
The Mollycoddle has an avalanche finale, like the hurricane near the start of A Modern Musketeer,
and the flood finale in When the Clouds Roll By.
Fairbanks does much less building-facade climbing in The Mollycoddle.