Sunday, September 21, 2014

Woman in Grey (1920)

Way back when I started to be interested in films I got a copy of the Blackhawk film catalog and was set on the path of film collecting. Blackhawk specialized in releasing films on 16mm,8mm and Super 8mm. They were mostly old silent films and some sound films. Being a poor ten or twelve year old I could do little more than look at the catalog and dream. Occasionally I'd save enough and get something short and cheap.

One of the things that always intrigued me were the silent serials. I always loved the idea of a continuing story, and the thought of a really long story thrilled me.The trouble was that the serials were sold by chapters so a 15 part serial cost a bit of cash. SO I was left to dream.

For whatever reason the Woman in Grey fascinated me. It always seemed that if I was going to go the serial route that was where I was going to start. I never did get any of the serial from Blackhawk, but it always stayed with me as the one to get.

Recently Alpha video put out a copy of the whole serial on one disc and I picked it up.

Called by some "the last of the adult serials" The Woman in Grey is one of the best either sound or silent. Its a wonderful old dark house tale stretched to 15 chapters.  It has all of the twists and turns that would become cliche over the next two decades of mystery films, but even so the film still plays as an exciting romp even though we know all the tropes.

Arline Pretty stars as the title character named Ruth Hope. She's a young woman with a hidden past who wanders into the life of a retired attorney named Armory. It seems Armory once came from a rich family but at some point his family lost the money and was forced to sell the old mansion- to the families former house keeper. Armory made his way in the world and years after the housekeeper was murdered and the house left vacant Armory buys the house back intent on finding the fortune he know his father had hidden there.

However several factions don't want that to happen and worse they don't want Ruth Hope sticking her nose into the affairs since she clearly knows more than she is telling. Grand adventure follows as Hope and her some times protector Tom Thurston (Armory's assistant) take on all comers.

For me it was nice to see a film that I've chased after for years turns out to be worth it. I had a high time watching it over an afternoon while recovering from an illness.

The reasons the film works are numerous-

First off the whole thing is played straight. There is no over reacting or silliness with anything that happens. Okay yes some of the twists and turns are clearly there to keep things alive, but for the most part this was and is all straight on mystery.

Next the danger is real. Shot in Pennsylvania in real locations you get a sense that this is happening. We are on real streets, around real homes and factories. These are real places. More importantly when things happen, people fall off a train bridge or out a window it really is a real fall. Even a wicked fire that engulfs a factory where Ruth is tired up looks scary real. The realism is important because without it the occasional silly moment, Ruth tied to a bed with spiked block over her, would be completely laughed off the screen.

The performances are spot on. Yes I know this was 1920 and a lot of the silent over acting was long gone, but this film plays like it's modern day. If one wanted to say sync up voices to this film you could do so without much trouble since the performances play as they would in a modern film and even the direction and scene arrangements  are as well.

To be certain the film probably is too long at 15 chapters, with the result you have a bit of the round and round we go nonsense of many sound serials, and we end up with a couple of silly characters (The old woman, the guy tied in the pit), but by the time they show up in the later half of the serial you're too invested to be disappointed, besides things eventually come back to reality.

This is a super serial and a great mystery. Definitely worth tracking down on the Alpha DVD which looks great.

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