One hundred years ago this month, Grace Kingsley saw what she thought was a very odd movie:
Missing Husbands is an amusing title. But if any married lady thinks the picture of that name down at the California is going to help her out in paging her spouse, she is mistaken. Because the missing husbands referred to in this film are all in a private cellar mummery of one Queen Antinea of Egypt. That’s the kind of a kick she kept in her cellar.
Any lady living in Antinea’s vicinity, it seems, never had to be bothered about excuses given by her husband about sitting up with a sick friend or being at lodge. All she did was to get a search warrant out for Antinea’s house, and there she would find Jack or Joe downstairs in the mummery, all neatly congealed and done up in a case…Probably some of the ladies hardly noticed any difference in their mummified husbands in any way.
She was a sort of lady Bluebeard, was Antinea, with a double duplex power of fascination like that of a steel magnet for a tin minnow, and any poor fish who came within the radius of it instantly forgot all about home and honor and the combination to his safe and cellar.
Ah, but there appeared on day a hero with an asbestos heart! Antinea could not melt him. She employed everything from the old tiger skin stuff to the Turkish pazaz,* but he melted no more than the iceless ice cream they’re serving nowadays.
Still she worked. I don’t know how she had any time to reign, she was so busy hailing him. Forgive the pun.** It’s not so bad as the picture. But the asbestos-hearted stuck around, he said, because he wanted to get a glimpse of an old pal, who had fallen under her spell. Antinea got the pal to try to kill the pure hero; then said pure hero got a butter knife out for Antinea, but she was too tough, or something, and it made no impression. There are seven reels, but nothing except the above happens.
Missing Husbands is another of those naïve foreign pictures using the vamp theme discarded by Theda Bara and Louise Glaum in the year 12 B.C., meaning Before Cellars. Well, well, you’ll probably get a kick out of Antinea’s cellar. The house seemed to yesterday.
Kingsley had some fun writing the review anyway. Missing Husbands was a seven-reel version of L’Atlantide, an eighteen-reel spectacle from Belgian director Jacques Feyder (I can imagine Kingsley’s ennui if she’d had to sit through the longer version). It had been a huge hit overseas: according to Fritz Tidden in Moving Picture World, it had played in Paris and London for over a year, and the book it was based on had sold 2 million copies in Europe.
Missing Husbands wasn’t nearly as popular in the United States. It played in Los Angeles for one week. There wasn’t much response to it. At least people no longer felt threatened by foreign productions and there were no protests as there were for Caligari just a little over a year earlier.
The reviewers in American trade papers found more good things to say about it than Kingsley did, though they also found it odd and foreign. Exhibitors’ Trade Review said:
As far as magnificent scenery and elaborate sets are concerned, the production is certainly able to share honors with some of our biggest pictures. The story is purely imaginative, weird and overpowering, yet so exaggerated and unreal on other occasions that it scarcely suffices to hold the interest and live up to the expectancies that have been created in the early part of the film…The most serious drawback is that European ideas of what constitutes a great drama is somewhat different from ours.
Film Daily wasn’t quite sure what to make of it, writing “the producers have evidently been ambitious to do something out of the ordinary and so far as that goes, they have succeeded…But the value of the picture to the box office is uncertain. It has not a universal appeal and the strong sex stuff is likely to get it into trouble in censorship neighborhoods.” They recommended seeing it before buying it, because “its appeal is bound to vary.”
Lillian Gale in Motion Picture News wrote the most positive review:
Missing Husbands is a novelty. Unique lighting effects that have never been surpassed are employed in depicting an unusual narrative. There is no particular rhyme or reason for the film, other than to entertain, a tale of romantic adventure, cleverly blended with rare dramatic contribution.
However, the writer for the New York Times was as bored as Kingsley was:
It is a film to which one responds, or fails to respond, with varying, or vanishing, emotions…the story often succeeds in creating the illusion of actual romance. But this illusion comes and goes, and finally disappears altogether before the end is reached, because, in the first place, the pictorial continuity is poor, and because it gets worse and worse as the story goes on, ending in a dull anti-climax.
L’Atlantide, the full version, was released on DVD in 2004, but the cut down version seems to be lost. Everybody’s favorite silent film reviewing German Count Ferdinand Von Galitzien really enjoyed the longer version.
In another story, Kingsley got a press release with a surprising way to publicize a movie: before it had even finished being made, the producers were already planning for its preservation! She wrote:
For the first time in history, and, more particularly, in the history of the screen, an art work is deliberately to be handed down to posterity with the purpose of perpetuating an art, a story, an illustrious name and a true picture in living scenes of one of the most crucial periods in the history and the evolution of the race.
The Rockett-Naylor Company of Hollywood makes the unique announcement that a copy of their fifteen-reel picture of the life and times of Abraham Lincoln, now in the process of production, has been offered the United States government and the National Lincoln Memorial Association for deposit in the Smithsonian Institution or elsewhere in Washington, D.C. with the proviso that it be kept sealed until February 12, 2109, the three hundredth anniversary of Lincoln’s birth.
The fifteen reels of film, together with a modern projection machine, with full instructions on how to operate it, will be sealed in a steel vault, specially constructed to preserve the film and machine in perfect working order, and with these will be deposited a copy of the working script of the picture an a few copies of the best books on motion picture production and practice.
The idea back of this is that in the 186 years to elapse between 1923 and 2109, tremendous changes will take place in motion picture production and exhibition and the donors of the Lincoln picture will take every precaution to insure the proper exhibition of their picture in 2109.
Because so many silent films are lost, we might think that all producers thought their work was disposable. But Rockett-Naylor told people that their movie was going to be so important, future generations would need to see it. Or at least they though the story would get them in the newspaper. You’ve probably guessed that the company didn’t actually do what they promised. A quick search of the Smithsonian’s catalog shows that they don’t have it, nor does the Abraham Lincoln Association. Even though The Dramatic Life of Abraham Lincoln was critically acclaimed (it won Photoplay magazine’s Medal of Honor in 1924), only two reels have survived. Still, that was a really novel sort of publicity.