Sunday, November 29, 2015

Fred Stone Rises to Great Heights

Fred Stone and Ella Hall
I made the point in a recent article that Douglas Fairbanks' comic acrobatics, which included the actor scaling high-rise buildings, had a significant influence on Harold Lloyd.  The first film that delivered Lloyd to dizzying heights was Look Out Below (1919), in which the comedian became perched on girder dangling far above the city.

Harold Lloyd and Bebe Daniels in Look Out Below (1919).

But, a year before Look Out Below, another comic actor looked to attract audiences by following Fairbanks' daring example.  The actor was Broadway star Fred Stone.  Stone and Fairbanks shared the same distributor - a short-lived Paramount subsidiary called Artcraft Pictures Corporation.  It could have been because Artcraft wanted to duplicate their success with Fairbanks that they put demands on Stone to be as robust and nimble as Fairbanks.

Publicists made it clear that stunts had the greatest prominence in Stone's first two Artcraft films, The Goat (1918) and Under the Top (1919).  The stories had been specifically designed to give Stone an excuse to perform midair feats.  Exhibitors Herald wrote of The Goat, "[Stone] makes his bow as a film star in a hodgepodge play written to exploit his gymnastics more than his acting ability."  A full-page ad in Moving Picture World showed Stone sitting atop a flagpole.  The stunts went over well with critics and exhibitors, but weak stories hampered the success of these films.
 
Fred Stone and Rhea Mitchell

The following two sentences from the American Film Institute catalog adequately summarized the plot for The Goat: "Chuck McCarthy, an intrepid young ironworker, longs to become an actor, despite the protests of his girl, Molly O'Connors, and his family.  In dashing up the frame of a building to catch actress Bijou Lamour's runaway pet monkey, he attracts the attention of the studio managers, who make him a stuntman."  The highlight of the film involved Stone acting as Lamour's stand-in for an ice skating scene.  Stone said that his ice skating tricks were intended as a spoof of the type of the tricks performed by German ice skater Charlotte Oelschlägel.



A Motion Picture News critic, P. S. Harrison, thought well of the film.  He noted, "The Goat is a succession of comedy and starling stunts, never forgetting a very human little love story that runs through to tie up the more spectacular events."  Unfortunately, I could find no one else who shared Harrison’s fondness for the film.

Edward Weitzel, a Moving Picture World critic, wrote, "Fred Stone is not at ease in the quiet scenes, but performs all the stunts with his well-known skill."


An exhibitor in Springfield, Illinois, expressed major dissatisfaction with the film in a letter to Motion Picture News.  He wrote, "Fred Stone's first photoplay proved a disappointment when shown at the Gaiety on Sunday, October 6.  Nearly all the fans had seen Stone on the stage in some of his great plays, and probably expected too much.  He did several new stunts, none of which had ever been equaled in daring, but the story was not the kind that took with the film patrons.  There were several good laughs, but not near as many as in Fairbanks' plays.  It is hoped that succeeding Stone pictures will be better, but this is hardly looked for now, as it was figured that the best of the three would be released first." 

The Film Daily critic could not have thought less of the film.  He reported that there was "hardly enough [story] for a split reel."  The critic said that the film is "painfully forced hokum [that] merely serves as a skeleton for athletic stunts of the star.  [The film is] obvious and unfunny [and] utterly fails to stir anything."  But he was not through with his merciless drubbing of the film.  He continued:
As motion picture entertainment, this flops miserably.  Fred Stone's stunts on the "legit" with the late Montgomery got over great — on the stage, but they utterly fail to stir anything on the screen because our various stars of the films have done these same stunts to death for several years and most of them have gone him several points better.

The story, if it can be called such, was obviously constructed to exploit the aforementioned stunts of the star and is the same old stuff that we've had many times in the past; there is no plot, no climax, no love interest—nothing, in fact, to offer an excuse for it having been produced in the first place.
William Sievers of St. Louis’ New Grand Central Theatre gave the most succinct opinion of The Goat when he told Exhibitors Herald, "Very poor story for Stone and one that does not please."


The plot was again weak for Stone's second feature, Under the Top.  Critics were especially annoyed that the hero's adventures turn out in the end to be a dream.  It is an old trick that audiences rarely enjoy.  The Film Daily critic noted, "[The film] is too forced to be convincing, a condition that authors John Emerson and Anita Loos, apparently recognized, otherwise they would not have turned it into a dream, which doesn't help even a little bit.  The plot hasn't the dream quality.  There aren't the elements of fantasy and poetry needed in a dream story. . ."


Stone plays Jimmie, a house painter who fantasizes of one day becoming a tightrope walker in the circus.  The Moving Picture World critic wrote, "[Jimmie] combines his skill with the brush with his cleverness at doing acrobatic stunts, and is able to paint a church tower while amusing the population with a series of hair-raising feats in midair."  The Film Daily reported, "Stone's introduction as a house painter, pursuing his calling at the perilous point of a church steeple, is effective."  Jimmie falls in love with Pansy, the daughter of a circus owner.  When Pansy's father dies in a fall, a conniving circus employee plots to cheat Pansy out of the circus by getting her to marry him.  Just as the film began with Stone in high place, the film ends with the actor in a high place.  IMDb critic Pamela Short wrote, "Pansy's guardians have her hypnotized so that she will marry one of them, but Jimmie steals the marriage license and eludes the pursuing circus hands by doing acrobatic feats to an audience's delight until Pansy emerges from her spell."


The Film Daily critic said of Under the Top (1919): "It's too bad that Fred Stone didn't draw a better story for his second picture appearance.  He hasn't yet had a really fair chance to show whether or not his type of comedy can he put across on the screen with the effectiveness that has made his name famous on the stage.  In time, Fred may get just the right kind of material: then he ought to start something, for he has a mighty likeable personality and when it comes to trick stunts he's in a class by himself. . . Stone's acrobatics are the real thing and, of course, it is highly appropriate that he should appear in a circus picture.  Many of your folks may be counted upon to enjoy a number of the scenes, considered individually, even if the production in its entirety leaves a negative impression."

Harold Lloyd, who understood the importance of telling a good story, went on to succeed where Stone had so dismally failed.  It is in examining the negative reaction to Stone's features that film historians should feel the greatest respect for Lloyd's well-developed skills as a filmmaker.


Additional note


Douglas Fairbanks fondness for climbing to the top of buildings inspired high-altitude climbs by a number of dramatic actors, including George Walsh (The Pride of New York, 1917) and William Russell  (The Sea Master, 1920).

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