by Ellis Parker Butler
The Jack-Knife Man
by Myron M. Stearns ("Lenso")
At a luncheon of the almost erudite, the other day, the gentleman with an Improved Van Dyke turned to his robust neighbor with a large and flowing reputation and remarked:
"By the way, I saw a good picture last night at the Strand. You mustn't miss it."
Being at the moment somewhat in the position of the geographical island, a large body entirely surrounded by water, and other men's conversation, I seized the opportunity to step away from the dry speechmakers at that dry luncheon, to try out the chance-caught and welcome remark.
With no stout hope of finding anything unusual. For the flickers are like short stories, and plays, and novels -- largely a matter of private taste. And one man's meat is another man's piffle.
Usually, when you go to see one of those "great" photoplays that your friend is so enthusiastic over, you come out swallowing a little over nothing, and unconsciously looking around for a handy-sized piece of brick.
There's no accounting for taste. The Japanese, they tell me, like raw fish.
But anyway, I went to the Illustrious Strand, and into the great dark interior, where a handful were gathered together, on the bottom of the cave as it were, on striped seats. I had a whole row to myself. It was still early in the afternoon.
The picture started with the latest thing in the way of full-screen introductory titles, one after another. I'm curious, now, to know what they said. But at the time there was nothing to do but let 'em flicker, for the producer had fallen into the familiar trick of unnecessarily neglecting the gentry with low-voltage eyes, of which, a Mister Speaker says, I am one. Then followed some very artistic river scenes, and the photoplay.
There was little story, from the ordinary "moshun-picture" standpoint. An old man, in a sort of shanty houseboat, plays host on a rainy night to a sick woman and her child. The woman dies; the old man cares for the little boy. A tramp comes along, and after trying unsuccessfully to steal the boat, is adopted into the oddly assorted family. A preacher who receives a bonus for every child that he places in a "good home" tries to secure the boy, Buddy, and in the end succeeds. But everything straightens out when the old man, grown suddenly self-supporting through an unexpected sale of his jack-knife toys, marries the widow who has adopted the child. The tramp discovers that he is Buddy's father, but wanders on down the road a-tramping, when he realizes that the boy, and his little sister Susie, who also has turned up, will have a good home.
No matinee idol! No Young Love. No conventional Romance. Likewise -- let it be regretfully remarked -- no audience to speak of.
But artistry. A comfortingly high degree of most acceptable artistry. King Vidor, who made the picture, steps with it (and his few that have preceded it) into the small circle of real screen storytellers.
The opening sequences of the film (the studio phrase) give us a sample of what can be done in the way of mere unfolding narrative.
"Mother," says the youngster, after the Jack-Knife Man has gone out to get some food for his unexpected visitors, "Why did he take the clock?"
"So's I wouldn't steal it, I suppose," says the sick woman wearily, and callously indifferent to fate.
"Would you steal it, Mother?"
"Oh, I suppose so" -- and all the time we are wondering with the child why in the world the old man did take the clock. It is quite as interesting as whether or not Harold Glendenning, the beautiful, but good, hero, will reach the robbers' cave before the whiskery villain beats down the door to Ethel Van Tyle!
Humor, pathos, and a large degree of the convincingness that comes from attention to the realities -- The Jack-Knife Man has these.
It is lacking, however, in drama. Perhaps that is why it is not drawing better. Perhaps it is this lack, also, that makes the picture merely very good, instead of exceptionally good.
Instinctively, with work as good as this, that is not getting over particularly well, one searches for its defects.
But tooby-sure, the picture is ahead of its time. The picture audiences have been educated down to a low level of appreciation; a host of immaterial conventions are accepted as part of the necessary equipment of any story. Young Love, for instance. Who can blame a picture-patron for feeling cheated when he is shown a photoplay without a pure and beautiful actress, as heroine, when he has been led for studio generations to believe that all good pictures have 'em?