Tuesday, July 16, 2019


Some silent films survive only in their trailers (such as the silent version of THE GREAT GATSBY). Others survive only in a shortened form—there are two films where Rudolph Valentino had a supporting role prior to his stardom, and the films were re-released after his fame cut down to two or three reels, highlighting his role and making him more of a featured player than he’d actually been in them. The original films do not survive—the cut-down re-release versions do. There were also some five-reel indie westerns that were cut down to two-reels to provide cheap silent product in the waning days of the medium, circa early 1930, when only the most isolated small town theaters were not wired for sound. Some of these survive where the originals do not.

From this late 1929/early 1930 period there was a curious form that existed briefly—the silent version of a sound film. Since silent film is a totally different art-form than sound films, these tended to be weak, because they were not shot as silent….they were sound films with the dialogue cut out and awkward title cards inserted. I remember seeing a murder mystery from this period, which seemed to be VERY talky in its sound version, but I saw the silent version----not only did I not get most of the dialogue, but what I did get was far too much for title cards, which should be brief….AND the film was not acted as a silent would be acted. People just stood there moving their mouths.

TROOPERS THREE was issued by Tiffany in 1930 as a sound film at feature length (IMDB lists it at 80 minutes!)--my copy is a truncated silent edit that runs about 25 minutes. The first impression I had when first viewing this silent version a number of years ago was that it had few close-ups, mostly medium and long shots. I'm guessing that the dialogue close-ups were edited out, and in a way I'm glad they were. Nothing is more boring than the silent versions of early sound films with endless dialogue cards and static photography. This shortened silent version of TROOPERS THREE has a lot of action (in medium and long shots, although there are some good low-angle close-ups of the cavalry in action as well as Lease’s comic reaction shots to various events) and some comedy sequences with the boys and their failure to adapt to military life (of the two directors credited, one presumes Breezy Eason handled the action, and Norman Taurog, later director of a number of Elvis films in the 60’s, the comedy). Basically, after a show of the REAL U.S. cavalry in action (with quite impressive trick riding, but rooted in military and parade tradition, not rodeo tradition), three young men (Rex Lease, Slim Summerville, and Roscoe Karns) decide to enlist, and there are some comic hi-jinks in the recruiting office. They go through basic cavalry training and become horse soldiers. Rex Lease pretends to be injured as a ruse to meet Dorothy Gulliver, he saves someone from a fire, there are a few other scenes, and it's over. This silent edit was probably put together quickly and cheaply for the few backwater theaters that still booked silent product in mid-1930 (and 1930 was the year when the last remaining silent theaters went under or went sound). Any sense of pacing or any plot development or complexity is lost in this version, but it's nice to have it extant since the sound version is lost. The cast is excellent, and Slim Summerville gets in a few good comic scenes (I always thought of him as primarily verbal comic, though here I can see his excellent physical comedy skills and rubber-faced mannerisms), but with the editing and the lack of close-ups, no one--not even star Rex Lease--can be credited with much of a performance in the edited silent version. And since this was made with the intention of being a sound film, it was not photographed or acted in a silent film manner. Still, Rex Lease completists (and I'm one of them!) will want to see this, as will students of the early-sound/late-silent transitional period.

Lease, from West Virginia, came up in the late silent period with a kind of frat-boy persona but also with excellent physical comedy skills, subtle facial gestures communicating a kind of knowing wink to the audience, and when sound came around, a voice that worked in both dramas (especially westerns) and comedy. He starred in a few serials (he played the journalist Walter Jamison, assistant to “scientific detective” Craig Kennedy—played by BTC fave Jack Mulhall—in the outrageous 1936 serial THE CLUTCHING HAND), played second banana to canine stars in a few films, and starred in a handful of his own westerns. By 1938 he’d become a supporting actor, and his distinctive face (a bit heavier, perhaps) could be seen and his distinctive voice heard in hundreds of B-movies, especially at Republic. He also co-authored a cookbook (!!!) and played Santa at the local elementary school during his supporting actor days. He appeared in some 220 sound films (many unbilled, the true sign of the hard-working old-school actor, the type Ed Wood championed in his book HOLLYWOOD RAT RACE), including four MA & PA KETTLE films as the sheriff.

For its brief 25 minute running time (it seems even less), the abridged silent version of TROOPERS THREE is fairly entertaining. Just imagine you are in VERY small town storefront theater in the hot summer of 1930, one that still shows silent films, and this is what you have to keep you entertained during your Friday night trip to the county seat—mixed with a another western short and maybe a comedy short or two, I certainly would feel I’d gotten my money’s worth. After all, what would be the competition? TROOPERS THREE is in the public domain and can be found online the next time you have 25 minutes to spare….

No comments: