Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Rip Van Winkle - 1914

Country: United States
Language: English
Writers: Washington Irving (story), Dion Boucicault (play), Joseph Jefferson (play), Frederick Story (scenario)
Stars: Thomas Jefferson, Clarette Clare and Harry Blakemore
Release Date: 9 November 1914 (USA)
Production Co: Rolfe Photoplays
Sound Mix: Silent
Color: Black and White
Plot Keywords: Based On Play | Character Name In Title
Genres: Drama | Fantasy
Rip Van Winkle, a lazy American man, wanders off one day with his dog Wolf into the Kaatskill mountains where he runs into an odd group of men drinking and playing bowls. He drinks some of their mysterious brew and passes out. When he wakes up under a tree he is astonished to find that 20 years have passed and things are a lot different. This is a charming story about how America changed due to the cival war, only in a different and more subtle way than ever told before.
The actor Thomas Jefferson (presumably named for the U.S. President, who was allegedly this actor's ancestor) was a son of Joseph Jefferson the Third, an extremely popular 19th-century American stage actor whose lifespan just barely overlapped with the earliest days of movies. Consequently, Joseph Jefferson's entire film career consists of only a few crude silent tableaux, tantalising us with a glimpse of Victorian-era dramatics. This film is Thomas Jefferson's attempt to preserve (through re-enactment) his father's most famous role. As my own cultural viewpoint is British, I was astonished to learn that the American actor Joseph Jefferson was the grandfather of the English author Eleanor Farjeon. Like the movie actor Tyrone Power, Joseph Jefferson the Third had a namesake father and paternal grandfather who were also stage actors. Shortly before Jefferson died in New York City in 1905, he expressed a desire to have his funeral at the nearby Church of the Transfiguration, which he referred to as 'the Little Church Around the Corner'. This house of worship has been known by that affectionate nickname ever since.
In the days before electrical recording, when all performances had to be live, it was possible for a barnstorming actor to earn an excellent living essaying the same role for decades at a stretch, and Joseph Jefferson did so in the title role of 'Rip Van Winkle'. Washington Irving's famous tale is a retelling of a Grimm Brothers folktale, transplanted to the Dutch Catskills in the mid-18th century but not otherwise changed. I shouldn't be surprised to learn that the Grimms adapted it from an earlier source.
This low-budget silent film takes place outdoors but is plainly filmed indoors against painted backdrops. The main setting is outside the tavern of Nicklaus Vedder in the village of Falling Waters. A tavern sign, bearing the likeness of King George III, indicates that this is pre-Revolutionary New York.
Jefferson makes his entrance with a small boy riding on his back, several other tots scurrying to keep up with him, and a mongrel following at his heels. Jefferson relies primarily on broad pantomime rather than inter-titles to establish Rip Van Winkle as a lazy ne'er-do-well with a fondness for Vedder's beer and an eye for the tavern wenches. He pauses in front of the tavern sign to pantomime his fealty to King George. The actress portraying Rip's wife Gretchen likewise uses broad pantomime to establish her shrewish nature. Rip bids a fond farewell to his little daughter Meenie and to Nick Vedder's little son Hendrik, and then -- more to get away from his wife than to put meat on the table -- Rip takes his musket and sets off into the forest.
The bizarre keglers in Washington Irving's story, playing at ninepins, are often described as dwarfs or goblins. Here, they're portrayed by physically normal men (probably down to the scarcity of dwarf actors) but wearing crepe-hair beards that are downright laughable. An inter-title identifies them as Henry Hudson and his lost crewmen of the ship 'Half Moon'.
The long transition of Rip's sleep is conveyed by a crude cut, returning to the same scene from a slightly different angle, with some cobwebs added to Rip, and a new backdrop representing the same forest decades later. Jefferson now wears a beard only marginally more plausible than those worn by the mysterious keglers. When he picks up his musket, it falls apart.
When Rip shambles homeward, his clothes in surprisingly good nick, the village of Falling Waters looks much as it did before ... save that Vedder's tavern now displays an American flag (with 13 stars) and a portrait of George Washington. When Jefferson goutily repeats his gesture of fealty to King George -- whom he assumes is still ruler of America -- the townspeople are outraged. The landlord of the tavern is now Hendrik Vedder, grown to young manhood and married to a demure young woman who is the former Meenie Van Winkle.

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