Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Marked Money (Pathé, 1928)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The movie was Marked Money, a 1928 production from Pathé starring child actor Junior Coghlan and George Duryea, the true name of the 1930’s Western star Tom Keene, and the ambiguous notes on the movie from the download site made it look like it was a Western about counterfeiters. Wrong on both counts: it starts out on board a sailing ship but it’s clearly set in 1928, and “Boy” (Junior Coghlan, whose real name was Frank Coghlan, Jr.) is on board when two plug-ugly thugs attack one of the officers because he won’t tell them where a small box containing $25,000 in cash is hidden on the boat. The victim survives long enough to be taken off the ship and to the home of the (apparently retired) Captain Fairchild (Bert Woodruff), but then expires, and on his body they find a note saying that he wants Captain Fairchild to raise the boy and the $25,000 is to pay for his education and all other expenses taking care of him until he’s an adult. Boy is shown as a precocious little kid — he cuts off a piece of chewing tobacco and uses it himself, and when he sees Captain Fairchild’s model ship he points out that the rigging is wrong. It’s obvious the people who made this movie — writers George Dromgold, Howard H. Green, Sanford Hewitt and John T. Krafft, and director Spencer Gordon Bennet (who had a long career but in the sound era specialized in serials — he did the second Columbia Batman serial, Batman and Robin, and their two Superman serials, Superman and Atom-Man vs. Superman) — were channeling Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid and Jackie Coogan’s marvelous performance in it, and particularly Coogan’s precociousness; Coogan made being precocious the stock in trade of virtually every child actor in the movies until 1934, when the enormous success of Shirley Temple transformed the default setting for depicting kids in movies from “precocious” to “cute.” Marked Money isn’t a Western and doesn’t have anything to do with counterfeiters — we’re given no evidence that the $25,000 is anything other than the Real Federal Reserve McCoy — and though marks it as “melodrama” it’s closer to comedy than anything else. Captain Fairchild has a daughter, Grace (the quite lovely and appealing Virginia Bradford, who for some reason didn’t attempt a transition to sound and made only one more film, One Man Dog, in 1929), who shows up in aviator drag and is warned by the family servant, Bill Clemons (Tom Kennedy, who did go on to a talkie career as a character actor, usually playing dumb cops), to get out of those clothes before she sees her dad, who doesn’t like pilots or anything to do with flying.

As luck would have it, Grace is dating Clyde (George Duryea a.k.a. Tom Keene), who’s a Navy aviator — she solemnly warns him to take the wings off his uniform and as (bad) luck would have it, he drops them into Captain Fairchild’s soup and the good captain digs them out again and realizes not only that his daughter is fooling around with planes, she’s in love with a guy who flies, too. Of course Clyde’s pilot skills come in handy big-time when Grace is kidnapped by the bad guys (ya remember the bad guys?) who have grabbed her in hopes she’ll know where the $25,000 is (ya remember the $25,000?) — they’re pretty hapless bad guys, given to staring into the house through the mail slot and looking for all the world like they’re going to seek admission into a speakeasy by saying “swordfish.” (Like Command Performance, Marked Money is the sort of bad movie that keeps reminding you of great ones.) The climax is an aerial dogfight in which Grace is thrown into the back of a plane but comes to long enough to pilot herself and Boy to safety, while the baddies are brought to book and Clyde shows off his own aerial heroics in bringing them to justice. There’s a tag scene in which Boy ties a “Just Married” sign and some string with tin cans tied to it to the back of the plane in which Clyde and Grace take off on their honeymoon. Marked Money isn’t a great film, but it’s charming and cute, and Coghlan, Duryea/Keene and Bradford are all appealing in their roles (which helps take the edge off a typically obnoxious, hammy performance in the role of Captain Fairchild — though I wouldn’t blame Bert Woodruff for this because in movies this old playing a father, especially one whose kid was already an adult, was practically an engraved invitation to overact), and it was nice to see it with the original RCA Photophone soundtrack attached. Though Marked Money was shot as a silent film, it was equipped with a recorded music score that was sent out as part of the film so theatres who had wired for sound and paid off their in-house musicians because they thought their jobs would no longer be necessary could still show the film. Enough movies equipped with recorded versions of the live scores that had previously been played in-house came out and were advertised as “sound” that in some cities the Better Business Bureau warned moviegoers, “‘Sound’ doesn’t always mean ‘talk.’”