Thursday 8 August 2013

Seven Keys to Baldpate (1917)

Magee (George M. Cohan) ponders his endeavour with a cigarette
'Seven Keys to Baldpate' was my choice of film for 1917 because I liked the title.  Nothing else really leapt out about the year, perhaps because the major film-making nations were busy warring at the time, and I stumbled on this enjoyable little thriller.  It stars George M. Cohan, an actor famed for his penning of morale-boosting songs including 'You're a Grand Old Flag' and the tune from the Go Compare adverts.  His legacy is with us yet!

The film has a rather wonderful premise.  Cohan's character is a novelist famed for his schlocky melodramas, and a newspaper derides him for writing such popular tosh.  He claims he could write a high-brow novel in under 24 hours, and is held to his claim in the form of a $5000 dollar bet, which in those days was lots of money.  He has until the following midnight to come up with an idea for a novel and write it in its entirety.  Needing seclusion for this task, he hurries to the Baldpate Inn for some utter peace and quiet, believing he holds the only key.  As the title may suggest, the film then heads in a direction utterly different to that of 'The Shining' (1980)

Naturally complications ensue, and a disappointingly small amount of the film is given over to Magee actually trying to write a book.  The duplication of keys means he finds himself repeatedly interrupted, both by people who know he's there and wish to see him, and by a gang of crooks who mean to use the generally empty inn as a stash in a plot to bribe the mayor.   After the first few intrusions Magee is prompted to exclaim that 'there are more keys to this blooming flat than in a Steinway piano'.  It's a line that would play just as well today, were the quaint 'blooming' replaced with something earthier.  It's a witty script, with much of the dialogue left to the imagination, but with the most important and most quotable bits presented as italic intertitles.  A favourite was a warning to Magee as he approached the inn: 'The hermit's hut!  His wife ran away with a travelling man and it made him a woman hater.  He often plays GHOST to frighten us natives hereabouts.'  Have you ever read such a promise of later-in-the-film antics?

The rude review that prompts the film's action
Except for all the white makeup and the lack of sound, the film looks a lot like the low-budget, studio-bound TV shows of the forties and fifties.  The film-grammar is all there at last, and the establishing shots and close-ups come where and when you might expect and want them.  It's far more intimate than last week's 1910s movie 'Cabiria' (1914) - indeed I think 'Seven Keys to Baldpate' is much helped by the fact it isn't an epic, if that isn't an absurd thing to say.  Grand films on great scales may sell more tickets, but this tiny tale lets us see faces, not crowds, so it's far easier to care about the central character.  We can see him think, and his dialogue can reveal quirky character, rather than relentlessly driving plot and history.  Cohan has an excellent way of looking simultaneously aghast at some new development, and slightly miffed to be interrupted from his work.

I love the concept of the film, and I'm not at all surprised to read that it was also made into a film in 1916, 1925, 1929, 1935, 1947 and 1983.  There's always a pleasure to watching a characterful fellow throw himself into a near-impossible task for a bet, especially when the unexpected and unlikely promise to loom against him.  The film is a celebration of the bizarre melodrama Magee is supposed to be avoiding, and it soon becomes apparent that if he can survive the night he won't care whether the bet is won or lost, since his adventures make such a good story.

P.S. The 1983 version was filmed as 'House of Long Shadows', and starred Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and John Carradine, which is such a ridiculously fine cast of horror actors that I may need to give the film my attention.

The whole film is on Youtube here, but it's utterly silent, so you might want to decide on something to hum over it, ideally something lasting an hour and five minutes.

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