I'm finding these silent film comedies that revolve around erroneous quarantines for infectious diseases to be ever more curious. Counting this one, "An Old Fashioned Boy," I've now also seen "Cupid in Quarantine" (1918) and "That Ice Ticket" (1921), and although the plot device in movies extends back to at least "The Sunbeam" (1912), I suspect the prevalence of such pictures, of which perhaps I'm just scraping the surface of, is a reflection of the era's Influenza pandemic, the so-misnamed Spanish flu. Indeed, there are other pandemic-related titles released in the aftermath of the real-world contagion, from a sneeze in Mary Pickford's "Daddy-Long-Legs" (1919) to reflections of past plagues in European cinema, such as in "Nosferatu" (1922). Considering that most silent films are now lost and, as I discussed in my review of "The Plague in Florence" (1919), even film historians who have written the book on this period of silent cinema, such as self-acknowledged by Richard Koszarski (in an article in "Film History" in regards to his book in the "History of the American Cinema" series), have neglected to investigate the role of the Influenza on movies. Of course, we're seeing likewise effects on cinema play out in real time a century later, but hopefully this one won't also become a so-called "forgotten pandemic."
"An Old Fashioned Boy" is otherwise of little interest. I've seen four or so films now for its star Charles Ray, and I continue to fail to see the appeal of his wholesome hick type, and I see why the actor tried to escape such type casting, although it's his investment in producing a costume drama for himself, "The Courtship of Miles Standish" (1923), another lost film now, that's usually credited for sabotaging his career and leading to his bankruptcy. The best of his films that I've seen is probably after that debacle, "The Garden of Eden" (1926), but that's mostly a Corinne Griffith picture. Regardless, in this one, when he was still a big star, involves his old fashioned boy getting engaged with one of, as described in one intertitle, "contrary women," their main dispute being over whether to live in their own house where the woman assumes a traditional position as housekeeper or in one of those apartment hotels that Ray's character cites from a newspaper headline as the cause of much marital troubles. Also of note is that the screenwriter here was a woman, Agnes Christine Johnston.
When the girl discovers the boy bought a house for them before they were even engaged, she breaks off the engagement over his taking her for granted, as she says. Meanwhile, the wife of his married friend drops off their three kids at this house as she abandons her husband, over his spanking the kids and refusing to buy her a hat, it would seem, for her mother's place, apparently one of those apartment hotels, which don't allow children, apparently. Chaos ensues as Ray tries to make taffy with the children only for them to all become sick with tummy aches. The doctor prescribes an absurdly-intricate pill regimen for this, but Ray being a man supposedly can't make heads or tails out of pill schedules (he also makes a mess of the kitchen over that sticky taffy situation), so he must find a way to kidnap his former fiancée to tend to such nursing and housekeeping matters. What to do? Why fake that the kids have a deadly disease and have the house quarantined with her in it but of course. In this case, it's black measles--another popular name for a contagion that's a misnomer. Things work out predictably enough, but the funny thing is that the kids never are administered those pills.
I suppose everyone just forgot during all the spastic slapstick antics. I didn't find any of it particularly humorous, but the energy of the thing is somewhat admirable, or at least it helps with the pacing in what's already a relatively short feature-length film. Unfortunately, while the actors are hard at work, running about, the camerawork and editing are pretty lazy. There's crosscutting and inserts to closer views--it's a film from 1920, after all--but most views are long shots, and some of them last for quite a while. The art titles are fine, I suppose, but I'm not a fan of overloading pictures such as this with jokey title cards, either.
Not finding prosaic filmmaking, reinforcing dated gender norms, or kidnapping romances to be appealing, and only being slightly more interested re increasing rates of apartment dwelling, that leaves the context of the real-world pandemic in which the film was made to be of interest. While it's certainly too small of a sample size to draw definitive conclusions, I'm struck by how lightly these American comedies treated contagion in their narratives. One might even read into them the suggestion that in the real world there was much overblown hysteria--even nonsense conspiracy-theory levels of implications being that the pandemic was fake, although most of them refer to a disease other than Influenza to do so. In this one, the doctor even comes across as a quack. On the other side of the Atlantic, however, from what I've seen, the attitudes could hardly be more different, with past plagues of bubonic nature (and where quarantines are said to have first originated) being extrapolated to include greater horrors of the fantastic and religious variety besides many deaths, of entire civilizations crumbling as a consequence and the souls of humanity being at stake. Curious how little middle ground appears to be occupied between these films, albeit it's a limited sample. I seem to recall that someone once said something about being doomed to repeat forgotten history, but I forget and, apparently, so have others for the ironically oft-misattributed aphorism.
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