16 July 2006 | wmorrow59
One of the forgotten gems of the silent era
It's a mystery why this delightful silent feature isn't better known and more widely appreciated. I've seen several of the comedies Douglas Fairbanks made prior to his switchover to swashbucklers and they're all great fun, but for my money When the Clouds Roll By is the best of the lot: it's funny, fast-paced, action-packed and highly original. To call it "original" is quite an understatement; this movie is absolutely off the wall and constantly surprising, even for buffs. The plot is convoluted enough to keep you guessing, and just when you think you know what's going to happen next, the filmmakers throw you another curve-ball. Speaking of originality, it's worth pointing out that a number of gags and bits of business found here were borrowed by others and used again in later years, so while this movie proved to be a rich source of inspiration for Fairbanks' colleagues who saw it in 1919, the source material itself seems to have been largely forgotten.
Much of the comedy derives from the screenplay's satirical jabs at the still new field of psychology. Doug plays a good-natured young man who is harshly victimized by a sinister psychologist named Metz, who lives nearby. Why the doctor has chosen to treat Doug worse than Pavlov's dog isn't explained until late in the story (and I won't reveal it here), but let it suffice to say that Doug is subjected to a distressing series of "Gaslight"-style mental manipulations intended to convince him that he's losing his mind. The evil Dr. Metz even contrives to invade the world of Doug's dreams by controlling his diet, and the ensuing nightmare is a surreal cinematic highlight, combining such techniques as slow motion, double-exposure, and the very same "wall-walking" stunt Fred Astaire would employ in Royal Wedding in 1951, performed more elaborately in this early rendition. The dream sequence begins inside Doug's body, where we witness a battle between the foodstuffs he's been eating at Metz' behest: an onion, a lobster, Welsh rarebit, a slice of mince pie, etc., each represented by actors dressed in the appropriate costume. They duke it out on a "stomach" stage set, an effect that is both bizarre and hilarious, and a throwback to the early cinematic style of Edwin S. Porter's Dream of a Rarebit Fiend, or the trick films of Georges Méliès. We're reminded of early cinema again later when our hero reaches a crisis and thinks he's finally lost his mind for real; the title card tells us that Doug's Reason is Tottering on Her Throne and his Sense of Humor has been defeated, while his mind is being assailed by Worry and Despair. This struggle is then enacted before our eyes by performers representing these traits, like some kind of Medieval morality pageant.
These quirky comic sequences are a real highlight, but meanwhile there's an earthbound plot involving Doug's relationship with a girl, his conflict with the girl's former suitor (a vulgar crook), and a scheme by the crook to defraud the girl's father. This story-line is more conventional, but greatly boosted by the surrounding craziness and further enhanced by a series of genuinely funny title cards that maintain just the right level of breezy insouciance. There's also a cute series of running gags concerning superstitions that both Doug and the girl believe in, not only still-familiar beliefs involving black cats, ladders, and the number 13, but also more obscure notions involving dropped knives and opal rings. The plot culminates in an impressive storm sequence combining miniature sets with large-scale action, all of which may remind buffs of the finale of Buster Keaton's classic Steamboat Bill, Jr. of 1928. Buster didn't use miniatures, but it looks like he and his crew might have borrowed a gag or two from Doug!
I was fortunate enough to see this film at a recent public screening at the Museum of the City of New York. There was much laughter throughout, and afterward a lot of people were saying "Why haven't I heard of this movie before?" Clearly, this is a silent comedy that deserves to be better known, a movie that cries out for full restoration, more public screenings, broadcasts on TCM and a DVD release.
P.S. December 2008: I'm pleased to add that this film is now available in the newly released Fairbanks DVD box set. Many thanks to the folks responsible!