22 January 2005 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
Lunt and a runt.
'Backbone' is a turgid romance that ping-pongs back and forth between two different centuries, with the same romantic leads doubling in both periods. This sub-genre seemed to be fairly popular in silent days, another such example being the recently rediscovered Valentino film 'Beyond the Rocks'. The most notable aspect of 'Backbone' is the casting (in the two male leads) of Alfred Lunt, a major actor of the American stage who made few film appearances. But Lunt is not especially impressive here. One of Lunt's more distinctive traits on stage was his appealing habit of playing major scenes with his back to the audience, relying on his splendid voice and physique to convey emotion while his face was concealed. In silent films, Lunt did not have such an option.
This film takes place in deepest melodrama: to be specific, in the same moss-covered New England territory of 'Shore Acres' and 'Way Down East'. The villain here is evil real-estate speculator Anthony Bracken, who covets the timberland purchased by John Thorne. More than a century earlier, this land was owned by Frenchman Andre de Mersay. Thorne and de Mersay are both played by Lunt, even though the two men are not relations. Andre de Mersay as an older man is played by Emile La Croix, who doesn't remotely resemble an older version of Lunt.
Bland and unattractive Edith Roberts plays de Mersay's granddaughter and her modern counterpart, both named Yvonne. The action wavers unpleasantly between France's genteel yesteryear and modern Maine, without establishing any effective parallels between the two story-lines. The modern story features a grotesque supporting cast, including a sinister Chinese, a brutal Red Indian and a burly Irishman. The so-called comic relief is supplied by an hotel proprietor played by James Doyle, a stout carnival dwarf who performed under the stage name Major Doyle, following the nom-du-guerre tradition of such military midgets as General Tom Thumb and Commodore Nutt. In this movie, Major Doyle plays a man named Colonel Tip, thus giving himself a higher rank while maintaining his short stature.
SPOILERS COMING. Neither of the two centuries in this film contains an especially plausible story. The stodgy action is top-heavy with forged documents and other portentous props. De Mersay's dying words (via the inter-titles) are 'Tell Yvonne the tale of the dragon!' With utmost contrivance, this turns out to refer to a piece of Chinese panelling with an image of a dragon ... when a concealed stud in the dragon's tail is pressed, this opens a secret compartment containing McGuffin papers. All of this is made even more contrived by the unlikelihood that a Frenchman would make the 'tale/tail' pun, which only works in English. Actually, the French for 'tale' is 'conte', which could pun with a certain French word that rhymes with 'Lunt'.
The photography is excellent, but this film is so unbelievable (and so badly paced) that I'm tempted to rate it zero points. Still, film footage of Alfred Lunt is so rare that I'll rate this film one point in ten for his presence in two badly-written roles.