Hail the humble programmer. Although sometimes denigrated as “the Bs” for their minimal production values, B- and C-list casts, and often far-fetched plots, programmers were a vital and ubiquitous feature of the American motion picture business from its early days through the 1950s. Programmers, which usually ran less than sixty minutes, cost less to make thus providing a fairly quick, economical source of revenue for major studios and a point of entry for cash-strapped independent producers.
Man and Wife was a programmer that was the first and presumably only film made by Effanem Productions, one of the independent production companies that came and went in the early days of the American film industry. A complete tinted and toned nitrate print had been in the UCLA Film and Television Archive for decades. Preservationists, concerned about deterioration caused by toning, a chemical process that replaces silver in the images with colored silver salts, and the fact that the print was the only one known to exist prompted the archive to give this orphan programmer a digital restoration.
As with many films of the time, Man and Wife juxtaposes healthy, wholesome life in the country with urban immorality, albeit with a light touch. Dolly and Dora Perkins (Gladys Leslie and Norma Shearer) are sisters who live with their parents (Maurice Costello and Edna May Spooner) on a farm. Dolly is sunny contentment itself, but Dora is restless. She leaves to make her way in the big city, where she meets and marries Dr. Howard Fleming (Robert Elliott). Despite her love for him, Dora is enticed to abscond with her husband’s caddish friend (Ernest Hilliard) when Fleming goes on an extended business trip to Florida without her. Soon, he receives reports that Dora has died in a hotel fire. The grieving widower repairs to the country, where he meets and falls in love with Dolly. Neither knows of their respective connections to Dora, and when she resurfaces, now hopelessly insane, the happy couple has some difficult choices to make.
The film’s lurid-sounding plot made some critics cringe. Exhibitors Trade Review said the film “sacrificed logic to [a] thirst for sensation,” and Laurence Reid of Motion Picture News said that the writer’s imagination was allowed “to run riot in fashioning a ‘punchy’ melodrama.”
Other reviewers were generally kind to Man and Wife. Variety called it “a wild tale, wildly done,” and Motion Picture World characterized it as “not a big picture, but it is honest to goodness entertainment.” It’s easy to see why.
Effanem hired well-regarded actors and a prominent director, John L. McCutcheon, who was able to bring out the best in them. In addition, the film’s writer, Leota Morgan, had a knack for domestic melodramas and the experience gained from working with prolific producer/director Burton L. King in the early 1920s to give substance to the film’s melodramatic structure.
Diminutive Gladys Leslie, an ingenue fashioned in striking resemblance to Mary Pickford, earned her starring roles at the Thanhouser production company after the New York Herald dubbed her “The Girl with a Million Dollar Smile.” She was wooed away by Vitagraph and became a major boxoffice draw for that and other studios from 1917 through the early 1920s. Her performance in Man and Wife avoids cloying sweetness. She genuinely loves her sister and delicately supports her husband, who struggles to do the right thing when Dora returns. Similarly, Robert Elliott, who acted well into the 1940s, impresses with his sincerity. In a scene in which his character conjures Dora’s image in his mind, Elliott shows the depth of his loss.
Rejected in her 1919 and 1920 Ziegfeld Follies auditions, Norma Shearer started her show business career in the movies, mainly in uncredited and bit parts. In her substantive supporting role in Man and Wife, we see a distinguished acting career in the making. Shearer gets at the underlying restlessness of her character, making her break from her family’s rural life believable. Even in later scenes, when she must approximate near-catatonic madness, we feel her suffering and sympathize with her despite the predicament she brought on herself. Her performance led Variety to single her out as “a screen possibility” in its review of the film.
Maurice Costello, a vaudevillian whose side hustle was film acting, became a familiar star to moviegoers. His portrayal of main protagonist Sydney Carton in Vitagraph’s three-reel A Tale of Two Cities (1911) put him on the map. He became box-office poison after news broke that he beat his wife, but he continued to act in supporting and uncredited film roles and appeared in a total of 294 films by the time of his retirement in 1945, five years before his death. Additionally, he spawned something of a film-acting dynasty. When Costello was cast as Lysander in Vitagraph’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1909), he brought his daughters, three-year-old Helene and six-year-old Dolores, along for their screen debuts as fairies.
A word needs to be said about Fort Lee, New Jersey, where Man and Wife was filmed. This “Hollywood on the Hudson” was launched as the center of American filmmaking in 1909, when Mark M. Dintenfass established the Champion Film Company, the first permanent production studio in the area. In 1912, Champion merged with Carl Laemmle’s Independent Moving Pictures and several other production companies to form what became Universal Pictures, with Laemmle as its president. Until the inviting weather and cheap real estate of Southern California caused a film studio exodus, seventeen studios, including Metro Pictures, Selznick Pictures, and the William Fox Film Corporation, made Fort Lee their home. Films ranging from shorts to epics were churned out by the thousands; D.W. Griffith alone made one hundred films in New Jersey.
The choice of location was logical. Inventor and motion picture pioneer Thomas Edison had opened his Black Maria studio in West Orange in 1893. The area’s varied terrain created opportunities for exciting river scenes, cliff sequences on the Palisades, and pastoral idylls of the type that helped Man and Wife’s Dr. Fleming recover from his grief. Perhaps most important, Fort Lee offered ready access to top-flight acting talent from the New York stage.
Robert Elliott, for example, moved freely between the stage and screen. Active in movies beginning in 1916, he originated the part of Sergeant O’Hara opposite Jeanne Eagels in the 1922 theater production Rain, based on Somerset Maugham’s short story “Miss Thompson.” In addition to Maurice Costello, Man and Wife tapped the talents of another vaudevillian, Edna May Spooner, for her first and only screen appearance. Spooner toured the United States with the well-known Spooner Stock Company and acted at the Bijou Theatre in Brooklyn, New York, which she, her mother, and her sister leased and ran for several years.
One final connection between the stage, screen, and the Fort Lee of yesterday and today concerns Costello’s daughter, Dolores. She became the third wife of legendary stage and screen star John Barrymore, who performed for the first time in 1900 on a platform stage in the New Jersey town’s Main Street. The Barrymore Film Center, which opened in Fort Lee in 2022, pays tribute not only to this famous family and their local roots, but also to Fort Lee as the birthplace of the U.S. film industry.
Presented at SFSFF 2023 with live musical accompaniment by Wayne Barker
Preceded by the short film THE GREAT LOVE OF A LITTLE DANCER (DIE GROSSE LIEBE EINER KLEINEN TÄNZERIN), Germany, 1924, written and directed by Alfred Zeisler and Viktor Abel.
With live musical accompaniment by William Lewis