Universal Pictures was the sausage factory of Hollywood, churning out westerns and melodramas for rural audiences in the Midwest. But once in a while, they came out with a Special—they called them Universal-Jewels. Clarence Brown made three of the best, Smouldering Fires, The Goose Woman, and The Signal Tower.
The Signal Tower was a railroad drama made by a man who loved railroads. A former auto engineer and future director of Greta Garbo, Clarence Brown had been assistant to the great pictorialist, Maurice Tourneur, and he displays in this film a similar feeling for light, composition, and atmosphere. He had a stronger sense of drama than his mentor, and this story of a tower signalman and his family on a lonely mountain railroad is a model of rising dramatic intensity.
Joe Standish (Wallace Beery) is sent as relief man on the midnight shift and Dave Taylor (Rockcliffe Fellowes) takes him in as boarder, despite the misgivings of his wife, Sally (Virginia Valli). A storm breaks out, Standish becomes drunk and, taking advantage of Taylor’s desperation as he deals with a runaway freight train, he makes advances to Taylor’s wife …
In her outstanding new biography of Clarence Brown, Gwenda Young writes: “Perhaps for the first time in his early career, Brown was genuinely fired up by the prospect of working with a beautiful cast—in this case of both the human and the locomotive variety. Growing up close to the railroad in Knoxville, Tennessee, Brown had a nostalgic affection for trains, while the engineer in him appreciated their efficiency and the sleekness and majesty of their design.”
Young considers this also the first film by Brown in which “a complicated woman is put center stage.” She goes on to explain how he enriched the story through character development: “his sensitive handling of Virginia Valli allowed her to transform the paper-thin character of [Wadsworth] Camp’s story into a rounded protagonist that views Joe with both fear and desire. The cat and mouse game that slowly unfolds also gives Wallace Beery space to add layers of warmth, humor, and disturbing undertones to Camp’s more unambiguous villain. In early scenes he spends most of his time with Sonny [Frankie Darro], charming him with magic tricks and winning him over with friendly attention, but even then the audience has niggling doubts as to his motives. And it soon becomes clear that this is part of Joe’s campaign to possess everything David holds dear: his wife, his son, and his identity as the family patriarch.”
Virginia Valli—real name McSweeney—was a former stenographer. Born in Chicago, she was a Ziegfeld graduate who won fame for her roles in Universal’s The Storm (1922) and A Lady of Quality (1924). She played with Hope Hampton in one of the few films directed by actor John Gilbert, Love’s Penalty (1922). She worked in England for Hitchcock in The Pleasure Garden (1925) and with Howard Hawks in Paid to Love (1927). She married Charles Farrell, who starred in 7th Heaven (1927), and retired from the screen in 1931.
Virtually unknown and unseen these days, Rockcliffe Fellowes often played villains—lovable villains. Born in Canada, he was known as one of the wittiest men in Hollywood and acted in the films of two of the others, Marshall Neilan and Raoul Walsh. He debuted in the movies as the lead in Walsh’s 1915 gangster picture Regeneration.
Frankie Darro started in pictures at the age of six with Judgment of the Storm (1924) and had supporting roles in Clarence Brown’s Flesh and the Devil (1926) and Kiki (1926). In 1925 he appeared in no less than ten pictures. He took the title role in Little Mickey Grogan in 1927 and played tough kids in talkies like Public Enemy (1931) and Wild Boys of the Road (1933). He ended his career doing stunt work and bit parts.
Wallace Beery began in circuses and became a Mack Sennett comedian, famous for being the first of Gloria Swanson’s six husbands. He excelled at playing hateful Huns in World War I pictures. When he worked for Tourneur and Brown, he specialized in lovable slobs. While first-class in all his pictures, he proved himself a great actor in King Vidor’s The Champ (1931), for which he won an Oscar.
Back in 1916, Clarence Brown had worked on a picture called The Rail Rider for Tourneur. He handled most of Tourneur’s exteriors—which Tourneur disliked shooting—and that picture was nearly all exteriors, depicting how a locomotive crew battled through floodwaters. I have seen the one surviving reel and it is very promising. But while the film got wonderful reviews in its day, the rest of it is lost.
In 1965, Brown described to me how he made The Signal Tower: “We took over a railroad in northern California and worked among the big trees for six weeks. Ben Reynolds was my cameraman. [He had recently photographed Greed for von Stroheim.] We used to get up at 5 a.m. and shoot the locomotive climbing the gradient, with the sun coming up and the steam mingling with the trees. It was just beautiful. We made everything on location, even the interiors of the signal tower, which I had built at a switch track. When it got too bright outside we fitted amber glass in the windows to balance the exposure.
“The whole railroad was ours. They had one train a day. Once we let that through, it was our set. I had a terrific wreck in the picture, when the train broke loose at the top of the mountain and came down wide open.”
The photograph of Gertie’s boyfriend shown in the film is actually of Brown’s resourceful assistant director, Charles Dorian, who had been with him since his first feature in 1919.
In a Letter from Location from Picture-Play magazine’s May 1924 issue, Virginia Valli evokes the atmosphere up in Mendocino County well: “I guess I’m ‘farthest North’ as they say in books; just about as deep into the wilds of Northern California as any picture player has ever ventured. It’s beautiful; great redwoods, the bluest sky I have ever seen and brown and yellow maple leaves lending a dash of color to the deep green of the firs. It’s so beautiful it’s actually awe-inspiring.”
The intertitles are cleverly illustrated with a railroad signal. At key moments in the developing drama the signal moves from Safety to Warning and then Danger.
“The Signal Tower was the first of Brown’s more personal films,” writes Gwenda Young, “And just as Hitchcock was apt to do, Brown elected to step in front of the camera, appearing onscreen as the ineffectual switchman who fails to stop the runaway train (he also ‘appears’ as the unseen ‘Conductor Brown,’ the addressee of a telegram).”
Unusually for a Hollywood release, The Signal Tower had its world premiere in London. Normally, the British got their American films a year late. Variety reported, “it was a particularly fine example of the American genius for taking an ordinary story, with scarcely a new angle in its triangle theme, and building the thin fabric without losing interest until a crashing sensation sends the audience out to talk of the new kinematographic wonder. The author has made romance out of the somewhat sombre lives of what, in England, is somewhat snobbishly called ‘the working class.’ An English producer would be almost shocked if asked to find romance in the life of a traction engine driver. He can only find beauty or heroism in the higher ranks of life.”
No 35mm copy of The Signal Tower is known to survive and the film has been restored from an original copy made for Universal’s Show-at-Home library. We owe the survival of that print to the late Eric Sparks, an English enthusiast for both railroads and silent film, who had the sense to buy such rare titles when they first appeared on 16mm.
Photoplay magazine chose the film as one of the six best of the month for August 1924: “This tale might easily be trite melodrama. In the hands of Director Clarence Brown, it becomes a compelling story … The director has touched upon the home life of a young towerman and his wife with keen insight.” Moving Picture World might have done something for the film’s box office chances by claiming that Clara Bow was in it.
Remember that the film was made during Prohibition, so the liquid that drains from Joe Standish’s suitcase would have represented a tragic loss!
Presented at SFSFF 2019 with live music by Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius