Herbert Brenon is among the first great names behind the camera, a gifted director once spoken of alongside Cecil B. DeMille and D.W. Griffith. He is also among the early directors who can be considered an auteur, as he controlled many of the creative and technical components in crafting his pictures. Not only did Brenon direct more than one hundred films between 1912 and 1940, he also acted in them, closely oversaw the cinematography, and was their sometime scenario writer and sometime editor.
Despite a tendency toward fantasy, romance, and spectacle, Brenon’s films were notable for their restrained sentiment and literary values. They are especially strong in the richness of their characters, enhanced by the affecting performances that he was able to draw from both established actors and newcomers alike. In his day, Brenon was rightly acclaimed as a “director of actors.”
Brenon began as an actor and scriptwriter and even managed a small-town nickelodeon for a time. He directed his first film, a one-reeler, in 1911. In 1913 he directed the lavish four-reel Ivanhoe and the acclaimed two-reel Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He followed these with the seven-reel Neptune’s Daughter (1914), a fantasy that shattered attendance records of the time. In 1915, he directed Theda Bara in four features, including Sin and Kreutzer Sonata. A year later, Brenon made War Brides, which marked the screen debut of theater great Alla Nazimova.
In the mid-1920s, Brenon hit his stride. The Spanish Dancer (1923), starring Pola Negri, still stands out. As do two films most characteristic of the “Brenon style”—elaborate adaptions of two J.M. Barrie fantasies, Peter Pan (1924) and A Kiss for Cinderella (1925). Each were hugely popular. However, Brenon’s greatest triumph was the dramatic Beau Geste (1926), starring Ronald Colman. It won the Photoplay Medal of Honor, one of the industry’s first awards recognizing the best picture of the year. Brenon made two more big pictures that same year: Dancing Mothers, with Alice Joyce and Clara Bow, and The Great Gatsby, the first adaption of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s era-defining novel of the Jazz Age (now lost). Brenon’s Sorrell and Son (1927) earned him a Best Director nomination at the first Academy Awards. His widely acclaimed Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928), starring box-office favorite Lon Chaney, was his last silent release and is still screened today.
Brenon’s The Street of Forgotten Men is a melodrama covered in grit. Though little known by modern audiences, the film was well regarded upon its release in 1925. The National Board of Review named it one of the best pictures of the year, as did various newspapers, including the San Francisco Call and Post. Exhibitor’s Trade Review reported that it was tied for fifth among the year’s biggest moneymakers. In review after review, its director was praised for his realistic depiction of slum life, while leading man Percy Marmont’s performance was repeatedly compared to Lon Chaney’s star turn in The Miracle Man (1919).
Today, the film’s obscurity likely stems from having been released between the two crowd-pleasing films for which Brenon remains best known, Peter Pan and A Kiss for Cinderella. Who wants dross when you can have glitter? The film’s obscurity is also explained by it having been long out of circulation, and even thought lost, until 1970 when six of its seven reels were acquired by the Library of Congress.
Based on an O. Henry-esque short story, The Street of Forgotten Men is an underworld romance set in New York’s seedy Bowery district. Described at the time as “strange and startling” and “a drama of places and of people you have never seen before,” the film tells the story of a gang of fake beggars whose headquarters is known as a “cripple factory.” Led by the colorfully named Easy Money Charlie (Marmont), the gang preys on public sympathy by feigning disfiguring disabilities. The Street of Forgotten Men also tells the story of Mary Vanhern, played by winsome Mary Brian, whose link to these con artists is revealed while she’s being courted by a young millionaire played by handsome Neil Hamilton (Batman’s Commissioner Gordon from the 1960s television series).
In its review, New York’s Daily News said, “The Street of Forgotten Men dips into the dark pools of life. It shows you the beggars of life—apologies to Jim Tully–and in showing them, it shows them up.” The San Francisco Bulletin noted, “For fine dramatic detail, for unusualness, for giving us a glimpse into a world we never see and into the other sides of characters we simply pass in pity on the streets, The Street of Forgotten Men is a photoplay revelation.”
Though the film is a sepia-toned look back at the Bowery of the 1890s, the New York Times ran a story in 1926 that the film may have inspired an actual group of fake beggars. “The police are investigating the speakeasy. It was recalled that several months ago a motion picture, The Street of Forgotten Men … showed just such an establishment for equipping ‘cripples’ … and the police thought the movie idea might have been put to practical use.”
Its occasional outré subject matter aside, there is much to recommend in The Street of Forgotten Men. Notably, parts of the film were shot on location in New York City. One memorable scene—when Marmont and Brian’s characters come across Bridgeport White-Eye (John Harrington)—was filmed on a busy Fifth Avenue near Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. Shot with a concealed camera, these striking images of crowds passing on the street unaware (don’t miss the vegetarian restaurant) are a vital part of the film’s appeal.
Two performers not listed in the title credits also made their mark. One was a dog named Lassie. (This bull terrier-cocker spaniel mix predated the more famous collie.) A 1927 New York Times article about the canine reads, “It is said that the death of Lassie in The Street of Forgotten Men was so impressive that persons were convinced that she must have been cruelly beaten. Her master, Emery Bronte, said that the dog seemed to enjoy acting in the scenes, and that after each ‘take’ she went over to Mr. Brenon and cocked her head on the side, as if asking for a pat or two.” Regrettably, Lassie’s dramatic death is among the lost footage.
Another performer who made an impression was Louise Brooks. She was dancing with the Ziegfeld Follies at the time and this bit-part is her cinematic debut. Her role as a moll is slight—she appears on screen for less than five minutes—but it drew the attention of a Los Angeles Times reviewer who mentions her, “And there was a little rowdy, obviously attached to the ‘blind’ man, who did some vital work during her few short scenes. She was not listed.” These two sentences mark Brooks’s first “movie review.”
The Street of Forgotten Men is a characteristic entry in the Brenon canon, full of memorable characters and rich in detail, some of it self-referential, as when Mary Brian is seen playing the piano using sheet music from Peter Pan. Even missing its second reel, The Street of Forgotten Men remains a notable period piece, a testament to one of the great early directors.
Presented at SFSFF 2022 with live musical accompaniment by Donald Sosin