It’s often lamented that only ten to twenty per cent of films made in the silent era still exist. So whenever a coveted film thought lost suddenly turns up, it’s just cause for celebration. But what of the many worthy films no one is looking for, their directors neglected, their stars forgotten, which may be sitting on a shelf in an archive, waiting to be shown? Given the sheer number of silent films produced – 10,000 features and 50,000 short films, conservatively speaking – one could theoretically see a silent film every day for thirty years without repetition. Of course, for many films just one viewing would suffice, but at the other end of the scale there are still wonderful rediscoveries; The Valley of the Giants is one of these, preserved by the UCLA Film & Television Archive from an original nitrate print in 1989.
Perhaps what’s most surprising about The Valley of the Giants is that it was ever forgotten at all. The inspiration for the novel by San Francisco author Peter B. Kyne was William Carson, a real 19th century lumber baron who lived in Humboldt County. The tale was first serialized by Red Book magazine in 1918, then published as a bestselling novel later that year. In 1919, James Cruze directed a successful adaptation for Paramount starring Wallace Reid and Grace Durmond. First National faithfully remade the story on the same locations among the redwoods of Humboldt County in 1927, with Charles Brabin as director and the popular team of Milton Sills and Doris Kenyon (Sills’s wife) in the lead roles. Further versions were filmed on location in 1938, with Wayne Morris, and in 1952, as The Big Trees, with Kirk Douglas. Despite its many revivals, the story has passed from public consciousness, and the first version starring Wallace Reid remains lost.
The path taken by the book and its many film adaptations–quick success, decades of popularity, then a fall into obscurity–reflects a similar journey taken by its author, Peter B. Kyne. He was born near Mission Dolores in 1880, grew up in San Mateo County, left school at 16 and got a job as a clerk in a general store. The following year he claimed he was 21 so he could join the Army, and he served in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War. On his return to San Francisco he became a bookkeeper for a lumber company, and was inspired to try his hand at writing after he read a Jack London story. The 1906 earthquake and fire ended his employment at the lumber company, and, after two failed business ventures, he caught pneumonia and almost died. While a convalescent, he wrote “A Little Matter of Salvage,” a short story that found publication in the September 25, 1909 issue of the Saturday Evening Post. His writing career took off.
His first contact with the movie industry came after publication of “The Three Godfathers” in the November 23, 1912 issue of the Saturday Evening Post, and it was not a pleasant experience; he sued the Biograph studio for unauthorized use of his story to make The Sheriff’s Baby (1913). “The Three Godfathers” would eventually serve as the basis of at least five credited films, one of which, William Wyler’s Hell’s Heroes (1930), was shown at The San Francisco Silent Film Festival in 2002. Kyne was prolific, turning out 25 novels and, by some estimates, more than1,000 short stories in his lifetime. His ability to produce work quickly can best be illustrated by an incident that occurred while he was writing The Valley of the Giants. He had just begun when America declaired entry into World War One. Given a commission as an artillery captain and ordered overseas, he decided to try and finish the entire book before departure. He succeeded, by producing 30,000 words in just two days. His stories were the basis for more than 100 movies from the teens to the thirties, but, following his last novel in 1942, his popularity declined. In the fifty years since his death in 1957, Kyne’s stories have been largely neglected and forgotten.
The film’s director Charles Brabin has fared no better than Kyne. If Brabin is known at all today it’s as the husband of legendary screen vamp Theda Bara. Born in Liverpool, England in 1882, he became a stage actor upon coming to America in 1900. His first film role was as Abraham Lincoln, in a film produced by the Edison studio, The Blue and the Gray (1908). He then graduated to stage manager, assisting the four Edison film directors, until he started directing in 1911. He made Edison’s first serial, What Happened to Mary? (1912), and after building his reputation for three years, he moved to the Essanay studio in Chicago to direct features, including The Raven (1915) starring Henry B. Walthall. He then worked at Vitagraph, Metro, Fox and Goldwyn before he was hired to direct the most ambitious production of the time, Ben-Hur. He spent a year in Italy working on the film, but he was replaced by Fred Niblo. Brabin was terribly disappointed by this defeat, but it didn’t ruin his career; he continued to work regularly and effectively. The Valley of the Giants was the third of four movies Brabin directed that starred Milton Sills, one after another in less than a year. Brabin continued to make films into the sound era, and the most famous of these is The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932). He retired in 1938, and outlived his famous wife by two years, dying in 1957.
Milton Sills, born in Chicago in 1882, was a philosophy student at the University of Chicago and he acted in amateur stage plays. He was discovered by a theatrical producer in 1905, and spent the better part of a decade on Broadway. He made his movie debut with a supporting role in The Pit (1914), but his breakthrough came with The Honor System (1917), directed by Raoul Walsh. Steady work as a leading man quickly followed. Sills was a forceful presence on the screen, and his public persona changed over time from sensitive portrayals in films like The Faith Healer (1921) and Miss Lulu Bett (1921) to strong “he-man” roles in The Spoilers (1923) and The Sea Hawk (1924). He made just four talkies, including The Barker (1928) and The Sea Wolf (1930), but the problem wasn’t the new sound technology. He had a fine voice; it was his heart that was failing. After a period of deteriorating health, a rest cure seemed to revive him. He wrote an article on motion picture acting for the 14th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and he was an active founder of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. But he died suddenly of a heart attack on September 15, 1930 at his home in Santa Barbara while playing tennis with his wife and frequent co-star Doris Kenyon. He was 48. His death was a front-page story across the nation and a shock to his many fans, who identified him with his strong and invincible on-screen image. An equally famous actor, Lon Chaney, had died just one month before, but while Chaney is still remembered and championed today, Sills, Brabin and Kyne are not. If we can see more films from their body of work as impressive as The Valley of the Giants, they may yet be back again.
Presented at SFSFF 2007 with live music by Stephen Horne