A Racing Locomotive, a Town on Fire and Colleen Moore

The Ninety and Nine was one of a handful of stage properties that were very popular and which toured a lot in the early 1900s. Like a few other of its type — such as Ben Hur, East Lynne and a certain play by Thomas Dixon — it had a major chase and spectacle mounted on the stage, only this one had a locomotive instead of horses.

Finding out about this play was a rabbit hole I went down in preparing the home video edition of the motion picture that was made in 1922 and was based on the play. It was the third time the play had been turned into a movie. The film stars Warner Baxter and Colleen Moore, and was made at the tail end of the pre-flapper time when Moore made pictures like this, The Sky Pilot, and Little Orphant Annie. Bobbed hair and Flaming Youth would put Colleen on the map the following year, in 1923.

There are two editions of The Ninety and Nine that survive: a complete edition on 35mm nitrate with French titles, and this one…a 9.5mm edition that lasts a little less than 20 minutes.

Warner Baxter Colleen Moore
frame grab from the 9.5mm print of The Ninety and Nine (1922), with Warner Baxter and Colleen Moore

9.5mm film is a home movie format that was introduced initially in France in 1922, a year before 16mm unfurled in the U.S. Its perforations run down the center of the film between every frame. It’s kind of like taking 16mm and slicing off the sides, and the resulting image size is actually rather close to that of 16mm. In some ways, is possesses the image quality of 16mm with the compactness of 8mm. The format spread to other countries but didn’t take off here, as it didn’t get introduced in the states until 1925, but many silent films only survive overseas on 9.5mm 

It’s the format that got teenage Kevin Brownlow going on silent films and, in particular, on Abel Gance’s Napoleon.

The French nitrate print resides at George Eastman Museum, and a Colleen Moore historian I’m in touch with told me he’d inquired about viewing the print several years ago and was told it wasn’t in viewable shape. What we all can watch is the 2-reel abridgment that was released to the home market in England on 9.5mm.

The Ninety and Nine is one of the rare silent films on Accidentally Preserved: Volume 4, a DVD I released on my Undercrank Productions label a few years ago. The disc contains several gems that only survive on 9.5mm, and the prints for the DVD came from Dino Everett and the USC Hugh M. Hefner Moving Image Archive.

Robert Dudley has a supporting role in this 1922 Vitagraph feature. If he looks familiar, you may remember him from Preston Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story as “the wienie king”,

Why the rabbit hole? Well, the home movie print was a German edition, and between Google Translate’s near-pidgin English and the truncation of the picture’s seven reels,  the story was nearly incomprehensible. Well, to me, anyway. It was reviews and write-ups of the stage play that helped fill in plot lines and story gaps and aided me in creating new intertitles for the edition. I was also able to cobble together a story synopsis that I made into a title card that precedes the film on the DVD to aid the viewer in following the plot machinations that lead up to the barn-burner of a chase that climaxes the film.

Despite the plot-line hopping around quite a bit in the 2-reel cut-down, once the second half of it gets going it really picks up steam. Literally — as the film ends with a heroic rescue by Baxter piloting a locomotive to the town that’s on fire. Until a project is made of examining and scanning the nitrate at GEM, if it’s at least in scannable shape, this 9.5mm edition released as Through Fire will have to do.

Accidentally Preserved volume 4

Accidentally Preserved: Volume 4 is available on DVD on Amazon, the TCM Shop, DeepDiscount and many other online retailers in the US and worldwide.

Eric Grayson’s excellent restoration of Colleen Moore in Little Orphant Annie is available as a DVD/Blu-ray combo pack on Amazon. If you’ve seen the film before, you’ve seen it with sequences out of order, missing, and in lesser image quality. If you’re a Colleen Moore fan, Eric’s edition is the one you want on your shelf.

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