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“The Man with the Million Dollar Smile”: The Douglas MacLean Collection

Bell Boy (1923)

Bell Boy 13 (1923)

By Jeremy Carr.

Douglas MacLean is hardly a household name, even among those who consider themselves ardent enthusiasts of silent cinema. It’s little wonder, then, that prior to One a Minute (1921) and Bell Boy 13 (1923), the two films included in the Undercrank Productions DVD release of The Douglas MacLean Collection, introductory statements provide biographical background concerning this largely forgotten star. As the notes point out, MacLean entered the film business in 1914, going on to appear alongside the likes of Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford. He was eventually put under contract by Thomas H. Ince and as a leading man beginning 1919, he starred in ten films over the course of the next two years, giving him an on-screen presence that, for a time, rivaled that of more revered icons such as Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd.

In One a Minute, running 56 minutes, MacLean appears as Jimmy Knight, a recent law school graduate returning from New York City to his modest hometown of Centerville. He’s there to take over the failing drug store previously run by his late father. Upon his arrival, the locals proclaim their doubts about the young man, saying they knew he could never make it as a lawyer. The skepticism suits MacLean well, as it does the film at large, setting up the hapless dreamer as a charming underdog, something of a staple scenario for the era’s leading screen comedians. Briefly and futilely affecting success, Jimmy touts his admiration for Abraham Lincoln (whose profile makes a repeated appearance in the picture) and declares his desire to take on the domineering economic seizure of big business; in this case, the town’s comparatively sophisticated pharmaceutical rival. Of course, Jimmy has already fallen for Miriam Rogers (Marian De Beck), who just so happens to be the daughter of the modern chain’s scheming owner. In order to compete, Jimmy picks up his father’s goal of formulating a remedial panacea. He has a “eureka” moment, and much to everyone’s surprise, the resulting concoction of charcoal, ginger, pepsin, and clay actually works. Word of the discovery spreads remarkably quick and Jimmy fights to maintain the façade – the mixture, dubbed “Knight’s 99,” isn’t actually anything special and is more of a faith-based combination of naiveté and the P. T. Barnum dictum from which the film gets its name.

Bell Boy (1923)

Bell Boy (1923)

Directed by Jack Nelson, One a Minute is indicative of MacLean’s easy energy and naturally modest appeal. The film has an utterly wholesome storyline (including a biblical-based, self-conscious happy ending) and the star exudes clean-cut decency, idealism, and good-natured perseverance, traits likewise evinced in Bell Boy 13. Here, MacLean is Harry Elrod, heir to an uncle in charge of a firm dealing in stocks and bonds (a field, incidentally, MacLean also occupied at one point). Harry, though, is more concerned with dreams of marrying actress Kitty Clyde (Margaret Loomis), much to the chagrin of Uncle Ellrey (John Steppling), who would prefer a union between his nephew and the overbearing daughter of a more reputable doctor. But Kitty requires the uncle’s consent, and after her fiancé flees the firms and skips town, she is also adamant Jimmy takes a job – hence his new position as a hotel bell boy. “The Soup Thickens,” as a title card announces, and Uncle Ellrey himself arrives at the hotel. Between that, Jimmy’s unplanned political charge, and the recurrent company of an apparent thief, his sights set on bonds Jimmy managed to carry along with him, and a spiral of escalating mayhem ensues.

Through his passion for silent cinema and particularly those figures overlooked by conventional cinema history, historian and musician Ben Model has been instrumental in the recent release and subsequent appreciation of films like MacLean’s. A Kickstarter project funded by nearly 300 fans, produced in collaboration with the Library of Congress, these features were scanned and digitally restored at 2K resolution from archival prints made from elements in the library’s Thomas H. Ince Collection. With new scores by Model, One a Minute and Bell Boy 13 are, aside from the discovery of MacLean, notable for their illustrative title cards, often commenting graphically on the narrative or the dialogue, and each contain numerous moments of inspired humor: an excess of Chinese characters appear on screen as an Asian witness gives his testimony in One a Minute, his translator following up the surplus of script with a simple, “He said, yes”; and in Bell Boy 13, Kitty’s dog barks into the telephone’s mouthpiece, to which Harry unknowingly responds straight-faced, “Well, I don’t see how you can say that.” Perhaps owing to its more skillful director (William A. Seiter, relatively early in his prolific career), the 44-minute Bell Boy 13 contains more elaborate action than One a Minute, but with only mild mugging and occasional sight gags and stunts (Jimmy jumping and tumbling from a moving train, Harry escaping the doctor’s house by feigning a robbery and a fire), the films are together more reliant on an effective plot and the successive situational humor.

MacLean passed away July 9, 1967, at the age of 77. He had parted with Ince in 1923 and founded his own production company. In 1929, he was cast in his only “talkie” and soon thereafter retired from acting, though he still worked as a writer and producer into the 1930s. Often billed as “The Man with the Million Dollar Smile,” MacLean contributed to some of the Ince Corporation’s most admired releases, and that Ince connection is likely why this Undercrank collection also includes A Trip Through the World’s Greatest Motion Picture Studios (1920), a 23-minute short directed by Hunt Stromberg. Surveying Ince’s interconnected, vastly staffed production house (now the home of Amazon Studios), the fascinating documentary features, appropriately enough, MacLean himself as he comically races to the lot and is pulled over by a cop, only to discover the officer just wants a role. Model describes MacLean as “one of the comedians you went to see while waiting for Buster or Harold to come out with a new picture.” While that association aptly downplays MacLean’s prominence, the actor and these two representative films nevertheless prove resourcefully humorous; MacLean’s films weren’t box office success, according to the historical statements on the DVD, but they were “consistently profitable and well received.” Few of the 23 features he made from 1919-1927 survive, however, so although it’s hard to evaluate the overall quality of his efforts, One a Minute and Bell Boy 13 provide satisfactory glimpses of why he could claim such popularity.

Jeremy Carr teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, The Retro Set, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine and Fandor. His monograph on Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) is forthcoming with Auteur Publishing, and he is a contributor to the forthcoming collections David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation, from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, and ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May, from Edinburgh University Press.

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