A well-produced spy-fi melodrama of the serial mold, this 1916 silent scripted by pioneer Julia Crawford Ivers may be the earliest preserved American science fiction feature film. Frank Lloyd’s nifty directorial touches add to its appeal. 6/10
The Intrigue. 1916, USA. Directed by Frank Lloyd. Written by Julia Crawford Ivers. Starring: Lenore Ulric, Cecil van Auker, Howard Davies, Florence Vidor, King Vidor. Produced for Pallas Pictures. IMDb: 6.6/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
What with the popularity of the early films serials like The Exploits of Elaine and The Perils of Pauline, it should come as no surprise that the first feature films made in the US that toyed with SF were crime and spy melodramas with gizmo MacGuffins. Having purchased Phil Hardy’s Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Movies (1985), I have now been unable to unearth what was probably the very first American feature SF movie: Maurice Tourneur’s The Hand of Peril (1916), which Hardy describes as “similar to that of the many scientific detectives of the time”. The story follows a government agent called Kestner, who employs a number of SF gadgets, “including an X-ray device that makes walls transparent”. Unfortunately, this film does not seem to have ever been made available for home viewing.
Instead, we are looking at another American film from 1916, The Intrigue, which is … intriguing in a number of ways, not least because it was written by Julia Crawford Ivers, a female Hollywood pioneer, and directed by double Oscar winner Frank Lloyd.
Set during the raging WWI, the film follows American inventor Guy Longstreet (Cecil Van Auker) who invents an X-ray cannon, which can kill anything and everything at a distance over 25 miles. However, the US government is not interested in buying the device, so Longstreet enters the international arms trade, and takes a ship to Europe in order to see if some warring nation wouldn’t be interested in buying his patent. Here he meets with a Baron Rogniat (Howard Davies) from an unspecified European country, who shows great interest in his invention, and agrees to sail back with him to the US to finalise the deal. However, spies from another unspecified European country catch wind of the deal, and its king (Herbert Standing) decides to send their best agent on the same boat. The plan is that well back on US soil, the spy will then steal the secrets of the X-ray gun. And the very best spy on hand is none other than the film’s star, Countess Sonia Varnli, played by Broadway and silent film star Lenore Ulric (here still credited with her full last name, Ulrich). We have seen the Countess in the film’s impressive opening, volunteering as a Red Cross nurse at an army hospital on the frontline of the war, so we already know she is both fearless and has her heart in the right place.
However, anticipating that Baron Rogniat’s spies will have caught wind of the operation, the Countess Varnli pulls a Queen Padme, and instructs her handmaid (Florence Vidor) to pose as Countess Varnli during her trip, while Sonia herself will take her place aboard the ship as a poor peasant girl, hoping to gain access to the Baron’s household as a maid. And as she predicts, Baron Rogniat immediately puts one of his spies on the fake Countess. During the trip, both the Baron and Dr. Longstreet take notice of the feisty, beautiful peasant girl on board, and just as Varnli had hoped, the Baron asks her to enter into service in his household, while she and Longstreet start to develop feelings for each other. All the while, the fake Countess takes up residence at a hotel, keeping Rogniat’s spy busy. Sonia soon learns that Baron Rogniat is afraid that Longstreet might sell the secret of the X-ray gun on after selling them to the Baron, and in order to prevent this, plans to have two thugs kill him after he has handed over the patent. Sonia warns Longstreet, and together they capture Baron Rogniat and escape the thugs. Back at Longstreet’s lab, the Countess asks Lonstreet to prove his love to her by destroying the machine, so that it may not cause death and destruction for mankind. Only after he has done this, does she reveal herself to be not just a peasant girl, but a Countess. And they lived happily ever after.
The Intrigue was produced by the short-lived Pallas Pictures, which became a subsidiary of Famous Players-Lasky the same year, and distributed by Paramount. In 1916, the heart of movie production in the US was beginning to relocate from New York and New Jersey to the newly founded Hollywood, away from the monopoly of Edison on the East Coast. TheIntrigue was the brainchild of Los Angeles-born Julia Crawford Ivers, a publicity-shy but versatile filmmaker and writer in the early days of Hollywood, best known as the frequent collaborator of director William Desmond Taylor, who was murdered in 1922. Director Frank Lloyd would later become a legend by being nominated for three Oscars at the same time in 1929, but in 1916 he was still a young up-and-comer.
The Great War itself merely serves as a backdrop to what is at heart a rather standard, lighthearted espionage melodrama. We do see the X-ray gun in action during a demonstration, the total death toll being one sheep and a crate of explosives. After this initial proof of concept, it serves merely as a MacGuffin. 30-year-old director Frank Lloyd had around a dozen minor features and many shorts behind him as a director, and here he is still clearly honing his talents. This said, the movie has a sure-footed direction, even if it is mostly shot rather flatly. There are a few impressive shots in the beginning of the film, depicting the war from the point of view of the trenches and the field hospital. One scene in particular is quite clever, showing the Countess working at the hospital, with a view of soldiers running and explosives going off, seen through a hole in the wall. This is just one of a handful of small matte tricks that the film offers up. Another one is the viewfinder of the X-ray gun, which seems to work much like one of those flip-out view screens on modern DSLR cameras. One scene also has Longstreet contemplating his future choices — seeing before him the characters involved in these decisions as miniature people on a table. These cleanly executed trick shots were probably designed by cinematographer James Van Trees, who also happened to be Crawford Ivers’ son.
As I have stated elsewhere on this blog, so-called death rays, in one form or another, were extremely popular devices in films from 1914 onward to the late 20’s. Of course, these featured heavily in later spy-fi and SF fare much later than this, but one could, if one wanted, pin down 1914 to 1925 as the Golden Age of the movie death ray. For a lengthy exposition on the real life “death rays” and fictional precursors that spawned this craze, please check out my classic post on the early death ray serials. For the first wave of the trope, the inspiration was an Italian inventor called Giulio Ulivi. On the eve of WWI Ulivi claimed he could remote-detonate gunpowder and explosives from several miles away with the aid of “F-rays”, or infrared rays. He did a number of successful demonstrations and initially had some scientists, politicians, military leaders and not least the media convinced, at least for a time. He actually did succeed in “remotely” detonating a number of submarine mines in demonstrations for the French army. However, the potential buyers of his death ray grew suspicious when Ulivi was unable to answer technical questions on how the machine worked, and gave several answers that contradicted basic scientific knowledge. In addition, Ulivi was unwilling to participate in test where he couldn’t supply his own explosives. After some discussion, he finally agreed to undertake a demonstration controlled by the French army, who unfortunately lost interest after Ulivi’s machine “broke down” own three consecutive days. Later it was speculated that Ulivi had performed his “successful” demonstration by drilling holes in the mines, and stuffing them first with magnesium and then with cotton. When the water hit the magnesium it would ignite, setting off the mine. The cotton would act as a fuse, and by careful preparations, Ulivi could calculate exactly when each mine would go off, pointing his “death ray” in the right direction. Whatever the case, the claims of Ulivi and other speculations involving X-rays, radiowaves, etc, provided ample fodder for sensationalist newspapers at the time, and featured heavily in pulp fiction and film serials of the era.
Politically, the film ultimately makes a pacifist plea, even if it otherwise stays clear of any comments that might be seen as partial to any of the actors taking part (or indeed, not taking part) in the world war. Both European countries are “fictional”, even if someone has identified the Baron’s uniform as vaguely Germanic-looking. In 1916, the US had not yet joined the fray, and the film carefully avoids making points for or against this neutrality, even if the ending might be seen as a plea for staying out of the war. Such was the film industry’s nervousness about the political nature of the war, that press clippings even refrained from printing the word “war” in presenting the film, for example The Moving Picture World simply noted that the film portrayed “a delicate treatment of a difficult subject”, according to Steve Carper at the website Flying Cars and Food Pills.
The acting is good across the board. Of course, the spotlight is on Lenore Ulric, the young Broadway diva who made a short but well-publicised splash in the movies in 1915-1917. Ulric is a magnetic performer with her expressive face and giant headlights for eyes. Ulric seems to be revelling in her role as the mischievous peasant girl, just as the Countess herself would have. Conversely, she is somewhat stiff in her “real” character. Ulric has a tendency to let her stage training shine through, and she has a couple of hand-to-forehead moments, which sit ill in the otherwise naturalistic style of the film, but these are few enough as not to detract from the film or her overall performance. Cecil Van Auker is a bit bland as the inventor, but good-looking and sincere enough to make it work. Howard Davies wears his evil mustache well as the Baron. Florence Vidor, or Mrs. King Vidor, is underused as the faux Countess.
Jolo in Variety gave the film a very positive review upon release: “Pallas has produced an extremely clever comedy drama […]. Not only is the basic idea a consistently clever melodrama of foreign diplomacy and intrigue, but it is very well acted and produced with an unwonted lavishness without any strong bid for spectacular sensationalism.” However, Lenore Ulric’s lack of brassiere was a bit too much for the critic: “Miss Ulrich has never appeared to better advantage, barring a tendency to permit her physical amplitude cavort unrestrainedly.”
The film is not a modern audience favourite, albeit it has a 6.6/10 audience rating on IMDb, however this is based, at writing, on only 23 votes. It does have a number of modern reviews online, though, owing to a 2020 Kino Lorber Blu-ray release of The Intrigue and two other Ivers films. Tyler Foster at DVD Talk gives The Intrigue a glowing 4.5/5 star review: “the movie has the pacing and clarity of vision that feels as if it comes from an editor’s brain”, writes Foster, noting that Julia Crawford Ivers worked not only as a director, but also as an editor. He continues: “That said, the most valuable element in The Intrigue is definitely Ulric herself, who is a charming screen presence, conveying plenty of energy and charisma even without the use of sound. […] The Intrigue doesn’t necessarily offer much in the way of subtext for a modern viewer to unpack, and yet that underlines the meat-and-potatoes nature of the film’s entertainment value. The same sorts of style, suspense, and wish-fulfillment fantasy that a James Bond movie captures is also captured here.”
All are not as sold on the picture. Dave Becker at the 2,500 Movies Challenge gives it 5/10 stars: “This 1916 spy thriller features a nifty premise, but only a so-so execution.” Steve Joyce writes: ” I […] asked myself whether the movie should have been made shorter (to just tell the story, simplistic as it was) or longer (to include some, well, … action).” And Steve Carper writes: “The Intrigue may have been an unimaginative mess, but it perfectly caught the sweet spot of audience expectations”.
The Intrigue moves along at a decent pace, is well acted and cleanly shot with a few clever directorial flourishes. This said, it is a rather flatly photographed film that offers little more than a standard serial plot condensed into just over one hour. This was high entertainment for the masses in 1916, with the added benefit of Lenore Ulric’s “unrestrainedly cavorting physical amplitude” and indeed her charismatic acting. The script is a mature and well-crafted one, which gives the centre stage to a female heroine, as did so many serials of the day (today we act as if “strong females” in leading roles is a new invention, when the fact is that Hollywood simply forgot about them for decades).
Surprisingly little has been written about Hollywood pioneer Julia Crawford Ivers, one of the top screenwriters and indeed a respected producer and director of the early years of Hollywood. Born in Boonville, Missouri, to a well-to-do family with a dentist father in 1869, Ivers arrived in Los Angeles in 1870 with her family. Her mother died when she was seven. She watched the small outpost suddenly grow into a movie emporium, or rather, she was one of the people who built the new industry that became known as Hollywood. Hans Wollstein at Rovi calls her a “mystery woman who left no photographs of her likeness nor any published interviews”, although this is not quite the case, as proven by April Miller’s exposé on Ivers at Columbia University’s Women Film Pioneers Project (now available only through the Internet Wayback Machine). Miller has been able to dig up at least two interviews as well as a photograph of Ivers. However, a lack of written sources do add partly to the mystery of her life and partly to the unreliability of her record as a filmmaker.
IMDb givs Ivers 50 writing credits, 6 producer credits and 4 director credits, although all lists may have been considerably longer. Her first credited screen story is assigned at 1915, but according to her own words, she began writing screenplays uncredited for Pallas Pictures earlier than that. Her introduction to the movie business probably came from her wealthy second husband Oliver Ivers, who died in 1902, two years after their marriage. Ivers was in business with Frank A. Garbutt, the founder of Pallas Pictures. Exactly when and for which company Ivers first did “almost everything around a studio but sweep the floor”, according to an interview quoted by Miller, is difficult to work out, partly due to the many mergers in the studio system in the early days of the movie business. But whether it was Pallas, Bosworth Inc. or Morosco Photoplay, her boss was Frank A. Garbutt, who in 1913 took control of all three companies, which soon merged with Famous Players-Lasky, and ultimately became part of Paramount. Miller writes: At the time of her death, the Los Angeles Times reported that Ivers entered the film industry in 1913 when she began collaborating with Frank A. Garbutt. At that time, Garbutt was working with the Oliver Morosco Photoplay Company, which produced films for release under then-distribution company Paramount Pictures Corporation.” How she came to be a film scenarist, however, we have no indication of.
In any case, Julia Crawford Ivers was a pioneering female filmmaker — although not, as stated in some sources, the first woman in any capacity in Hollywood, beside perhaps the first female head of production, in which capacity she worked at Famous Players-Lasky at one point. Miller’s exposé paints a picture as a publicity-shy but extremely independent and headstrong producer, director and writer. Miller writes: “An interview conducted by the Honolulu Star-Bulletin while Ivers was shooting The White Flower (1923), the last film she would direct, reveals both her fierce independence as a writer and director and her willingness to defer to all-powerful producer Jesse Lasky. “I wrote the story… with a genuine love and affection for the islands, and will produce it in the same way. No ‘roughneck’ of a director will have a chance to squeeze the fragrance out of the plot, for I am going to direct the action myself,” she says.” Reportedly, her clashes with the studio over her her artistic freedom played into her decision to leave her post at the company in 1923.
Prior to the renewed interest in Ivers’ output as a director, she was mainly known for her long collaboration as scenarist for actor-director William Desmond Taylor, best known for being murdered under unclear circumstances in 1922. Taylor’s best known films are probably the Dustin Farnum-starred Davy Crocket (1916) and the Ivers-penned 1920 adaptation of Huckleberry Finn. Taylor was found dead from a gunshot wound on the floor of his bungalow in 1922, and because of crime scene tampering and wild concoctions in the Hollywood press that sent the police on a number of wild goose chases, the case was never solved. At one point Ivers was considered a suspect, after a made-up claim in the press that she was in love with Farnum and had killed him out of jealousy. After directing The White Flower, Ivers wrote at least two more scenarios before retiring from filmmaking she passed away in 1930.
Somewhat ironically, Ivers’ best remembered directorial effort is one she did not get credit for, The Call of the Cumberlands (1916), which is believed to be directed by Ivers, but is sometimes ascribed to Frank Lloyd. This does raise the question of how much of the directorial work Ivers did do on some of her early collaborations with Lloyd, including The Intrigue. However, Lloyd did mature into his talents, becoming one of Hollywood’s most acclaimed directors of the late 20’s and 30’s. Scottish-born Lloyd achieved legendary status in 1929, when he could potentially have taken home three different Best Director awards at the Academy Awards — he was nominated in three different categories: silent film, part-talkie and full talkie. He won the silent category for his work on The Divine Lady. He won another Oscar for Cavalcade in 1933 and was nominated again in 1936 for Mutiny on the Bounty. Lloyd has some SF pedigree. In 1915 he appeared as an actor in the gadget-filled detective serial The Black Box, in 1923 he directed the much underrated rejuvenation melodrama Black Oxen (review) and in 1942 he produced Invisible Agent (review).
Of the actors in the film, it’s the two female stars that are of greatest interest. Lenore Ulrich was a Broadway star born in 1892 to two first-generation German immigrants. She later dropped the “h” from her surname. Her father reportedly named her Lenore due to his fondness of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Raven”. Ulric began acting in stock companies at an early age in Grand Rapids and Chicago, where she also appeared in a few short films in 1911 and 1912, before moving to New York, where she was discovered by Broadway producer David Belasco in 1913. By 1916 she was one of the hottest new faces on Broadway, and was being coaxed into the movie business, which was often seen as a way for stage actors to make a quick buck between productions. She appeared in a handful of films between 1915 and 1917 before blowing up on the stage in 1917. Of her 1917 lead in Tiger Rose, biographer William Winter wrote: “Miss Lenore Ulric, who acts the part, is possessed of exceptional natural advantages,—youth; a handsome face; abundant hair; expressive eyes, dark and beautiful; a slender, lithe figure; a sympathetic voice; strong, attractive personality, and an engaging manner. Her temperament is intense, her nature passionate, her style direct and simple. Her acting reveals force of character, experience, observation, thought, sensibility, ardor, definite purpose, and unusual command of the mechanics of art.” Ulric became of the greatest stars of Broadway in the late 10’s and 20’s, and appeared in eight more films during the twenties, thirties and forties.
Florence Vidor, of course, was the wife of later director superstar King Vidor, who appears in The Intrigue in a small role as a chauffeur. But while King Vidor might be better remembered today, back in the early days of Hollywood, it was Florence who was the star. The couple met when King Vidor cast Florence in his very first two-reeler, in 1913 and the two fell in love and got married. Florence had no intention of becoming an actress, but followed her husband as he moved to Hollywood to try his luck in 1915. But it was Florence who caught the eye of the staff at Vitagraph studios, when her old friend from her hometown Houston, movie star Corinne Griffith, showed her around the facilities. Taken in with her beauty, the studio heads quickly offered her a contract, and she made her film debut in 1916. Her breakthrough came in 1917 in Frank Lloyd’s A Tale of Two Cities, between 1917 and 1919 she was much in demand. However, in 1919 King Vidor had caught up and established himself as a formidable director with his own production company, and while sometimes going solo with actors like Cecil B. DeMille, she preferred working with her husband, that is, until their divorce in 1924. She became a favourite of Ernst Lubitsch, starring in such movies as The Marriage Circle (1924) and The Patriot (1928). However, her career ended abruptly after her bad experience with the film Chinatown Nights (1929), which was begun as a silent, before studios decided to dub it. Vidor refused to return for her dubbing and her voice was dubbed by another actress. One should always be careful with claims of “actors whose careers were ruined by the talkies”, it does seem that Vidor was one of the actresses that chose not to continue her work in the sound era (unlike many silent film stars, she had no stage acting experience). But another factor might have been that she was remarried and wanted to focus on her family — her second and third children were born in 1930 and 1932.
Cinematographer James Van Trees soon moved out from under his mother’s wings and became a respected cameraman, a favourite of Alfred E. Green and William Wellman, especially known for his work on Green’s Baby Face (1933), the Marx Brothers vehicle A Night in Casablanca (1946), as well as the B movie The Gorilla Man (1943). He worked on over 150 films, and worked in TV well into the 60’s.
The Intrigue. 1916, USA. Directed by Frank Lloyd. Written by Julia Crawford Ivers. Starring: Lenore Ulric, Cecil van Auker, Howard Davies, Florence Vidor, Paul Weigel, Herbert Standing, King Vidor. Cinematography: James Van Trees. Produced for Pallas Pictures.