Up the Ladder

Universal’s 1925 silent melodrama is a riches-to-rags story on steroids, focusing on the inventor of a video phone. With money and fame he neglects his wife, who secretly holds 50 percent of his company. A competent but forgettable programmer. 5/10

Up the Ladder. 1925, USA. Directed by Edward Sloman. Written by Grant Carpenter, Tom MacNamara. Based on play by Owen Davis. Starring: Virginia Valli, Forrest Stanley, Margaret Livingston, Holmes Herbert, George Fawcett, Priscilla Moran. Produced for Universal. IMDb: 6.5/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.

Up the Ladder from 1925 is yet an example of a subgenre of SF that was very popular in the US during the silent era: the Gizmo MacGuffin melodrama. With the exception of a couple of horrors and a dinosaur movie, this was the predominant science fiction output in the US between 1913 and 1930, most often done in serial form, but with a good dozen feature film representatives as well — most of which are either lost or not available for home viewing. This one, available online and on DVD, has the added pedigree of being based on a 1922 stage play by Pulitzer Prize winner Owen Davis.

James (Forrest Stanley) is a young aristocrat who has dumped all of the remaining family money into his invention — a “tele-vision-scope” — basically Facetime for 1925. Fortunately for him, his childhood sweetheart Jane (Virginia Valli), a heiress, is willing to sell her family estate in order to invest in his video phone. But James refuses to take money from a woman: “My ancestors would turn in their graves!” Instead of telling James to take his chauvinist ego and stuff it, she sells the house and convinces the family money manager, Judge Seymour (George Fawcett) to invest the profit in James’ invention, but secretly in her name. With the help of the money, James is able to create his video phone, which becomes a best-seller. Seymour — or actually Jane — ends up owning 50 percent of James’ new company, which skyrockets on the market, making James filthy rich. Five years later, James and Jane are married, and James still believes that Seymour is his business partner. But James has become an arrogant playboy — at a party he claims that all he created his fortune with just the help of his brains and hands — forgetting to mention the generous investment that made his dream a possibility. He starts neglecting Jane, choosing instead to cavort with Jane’s best friend, Helene (Margaret Livingston). In a half-clever plot twist, it is the video phone that becomes his doom, as it allows Jane to catch him with his pants down, metaphorically speaking, but without him knowing that she knows. Jane initially chooses not to confront James, who has other problems. His playboy lifestyle has depleted his earnings, and the bank will declare bankruptcy on the business if James doesn’t agree to sell his half of the shares to another company. However, he refuses, instead begging Seymour to save them both by selling his half — which Seymour naturally can’t do, because he doesn’t own half the company. Jane does. Seymour now begs Jane to save her husband — and herself — from poverty by selling. But at the last minute, Jane changes her mind and decides not to sell. When the bank foreclosures and bankruptcy is declared, she reveals herself as the actual owner of the company, which they have now both lost. Jane leaves James and takes up residence in the housekeeper’s quarters in her old estate, and James, humiliated, has to apply for work in the company he created. But now knocked off his high horse, he works humbly and advances in the company, soon regaining the wealth he lost through his arrogance. Now, when he has learned humility (and is rich again), Jane takes him back.

Margaret Livingston and Forrest Stanley.

Up the Ladder has a lot of weirdly inaccurate plot synopses both off- and online. Phil Hardy in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Movies somehow comes to the conclusion that the film “advocates male prostitution”. He writes (I think…) that Jane “cuts off the money flow” and leaves with her part of the wealth, and that James gets back his presidency of the company when he agrees to re-marry her (which the film never states that he does). Hardy apparently misses the fact that when the business goes broke, she is also ruined. TV Guide, in a weirdly garbled synopses, seems to think that it is Helene and her husband that are the main characters of the movie, writing: “A married couple’s relationship is strained when the wife decides to become a vamp in this society drama. Helene Newhall and husband Robert go before Judge Seymour to settle their differences.” It is obvious that the reviewer has not seen the film.

Forrest Stanley talking to Virginia Valli on the “tele-vision-scope”.

Riches-to-rags stories were popular during this age, but this film takes the protagonists on a veritable merry-go-round from riches to rags to riches to rags again and then finally to riches a third time in the end. The “message” of the film seems to be that one should be humble in one’s successes and thankful to those that have helped along the way, but it goes about telling it in a weirdly convoluted way. There’s different strands of the story that somehow don’t really seem to come together to a coherent whole. First of all, there’s the fact that James refuses to accept help from a woman, and later starts cheating on his wife. Somehow the film seems to set up the notion that the cheating is made worse by the fact that his wife helped him build his fortune — and that it’s only when he realises she was his business partner that he regrets his trespassings. There’s also a kid in the story, played by Priscilla Moran, but just seems to be there as a plot convenience so she can take the wrong box from James’ coat pocket — what she believes is candy is really a necklace James has bought for Helen. Other than that, the kid plays no part in the plot. Neither does Helene’s husband, played by Holmes Herbert. He has no function in the story, even if he is featured prominently. One can surmise that some of the oddities ar artefacts from the stage play, where these characters have probably had larges roles to play, but have been scaled down for the 65-minute silent film. A better scenarist might have cut the characters altogether. Among other things that remain unclear is why James has to sell all his stocks in the company when he gets credit problems. With the wealth he has built up, one would believe he could have sold off five percent or so and still been able to pay his restaurant bills. This, again, was probably explained in the play, but in the film the nature of his financial problems remain hazy.

Virginia Valli.

The film isn’t helped by the fact that Edward Sloman’s direction is strictly routine and that the only actor who makes any sort of impression is little Priscilla Moran. When the cute kid is the best performer in a movie, you know you’re in trouble. Virginia Valli underplays her character well, but still comes off as if she is hitting her marks rather than playing with any real conviction. There’s no chemistry between her and Forrest Stanley, neither is there between Stanley and Margaret Livingston. George Fawcett as the expressive Judge, according to Variety “delivers as he always does”. Holmes Herbert doesn’t even get a chance.

To the film’s defense, the “tele-vision-scope” is rather well realised and the matte effects convincing. The idea of the video phone was actually as old as the phone itself, and depictions of future Skypes and Zooms started emerging in both literature and illustrations in the latter half of the 19th century. Alexander Graham Bell talked about its possibilities, and it was depicted in several magazines and newspapers as early as the 1870’s, and writers such as Jules Vernes and Albert Robida included the concept in stories written in the late 19th century. Early depictions of video phones cropped up in short films in the first decade of the 20th century, and I’ll be damned if no Hollywood detective serial used it before 1925. However, Up the Ladder may just be the first feature film to contain a video phone, beating the famous example in Metropolis (1927, review) with two years. Also in 1927, AT&T launched their first video phone prototype, and Nazi Germany actually had a public video phone network between 1938 and 1940. Two video phone booths were installed in post offices in major cities, and they were available to the public. A call cost an fifteenth of a weekly average salary — an expensive call, to be sure, but quite reasonable as a novelty for the general audience — say for a birthday call between towns, for example. The system was dismantled when the army needed the cables for telegraph lines during WWII.

Forrest Stanley with his invention.

At the time of its release, Up the Ladder got a lukewarm review in Variety, at the time catering mainly to distributors and theatre owners: “The picture does not seem quite strong enough [for] the big six of Broadway, but in the average houses with a daily change of bill it will stand up as a fair program picture. The story is there, but there isn’t an outstanding personality in the cast.” Exhibitor’s Trade Review also called it “pretty fair entertainment”. The critic gives thumbs up for cinematography and lighting, and gives the main actors a pass, but writes: “The action sags badly at times and the emotional sequences are considerably over-stress, with somewhat strained effect”.

Owing to its obscurity, the film doesn’t have many reviews. Based on 50 votes, IMDb users give it a 6.5/10 rating. As stated, Phil Hardy gets caught up in the moral knots of the film, and the only other modern review I can find comes from, who else, Dave Sindelar at Fantastic Movie Musings and Ramblings. Sindelar writes: “Well, the movie does get some points for incorporating the invention into the story […] Still, the basic story is pretty obvious here, and for parts of it, the direction and the acting lack the subtlety to make it play effectively. The primary exception is the performance of Virginia Valli as the heiress; she underplays beautifully in all of her scenes, and she becomes as a result the only character we really care about. It’s not a great movie by any means, but it has its moments.”

This one is for SF completists, or if you’re a fan of early silent melodramas. It’s fair entertainment and short enough not to outstay its welcome. The production is professional, and the special effects, to the extent that they feature, are well executed. Other than that, it is workmanlike in all departments, and the somewhat mechanical acting don’t help elevate above its programmer status.

Virginia Valli and George Fawcett.

Virginia Valli was a minor star of the silent screen, and left enough of a legacy to be awarded a star of the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960. She may be best known for playing the leads in King Vidor’s Wild Oranges (1924) and Alfred Hitchcock’s debut film The Pleasure Garden (1925). She made a fairly successful transfer to the talkies, but left the movie business after marrying her second husband in 1931. She passed away in 1968.

A plain-looking, smooth-faced character actor, Forrest Stanley was a popular choice for leading man in minor pictures in the silent era, but had stints in the limelight, for example in the lead in the hugely popular period drama When Knighthood was in Flower (1922) and as second lead in the classic 1927 adaptation of the groundbreaking old dark house play The Cat and the Canary, directed by Paul Leni. Much of his work was done in roles opposite silent movie divas that were the centre of the movies, calling for a somewhat nondescript counterpart. According to the blog Silent Room, English-born Stanley came up through the ranks on stage on the West coast, primarily in Morosco’s Burbanks Players. After a good run in the silent era, his roles diminished in the talkies, and one can assume he returned to the stage, with the occasional stint in movies, until he started cropping up in guest roles in TV in the fifties.

Forrest Stanley and George Fawcett on the video phone.

Margaret Livingston made her career playing vamps or “the other woman”, just like in Up the Ladder. Born to Swedish and Scottish parents in Salt Lake City, she entered the movies in 1916, at 21 years old, and had a quite successful run during the silent era. She is perhaps best remembered for her role as “the woman from the city” in F.W. Murnau’s masterpiece Sunrise (1927), by many considered the finest silent film ever made. Other noteworthy roles were in the mystery movie Seven Keys to Baldpate (1928) and Paul Leni’s The Last Warning (1928). She dubbed Louise Brooks in The Canary Murder Case (1929), when the actress refused to return from New York for pickups. Livingston made a successful transition to the talkies, but nevertheless left the movie business in 1934 to focus on her family with bandleader Paul Whiteman, with whom she adopted four children. After her film career she became a successful businesswoman. In 1924 Livingston was aboard the yacht where director and producer Thomas Ince infamously took ill and died two days later. Officially, Ince died of heart failure due to indigestion, but rumours floated in the press that he had in fact been shot. In the 2001 film The Cat’s Meow, which gives a fictitious account of the fatal evening, Livingston is portrayed by British stage and TV actress Claudia Harris, who has recently been in the headlines for taking of the role of Princess Anne in The Crown’s fifth season, to be aired in 2022.

Margaret Livingston.

Holmes Herbert was a theatrical actor who started in silent films with stalwart leading roles, and had supporting roles in many classic Hollywood films of the sound era, including Captain Blood (1935), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), The Life of Emile Zola (1937), and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). He also became a staple in horror B-films of the era, like The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), The Invisible Man (1933), Mark of the Vampire (1935), Tower of London (1939), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931, review) The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942, review), The Undying Monster (1942), The Mummy’s Curse and The Son of Dr. Jekyll (1951, review).

Olive Ann Alcorn.

The film also features a short performance by dancer and nude model Olive Ann Alcorn, best remembered for her involvement in the famous 1925 adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera, starring Lon Chaney, which was also made at Universal.

English-born director Edward Sloman started his career directing theatre in London, but after an argument with a powerful booking agent, he became effectively blacklisted. In 1915 he took the ferry over to the US, where he entered the movie business at Lubin. Exhausted from being forced to not only direct but star in his pictures, he quit in 1919, and eventually ended up at Universal in 1925, where the success of his first movie for the studio, His People (1925), landed him a contract. Here he made his perhaps most successful films, Surrender (1927), The Foreign Legion (1928) and We Americans (1929). His career declined somewhat with the talkies, and in 1938 he switched from film to radio, where he became a writer, director and producer.

Janne Wass

Up the Ladder. 1925, USA. Directed by Edward Sloman. Written by Grant Carpenter, Tom MacNamara. Based on the play with the same name by Owen Davis. Starring: Virginia Valli, Forrest Stanley, Margaret Livingston, Holmes Herbert, George Fawcett, Priscilla Moran, Olive Ann Alcorn. Cinematography: Jackson Rose.

3 replies

  1. As a member of the official nitpickers union, I am contractually obligated to note that I am dubious of the claim that Verne predicted the videophone: the device in The Mysterious Castle in the Carpathians which is usually the one everyone points at is actually more like a gramophone which records images (BTW, check out the Czech film version by Oldritch Lipsky which has little to do with the book but is silly fun, with Jan Svankmajer coming up with the mad scientist inventions).

    The photo of Olive Ann Alcorn reminds me of one of the strange quirks of American films which you might not be aware of. It may have come from the Hays office, although I’m not sure when it actually started or ended: They were not allowed to show a woman’s…
    Note how Olive has a little doohickey strapped over it — and you can see it very clearly in the Flash Gordon serials or many of the Arabian Nights type fantasy films, where girls with bare midriffs either have very high waist lines or some part of the costume which sticks up and covers it!

    Another great review! Phil Hardy’s book is excellent, even if there are a lot of inaccurate entries. I think he tried too hard to cover a lot of the films he hadn’t seen. But that should keep you busy setting him straight!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, you may very well be right about the Verne videophone, I must admit I haven’t read the story.

      Interesting about the belly button! I hadn’t thought about that. This was pre-Code, though, so I don’t know if the Hays code had anything to do with it. Perhaps it was just one of those cultural things, that it was deemed vulgar to flaunt your belly button. 😀

      Yeah, Hardy’s a great resource, but apparently one must be careful with some of his claims.
      I also bought “Variety’s Complete Science Fiction Reviews”, and it has a lot of stuff that falls outside even my very generous SF categorisation. So I’ll be picking up “those that got away” for a while now. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

    • By the by, I’m just finishing my review of “She” from 1925, and started contemplating your comment about the navel and nudity in silent film. Betty Blythe who plays Ayesha in “She” does in fact cover her navel most of the time in the movie, but in 1921 she went full frontal in “The Queen of Sheba”, and other films were made in the twenties that featured nudity, such as Clara Bow topless in “Wings” in 1927. So while nudity and navel flaunting seems to have been considered lewd in the silent era, it doesn’t seem to have been strictly prohibited before the enforcement of the Hays Code in 1934.

      Liked by 1 person

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