It is Mr. Sabatini’s decided opinion that the future of the cinema lies mainly with the author. “Hitherto the author has been a negligible quantity in film production,” he says. “I doubt whether at any period in the history of the theatre the dramatist has been ignored to this extent by those who staged and acted his plays.”~ The World’s News, Sydney; 17 December 1921, page 5
With a dramatic flourish, Rafael Sabatini announced a new venture for him: the Hardy Film Company co-founded by himself and Sam Hardy, the studio manager of Stoll Films.
Another newspaper reproduced what may have been a brief article or press-release titled “Plain Speaking” in which Rafael Sabatini stated:
To ensure and accomplish this state of things it is necessary that the script of a film should be as full and complete as the script of a play. It must lay out the essentials of every scene-plot; it must prescribe every movement, every gesture, every expression, and every look of the actors; it must define the range of every camera-shot in all the intervening stages between Full Scene and Close Up; where necessary it must indicate the particularities of the lighting; and, if possible, - with a view to preserving correct proportion, so that each part may bear a proper relationship to the whole – it should indicate the speed at which each scene should be taken.
That, in brief – very much in brief – is the ideal script. It is, as will be seen, not a film scenario at all, but a Screen Play.” ~ The Australian, 7 April 1922, p 3
The Times news report quoted from began by saying, “Three films, Bluff, The Recoil, and The Scourge, have already been completed under the direction of Mr. Geoffrey H. Malins, O.B.E.” More on this further down.
Now we come to a mystery that will never be resolved, because both films (black & white, silent) are lost: The Blackmailer and Bluff. The Blackmailer (March 1916) was a two-reel film directed by Rupert Julian, starring himself and Elsie Jane Wilson in the lead, produced by The Universal Film Manufacturing Company, with a scenario by Calder Johnstone “from a [?] short story [?] by Rafael Sabatini” (as reported in www.silentera.com). The cited keywords include “attempted murder” – which points to the short story The Blackmailer (1911), and “Maids” which is alien to either this story or the long retelling of it as The Valet Mystery (1914). In the earlier story there is a fiancée who is not named and does not appear. About Bluff (1921), the Teesdale Mercury of 7 November 1921 reported some interesting details from a pre-viewing before release that take forward our exploration of Rafael as film-maker and of Bluff.
Forward, true, but already there are complications. The earlier film was two-reels – no length cited – and the Hardy film was six reels long. The description given of it accords more nearly with The Valet Mystery than with The Blackmailer. Yet The British Film Catalogue: Volume 1: Denis Gifford: 3rd Edition says this: A former embezzler bluffs a blackmailer into thinking that he can be murdered without detection. Such a description fits The Blackmailer (story) but not The Valet Mystery. Moving on to the credits, Geoffrey H. Malins was the director, and these were roles of the top five cast: Courtney Boscawen (played by Lewis Willoughby), Dorothy Channing (played by Marjorie Hume), James Lake, Geoffrey Channing, Lord Landassyl, and Everard Wade. The actor Lawrence Anderson had played Kenneth Stewart in The Tavern Knight, plays the villain in The Recoil (of which more below), and acts as James Lake, but that may or may not mean that Lake is the blackmailer in this film. The short story, The Blackmailer, has Boscawen (no first name), Isidore Loane the blackmailer, a valet (Smith) and a porter. The Valet Mystery has Basil Carnforth in place of Boscawen, the fiancée and her father (named Tollemache although the Channing pair would seem to represent them), a most upright honourable rival (named Harry Bristow), a valet (named Roberts), and the blackmailer (named Edward Jackson). This being so, did Rafael mix details from his later version of the story into the earlier version, arriving at a scenario that avoids the psychological elements entailed in the actual killing of the blackmailer and its aftermath, these being difficult to communicate within the limited means then available? He would have the freedom to do this which the scenario-writer for the earlier film was unlikely to be given. We will never know. What we do have is a fairly descriptive review, favourable too, in The Times of 20 February 1922:
This description does not entirely tally with either of Rafael’s source stories, but the praise of his film makes it a pity that no copy survives.
What may have led Rafael Sabatini into the unknown territory of film-making? Without any statement from him, we cannot know. The previous year, 1920, Stoll Films had released The Tavern Knight, made from his early novel. In an interview published by the Strand Magazine in November 1925, Rafael expressed his approval of it, and in particular of Eille Norwood in the title role. All the same, in his statements to the Press the following year, Rafael makes it clear that he felt better qualified to adapt his own novels/ stories to the screen. After all, he may have thought, did he not have experience as a writer for the stage? And was not his a markedly visual imagination? However it was, Rafael’s next attempt at film-making was more ambitious.
He wrote the scenario in 1921 from a long story of his, The Scourge, for a film made in 1922. It was directed by Geoffrey Malins, and beyond that there is very little of any use by way of data. (Except for the surely nonsensical synopsis, “The Duke of Buckingham abducts an actress then nurses her through the plague in 1665.” ~ BFI) Before proceeding with what little remains to be said of this film, it is necessary to pass in review the context in which it was made so far as that concerns Rafael Sabatini.
The years 1921 to 1923 were a turning point in his career as writer, and proved to be the start of a crucial phase in his personal life. In a way no one could have foreseen, Scaramouche rocketed right across the English-speaking world, and quickly into other languages. It was a dizzying experience and as often happens in life, it brought with it huge pressures from outside (by way of demands and expectations) and from within himself, as ambitions, ideas and plans fought for space with routine matters of living – as father, and as husband to a difficult woman. He was working on the stories of a Captain Peter Blood, doctor and pirate, soon to be rewritten as another immensely popular novel bringing in more pressures. He was transforming the long story, The Scourge, into a novel to be titled Fortune’s Fool. And this is only to mention the major works that occupied his mind and his time.
The only newspaper reference to The Scourge found so far comes from The Gleaner of 26 November 1926. By this time Rafael had expanded his story into the novel Fortune’s Fool. The Hardy Film Company was defunct two years after it was launched, and The Scourge was re-titled Fortune’s Fool before being rented to someone who was then charged with breach of contract reportedly for non-payment of dues. It was in this regard that the matter came before an English judge. Since one assumes that the film was released in 1922 in the U.K. after “the British Board of Film Censors passed it subject to certain deletions,” I cannot understand why it should now come again within their purview unless, perhaps, the film-renter had restored those deletions. However it may have been, Justice McCardle was given a private viewing of the film to decide on whether the banquet scene, a very necessary part of the plot and unlikely to have been filmed as an orgy, was deleterious to public morals. Elaborate arrangements were made in the court-room to ensure that no innocents other than the judge could be affected by the pernicious scene and other such indecencies in the film. Alas, his judgement is not reported, or any remarks he made. It might have been well for Rafael’s reputation had the film been condemned altogether and all copies destroyed! Some colleagues of David March, film presenter and cataloguer for the Library of Congress warned him that The Scourge/ Fortune’s Fool, like all three Hardy Films, was “bloody awful.” After seeing it, David March declared that it was “tedious in structure, plotting and characterisation, and miscast as well as misdirected.” How it was concluded that all three Hardy films alike were very bad I do not know, since no copies survive of the other two.
In the same issue of The Times that published Rafael Sabatini’s announcement of a new venture for himself and Sam Hardy, this advertisement was also published:
From the British Film Institute we know the cast, and from the review we can identify the characters, since some names are changed from the story: Francis (Major Francis Orpington) is played by Eille Norwood; his erstwhile ward Adelaide Wallace (Burton in the story) by Phyllis Titmuss; the evil hypnotist Digby Raikes (Stanley Bickershaw in the story) by Lawrence Anderson; the uncle of both men, Anthony Orpington, by Dawson Millward. There is no mention of Dr Roger Galliphant in the cast list or the review but the list includes Annie Esmond as Miss Orpington, an addition to the story, whose role is not mentioned in the review.
It would appear that the story is simplified in the film, although how that is managed is not explained, which is unsurprising because the conclusion of The Dream relies on a casuistry: that the man who shoots dead the villain is not his killer, the villain’s killer being himself (unintentional suicide) because he had hypnotized the man to kill someone else and at the last moment his hypnotism failed of its purpose so that the man shot the villain instead – but is not guilty (says Galliphant) because he was acting under the influence of a hypnotic trance. The reviewer found the love interest “charmingly played” and impartially distributed his encomiums for “this successful film” among “the author as scenario writer,” the actors “who all play exceedingly well,” and Geoffrey Malins, the producer (actually he was the director, Sam Hardy being the producer). Even the sub-titles and letterpress are praised for being “in excellent English and impeccable taste.” Although the reviewer thought Bluff a better film, The Recoil, he said, was “a good deal above the average and should be very popular.”
A point of interest for me is that having used the second of his two Roger Galliphant stories to make a film, Rafael did not seem to plan the use of the first one, The Avenger. He had already entered into a contract with Charles Frohman for a dramatisation by himself and Henry Hamilton. Either it was not completed or the script perished with Frohman when the Lusitania was sunk. But some notes surely remained with Rafael, a rough draft perhaps, material on which to work again?
Sadly for Rafael Sabatini, that was the end of his foray into the field of film-making. The scheduled films optimistically announced were never made. However, this was not yet the end of Rafael’s association with other people’s films made from his novels – and in one case an original, then unpublished, story.
The first major film dramatisation of a story by Rafael Sabatini was Scaramouche (1923) directed by Rex Ingram. Why this film made Rafael indignant is partly touched upon in Seeking Sabatini, and will be the main subject of the next section here. In 1924, two more such films were released, first The Sea-Hawk in mid-1924 and, later that year, Captain Blood. Rafael selected details to praise in the former, produced and directed by Frank Lloyd. The latter earned the highest praise, and with reason when one becomes aware of how much Rafael himself had to do with its making. Discovering the connection came about through two clues and an explanation, the whole a pleasing experience not unlike finding treasure!
The first clue was finding a photograph in an Australian newspaper of a smiling Rafael posing in his library with a model of a ship, the Arabella. The next clue was having my attention drawn to a photograph online of Rafael, smiling broadly as he shakes hands with Albert E. Smith in the Vitagraph office. Smith was the producer of Captain Blood, brother of David Smith, its director, and stepping briefly into David’s shoes when he was taken ill.
The clinching evidence was a page in the programme leaflet available at the film’s premiere. It states that Albert Smith “conferred at length with Rafael Sabatini, author of the celebrated novel, respecting details of the production.” Rafael is stated to have made the final decision on who should fill the title role. He was shown photographs and clips of many possible choices in costume, and picked J. Warren Kerrigan. Rafael is described as “author of a number of monographs which [were] used as works of reference,” along with “old prints, paintings and historical data” in preparing the costumes. (It would be interesting to find such monographs!)
It is easy to see why this film was special to Rafael, in whom one must never forget the conflicting emotions from widely different experiences at this time, of which I single out that of the failure of the Hardy Film Company and the spectacular success of his novel, Scaramouche, closely followed by the equally resounding success of his novel, Captain Blood. Consider, therefore, in this context, the difference to him between his treatment by Albert Smith, and the manner in which Rex Ingram’s film was advertised – which is part of the subject of the next section.
Other films of his stories were made or planned during Rafael’s life. Lists of these are available elsewhere, and as he had little to do with any of them are of no interest here. I restrict myself to those films to which reference came my way by chance and which are not generally listed or mentioned. The film rights to The Strolling Saint were bought by Metro-Goldwyn, as reported by the Sunday Times of Perth, Australia in February 1926. In November 1936 the film company, now Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, was reported to be almost certain to cast Robert Taylor as the hero of the proposed film. The report first appeared in the U.S. papers (Detroit Free Press, Oakland Tribune, among them) and was repeated by Melbourne’s Table Talk in April 1937, all agog. That was the last heard of it, mercifully, if Robert Taylor was the choice to play that role. The Kinematograph Yearbook 1950 (Odhams, London) carried an advertisement for “a super production” of Venetian Masque placed by Omnia Films, London. A complete mystery.
Even more strikingly mysterious is the following in George Locke’s collection of Sabatini documents (dated by Locke as 30 January 1940 without indication of where he found the date): “Original mimeographed screenplay of the film [The Sea-Hawk], ‘2nd Rev. Final’, ... A number of leaves are blue ‘revise’ sheets dated 23 March 1940 and 18 March 1940. Script for the film starring Errol Flynn.” Locke states that aside from the word “Screenplay” pencilled on the front cover there is no annotation by Rafael Sabatini. This is strange since it is well known that the only connection between this film and Rafael is the use of a jungle sequence set in the Isthmus of Panama. My reaction when I saw it was that it was probably left over unused from the 1935 Captain Blood. Given Rafael’s comments on the Rex Ingram film, it is odd that he is not reported as having said anything about this film, or about two others that totally misrepresented his novels, The Marriage/ Prisoner of Corbal, and The Black Swan. Nor have I yet found any comment by him on a film whose scenario he was paid to write, but finding it unused, adapted it successfully to write a novel – a reversal of the usual sequence.
In Locke’s collection there is more than one document which has to do with the commission to write a scenario for a film on Christopher Columbus. He was not asked for a script, only a scenario, but being Rafael he could not resist shifting from narrative into dialogue every now and again. (It is sad to think of all this material known to exist yet out of reach of any researcher.) As for the scenario, although Sydney and Muriel Box rejected it, it served Rafael as the foundation for his novel, Columbus, and – mysteriously – bits of dialogue and other material turn up in the deadly dull film made by the Boxes.
Rafael loved mysteries, and enjoyed being mysterious. Does he enjoy reserving something of himself hidden from us who have so diligently sought him?
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