I originally wrote this piece for Sight and Sound in 2019, after seeing The Signal Tower at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. I am sharing it here because the festival is making the film available to stream for 24 hours to celebrate Silent Movie Day.
On a remote stretch of American railroad, a hard-working signal operator and his family are terrorised by a snarling villain. While his pretty young wife defends her virtue against the intruder’s threats, our hero engages in a thrilling race to the rescue to save a runaway train. It could easily be the plot of one of D.W. Griffith’s early short melodramas, but this is Clarence Brown’s The Signal Tower, a fully fledged feature film from 1924, adapted from a short story by Wadsworth Camp.
At this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival, a triumphant screening of the new restoration of The Signal Tower – a collaboration between Kevin Brownlow’s Photoplay Productions and the festival itself – confirmed the enduring if undersung brilliance of Brown. According to his biographer Gwenda Young, this is the first of Brown’s more personal films, something evident in its emotional tenderness but also in the appearance of some of his favourite themes: hard-working folk and magnificent trains nestled among grand rural landscapes.
While the film builds to a classically thrilling finish, which was enhanced on this occasion by the expert and well-paced accompaniment of the pianist Stephen Horne and the percussionist Frank Bockius, it was the more intimate scenes that marked this out as a special silent. Brown accumulates small, often domestic details to convey the tensions in relationships: the way the cad eyes up his prey when he clocks her laddered stockings and scuffed heels, the misunderstandings between husband and wife that lead to danger, the irrepressible enthusiasm of the child whose interference will prove decisive. And, neatly, in the simply illustrated intertitles, the signal of the title raises to alert the audience to the growing peril.
Brown is long overdue a critical reappraisal, for his silent-era achievements such as The Goose Woman (1925), Smouldering Fires (1925) and Flesh and the Devil (1927) alone, not to mention a string of first-rate talkies featuring Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo, or the highly beloved National Velvet (1944), which starred a young Elizabeth Taylor. One reason for his relative lack of present-day acclaim is that he was often eclipsed by his stars. That’s a fate The Signal Tower neatly avoids since among its cast only Wallace Beery, the Mack Sennett alumnus who became a love-to-hate villain, remains a well-known name outside silent circles.
This was a prestige release from Universal, though, classified as a ‘Super-Jewel’ production and it is strongly cast, with the signalman and his wife, Dave and Sally Taylor, ably performed by 1920s stars Rockliffe Fellowes and Virginia Valli. A six-year-old Frankie Darro plays their boy, Sonny – he would go on to a successful career as an adult actor, and later a stuntman, though he is unrecognisable in one of his most famous roles, as Robby the Robot in Forbidden Planet (1956). And comic star Dot Farley has a significant role too, as Sally’s misguidedly flirtatious Cousin Gertie.
Beery plays the dastardly Joe Standish, the interloper who arrives at the signal tower deep in the redwood forests of northern California to share duties with Dave and causes havoc in the happy home. He is clearly a shifty type, with slicked hair and shiny shoes (reportedly, Beery was pretty vile on set too, a cantankerous presence visibly contemptuous of his peers). Dazzled by his glamour, though, poor Gertie makes a play for Joe’s affections, leading to some uncomfortably queasy moments as she hamfistedly attempts to seduce a man who is clearly a sexual predator. Joe, however, is determined to break up the Taylors’ marriage.
Fellowes – who made his debut in Raoul Walsh’s superb crime drama Regeneration (1915) – is a likeable hero, but the film is primarily a showcase for Valli, especially in one unforgettable close-up. Her character could have been nothing more than a sketched-in type, but as a wary wife trying to protect her family from an initially ambiguous danger, Valli carries the emotional weight of the film, especially the first half. Valli is best known now, perhaps, for her role in Hitchcock’s The Pleasure Garden (1925), but she was one of Universal’s leading stars in the 1920s, and there’s a hint here of how Brown would later coax distinguished performances from Garbo, Crawford et al. Director and star would remain friends for decades afterward. Brown started out as an engineer, and his love for the mechanics of the railroad holds the picture together; he also appears on screen, briefly, as a switchman.
The film premiered in London, not the US, but received positive reviews in the American press. Pointedly, the Variety critic wrote: “The author has made romance out of the somewhat sombre lives of what, in England, is somewhat snobbishly called ‘the working class’. An English producer would be almost shocked if asked to find romance in the life of a traction engine driver. He can only find beauty or heroism in the higher ranks of life.”
This new 4K tinted restoration brings that romance rushing back to the screen. Since no 35mm print of The Signal Tower is known to survive, the restorers relied on a Universal Show-at-Home 16mm copy and a preservation duplicate from the Packard Humanities Institute. The first print was bequeathed to Brownlow by Eric Sparks, a private collector in Sussex, whose twin passions were silent cinema and trains – and who could not be persuaded to part with it in his lifetime. Sparks considered it the best silent railroad picture in his collection, and now the world can see why.
- The Signal Tower streams for 24 hours, on 29 September, starting at 3:00 am Pacific and ending at midnight, at this link.
- The score for the stream was recorded by Stephen Horne and Martin Pyne.
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