THE GREAT GAMBLE
Joseph A. Golden (US 1919) (USSR vers.)
Charles Hutchison (1879-1949) was Pathé’s leading American male adventure serial star from 1918 to 1922, perhaps best known today as the hero in Wolves of Kultur (1918), his first serial, which was screened at the Giornate in 2004 and last year at Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna. While third-billed in that title, he was cast in early February 1919 as the main lead in Western Photoplays’ subsequent serial The Great Gamble, another 15-episode, 31-reel cliffhanger also written, directed and produced by Joseph A. Golden and distributed by Pathé Exchange. The entire serial was shot in about five months, between February and June 1919, with interiors filmed at the Crystal-Western Photoplays Studios, the Bronx, New York, with a great number of exterior locations in six states, among which: Umbrella Rock and Lookout Mountain, Tennessee; Miami and the Everglades, Florida; Ausable Chasm, Keeseville, New York. The now-demolished John H. Matthews House, located in Manhattan at the corner of Riverside Drive and West 90th Street, was also extensively featured.
Production was not easy: shooting was temporarily suspended when Hutchison had a serious horse-riding accident during one of the Tennessee scenes. Moreover, according to Grace E. Jamieson, somewhere before the serial’s release Western Photoplays went out of business and The Great Gamble was completed by the Astra Film Corporation (which included some key Pathé people, such as Louis J. Gasnier and George B. Seitz), but this is unconfirmed; in any case, the title was always advertised as a Western Photoplays production, directed by Joseph A. Golden.
Pathé’s publicity stressed the serial as a “tense gripping story of crook life” with social implications, describing it as “electric in its dynamic force and high voltage climaxes.” Articles emphasized that Hutchison performed all the stunts himself, without any safety devices or doubles, planning each one “scientifically” and “mathematically,” though from 1921, after a few accidents, he used a stunt double. The first three completed episodes were screened in April at the Crystal-Western Photoplays Studios, and in the end of June as a trade show for exhibitors, in both cases to great success. Bookings were reported to be strong following the announcement that a weekly release would begin from 3 August; eventually The Great Gamble became one of Pathé’s most successful serials.
The plot is a convoluted one. The wife of a wealthy mine owner runs off with a crook, taking one of her small twin daughters with her while the other remains with their father. Following the mother’s death, the young daughter is raised by her lover. Many years later, during a robbery, the villain ends up in the rich man’s mansion, where he works out a plan to substitute the two sisters in order to get their legacy. The serial shows the many attempts of the criminal gang to kidnap the good daughter while hindered by Ralph, a young businessman chased by the police for a murder the crook actually committed.
The title was praised for its cast, rhythm, and stunts, and indeed the serial is filled with daredevil action sequences with Hutchison and his co-star Anna Luther, including jumps, dives, climbs, rope swings, bear fights, alligator pool plunges, and so on. There was also negative criticism, especially for its photography (deemed “mediocre”), its “banal” intertitles, and the lack of plot cohesion and originality.
The Great Gamble was released, slightly abridged, in France between 1920 and 1921 as Le Grand Jeu, and in Italy in 1921 as Il gran giuoco, where it was partly censored and was still playing as late as 1923. The serial’s mixed fortunes continued for some time: in 1923, stockholders of Western Photoplays sued Pathé Exchange because of money still due for The Great Gamble screenings in 1919 (the court ruled in favour of Pathé). Then the following year Clarion Photoplays, a company of the Weiss Brothers-Artclass group, went on with a typically speculative venture, by releasing five separate 5-reel features “revised from the serials Great Gamble and Wolves of Kultur” and possibly edited or supervised by director Harry O. Hoyt under the titles: Ten After Ten, The Law Demands, The Fatal Plunge, The Radio Flyer, Fangs of the Wolf.
Joseph A. Golden (1897?–1942) joined the ranks of the American Mutoscope & Biograph in 1907, moving on to a number of other companies including Pathé, where he’s credited with discovering Pearl White. Following The Great Gamble he made just one more film, The Whirlwind (1920), another serial (currently lost) with Hutchison. The star himself continued as a top draw in the 1920s, appearing in several serials in the U.S. and in the UK, frequently as characters whose name was a variant on his own. His leading lady here, Anna Luther (1897-1960), developed a rather scandalous reputation and was named as co-respondent or witness in several divorce cases, earning the nickname “Broadway’s Champ Vamp.” The available footage does not seem to confirm a very early appearance of Laura La Plante, reported by some sources with reference to one of the serial’s re-issues, but at the same time it fully proves an unknown performance of Karl Dane (in the role of the crook sea captain).
The Russian version The Great Gamble was released in the Soviet Union in 1927 under the title Kleimo prestuplenia (The Stigma of Crime), distributed by Goskinprom Gruzyi, a Georgian Tbilisi-based trust which later became Gruziya-Fil’m, still one of the world’s oldest film studios. The source for this Russian version was definitely France, as proven by the names of several characters which match the French release. Both French and Russian versions were abridged, consisting of 24 reels (released as 12 episodes in France and 3 parts in Russia).
Although the serial was distributed during the last part of the USSR’s New Economic Policy period, censorship remained strong. In the original, the good people (both heroes and victims) were capitalist businessmen, clearly unacceptable in Soviet Russia, while the villains tried to lay their hands on the valuable estate of one of them. So the leading characters were changed to aspiring and successful writers, while the crooks were re-envisioned as would-be copyright thieves (thereby setting a new standard for cultured criminals!). Some other changes were made: the mine workers, depicted negatively in the original, were eliminated (writers need no miners). Also, the daughter adopted by the crook appears to have been much more wicked in the original version. This aggressive intervention gave birth to several plot holes which make the story less articulate than originally intended, and also created certain problems in the timing of the events.
The reconstruction A FIAF call confirmed that, so far, the only known existing materials related to The Great Gamble are the ones in the possession of Gosfilmofond of Russia, Moscow. This archive preserves two incomplete safety copies, under the titles Dvoynoye priklyucheniye (Double Adventure, which confusingly is the title of another Charles Hutchison serial), in 19 reels, and Bol’shaya igra (The Big Game), in 22 reels. In January 2016 the former was correctly identified and, the following year, the connection between the two prints was established. Positive prints of Bol’shaya igra were made at Gosfilmofond in 1975-1976 from nitrate dupe negatives which were subsequently destroyed. The positive and dupe negatives of Dvoynoye priklyucheniye were made at Gosfilmofond in 1972-1978 from nitrate positive prints, also then destroyed, which came from VGIK’s film collection. Similar signs of wear reveal that the source of the two copies is the same, possibly a nitrate positive print in the VGIK film collection. The Bol’shaya igra print is cleaner but has flash or removed intertitles, while Dvoynoye priklyucheniye has full-length intertitles but is more worn, and its second part exists only as a dupe negative.
The reconstruction, carried out at the Cineteca del Friuli labs, aimed at restoring the Russian version, the only one that currently can be reasonably reassembled. The Bol’shaya igra print was used as starting point for the 2K scan and was then completed with the missing sequences and intertitles available in the other copy. It was also possible to restore some intertitles on the basis of censorship records preserved by the same Russian archive and, in some specific cases, a few were also corrected or expanded.
Apart from censorship records, the main sources available for reconstructing the continuity were the fictionalized synopses published by a Vermont newspaper, The Caledonian-Record, and the novelization of Le Grand Jeu by Guy de Téramond, published in the French periodical Cinémagazine. Regretfully, some of the most damaged parts of The Great Gamble are the stunts, usually located at the end and beginning of the reels. However, by combining the available footage, many of these sequences have been restored and extended.
Compared to the original, there are many small gaps and three of them are particularly noticeable, although this does not compromise understanding: the prologue has been greatly shortened, and a middle sequence involving Seminole Indians as well as the whole epilogue are currently lost. Moreover, the surviving prologue was inserted at the end as a flashback, while a few other sequences were also moved. The current reconstruction did not correct the sequence order in the Russian version, nor did it attempt to restore the original continuity. The amount of digital intervention (i.e. stabilization, de-flickering, cleaning) has been limited.
regia/dir, prod, scen: Joseph A. Golden.
cast: Charles Hutchison (Ralph Darrell [Ralph Gordon]), Anna Luther (Aline Morton, Eleanor “Nell” Morton [Maud O’Grady, Betty O’Grady]), Richard Neill (Richard Blake [Fred Blake]), William F. “Billy” Moran (Shorty “The Rat” [Barney]), William Cavanaugh (Cooley [Jim]), Warren Cook (Mr. Roger Morton [Mr. Mike O’Grady]), Edith Thornton (Mrs. Catherine Morton [Mrs. Catherine O’Grady]), Karl Dane (il capitano di mare/the sea captain), Laura La Plante?.
prod: Western Photoplays, Inc.
dist: Pathé Exchange, Inc.
riprese/filmed: Crystal-Western Photoplays Studios, Bronx, New York; Umbrella Rock and Lookout Mountain, Tennessee; Miami and the Everglades, Florida; Ausable Chasm, Keeseville, New York; John H. Matthews House, 176 Riverside Drive, New York. uscita/rel: 15 ep.: 03.08.1919 [1. The Great Gamble]; 10.08.1919 [2. The Clock of Doom]; 17.08.1919 [3. Into the Chasm]; 24.08.1919 [4. In the Law’s Grip]; 31.08.1919 [5. Draught of Death]; 07.09.1919 [6. Out of the Clouds]; 14.09.1919 [7. The Crawling Menace]; 21.09.1919 [8. The Ring of Fire]; 28.09.1919 [9. Through Iron Doors]; 05.10.1919 [10. Written in Blood (The Abduction)]; 12.10.1919 [11. The Stolen Identity]; 19.10.1919 [12. The Wolf Pack]; 26.10.1919 [13. Barriers of Flame]; 02.11.1919 [14. Under Arrest]; 09.11.1919 [15. Out of the Shadows].
copia/copy: DCP, 320′ (da/from USSR 35mm, 24 rl. [3 pt.], 15 fps); did./titles: RUS.
fonte/source: Gosfilmofond of Russia, Moscow; La Cineteca del Friuli, Gemona.
Progetto a cura di/Project curated by: Federico Striuli; scansione e ricostruzione digitale/scanning and digital reconstruction: Alessandro De Zan & Andrea Tessitore, La Cineteca del Friuli.