THE PURPLE MASK (US 1916-17)
Grace Cunard, Francis Ford
Known to her fans as “The Master Pen,” Grace Cunard (Harriet Milfred Jeffries, 1893‒1967) wrote and performed in over 80 films in the 1910s, including four of Universal’s most popular adventure serials. The daughter of a grocery clerk in Columbus, Ohio, she left school after completing the eighth grade to act in local stage productions. In a May 1915 item for Motion Picture Magazine, “How I Became a Photoplayer,” Cunard explained that her film career began “in the spirit of fun” in 1908, when she applied to the Biograph Company in New York after a friend “dared” her to try acting in motion pictures for a day. Apocryphal or not, this story of Cunard’s first appearance before the camera shares traits with the roles she repeatedly created for herself: an intrepid, often mischievous, but decidedly plucky female-adventurer, with a signature laugh.
Of the many women writers whose work defines early U.S. filmmaking, Cunard is one of the few who also performed in the scripts she created. And she is the only female of the period who wrote scenarios for serial films, including Lucille Love, The Girl of Mystery (1914), The Broken Coin (1915), The Adventures of Peg o’ the Ring (1916), and The Purple Mask (1917). By the mid-1910s, publicity stressed her capacity to “write everything” in which she appeared, a job that allegedly began spontaneously in 1912 when she and director Francis Ford could not find a satisfactory scenario and she “sat up all night” to write one herself. Together, Cunard and Ford left the Bison company and joined Universal in 1913, playing opposite one another in a prolific array of mystery, adventure, and crime-caper films that Cunard most often wrote and Ford most often directed. On occasion, Cunard also served as co-director or director, as was the case for nearly half of the episodes of The Purple Mask.
Developed under the working title Lady Raffles Returns, the serial launched on 31 December 1916, with Moving Picture Weekly (16.12.1916) calling it “The best kind of Christmas present.” Cunard conceived it to showcase one of her favorite characters: a clever thief with a reckless charm who lives a dual identity, often as a member of upper-class society. First introduced as “Meg” in The Black Masks (1913) and as “Grace” in The Twins’ Double (1914), Cunard dubbed her notorious female crook “My Lady Raffles” in a series of shorts released throughout 1914, including The Mysterious Leopard Lady, The Mystery of the White Car, The Mysterious Hand, The Mysterious Rose, and The Return of the Twins’ Double. In each of these films Lady Raffles (Cunard) outwits the detective Phil Kelly (Ford), while Cunard demonstrates her talent for reinventing and repurposing well-known male characters of the era, in this case Raffles, the British gentleman thief and master of disguise created in 1898 by E. W. Hornung.
In The Purple Mask, Ford’s role as detective Phil Kelly remains nearly identical to the earlier cycle of “Lady Raffles” films. But Cunard’s character is known in polite society as Patricia (Patsy) Montez, a young woman living with her aunt in Paris when the story begins. Near the end of the opening episode, she joins a band of working-class Apaches and becomes their leader, committing crimes exclusively for the purpose of aiding the less fortunate, often women or girls, and of redistributing wealth in a pseudo-socialist manner. Sporting a purple cape, a domino mask, and a jaunty cap, Patsy leaves a note signed “P.M.” at each scene to ensure that innocents are not wrongly accused of the crimes. By organizing her female thief as the film’s visual and narrative center, Cunard invites viewers to cheer for the charming criminal while sharing her (often extraordinary) point of view: eavesdropping on revolutionists from a thin, high window ledge; watching her gang battle with Ford from a perch two stories above; manipulating the trapdoor button, rotating staircase, or sliding fireplace in the New York home designed as her headquarters.
Although incomplete, the serial’s extant reels reveal Cunard’s gift for constructing marvelous worlds through her playful but always carefully structured plots. Each episode introduces the motivation for the next, and subplots often extend across several installments. When fleeing from Phillip Johnson’s mansion after breaking into his “submarine vault” in Episode 13, for instance, the Purple Mask learns of a conspiracy to bomb Manhattan’s public buildings. Her efforts to halt the revolutionists as well as the “river pirates” in alliance with them create an interlocking set of actions sustained across the serial’s final three episodes. This plot twist also provides Phil Kelly with leverage to convince the Secret Service to “let Patsy go” in the concluding episode. She thus becomes a “ Prisoner of Love” (as the episode’s title not so subtly hints) rather than a prisoner of the state. Our screening includes portions of Episodes 12, 13, and 16, in which all the action is set in New York. – Jennifer M. Bean
THE PURPLE MASK (US 1916-17)
regia/dir: Grace Cunard, Francis Ford.
scen: Grace Cunard.
cast: Grace Cunard (Patricia [Patsy] Montez, the Purple Mask), Francis Ford (Detective Phil Kelly), Pete Gerald (Pete Bartlett, il suo assistente/Kelly’s assistant), Jerry Ash (Bull Sanderson, un altro assistente/another assistant), Jean Hathaway (Eleanor Van Nuys, Patricia’s Aunt), John Duffy (Silk Donahue), John Featherstone (Stephen Dupont), Mario Bianchi [Monty Banks] (Jacques, the butler), Duke Worne (Duke Hestor). prod: Universal Film Manufacturing Company. uscita/rel: 1916-1917 (orig. 16 ep.); 18.03.1917 (12. “The Vault of Mystery”); 25.03.1917 (13. “The Leap”); 15.04.1917 (16. “A Prisoner of Love”).
copia/copy: DCP, 52′ (ep. 12, 19’26”; ep. 13, 10’40”; ep. 16, 21’53”) (da/from 35mm); did./titles: ENG.
fonte/source: Library of Congress National Center for Audio-Visual Conservation, Packard Campus, Culpeper, VA (Dawson City Collection).