Ernest Torrence made one of movie’s most daunting debuts ever as a fearsome hillbilly in Henry King’s pastoral parable Tol’able David, commencing his career as one of the silent screen’s most popular character players. A veritable mountain of man, the 6’4” former Scottish baritone’s physically imposing presence made him ideal casting as Goliath opposite Richard Barthelmess’ diminutive David and in a medium where visual impact was everything, the wave of combined critical and popular favor heaped upon the film would, I’d wager, have extended to Torrence for Best Supporting Actor. Taking sadistic zeal in his character’s cruelty, including crippling David’s brother and killing his dog, Torrence was genuinely frightening, making it clear that his slavering brute shot up too fast for his pea brain to keep pace. But as he was already two sizes too large for the frame, it would have been better if Torrence had scaled it down instead of chewing the scenery. Playing the part without any semblance of restraint, his is the sort of irredeemably heinous silent movie monster Walter Long was portraying for D.W. Griffith half a decade earlier. If an actor was to be cited for the year’s most memorable villainy, better to choose one whose hamminess was intentional, so for my Oscar I’ll select a supporting player of less serious stripe. Fully intending to bump Barthelmess’ Best Actor crown, I’ll stay true to form and sidestep his villainous co-star’s nasty piece of work in favor of Long himself, the heavy who menaced poor Rudolph Valentino throughout all his best Paramount vehicles of the early ‘20s.
In Moran of the Lady Letty, Long plays “Slippery” Kitchell, captain of a cutthroat band of sea-outlaws who operate between San Francisco and the Mexican coast. En route to smuggling guns South of the Border, Kitchell shanghaies effete socialite Ramon (Rudolph Valentino) from a waterfront dive and whips him into second mate material. Finding the cargo ship ‘Lady Letty’ adrift, Kitchell boards expecting to salvage goods worth his while. However he’s only able to retrieve the captain’s daughter Moran (Dorothy Dalton) before fire destroys the vessel. Dressed as a sailor, it’s initially assumed that Moran is male but when Ramon finds out different he tries to keep her sex a secret, knowing it could jeopardize her safety aboard ship. His ruse exposed, it’s only the threats of Kitchell’s crew, all of whom share an equal interest in anything salvaged from the sea that stops the captain from acting on his less than honorable impulses. When he puts into port off Mexico however, Kitchell secretly strikes a deal to sell Moran along with the guns he’s smuggled and pocket the profit. Learning of the nefarious captain’s attempt to cheat them of their stake in the communal property, a full-scale mutiny results. Rescuing Moran, Ramon sets sail for home believing Kitchell dead. Once they reach San Francisco however, the captain emerges from hiding in the hold to attack Moran. After an epic struggle all over the ship, Ramon chases Kitchell up into the rigging from which he falls to his death.
Walter Long rose to prominence as the heavy of D.W. Griffith’s early epics, and found his special brand of wickedness much in demand during the war years. But the actor really emerged to the fore in the early ‘20s, when he began indulging in villainy of a lighter vein, honing a comic talent that hadn’t at all been evident from his humorless, earlier straight roles. In movies like The Sheik, Blood and Sand and best of all Moran of the Lady Letty, Long brought a full-blooded flourish to his dastardly scoundrels and blackguards. As Kitchell, the actor did his best, most substantive work, and it wasn’t by driving any virginal Griffith damsels to distraction, as he had in The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, but rather by mercilessly menacing Rudy Valentino. Long nearly steals the films he made with the legendary star, which is surprising considering Valentino’s own enduring appeal. Director George Melford had helmed a big screen version of Jack London’s The Sea Wolf for Paramount two years prior and turned to another ocean-faring novel in the naturalist tradition with Moran of the Lady Letty, more or less reworking the same material despite officially crediting his source to a Frank Norris novel. For Moran, he cast Long in the Wolf Larson part though the actor carefully customizes the knockoff to better accommodate his own mode of playing. While a far cry from the brooding, blinded tyrant of London’s book, Long’s rip-roaring, tongue-in-cheek performance in Moran of the Lady Letty makes his Captain Kitchell out to be quite as memorable a character none the less. In fact, his jolly roger of a pirate skipper bears less comparison to The Sea Wolf than it does the jovially larcenous Captain Hook of Ernest Torrence in 1924’s Peter Pan.
As a vehicle for Valentino, according to Jerry Vermilye’s The Films of the Twenties, this hardy adventure yarn was intended to cultivate a more rugged image for the exotic star dismissed by many as a ‘pink powder puff,’ which seems supremely ironic today. For none of the actor’s other films ever dared flirt so openly with his ambiguous appeal than this San Francisco-set gender bender with its enlightened, startlingly frank take on themes of sexual identity. With their mirroring names, Ramon and Moran have been conceived as spiritual extensions of one another, and gender based sexual traits slip easily back and forth between them. Born into the arduous life of a seafarer, Moran is more butch than he is for instance, while Ramon, given his cushy existence as a rich man’s wastrel son, is a big softy who looks prettier in makeup than she does. Each of doubtful sex, this curious romantic coupling forms the real fascination of the film. And rather than treated with prurient interest, it serves as the story’s emotional core. When Ramon declares “I never knew a girl could be like you,” a resigned Moran is led to sigh “I should’ve been born a boy.” And to make sense of this mess of intertwined sexual identities, we can only assume that the androgyny of these two complimentary characters serves as the very basis of their mutual attraction.
In The Sheik and Blood and Sand, Long’s characters served as a sort of distorted glass darkly, reflecting or foreshadowing the less savory aspects of Valentino’s leads. Brought face to face with his own base instincts, the hero was forced to confront the dark side of himself embodied by Long, either vanquishing it as he did in The Sheik, or being destroyed by it, as he was in Blood and Sand. Moran of the Lady Letty is different in that Long’s scalawag Kitchell serves double duty, turning Valentino’s Ramon into more of a man while simultaneously making a woman of Moran. He paves the way for them to embark upon a conventional heterosexual relationship which would’ve been impossible given the pair’s sexual bewilderment before.
Long appears to take relish in airing the sort of sentiments that many envious American men, whose wives and girlfriends had fallen under the new star’s spell, were venting in private. Addressing him with belittling endearments, Long’s Kitchell amusingly mocks Ramon, undermining his manliness. Calling him by demeaning names like “Angel child” and “dearie,” and “Lillie of the Valee,” making inferences to his sexual inadequacy by going on about how safe Moran will be with Ramon guarding her door, as if it were inconceivable that he could pose a sexual threat himself. Constantly challenging his manhood, emasculating Ramon in the eyes of his crew, he goads him into proving his virility.
When Ramon is assured the cap’n will “make a seaman out o’ him yet – seaman or shark bait!,” what Kitchell is really promising is to make a man out of this socialite born with a silver spoon in his mouth. And though the oath is delivered as a threat, an able bodied (sea) man is, in fact, precisely what Ramon needs to become if he’s going to romance Moran. Courtesy of Kitchell, Ramon becomes more masculine, standing up for himself, defying the captain’s authority, protecting Moran from harm, rescuing her when she’s in danger. Whereas Ramon will be toughened by his harsh treatment at Kitchell’s hands, Moran, who initially appeared better capable than he was of taking care of herself, will become softer, more feminine by film’s end. Much as Kitchell makes a man of Ramon, he’ll help make Moran appear more womanly with the aid of the ship’s cook (George Kuwa), who bequeaths her female attire reasoning that “when a man courts a maid, one of them should wear a dress.” Long, an old hand at forcing his unwanted attentions on helpless maidens, makes a full-fledged woman of Moran simply by placing her in that most rudimentary of silent dilemmas, the compromising position, permitting this two-fisted she-man to instantaneously fall back into the traditional, passive role of damsel in distress, forcing Ramon to come to the defense of his better half. Considering the harsh, unwanted attention accorded her by Kitchell and his crew, it’s little wonder Moran tries to suppress her nascent femininity, wishing she had been born a boy. Having assured every man that he’ll have his fair share of any booty salvaged from the sea, Kitchell’s men all feel they have a stake in her, freely objectifying Moran in a most literal sense, regarding her as chattel to be bought and sold. Kitchell even tries to auction her to the highest bidder and pocket the profit, cheating his shareholders out of their due, prompting Ramon’s mutiny and the crew’s hostile takeover.
In The Sheik, it was leading man Valentino himself who was reduced to viewing women as slaves, but in Moran, Long plays that part from the outset, allowing Valentino’s character to progress even further. Rather than struggling to see women as something more than sexual objects, he has advanced to the point where he regards them as complete equals in all ways. Unlike Long’s Kitchell, Ramon isn’t inclined to treat women like belongings or to exert any right of ownership over them. Indeed, with only their gender distinguishing Valentino’s sailor from Dalton’s, they’re struggling to find a new way for the sexes to relate to one another, on a ground of equal footing and mutual respect.
The fact that Moran and Ramon address each other as ‘mate’ indicates that even once they push past their sexually indeterminate impasse, they fully intend to maintain the fraternal side of their relationship first and foremost, as comrades in arms, confidants, partners in the most sublime sense, just as they seemed when standing side by side, manning the ship in the face of Kitchell’s onslaught. Having been the catalyst for the main characters’ crucial conversion, Long is no longer necessary to proceedings and so his Kitchell is peremptorily dispatched by being hurled from the highest yardarm. Providing the movie with its quirkiest, most humorous highlights, certainly Long’s not altogether unlikable captain warranted an end far less ignominious, but no matter. Moran of the Lady Letty capped an exceptionalseason for the actor who would secure the most glowing notices of his career for another comic turn as the dogged taxi cab driver who pursues fare Wallace Reid south of the border in The Dictator, which critic Robert E. Sherwood listed among the year’s finest acting achievements in The Best Moving Pictures of 1922-23. “Your humor is excellent, Kitchell,” Valentino’s character wryly observes in Moran, and indeed Long’s newfound feel for comedy would stand him in good stead in the long run, particularly in the early sound era when he found himself in the enviable position of barreling through many of Laurel and Hardy’s comic shorts. As late as the mid-thirties, he could be found still whaling away at it in their The Live Ghost, as an amusingly gruff sea captain, shanghaiing hapless crewmen aboard his ship.