Tuesday, December 31, 2013


In his last silent movie before his short, ill-fated sound career, John Gilbert plays the manager of the Crown Diamond Mine in Africa. He and his assistant are happy to hear that a British Lord (Ernest Torrence) and his daughter (Mary Nolan) are visiting. As they note that they haven't seen a white woman in three years, they fear she will be a cross-eyed old maid, but she's young, blond, and sexy—and flirts like crazy with Gilbert. And, as it turns out, she's not really a Lady—she and Torrence and their small entourage are jewel thieves. They steal a tray full of diamonds and when Gilbert gets a telegram saying that the real Lord and Lady have been delayed, the fakes take him hostage and make their escape into the brutal Kalahari Desert. Under the blistering sun, the native servants desert them, and the entourage dies from drinking from a poisoned waterhole, which Torrence himself poisoned in case they were followed. What follows is a grimy, sweaty cat-and-mouse game with Gilbert trying to sow seeds of distrust between Torrence and Nolan as we wonder if they will survive the extreme heat of the desert and the thirst that builds up as they fail to find drinkable water.

The movie is on the weak side in terms of plot and action, but it's well acted by the main trio, especially Gilbert who was still quite healthy and sexy. I'd never heard of Mary Nolan; she was a former Ziegfeld Follies girl who endured a handful of scandals in her day and died young after suffering nervous breakdowns and getting hooked on heroin. She's very good here, making her fate even more of a shame. The movie originally ran almost 80 minutes, but the surviving print is just around an hour, with the biggest problem being near the climax as missing footage makes a sudden reversal of fortunes hard to understand. The California desert where the movie was shot looks nothing at all like an African desert, but the actors are made up well to look like they're suffering. The jaunty background score, which was recorded at the time of the film, often doesn't fit the action on screen. My favorite line: late in the film as Nolan gets a little hysterical and resorts to offering herself to Gilbert in exchange for some water, he rebuffs her, saying "The paint’s all peeled off—there's nothing tempting about you now." The finale involves a nice plot surprise, which is ruined a bit by the missing footage. [TCM]

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