Universal - Super - Jewel
Directed by Clarence L. Brown
. . . . . . . . . .
. . . . Sally Taylor
Rockcliffe Fellowes . . . . . . . . David Taylor
Wallace Beery . . . . . . . . . . . . Joe Standish
Frankie Darro . . . . . . . . . . . . "Sonny" Taylor
James O. Barrows . . . . . . . . . "Uncle" Billy Dowling
J. Farrell MacDonald . . . . . . . Pete Rowland
Dot Farley . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Cousin Gertie
Clarence Brown . . . . . . . . . . . Switch Man
Jitney the Dog . . . . . . . . . . . . Jitney
Based on a story by Wadsworth Camp, this dramatic film, directed by then fledgling director Clarence Brown (who would go on to be nominated for six Academy Awards during his prolific career) is a thrill ride from start to finish, and affords us one of the earliest glimpses of Frankie's start in the movies.
The film centers on the Noyo Signal Tower based in the Mendocino Mountains at the bottom of a dangerous 30 foot grade. The switching station is manned by David Taylor, a family man who has brought his wife and son to the isolated area to live nearby. David works the tower from midnight to noon and the senior towerman, known as "Uncle" Billy, works from noon until midnight. The film begins with David working his shift and Uncle Billy coming to relieve him. David teases Billy that "he's been found out at last," then hands him a telegram which explains that the old man is being given full pension for his retirement plus a trip to New York. It also explains that his replacement will arrive the following day. David congratulates him but says he hates to see him go.
David heads to his little home not far from the signal tower. His wife Sally is eyeing a chocolate cake which she had recently frosted. His little boy, "Sonny," is sitting on the front stoop eating the leftover chocolate icing from a bowl. His dog, Jitney, watches hungrily. Sonny finally sets the bowl down and goes inside, leaving Jitney to finish cleaning out the bowl. Inside, Sonny passes, unseen, by his mother and enters the sitting room where he sees the frosted cake. He sneaks a taste using his finger, and is about to take the whole cake when he hears someone outside and runs up the stairs instead.
David enters and sees the cake, and just like his son, he sneaks a taste of frosting. He hears Sally coming from the kitchen and takes the cake, hiding behind a door. Seeing the cake is gone, Sally immediately suspects Sonny and calls him downstairs. She is about to give him a spanking when David sneaks the cake back onto the table, much to Sonny's amusement. Sally is confused about the cake's reappearance until she finds her husband hiding behind the door. David and Sally go into the kitchen where he steps outside to wash his hands. She asks him to guess who's there. At that moment, a woman throws a basin of water out of an upstairs window. It rolls down the roof and lands on David. "I know," he says, "Cousin Gertie!" They laugh. Cousin Gertie will be visiting for a few days.
David tells Sally about Uncle Billy' replacement and she asks if he plans to ask the new towerman to take Uncle Billy's room in their house and expresses her wish that he doesn't, that it would be more homelike with just the three of them. David points out that they still owe money for the lumber and that the room rent helps with the payments. She agrees with him that it isn't really their home until it is paid for. The following afternoon, the new man arrives. David notes that he is wearing rather fancy clothing. The man introduces himself as Joe Standish. Uncle Billy (who only has one arm) is packing his belongings into a suitcase in his room at the house. He gives Sonny a wooden train which he has whittled for him. Sally is sad to see Billy go and tells him he's been like a father to them all.
At the signal tower, David sees Billy crossing the bridge and thinks to ask Joe if he's thought about where he'll live. Joe says he supposes he'd stay at the hotel in town. David offers the room in his house and Joe says he'll look it over. David finishes writing a dispatch sending $51.00 to the lumber company and promising the balance soon. He watches as Joe crosses the bridge to the house and underlines "I am hoping" in his letter. Cousin Gertie, who has been cleaning, opens the door to Joe and invites him in. Joe looks her over and isn't very impressed. Gertie shows Joe the room and sidles up to him pretty quickly. Joe offers her a stick of gum . . . apparently her shabby clothes aren't the only thing unappealing to him.
Joe claims the room is too quiet and is about to leave when Sally enters. Joe has an immediate change of heart, saying it's a nice quiet room. Sally is immediately ill at ease, and points out the room is hard to keep warm in the winter. Joe says it suits him fine, that he hates heat anyhow. Gertie sees Joe has thrown his hat on the bed and points out it's bad luck. Joe takes it off, then when the ladies leave he tosses it back on, then thinks about what Gertie said and takes it off again. Gertie goes upstairs and starts fixing herself up. Even though she is engaged, she takes her engagement ring off and hides it down her blouse.
A title explains that because of Joe, Gertie has extended her stay two weeks. She comes downstairs and David notices how fixed up she is. He and Sally have a laugh about it and Sally points out that she's engaged to a nice man already. David asks if Joe isn't nice and Sally says she hopes so, but that he's not like Uncle Billy. David scoffs at her concern, assuring her Joe is full of fun and all right. The Limited Express, which rarely stops at Noyo, goes past. The engineer, Pete Rowland, is the most important man in the world to Sonny. Sonny leaves his train set on the porch to run down and wave to Pete as he passes by.
Sonny goes back to his trains and his parents come out to watch. Sonny forgets to hook the last car to the train and when the engine comes around it hits the car and the train falls off the track as well as the porch. Sonny tearfully picks up the engine and sobs, "Daddy, I wrecked my train!" His dad picks him up and puts him on his knee and asks if he doesn't want to be a great railroad man someday. Sonny says he wants to be an engineer like Pete. His dad explains how Sonny must always keep the track clear, and tells the story of an engineer who forgot his orders. The scene dissolves to a shot of a head on collision between two trains on a high trestle. David tells Sonny to never think about anything else until the track is clear and the train is safe. David then heads to work.
Sometime later, Gertie is watching as Joe shows Sonny a magic trick with a cigarette. Gertie tells Sonny his mama wants him. Sonny tries to argue but Gertie is firm. Joe tries to follow Sonny but Gertie has other plans, offering to read his palm. As she looks at his hands, he shows off a ring on his little finger, then takes it off and gives it to her. They start playing with one another's hands. Sally walks in and is shocked to see this. Gertie turns and starts to play the piano to cover. Sally had come in to clean but Joe takes away her broom and insists she dance with him. She resists but he insists, and manages to dance her into the sitting room without Gertie noticing. He tries to molest her but is stuck with a pin in her dress. Sally goes off to get something to help and Gertie yells for Joe to come back. Joe calls back, telling her he's teaching Sally a new step. Sally comes back to bandage Joe's finger and urges him not to take Gertie too seriously because she's engaged to a nice man. Joe tells her it's not Gertie he's interested in. Gertie drags him back into the front room.
The title tells us that Joe has fooled himself into thinking he's found favor in Sally's eyes and the next night Joe is eating dinner and Sally brings him his coffee. Gertie asks to take in his dessert, which she does. Joe thinks it is Sally who has come back and is disappointed to see Gertie. Joe does a magic trick where he makes the water glass move (by way of a pulled string). She then opens what looks like a jar of jam and a snake pops out, frightening her. She uses this as an excuse to throw herself into his arms. Sally brings Joe his lunchbox and he leaves for his shift. Gertie sees him out the door and tries to get a kiss, but he clearly isn't that interested.
David comes home and Sally fixes him dinner, asking if he washed his hands. He points out he washed them that morning. Gertie puts a photo of Joe in front of the photo of her fiancee. David asks Sally if she's still worried about Joe and Gertie, and Sally says she thinks he's gaving a bad influence on her cousin. David says Gertie is a fool and that he doesn't blame Joe. Sally says she's worried if she doesn't send Gertie home right away . . . David dismisses this, pointing out that Joe loves Sonny and that any man who's good with kids is usually okay. Sally notes that like most men her husband isn't seeing the danger and she asks if Joe has paid his rent. David admits he hasn't. Sally points out that if Joe doesn't pay the rent it would make him less trustworthy. David assures her he'll ask for the rent the next day.
Pete meets Sonny and gives him a present, an engineer's outfit to wear! David greets Pete and while they are talking Joe calls down for something from the window of the tower. "So they unloaded that railroad sheik here, eh?" Pete asks, then warns David that Joe's a devil with the women. David says he'll be a lonely sheik because Gertie is leaving that day. Pete is a out to ask about the fiancee when Sonny accidentally spills oil on his head from above. Pete climbs up into the engine and tosses Sonny down to David, then heads out. David and Sonny go up to the tower where Sonny shows off his new outfit for Joe and together they do a trick where Joe flips Sonny. Joe is going to take Sonny back home when David asks him about the rent. Joe promises to bring it that night.
Joe and Sonny get home and Sonny shows his engineer's outfit to his mother. Gertie comes downstairs, packed to leave. She explains that Sally asked her to go home but she doesn't know why. Joe interprets this to mean Sally wants him all to herself. That night, Sally is sitting with Sonny in her arms and Joe reading the paper. Sally notices the look Joe is giving her over his paper. She decides to take Sonny to bed but Joe insists on taking him for her. Joe lays Sonny in bed and Sally gets his pajamas and wakes him so she can get them on him. Joe waits for her impatiently, and finally throws a vase down on the floor to get her to come out. She comes out and cleans up the vase while he closes the door to the bedroom. He advances on her and she escapes, running to the bedroom and locking the door. That night, Joe relieves David at work and pays him the rent money.
David comes home and Sally is still in the bedroom. She comes out to find David counting the money Joe has given him. Sally tells David what happened and David wads up the money and throws it down. David proceed to Joe's room and starts packing the man's things in a suitcase, including a liquor bottle. He takes the suitcase and the money back to the signal tower. Joe, who is practicing magic tricks, sees David coming and checks a nearby desk drawer to be sure there is indeed a gun there. David climbs up into the tower and throws the suitcase down. Joe asks if David is taking a little trip. David informs Joe he is moving to town and threatens him to never come near his house again. David storms off and Joe goes back to his magic trick, then smells something. He looks down to see liquor from the broken bottle coming out of his suitcase.
The next noon when David has to go to work it is a windy, stormy day. Sonny is outside in his raincoat playing with Jitney. Sally is worried Joe will come back to the house that night and David says he'd have him fired if he pulled anything. He suggests taking Sonny to the signal tower and sending him back home with the gun from the drawer there. Sally says no, that she'd be afraid to touch it and wouldn't want Sonny to hurt himself. David says he'll remove the bullet so she can use it to bluff Joe if he shows up. They arrive at the tower and Sonny runs to Joe. David pulls him away. Joe points out that Sonny likes him a lot. "That's because he doesn't know you -- a lot!" As Joe leaves he tells David that Sonny isn't the only one who likes him a lot.
David removes the bullets from the gun and then looks out the window to make sure Joe has gone. While he's not looking, Sonny takes one of the bullets and puts it in his pocket. David gives the empty gun to Sonny to take home to his mother. On the way home, Sonny sees a squirrel and pulls out the gun to aim, pretending to shoot. A pine cone falls from the wind and makes Sonny think he really shot the gun. He runs home. David writes to the lumber company to explain that he'll have to reduce his payments and asks for the adjustment to the interest. Sonny gets home and gives his mother the gun. She puts it on a high shelf and takes his hat and coat. When she's gone, he gets a chair and tries to get the gun, but she catches him. She then gets up on a chair herself to place the gun in a high cabinet that's hard to open.
That night the storm increases, with strong winds and rain. David watches the house through the storm, then returns to his desk. A train approaches the tower and stops, a man runs inside. He asks David to tell the boss that their air brakes are shot and that he doesn't want to take the train over the hill without another engine. As the mechanics work on the brakes, they await a response. When it comes, it says no other engines are available and advises the engineer to proceed to the summit using the handbrake and to use all precautions. The engineer goes back to his train and rolls on. Joe is seen walking through the rain.
At the house, Sonny comes out in his pajamas and cries that he left his engine on the porch and it will get wet. Sally goes outside to get the train. David sees the door open and close at the house and notes Joe is half an hour late relieving him. Joe finally arrives at the tower and David demands to know where he's been. Joe, who appears to be drunks, taunts him by saying, "You'd like to know where I've been - - wouldn't you?" David prepares to leave when a telegram comes through. Joe is ignoring the call, practically passed out in his chair, so David takes it. The message is "Extra 129 passed Brewster will clear at summit for Limited trying to make up lost time." Realizing Joe is useless, David resigns himself to stay on.
A title card tells us the Limited Express, eastbound to Summit was an hour late. Pete gets a message via the mail hook from telling him the grade will be cleared from Noyo to the Summit where he will pass the Extra 129 and make up time. They speed up. The 129 nears the summit, then the couplings fail in the middle and half the train starts rolling back down the grade, out of control. The brakemen can't get the brakes to work. At the summit, the engineer runs inside the station to tell the man to alert dispatch that his cars have broken loose and are running wild. They contact Brewster, the only station between Noyo and the summit, and ask them to try to derail the loose cars. The Chief Dispatcher alerts Noyo that they will try to derail the cars, but if it can't be done he will be their last hope to derail them or the Limited will be doomed.
The cars bust right through the blockade the man sets up at Brewster. He alerts dispatch that he wasn't able to stop the cars. David desperately tries to awaken Joe to the situation, but the only thing Joe awakens to is his opportunity to get Sally on his own, knowing David won't leave the signal tower in such an emergency. Joe tries to leave but David stops him. They fight and Joe knocks David out with a chair. When David comes to, the telegraph is coming through alerting him that he's their last chance to derail the cars to save The Limited. He knows Joe is heading to his house, but he also knows he has to save The Limited. We are shown parents with their children on the speeding train, two children running to the bathroom colliding in the aisle in a symbolic analogy.
Joe arrives at the house. Sally has been sitting up, waiting for David. The storm is still raging. There is a knock at the door and she sees it is Joe. She goes into the sitting room and locks the door. Joe breaks in through the window. At the station, David is trying to switch the track, but it is not working with all the water running down the hill. He throws a flare out the window onto the track and heads down to try to switch the rails by hand. Joe sneaks up on Sally through another door. David starts to break off the rail with a sledgehammer. Sally runs to another room and locks herself in. Sonny meets her and she begs him to go back to bed as Joe starts to break through the door. Joe breaks through and chases Sally into the bedroom, jamming his foot in the door before she can get it closed.
David continues to try to get the rail dismantled. Sonny runs through the rain in his pajamas toward the tower. Joe forces his way into Sonny's room. Sally pleads with him to stop. Sonny reaches the tower and begs his father to help mama. David gathers Sonny up but before he can leave he hears the trains approaching from both directions. He urges Sonny to go up into the tower. Pete sees the flares and brings the Limited to a stop. David gets the rail moved at the last second and the wild cars tumble off the tracks and down the hill, missing the stopped Limited. Sally suddenly arrives at the signal tower and runs into David's arms. She explains, via flashback, how she managed to get away from Joe and lock him in the bedroom while she retrieved the gun. She brandished at him but he just laughed and continued to break through the door. She continued to pull the trigger until suddenly the gun fired through the door, hitting him.
They cannot understand how the gun wasn't loaded. Sonny then appears from where he was hiding in a container and confesses, "Daddy, I did it! I loaded the gun . . . " He comes out and bends over, expecting to be spanked. Instead they gather him up in their arms. We see a wounded Joe limping away through the storm and the film ends.
This is the earliest film performance of Frankie's that is still known to exist!
Frankie would work for director Clarence Brown again in the silent films Kiki and Flesh and the Devil.
Even in press
materials and articles from the time, the family's name is given as
but in the film itself their last name is given as "Taylor" in the intertitles.
This write-up appeared in the August 1924 issue of PhotoPlay magazine.