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Soul of the Beast
(1923)
 

This northwoods comedy-drama, by way of a circus drama, was directed by John Griffith Wray for Thomas H. Ince, and stars Madge Bellamy, Cullen Landis, Noah Beery and Anna May the elephant. Sometimes intentionally comic, this film is laughable even when it attempts to be serious.

Ruth Lorrimore (Bellamy) is so abused by her petty stepfather Silas Hamm (Bert Sprotte) that she runs away from the circus that her mother once owned, carried away into the northwoods of Canada by Oscar the elephant (Anna May). Ruth finds that life isn’t so rosy there either, as she is pestered by lecherous French-Canadian bully Caesar Durand (Beery), but she also meets idiotic milquetoast Paul Nadeau (Landis) and sprouts a budding romance. Eschewing a recuperative knee operation, Paul instead opts to use his hard-earned savings to buy a dress for Ruth. Idiot.

When Durand serves Paul his pet rabbit Napoleon for dinner, Paul explodes on Durand with predictable ineffectiveness, only to be saved by Ruth’s action. Then, who should walk in? Ruth’s stepfather, Hamm, who has come to reclaim his missing pretty-girl-and-elephant circus act. Suddenly — let’s get this straight — Ruth and Paul are persued by Durand, who is persued by Oscar, who is persued by Hamm. Once again ineffective in a knife fight, wussy Paul is rescued from the threatening Durand by Oscar, who really has a thing for him. With Durand defeated, Ruth then announces, “We want to go far away, Oscar.” Uh . . . one moment, Ruth, while the remainder of the audience has finished exiting the theater before you.

Does Soul of the Beast qualify for campy classic status? A film so bad that it’s good? Noah Beery’s performance skates the line between atrocious acting and the broadness of parody. The pedestrian plot is so routine that it evokes giggles. Animals talk to each other. And we can’t decide whether the the abuse inflicted on the film’s characters by Beery is more or less severe than the pain inflicted upon the film’s audience who must read the dialog intertitles accented in stereotypical French-Canadian English. The birthday party scene in the woods between Bellamy and Landis smacks of Disney Snow White sappiness, with its bird-chirping and riverside music and dancing. When you watch Beery, watching them, just imagine you hear the subaudible mumblings of Bluto in Max Fleischer’s Popeye cartoons of the 1930s. Ultimately, we must say that Soul of the Beast is not-so-much ado about nothing, but it nonetheless remains inexplicably watchable due in toto to its jaw-dropping stupidity.

Vernon Dent has fun early in the film with a small comic rôle as a rube at the circus. Carrie Clark Ward ably supports as the bulldog harridan, Mrs. Boussut. — Carl Bennett

2010 Sunrise Silents DVD edition

Soul of the Beast (1923), black & white, 52 minutes, not rated.

Sunrise Silents, SOTB-N (NTSC) and SOTB-P (PAL), no UPC number.
Windowboxed 4:3 NTSC or PAL, one single-sided, single-layered DVD-R disc, Region 0, ? Mbps average video bit rate, 1536 kbps audio bit rate, PCM stereo sound, English language intertitles, no foreign language subtitles, 8 chapter stops, standard DVD keepcase, $21.95.
DVD release date: 23 August 2010.
Country of origin: USA

Ratings (1-10): video: 6 / audio: 7 / additional content: 0 / overall: 6.

This edition has been mastered from a good to very-good Filmo Library 16mm reduction print that is a bit contrasty, occasionally losing picture detail in the highlights and shadows. Some shots are reasonably detailed, with a broad range of graytones. Some shots lose facial detail in a flare of highlight contrastiness. The windowboxed video transfer runs at a slightly faster-than-natural-speed rate, but stays this side of a comical frame rate. However, this edition retains enough visual quality to remain quite watchable.

The presentation is accompanied by a compiled music score of digital piano music performed on a MIDI-based keyboard. The speedy music is appropriately hypermelodramatic for this silly film.

The transfer is not ideal, but the results are better in this edition than in the Grapevine Video edition noted below. This is our current recommended home video edition of Soul of the Beast.

 
SUNRISE SILENTS has discontinued business and this edition is no longer available.
2008 Grapevine Video DVD edition

Soul of the Beast (1923), black & white, 64 minutes, not rated,
with Fortune Teller (1923), black & white, 7 minutes, not rated.

Grapevine Video, no catalog number, UPC 8-42614-10332-2.
Windowboxed 4:3 NTSC, one single-sided, single-layered DVD-R disc, Region 0, ? Mbps average video bit rate, ? kbps audio bit rate, PCM 2.0 mono sound, English language intertitles, no foreign language subtitles, 6 chapter stops, standard DVD keepcase, $14.95.
DVD release date: 2008.
Country of origin: USA

Ratings (1-10): video: 4 / audio: 4 / additional content: 5 / overall: 4.

This edition has been mastered from the same contrasty Filmo Library 16mm reduction print, utilized above, that loses picture detail in the highlights and shadows. The analog natural-speed video transfer is softer in picture details than the Sunrise edition noted above. The older, slightly windowboxed transfer, which may have originally been prepared for release on VHS videotape, flares briefly between some shots of different grayscale ranges, as the transfer equipment adjusts from a dark shot to a lighter shot. The overall picture quality makes the source print look more like an 8mm reduction print.

The presentation is accompanied by a music score of preexisting recordings of varying audio quality.

Not ideal, this edition does at least present the film at a slower, closer-to-natural speed frame rate, and adds a Max Fleischer Ko-Ko the clown cartoon to the program.

 
This Region 0 NTSC DVD-R edition is available directly from GRAPEVINE VIDEO.
 
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