Tuesday, 10 September 2013

The Headless Horseman

Director: Edward D Venturini
Writer: Carl Stearns Clancy
Producer: Carl Stearns Clancy
Cast: Will Rogers, Lois Meredith, Ben Hendricks Jr
Country: USA
Year of release: 1922
Reviewed from: US DVD (Alpha)

Will Rogers is one of those icons of American comedy who is pretty much unknown on this side of the Atlantic. I’ve never seen him in anything, though he made sixty-odd films between 1918 and his death in a plane crash in 1935. In the 1920s and 1930 he was one of the biggest stars in America: a cowboy-turned-comedian-turned-writer with a top-rated radio show and the most widely read newspaper column in the country.

But fame, especially comic fame, is a very regional thing and you would be hard pressed to find anyone in the UK who has ever heard of him. Maybe his down-home, earthy American humour didn’t travel; maybe his philanthropic ‘never met a man I didn’t like’ outlook was too bland and naive for cynical British audiences.

So anyway, here he is starring in a version of Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, a cornerstone of American literature which is largely known in the UK from Tim Burton’s big budget version and (to a lesser extent) Disney’s animated The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr Toad. Rogers plays Ichabod Crane, a young man from ‘Niue York’ hired by the Dutch immigrant townsfolk of a little New England town. Crane is played as something of an innocent abroad, tall and straight-faced, with little comedy quirks such as his pigtail sticking straight out from the back of his head. There is also a comic aspect to the way he rides his horse, probably caused by slightly too short stirrup straps.

In the town he attracts the attention of Katrina Van Tassel (Lois Meredith), much to the annoyance of her beau, known as ‘Brom Bones’ (Ben Hendricks Jr). This is another in the great tradition of stories where we are expected to feel great empathy for the kind, beautiful, charming, intelligent female lead while also accepting that she is unable to notice that her boyfriend is an arrogant gorilla.

Determined to get rid of the yankee interloper, whom they consider a dangerous intellectual, Brom and his cronies smash up the schoolhouse and leave a skull drawn on the blackboard, thereby (somehow) starting rumours that Crane knows witchcraft and is in league with the Devil. Brom follows this up by getting one of the young boys drunk and persuading him to claim that “Master Crane has bewitched me.” The townsfolk grab Crane, stick him in the stocks and prepare to tar and feather him but the school committee, aided by a young black lad who saw what happened, persuade the boy to admit the truth and Brom is forced to make a public apology.

Crane is later invited to a ‘quilting merriment’ at the Van Tassel home where Brom is again driven to jealousy by seeing Katrina dance with the yankee. As was legally required at the time, these dancing scenes also feature cutaway shots to all the local black kids clustering around the window, tapping their feet and grinning.

Staying late after the other revellers have left, Crane asks Katrina to marry him although it’s rather unclear from the intertitles whether she accepts or not. Riding home through the ‘dark’ (I know I always complain about day-for-night filming but I’ll make allowances for a film photographed in 1922), he encounters the local ghost, ‘the Headless Horseman’, near the bridge over the river. Terrified, he gallops away and we see that the ‘Horseman’ is Brom with his cloak tied round the top of his head. A couple of length intertitles tell us, quoting the last paragraph of the original story, that Ichabod never returned and was believed to have perished at the hands of the ghost but was later discovered to be alive and well in Niue York, although the old ladies of Sleepy Hollow prefer the first version.

Faithful to the source material this ending may be, but it feels perfunctory and unsatisfying. Released by Alpha on a double bill with Italian robot fragment The Mechanical Man, the sleeve states a running time of 51 minutes but this film actually runs for 71 minutes. The 51-minute mark comes after Crane’s rescue from the stocks so everything else seems like an addendum although it’s actually the meat of the story. Mind, we should be thankful it’s there as the first 50 minutes contains nothing about the Headless Horseman except a brief, non-narrative cutaway sequence of a double-exposure ghost to illustrate an anecdote.

Rogers made two other notable fantasy pictures: the first sound version of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court in 1931 (with Maureen O’Sullivan and Myrna Loy) and the 1922 comedy One Glorious Day, about a disembodied spirit named Ek, which famously inspired a young Forrest J Ackerman’s interest in fantasy and SF. This film’s writer/producer Carl Stearns Clancy also provided the scenario for The Adventurous Sex, a 1925 Clara Bow picture, and directed and produced a series of Will Rogers European travelogues in 1927 including the marvellously titled Hunting for Germans in Berlin with Will Rogers.

First published in 1820 (and written, I was amazed to discover, while the author was living in Birmingham, England), The Legend of Sleepy Hollow has been adapted numerous times. There were three silent versions - in 1908, in 1912 and this one - then an Ub Iwerks cartoon in 1934 (widely available on public domain compilations) which was the first time the story was presented in colour and sound. Disney’s take on the story followed in 1949, a Bing Crosby-narrated featurette which was paired with a version of The Wind in the Willows(!) as a feature release, then subsequently given TV and theatrical distribution on its own. Shirley Temple was the unlikely name behind the first live-action version of the sound era, a 1958 episode of her TV anthology Shirley Temple’s Storybook. Temple was thirty years old and starred as Katrina in that version with Boris Karloff as a town elder narrating the story.

Animated versions followed in 1970 (a Halloween Special with Mel Blanc and Don Messick among the voice cast) and 1972 (narrated by John Carradine). Then in 1979 The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was one of three stories presented as a Vincent Price-hosted TV special, Once Upon a Midnight Scary. A pre-DS9 Rene Auberjonois was Ichabod Crane in that version. The following year Jeff Goldblum played Crane in another TV version with Meg Foster (They Live, Project: Shadowchaser, Space Marines) as Katrina; brilliantly named director Henning Schellerup was cinematographer on Silent Night Deadly Night, Chesty Anderson US Navy and an unrelated horror picture from 1974 called Curse of the Headless Horseman.

Brent Carver and Rachelle Lefevre (Annie Cartwright in the US remake of Life on Mars) took the lead roles in a Canadian TV version from 1999, the same year as an animated TV special The Night of the Headless Horseman. This boasted an all-star cast of William H Macy (Ichabod), Tia Carrere (Katrina), Luke Perry, Clancy Brown and Mark Hamill - and a screenplay by cyberpunk author (and occasional Blue Oyster Cult collaborator) John Shirley!

Remarkably, this makes Tim Burton’s big budget version - with Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci in the leads and terrific uncredited roles for Martin Landau and Christopher Walken - the first live action, theatrically released, feature-length version of the story since Will Rogers. It also seems to be the most recent adaptation as I can’t find any others between 1999 and 2007, although there was a sort of sequel, The Hollow, in 2004 which told of Ichabod Crane’s great-great-grandson (Kevin Zegers: Komodo, Bram Stoker’s Shadowbuilder and the Air Bud films) returning to the town in the present day. There was also Sleepy Hollow High, opportunistically directed in 2000 by Kevin Summerfield (The Adventures of Young Van Helsing), but that has no real connection with Washington Irving beyond the title.

The Will Rogers silent version is moderately amusing, with a few wry smiles from the intertitles and a few very brief spots of physical comedy, although nothing in the film is quite as funny as the phrase ‘quilting merriment’. It doesn’t really go anywhere but that’s partly because the original story doesn’t either, which is why Kevin Yagher and Andrew Kevin Walker had to invent so much new stuff for Burton’s film. The sets and costumes do a good job of recreating a small town in late 18th century America and the lives of the Dutch community who live there. Rogers’ Crane is a likeable fellow, Meredith’s Katrina is a coquette and Hendricks’ Brom is a suitably arrogant bully, while the supporting cast are remarkably restrained for such an early film.

Alpha’s print is understandably knocked about, too dark in some spots and so light in others that people’s faces disappear, but it’s still watchable, with clear intertitles, not too much actual physical damage and an accurate projection speed. There is also a version available from Grapevine Video which includes the Harold Lloyd short Haunted Spooks.

MJS rating: B
review originally posted 5th April 2007

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