A stolen child, a skeleton mascot, a circus act, and a stunt-filled chase as a man in a skeleton suit and a female acrobat go on the run: continuing this month’s theme of ‘Adventure 1915’ is Il jockey della morte, an Italian thriller directed by legendary Danish filmmaker Alfred Lind.
This entry turned into something of a research project. Looking into Il jockey della morte, I found out that it and its sequel Il circo della morte | The Circus of Death had quite a convoluted distribution history, so in this entry I retrace the history (and mysteries) of this once very popular film and its sequel. But firstly, to the film itself!
The prologue sets up the story: Count Raoul de Castelroc is offed by one of his employees who wants to have the castle to himself; the villain disposes of Castelroc’s young daughter (never named in this print of the film) by – what else – selling her to gypsies. “And now, old mansion of Castelroc, you’re mine!” he utters, gesticulating towards the old castle and clasping his hand to his bosom before he sneaks out of frame theatrically.
Cut to fifteen years later, and the arrival of Count Raoul’s nephew Henri de Castelroc. Henri’s father Georges was cut off from his family and forced into exile because he married a circus rider. But a letter written on Georges’ deathbed implores Raoul that the son is not responsible for the sins of the father, and that he is sending Henri to him to help take possession of his properties. For the rascally steward, this is an unwanted development: “I thought I was forever rid of the last members of the family of Castelroc!” he exclaims.
Henri quickly twigs that something is amiss, and his suspicions are confirmed when he finds a letter hidden in the frame of Raoul’s deathbed, in which he is sleeping. (A faithful servant of Castelroc has explained that Raoul died of fever there, while by a “tragic coincidence” his little daughter was kidnapped the same night). In a film mostly composed in medium- and long-shot, this scene stands out for the tight way it is framed: beginning with Henri in repose, and shown here after he has discovered the note:
Henri is convinced that he will find the answers to his questions in the castle library; he is assisted by the (unnamed) servant while the steward watches on via peephole.
It’s through a secret passage in the library that Henri meets one of the key supporting characters of the film – the skeleton of Castelroc! Centuries old, by legend this skeleton is the lucky charm of the Castelroc family. Well, why not?
Henri finds a clue to the kidnappers – a flyer for the Circus Bartoli – and vows to track Bartoli down and rescue his cousin.
From Castelroc to the Italian circus – Henri has gone undercover in the same circus in which Bartoli is engaged … as the Jockey of Death! As we’ve seen in the picture at the head of this entry, this involves riding while clothed and made up to look like a skeleton. At the circus, we also encounter Mme. de Castelroc, now an acrobatic performer. Thus we have the first big circus set-piece of the film – and the lady’s tightrope antics are indeed impressive. And if you had guessed that this skill would come in handy later in the film, you are right!
As you can imagine, Henri and his cousin escape together, and it’s then that Il jockey della morte really gets cooking. The last third of the film is essentially one long escape/chase scene, and it is incredible. Our heros escape along roofs and through drains, take a flying-fox down from a mountain, jump off traintracks, commandeer a boat, and climb up a bridge from said boat … it is a truly thrilling sequence of exploits, still impressive today. Here the duo cycle on a tightrope over a river:
One of the other action high-points is an earlier scene in which the duo fashion an impromptu pulley out of a bundle of sticks and zipline down a mountain. An item in Motography describes this as “one of the most daring scenes depicted on the screen”, and notes that Miss Evelyn actually broke her ankle doing this stunt, “but gamely continued until the action was completed”. Indeed, Miss Evelyn does have a visibly injured ankle after this scene, and an intertitle explains that she hurt herself on landing – so assuming that the reportage in Motography is true, director and scenarist Alfred Lind wrote her injury into the film.
Aside from the main duo and their awe-inspiring and unsafe-looking stunts, the status of the Skeleton de Castelroc as a
comedy skeleton noble talisman is not neglected in the rest of film, as it hangs out with Henri in his circus dressing room, provides cover for Henri to escape with his cousin, gets ridden around in cars, and generally bundled around the place. A versatile dead person! These touches of humour are predictable, yet give the film an offbeat charm.
In general, the film isn’t directed with a lot of technical flourish, but does one really care when it’s this much fun? The stunts remain incredible and the emphasis is on simply showing them, rather than doing anything flashy cinematographically. I won’t give away the precise ending, but let’s just say that the villains get their due.
Who were the stars?
There is very little information available about the cast: the film credits (not original) of the available Belgium film copy list the main three cast members as Miss Evelyn, Alfred Lind, and Trude Nick. We can assume that Trude Nick is the male lead as Henri is clearly not played by Lind, but there is no information about Nick available, except for the fact that he apparently also appeared in the follow-up film. In the American press the male lead is referred to as M. Arturo, “a European circus star”; I also found a couple of mentions in US periodicals that give Miss Evelyn’s name as ‘Evelyn Vadito’. The surname suggests Spanish to me, though of course Evelyn as a first name does not, and in any case it could have been a stage name or a media invention. If anyone has any information about these two actors/circus performers, please let me know!
Alfred Lind directed the film, and is also credited in the principal cast by the Cinematek BE. There are three possibilities for his role: the dishonourable steward, the faithful manservant, or Bartoli. Judging from the Danish Film Institute’s gallery of Lind, I’m leaning towards the faithful manservant, but I’m honestly not sure – between the photography of the original and low resolution of the digitized version, it’s very difficult to tell.
The performances of the cast were not very well-reviewed, and clearly the stars were hired for their acrobatic prowess. That said, although the supporting cast were pretty broad in their style, I thought that the actor/acrobat playing Henri was more than competent. And while Miss Evelyn’s acting was on the stagey side, I found her genuinely affecting in shots like this:
The length of the film
The copy of the film now available is preserved by the Cinematek BE, and is 1180m (3871 ft) in length, with a running time of 57’50” – that’s close to 18 frames per second. The archive estimates the original length at 1600m (5249 ft). In New Zealand, the film was frequently advertised as 5000 ft; in Australia, one account gives 5600 ft. The Australian press also variously refers to Jockey as both four and five reels; one newspaper item writes that it “holds the screen for nearly two hours”. One hopes that was an exaggeration, because even assuming a 5600-foot film, Il jockey della morte would have to have been seriously undercranked (~12.5fps) to reach that duration.
We will probably never exactly know how long the film was originally, but the somewhere in the range of 5000-5250 ft seems most likely. It’s hard to tell what is missing in the Belgian copy; from the press reports, it seems as though the main stunts are still extant. Part of the missing length may just be the typical damage that occurred around the start and end of reels.
Speaking of which, the film copy is far from pristine – the print obviously was well-used, and digitization for the European Film Gateway project didn’t include any kind of digital restoration work, so the patina of time is quite visible. This isn’t something that bothers me, in fact it can be appealing to see the marks of time. Of interest is that at several places in the film, punchmarks of numbers can be seen. I have seen similar punched dots at the beginning and end of film reels, and they normally indicate the batch number of the film stock. The punchmarks must have occurred in the original camera negative, since we see them as black here. Although they could be considered a kind of artefact or blemish on the film, they’re one that I find historically – and visually – interesting.
A blemish on the film and shortly thereafter, a scratch extending over two successive frames; punchmarks running over successive frames in the film
Il jockey della morte around the world
There are plenty of adverts for Il jockey della morte in Italian film journals (example above), but The Jockey of Death was also heavily marketed in the US by its American distributor Signet Films – the film was advertised with full-page adverts and reviewed prominently. Here’s one example from The Moving Picture World of 24 June 1916:
The film continued to be advertised in November and December, with publicity emphasizing the thrilling nature of the film and the stunts of the actors.
The bottom-right illustration with the robed spectre menacing the tightrope walker is fantastic, though quite unrepresentative of how Mademoiselle Evelyn appears in the film.
Il jockey della morte was reviewed quite positively in both Motography and Moving Picture World. Thomas C. Kennedy in Motography (25 November 1916) praised the stunts of the picture, noting that audiences would have “no inclination to take a bit of a nap” during the film. As for the plot, he wrote that the story was “melodrama carried to a farcical plane”, but that it would be “ingratitude to find fault with a story whose sole purpose is to make way for such manifestly interesting action”. The onscreen thrills also cancelled out imperfections in the direction: “here, too, one not only forgives but actually disregards”.
Edward Weitzel in Moving Picture World (18 November 1916) was more critical: he called the production “crude” and disliked the acting (“overacting with delight in their efforts which is characteristic of the Latin temperament”), though he notes that it is excusable here since the leads are acrobats by profession. The characters were recast as English in the American/English-language version of the film (Henry de Castelroc = Henry Claremont; Miss Evelyn, unnamed in the version I watched, is Elda), and Weitzel didn’t find them convincingly British (the thought that they weren’t filmed to be so doesn’t seem to have crossed his mind). However, he found the stunts impressive and considered it an exciting picture.
It seems to have been a big hit in America as well as elsewhere. An item in Pictures and the Picturegoer (28 August 1915) claimed that five hundred cinemas had already booked it; an article in Moving Picture World (22 April 1916) relates that it was very successful in Great Britain, such that “it has been spoken of as the biggest money-winner in the British Isles during the last year”. One should take such claims with a grain of salt, but there are many similar press mentions, so it seems that Il jockey della morte was indeed notably successful.
Il jockey della morte screened in the Netherlands and its colonies under the title De Jockey des Doods; here are a few of the newspaper listings.
Tilburgsche Courant 21 Sep 1915; Rotterdamsch Nieuwsblad 17 Aug 1915; Suriname koloniaal nieuws- en advertentieblad 29 Sep 1916.
What really piqued my interest though, is that the film appears to have been a massive hit in the Antipodes – not only that, but it arrived there in mid-1915, long before it was shown in the US. Perhaps its success in Commonwealth countries spurred the big American publicity campaign. Il jockey della morte was screened all over Australia: there are a huge number of mentions in the press for the film, which praise it extensively and talk of record-setting audiences. ‘Sensational’ and ‘thrilling’ are the key-words that reappear over and over in the media mentions. In Geelong (VIC), it was screened with well-known films by Chaplin, Arbuckle and “Bill” (William S.) Hart; in Western Australia, a listing in the Kalgoorlie Miner (30 Aug 1915) spends more time talking about The Jockey of Death than it does the Chaplin picture being shown. A review in the Hamilton Spectator (VIC; 07 Oct 1915) noted that the story “is not much”, but that the stunts were astounding. An item in Perth’s The Daily News noted that police had had to requisitioned to handle the crowds, of which “thousands” were turned away from the full theatre.
The Jockey of Death had a long distribution history in Australia – for example, it played in Perth in June 1916, a full year after it was shown in Sydney, and indeed it was there mistakenly referred to as a sequel to The Circus of Death (of which more below), which it was claimed to surpass! Some of the publicity in Australia attributes the film to Cines (Rome), explicitly advertising Jockey as produced by the company that made Quo Vadis? (IT 1912); in New Zealand, it was supposedly produced by Milano-Film. New Zealand media was closer, but still wrong – Il jockey della morte was produced by Armando Vay (Vay-Film) of Milan.
The Jockey of Death also seems to have been a phenomenon in New Zealand. It was shown all across the country and mentioned very frequently in the newspapers, in rapturous terms which described its popularity and profitability. The Evening Post (Wellington) of 21 July 1915 claimed that thirty thousand people had seen it in Auckland. This figure would be very impressive if true, given that the population of Auckland in 1916 was 133,712. Here are some examples of newspaper adverts, showing the emphatic repetition of titles that is very characteristic of NZ film advertising in this era:
Nelson Evening Mail, 09 Aug 1915; Auckland Star, 01 July 1915; Taranaki Daily News, 17 Dec 1915
Some more details about the English translation of the film are given in a review in the Wairarapa Age (5 Aug 1915): the family castle is called Claremont Tonnery – though strangely, all of the characters have ‘Clermont’ as surname – and the evil steward (unnamed in the Belgian print) is called Stevens. Bartoli is renamed Henry Marek, and the skeleton of Castelroc is “a talisman from Palestine at the time of the Crusaders”. As in the Belgian print, it’s from Australia that Henry arrives: Melbourne, to be exact.
In Wellington The Jockey of Death had a hugely successful run at the People’s Picture Palace, a cinema with a reported capacity of at least 500 people; a hundred years ago, I could have walked down from my house and been one of those audience members. The film was so popular, in fact, that it was revived in February 1917 to packed houses. The People’s Picture Palace was located at 17 Manners Street, which was Wellington’s main movie street in the 1910s, boasting four or more cinemas.
The sequel: Il circo della morte (The Circus of Death) and Masque of Life
The cast and crew followed up the success of Jockey by making Il circo della morte | The Circus of Death, released the following year. This time around, there was much more romantic intrigue, dance scenes (there are references to both ballet sequences and an “allegorical pantomime of fairies”), and a fire in a circus from which wild animals ran free, jumping in a pool of water to escape: the burning of the lion’s cage merited particular mention. Il circo della morte had another thing its predecessor didn’t: a monkey. The ape in question, referred to as Pete Montebello in the US and Jacko in Australia & New Zealand, was considered the star of the film in much of the press: he was reported to be the guest of honour at a luncheon on October 23, 1916, and Film Fun even published an ‘interview’ with him in December 1916. A particular scene was much remarked upon in virtually all the press about the film: one where Pete/Jacko carried a live baby up the side of a chimney 360 ft tall, at the top of which a struggle between the monkey and Miss Evelyn ensued.
With the roofs of a city plainly visible far below and the always imminent danger of baby, girl or monkey going down into the slanting chimney, this is a scene that makes every audience hold its breath and has resulted in not a few cases of women fainting while this event is shown on the screen. (Motography, 06 Jan 1917)
The plot of the film concerned the romantic trials of Prince George and Evelyn, the circus performer he falls in love with. As the two plan to elope, the prince’s uncle dies, making George king, and he is convinced to do his duty for his country, which, of course, precludes him marrying Evelyn. Cast out by her family, she is living in exile with an intelligent chimpanzee, and her child, who dies. Meanwhile, King George has entered a marriage of diplomacy and himself had a child. When Evelyn ventures near to the palace, hoping for a look at her lost love, the monkey kidnaps George’s son and carries him to the top of the a chimney, with Evelyn coming to the rescue: “Evelyn breaks through to the rescue and climbs the wire – one of the most sensational stunts ever screened” (Variety, Oct 1916). Still in love with each other, Evelyn and George’s meeting afterwards is one of regretful resignation to their different paths in life. But the story continues: Evelyn reconciles with her father and the two relaunch their circus under royal patronage; the King and Queen attend its premiere. However, Evelyn’s father finds out about the past relationship between his daughter and the king and tries to shoot George. Evelyn, on the high-wire, screens George from the bullets, one of which sparks a fire that causes the circus to burst into flame and burn to the ground, with all of the wild animals escaping. The shock causes the Queen to drop dead – but Evelyn survives her bullet wound(s). The film ends with George renouncing his royal title to be with the woman he loves, and the two of them living in happy seclusion.
The acrobatic Miss Evelyn played the main role in Il circo della morte, with Trude Nick/Arturo presumably playing Prince George. I haven’t found any direct press mentions of him, but the DFI credits him as appearing in Lind’s L’ultima rappresentazione di gala del Circo Wolfson, which is Il circo della morte: the full title is of the film is Il circo della morte, ovvero l’ultima rappresentazione di gala del Circo Wolfson (The Circus of Death, or the Gala Performance of the Circus Wolfson).
Like its predecessor, Il circo della morte was a huge hit in Australasia. I’ll focus here on the New Zealand context, but have a look at this post on the Brooksie’s Collection Tumblr, which reproduces a flyer from a Sydney cinema advertising The Circus of Death, as well as a couple of illustrations of the acclaimed chimney scene. The New Zealand press made much of the authenticity of the stunts of the film: as one newspaper item read, “It is realism with a vengeance of a distinct and original character, unaided by trick photography or artificial means.” The Circus of Death was advertised as being produced by Cines (Quo Vadis?, Cabiria), and while the monkey was remarked upon, newspapers frequently mentioned “Continental Screen Artist” Mlle. Evelyn, whose performance and daring was admired.
Evening Post, 27 Sep 1916; New Zealand Herald, 8 Sep 1916; Wairarapa Age, 02 Dec 1916
The Circus of Death was revived in Wellington in winter 1920, and I even found a mention of it – or at least a film called The Circus of Death – being screened in September 1930. (Side note: the first talking picture was shown in New Zealand in March 1929). Like its predecessor, The Circus of Death seems to have found a very appreciative Kiwi audience.
Il circo della morte was released in the US in a re-edited version, titled Masque of Life. In November 1916, it was reported in Moving Picture World that J. L. Kempner of Signet Films had seen The Circus of Death in London “last summer” (i.e., summer 1916) and realized its great potential for the American market. According to this item, The Circus of Death in its original Italian form of ten reels had been very successful in Great Britain, but Kempner realized that it required “drastic changes” to meet the standards of US audiences, and purportedly spent several thousand dollars “to fix up the film for the American presentation”.
The cast of Masque of Life was apparently expanded for the Stateside release: this version of the film featured Hamilton Revelle as Pierrot and Rita Jolivet as Pierrette, reportedly appearing in the introductory scenes to each part. It seems clear to me that these scenes were added to the US version; they aren’t mentioned at all in any of the foreign publicity, and one review states specifically that Jolivet and Revelle “present the picture to American audiences”. Kempner must have cut the original film down quite considerably, given that it was released in the US as a seven-reeler with the inclusion of this new footage.
American periodicals of the time make it clear that Masque of Life was very popular with audiences; the film was also critically acclaimed. Here’s an excerpt from Motography of 02 December 1916 that quotes a series of reviews:
Several major periodicals reviewed the film. Writing for Moving Picture World, Ben H. Grimm was hugely positive:
The film is so totally different from anything that has been seen in this country of late; so weird and startling in several of its idea-axis on which the plot revolves, and so filled with exciting moments and “stunts” that it can hardly fail to attract and hold the interest of its spectators.
Comparing Masque of Life to US production, Grimm notes a lack of close-ups, but praises the “artistic” intertitles. Interestingly, he mentions that most of the lab work on the film was done in America. This makes sense in light of the film being recut for its American release, but makes one wonder about the trajectory of the original camera negative.
In Motography, George W. Graves was also complimentary. He praises the acting of Rita Jolivet, and like other American reviewers, implies that she is the main character of the film, even though he goes on to describe the plot in detail (being the story of Evelyn and Prince George, as recounted above). Reading between the lines, it seems that Jolivet’s contribution to the film came in the form of the aforementioned introductory scenes and a “prologue enacted by living puppets in a theatre of Marionettes”. Variety‘s review is mostly devoted to an in-depth description of the plot, and makes a few criticisms, but noted that “Properly billed it should make a sensational state-right proposition for the United States.”
Note: though I’ve never seen this error myself, there has apparently been a recurring mistake where secondary sources listed L’onore di morire (IT 1915) as the original title of Il circo della morte. In fact, they’re completely different films. I am not sure why or where this misattribution originally occurred, but the mistake continues, with Revelle and Jolivet now listed in the cast of L’onore di morire in several places.
Here are a couple of examples of the Italian advertising for Il circo della morte:
The Panther of Death: the threequel?
March 1917 saw the first showings of another spectacular circus film in New Zealand: The Panther of Death. It wasn’t actually a sequel to The Circus of Death, despite a couple of newspapers referring to it as such; however, the film was compared to Jockey and Circus and was reported to be produced by Milano-Film, the ‘same’ company as the other two films. Panther was another sensational stunt-film, featuring more flying-fox antics, a bridge of human bodies across an abyss, a clifftop life-and-death struggle, a leap off a cliff, as well as the “powerful love story of a beautiful lady gymnast”.
What film was The Panther of Death? There’s no record of an Italian film called La pantera della morte, and it will have had a different cast and crew: it surely wasn’t directed by Lind, since his career is well-documented, and given the use of Mlle. Evelyn’s name in NZ adverts and reviews of Circus, one can assume that she didn’t appear in Panther. Could it be one of Milano-Film’s 1916 or 1917 offerings renamed? Of course, it may not even be Italian, but simply marketed on the back of the other films’ successes. It sounds distinctive enough that it must be identifiable – if anybody has some information, please let me know!
Edit 27 Apr 15: mystery solved! Brooksie has submitted the film La Pantera | Panther (IT 1916) as the premier candidate for The Panther of Death. My searches somehow didn’t turn this title up, and I’m very grateful to her for bringing it to my attention! Not much information is available about the film, but it was a circus picture released, like Il circo della morte, early in 1916. Per the Swedish Film Institute’s database record, we can see that it was released in Sweden in April 1917 as Dödspanthern (The Death-Panther).
The production company Phoenix-Film was short-lived, and seems to have been set up to support the directorial work of Gero Zambuto, who had a fair career in Italian theatre and film. In his early career, Zambuto worked often with his wife Claudia (née Gaffino), an actress, and he directed fellow Sicilian Pina Menichelli several times, including in La moglie di Claudio (IT 1918). Fun fact: Zambuto was also a voice actor, providing the Italian voice of such diverse personalities such as W. C. Fields, Wallace Beery, Emil Jannings, and Charles Laughton.
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Neither Il circo della morte nor Masque of Life are currently available to watch, but Il circo is noted to survive in the Cineteca Nazionale (Rome) and the Museo Nazional del Cinema (Turin). With this mammoth blog entry, I’m probably the person who has given the film the most thought since the time of its original release, and I dearly hope I get to see it someday.
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Il jockey della morte [The Jockey of Death]. Dir. Alfred Lind. Milan, Italy: Vay-Film, 1915. Preserved by the Cinematek BE and available to watch here on European Film Gateway.
Il circo della morte [The Circus of Death] aka Il circo della morte, ovvero l’ultima rappresentazione di gala del Circo Wolfson. Dir. Alfred Lind. Milan, Italy: Vay-Film, 1916. Survives but not readily available to watch.