The Right to Be Happy (1916) – Universal’s First Attempt at “A Christmas Carol”

So, this should technically be a Throwback Thursday post as the original article was posted at Crane’s Cabinet of Kinetographic Curiosities on December 25, 2017, but since I’ve updated some information and, well, it’s Christmas Eve, I felt this would be a good time to (re)post this article. Enjoy this little tidbit of Christmas Past (updated for Christmas Future), and mourn the loss of one of so many silent films with me.


Introduction

Ah, Christmas.  The one night out of the year where finding that a fat, bearded man has invaded your home doesn’t have to mean that John Wayne Gacy has come back from the dead.  The one month out of the year when people pretend to care about other human beings, and then do a 180-degree turn on the 26th of December and backtrack toward being assholes faster than an original Star Wars trilogy character backtracks toward failure in a J. J. Abrams or Rian Johnson film.  The one season out of the year when Hallmark plays vapid emotional porn for modern women (where the main girl is in love with a nice guy, but meets an even nicer guy, and will ultimately choose the nicer guy–this is the main conflict, by the way–but the nice guy ex-boyfriend hooks up with main girl’s best friend who is a better fit for him anyway–apparently these men are okay with being traded like Pokemon cards–and everyone lives happily ever after and all presumably die fulfilled at ripe old ages, just like in real life) and it actually makes some sort of chronological sense for them to do so.

Aside: In truth, Hallmark’s ratings for these movies are so high that they will play them at sporadic points throughout the year–not just at Christmas.  If we didn’t have pop culture, we’d have no culture at all.

Speaking of movies, not all Christmas movies are cinematic junk food.  Sure, most of the traditional films are marked by a sort of starry-eyed sappiness–even Die Hard (1988) and Gremlins (1984), which are without a doubt legitimate Christmas movies Cynthia, had the warm and fuzzies by the end–but those that have become certified holiday classics also find ways to deal with serious topics.  It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) examines despair and the frustration involved in finding one’s place in the world.  A Miracle on 34th Street (1947) tackles the subject of growing up and the loss of innocence/faith that occurs when we stop being children at heart.  How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966) addresses isolation versus a sense of belonging.  These are not just holiday classics; these are cinematic juggernauts that are the best examples of their genre.

Among even these classics, one story reigns surpreme: A Christmas Carol.

The Dickens Christmas Classic

I would say that the book is vastly superior to the movie, but the shameful truth is that I’ve never read it.  But, really, has anyone?

Written as a novella in 1847 by Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol has been adapted to screens both big and small about as much as Dracula–and possibly more.  The story is always the same:

Rich old miser Ebenezer Scrooge is an asshole.  He works his clerk Bob Cratchit like a slave and pays him almost nothing for it.  One Christmas Eve, after being a complete jerk to everyone all day as per usual, Scrooge heads home to turn in early so that he can get a jump on more dickery bright and early the next day.  While settling in for the night, Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his old dead business partner, Jacob Marley.  Marley, who wasn’t even half the prick in life Scrooge has been, is a resident of Hell and has been released for one night to warn Scrooge that his own suite in the Underworld is being prepared–but there is hope for Scrooge to avoid that fate, so long as he learns well the lesson of three spirits of Christmas who will visit him in the intervening hours between midnight and morning.

Of course, Scrooge finds redemption through the examination of his own past, present, and future (represented by the above-mentioned three spirits in good old Victorian fashion), but the journey through his life to this point and beyond addresses themes of loss (both of faith and of loved ones), regret, bitterness, the meaning of family, spiritual wealth versus material wealth, hope, and the control a person has over their own destiny.  In many ways, it can be argued that A Christmas Carol is the perfect Christmas story–which is probably why it has been a favorite tale for Hollywood to tell.

I could talk endlessly about the myriad different cinematic versions, but again, they’re all kind of the same–and I’m sure many reading this have seen these countless cinematic renditions of Dickens’s timeless yarn time and time again.  No, I’d much rather talk a bit about one of which few currently living have ever heard or seen: The lost silent 1916 Universal Studios version entitled The Right to Be Happy

Why is it lost? Well, that’s not 100% clear to me at this point. All of the information I could find did not indicate that it was a casualty of the 1924 Universal vault fire (unlike Henry MacRae’s 1913 supernatural tale The Werewolf), and so I’m left believing that it was likely a victim of Universal’s self-inflicted silent film purge during the 1940s. Obviously, no less tragic.

Just the Facts

So, what do we know about The Right to Be Happy when it comes to cold, hard data? Quite a lot, actually:

CREW: The film was directed by Rupert Julian, the man who would later direct Lon Chaney in Univeral’s 1925 silent horror smash hit The Phantom of the Opera. The scenario was adapted by screenwriter E.J. Clawson.

CAST: In addition to directing the film, Rupert Julian also starred in it as Ebenezer Scrooge. Other cast members included John Cook as Bob Crachit; Claire McDowell as Mrs. Crachit; Francis Lee as Tiny Tim; Harry Carter as Jacob Marley; Emory Johnson as Scrooge’s nephew Fred; Francelia Billington as Scrooge’s one-time sweetheart; Wadsworth Harris as Christmas Past; Richard L’Estrange as Christmas Present; Tom Figee as Christmas Future; Lydia Yeamans Titus as Mrs. Fezziwig; and Roberta Wilson as…uh…Caroline,whoever that is. An almost-complete cast list, by all accounts. Actress Agnes Vernon also appears, but who she plays is a mystery. Though she’s referenced as having a role in trade magazines of the time, who she is meant to play is never explicitly mentioned.

RELEASE: The accepted release date is December 15, 1916 and is even listed as such on the Library of Congress website, but this date is incorrect. Per the December 16th edition of trade magazine Moving Picture World, The Right to Be Happy was delayed by a week (from December 18th) and in its place was run The Honor of Mary Blake. So, its actual release date is December 25, 1916, making it 103 years old as of Christmas Day 2019.

LENGTH: The film is comprised of five reels, which puts its running time at about 50 minutes.

While there’s no way of knowing for certain, we can speculate that the film probably isn’t as stagey as Thomas Edison’s 1910 version of A Christmas Carol (which is basically just a stage play on film but with some neat dissolves and other such camera trickery). That said, it probably isn’t a feat of cinematography, either. Though it was filmed after 1915’s The Birth of a Nation, silent films still featured quite a few stagnant shots for a handful of years after D. W. Griffith’s controversial hit.

Physical Media

While we sadly don’t have a ton that remains of The Right to Be Happy in terms of physical media (photos, clips), we are fortunate enough to still have access to a handful of items that may give us a hint as to what sort of experience the film would have provided:

One poster done in the art deco style typical of Universal’s “Bluebird Photoplays” imprint, which gives us an indication of the tone the marketing department was trying to convey when selling the film to distributors and audiences alike. That poster is actually the heading image of this article, so take a look if you somehow missed it.

One still frame of the scene portrayed in the poster, which gives us an indication of the costuming and set pieces used, as well as the special effects used for Jacob Marley.

SOURCE: Moving Picture World – 30 Dec 1916 – vol 30 pg 1974

Two still frames of the Cratchits, with the first being the family celebrating the charitable donation of a goose by a newly-reformed Scrooge, and the second being of the family at dinner. In addition to providing us with a better indication of set pieces, costumes, and atmosphere, these promotional stills provide us with a pretty good look at actor John Cook–a man of whom (apparently) not many photographs exist anymore.

SOURCE: Moving Picture World – 23 Dec 1916 – vol 30 no 10 pg 1829
SOURCE: The Seattle Star – 23 Dec 1916 – pg 3

Unfortunately, still frames of the Ghosts of Christmas have yet to be discovered. The lack of an image of Christmas Future is most lamentable to me, especially in light of the effects used for Jacob Marley.

Reviews

While reviews aren’t always the most accurate gauges of how robust or how lean an experience provided by a lost film was (keep in mind that critics panned Fritz Lang’s original theatrical cut of his 1927 masterpiece Metropolis upon its debut), they are the best firsthand accounts of The Right to Be Happy we’re going to get until it’s found.

What were critics of the time saying? Mostly positive things, as it turns out.

Mae Tinee of the Chicago Tribune calls the picture “carefully and intelligently produced,” noting that the characters and settings “have been copied almost in detail from the descriptions in the book.” Julian’s Scrooge is, according to Tinee, “a classic,” John Cook’s Bob Cratchit is “as real as he can be,” and she promises that “you’re going to love ‘Tiny Tim.’” This review follows a summary of the plot of the film, which confirms that it mimics that of its predecessors and successors–as well as the source material–pretty closely.

L.E. Winchell of The Atlanta Constitution calls the film “Bluebird’s best bet of the year” and states that Rupert Julian gives a “faithful portrayal of the part [of Scrooge].

A review in the Altoona Tribune states that the film “should undoubtedly go over big with the refined element.” It praises John Cook’s portrayal of Bob Cratchit, saying that he “shone in the cast,” and calls Francis Lee’s performance as Tiny Tim “perfect.” It applauds the rest of the cast for playing like “genuine Dickens enthusiasts, especially Emery Johnson [Fred] and Francelia Billington [Scrooge’s sweetheart].” The review concludes by asserting that the film possesses “much fine photography” and “an air of Christmas homeliness,” and that the production “cannot be too highly spoken of as an ideally wholesome photoplay from every angle.

Conclusion

With around 90% of the world’s silent films considered incomplete or completely lost, the odds are against The Right to Be Happy ever being discovered in an attic, basement, or vault. But Christmas is a time for miracles, and hope springs eternal that this missing chapter in the history of Christmas cinema will one day be found.


ADDITIONAL SOURCES

Links:

Wikipedia Article (I know, I know, but it’s always a good place to start for a baseline of info)

Library of Congress Entry

Printed Material:

Moving Picture World – 09 Dec 1916 – vol 30 no 10 pg 1519

Moving Picture World – 16 Dec 1916 – vol 30 no 10 pg 1664

Moving Picture World – 23 Dec 1916 – vol 30 no 10 pgs 1725, 1829

Moving Picture World – 30 Dec 1916 – vol 30 pgs 1974, 1977

The Seattle Star – 23 Dec 1916 – pg 3

Chicago Tribune – 25 Dec 1916 – pg 22

The Atlanta Constitution – 24 Dec 1916 – pg 6

Altoona Tribune – 28 Dec 1916 – pg 3

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