00:00 Introduction by Peter Bagrov, Curator in Charge, Moving Image Department, George Eastman Museum
Unmasked (US 1917)
Writers and Directors: Grace Cunard, Francis Ford (?)
Cast: Grace Cunard (The Woman), Francis Ford (The Man), Edgar Keller (1st Detective), Harry Schumm (2nd Detective)
Production company: Rex Motion Picture Company
Distribution company: Universal Film Manufacturing Company
Release date: 24 May 1917
Color: b/w; replication of original tinting using Desmet color injection
Original length (in feet): unknown
Original length (in reels): 1
Surviving length (in feet): 765 ft.
Frame rate: 17 fps
Running time: 12 min.
Original release version:
The Black Masks [Diamond Cut Diamond] (US 1913)
Writer: Grace Cunard
Director: Francis Ford
Cast: Francis Ford (Fred Francis), Grace Cunard (Meg, a Crook), Edgar Keller (1st Detective), Harry Schumm (2nd Detective), Tony Jeannette (The Speed Demon)
Production company: New York Motion Picture Company
Distribution company: 101-Bison
Release date: 28 October 1913
Original length (in feet): unknown
Original length (in reels): 2
Preserved with funding from NYWIFT, Women’s Film Preservation Fund
Preserved at Cineric, Inc.
Digitized by Eastman Museum Film Preservation Services
Additional digital restoration in collaboration with the Tisch School of the Arts, New York University William K. Everson Collection
Music composed and performed by Donald Sosin, courtesy of Tisch School of the Arts, New York University.
Moving image archiving is a constant voyage of discovery, and the story of Unmasked is a perfect example of that. A one-reel tinted nitrate print of this film was among the first items collected by James Card (1915–2000), the founder-to-be of George Eastman Museum’s moving image department. When Card joined the staff of the museum in 1948, the film became part of the museum’s collection, along with films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Cossack Whip, Peter Pan, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Although he mainly focused his attention on these other, bigger titles, Card was startled by the film’s concise and entertaining storytelling techniques, which were way ahead of its time. He mentioned the film in his book Seductive Cinema (1994) as one of the highlights of his collecting career, and some thirty years earlier, he must have shared his enthusiasm with another great film collector and historian, William K. Everson (1929–1996), who made a 16mm copy for his own collection. Yet, the film was barely known to cinephiles and historians until the Eastman Museum preserved it in 2002. It soon became a classic, and, in 2014, was added to the US National Film Registry as “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” (in one batch with Shoes, The Dragon Painter, The Power and the Glory, Rosemary’s Baby, and Saving Private Ryan).
Unmasked is a showcase for the multitalented Grace Cunard (1893–1967), who wrote the original screenplay, starred in it alongside her frequent collaborator, Francis Ford (1881–1953), and probably shared the directing duties with him when the film was reedited four years later. It is a tangible reminder that women were creative forces in the development of cinema, not just as actresses, but as producers, directors, and screenwriters. An examination of Cunard’s silent films—126 between 1911 and 1928—proves that she was quite capable of doing it all. She wrote, acted, and co-directed (the term “producer” was used interchangeably at that time with “director” and many filmographies use the former credit) dozens of shorts and serials, thus earning her the sobriquet “Queen of the Serials.” Some of her most memorable successes were the fruit of her long time association with Francis Ford, whose success in motion pictures enabled his younger brother, John Ford, to gain a foothold in the business. Cunard and Ford’s cinematic collaboration may have extended into their personal lives, though the pair was never actually married. Their special chemistry on screen made them one of the most popular and prolific teams in the American silent cinema, and their films a source of lucrative revenue for Universal Studios. Cunard’s influence declined with the coming of the sound era in motion pictures; she worked for lower budget independent companies and eventually retired from the screen in 1946. Ford’s career followed a trajectory similar to Cunard’s. The introduction of sound pushed Ford into secondary and sometimes uncredited roles, many in films directed by his brother John, but he worked steadily, accumulating nearly 500 acting credits until his death in 1953.
Unmasked seems complete and very well balanced in its narrative. Its breathtaking opening shot hardly ever fails to impress, reminding of some of Ernst Lubitsch’s techniques (in fact, the whole story of a couple of thieves, who first compete and afterwards decide to team up, resembles Lubitsch’s 1932 masterpiece Trouble in Paradise). But this is not at all how the film looked originally. Produced in 1913 as The Black Masks, it was listed as a two-reel feature. According to contemporary reviews and synopses, the structure of the film was more complicated; it presented a story within a story: “The play opens with several scenes at an automobile race track during a motor car meet. Tony Jeanette, the winner, is given an invitation to a mask ball that evening at the home of wealth Mrs. Montague. In haste, he drops his invitation, which is found by Francis, a society crook, and read by Meg, another genteel crook. Unknown to each other, they both decide to attend the ball in the hope of gaining possession of Mrs. Montague’s necklace” (The Anaconda Standard, 15 November, 1913). All this was omitted in the 1917 re-release. The first reel of The Black Masks must have mainly been a showcase for Tony Jeanette, a popular race car driver of the time. It is hard to say if this original version would have ever made it to the National Film Registry. But by excluding the whole race track narrative and the moralistic finale (the crooks get married, donate all their ill-gotten gains to charity, and are satisfied that their bank account has a balance of $18), by changing the main characters from Fred and Meg into The Man and The Woman (thus turning the whole story into somewhat of a parable), and by selecting the least conventional image of the film for its opening shot, Cunard and Ford turned what must have been a rather archaic piece of cinema into a work of almost avant-garde quality.
By the time the nitrate print was selected for preservation, it had already began to decompose, and the very final shot of the film was nearly gone. Everson’s 16mm print, now owned by New York University and deposited at the George Eastman Museum, was used to replace the final shot in the restoration.