#589) Unmasked (1917)

#589) Unmasked (1917)

OR “To Catch a Thief”

Directed & Written by Grace Cunard and Francis Ford

Class of 2014 

I’ve been trying to track down this short for years, and I’m delighted that a high quality print has been posted on the official George Eastman Museum website. Please check out their preservation work, and donate if you can.

The Plot: Two thieves, Francis and Meg (Francis Ford and Grace Cunard) run into each other at a masked ball, both with the intention of stealing the necklace of their hostess Mrs. Montague (Actor Unknown). Francis is successful and flees the scene of the crime, evading two detectives (Edgar Keller and Harry Schumm). Meg congratulates Francis on his success, but uses this as a chance to retrieve the necklace for herself. Will Francis get away with it? Will Meg have a change of heart? Will Hollywood remember that it used to let women write and direct films all the time?

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film “a succinct but illustrative example of the role of women in film history”, then goes on to praise its “artful and sophisticated cinematography”.

But Does It Really?: This is another short that makes the NFR for what it represents rather than for what it is. Grace Cunard was quite popular with filmgoers in her time (dubbed “The Queen of the Serials”), and her talents extended to behind the scenes as well. “Unmasked” is a brief, enjoyable little thriller, managing to pack in a heist and a car chase in its short runtime. The Cunard/Ford collaborations are noteworthy enough for recognition, and as one of their few surviving efforts, “Unmasked” makes the NFR cut.

Everybody Gets One: Grace Cunard started off as a stage actress, only accepting film work for the Biograph Company on a dare. After working with all of the east coast movie studios, she headed to California in 1912, finding employment with Thomas H. Ince. It was with Ince where Cunard first met actor/director Francis Ford, beginning their successful run of collaborations. When Ince fired Cunard for refusing to leave Ford’s unit, Ford followed suit, and the pair wound up at Universal. From 1913 to 1917, Ford and Cunard worked on hundreds of serials and B-pictures, often co-starring together, co-writing the scenarios, and occasionally co-directing.

Other notes 

  • As I said, “Unmasked” is available on the official George Eastman Museum website, and the video begins with a five minute introduction by Eastman curator Peter Bagrov. To be honest, most of my information regarding the movie comes from this introduction (and the text on the video’s page). Like so many films from the silent era, “Unmasked” lacks any decent documentation of its production.
  • Here’s an interesting one: “Unmasked” is actually a re-release of the 1913 Ford/Cunard short “The Black Masks”. While “Unmasked” is a one-reeler (about 12 minutes), “Black Masks” was a two-reeler, with the events of “Unmasked” being in the second reel. The first reel (from what we know – “Black Masks” is a lost film) featured the racing skills of driver Tony Jeannette (credited as “The Speed Demon”). After winning a race, Jeannette is invited to a masked ball, but loses the invitation, which ends up in the hands of the thieves played by Ford and Cunard. The first shot of “Unmasked” (an impressive-for-its-time composition of the crooks’ hands reaching for the necklace) is actually from the middle of “The Black Masks”.
  • Still very much in pandemic times while watching this, my first thought during the ball was “They’re wearing their masks wrong.”
  • I love me some old timey phraseology. Literally any other movie would have its character say “Step on it!” to the driver during a high speed car chase, but “Unmasked” has Francis command, “Say, put a little speed behind this boiler.”
  • Side note about Francis Ford: He is of no relation to Francis Ford Coppola, though both got the Ford in their names in honor of Henry Ford (Francis Ford was born Francis Feeney).
  • I definitely laughed out loud when Meg walks away from her encounter with Francis, revealing that she stole his watch. Well played, everyone.
  • If there was one thing the 1910s loved, it was movies where criminals were brought to justice. With all this morality being enforced, is it any wonder the ’20s were so aggressively decadent?
  • No offense, but I feel like it was a lot easier to be a burglar in the 1910s. Everyone was far more trusting, and nobody locked their doors or windows. Hell, Francis probably could have just asked Mrs. Montague “May I please steal your necklace?”
  • Much like the original racecar opening of “The Black Masks”, the short’s ending was trimmed for its “Unmasked” re-release. After returning the necklace to its rightful owner, Meg and Francis get married and donate all their stolen items to charity. Cutting out this ending makes it less sappy, and suggests that these two will continue to commit crimes. Very daring for 1917.
  • Sorry “Unmasked”, but when I want to watch a cinematic necklace heist I’ll watch “The Great Muppet Caper”, thank you very much.

Legacy 

  • In 1917, Ford left Universal to found his own (short lived) movie studio Fordart Films, thus ending his successful collaboration with Grace Cunard. As Ford’s movie career was starting to decline, things were looking up for Franics’ younger brother – John Ford. Little brother John got a leg-up in the industry thanks to advice from Francis, and would repay the favor by casting Francis in small parts for many of his movies, including “Stagecoach“, “The Grapes of Wrath”, and “The Quiet Man”.
  • Although Grace Cunard continued to appear in films for the next 30 years, the films were always B-pictures, and the roles began to diminish until she was playing bit parts. When Universal discontinued their serials in the mid-’40s, Cunard retired from show business, happily married to stuntman Frederick Tyler until her death in 1967.
  • While most of the Ford-Cunard collaborations are lost films, the duo have been getting their share of recognition for their place in film history in recent years. In addition to “Unmasked” making the NFR in 2014, Grace Cunard in particular continues to be singled out (along with her contemporaries) as a pioneer for women behind the camera.

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