The Witness for the Defense
A Paramount-Artcraft Special from the Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, 1919

 

 

Warner Oland menaces Elsie Ferguson in this posed publicity still from The Witness for the Defense. In this scene they are on a hunting trip, camped near the edge of the Indian jungle. (Detail from an original 8x10 glossy photograph, printed in sepiatone.)

 

Elsie Ferguson on the cover of a 1919 Theatre Magazine

 

 

Big game hunter Henry Thresk (Wyndham Standing) intervenes on behalf of Stella (Elsie Ferguson) when her husband Captain Ballantyne (Warner Oland) becomes violent and disoriented. (From an original 11x14 lobby card, printed in brown ink and selectively hand-tinted.)

Presented by Adolph Zukor
Directed by George Fitzmaurice
Starring Elsie Ferguson, Warner Oland

Released September 14, 1919 in five reels.
Played at the New Grand (later called the Paramount and now the Empire) November 10-11-12, 1919

 

While neither the star nor the play are well-remembered today, in 1919 The Witness for the Defense fit perfectly into its studio’s policy of filming famous players in famous plays, and the production was accorded the honor of release under Paramount’s “Artcraft” banner. The prestige marquee value of its “Special” status and its female lead perhaps led to its choice as the film to open Grand Forks’ New Grand Theatre two months after the film’s national opening.

 

Based on a 1911 stage play and 1913 novel of the same title, this romantic melodrama follows the adventures of a young Englishwoman (Elsie Ferguson) who moves to India to be with her ailing and impoverished father. He demands that she forget her childhood sweetheart and marry a wealthy British official (Warner Oland), who turns out to be an alcoholic brute. An affluent English adventurer, also in India, urges her to leave her husband and go away with him. When the husband is discovered murdered, she is put on trial for the crime, and still more complications follow. Through the high melodramatics runs an interesting subtext dealing with early 20th-century attitudes about class bigotry, alcohol abuse (just before Prohibition), spouse abuse, social and sexual double standards, exploitation of assumed racial prejudices, and justifiable homicide.

 

The film, which runs approximately an hour, often shows its stage origins but is nicely directed by George Fitzmaurice, with attractively-lit cinematography by Hal Young. A number of dissolves and superimposed image effects add interest to scenes showing characters’ hallucinations and memories. Warner Oland is as flamboyant and menacing as ever (in his pre-Charlie Chan days). Miss Ferguson is obviously a stage-trained actress with a charming if quaint Delsarte style of emotive gestures. She was 36 when the film was made, but is attractive enough to carry off the role of a young woman in her twenties. Although she was certainly a major Broadway actress, the New York stage production of The Witness for the Defense had actually starred Ethel Barrymore.

About the cast

Elsie Ferguson (1883-1961) was the only child of a wealthy New York lawyer. In 1900, at age seventeen, she decided to go on stage. Starting as a chorus girl, she quickly graduated to speaking roles, and was a major Broadway star by 1909. She looked down upon movies and rejected numerous offers, but could not resist a lucrative contract by Adolph Zukor in 1917 to make eighteen films over the next three years at $5000 per week. Most of the titles were adaptations of famous plays of the time, including A Doll’s House.

 

Paramount’s screen version of The Witness for the Defense was Ferguson’s fifteenth picture and is the only one of her two-dozen silent films known to exist. Long thought lost, a copy was discovered to survive in Russia at the Gosfilmofond Archives, Moscow. Her only sound film, Scarlet Pages (1930) is preserved at the Library of Congress.

 

Warner Oland (1880-1938) was a Swedish actor, set designer and translator of Strindberg who entered movies in 1912. He was a familiar character actor and was usually cast as a villain, often as an Asian due to his oriental facial features. Oland became best known as the Chinese-American detective Charlie Chan in a series of numerous films during the 1930s. Oland, coincidentally, is a distant relative of Grand Forks resident Sheryl Smith, who served as executive director of the renovated Empire Arts Center until mid-2002.

DOWNLOAD Quicktime movie files   NOTE: Larger file sizes recommended for broadband connections—very long download times with phone modem connection!  It’s also more reliable to right-click, download the files to your hard drive, and then open them directly with Quicktime, RealPlayer or Windows MediaPlayer, rather than to click on the links and see if they will play in a webpage. This procedure also permits changing the image size while playing back.

1 -- “Teaser” trailer, shots from numerous scenes, B&W, piano score, approx. 30 seconds (4.7 MB) – 240x180
Title cards kept brief to allow for more scenes to be included (pause during playback, if necessary)

 

2—Longer trailer with the same scenes and more, approx. a minute and a half, B&W, orchestra score (17.4 MB) – 240x180

Various scenes that provide a brief abridgement of most of the film’s plot


3a -- Film clip of brief segment, color tinted, theatre organ score, approx. two and a half minutes (14.6 MB) – 480x360
Thresk watches a native dancer and Captain Ballantyne brutalizes his household.

3b – Same segment in more compatible Sorenson codec Quicktime (63.7 MB) – 360x270


4 -- Film clip of one key sequence, color tinted, orchestra score, approx. a minute and a half (26.3 MB) – 240x180
During a hunting trip, Stella runs off into the jungle and Captain Ballantyne follows her with a rifle.

-- NOTE —“teaser” .mov file uses the Cinepak codec compatible with older versions of Windows media player and Quicktime player
--  Longer trailer and “JungleClip” .mov files use the Motion JPEG A codec and require Quicktime player 3.0 or higher

--  “Ballantyne’sBrutality” version B uses the fairly common Sorenson 2 codec that newer versions of Windows Media Player may also play. Version A has a larger, sharper picture in a smaller file but requires newer H.264 Quicktime support or only the audio will play

 

The original nitrate print of The Witness for the Defense was transferred to PAL VHS tape by Gosfilmofond Archives, Moscow. Acquisition of the tape was made possible through the efforts of Nathan Jacobson and Hal Gershman, with special thanks to Jon Mirsalis for identifying the print’s location. The original print has “flash” titles, with only two or three frames for each title card and inserts of letters, newspapers, etc. A digital conversion to American NTSC video was done by the University of North Dakota’s Center for Instructional Learning Technology. Video freeze-frame restoration of all the titles and inserts, color tinting and music synchronization were done by Christopher P. Jacobs, who also edited these two trailers. The picture runs a little over a half-hour with the flash titles, but when restored to readable length the full feature runs about 57 minutes.

 

The music added to most of these movie files is by prolific silent film mood music composer J. S. Zamecnik, performed by Rodney Sauer (piano) and his Mont Alto Cinema Orchestra on their CD of selections from Zamecnik’s works. The piece accompanying the teaser trailer is “Hurry” music composed in 1913. The piece used with both the longer trailer and the jungle search film clip is “Storm Music” composed in 1919, the year the film was made, and may well have been heard with the picture during its initial release. The theatre organ score on the “Ballantyne’s Brutality” clip was composed and performed by veteran silent film accompanist David Knudtson using Virtual Theatre Pipe Organ software on a midi organ console.

 


 

The Witness For The Defense

– Famous Players-Lasky Corporation –

A Paramount Artcraft Special in 5 reels

Copyrighted August 4, 1919

Released September 14, 1919

Credits from the AFI Catalog of Feature Films 1911-1920

 

Presented by Adolph Zukor

Directed by George Fitzmaurice

Assistant Director William J. Scully

Scenario by Ouida Bergère

Camera by Hal Young

Based upon the play and novel by A. E. W. Mason

 

CAST

Elsie Ferguson (Stella Derrick)

Vernon Steel (Dick Hazelwood)

Warner Oland (Captain Ballantyne)

Wyndham Standing (Henry Thresk)

George Fitzgerald (Wigney Derrick)

J. H. Gilmore (Harold Hazelwood)

Amelia Summervile (Margaret Pettifer)

Cora Williams (Teresa Derrick)

Blanche Standing (Mary Derrick)

Leslie King (Baram Singh)

Captain Charles Charles (Gardner)

Mrs. Bryant (Gardner’s wife)

Etienne Giradot (Richard Pettifer)

Henry Warwick (Lawyer)