"The Jack-Knife Man" (1920)

Produced by King Vidor Productions
Distributed by First National Exhibitors Circuit, Inc.
Released on August 16, 1920.
Based on the novel "The Jack Knife Man" by Ellis Parker Butler (New York)
The exterior scenes were shot around the river district of Stockton, CA., and in the mining town of Murphy, CA., as well as in Muscatine, IA, where Butler's novel is set.

Cast: Fred Turner, Harry Todd, Willis Marks, James Corrigan, Charles
Arling, Irene Yaeger, Carol Marshall, Mrs. George Hernandez Claire
McDowell, Bobby Kelso, Florence Vidor, and Lillian Leighton


"The Jack-Knife Man" resembles a Griffith picture. A lonely old man, Peter Lane, a former river boat captain, lives alone on a barge. One night during a raging storm, a very ill young woman and her infant son, Buddy, seek shelter on his barge. When she dies, Peter is left with the young boy.

To amuse the child Peter carves animals from wood, and they soon come to love one another. Eventually the town's orphans' aid society comes to the conclusion that the old riverboat captain is not a suitable guardian for the young boy. When the local sheriff takes the child away from the old man, Widow Potter comes to the rescue and assumes custody of the child.

The old man's talent with a jackknife is recognized when a wealthy Easterner notices the toys that the old man lovingly crafts. The Easterner takes them to New York, and Peter receives a large order for his carved toys. On his way to prosperity the old man rehabilitates himself. Then a friend of the captain, Boogie, a hobo, realizes that young Buddy is his son.

The Director

King Wallis Vidor became a prominent director with his spectacular film, "The Big Parade," in 1925. Of the 20 feature films he directed in the preceding six years, only 10 are known to survive. One of them is "The Jack-Knife Man."

The film received mixed reviews:
Variety, August 6, 1920, " The picturization of Ellis Parker Butler's story, 'The Jack Knife Man,' is one of those tales that you take extreme delight in reading, but which, somehow, isn't quite the same when visualized. "

Harrison's Reports, August 7, 1920, " Not big, but human. It is a picture in which the acts and thoughts of the characters appeal deeply to the nobler emotions. "

King Vidor dropped out of school at the age of sixteen and entered the movie business as a ticket taker in a storefront nickelodeon in Galveston. A hurricane in 1913 became the subject for his first film with a borrowed homemade camera. On the day of his marriage to Florence Arno they set out for New York to enter the film producing business. When his film producing aspirations went up in smoke, they set out for the West Coast. With the assistance of an old Texas friend, Florence Vidor obtained a position with Vitagraph, and King obtained a job in nearby " Inceville " as a prop boy, script clerk and a bit actor. He eventually was hired as a writer in Universal's shorts department, and later his opportunity to direct came in 1918 from a former Salt Lake City juvenile court judge. Vidor had written scripts based upon the judge's remedial "Boy's City." After receiving backing from the people who had backed the judge's films, he made additional films in 1919.

Vidor's first full-length feature film was "The Turn In The Road" in 1919, a Christian Scientist tract financed by a group of doctors and dentists who formed the Brentwood Film Corporation. They also financed the next three features which starred Florence Vidor, and they both included a young lady, ZaSu Pitts, whom King Vidor had met on a street car.

In 1920 he began making films for the newly formed First National, and in that same year, they released "The Jack-Knife Man."

The Players

The AFI catalog lists "The Jack-Knife Man" as Bobby Kelso's only feature film appearance. Fred Turner, who was also billed as Fred A., F.A., and Frank, appeared in his first feature film in 1914. After appearing in about 37 feature films, he had has last screen credit in 1922. He had a role in "Intolerance" cast as Mae Marsh's father in the Modern Story.

copyright 2001 by John DeBartolo. All rights reserved.

Return to "Rare and Obscure Films" page