Here's a bold statement. "Paths to Paradise" belongs in a league with some of Chaplin's, Keaton's and Lloyd's films. Certainly it doesn't rank with "The Gold Rush," "The General" or "The Freshman," but it is a strong, solid, fast-paced, well-written story that offers some fine comedy and exemplifies much of what silent comedy is all about.
The opening sequence in the "Bucket of Blood," a San Francisco "dive," as the film calls it, is almost the best part in the film, which is not to say the rest of the film isn't superb, too. Not too much will be said about this sequence here, as noted in the synopsis above, because revealing its "plot twists" will spoil the fun for the first-time viewer. Suffice it to say, Chaplin, Keaton or Lloyd never utilized such surprises as Griffith employs here - and he does it well. The "twists" are both surprising and humorous. And let's not take anything away from Betty Compson in the role of Molly. Keeping in mind that she actually was billed as the star of the film, she provides a most attractive "Queen of Counterfeiters," "Queen of Chinatown," maid and small-time crook. In her role opposite Griffith, she is not so much a "foil" for his antics as a "match" he has difficulty outwitting.
The film is based on the story
"The Heart of a Thief" by Paul Armstrong, and has a
well-crafted story line that zips along at a steady pace with
no slow moments. One episode ties quickly into the next, and,
in addition to the comedy, the film does a good job of keeping
the viewer on the engrossed with close calls and "slick"
dealings to elude discovery by the police.
There is much that is good about the film. The rivalry and interplay by Compson and Griffith is comedic, challenging, and comes about naturally through the events in the film without being forced. This is one way the viewer is kept in rapt attention - trying to see who is going to outwit whom.
A "cute" animal is always going to win over an audience, and the old man's dog provides an entertaining foil for both Molly and the dude. When the dude arrives at the house and Molly accuses him of trying to steal the diamond necklace before she does, the pooch is sitting stone still on the sofa behind them as if he's listening to every word. Later, Molly gets the tools to open the safe from her cohorts outside. She hides them under a coat and comes back inside. While she's talking to the detectives, the dog keeps jumping up and trying to "get at" whatever it is she is hiding under the coat, almost giving her away!
Of course, the funniest sequence for the dog is the one in which he pilfers the jewel case from the dude's back pocket and runs to give it to the old man's daughter!
Mentioned below is a hilarious sequence when the dog's playfulness in trying to steal the detective's flashlight almost results in the dude getting caught!
The film succeeds in another way, too, by keeping the viewer on his toes with "close calls" that are sprinkled throughout the film. In the hotel lobby while Molly is talking to Callahan, the dude, not realizing Callahan is a detective, questions her about the "job" she is planning. As Callahan turns to look around the hotel lobby, Molly purses her lips, lifts a finger to her mouth to tell the dude to hush, and surreptitiously turns back Callahan's coat lapel to reveal his badge. The dude quickly "gets the message!"
In the old man's home, the dude is busily looking at the necklace when Callahan walks in. Afraid Callahan will recognize him from the hotel lobby, he puts a jeweler's glass in his eye to observe the necklace, wipes it off with a handkerchief, then stuffs the cloth in his mouth. With the jeweler's glass in his eye and the handkerchief in his mouth, he escapes unrecognized.
The episode when Molly quickly hands the dude the necklace case just as the two detectives walk in the front door makes the heart pump a little faster until we see how deftly the dude deceives the lawmen. When he suggests that they all search each other so none of them will be under suspicion, we can't imagine what he can be thinking! Certainly he's going to get caught! However, as if he doesn't have a care in the world, the dude raises his arms to allow the detective to "frisk" him. Then we see the reason for the nonchalance! As he conducts his search, the detective turns his back to us, and there is the necklace case sticking out of the detective's coat pocket! When the detective finishes, he turns back around to face the others, the dude's left hand disappears behind the man, and reappears with the necklace which he quickly puts back inside his dinner jacket.
The series of antics that take place at 4 a.m. give the viewer several reasons to "start." As Molly and the dude come down the darkened stairs, lights are cut on, and the detectives make their capture of Molly's gang members. All the pair can do is lie flat on the stairs and hope they don't get noticed.
One of the funniest sequences in the film follows the dude's late night theft of the safe. The detectives hear a noise and one of them goes to investigate. The dude is successfully avoiding the glare of the detective's flashlight when the dog comes along and snatches it. As the detective "tussles" on the floor trying to retrieve the flashlight from the dog, the light follows the dude, with the safe under his arm, wherever he goes. Left, right, standing on the sofa, on the floor - it doesn't matter. Wherever he goes, the light goes, too. This is very much reminiscent of the cabin episode in "The Gold Rush" where Mack Swain and Tom Murray are fighting over a rifle. Chaplin, as the little tramp, tries to get out of their way, but wherever he moves in the little cabin, the barrel of the gun follows. The detective finally gets his flashlight back from the dog, he never sees the thief, and, of course, the safe is successfully absconded.
As noted in the synopsis, the detectives later discover Molly and the dude in Molly's room with the safe, and it is only through the dude's quick thinking that he is not implicated in the theft, as well. Another close call!
And, of course, the entire chase sequence is one close call after another. The most notable is the part where they change a flat tire on the car. As the dude removes the front tire, Molly removes the spare from the back of he car. The dude rolls the tire back to Molly, and Molly rolls the spare tire forward to the dude, the two tires crisscrossing one another as they go from front to back and back to front. All this time, we can see the dozens of motorcycle cops approaching around the curving mountain road in the distance. Just as they come up on the duo, they complete the tire change and charge off just in the nick of time!
Even with a superb story line, no film can succeed without able performers to bring the characters to life.
As already mentioned, Compson plays her role perfectly. She is the tough leader of a gang of men (a "different" woman's role for this period), but looks pitifully innocent and hurt when Callahan accuses her of wrongdoing. She is prim and proper as the maid in the old man's house, but becomes a raging force to be reckoned with when she thinks Griffith has come to "horn in" on her heist. Speaking of the "difference" in this picture's feminist role, Molly is not the least bit intimidated by her male rival and stands her ground confidently letting the dude know that he will not prevent her from getting the necklace!
One of the most recognizable faces in the film is that of Edgar ("Slow Burn") Kennedy. As one of two "bungling" detectives, he adds "flavor" to the film, as he does to anything in which he appears. As Griffith studies the necklace, Kennedy assumes his trademark stance - mouth tightly drawn, hands clutching the lapels of his coat, and one eye almost closed as he squints in studious concentration at his "suspect." He is just as good, too, when he assumes an air of smugness, as he does when he tells Callahan the "little detective" has taken Molly to headquarters, and the necklace is secure in the safe. Of course, the incredulous look on his face is priceless, too, when they look in the safe and discover the necklace is gone! Edgar Kennedy is one of the best!
Tom Santschi was well-chosen for his role as the no-nonsense Callahan. His stern, menacing demeanor arouses fear for Molly or the dude when he is nearby. Santschi, at 6'1" and 210 pounds, was an imposing figure, and appeared even more imposing when placed next to Griffith's small stature.
Griffith, of course, embodies the gentleman crook, and no one - no one - could have been better cast in the role than he. Suave and debonair - yes, those qualities are needed, but Griffith's subtle humor and mischievous grin put it over the top. Although the 1926 Civil War film "Hands Up!" has received the most praise of his comedies, in this reviewer's opinion, "Paths to Paradise" is the far superior of the two.
Finally, it should be mentioned that the last reel of "Paths to Paradise" is missing from today's prints, although hardly anyone would suspect unless told. The end is very "satisfying" as it is, maybe more so than the original ending in which the crooks have a change of heart about their deed and go on a merry chase back to the old man's home to return the necklace and take their punishment. In the days of the Hays Office, it is doubtful the film would have been allowed to end as it does in existing prints with the crooks escaping unpunished, but, because they are so loveable and charming, we certainly don't mind it that way.
"Paths to Paradise" is highly recommended, although there are no restored prints available with original music scores. Certainly the caliber of this film and the fact that it is the best thing available from one of the silent era's first-rate comedians would make it worthy of a professional restoration, and we can only hope that may happen at some time in the near future.
William K. Everson . . .
"Raymond Griffith managed to combine the urbane sophistication of a Menjou with the dry wit of Keaton and the comedy-thrill climaxes of Lloyd. His 'Paths to Paradise' offered just such a combination." (American Silent Film by William K. Everson, Oxford University Press, 1978)
Kevin Brownlow . . .
"Few dramas of the twenties dared to deal with police corruption, but the comedies gave the game away. 'Paths to Paradise' (1925), a Raymond Griffith feature, opens with a police raid on a gambling joint. A detective passes among the patrons with a hat - soon brimful with dollar bills. The raid turns out to be a stunt by rival crooks, but the point is inescapable." (Behind the Mask of Innocence by Kevin Brownlow, University of California Press, 1990)
Robert E. Sherwood . . .
"Raymond Griffith leads all comedians in point of ingenuity, imaginativeness and originality. Since he became a star, he has appeared in three consecutive pictures - 'Paths to Paradise,' 'A Regular Fellow,' and 'Hands Up' - which are definitely in the sure-fire class. They have all been funny, and they have all been progressive."
("The Silent Drama" by R.E. Sherwood, Life, Feb. 11, 1926)
Walter Kerr . . .
(referring to the tire changing scene in the film's final chase sequence) "The business is flatly impossible . . . Fortunately we see it, see the perfectly real posse racing over perfectly real terrain in the same frame that contains the switched wheels, see the pursuers come within inches of the pursued before the repaired car can be off again. Griffith's planing eye has told him preciseley what camera angles are needd to validate the gag while reveling in its preposterusness. We revel in the contradiction, too; we like looking on at the brazenly implausible so long as it is plainly not being faked, only happily conceived and shot." (The Silent Clowns by Walter Kerr, Alfred A. Knopf, 1975)
The copy reviewed is from Videobrary and runs approximately 64 minutes (the packaging says 56 minutes). Picture quality is good (some slight unsteadiness), and the musical accompaniment is pieced together from period recordings but very appropriate.