Cast: Jackie Coogan (Tim Kelly), Max Davidson (Max Ginsberg), Lydia Yeamans Titus (Mrs. Malloy), Robert Edeson (Mr. Bernard), Ethel Wales (Mrs. Bernard), William Conklin (Richard L. Scott), A. Horse (Dynamite)
A middle-of-the-night fire at an orphanage in New York City creates mass confusion as firemen fight the blaze and children are conducted to safety. However, one child remains in the building with apparently no hope of reaching him. But, on another side of the burning building, we see sheets that have been tied together fall from a second story window. Tim Kelly, a boy about 10 years old, scurries down the makeshift rope, drops to the street, and runs off into the night.
He awakens the next morning in the back of a junk wagon where finds some old clothes to replace his nightgown. When old Max Ginsberg discovers the little boy in his wagon, he runs him off. As he leaves, Ginsberg drops his money purse, but Tim chases him through the streets to return it. Touched by this and Tim's bold offer to become his partner, he takes the boy with him.
In due time, Tim proves to be a valuable partner with a gift for buying rags, bottles and other items cheaply for resale. The boy learns that some years before, Max had a manufacturing invention that promised to make him rich. However, when he entrusted the legalities to two unscrupulous lawyers, they stole the patent and disappeared. Another attorney representing Max has been looking for the men but has been unable to locate them.
One day, Tim convinces Max to let him take the horse and wagon to do the buying for the day. Max, who is too sick to go, reluctantly agrees feeling that the four dollars he has given Tim will disappear with little to show for it. However, instead of the usual rounds, Tim decides go to a better section of the city and heads for Fifth Avenue. At one home, he buys a man's suit for 15 cents, and, along with his other purchases for the day, even surprises Max with what he was able to obtain with the four dollars. In the coat pocket of the man's suit, Tim finds a letter from one man urging another to "find the inventor whose property we took and make a complete settlement with him." Not realizing this is a letter between the two unscrupulous lawyers, Tim uses it to plug a hole in the horse's feed basket. However, in the end, it will be Tim who brings about the return of Max's rightful fortune.
"The Rag Man" is a rather rare Jackie Coogan film and, at least at the time of this writing, has never been released to the home video market but has been shown on Turner Classic Movies. Obviously because it was released by Metro-Goldwyn (before the "Mayer" was added), it is a part of Turner's Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer library today.
Probably the two most readily available Coogan films have been the film that made him a star, "The Kid" (1921) with Charlie Chaplin, and his first starring feature, "Peck's Bad Boy" based on the famous newspaper sketches by George Wilbur Puck that began in 1883 (a third feature, "My Boy" (1921) can also be found on the home video market). Nothing Jackie ever did came close to "The Kid," so it is difficult to make comparisons with the Chaplin masterpiece as a whole, but some comparisons between this and later performances by the child star help to provide some insight into his development over the years. Also, saying that nothing he did compares to "The Kid" is not to say Jackie didn't make good films. "Peck's Bad Boy" is excellent, albeit mild, entertainment. "The Rag Man" is also excellent entertainment, but, it, too, is best described as mild.
There are several reasons why "mild" is chosen as an adjective to describe the film. For example, it would be safe to say that no moment or scene in the movie is outstanding enough to remain in the viewer's memory long after he or she has seen the film. The Variety reviewer described it as a "gag picture." This is a fair assessment, for the most part, because the film is mostly a series of vignettes held together by a single thread -- Max's search for the unscrupulous lawyers who stole his invention patent years before. There are no subplots. However, one that could have been developed escaped the writer and director that of Tim's disappearance from the orphanage. In fairness, it was addressed in the film, although in a very unsatisfactory manner. The priest from the orphanage finds Tim on the street and tells him he must take him back to the new orphanage. Tim tells the Father about Max and the business, but the Father insists it's his duty to return the boy. "But, Father, the . . . newspaper said I was dead," Tim insists. After scratching his chin for a moment, the Father concedes, "Well, Timmy dead or alive you'll get along alright good luck to you." And that's that! A little hard to swallow that a responsible man such as the Father would walk away without knowing any more about the child's welfare than he does. Maybe the writers felt the threat of Max losing the child back to the orphanage would be too reminiscent of "The Kid" and chose to stay away from it.
Although there are other more or less minor roles in the story, Jackie and Max Davidson essentially carry the film for its entire 67 minutes as a duo, and do it quite well. As the Variety reviewer noted, "Wisely enough, the author and director decided not to let too heavy a burden fall on Coogan's little shoulders and have given almost as important a role to Max Davidson." Davidson is probably best remembered for his work in comedy shorts with the Hal Roach studio, but he does a commendable job in "The Rag Man" exhibiting both a talent for comedy and pathos. Of course, the pairing of Jewish and Irish in a film was nothing new in the silent era ("Frisco Sally Levy" (1925) with Sally O'Neill, "Sweet Daddies" (1926) with Jobyna Ralston," "The Shamrock and the Rose" (1927) with Mack Swain, a series of five Cohens and Kellys movies and more), but director Eddie Cline deserves credit for not running the ethnicity angle into the ground. Instead the focus is on the relationship between the old man and young boy, and a believable friendship and love between the two is developed naturally. At one point, Max, in bed and not feeling well, tells Mrs. Malloy, his neighbor, "My heart is full of love for that boy." As evidenced in this scene, director Cline doesn't let the story get bogged down in sentiment, though, as Tim walks up and suggests Max and Mrs. Malloy get married. Flustered and angry, the buxom and matronly Mrs. Malloy jumps up exclaiming, "Mind your business. I'll pick me own cave man," and leaves.
The titles, written by Robert Hopkins, add generously to the enjoyment of the story. In one example, Max asks Tim his name. Tim replies, "Timothy Patrick Alyoisius Michael Kelly." "Oi," Max says, "it sounds like the roll call for a St. Patrick's Day parade." Of course, all of the humor in the titles is not of the ethnic variety. As Tim and Max enter another section of the city in their wagon, the title reads, "The Wall Street District where they dry clean without gasoline." And Jackie's are at once charming and funny, too. When he tries to convince Max to let him do the buying while Max is sick, Tim brags, "I can talk with my hands 'n everything!" On the titles, the Variety reviewer said, "The film is crowded with . . . gags, with perhaps the biggest laughs on the captions . . ."
The obvious drawing card for the film, though, is little Jackie himself. Although Max Davidson doesn't fall too far behind the boy in screen time, a one-sheet poster for the movie doesn't even mention Davidson or any other cast member other than the star. Neither of the short reviews in Photoplay nor Motion Picture magazine even mention Davidson, and the longer review in Variety simply states that Davidson plays the part of Ginsberg nothing more. These are a disservice to Davidson who deserves some credit for his sympathetic and credible performance.
For anyone who has only seen Jackie in "The Kid" or "Peck's Bad Boy," upon watching "The Rag Man," you will see that little Jackie is beginning to grow up. Not quite six when he started working with Chaplin, Jackie was 10 years old at the time of "The Rag Man." Although Chaplin has been both praised and criticized as a director, there is no doubt that he deserves the bulk of the credit for Jackie's performance in "The Kid." No matter what innate talent the child had, such a performance would be difficult to imagine without a director such as Chaplin who obviously had a gift for bringing out the best performance in others. There is a difference in the performance of the five-year old Jackie in "The Kid" and the 10-year old Jackie of "The Rag Man." The naturalness of the earlier performance is much more appealing. Also, Chaplin's direction aside, his performance in "Peck's Bad Boy," which appeared less than six months after "The Kid," retains much of the innocent charm and naturalness that made him so popular. This is not a criticism of his performance in "The Rag Man," which is certainly endearing, but Jackie has obviously become much more of an experienced, professional actor with five years and 10 films under his belt by this time. The Variety reviewer makes this point fairly well. "The return to battered cap, sweater and long trousers shows that Jackie, naturally enough, has grown considerably since the days he first became the world's favorite youngster. He is still small enough to be entirely winsome and appealing, and there appears a new boyishness about him that ingratiates. His comic technique is surer than ever, but in the moments of pathos, a studied thespian attitude, clever enough in itself, has unfortunately taken the place of the wholly natural, unsophisticated charm."
This is evident in the one sequence in the film when pathos is supposed to be at its peak. Jackie believes he has accidentally burned the letter that would recapture the fortune that was stolen from Max, and, feeling he has let Max down, he decides to leave. Clutching Max's hands, Tim says, "I'm too little to be a business man I'm going back where I belong." As both Max and Tim begin to cry, Tim continues, "I tried to help you but I failed. Some day when I get big, I'll pay you back," and he heads toward the door. Max begs him to stay, but Tim goes to the door, and Max buries his face in the crook of his arm as he cries. The scene is touching, but not heart-rending as one would expect from "the kid." The viewer is too aware of Jackie's performance rather than the feeling and emotion of the scene.
The year 1925 could possibly stand as the greatest single year for silent film with such releases as Chaplin's "The Gold Rush," Lon Chaney's "The Phantom of the Opera," Harold Lloyd's "The Freshman," Erich Von Stroheim's "The Merry Widow," William S. Hart's excellent "Tumbleweeds," MGM's grand scale"Ben Hur," and more. Unfortunately, "The Rag Man" is not strong enough in story, direction or cinematography to compete with the heavy hitters of that year. To take this a step further, if it weren't for Jackie, it's doubtful the film would have been looked on favorably by the reviewers at all. However, Jackie is still able to charm, and the film drew good reviews. Photoplay called it "appealing" adding that "Jackie himself will delight all fans." Motion Picture magazine called it "amusing and appealing." Overall, the film works it's enjoyable, it's engaging, Jackie is still charming, and it's a good 67 minutes of entertainment.
Mention needs to be made of the orchestral accompaniment for this film which is one of the best to come from one of Turner Classic Movies' Young Film Composer Competition winners. Linda Martinez was the 2003 winner and the first female to be given the chance to score one of TCM's silents. The music is appropriate throughout enhancing each character, scene and emotion. Never is the music out of character or at odds with the mood of the moment. Martinez commented that she emphasized the piccolo and violin to give an Irish sound to Jackie Coogan's character and emphasized the violin for the Jewish character played by Max Davidson. Such attention as this assists in giving the characters an identity, and Martinez has done an excellent job of composing just the right music for setting up each scene in the movie. There are no attempts to "modernize" the music in an attempt to make it appealing to today's audiences (which, when done by composers for silent films, almost always fails). Instead, the music complements and enhances what the viewer sees with naturalness and without intruding on the action that is taking place.
Copyright © 2005, by Tim Lussier. All rights reserved.
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