The Bootleg Files: Capital Punishment

BOOTLEG FILES 693: “Capital Punishment” (1925 silent drama featuring Clara Bow).

LAST SEEN: On Internet Archive.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: In a crummy public domain dupe.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A lapsed copyright.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: It is unlikely that this will be digitally restored.

Unless you are a character in a Joshua Ryan story, it is safe to assume that you would probably not voluntarily submit yourself to prison incarceration. But in this obscure 1925 silent feature, the central character agrees to forsake his liberty and go behind bars as part of an elaborate ruse to call attention to the failings of the criminal justice system. And, perhaps not surprisingly, the system fails him with extraordinary brutality.

“Capital Punishment” opens with a prologue involving a young man on death row. The prisoner is wild with fear of his execution, and one of the intertitles finds him pleading, “But why should I die for something I did not do?” The prisoner’s attorney lobbies the governor to commute the sentence to life imprisonment, but the politician refuses. Across town, an old ruffian lying on his death bed confesses to the murder that has been pinned on the condemned young man. An effort is made to relay this news to the governor and to get him to call the prison to halt the execution. Alas, the news reaches the prison after the convict has been put to death.

This case has disturbed high-priced lawyer Elliott Dexter, who makes a bet with his playboy pal Robert Ellis that he can fabricate a homicide and get an innocent man put on death row for the crime that never occurred. Before the execution could, Dexter would reveal it was a hoax by producing the alleged murder victim, thus pointing out the danger associated with capital punishment. Of course, one might imagine the tragedy of wrongful execution depicted the film’s prologue would have been a strong argument against the death penalty, but the scheme delights Ellis and he agrees to be the faux-murder victim and hide away while Dexter puts the plot into motion.

Now, who would want to go to prison as part of this scheme? Dexter recruits a reformed thief named Danny O’Connor and offers him the promise of a $10,000 payment when the scheme is over. O’Connor is running financially on empty, and he wants to use the $10,000 to make life better for his elderly mother and cute young girlfriend. He agrees, and thanks to some carefully planted circumstantial evidence he is immediately arrested for Ellis’ alleged murder. After the fastest trial in movie history, O’Connor is sentenced to death.

While on death row, O’Connor is the ultimately in cocky self-confidence. After all, he knows that his presence behind bars is only temporary and a fat cash payout awaits him. What could go possibly wrong?

Well, Ellis decides that he doesn’t want to stay hidden for a prolonged period – especially when he discovers Dexter is making moves on his girlfriend. The two men clash and Dexter kills Ellis. But rather than confess to his crime, Dexter allows O’Connor – already imprisoned on the charge of killing Ellis – to take the fall. O’Connor learns of this and, not surprisingly, is a bit upset over this turn of events. Mercifully, O’Connor’s girlfriend is a plucky, pushy gal with a hitherto unknown talent for investigations, and she takes it upon herself to get the truth and bring it before the governor before the execution is carried out.

“Capital Punishment” has one of the most astonishing plots ever devised, with a surplus number of logic gaps and a painfully naïve understanding of how the criminal justice operates. The film’s climax with the governor’s car racing to the prison to stop the execution was a blatant and clumsy rip-off of the climax to modern-day segment of D.W. Griffith’s “Intolerance.” The acting was typical of the over-emoting that burdened too many films of the silent era, especially George Hackathorne’s wildly unsubtle emotional shifts as O’Connor. (The fact Hackathorne had a strong resemblance to Stan Laurel does not help in his dramatic flourishes.) It was no surprise that the New York Times mused that the “pivotal idea in this picture is better suited to comedy than melodrama.”

But if “Capital Punishment” is recalled today, it is for the presence of Clara Bow in the supporting role as O’Connor’s girlfriend. Bow was under contract with the small studio Preferred Pictures and was starting to gain some career momentum, but for “Capital Punishment” she was demoted to a thankless small part that barely registered until the latter stretch of the film. She was not well styled or photographed, and her quotidian acting lacked the charisma and energy that contributed to her growing popularity. “Capital Punishment” was the least interesting film up to that point in her career – and, perhaps, in her full career. Oddly, Preferred Pictures highlighted her presence in the theatrical marketing of “Capital Punishment,” and one can assume audiences were confused to find the on-screen Bow so radically different from the publicity hype presentation.

Shortly after “Capital Punishment” was released, Preferred Pictures filed for bankruptcy. Studio head B. P. Schulberg was quickly signed to Paramount Pictures as an associate producer and Bow’s contract with Preferred was transferred to Paramount. From there, her star took off with great performances in classic films including “It” and the Best Picture Oscar winner “Wings.” “Capital Punishment” was quickly forgotten, and in the transition to the talkies it soon disappeared. For years, it was assumed to be a lost film, but a print was discovered in the Netherlands in the 1980s.

Today, “Capital Punishment” is a public domain title. But unlike other public domain title, it has not been a ubiquitous presence among the bargain basement home entertainment labels. A crummy duped version with a grueling organ score can be endured on the Internet Archive website, but to date no one has bothered to offer a digital restoration with a listenable score. But anyone who is forced to watch this old dud is being subjected to cruel and unusual punishment and is clearly deserving of a Get Out of Jail Card.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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