The Trail of the Octopus (1919)

Article 4141 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 1-28-2013
Directed by Duke Worne
Featuring Ben Wilson, Neva Gerber, William Dyer
Country: USA
What is is: Wild silent serial

A private detective investigates attempts by criminals to get a hold of an Egyptian artifact known as “The Devil’s Trademark”.

When I was a child and first heard about movie serials, I thought they sounded nifty. When I was an adult, and first saw one, I was promptly underwhelmed, and I’ve never quite overcome that feeling. I’ve had to see lots of serials for my project, and though I’ve come to terms with my reduced expectations, I never quite warmed to them. I did start to suspect, however, that the form may have been in something of a decline during the sound era, but most of my encounters with serials during the silent era were either non-representative (I’ve seen some impressive French serials, but they’re something of a different animal from the American ones), incomplete (most silent serials are missing most of their episodes), or were in pretty decrepit shape.

Well, with this one, I’ve finally had a chance to see a silent serial that is mostly complete (there’s one episode in the middle missing, and a few stray moments of missing footage throughout the rest), is in excellent shape (thanks to Serial Squadron), and has a fine score. It’s also heavy on the fantastic content (what with ancient Egyptian cursed artifacts, hypnotism, disembodied floating eyes, machine-enhanced astral projection, comets diverted from their course to crash into the Earth, a mysterious masked villain, an evil Oriental genius, an ape man, etc), and it trots through its various plot elements with a sort of reckless abandon. No, it doesn’t always make sense, and I suspect certain plot changes were made midstream, but that doesn’t matter because of the energy and sense of fun to the whole affair. At least one of the central mysteries is never resolved (possibly due to the fact that a few minutes of crucial footage are missing from the final episode and no known plot synopsis exists of the missing scene), and the title turns out to be only a metaphor trotted out in the final episode. Oh, it’s pretty silly, but I don’t think I’ve ever had quite as much fun with a serial before.

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