Last Friday I mentioned in a post that Grapevine Video, a mom-and-pop video business that specializes in silent and early sound films, was offering a weekend special on one of its releases—the 1922 movie version of Washington Irving’s classic short story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Titled The Headless Horseman, it stars Will Rogers as Irving’s protagonist, Ichabod Crane, and I was curious to have a gander at it because I am an unabashed Rogers fan…though I’m admittedly more familiar with the “talkies” phase of his movie career before his tragic death in a plane crash in 1935.
Horseman is a fairly faithful adaptation of Irving’s tale (with one exception, which I’ll get to in a moment): gawky schoolteacher Ichabod Crane (Rogers) is hired by the elders of a Dutch settlement (called “Tarry Town,” a reference to Tarrytown, NY) in the 18th century to teach at their schoolhouse, and he becomes infatuated with Katrina Van Tassel (Lois Meredith), the daughter of a wealthy farmer. He’s got a rival in Abraham Van Brunt, a.k.a. “Brom Bones” (Ben Hendricks, Jr.), who resents Crane’s intelligence and arrogance, and decides to play on Ichabod’s superstitious nature by filling his head with ghostly tales one night at a function hosted by the Van Tassels. When Ichabod is shot down by Katrina after proposing marriage, he begins his long journey home—and meets up with the local legend of the Headless Horseman, the ghost of a Hessian trooper whose head was reportedly shot off during the Revolutionary War. Ichabod disappears from that part of the country after his otherworldly encounter…though it is strongly implied that Mr. Bones had a hand in his departure by playing the headless one, and as his prize makes the fair-weather Katrina Mrs. B.
The Headless Horseman is an interesting motion picture. I don’t think it really succeeds as an adaptation of the Irving short story—the 1949 Disney cartoon feature (The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad) remains the best of the versions I’ve seen. But I can’t say that I was disappointed seeing it, because it’s remarkable to see Rogers play against type. Will Rogers was not an actor—he was a personality, and he was able to make his characterization of the cracker barrel philosopher-humorist work in a number of sound comedies that remain entertaining (if a bit dated) today; in many of his films (Doctor Bull, Doubting Thomas) he was the voice of reason and common sense who had to deal with the burden of putting up with small-town gossips and busybodies for which “tolerance” was not familiar to their narrow-minded world view.
So it was a treat to see the legendary Rogers stretch a bit in this role. He’s able to make a somewhat unlikable character (let’s be honest—Ichabod Crane is a male golddigger, no matter how much his rival Brom Bones behaves like a tool) appealing, though you could argue that’s the nature of Rogers’ pleasing personality. His Crane is quite conceited, considers himself above the rubes of the village (it’s established that Ikky is an outsider, a Yankee from—gasp!—Connecticut) and in one memorable title card he proposes to Katrina by telling her that he has no intellectual equal in town. Rogers isn’t quite as lanky as the Crane described by Irving in his story, but he makes up for that with an engaging gawkiness.
What ultimately makes Headless Horseman so disappointing is that it’s very dull from a visual standpoint—the film’s director, Edward D. Venturini, doesn’t display a great deal of imagination in his direction…a fatal flaw in a story so rich in atmosphere as this one. (Murnau would have had a field day with this.) The highlight of the film is actually a sequence not present in the original Irving story: antagonist Bones stirs up public resentment of Ichabod by fanning the flames of rampant rumors that Crane’s interest in ghost stories and the supernatural makes him a practitioner of witchcraft. Bones has a young boy (played by Jerry Devine, who later directed, produced and wrote radio’s This is Your FBI) pretend to be “hexed” by Crane…and the townsfolk respond by trying to tar and feather the schoolmaster. (Crane is saved at the last minute when the boy recants his story…and when it’s decided to give Brom the tar-and-feather treatment, Katrina steps in and says a public apology to Ikky would be the appropriate remedy.)
Included with Grapevine’s DVD of Horseman is the 1920 Harold Lloyd two-reel comedy Haunted Spooks, which is kind of a nice bonus on the disc even if it’s not particularly one of my favorite Lloyd comedies; I think the first half, with Harold’s attempts to commit suicide when his girl jilts him, is pretty inventive…but Part 2 coasts on scared reaction comedy, which really isn’t Lloyd’s thing (and of course, you have the perquisite house of African-American servants who do the “This house sure am haunted!” shtick of less-enlightened times). Still, the price for both silents was pretty sweet (the DVD was on special for $7.49); according to the Silent Era website Grapevine’s copy is mastered from a 16mm print released by the company in 2002. (ReelClassicsDVD.com also offers a disc version of the public domain movie that sells for a bit more but you get an original Ben Model score with it and two Ub Iwerks cartoon shorts instead of the Lloyd comedy, Spooks [1931; with Flip the Frog] and The Headless Horseman .) Considering that the public domain version sold by Alpha Video only runs 51 minutes (it’s supplemented with surviving footage from a 1921 Italian feature, The Mechanical Man) I think I got a pretty nice deal.