Fragile young Daisy White (Mae Murray), a destitute child of the slums (plus she’s got a heart condition), pleads with a bartender for a little medicinal whiskey for her ailing mother. Alas, Daisy has no credit with the proprietor, and she is shooed away—but not before her situation attracts the notice of confidence man John Bent (Warner Oland), who buys Daisy the spirits she needs and follows her to her humble dwellings (she resides in the attic above the honky tonk). On her deathbed, Mama is about to draw her rations and head up to that big poorhouse in the sky—but not before revealing to Bent a family secret that will allow him to reap ample rewards.
You see, Daisy is the twin sister of Violet White (also Murray); the two girls were separated when their parents’ marriage went phffft! and while Daisy has been suffering in her hardscrabble existence with her mother, Pop—known to friends and creditors as wealthy metalworks magnate Harry White (J.W. Johnston)—has made certain Violet wants for nothing in that oh-so-familiar fashion of the one percent. Bent has a winning flutter on the horses (betting, appropriately enough, on a horse named “Daisy”) and with that windfall he arranges for Daisy to attend a girls’ school; he then pays Harry a visit and manages to work himself into White’s good graces by handing over incriminating photos and documents (revealing the family secret) while bold-facedly lying to Harry, telling him Daisy passed away at 16.
This is just the beginning of Bent’s deviltry. Hired by Father White to work at the metalworks, Bent (I can’t get over how appropriate that name is) soon vies with Harry’s right-hand man—and Violet’s fiancée—engineer Bob Anderson (Henry G. Sell) for Vi’s affections. Harry exits the picture after being fatally injured in a chemical explosion at the factory…but before shuffling off this mortal coil, he extracts a promise from Violet that she’ll tie the knot with Bent. Bent marries Violet, drugs her, brings Daisy home from school and frightens her to death (posing as a ghost), then puts Violet’s wedding ring on her finger so everyone thinks “Mrs. Bent” is dead. As for Violet? Well, now everybody believes she’s Daisy…and when she insists she isn’t, Bent arranges for her to be locked up in an asylum. (He seemed nice.)
Author Wilkie Collins’ classic novel The Woman in White had already received the silver screen treatment a few times before it was loosely reworked for The Twin Pawns (1919), an Acme Pictures Corporation/Pathe vehicle fashioned for the talents of actress Mae Murray, known in the silent film era as “The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips.” (Murray was also billed on occasion as “The Gardenia of the Screen.”) Pawns has just been released (this past September 25) as part of Alpha Video’s “Lost Silent Classics Collection,” and is a most enjoyable little mellerdrammer that refuses to put the brakes on its sheer audacity. (Alpha’s Brian Krey was kind enough to make certain I got a screener here in the House of Yesteryear, for which I was truly thankful.)
The Twin Pawns, being in the public domain, is available for viewing on YouTube—but it’s an EYE Film Instituut Nederland print, which means it has Dutch title cards (and no musical accompaniment). Silent film restorationist/author Edward Lorusso (the individual responsible for bringing films like Ducks and Drakes  and The Bride’s Play  to DVD) took a copy of that print and translated the Dutch (title cards, telegrams, letters, etc.) into English with historian-author Robert L. Fells, who inserted the new titles into Ed’s copy. (Bob is the moderator of a Facebook group on silent films that I belong to, and he asked me to stress that he does not merchandise these videos…he is a hobbyist only.) When I had problems with the Alpha disc they gave me a much-needed assist by allowing me access to their original presentation (my Dutch always was a little rusty).
I was curious to see Pawns because of the presence of Warner Oland, who demonstrates that when it came to silent screen villainy (The Lightning Rider, Old San Francisco) he clearly loved what he was doing in roles light years away from his most familiar silver screen gig as Asian sleuth Charlie Chan. (Oland was frequently billed in publicity materials as “the screen’s most eminent heavy.”) French director Léonce Perret took the reins on Pawns (both as director and scenarist)—he would later direct Murray in The A.B.C. of Love, released that same year—yet his career in America was a brief one (1917-21); he returned to his native France where he would helm such silent classics as Koenigsmark (1923; a.k.a. The Secret Spring). Outside of The Merry Widow (1925), which is perhaps Murray’s best-known film, I haven’t sampled much of her catalog, so I was pleasantly surprised that The Twin Pawns is a real delight.