Run time: 80 min | Drama, Romance, Sci-Fi
Director: Frank Lloyd
Writers: Gertrude Atherton, Frank Lloyd
Stars: Corinne Griffith, Conway Tearle, Tom Ricketts
Based on a fantasy/romance novel by the then-popular Gertrude Atherton, and described as “subtle science fiction”, it takes its title from a line by William Butler Yeats: “The years like great Black Oxen tread the world.” A young man falls in love with an Austrian countess who seems to be young, but is actually a great deal older than she appears to be. New restoration!
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"Black Oxen" by Gertrude Atherton was the #1 best-selling novel of 1923, going through 14 printings in a single year. The novel gained a racy reputation, due to its (for the time) frank discussion of women's sexual organs, and because of some innovative language. (This novel featured the first use of the word "sophisticate" as a noun.) The film version was rushed into production almost immediately, but is well-made and not a quickie.
"Black Oxen" (the 1923 novel) is science fiction, although few of its readers realised that fact. The 1924 film "Black Oxen" is a science-fiction movie, but is not immediately recognisable as such because the film emphasises ideas rather than sci-fi gadgetry. The film takes its title from a verse by Yeats: "The years like great Black Oxen tread the world". A much later science-fiction novel, also cried 'Black Oxen' (by New Zealand author Elizabeth Knox, published in 2001), takes its title from this same source.
Lee Clavering (played by Conway Tearle) is a handsome playboy in jazz-era Manhattan. (In the novel, Clavering was a playwright: in this movie, he allegedly writes a newspaper column, but seems to spend all his time carousing.) In a nightclub, he meets a mysterious Austrian beauty named Madame Zatianny (Corinne Griffith) and he's instantly attracted to her. Clavering's older friends Mr and Mrs Oglethorpe are also intrigued by Mme Zatianny, because she is an exact double for Mary Ogden, a socialite of the 1890s who disappeared in Europe many years ago. But Mary Ogden would now be 58 years old, whilst Mme Zatianny is a young woman. Can she perhaps be Mary Ogden's daughter?
SPOILER COMING: As a romance develops between Clavering and Zatianny, he discovers the bizarre truth. Years ago, Mary Ogden went to Vienna and volunteered for a medical experiment, in which her ovaries were irradiated with radium treatments. This rejuvenated the fiftyish Mary, restoring her to the sexual vitality and physical youth of her early twenties. She re-invented herself as the European beauty Zatianny, and has now returned to her old haunts. For reasons never properly explained, the radium treatment works only on women, not men.
This is a strange film, but an interesting one. In flashbacks, we see Mary Ogden as she looked in her fifties: the make-up on Corinne Griffith is not very convincing, and she looks as if she's in her seventies, not her fifties. Also, the movie implies that a woman in her fifties is hopelessly old, beyond any hope of emotional happiness. If this is true, it's down to social prejudice rather than biological fact.
Clara Bow is good in a small role as the Oglethorpes' socialite daughter, and more subdued than usual. "Black Oxen" is a good example of how silent films sometimes had narrative advantages over talking films. Corinne Griffith has to play an American and a (supposed) European. In a sound film, she would have to speak her lines in two different accents. The European accent would probably have been a fairly ludicrous one, dispelling the credibility of her character. Because "Black Oxen" is a silent film, the accent problem is avoided.
Sadly, I would like to know how this film ends. The DVD that is available of course is short the missing reels – the film ends at a dinner party. It's not a great transfer but worth watching. Clara Bow is an obnoxious little flapper who is in love with Conway Tearle – a small complication throughout. I agree with the previous comment that Corrine Griffith who is supposed to be around 60, when made up looks much older. She seems infirmed with a cane but there is no explanation about this.
It would be wonderful if the missing reels would turn up in Russian or the Czech Republic or the Netherlands or anywhere. This film was long on my want list so when I saw it advertised on DVD I took a chance and ordered it.
At the opening of "The Undesired", a New York play, the audience is stunned by the incredible beauty of Corinne Griffith, who simply stands up from her seat. Brilliant theater critic, and budding playwright, Conway Tearle (as Lee Clavering) is among those smitten by the ravishing Ms. Griffith. Mr. Tearle insists he must meet her. Elderly gossip Tom Ricketts (as Charles Dinwiddie) is more shocked than enthralled, because the mysterious young woman looks exactly like a lady he dated 30 years ago; Mr. Ricketts explains the woman was "Mary Ogden", who should be old and feeble, presently. Griffith claims to be her lookalike's niece. But, old friend Kate Lester (as Jane Ogelthorpe) says "Mary Ogden" had no siblings.
Griffith and Tearle fall in love. As things turn out, the originally hinted at science fiction angle is dispensed with. Before the film's "flashback", Griffith reveals she is "an old woman of sixty, whose youth has been restored to her by a modern miracle of science." This follows the explanation offered in writer Gertrude Atherton's autobiographical "Black Oxen" (1923). Ms. Atherton wrote about her own "youthful" restoration. The process, or "Steinach treatment", rejuvenated a woman's youth and vitality by X-raying her ovaries.
Interestingly, in real life, actress Griffith employed a different (and, likely, more effective) "youth restoration" technique – she claimed to be her own much younger sister. On film, she looks lovely, but there isn't much depth in Griffith's characterization; she and Tearle essay a common romance. During the flashback, Griffith looks more tired than old; and, before the process, she doesn't look at all old enough to be a "woman of sixty".
Griffith's reason for contemplating youth is not as interesting or realistic as supporting character Claire McDowell (as Agnes Trevor). Ms. McDowell's motivation would have made a more interesting film. A real "flaming youth", Clara Bow (as Janet Oglethorpe), plays a delightful young "flapper" who has a crush older man Tearle. The last quarter of "Black Oxen" is missing, but it's not too difficult to determine how it all ends.
**** Black Oxen (12/29/23) Frank Lloyd ~ Corinne Griffith, Conway Tearle, Clara Bow
An enigmatic young woman becomes the talk of Jazz Age Manhattan when it appears she's the same socialite who left New York for Europe decades before. They actually are one and the same thanks to x-ray treatments that reverse the ageing process but will her new beau care once he finds out? Like ARE PARENTS PEOPLE? made the following year, the movie's trying to say something about age-ism but I'm not sure if the point was made because it's missing the last reel. Still, I enjoyed what I saw thanks to its star, the extravagantly beautiful Corrine Griffith, and it's impossible to look away whenever Clara Bow's flirtatious flapper appears on screen.