As Pure Entertainment Preservation Society’s A Month Without the Code comes to a close, I wanted to review a movie that served as the grand finale. Since I found every movie I reviewed so far to be just ok, I knew whichever film I chose had to be memorable in some way. The more I think about my choice, the more confident I feel it will leave an impression. The Death of Poor Joe is not only the oldest film I have written about, it is the shortest film featured on 18 Cinema Lane! This movie is a minute long, revolving around the death of Joe from Bleak House. I read this book several years ago, with Joe being my favorite character. I’m not going to lie; I was not a fan of Charles Dickens’ decision to have Joe die in the story. But after reading Oliver Twist, I gained an understanding for why that decision was made. The Death of Poor Joe also serves as an important piece of film history. It is the oldest existing adaptation of any work from Charles Dickens. It is a former lost film as well, with a curator from the British Film Institute, Bryony Dixon, finding the film in 2012.
Things I liked about the film:
The acting: As I said in my Wild Oranges review, the actors in a silent film have to rely on body language, facial expressions, and actions/behaviors to portray what their characters are saying and feeling. Laura Bayley, the actress who is cast as the titular character, does a great job using these acting techniques to show what her character is experiencing. Right before Joe dies, the audience sees him looking toward the sky and holding his hands in a praying position. This tells them that Joe is begging God for mercy. The only other actor in this film is Tom Green, who portrays a police officer. Similar to Laura’s performance, Tom also utilized body language, facial expressions, and actions/behaviors in his favor. When the police officer first encounters Joe, he is seen pointing at the protagonist and waving his hand. These gestures indicate the police officer telling the young boy to move off the sidewalk.
The costume design: Another important piece of a silent film is costume design, as this specific component can help express character development. Though the movie’s costume designer is unknown, I was impressed with the costume design I saw! Both outfits, Joe’s and the police officer’s, appeared historically accurate and fit each characterization. They were also distinct, allowing the characters to contrast one another. The police officer can be seen wearing a dark suit and a top hat. This ensemble signifies the police officer’s importance and social standing within that time period. Meanwhile, Joe is shown wearing a shirt and pants that are torn and ragged. Joe’s outfit reminds the audience of how he lacks a parental figure who will look out for his best interests.
The use of snow: I don’t remember if it was snowing when Joe died, as it has been several years since I last read Bleak House. In this short film, however, I like how snow was incorporated into the characters’ surroundings! Snow has a consistent presence in this story, as it covers the ground and top of the wall behind Joe and the police officer. It can also be seen falling from the sky. Because of the black-and-white presentation of the movie, the snow helps create an image that is haunting. The presence of snow instills a feeling sadness as well, warning the audience that an uncontrollable fate is about to take place in the story.
What I didn’t like about the film:
Lack of title cards: Most silent films feature title cards, which help give context to what is happening on screen. This staple of silent movies was absent from The Death of Poor Joe. Audience members who are not familiar with the source material might wonder why they should care about the characters. There is no preparation leading up to Joe’s death, as the event itself happens in mere seconds. If title cards had been included in this film, it may have resolved some of these issues.
No music: Music can strength a movie’s tone and set the mood for the story. But music was excluded from The Death of Poor Joe, causing the film to be very silent. While the narrative itself is sad, music could have enhanced the movie-viewing experience. Dramatic sounds from a violin or a somber piano tune could accompany the visuals well. Certain beats might match up with specific events, promoting a sense of musicality. I know live music would play during a silent film if it were presented in a movie theater. But I wish music was added to The Death of Poor Joe.
A shorter run-time: In this review’s introduction, I mentioned how The Death of Poor Joe was a minute long. Even though I knew this was a short film, I still feel it should have received a longer run-time. Pieces of Joe’s and the police officer’s backstory could have been included in the movie. The audience might be able to spend more time with Joe as a character, which would have made his death more heartbreaking. Seeing how the police officer deals with Joe’s death is an interesting concept to think about. Because The Death of Poor Joe’s run-time was only a minute long, it limits how much story was allowed to be told.
My overall impression:
The history of The Death of Poor Joe might be more interesting than the film itself. In its 119-year lifespan, the film gained the mysterious title of “lost film”. This status has been placed on the project for about 66 years. Eight years ago, the movie received a new title: found. As someone who has taken an interest in lost media, I am grateful for Bryony Dixon’s and the British Film Institute’s efforts to preserve The Death of Poor Joe! As for the film itself, I thought it was fine. The story was straight-to-the-point and the production quality was impressive. However, I wish the film was longer. As someone who has chosen Joe as their favorite character from Bleak House, it would have been nice to see his story fleshed out more. Music and title cards also would have added to the movie-viewing experience as well. Joe’s on-screen death is the only thing that would need to change if this was a Breen Code era film. While this event is an important part of the story, it would need to meet Breen Code standards.
Overall score: 7 out of 10
Have you seen any adaptations of Charles Dickens’ work? Are there any found films you’d like to see? Let me know in the comment section!
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