Film Title: Triumph
Studio: Universal Pictures
Silent or Talkie: Silent
- Dorothy Phillips
- Lon Chaney
- William Stowell
- William Dyer
Even before Lon Chaney became a major star, he worked tirelessly to perfect his craft. In the silent medium, he could convey any message with a series of expressions. Though he only started a few years earlier, Chaney made an inconceivable 110 films before starring in 1917’s Triumph. It was a role that he played to the limit, even when he was the secondary focus on screen. The 34-year-old was climbing the ladder quickly as one of the most versatile actors.
Nell Baxter (Dorothy Phillips) is an aspiring actress who daydreams about rising to stardom. Her days are spent working in small-time local productions that do little for career advancement. Desperate to make a change, she waits in the station for a train heading to New York City. While waiting, she glances at a poster on the wall for a local production, imagining it as an advertisement that hails her as New York’s greatest actress. The station is littered with the lethargic members of an acting troupe who seem restless and bored. Nell meets Dudley Weyman (William Stowell), the troupe’s male star, and confesses her celebrity ambitions to him. When she finally arrives in New York, Nell is determined to find a part that will set her career in motion. Meanwhile, David Montieth (William J. Dyer), a prominent stage manager, is furiously at work on his next production. Unexpectedly, Montieth receives a letter from his leading lady stating that she’s just been married and unable to continue her role. Nell fills the position and mystifies everyone in the company, particularly Montieth whose fascination with her goes beyond her acting ability.
Paul Neihoff (Lon Chaney) is a playwright struggling to have his latest play Triumph produced. Neihoff is aware of Montieth’s significance in the business and tries in vain to have him read the script. Dudley Weyman suggests that he use Montieth’s girlfriend Lillian Du Pon (Claire Du Brey) to coerce him. In theory, it’s a great strategy. However, Montieth, now completely smitten with Nell, is no longer interested in Lillian. The only logical thing for Neihoff to do is carry out the same plan with Nell in place of Lillian, which he does. Nell doesn’t believe that she has an influence over Montieth. But when Neihoff convinces her that she does, she agrees to help get Triumph produced. Nell’s approach is a brilliant one. She acts frustrated towards Montieth, lamenting that she can’t seem to find a perfect role. Montieth knows that in order to get “close” to Nell, he must first resolve her outward conflicts. She claims that the female lead in Triumph is ideal. Although hesitant to help Neihoff, Montieth reads the script for the sake of his infatuation. Involuntarily, Nell and Neihoff become fond of one another. Triumph is approved and Montieth himself becomes excited about the production. But before things get rolling, Montieth is tipped off that Nell is only using him to further the career of Neihoff, her real love interest. Enraged and in disbelief, Montieth storms in to find Nell and Neihoff practicing a love scene from the play. The two men fight. Montieth gets the best of Neihoff, vows to cancel the play and storms away.
Nell is crushed at the thought of having ruined everything. She also worries about her own career but is obviously more concerned with the fate of Neihoff’s chances. Hoping that Montieth will listen to reason and go on with the show, Nell pleads with him in his office. He gives her a simple choice: her career or Neihoff’s career. One of them will have to lose. Again, she envisions herself the center of attention, adored by all as the queen of cinema, and chooses her own success over Neihoff. Immediately overcome with guilt and the frustration over having to make such a choice, Nell stabs Montieth and kills him. The culmination of every event leads to an ending that shocks and then surprises. Who will triumph?
Dorothy Phillips had an impressive track record by 1917. Like Chaney, she’d already appeared in over 100 films, beginning in 1911 with His Friend’s Wife. As Nell, her naivety was believable to the point of garnering audience support for her cause. Phillips’ career flourished in the silent era, due in part to her likeable personality. Co-stars and fans alike found her to be down-to-earth and highly approachable. As sound became a popular medium, her work began to dwindle, leading her into virtual obscurity. From the 1930s through the 1960s, she’d appear in uncredited roles. Lon Chaney, however, was on his way up. He had yet to achieve the kind of immortality he would enjoy in the 1920s, but his skills were sharpening and his work ethic strengthening. Throughout Triumph, Chaney’s intentional facial manipulations were evident. It was a sign of things to come without question. Triumph, as a whole, received a positive response after its release by Bluebird Photoplays on September 3, 1917. One newspaper commented: “None should miss this Bluebird, which with the Screen Magazine and the comedy, form a mighty Interesting program.” Another newspaper suggested that every girl with stage aspirations should see the film. Interestingly enough, Phillips was a much more recognized star than Chaney in 1917. In practically all of the advertisements, Chaney’s name wasn’t even mentioned. Phillips, however, was given top billing.
Triumph is not available on DVD. On October 11, 2007, the film was screened with live piano accompaniment at the Linwood Dunn Theater in Hollywood. For years, an incomplete nitrate print of the film was the only material known to exist. All of the reels had suffered decomposition and required extensive perforation repair. The laboratory work included optical printing with inter-title length adjustments and color flashing to imitate the tinting of the source print. Though Triumph was a five-reel film, only three reels could be salvaged, as the remaining two were hopelessly decomposed. In order to give the film a sense of completion, the ending was reconstructed using Adobe Photoshop to combine text with images scanned from the existing film. The film’s conclusion was determined by reading the original critic reviews from 1917.
It’s early Chaney and it’s captivating. Silence is golden, especially when we can enjoy the subtleties often hidden between voices. The story is simple but influential and the characters are deep. Many works from this era are lost with no hope for discovery. Thankfully, this is one more silent that has been saved from completely disappearing.