On that Sunday in March with spring at the doorstep of 1917, an action-adventure-mystery-romance-serial began its fifteen week run. The Voice on the Wire clearly had the attention of the nation. No expense was being spared for the promotion of this actioner, VOW, made available to the theater many illustrations in full color, posters and lobby cards; in addition, novelties such as, buttons and a miniature telephone[i] (please do not forget to take advantage of the endnotes), were manufactured for the, supernatural, super-amalgamated movie. On all accounts, VOW, was a box-office blockbuster, packing houses nationwide for the movie-goers’ weekly dose of thrills and chills. Unfortunately, we have no known copy of The Voice on the Wire, to make our own judgment as to the film’s worthiness or its cinematic expertise.[ii]
The material for this weekly serialized film was taken from the novel, “The Voice on the Wire,” by Eustace Hale Ball; the book was a huge success, generating readers from coast to coast. To add to the excitement that the story had already caused in the readers’ mind, Hall claimed that the narrative was based on facts that he had picked up while working as a police reporter in New York City.[iii] And, as if this were not enough to spark the imaginations of the potential serial-slave, from the beginning, before the first two-reel installment (The Oriental Death Punch, March 18, 1917) was cast upon the silver-screen, the audience was being told that “the mystery plot of the new serial is impenetrable, bullet-proof, shell-proof, and bomb-proof. It defies investigation.”[iv]
No stone was left unturned regarding the promotion of The Voice on the Wire, its star and producer Ben Wilson, made a forty-seven city tour[v] for VOW, stopping at the leading movie-houses in each of those cities; the trip began in the New York City area, with Wilson visiting all of the Marcus Loew theater locations, from there to Philadelphia, Washington[vi] and then westward-ho! This, to that point in cinema history, was the most comprehensive personal appearance tour[vii] of one of the glistening Stars of the Hollywood constellation. But, not satisfied with any normal or expected turnouts, the publicity arm of the Universal Film Manufacturing Company stoked the flames of box-office success, publishing in story form, in local newspapers across the country,[viii] not the book but the scenario of the serial The Voice on the Wire; thus, attracting even more movie-attendees to thousands of theaters,[ix] crowding the flicker-houses from orchestra to balcony, to watch this phenomenon of the young motion-picture industry.
In February of 1916, it was announced that the Universal Film Manufacturing Company obtained the rights to Eustace Hale Ball’s popular book;[x] originally, the multi-chapter VOW was slated for just five two-reel segments,[xi] but as of December, 1916, a sixth chapter was being completed, that was supposed to be the end, no more, nada;[xii] but at some point (I have found no reports or memos regarding the change to an increase in chapters or reason given), Universal decided to add further parts to the puzzle and of course it ended up being fifteen two-reel chapters. In November of 1916,[xiii] we know that chapters two and three were being worked on and in the following month chapter four began shooting; [xiv] in January, 1917, chapter one was almost complete.[xv]
The pictures shown in this post are from various newspapers, trade papers and fan magazines from 1916-1918.
For your convenience I am listing the cast with their appearance and role in the series and photos as available.[xvi] As well, you will find an in depth description of each of The Voice on the Wire episodes taken from the pages of The Moving Picture World, March through June issues, 1917. One funny side-note is a comic featuring the German Kaiser answering the phone and hearing The Voice on the Wire.
It has been an enjoyable experience for me doing this research for this article; I hope you enjoy what I consider to be the best reconstruction of the information available, about The Voice on the Wire.
C. S. Williams
[i] Motion Picture News March, 1917
[ii] We, because of loss of film (much of the cause by nitrate, some by carelessness and some by oversight) cannot vouch for the acting, the directing, the costumes and cinematography of VOW, for it falls into that realm of Lost-Pictures, a country where too many of our early representatives of the cinematic art form have gone. The land of Lost-Pictures issues few passports, a nation of the lost for the lost, who are jealous of their fellow-citizens and their travels beyond the borders of Lost-Pictures; few of those citizens of that country have returned to our land; but what joy they bring when they do triumphantly appear, we see them with their kin, (this, because of restoration, care, safety-film, donations and digitalization), not too roam to that country of Lost-Pictures again.
I wish and long to see the flickering images of yesteryear, those photo-plays that our great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers saw on a Saturday at the local cinema; these are pieces of our history, photographs once strung together to encourage, enrage, enrapture and engage, to see them alongside the likes of “The General, The Gold Rush, Intolerance, Les Vampires, The Unknown, and more titles that are known, because they ‘are.’
I am a believer that we cannot know our future unless we know our past, and some of our filmed past is LOST, therefore our knowledge, a portion of our understanding, no matter how small that may be, is LOST, and may, and most likely will, never be seen again. I have experienced this first-hand (as I know many have) in the most basic of terms when my wife and I lost thousands of photos that were stored on our PC; and more recently, I attended a car-show and lost those moments which I had so carefully chosen to preserve, because of a malfunctioning camera. My wife and I may have the memories but we do not have the record of our day and days, our visits, our vacations, those memories are now open to interpretation, to changeableness, to being degraded because of the lack of documentary evidence. That is what I miss, the evidence of days gone by, the LOST slick Flicks, which brought so many kicks to the many movie-going clique.
[iii] The Moving Picture World, March 17, 1917
[iv] The Moving Picture World, March 17, 1917
[v] Motion Picture News, June 9, 1917
[vi] Motography Magazine, June 16, 1917
[vii] Motography Magazine, June 16, 1917
[viii] The Moving Picture World, April 28, 1917
[ix] The Moving Picture World, April 28, 1917
[x] Motography Magazine, February 5, 1916
[xi] Motion Picture News, February 5, 1916
[xii] The Moving Picture World, December 23, 1916
[xiii] Motography Magazine, November 25, 1916
[xiv] Motography Magazine, December 2, 1916
[xv] Motography Magazine, January 17, 1917
[xvi] Director: Stuart Paton
Producers: Stuart Paton and Ben Wilson
Scenario: J. Grubb Alexander based on the novel “The Voice on the Wire” by Eustace Hale Ball
Presenter: Carl Laemmle
Production Company and Distributor: Universal Film Manufacturing Company
Principal characters of “The Voice on the Wire” Actor listed first, character in parentheses.
Ben Wilson (John Shirley) interested in criminology ep. 1
Neva Gerber (Polly Marion) actress-chorus-girl, hired by John Shirley – also girlfriend of Alvin Van Cleft ep. 1
Francis MacDonald (Red Warren) leader of criminal-gang ep. 1
Joseph Girard (Dr. Renolds or Reynolds -spelled both ways in the episode notes) AKA “Chantard” ep.5
Nigel de Bruillier (Professor Duval) friend of John Shirley inventor of the “Thought Machine”
Howard Crampton (Captain Cronin) head of a detective agency Ep. 1 Also referred to as Chief Cronin, ep. 8
Kingsley Benedict (?) (Similar to Hoot Gibson, there appears to be no documented reference to Benedict being in this movie.)
Irene Hunt (Mrs. Reynolds) ep. 15
William Quinn (Emil Laroux) ep. 15
Frank Tokonoga (Sato) John Shirley’s valet Ep. 4
Professor Montague (L. M. Wells) a physician ep. 1
Frank McQuarrie (Alvin Van Cleft) killed in ep. 1 a name on the list of those condemned to die by “The Voice”
Ernest ‘Ernie’ Shields (Howard Van Cleft) (Ernest “Ernie” Shields) son of Alvin Van Cleft, ep. 1
Hoot Gibson – appeared as Edward Gibson (?) Although I cannot find any mention of Gibson in The Voice on the Wire in news related articles (movie magazines, trade papers or newspapers), yet, the film is listed in the Hoot Gibson resume, in The Blue Book of the Screen, by Ruth Wing, Hollywood, California, 1924, page 97)
Josephine Hill (?)
Evelyn Selby (Frisco ‘Pale’ Ida) owner of the gambling house, with knowledge of “The Voice”
Lou Short (Short) (a police officer) seen with Cronin and Shirley ep. 4, 6, 9
Willard Wayne (Wayne) (detective) ep. 6
Charles Dorian (Dorian) (detective) ep. 6
William Canfield (William Grimsby) a name on the list of those condemned to die by “The Voice” ep. 2
Wadsworth Harris (James Welsh) a bon-vivant a name on the list of those condemned to die by “The Voice” ep. 7
????????? (Taylor) a driver for Red Warren – criminal-gang
(???????) John Vance a name on the list of those condemned to die by “The Voice” ep. 4
(???????) John Carns a name on the list of those condemned to die by “The Voice” ep. 5
(???????) Cummings part of the criminal-gang ep. 9
(???????) Bert Law part of the criminal-gang ep. 9, leads police through hideout, also reveals that only “Red” Warren knows who “The Voice” is.
(???????) Laschlas (sends message “Red” ep. 6; sends messages to John Shirley ep. 9 & 10 (friend or foe, who knows?)
(???????) Tokonuga part of the criminal-gang ep. 10