The tale of Cameo Kirby, a fairly melodramatic love story set in the world of 19th-Century Mississippi riverboat gambling, first saw the light of day as the play Your Humble Servant in 1910. It was co-written by Harry Leon Wilson and Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright Booth Tarkington. It starred Dustin Farnum, and when this popular stage actor landed a silent movie contract in 1914, the play, retitled Cameo Kirby, was one of six films he appeared in during his first year as a movie star.
When director John Ford remade the title, again as a silent film, in 1923, Cameo Kirby marked another two firsts. It was the first picture in which Ford, a prolific director whose career lasted from 1917 to 1971, was credited as John instead of Jack. It was also the film debut of Jean Arthur, who would go on to be the queen of screwball comedy in the 30s, appearing in classics like Mr Deeds Goes to Town and Too Many Husbands.
Final Incarnation as a Musical
The 20s saw the invention of talkies, and the third Cameo Kirby film in 1930 capitalised on this by reworking the story as a musical. Unusually, the female lead, Norma Terris, had no songs to sing, with all the music divided between male lead J Harold Murray, the chorus, and the negro slaves.
The film’s portrayal of black characters, and the attitudes of white characters towards them, is highly offensive to modern eyes. At the time, however, it was a fairly typical portrayal of 19th-Century American society, no worse than that seen in hundreds of other films.
Ford’s Version the Most Highly Regarded
John Ford’s 1923 version of Cameo Kirby is regarded by many as the most memorable of the three. For a start, it’s one of the few films from Ford’s early years of which copies survive. Ford’s output was always prodigious, and he made more than 60 silent films in the first decade of his career. Sadly, more than half of them have been lost, but two copies of Cameo Kirby are archived, in Los Angeles and Lisbon.
Ford’s Cameo Kirby is also notable as one of the last films John Gilbert would make as a relative unknown. By 1924, he was under contract to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and he remained a huge silent movie star for the rest of the 20s, starring opposite Greta Garbo in several classics. Studio politics and a feud with Louis B Mayer effectively ended his career in the talkies era. His love interest in Cameo Kirby is Gertrude Olmstead, another great silent star who later appeared opposite Rudolf Valentino in Cobra.
Fighting to Clear his Name
Cameo Kirby has a fairly simple plot. Professional riverboat gambler Cameo Kirby has the skills to cheat at cards, but he only uses them against other card sharps. When he sees the disreputable Moreau preparing to fleece an elderly Southern Colonel, he enters the card game and cheats to beat Moreau. In doing so, he wins all the Colonel’s money, and even the title deeds to his plantation. He intends to return these to the old man, but disgraced by his loss, the Colonel shoots himself.
Kirby then discovers that the stranger he fell in love with at the carnival the night before the game is the Colonel’s daughter. The rest of the plot concerns his efforts to clear his name of responsibility for the old man’s death, and bring the real culprit, Moreau, to justice so that he can win his love.