John Robertson directed critically acclaimed films with such major stars as: (alphabetically, first ladies then gents):
Here is a biographical sketch of John Robertson, written by our esteemed member Zach Snow.
Often described as the ‘most liked’ filmmaker of Hollywood’s silent period, John S Robertson maintained a reputation for quality films throughout the early years of the studio system. A one-time stage performer who signed a contract with Vitagraph in the mid-teens, Robertson made silent features at a prolific pace with major stars like John Barrymore, Richard Barthelmess, and Mary Pickford. Along with his wife, screenwriter Josephine Lovett, he won over many influential friends in the industry and was assigned to A-List productions well after the dawning of the sound age. Robertson retired in the mid-thirties and has largely been forgotten since; never a great artist or technician, he was still a reliable craftsman whose work spanned all genres and includes a few early Hollywood classics.
Born in Canada, where he spent his youth, John Stuart Robinson moved to the United States as a young man and found work as an actor then director on a number of stage productions. He entered the film industry around 1915, when he got a contract with Vitagraph, and helmed various shorts like “Love and Trout,” “The Thorn and the Rose,” “Getting By,” “Trouble for Four,” “Justice a la Carte,” and “The Meeting.” With Intrigue (1917), the story of a girl who helps rescue a juvenile Duke from some villains, Robertson began a career as feature filmmaker which kept him busy for the next two decades. The Boy in the Well tells the story of a man with an ominous past who takes on a group of radicals working for a mill company in one of many dramas from that time to treat unionization with a trepidation. The Money Milloffered up the story of a girl who becomes wealthy after her late father leaves her a gold mine, which naturally leads to problems with crooks who try to exploit her. Baby Minehad Madge Kennedy as a wife who tries to buy a baby to please her husband, while Robertson also made the shorts “Vanity and Some Sables” and “A Service of Love” that year. Little Miss Hoover (1918)featured romantic subplots involving farm girls and soldiers in a neat bit of escapism that utilized the still-raging First World War as a distant backdrop. Similarly The Girl of Todayfeatured Corrine Griffith as a girl who must choose between two men, a loyal American beau or a more glamorous scientist who turns out to be a German spy. Robertson’s The Make-Believe Wifegave Billie Burke an early film role, while other short productions like “The Menace” and “The Better Half” cemented his place as a key director at Famous Players-Lasky.
Let’s Elope (1919)cast Marguerite Clark as a woman, neglected by her writer husband, who begins an affair with another man who has romantic problems with his own fiancée. Come Out of the Kitchenalso starred the starlet, this time in the role of a girl who pretends to be a culinary expert in order to impress a man, while the director gave Mary Alden the lead in Erstwhile Susan–in which the actress plays a rich girl who tries to reform the roughnecks of a family. Robertson began one of his most significant collaborations, with star John Barrymore, on Here Comes the Bride–a vehicle which enhanced the reputation of ‘the Great Profile’ among moviegoers by casting him as a lawyer who agrees to marry an unattractive widow for the money. The Test of Honoralso starred Barrymore, cast as an ex-convict who sets out to get revenge on the crooks who framed him, in his first dramatic role after years of more comedic vehicles. The Misleading Widowstarred Burke as a woman who puts up a wounded soldier in her British home, only to realize the man is the husband she mistakenly reported as dead months before. Sadie Lovealso starred Burke, this time with a lighter plot involving various romantic complications, and featured future gossip columnist Hedda Hopper in one of her rare acting turns.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920), the most famous silent version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s horror story, cast Barrymore as the good doctor who drinks a potion which transforms him into the evil Hyde. Still regarded by many as the first great American horror flick, it’s also Robertson’s best remembered production due to his atmospheric staging of Jekyll’s transformation and a horrific performance from the star. By now one of Paramount’s most respected directors, he made A Dark Lanterninto a vehicle for stage star Alice Brady in the role of a British woman who is torn between an amorous prince and the normal guy who really loves her. Burke starred in Away Goes Prudenceas a spoiled woman who decides to stage her own kidnapping; like many of Robertson’s films it was co-written by Josephine Lovett, his wife and most frequent collaborator. 39 Eastwas based on a popular Broadway play, with Constance Binney reprising her stage role as an understudy who gets the chance for success when the lead actress drops out. Sentimental Tommy (1921)was a popular success starring Garth Hughes as the young man that saves unstable girl May McAvoy, who continues to love him even as he grows indifferent to her. The Magic Cupstars Binney as a hotel maid who attracts a cub reporter but ignores him until he saves her from a group of crooks, while Robertson worked with actress Else Ferguson on his successful Footlights–the story of a girl who finds fame on the stage taking on a Russian persona, returns to her hometown in New England, and wards off a suitor who fell for her alter-ego.
Tess of the Storm Country (1922) found the director working with Mary Pickford on a remake of one of her earliest successes, the story of a girl who causes a scandal after she claims her unmarried sister’s baby as her own. A story wrought with melodrama greatly appealed to the fan base of America’s Sweetheart, with Robertson’s direction ensuring a maximum emotional payoff. Love’s Boomerangoffered further drama, with a man who frames his daughter for a crime he committed, and is most notable for giving Alfred Hitchcock early work designing the title cars. The Spanish Jadealso featured designs from Hitch and David Powell in the role of a man who kills his lover’s husband, after which she offers to take the blame in the hopes of sparing his life. With The Bright Shawl (1923)the director cast Richard Barthelmess as an explorer who finds love in Cuba, with Edward G Robinson in an early role as the father of the adventurer’s friend. The Fighting Bladealso starred Barthelmess, this time as a swashbuckler who proves the strength of his sword while defending the girl he loves, as did a more comedic vehicle called Twenty One, which has the matinee idol playing a young man who wants to wait until his birthday to marry his long-time fiancée. He tackled the first of many adaptations of Arthur Pinero’s The Enchanted Cottage (1924) with Barthelmess as a wounded war veteran who encounters plain girl McAvoy at a cottage, where a love spell is cast that makes them see one another as beautiful. Robertson elicited fine performances from his leads in that sentimental melodrama, yet another film written by Lovett which was a popular success among viewers of the silent years.
Classmatesfeatured Bartelmess as a poor boy who is expelled from West Point for feuding with a more affluent boy, only to save the life of his enemy when they become stranded in the jungle. Shore Leave (1925)was a more comedic vehicle for the handsome star, this time playing a sailor who finds love while on shore leave in a typically enjoyable bit of romantic escapism. By collaborating with pioneering cameraman Roy Overbaugh, Robertson continued to make artistic features which also appealed to general audiences for a number of years. New Toyshad Barthelmess as a young man who falls for an actress but must compete with a more established performer for her affections, while the star was paired with Bessie Love in the drama Soul-Fire–with Barthelmess as a musician who travels to Paris in order to study and finds romance instead. After that Robertson moved to Metro Goldwyn Mayer.
By this point working with bigger budgets than ever before, Hollywood’s ‘best liked filmmaker’ made the drama Annie Lauriewith Lillian Gish in the eponymous role – a woman who comes between two feuding Scottish clans and tries to make peace between them for the first time in decades.
Later John Robertson directed Captain Salvation (1927), a stirring drama of the sea starring Lars Hanson as a priest who risks his future in a conservative town by coming to the aid of a prostitute played by Pauline Starke. Marceline Day played Lars Hanson's sweetheart, the leading female role in the film, and Ernest Torrence was also prominent as the ship's captain. John Robertson and all major players received exceptional critic reviews for their performances.
A few months later John Robertson directed The Road to Romance,which starred Ramon Novarro as a swashbuckling hero and Marceline Day, whom he rescues from pirates on an island. The film critics were again extremely generous in their praise for the director and the two principal stars.
After that John Robertson worked with Greta Garbo on The Single Standard (1929). Garbo plays a woman who tries to prove that women can be as indifferent to love as men, at least until she falls for a guy, in a well-acted melodrama which became one of the director’s biggest commercial successes. By this time he had mastered the art of silent storytelling, though the arrival of sound cinema would dampen his stature. Shanghai Lady, which cast Mary Nolan as the scandalous woman of the title, was shot in both an early sound and silent version, though only the latter survives today.
With his approach to film making outdated, John Robertson retired and settled down with his wife in California; years later the old man, who still sported a handlebar mustache, inspired young neighbor Chris Hillman to write a song, “Old John Robertson,” which appeared on an album by his band, the Byrds. Robertson didn’t live long enough to hear the tribute, instead he died in the early sixties and has largely faded into obscurity since then. Best known today for his one contribution to the horror genre, a hit which was largely atypical of his other work, John Robertson was at one point among the most respected and beloved directors of America’s film industry.
Below are just a few of the reviews for the films of director John S. Robertson:
"Shore Leave" is the best picture released in a long time. The romance of a tough gob and a spinster is told with rare deftness by John Robertson. (Photoplay)
Striking backgrounds and thrilling sea fights. Romantic tale, well directed by Robertson. (Journal)
Marceline Day, co-star Ramon Novarro and director John Robertson during the filming of "The Road to Romance" (1927).