“Hold Your Breath”
Directed by Scott Sidney. Cast: Dorothy Devore, Walter Hiers, Tully Marshall
Jimmie Adams, Priscilla Bonner, Douglas Carter, Max Davidson. Released May 24, 1924. Source: Videobrary VHS tape
“Hold Your Breath” is a delightful daredevil comedy featuring the attractive and very funny Dorothy Devore as a determined woman who tries to save her brother’s job by doing it for him. Her brother was gassed during the war, is still battling the effects, and his doctor has ordered him to stay home from work. However he may lose his job as a newspaperman if he stays out for the two months the doctor has prescribed. Dorothy goes to the paper and insists she can carry his load until he is able to return.
There is some good slapstick and impressive filmmaking during earlier scenes when Dorothy tries to find news. First, we see a great tracking shot of her running after a fire truck (on foot) only to have it merely pull into the station. This is followed by an impressive shot of a plane crashing onto the downtown streets. Dorothy, attempting to get close and acquire photos and information, stumbles into a baby buggy that rolls back, and gets hooked onto a car, which takes off, dragging her down the street. When she runs back to the newspaper office, the story is already in print, another reporter having phoned it in.
Dorothy is given one more chance – to get a story and some photos of an angry, reclusive millionaire who just acquired an expensive diamond bracelet. After several attempts to connect with the reporter-hating millionaire, Dorothy bribes a bellhop to rent her his uniform for a dollar per minute. That attempt fails, so she comes back as herself and tries flirting with the man. That does work, and he agrees to an interview. However while in the rich man’s top floor penthouse, an organ grinder’s monkey climbs the building, enters through an open window and steals the bracelet. Dorothy is accused of stealing it, so she climbs out on the dangerous building ledge and goes after the monkey.
From this point the film resembles the type of high-and-dizzy comedy that Harold Lloyd was famous for doing, especially his classic “Safety Last,” released a year earlier. However, unlike Harold Lloyd, Dorothy is not climbing the building as a stunt. She is going after the monkey, while police are after her believing she stole the bracelet. So, several people are involved in struggling on a building high above ground, with the monkey effortlessly climbing about. As with the Lloyd film, the stunts look very dangerous and harrowing. Slapstick silliness is provided by such scenes as the cop being pulled into a window by his pants, becoming extricated from them and plummeting to the next floor ledge in his underwear, and Dorothy hanging from a ledge by a window where a dog comes up and starts licking her face, tickling her into almost losing her grip.
A plot tangent has big Walter Hiers, delightful as Dorothy’s supportive boyfriend, hiring a co-worker to keep an eye on her and report back if she gets into danger. When the man runs back and reports Dorothy’s danger on the building, he and Walter go to the building driving a truck filled with mattresses that they throw on the ground below the building, topping them with hay, hoping to soften any fall Dorothy might take. Their efforts succeeding in burying an innocent passerby.
While this film would naturally not compare to “Safety Last” it is still an excellent comedy in its own right. The stunt work, a lot of it done by Miss Devore herself, is quite impressive and funny. At one point she is being pulled up by a rope, which does not clear a ledge, so she repeatedly bangs her head as they pull. The hay on the street that is supposed to cushion her fall starts on fire. And there are the usual near misses that add to the tension of a comedy such as this. Dorothy performs these stunts wearing a dress and high heels.
The film ends on a happy note with Dorothy’s brother and his wife discovering an investment has paid off, while an elated Dorothy accepts lovable Walter’s proposal. The closing gag has the bellboy suddenly showing up, unclothed, and asking when he is going to get his uniform returned.
“Hold Your Breath” is one of those wonderful discoveries on the bypaths of silent comedy that not only presents the sort of laughs and thrills featured in some of the best films from this era, but spotlights some very funny people whose names have not lived on. Dorothy Devore is one of many great women in silent comedy whose talent and popularity resulted in her gaining full creative control over her films. It features a long forgotten fat man of the screen, Walter Hiers. African American comedian Douglas Carter plays his co-worker; a tall, imposing presence whose breathless attempts to keep up with Dorothy are quite funny. The welcome faces of Priscilla Bonner, Jimmie Adams, Tully Marshall, and Max Davidson are among those who round out the cast.
Dorothy Devore retired from the screen in 1930 after getting married. Then, Walter Hiers died in 1933. So her early retirement and his early death (at the age of only 39) have resulted in their names not living on past the more learned silent comedy buffs (Dorothy lived until 1976).
At the time of its release, “Hold Your Breath” received a rave review from The Los Angeles Times, which stated: “Dorothy Devore has assured herself popularity rivaling Harold Lloyd or Buster Keaton in her five reel thrill picture. It is one of those combinations of laughs and thrills that are absolutely unqualifiedly surefire entertainment.” That assessment still holds up today, over 90 years later.