When The Clouds Roll By (1919)

Film Review


Release Date: 28 December, 1919

Studio: United Artists

Director: Victor Fleming

Starring: Douglas Fairbanks, Kathleen Clifford

Special Notes: Great American Films, 1911-1920

This film has been selected to our list of Great American Films, 1911-1920, which focuses on obscure and under-appreciated American film masterpieces.


Daniel Boone Brown, an average young man, is the unwitting subject of a "scientific" experiment by the sinister Dr. Metz. The doctor wants to take a life using only the power of suggestion. As a first step, the resistance of the subject is weakened by a series of events that trouble his mind. For 77 days the doctor and his assistants have been manipulating events to trouble the mind of Mr. Brown. The first upsetting event shown is Brown's midnight dinner which consists of onions, lobster, welsh rabbit, and mince pie. The dinner causes stomach pains as he goes to bed. In his sleep, his nightmares segue from threatening ghouls into pursuit by his dinner. As onions, pie slices and other items chase him, Brown jumps fences, leaps on and off a horse, climbs walls and walks on the ceiling, before finally waking up on the floor.

The superstitious Brown consults his Dream Book to interpret his dreams. At his office, his uncle scolds him for being late again and lays him off for a week. As he leaves, the telephone operator tells him that his opal ring is the cause of his bad luck. He throws the ring away in the park, and it is picked up the equally superstitious Lucette Bancroft from Oklahoma. They meet and are instantly compatible. They go to her apartment to consult her Ouija board.

At the same time, Mark Drake, mayor of an oil town in Oklahoma, is seeking the assistance of Brown's uncle in an underhanded deal that would transfer oil rich land from Lucette's father to himself. The uncle employs the unwitting Brown to buy the land. The happy Brown tells Dr. Metz that he has a job and plans to marry. Metz plots to destroy Brown by stopping the wedding and causing him to lose the job. All Brown's plans terminate in disaster. His wedding to Lucette ends in chaos, Drake tells Lucette that Brown intended to take her father's land, and he tells the uncle that Brown told Lucette about the land deal. Lucette, angry, leaves with Drake, a friend chides him for breaking Lucette's heart, his uncle yells at him, and the police arrest him for excessive noise.

A storm is shown raging inside Brown's head. As he starts to follow Lucette and Drake, he runs into Dr. Metz, who slips a gun into his pocket. Brown misses the ferry taking Lucette and Drake to the west-bound train. He sits in despair on the wharf. Inside his turbulent brain, reason is dying, and sense of humor is beaten down. Despair has arrived. He finds the gun in his pocket and holds it to his head. He is about to kill reason. Dr. Metz is watching for the expected conclusion of his experiment. Just in time, Brown's uncle arrives and stops him. New York Insane Asylum attendants appear to transport Dr. Metz back to the sanitarium. Brown sees Metz being taken away. His sense of humor revives, gains strength, destroys despair, and reseats reason on her throne. Brown laughs and says that from now on, he will meet life with a sense of humor. He chides his uncle for brow beating him, knocks him into the river, and goes after his girl.

On the train, Lucette will not speak to him. He goes to get evidence of his innocence from Drake. Unknown to them, peril is forming outside the train. Torrents of rain are falling, and the Milford Dam is near to bursting. The passengers evacuate the train. As Brown rushes to Lucette's compartment, she climbs out a window and wanders off. The dam breaks, and a flood rages through the nearby town. Drake and Lucette are swept away. Brown climbs a tree, and hanging upside down by the legs, pulls people out of the flood. At sun up Brown and the people he rescued are up the tree surrounded by water. Flotsam floats by, including Drake who does not know where Lucette is. Lucette is seen on a roof. Brown swims to her and produces his proof of innocence. A church with a preacher on the roof floats by, Dan and Lucette climb onto it. The preacher marries them using an opal ring. Their superstitious is cured! Brown proclaims that "all is jake— when the clouds roll by."


Douglas Fairbanks's career in silent films had two distinct parts. His films of the 1910s feature the adventures of a modern American youth; in the 1920s, his films feature swashbuckling characters who engage in daring and dangerous adventures in historic, mostly European settings. In the films with contemporary settings, Fairbanks portrays a typical American, light-hearted, optimistic, idealistic. Fate or circumstances may briefly thwart him, but perseverance, a positive outlook, abundant energy, enthusiasm, and a big smile carry him through all difficulties to a happy conclusion.

When the Clouds Roll By is a fun-filled example of the modern youth film. Fairbanks' breezy, go-getter is under psychological duress. How does the active, positive personality respond to the negative results of all his efforts? He nearly despairs; his reason and sense of humor are beaten down. However, the go-getter American has the power to rally, the ability to laugh at himself returns, and he sets out to put everything right. After all the psychological plot complications, setting everything right involves a lot of action, a destructive flood, dramatic rescues, and an unusual wedding. Throughout the film, Fairbanks' athleticism is showcased, especially during the nightmare sequence, which includes an unusual illusion of walking on the ceiling. Victor Fleming, who had been the cameraman on several of Fairbanks' previous films, had his first directorial experience on this film. Fleming would go on to direct The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind (both 1939).