Films: Drama/Romance


THE MARKET OF VAIN DESIRE. Triangle, 1916. H. B. Warner, Clara Williams, Charles Miller, Gertrude Claire, Hutton. Story: C. Gardner Sullivan. Director: Reginald Barker. Shown at Cinefest 26, Syracuse NY, March 2006.


   Mrs. Badgely (Gertrude Claire) has engineered a marriage between her reluctant daughter Helen (Clara Williams) and the too smooth and obviously villainous Count Bernard d’Montaigne (Charles Miller). (You have to suspect that he’s not all he seems to be since no true French aristocrat would drop the “e” in d(e) Montaigne.)

   Pastor John Armstrong (H. B. Warner, warming up for his role as the Christ in DeMille’s King of Kings), upset by the blatant insincerity of the arranged marriage, preaches a sermon in which he compares the “selling” of a daughter to a woman selling her body on the street, bringing home this message with the introduction of a streetwalker (Leona Hutton) into the service.

   The congregation is horrified and when Helen’s father calls off the engagement, the “Count” confronts and assaults the minister. When the fake aristocrat is exposed, the members of the congregation are reconciled with their pastor, and he and Helen, realizing that they love one another, pledge their troth.

   I like a meaty melodrama, and this heady mix of religion, prostitution and social climbing was to my taste. I wasn’t raised a Southern Baptist for nothing. The moral lessons I absorbed in countless sermons and bible classes still resonate in the proper setting and with the right material.

   I noted with some surprise that C. Gardner Sullivan was both the author of the scenario for Hairpins [reviewed here ] and of the story for the very dissimilar Market.


HAIRPINS. Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, 1920. Enid Bennett, Matt Moore, William Conklin, Margaret Livingston, Grace Morse. Story: C. Gardner Sullivan. Art director: W. L. Haywood. Art titles: F. J. Van Halle, Carl Schneier, & Leo Braun. Director: Fred Niblo. Shown at Cinefest 26, Syracuse NY, March 2006.

HAIRPINS Enid Bennett

   This film, which I had seen before, was substituted for Over There, a WWI patriotic drama. I like to expand my repertoire, but since Hairpins is a charming light drama, I happily sat through it again.

   Muriel Rossmore (Enid Bennett) has settled too comfortably for her husband Rex’s liking (Matt Moore) into the role of frumpy wife, so he begins a dalliance with Effie, his attractive, nattily dressed secretary (Margaret Livingston).

   When Muriel finds out about the affair, she consults her stylish neighbor, grass widow Mrs. Kent (Grace Morse), who supervises a new look for her and introduces her to Hal Gordon (William Conklin), a playboy friend who pays her the kind of attention that husband Rex finds mightily offensive when he stumbles on to what his wife is doing during his evenings out wth Effie.

   Fred Niblo married his star during the production of this film, and his direction is a tribute to her charm and beauty. I’ve credited the art director and the creators of the attractive intertitles for their contribution to the style and wit of this delightful film.



 MICHAEL O’HALLORAN. Republic Pictures, 1937. Wynne Gibson, Warren Hull, Jackie Moran, Charlene Wyatt, Sidney Blackmer, Hope Manning, G. P. Huntley Jr. Based on a novel by Gene Stratton Porter. Director: Karl Brown. Shown at Cinefest 26, Syracuse NY, March 2006.

   One of the great film reference books is Jack Mathis’s Valley of the Cliffhangers, a fascinating detailed history of the Republic serials, and during his research for additional volumes on the studio,he was allowed to have prints made from studio negatives of some rare titles. Three of these ware shown during the weekend.


   Unfortunately, this film, in which Wynne Gibson, an irresponsible party girl, attempts to present herself as a fit parent in a custody struggle with Sidney Blackmer, her dull respectable husband, continues the Cinefest tradition of scheduling a dog to initiate the screenings.

   The plot is mainly an excuse to showcase what my fellow attendee Jim Goodrich referred to as the “unquestionable” talents of a popular young child actor, Jackie Moran, whose invalid sister becomes the do-good project that Gibson takes on to improve her image.

   About twenty minutes of the film don’t survive (except for the soundtrack) and that was something of a blessing. It didn’t, however, deprive us of an especially saccharine (and inept) imitation of Shirley Temple by a child actress who does a walk-on.



KONGO. MGM, 1932. Walter Huston, Lupe Velez, Conrad Nagel, Virginia Bruce, C. Henry Gordon. Director: William J. Cowen.

WHITE WOMAN. Paramount, 1933. Carole Lombard, Charles Laughton, Charles Bickford, Kent Taylor, Percy Kilbride. Director: Stuart Walker.

   Caught a couple of of lush tropical melodrama-cum-horror flcks a few weeks back; both are based on stage plays and both quite fun.

   Kongo is a sweaty, steamy, depraved-looking thing, with Walter Huston… well, I almost said he was in excellent form, but here he plays a paraplegic, confined to a wheelchair and determined to wreak baroque vengeance on the man who put him there (a role he played on Broadway before Lon Chaney took it up in the film west of Zanzibar).

   To this end, he has set up a trading post in the African jungle, where he cows the natives with stage magic, helped along by Lupe Velez, who radiates her own steam, thank you very much.

   Houston wriggles about the place like a grimy spider, moving his victims about like game-pieces, marking the days till he springs his trap on a calendar scrawled iver with the words “HE SNEERED!”


   This could be corny stuff, all right, but everyone plays it to the edge without tripping over. Director William Cowen (who he?) keeps things moving right along and handles the crucial scene — a satisfying and improbable twist that reverses everything we thought was happening — without blinking at the old-fashioned melodrama, and Harold Rosson photographs with what looks like s sheen of sweat over it all.

   Even normally uninspired actors like Conrad Nagel and Virginia Bruce put it across quite well. In all, a movie to set aside your critical faculties and simply enjoy.


   White Woman tiptoes through similar tropical tulips, and does it quite neatly, thanks mostly to a script by Frank Butler that keeps things edgy and unpredictable, pacey direction from Bluert (Werewolf of London) Walker, and the usual Paramount patina of soft-focus splendor.

   There’s moody acting from Carole Lombard as the eponymous “entertainer” who winds up in a remote rubber plantation, Charles Bickford, Kent Taylor, and Charles Middleton, as lost souls slaving away in the heat, but the film belongs to Charles Laughton, who plays the jungle tyrant, and plays it for laughs — which makes a nasty part somehow more disturbing.


   Made up with frizzy hair and a silly moustache, Laughton gads about in a stripes, plaids and polka-dots, inflicting one deliberately sick joke after another on his unwilling workers, oblivious to the mounting tension until he sets off a tribal uprising (in hilarious fashion) and tries to deal with the bloody outcome.

   Where Kongo seems deliberately theatrical, Woman keeps undercutting the melodrama with surprising bits of business from characters who stubbornly refuse to play by the rules of the genre: Laughton in particular is constantly faced with dramatic outbursts, only to respond as if he wasn’t even in the same movie, kidding around with an unnerving humor about as funny as Richard Widmsrk’s laugh.

   The result is that rarity, an old-fashioned tale that keeps one wondering what’s coming next.




7th HEAVEN. Fox, 1927. Janet Gaynor, Charles Farrell, Ben Bard, David Butler, Marie Mosquini, Albert Gran, Gladys Brockwell, Emile Chautard, George Stone. Scenario by Benjamin Glazer, based on the novel by Austin Strong. Cinematography by Ernest Palmer. Director: Frank Borzage. Shown at Cinevent 38, Columbus OH, May 2006.

   After thirty years of film festivals, there are undoubtedly notable films that have eluded me, but I have finally seen the film that established Gaynor and Farrell as major stars and led to a partnership that lasted for twelve films.

   Still, this is not a partnership that has endured in the experience of current film fans as have the Eddy/McDonald films of the mid-1930s, although for a roomful of viewers at Cinevent I venture to say that the magic of the two distant stars flamed again in their glory, albeit briefly.

   The film follows the fortunes of Diane, a waif rescued from the streets by Chico, a sewer worker who’s just been promoted to his long dreamed-of job as a street cleaner. But, of course, he’s no ordinary blue-collar worker but a dreamer and a poet whose act of rescuing the disreputable waif leads to an undying love that flourishes in a garret apartment where they transform the humble room through the miracle of love into a privileged place where their lives flourish and expand.

   Then, the reality of war intrudes, separating them for years during which their devotion unites them daily in a ritual of remembrance. Finally, a tragic event seems to part them forever, unless a miracle can work its magic.

   Gaynor is the miracle that infuses this film with a life that can touch a contemporary audience. Farrell is an appealing partner, somewhat gauche in his romantic ardor, and certainly lacking the transfiguring grace of Gaynor’s smile (so memorable also in Murnau’s Sunrise) or the gamin-like reticence of her mime.

   The two may have starred in better films, but I suspect that they never appeared together in a more appealing one.




A TALE OF TWO CITIES. Fox Film Corporation, 1917. William Farnum, Jewel Carmen, Charles Clary, Herschel Mayan, Rosita Marstini, and many others. Scenario by Frank Lloyd. Director: Frank Lloyd. Shown at Cinevent 38, Columbus OH, May 2006.

   This is a lavish, entertaining version of the Dickens novel, adapted and directed by Frank Lloyd (later director of the 1924 version of The Sea Hawk), which undoubtedly takes many liberties with the original to fit into a seventy-minute running time.

   The most startling departure is the murder of Mme De Farge (certainly well-deserved but not canonical) but otherwise the story sticks to the familiar central plot of wrongs righted with new wrongs committed in the name of “justice,” and Sydney Carton delivering, as expected and anticipated, his famous curtain speech in intertitles.

   The key roles of Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton are both played by William Farnum, and played superbly, and the supporting cast is uniformly excellent The 1935 version will probably always be considered the definitive screen adaptation for its typically lavish MGM production and casting, but this silent film seems somehow closer in spirit and style to the historical period.



MARIA, A HUNGARIAN LEGEND. Hunnia Filmstúdió (Hungary), 1932. First shown in the US: 1935. Also released as Spring Shower; original title: Tavaszi zápor. Annabella, Ilona Dajbukát, Erzsi Bársony, Steven Geray, Karola Zala, Margit Ladomerszky. Director: Pál Fejös. Shown at Cinefest 19, Syracuse NY, March 1999.


   One of the most anticipated films [of this convention] was Paul Fejos’ Maria, a Hungarian Legend (1932), starring Anabella (later to have something of a Hollywood career and marry Tyrone Power) as a servant who is sent packing when she becomes visibly pregnant and begins wanderings that include a brief period of peace at a brothel where she scrubs floors until she gives birth to her daughter.

   The film was presented without subtitles, but this is a sound film where the story is carried by the visuals. Only a brief scrolled prologue (in Italian) and the reading of an official document depriving her of her daughter (in Hungarian) provoked some momentary nervousness in the otherwise linguistically unchallenged audience.

   A lovely film that in other hands could have been a mawkish disaster. The final sequence when Maria reaches down from heaven to prevent her daughter from making the same mistake she had made glows with a serene beauty that is extraordinarily moving.

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