Golden Chance (1915)
This, along with “Carmen” and “The Cheat,” was one of the films a very busy Cecil B. DeMille made at the end of 1915. It barely managed a release date before the New Year, in fact, and was probably mostly seen by audiences of 1916. It is another small-scale domestic melodrama, not a historical epic, and explores issues of class and gender, as they were popularly understood at the time. DeMille was no radical, of course, but he seems to have wanted to appeal to a progressive spirit, and probably tailored his story to address issues that pro-censorship forces such as church activists and women’s groups considered important at the time. It also displays the growing talents of both DeMille and cameraman Alvin Wyckoff. We see taught editing, many close-ups, good use of lighting and especially darkness, and some inventive camera angles as well.
The story has elements of the “Lost Girl” tale in which an innocent girl is deceived into moving from a wholesome environment to the city, only to be victimized or led into temptation. However, we begin the story not with her leaving her loving parents, but five years later, when she is living in a tenement with her alcoholic husband, a former day-laborer. The Girl in this case (the word is consistently capitalized in the titles) is Cleo Ridgely, who was in “Joan the Woman” the next year and did several “Jean – Girl Detective” shorts as well. The husband is Horace B. Carpenter, who was in DeMille’s “The Virginian” and “Carmen.” We are introduced to them, and the rest of the cast, through the device of intertitles followed by brief cameo shots not otherwise in the picture. These actually serve not only as credits, but also to kick-start the plot as well. Although Cleo is introduced as if she were a wholesome farm girl – leaning out her tenement window to catch the sun’s rays on her face and tending to a neglected potted plant on the windowsill – we learn that she is actually the fallen daughter of a judge, whose parents disowned her when she married below her station. As the story begins we see that her good-for-nothing husband is drinking up all their grocery money. So, she looks for a job.
And it is this which brings her “Golden Chance” to work for a society lady whose husband hopes to dupe the hero (a very handsome Wallace Reid, who had been less perfect as Don Juan in “Carmen” and had also co-starred with Ridgely in “The Chorus Lady”) into a major investment. The pair decide that if they dress up the Girl, she can charm him to the point where he doesn’t know what he’s signing, and convince her to take the chance to play Cinderella for a weekend. Here, the movie departs from the “Lost Girl” model and becomes something a bit more modern. In fact, it reminded me of many Depression-era films where poor girls are given a chance to mix with high society and daydream about being rich and glamorous, which of course gave audiences the chance to dream with them. While the teens aren’t recalled as a time of economic hardship today, the reality is that there were plenty of poverty-stricken viewers who would respond to this at the time.
It goes all too well, with Reid proposing to Ridgely and agreeing to invest, when Ridgely’s husband shows up to rob the joint. Pretty soon, the truth is out and Reid is angry at being deceived, and poor Cleo wanders out into the night in her old clothes, sleeping on a park bench next to an old bum. When she returns home, her husband has a new idea to extort money from Reid. They send him a note telling him to come help her, which he is inclined to ignore until, paradoxically, he finds her secretly written “Don’t Come” written inside the note. This demonstrates that she is not part of the ruse. So he goes there, but takes the precaution of having his servant go for the police after five minutes. There is a tense scene, told almost entirely in a series of rapid close-ups, followed by a fight staged in a single wide-angle overhead shot. The change in visual style is jarring, and it serves well to build the audience’s excitement at this stage. The police rush in and save the day.
The “Moving Picture World” gave this movie a glowing review in its issue of January 8, 1916, and, like me, made special note of the effective lighting techniques and the “modern” melodramatic storyline. Over at Movies Silently, Fritzi Kramer has given it 81% and also noted the appealing lead actors as well as the lighting, showing that the film has held up well for the past century.
Director: Cecil B. DeMille
Camera: Alvin Wyckoff
Run Time: 1 hr, 13 Mins
I have not been able to find this for free online. If you know where to find it, please comment. Otherwise, try your local library!