This is one more movie made by Thomas H. Ince during the years that saw the fiftieth anniversary of the American Civil War, and once again, I find comparisons to D.W. Griffith are hard to avoid. In this case, however, although the movie includes some Civil War battle footage, it is in essence a social examination more akin to “The House of Darkness” or “A Corner in Wheat” than to “Birth of a Nation.” Even here, I find Ince’s subtlety and humanity to be superior in some ways to Griffith’s approach, although it may be the case that Griffith was the more technically adept.
Our story begins here with a little girl (Mildred Harris) who lives with her old grandfather (J. Barney Sherry). Their mutual love for one another is obvious, although the old man does like a nip from his bottle now and again. One day, they receive a letter from her father (Frank Borzage) telling them that he’s bringing home a new “mother” for Mildred and tells granddad to hide the bottle, because she’s a church woman. Mildred thinks of a good hiding place and granddad goes out to the bar to celebrate. When he comes home to meet his new daughter-in-law, she immediately smells it on his breath and shows that she does NOT approve. Eventually, she finds the bottle and confers with her blue-nosed friends, who assure her that such a man should not be allowed to influence a young girl. So, she confronts the old man and warns him to leave, despite her husband’s protests of the debt he owes his father. Granddad sneaks out during the night, leaving a note to assure Mildred he’ll find work on a farm and not to worry about him.
All does not go well, however, and granddad ends up in a work house, although he keeps sending letters home talking about the fresh air and good food of farm life. One day, Mildred’s step mom sends her out with a group of social reformers to visit the poor house. Of course, she recognizes one of the laborers as her grandfather. They exchange very affectionate greetings and she goes back to tell her parents what has happened. Meanwhile, a mysterious retired Confederate Colonel (William Desmond Taylor) has shown up in town, looking for “Jabez Burr,” the Union man who saved his life. That’s granddad, of course, and the Colonel proceeds to give us a thrilling flashback of his battle experiences and encounter with the Yankee who saved his life. Mildred’s father is finally shamed into bringing his father home, but it’s too late, the harsh life of the poorhouse has made him ill. He dies and a final epilogue assures us he was buried with military honors and his minor faults forgotten.
Whereas Griffith would have told this story by making each character iconic, and the entire situation would have had a heavy-handed message (probably unnecessarily enunciated in beginning and closing Intertitles), the Ince approach is far more individual and subtle. Although he relies on much the same kind of female busy-body as an antagonist, one never gets the idea that he has created a caricature. The mother acts out of what she thinks are the best interests of the family, she simply doesn’t understand the consequences of her act, nor look far enough to see the complex and decent person she is choosing to label a harmful drunk. Each of the characters, except perhaps the Colonel, is sketched out with enough detail for us to see them as individuals, rather than representatives of some segment of society.
That said, I find some aspects of Ince’s directing (or possibly Jay Hunt’s – I couldn’t verify which of them actually directed here) and producing not quite up to snuff. For one thing, characters frequently go out of their way to E-NUN-CI-ATE so that we can (hopefully) lip-read their words. I find that slows down the pace and makes the acting look silly, as when Mildred says “I KNOW. THE CLOCK,” to make sure we know her hiding place for the whiskey. Speaking of Mildred, I fear that Ince, or someone at the company, was trying a little too hard to make her into the new Mary Pickford (like they needed a new one). She’s got a short version of Mary’s wig, she’s made up like Mary, and at times she seems to be quite consciously imitating Mary’s mannerisms. But, sorry to say, she’s not Mary. I found this a bit distracting, where I think I would have enjoyed a more natural performance from her. In general, I find Ince’s movies a little slow, even for a century ago. He edits and cross-cuts well enough, but he tends to hold shots longer than Griffith or some of his contemporaries, and scenes play out longer than they need to. Nevertheless, I did find this movie, as well as the others I’ve looked at recently, to be emotionally affecting and well written. Where Griffith seems to have worked out a lot of his problems in the editing room, Ince may have been the better scenarist and planner, and that makes the movies memorable and interesting.
Director: Thomas H. Ince or Jay Hunt
Cast: Mildred Harris, J. Barney Sherry, Frank Borzage, William Desmond Taylor
Run Time: 29 Min
You can watch it for free: here (no music).