The Courage of the Commonplace (1913)
This short, thoughtful film from Vitagraph busts many of our ideas about the Nickelodeon era by proving that it was possible to treat movies as serious “art” before sound, outside of the feature-length format, and even if your name wasn’t D.W. Griffith. While it’s not exactly a happy story, it has an uplifting message about the values of simple people.
The film takes place almost entirely on the confines of a small dirt farm that reeks of poverty and hard work. The star of the film (Mary Charleson), called Mary, seems to have endless chores and tasks to perform. As soon as she finishes one grueling activity, another one rises up in its place. We first see her moving a heavy tub of water when her two younger brothers run up, apparently having hurt themselves. She tends their wounds and we see that they are barefoot. She hauls off the bucket, and the next we see of her, she is hanging laundry to dry, presumably after washing it by hand. She comes into the house to find that her old, tired mother (Loyola O’Connor) needs help setting out the dinner for an entire brood of kids and the aging, wiry father (Charles Bennett). Then Mary’s “frivolous sister” (Myrtle Gonzalez) comes bouncing in. She is, really, the one ray of light in the film, wearing a smile more often than any other character, and also light-colored (if still very simple) dresses.
The next day, several important plot elements are added rapid-fire. First, we see Mary collecting eggs for sale at the market – her source of personal income. We also see the father driving his old horses to plow a field. One of them, “faithful old Dobbin,” has become ill. Finally, we see what Mary is saving up for, she receives a letter informing her of her acceptance to the “Household and Fine Arts School” at a reduced tuition. All of this comes quite rapidly within the first five minutes of the movie, and the rest plays out as you might expect. The “frivolous” sister goes on dates with a boy and goes to the movies, while Mary continues her life of drudgery, now interspersed with daydreams of a relatively idle academic life where she sits on well-trimmed lawns discussing Big Ideas with well-dressed people and plays tennis with boys. Then, on the day she is to leave, the horse dies, which will leave the family ruined. Of course, Mary swallows her dreams and gives the money to her father to buy a new horse.
That simple summary does not transmit the poignancy or effectiveness of this movie. Its emotional pull didn’t diminish for me on repeat viewings – I started tearing up as soon as Mary’s letter arrived the third time through. It isn’t through any kind of fancy editing or camerawork that this movie becomes powerful, it’s just through its ability to tell a simple story that shows the viewer something old in a new way. That’s not to say that the technical side is a failure, there are adequate edits and occasional close-ups to emphasize the emotional state of the actors, but these work subtly, without being obvious or obtrusive. When they happen, it just “feels right” as if the director knew what would work without having to experiment heavily.
Of course, something like this wouldn’t work without high quality acting, and Mary Charleson provides most of the emotional work the viewer sees. She constantly looks as if she struggles to finish the current task, only to look up immediately to see what else needs to be done. This is in counterpoint to her wistful looks of anticipation regarding her school plans, her plan of escape. The other actors each have a simple archetype to play out – the spoiled sister, the weary mother, the worried yet oblivious father, and all the hungry mouths to feed of the many siblings. But they take their roles seriously, and put real feeling into them. Particularly Gonzalez, whose smile almost lights up the bleakness of the farm, even though we know she doesn’t deserve happiness as much as Mary does. Vitagraph almost seems to scold its audience when the frivolous sister attends a Nickelodeon screening one of their movies, yet who would choose to be Mary rather than the sister?
Director: Rollin S. Sturgeon
Starring: Mary Charleson, Charles Bennett, Loyola O’Connor, Myrtle Gonzalez, Edwin August
Run Time: 13 Min
You can watch it for free: here (no music)