The Whispering Chorus (1918)
This feature by Cecil B. DeMille shows the development of plot and acting as it was taking place in a young Hollywood. Its star, Raymond Hatton, demonstrates that silent movie performance need not be hackneyed or overstated.
The conceit of this film is a simple one – that each person carries around with them a Greek “chorus” of voices that constantly advise on every decision made or action taken. These voices may be those of someone we know – our mother’s voice, for example, might be quite influential – or just represent our idea of “society” or some part of it. Together, these voices make up a “Whispering Chorus” that echoes through our minds with good and bad advice alike, often contradicting one another as they compete for our attention. Hatton plays John Tremble, a low-ranking white collar worker for a large contracting firm. His “chorus” includes Gustav von Seyffertitz and Edna Mae Cooper, and they appear as disembodied heads behind his shoulder through the magic of double-exposure when DeMille wants us to realize that Hatton is under their sway. When he considers knocking off work early, von Seffertitz encourages him with communistic logic about the theft of his time for the profit of the company, but Cooper changes his mind, promising him that his work will ultimately be appreciated.
After finishing his tasks, Tremble goes home, where h lives with his wife Jane (Kathlyn Williams) and mother (Edythe Chapman). They are busy decorating for Christmas, but John is upset because there are bills waiting to be paid, his clothes are worn and threadbare, and his wife wants to spend money on a new dress. After being a bit of a jerk about it, he talks to his mother, who convinces him to spend the last of his money on the new dress, to make up to her. He goes out again, but before making the purchase, he runs into a friend from the office, who invites him to a poker game. At first he refuses, but his whispering chorus convinces him that he can make enough from gambling to buy the dress and a new coat for himself, so he goes along after all. Predictably, he loses all of his money, then stays out late to avoid having to admit his mistake to his family. His whispering chorus convinces him to steal money from the till at work to make up for it, and he falsifies an entry in the ledger. Then an investigation into graft arrives, in the form of George Coggeswell (Elliott Dexter), and Tremble panics, knowing his theft will be detected. He begs off a theater engagement, claiming he needs to go back to the office to lock his desk, but instead he runs out of the state and goes into hiding in an abandoned shed near a river.
One day, a body washes up on shore, and Tremble uses it to fake his own death, leaving a cryptic note about a man called “Edgar Smith” who was supposedly trying to strong-arm him into falsifying the books. Tremble now shaves off his beard with a piece of glass, giving himself a nasty scar in the process, but also altering his appearance enough to throw off any pursuer. Meanwhile, Mrs. Tremble has been comforted by Coggeswell as his investigation now focuses on “Edgar Smith” rather than her blameless husband. She falls in love with him, and he with her, but she is reluctant to re-marry, since Tremble’s mother still insists that her son is alive. John drifts aimlessly through life, taking up dock work despite being rather too small and skinny for hard labor, and he is injured in an accident, giving him a limp that also distinguishes him from his former self. On Chinese New Year, Jane finally relents and agrees to marry Coggeswell, now a successful politician and candidate for the governorship, while at the same time John dallies with a prostitute in Shanghai.
Eventually, John goes back to see his mother, finding her alone and dying. This leads to his being caught and accused of being “Edgar Smith.” When the trial comes, his own wife does not recognize him, and he fails to put up a good defense, believing that it is impossible for a man to be convicted of killing himself. He is, however, and now the “good” side of his Whispering Chorus comes to his aid. He decides that rather than proving Jane a bigamist and showing the world his own cowardice, he will go to the electric chair as “Edgar Smith,” redeeming himself for all of his mistakes in this way. The movie concludes by showing us that John Tremble has now become a part of Jane’s Whispering Chorus, the noble version of him guides her conscience through life.
On the whole, I enjoyed this movie more than “Old Wives for New,” also made by DeMille in the same year. While both were written by a woman (Jeannie MacPherson) and intended to appeal to a female audience, this movie does rather a better job of sympathizing with the wife’s point of view. At the beginning of the movie, I was a little worried that her desire for a new dress, and apparent neglect of her husband’s appearance would be blamed for all of the hardship that followed, but the script makes it clear that it is John’s bad decisions that are blame. Jane is portrayed throughout as decent and kind. John, on the other hand, is callous regarding her to the point of psychosis. His Whispering Chorus may be giving him bad advice, but he’s the one who never considers the effect of his actions on the people who love him, almost right up to the final scenes of the movie. It seemed to me that he had the perfect “out” when he made the excuse about going back to the office – he could have replaced the money then and the whole thing would have been cleared up. If there had been a scene showing him at the office, but seeing a cop on guard or something like that, it would have made more sense for him to run away.
John Tremble may be a heel, but Raymond Hatton is outstanding. He gives Lon Chaney a run for his money in changing his face several times in the course of this movie, also developing different body language as he goes from clerical worker to fugitive to deadbeat to convict. The wife who doesn’t recognize her own husband when he shaves (or grows) a beard may be a cliché in silent movie plots, but in this case, the transformation he undergoes makes it believable. The story also gives them several years of distance to help the memory fade. It’s sort of a reversal of “The Return of Martin Guerre,” and it works, but mainly because Hatton is so convincing. This is up there with the best work I’ve seen from DeMille as well, he keeps the story moving through editing and good use of multiple angles to show scenes and simultaneous action. The one weird choice was having the wedding inter-cut with John’s infidelity, though I suppose this was to insure that the audience would sympathize with Jane, even though she was technically violating one of American cinema’s cardinal rules by re-marrying while her husband was still alive.
Director: Cecil B. DeMIlle
Camera: Alvin Wyckoff
Starring: Raymond Hatton, Kathlyn Williams, Elliott Dexter, Edythe Chapman, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Edna Mae Cooper, Julia Faye, Noah Beery, Tully Marshall, Charles Ogle
Run Time: 1 hr, 25 Min
You can watch it for free: here.