Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Edythe Chapman

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.

The Little American (1917)

The star power of Mary Pickford is teamed with the directing power of Cecil B. DeMille to produce a war propaganda picture just as the United States prepares to send its first troops to France to fight in World War One. The movie pulls no punches in showing audiences what the USA will be fighting for, but it has a reputation for being clumsy and jingoistic today.

Mary is the titular representative of the United States, Angela Moore, living a privileged and sheltered life as a socialite on a large estate. She has two suitors: the French Count Jules de Destin (Raymond Hatton) and Karl von Austreim (Jack Holt), a German. As the movie opens, it is July 4, 1914 (which just happens to be Angela’s birthday), and she receives each of them in turn. She seems to prefer Karl, although he insists on teaching her little brother how to goose step. Karl is interrupted as he proposes by an urgent secret message calling him back to serve in the German military, and he honorably releases her from any obligations before he goes. When the Count informs her about the outbreak of war, her first though is of Karl and whether he may have been hurt in the fighting. She sends letters to Karl but hears nothing. Read the rest of this entry »

Golden Chance (1915)

Golden Chance

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.

Cleo Ridgely

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.

Wallace_Reid

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

Starring: Cleo Ridgely, Wallace Reid, Horace B. Carpenter, Ernest Joy, Edythe Chapman, Raymond Hatton

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!