Tuesday, April 14, 2009

“Suds:” Shhh! A Classic Silent with Mary Pickford

Milestone Films // 1920 // 64 Minutes // Not Rated

“Who could love me? Who could? Nobody never won’t.” ~ Mary Pickford’s in-character lament.

Reviewed by Steve Evans

Opening Shot
Silent film star Mary Pickford plays a lovelorn laundry woman in this bittersweet comedy released 89 years ago with three different endings.

A Bit of Plot…
Lovesick Amanda (Pickford, Little Lord Fauntleroy) works in a London laundry, daydreaming about handsome Horace Greensmith, who brought in a shirt “eight months and sixteen days ago” and never returned for it. Amanda insists that the unclaimed shirt belongs to her fiancé and that he is a nobleman. The romantically deluded girl tells anyone who will listen that Horace will return some day for his shirt and for her, though neither seems likely. She regales her coworkers with tall tales of dukes and lords and unrequited love, presented in elaborate fantasy sequences.

While she waits and scrubs clothes, Amanda confides her sorrows to the laundry’s delivery horse, later saving the poor brute from a glue factory. She takes the old horse home to her tenement, with slapstick results.

Horace eventually arrives to claim his shirt and conclude the story. A trio of different dénouements, all on this disc, illustrates Hollywood’s uncertainty when tinkering with time-tested tropes.

Historical Context and Significance
(Mild spoiler ahead) Suds originally ended with Amanda abandoned by her would-be fiancé as she laments, “Who could love me? Who could? Nobody never won’t.”

Audiences decried this sad conclusion as unfit for “America’s Sweetheart,” as Pickford was known, so two happy endings were hastily filmed for domestic and international screenings. Milestone includes the various versions on this handsomely produced DVD. The original ending — Amanda abandoned and weeping — remains intact on all versions of the film, with a happy epilogue attached as the final chapter.

Pickford plays her customarily plucky heroine in a serio-comic role that borrows as much from Chaplin as it does the German expressionists of the period (check out that cinematography and the often-stunning chiaroscuro lighting).

Equally interesting, Pickford was trying to expand her acting range by portraying an essentially pathetic character, yet audiences refused to accept that their beloved Mary would be so unlucky at love. So Pickford decided to give the people what they wanted. Director John Francis Dillon (Don Juan’s Three Nights) dutifully reshot the ending to put a joyful spin on this soap-operatic story — pun firmly intended.

What’s on the Disc, Steve?
I’ll tell ya. The production of this disc exceeds all reasonable expectations. Milestone is rapidly earning a reputation among film lovers that will put it on par with The Criterion Collection for a devotion to film restoration and the release of first-class DVD product. Milestone unearths archival footage and production information that date to the dawn of cinema. Bonus features routinely include stills galleries, extensive production notes, rare documentaries, new musical scores — yes, this boutique company truly delivers added value. Milestone upholds the promise of the DVD format by making available unique material that, a few years ago, could be seen and enjoyed only by making an appointment with the custodians of the film — in this case, the Mary Pickford Institute. The only alternative would be to consult the rare collections specialist at a major metropolitan library or the Library of Congress, if the materials could be found at all. Film lovers could wait a lifetime praying for an old silent like Suds to land on the schedule of some classic movie channel.

But more than showing a dedication to keeping old movies alive, Milestone does it with style. Here’s a film company that quotes from the diary of Anaïs Nin on the DVD keep case, in praise of an obscure silent film. This is the sort of casual delight that restores a cynic’s faith in humanity. There are some seriously cool people working at Milestone.

The restored prints on this disc, which include both domestic and international versions of the film, still show their age. Blemishes, inevitable scratches, and apparent fading of the existing film elements used for the transfer to DVD — all are abundant. Curiously, though, these imperfections are part of the charm of viewing silent features. The Dolby mono audio track is clean and free of hiss.

Extras include an intriguing side-by-side comparison of select scenes from the U.S. and foreign versions of the picture. A stills gallery and 26-minute documentary about Pickford and her husband Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., round out the package.

Given the historical significance of this picture and a suggested retail price of $30 for the DVD, a commentary track by a film historian would have been a welcome addition to the extra content.

The Contrarian View
may not be Pickford’s best picture — the comedy is punctuated by maudlin and jarringly overwrought moments — but it is important both as cinematic artifact and as an interesting example of the artist trying to reach beyond the expectations of her public. Instead, she relented and delivered what they wanted all along. The film plays stronger with the original ending, as it gives some balance and realism to the simple story of a poor girl who is emotionally unmoored from the reality of her situation. As one of the founding partners of United Artists, Pickford should have put down her powerful foot and left the original ending alone.

For a textbook example of how to handle heart-rending poignancy within the context of comedy, view the last five minutes of Chaplin’s City Lights. The ambiguity of that final sequence is the mark of a courageous genius.

As early evidence of Hollywood pandering to the lowest common denominator, an unfortunate trend that would mar cinema for generations to come, Suds merits a spot on the shelf of serious film students and collectors.

Let us now praise Milestone for helping to keep the legacy of silent pictures alive in superb DVD editions of important films.

Copyright © 2009 by Steve Evans // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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