Monday, June 1, 2009

Kickin' it Old School with Mary Pickford

Through The Back Door
Milestone Films // 1921 // 89 Minutes // Not Rated

Reviewed by Steve Evans

Opening Shot
Early film star Mary Pickford built a career on playing plucky, self-reliant young women who transcend a harsh life in pursuit of happiness.

A Bit of Plot…
When little Jeanne’s widowed mother abandons her in Belgium to marry wealthy New Yorker Elton Reeves, the child must live with her nanny in the days before World War I. Later, fleeing her native country for safety in America, the young woman faces more anguish yet clings to a candlelight flicker of hope for a better tomorrow.

Jeanne, now grown, locates the Reeves’ estate but cannot muster the courage to confront her mother, who believes the child died years ago in a drowning accident. Instead, Jeanne offers her services as the maid. Husband-and-wife con artists the Brewsters (Adolphe Menjou, Paths of Glory, and Elinor Fair, The Night Rider) arrive to wreak havoc with her mother’s marriage and swindle Reeves out of his estate. To stop them, Jeanne resolves to reveal her identity and settle the differences with her mother for the sake of the family.

Historical Context and Significance
One of Hollywood’s earliest stars, Pickford must have had issues with abandonment and loneliness. In many of her films the great actor plays children who are either abused, orphaned, or neglected.

Directed by journeyman Alfred E. Green and the actor’s brother Jack Pickford (both would direct Pickford in Little Lord Fauntleroy the same year), the film contains several classic set pieces that were devised by Pickford herself. The best involve her efforts to force a stubborn mule off its haunches and her novel method of cleaning muddy floors—by strapping scrub brushes to her shoes and skating around the room.

Milestone delivers a respectable transfer of the picture, which probably looks and sounds the best an 84-year-old film can. Scratches, blemishes, and specks of dirt are evident throughout, but are perhaps inevitable given the film’s age. A comprehensive restoration of this lesser Pickford picture may be cost prohibitive, given the limited contemporary demand. Through the Back Door is presented in black-and-white with the brief, original tinted war sequence intact. Robert Israel’s new orchestral score is a beautiful composition for strings and woodwinds. It is superb silent-film music.

What’s on the Disc, Steve?
Quite a lot, I’m tellin’ ya. Extras include a stills gallery and Pickford’s rare, 53-minute production of Cinderella. Released in 1914, this is one of the earliest filmed versions of the fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm and a real bonus for this disc. Kudos to Milestone for routinely exceeding expectations with extra features. That being said, the faded, awkwardly-exposed print of this second feature looks absolutely ancient. Then again, so do Cinderella’s hateful step-sisters. Primitive — and thus charming — special effects include the early use of lap dissolves (the double-exposure of a fade-out over a fade-in) to create magical transformation scenes. Cinderella is pure delight.

Prince Charming is played by Owen Moore, Pickford’s first husband, whose charms had evidently worn off by 1920 when she left him to marry Douglas Fairbanks Sr. (The Thief of Baghdad). Pickford and Fairbanks would go on to launch United Artists with Charlie Chaplin and pioneering director D.W. Griffith (Intolerance). Moore would later appear in the original A Star Is Born with Frederic March, Janet Gaynor, and the famously mustachioed Menjou.

The Contrarian View
Uneven in tone, Through the Back Door veers from Chaplinesque comedy to heavy-handed melodrama. This shouldn’t stop a silent film fan from viewing, though; rather, take the observation as a caveat.

Milestone receives high marks for keeping our film heritage alive with quality DVDs of historically significant motion pictures, supplemented by generous bonus features. For the movie lover new to the unique pleasures of watching silent films, Milestone’s catalog could make it habit-forming.

Students of early cinema will be absorbed by the two pictures on this disc, which is a fine addition to any collection of silent film.

Copyright © 2009 by Cinematic Cteve // dba Cinema Uprising. All rights reserved.

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