She guides her boyfriend's dinghy into a snug harbour.
I saw 'The Lighthouse Keeper' at the Pordenone silent-film festival in Sacile, Italy, in 2006. The print that was screened for us had a surprise bonus: at some point in its history (presumably during its original release, while William Howard Taft was President of the U.S.A.) the starting leader had broken off the print, and some projectionist had replaced it by splicing in several feet of newsreel footage showing President Taft. The programmers at the Pordenone festival decided to keep this in, and I'm glad they did. I well and truly had a sense of watching this film as it was exhibited in 1911 ... in the rough and ready days when, if a film broke, you did whatever was necessary to keep the show going!
'The Lighthouse Keeper' is a shortened version of James Herne's 1893 stage melodrama 'Shore Acres', radically abridged and revised as a star vehicle for Mary Pickford. 'Shore Acres' was hugely popular in its day, and controversial with it ... largely due to the fact that one character was (gasp!) an atheist who spoke the earth-shaking (in those days) line "He said he'd see me in Hell first." (That line and the character who spoke it are absent from this version.) Herne's play was a perennial favourite for about 20 years, but is now painfully dated. (Buster Keaton and his father were lampooning 'Shore Acres' in their vaudeville turn, circa 1905.) Several of the scenes in this melodrama do not work well on stage, notably the climax in a fishing boat in a storm at sea during a dark night: this film version benefits from being able to open up such scenes.
Pickford plays Polly Berry, daughter of the old lighthouse keeper Nat Berry (J. Farrell MacDonald, excellent as always). Two local youths, noble Tom Atkins (John Harvey) and rakehell Bert Duncan (William E. Shay), are rivals for Polly's affection. When Tom earns her favour, Bert darkly vows revenge and then skulks off into the canebrakes. Later, Polly and Tom are incautious enough to be in a fishing boat at sea while a storm brews. Their only hope of safely reaching shore depends on the lighthouse's faithful beacon. Bert, in a drunken rage, climbs into the lighthouse and tries to put out the light. He and Nat Berry scuffle. (Although this scene is heavily rewritten, it retains the climactic fistfight from the original play.) SPOILERS COMING NOW. Although much older and less fit than the drunken Bert, cold sober Nat Berry manages to defeat him and keep the lamp lighted. Bert wanders off into the surf. Come morning, the storm has passed: Polly and Tom are safely home, while Bert's bloated corpse washes up on the rocks.
By far the best thing in this creaky mellerdrammer is Mary Pickford's performance. Age 19 at the time, she is (for once) exactly the right age for the role she is playing. There is just a hint of Pickford's "Little Mary" in her portrayal of a young woman who is sexually mature yet emotionally innocent, with a touch of Grace Darling at the film's climax. Character actor J. Farrell MacDonald had a long film career, yet is now completely forgotten except by die-hard film fans: his stalwart performance is likewise an asset to this film, which otherwise tips over dangerously into the laughable territory of morality plays. As for the performances of the actors playing the rivals Tom and Bert ... well, there's a reason why they languish in obscurity. More happily, there's a wedding scene in which I briefly spotted actor Hayward Mack and Mary's sister Lottie Pickford.
IMDb's web page for 'The Lighthouse Keeper' says that this film was shown aboard the Titanic, three nights before the fateful Night to Remember. I've never heard this rumour from any other source, and I've no idea whether or not it's true. If so, it's deeply ironic, as the climax of 'The Lighthouse Keeper' depicts two people struggling to survive in a small craft at sea on a dark night. No icebergs, though ... nor even iceberg lettuce. I'll rate 'The Lighthouse Keeper' 7 out of 10.
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