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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
A restored print of this early feature-length film was recently shown
at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, New York, as part of a
festival devoted to the work of Mary Pickford. While Behind the Scenes
is not one of her most impressive movies, it is nonetheless an off-beat
and entertaining drama, well-made for its time and surprisingly
sophisticated in some respects, both in terms of cinematic technique
and subject matter. Mary appears in a role unusual for her, that of a
musical comedy performer. When you stop and think about it, it's rather
odd that the most popular actress of her era was so rarely cast as an
actress. It certainly can be said that Miss Pickford, who was earning a
living on the stage by the age of eight, looks right at home in the
backstage sequences here, which also happen to be the liveliest scenes
in the film.
The plot follows the fortunes of a young man named Steve Hunter (played by James Kirkwood, who also directed), raised on a farm by his surly uncle. When Steve decides to gather up his funds and try his luck in the big city, come what may, the old man makes his disapproval clear. Steve and his friend Teddy (Lowell Sherman) go to a theater for a musical show, and Steve is entranced by a petite girl in the chorus, Dolly Lane (Mary Pickford). Their whirlwind courtship and marriage is opposed by Steve's uncle, thus when Steve's financial situation becomes dire he receives no help from home. Dolly must be the breadwinner and support the couple with her earnings as an actress, but when the uncle is taken ill he and his nephew reconcile. Upon his uncle's death Steve inherits the farm and tells his wife that she doesn't have to work anymore -- they can now return to his farm where she can lead the blissful existence of a farmer's wife.
From the contemporary viewer's point of view this is where things get interesting: Dolly, who is on the verge of stardom, is reluctant to give up her career, even when Steve paints an idyllic picture of farm life. As he talks we see brief fantasy vignettes depicting Steve's happy vision of his wife feeding chickens, followed by an image of the two of them, now elderly, sitting in rocking chairs dandling grandchildren on their knees. Dolly's horror at these visions contrasts most amusingly with Steve's pleasure. Conflict erupts between the couple swiftly and sharply, and it only gets worse when Dolly gives in and accompanies Steve to his farm. She is bored, and offended when he seems to lose interest in her. Like Ibsen's Nora, Dolly eventually rejects her prescribed role as her husband's unquestioning helpmate, and abruptly departs. (Unlike Nora, Dolly does so in her husband's absence and leaves a note.) She returns to the big city, and accepts a lead role in a show produced by an older man named Joe Canby. It appears that her marriage is finished.
Unfortunately, at this juncture the story becomes more conventional. Steve returns to the city, although it was unclear to me whether his intention was to bring about a reconciliation or simply to finalize the divorce. He and his cheerful friend Teddy return to the theater to see Dolly perform, but leave afterward without attempting to meet with her. Backstage, rotund producer Joe Canby corners Dolly in her dressing room and, as we would say, "hits on her." When she resists he indicates that he cast her in his show as a favor, and now intends to collect his reward. At this point, while Dolly fights off her lecherous admirer, Steve and Teddy reconsider and decide to go backstage and visit her. Further complications and misunderstandings ensue, but in the end Dolly knuckles under to her husband's wishes and returns to farm life.
The ending is a disappointment, but Behind the Scenes is nonetheless a step toward presenting more assertive women in the movies, and Mary Pickford is excellent in the lead. When this film was released in the fall of 1914 her popularity was rapidly ascending into the stratosphere, and it's easy to see why. Like all the top stars of silent cinema Mary possessed an extraordinarily "readable" face. We know what she's thinking by watching her eyes, so much so that at times the title cards are quite unnecessary. (That said, I believe there was at least one intertitle missing at a key moment, at the point early on where Steve loses his nest egg money; I had to infer what had happened from later scenes.) When Pickford and Kirkwood argue they still strike sparks, and both actors look remarkably "modern" and restrained, especially compared to some of their contemporaries in other films made around this time. In a sense, the final plot twist serves as something of an inside joke, for when Dolly gives up acting to go back to the farm we know good and well that this is Mary Pickford we're looking at and that, behind that submissive expression and attitude, there's not a chance in hell this woman would ever really give up her career to go feed chickens!
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