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When the only known print of this film was found in a barn in
Washington state several years ago it was a happy discovery for several
reasons. First, GRETCHEN THE GREENHORN is one of the rare surviving
features starring Dorothy Gish solo-- that is, without her sister
Lillian. It is also a rare example of the co-directorial work of
brothers Chester and Sidney Franklin, who made some twenty films
together in the silent era; Sidney went on to have a long and
distinguished Hollywood career as a director and producer. It's also
one of the comparatively few surviving products of the Fine Art Film
Co., an organization supervised by D.W. Griffith during the period he
was releasing his work through the Triangle Corporation. Griffith's
name does not appear in the credits, and he may have made little or no
contribution, but a number of directorial touches suggest the influence
of his Biograph shorts and there are several Biograph veterans in the
cast, including Miss Gish, Ralph Lewis, Kate Bruce, and Elmo Lincoln,
while featured player Eugene Palette acted in this film just after
finishing his role in Griffith's INTOLERANCE.
But for all the background on this film's pedigree there is a simpler reason we can celebrate the discovery of GRETCHEN THE GREENHORN: it's a charming movie, skillfully crafted with a degree of cinematic sophistication impressive for its time, the sort of movie that comes as a pleasant surprise to modern day viewers unfamiliar with silent films. It was not a major release but rather a "programmer," the sort of second feature that would later be termed a B-picture, and yet like the best B-pictures of the '30s and '40s it tells its story briskly and entertainingly, with some technical flourishes we don't expect to find in a modestly-budgeted production.
The plot is easily summarized: Dorothy Gish plays the title character, a girl from Holland who emigrates to America to join her father, Jan, who is struggling to establish himself in business as an engraver. They live in a poor urban neighborhood (presumably in New York, although this is never specified) where people of all backgrounds struggle to get by. Gretchen is courted by a young Italian, Pietro, who lives across the hall, and she unofficially adopts an Irish boy, Mickey, who lives nearby. When Jan naively allows himself to be used by a gang of counterfeiters the well-being of Gretchen and her little family is threatened, but in the end the neighbors rally around and the crooks are defeated.
One of the most interesting aspects of this film is its rich depiction of tenement life. The city's immigrant culture is presented with what feels like documentary realism, stylized to be sure but grittier than what we see in later Hollywood films, and presented without undue squalor or sentimentality. In Gretchen's neighborhood Dutch immigrants intermingle with Italians, Irish, Asians, and African Americans, and for the most part the film is free of the racial stereotyping that mars a lot of early films for today's viewers. The ethnic melting pot atmosphere is nicely captured in an amusing title card describing Pietro's serenade: "He woos her with her native Dutch songs, sung in English with an Italian accent."
This film was made before "Hollywood" meant artificial studio sets and rear projection, so most of the scenes (whether in alleys, on rooftops, or on shipboard) were taken in actual locations. The cinematography is first-rate, with natural light and shadows used for striking compositions. Color tints were utilized for some scenes, and happily these tints were still evident in the surviving print. Two other photographic techniques, though dated, are nonetheless strikingly effective: the framing of facial close-ups on solid black backdrops, and the use of a "masking iris" to highlight key portions of the image. The most fascinating cinematic effect is saved for the wedding finale, which was filmed entirely in a series of close-ups on black backgrounds and edited into a rapid montage. This is the kind of bravura experimentation usually associated with the German Expressionist classics of the '20s, and it concludes GRETCHEN THE GREENHORN on an exhilarating note.
Dorothy Gish gives a charming but low-key performance, and the other players seem to follow her lead: there is no sign of the mugging or arm-waving histrionics so often associated with silent movie acting. Eugene Palette, remembered mainly as a rotund, bullfrog-voiced character actor in such comedy classics as MY MAN GODFREY and THE LADY EVE, is surprisingly effective-- and slim! --as the villainous gang leader, Rogers. The stolid ship captain in cahoots with Rogers is played by Elmo Lincoln, two years before he earned screen (and trivia question) immortality as the cinema's first Tarzan.
In sum, there are a number of reasons to be grateful that this fascinating film was recovered from that barn in Washington. One last good reason, especially if you own property in the area, is that several tins of 35mm nitrate stock could easily have blown that barn sky high and scorched the countryside for miles around! What were those tins doing in a barn in the first place?!?
This recently recovered drama is very enjoyable to watch, both because
it is well-crafted and because it treats its cast of immigrant
characters in such a compassionate and thoughtful way. The tenement
block atmosphere is convincing, and Chester and Sidney Franklin use it
to create a believable world filled with believable characters.
The characters are endearing, and although they are all quite uncomplicated, they are easy to care about. The Franklin brothers present them in an honest yet caring way. The various national backgrounds are generally identified with the most obvious of symbols, yet this comes across well, because the audience is meant to care about them simply because they are honest, innocent men and women, not because they are brilliant or heroic. The one weakness that most of them share is their naiveté as implied by the title and this is hardly a censurable quality.
Dorothy Gish makes the most of her starring role as Gretchen, and she fits the part well. Ralph Lewis is also good as her father. Eugene Palette looking younger and thinner than in his best-known roles works quite well as the villainous Rogers, making particularly good use of his gestures and expressions to connote his character's nature.
The Franklins film it in what is now a rather old-fashioned style in particular, lots of 'iris' shots but it fits the material pretty well. and the story is told well without relying on clichés or contrivances. There is one particularly good sequence of cross-cutting, when an idyllic, innocent date between Gretchen and Pietro is contrasted with Rogers carrying out one of his malicious, deceitful schemes.
Overall, this works quite well and has also held up well. It's a feature worth seeing for anyone who enjoys silent dramas.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
As an enthusiast of early cinema stylistics, I tend to find "Gretchen
the Greenhorn" even better a film than other critics claim. The film
has its weak moments, but it is handled with deft touch.
To avoid spoilers, I will avoid discussing too much of the plot and focus on the exquisite photography. There are exquisite seascapes of the Pacific Ocean, wonderful lighting during a wedding sequence and a number of attractive tints that include blue and orange.
A viewing of the film only confirms the talents of the Franklin Brothers. Sidney and Chester Franklin worked well together on a number of dramas and comedies produced by Majestic Studios, Fine Arts/Triangle, and Fox. Their ability to handle child performers is evident from the portrayals of the 'McGarrity children'. The children never cloy and they craftily help the leading characters, Gretchen (Dorothy Gish) and her father Jan (Ralph Lewis), when they are abducted at sea.
In my opinion, the only point against the film is Dorothy Gish's performance. Dorothy was the sister of Lillian Gish, but her performance style is often a little flat. Although very few of Dorothy's solo performances are known to survive, I have had the good fortune to see four of them - Victorine (1915), Old Heidelberg (1915), Gretchen the Greenhorn (1916) and The Country Flapper (1922). Dorothy was never a bad actress, she is not annoying in any way; but she lacked the expressive eyes that her sister used to her advantage. A comparison of Dorothy's performance in "Gretchen the Greenhorn" with Lillian's performance in another immigrant drama "Sold For Marriage" (1916) shows how very different these two sisters were as performers.
(In all fairness to Dorothy Gish, I have never seen her performance in the British drama "Nell Gwyn", released in 1926. That film is supposed to show Dorothy at her best.)
"Gretchen the Greenhorn" is well worth watching. The careful craftsmanship and the fine juvenile performances make up for the occasional flatness of Dorthy Gish's so-so performance.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
As always Dorothy Gish is pretty, charming and ever so fascinating to watch. Thank the National Film Preservation Foundation, AFI & the American Film Archives for making this and dozens of other lost/forgotten films available on DVD! SPOILERS: When John Van Houck welcomes his newly arrived daughter Gretchen (fetching Dorothy Gish) to the United States from Holland, he resumes his profession as an engraver, while she falls in love with Pietro, an Italian immigrant living in their tenement. Recognizing John's skills, Rodgers (played by early matinee idol and then skinnier Eugene Paulette who would be later be know as Froggy voiced Friar Tuck in THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD), a criminal, tricks him into engraving a plate from which counterfeit money, indistinguishable from the real thing, can be made, and then convinces Gretchen to pass the phony bills. When Gretchen and John realize how they have been used, they make plans to expose Rodgers, but when he finds out, he drags them to his hideout aboard a large sailing ship and locks them in. The Garrity children, however, who live alongside Gretchen, witness the abduction and so alert Pietro. With the help of the police, he captures Rodgers and then frees his sweetheart and her father, after which he and Gretchen get married. Look for barrel-chested Elmo Lincoln (later the first Tarzan) as a burly sailor and character actor Gino Corrado in a brief scene, his second of 279 films, the only actor to appear in both CASABLANCA & CITIZEN KANE!
Hopeful "little" Dorothy Gish (as Gretchen) sails to America, "Fresh as
the tulips of her native fields and green as the greatest grass that
grows" in Holland. She reunites with poor engraver papa Ralph Lewis (as
Jan Van Houck). Being a D.W. Griffith heroine, Ms. Gish arrives at her
new home with a duck on a leash. She and her father may be hungry, but
don't worry - we never see them eating the duck. They don't have a lot,
but what they've got they share with frugal factory worker widow Kate
Bush, who has a brood of hungry mouths to feed. Charmed by young
Georgie Stone (as Micky Garrity), Gish lets the kid take the cake.
The blond tyke will later help Gish and Mr. Lewis battle counterfeiter Eugene Palette (as Rogers). Mr. Palette wants to take advantage of Lewis' engraving skills. Gish's most significant other neighbor is caring fellow immigrant Frank Bennett (as Pietro), with whom a budding romance develops. Playing the accordion, Mr. Bennett serenades Gish with songs "sung in English with an Italian accent." Their melting pot relationship is one of this above average "Triangle" production's modern strengths.
That this print of "Gretchen the Greenhorn" was found relatively recently, in a barn, will hopefully have everyone searching for similarly placed treasures. It's also a fine print, which shows off the film's keenly dressed sets, and generous locations. An ending sequence works too, although shot entirely in close-up; presumably, the lowly-regarded movie crew couldn't find a willing church. All of this helps overcome the often-recycled plot, which appealed to the mostly immigrant population of the country at large.
"Triangle" had released sister Lillian's "Sold for Marriage" in April (with a similar immigrant plot) and Norma Talmadge's "Going Straight (with this film's basic entourage) in June. Dorothy's film may look a little better because, at the time, she was a bigger star than either Lillian or Norma. Dorothy beat them both to the "Quigley Poll" Top Ten money-making stars, appearing at #7 in 1915.
****** Gretchen the Greenhorn (9/3/16) Chester & Sidney Franklin ~ Dorothy Gish, Frank Bennett, Ralph Lewis, Georgie Stone
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
It's a pleasure to see Dorothy Gish in her own vehicle. In her other
currently rather accessible silent films, she costars with her older
sister Lillian, including "Hearts of the World" (1918), "Orphans of the
Storm" (1921) and "Romola" (1924). Gish is but a teenager here, but she
does well enough to carry the picture. Unfortunately, the plot is
contrived. As Lillian did the same year in "Sold for Marriage", Dorothy
plays an immigrant to America (but Dutch instead of Russian). When
Dorothy is front and center, preferably in close-up, the movie shines,
especially in the courtship scenes with Frank Bennettthe same romantic
interest for Lillian in "Sold for Marriage" oddly. (For some reason,
he's much better in "Gretchen the Greenhorn".) Otherwise, the plot of
counterfeiting and the climactic scheme to entrap the father are poorly
constructed and uninteresting.
Additionally, the use of close-ups for the marriage scene is quite good, as are the use of iris shots throughout the picture. In general, the print of this film is pristine for having survived since 1916.
Gretchen the Greenhorn is an early silent film starring Dorothy Gish in
the title role. She plays a Dutch girl who immigrates to America to be
with her father, a man who engraves for a living. He is swindled by a
gang who tricks him into counterfeiting money for them. Although his
intentions are completely pure, he hesitates to turn the gang in for
fear of jail time, but the gangsters act quickly to capture him. It is
up to Gretchen to save him.
This film does not have all of the action and suspense of later gangster films, nor the outstanding faces of the screen that could benefit it. Overall, it is an average film, entertaining and short enough for a night of film-watching.
Although some rave about Dorothy Gish, I have never warmed up to her. I thought I might in this starring role, but I still did not find her charming, beautiful, or very talented.
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