Producer Thomas Ince was fascinated with Far Eastern settings, as I outline in my biography, and these could infuse his star vehicles. Having contracted with Paramount for a several stars in 1917, Thomas Ince became responsible for a series with Dorothy Dalton, as I outline in my Ince biography. The Price Mark (1917) presents a story of two worlds, filled with overblown language, with decor to match the intertitles. It memorably begins with a heavily Orientalized opening reel, introduced as "Egypt: Land of the mighty past: Playground of the present." In her languorous, seductive boudoir, awaits the sister of Hassan (Edwin Wallock), who has been with her lover, an "unbeliever." Hassan, having been told of their liaison, poisons her, proclaiming "Allah is just, Allah is merciful." When her lover arrives and discovers she is dead, Hassan is about to stab him. However, he escapes thanks to the intervention of a friend of his own nationality.
With reel two, the setting changes, from Egypt to the Statue of Liberty: "From a land of haunting mysteries to the country of things modern and practical." The lover of Hassan's sister is Fielding Powell (William Conklin), a renowned mural painter whose studio is decorated in an intensely Oriental style. He is "a frank but discriminating sensualist who has convinced himself that his affairs of the heart will never upset his better judgment." (The same year another Dalton movie, Love Letters, used the same motifs, as a man poses as a teacher of Eastern creeds to seduce women.) Powell's model is Paula Lee (Dalton), so desperate for work that she is malnourished and collapses. He tells her she can stay at the apartment of an out-of-town friend, but it is a trap for the unwary, with the housekeeper locking the door so that she is caught in Powell's embraces. She reluctantly adapts, saying she is Powell's wife, although a neighbor knows she is his third mistress that year and he will not be seen with her publicly.
One day she sees a boy nearly run over, and meets "Doctor Daniel MelfiOne of God's noblemen, willingly giving all and asking neither praise nor great monetary reward." Melfi (Thurston Howell) is the man who had saved Powell from Hassan's blade in Egypt. While the boy has no injuries, he is handicapped from birth, and as she talks to Melfi, Paula offers him money to help care for such children.
Now that Paula is Powell's acquiescent mistress, she no longer has the innocence that attracted him, but replies that "I am what you made me. I am simply trying to live the part." They separate, Powell telling her that he must test himself, and if he returns, it will be for marriage. However, "During the passing weeks, the friendship between the man who serves humanity and the woman who has felt the world's indifference, grows into a sentiment deeperHolier." When she tells Melfi she is unworthy, he refuses to judge and tells her he will be waiting. Meanwhile, Powell returns to Paula but finds Melfi's gloves, and believes the worst. When Melfi and Paula are (presumably) married and have adopted the boy, she meets Powell as her husband's friend. He demands she go to his studio at night or he will reveal all, but when she appears he tells her that he would have kept silent had she remained faithful to her husband. When she tries to kill herself, they become locked in a struggle, with Powell's servant, "a mystery even to his master," stabbing him. It was Hassan, avenging his sister: "I could have killed you a hundred times, but I was waitingwaiting until I could see the light of unholy love in your eyes." Melfi arrives, and Powell tells him with his dying breath that Paula was fighting for her honor, and to forgive.
The final shot closes the circleback in Egypt, a man has dismounted his camel for prayer, and the intertitle proclaims "Allah is just, Allah is merciful." Returning to Orientalist discourse knits together the strands of The Price Mark. Debauchery (Powell), innocence (Paula), and goodness (Melfi) have each won the reward due their respective merit, no less than in an overtly religious or Biblical parable. Melfi wisely does not judge, giving him the power to heal, while Powell adds the sins of pride and jealousy that lose him whatever opportunity he may have had for love. Yet despite the divergence of two cultures, the foundation of the respective morality is squarely in melodrama. Whether in Egypt, or in New York, womanhood is at the mercy of her surroundings. No matter her potential, she may fall through no fault of her own. The acting is impeccable, and Roy William Neill's direction is effective except for the insistent use of the iris to isolate characters at the close of scenes.
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