Of silent diva Clara Kimball Young's surviving films, much has been written of Eyes of Youth (1919) and rightly so. It's a compelling, well-wrought story and sensitively acted by the star and her supporting cast, including Rudolph Valentino in his first important screen role.
But Mid-Channel (1920), based on the hit Pinero play in which Ethel Barrymore appeared on Broadway, rivals Eyes of Youth as a highly-charged, penetrating drama and actually surpasses it as an elegant, provocative vehicle for Young, whose beauty and glamour are captured at their height in this picture.
Young may be more sympathetic and allowed a wider range of emotions in Eyes of Youth but her icy hauteur and ferocious petulance as a spoiled, high-strung society wife in Mid-Channel are stunning in their realism, perhaps even evocative of her reputedly difficult personality off-screen.
The spirited succession of marital arguments that culminate in infidelity for Zoe (Clara) and Theo Blundell (J. Frank Glendon) are fascinating to watch, not only for the excellent performances but for the dialogue between the couple, which contains some of the most intelligently witty sarcasm of the silent era.
Mid-Channel's catty carping is relieved by the gentleness of Peter Mottram (Clara's real-life father, Edward M. Kimball), a mutual friend who tries to reunite the warring pair. While the acting of Bertram Grassby, as Zoe's fickle lover Leonard Ferris, is as stilted as his name, Katherine Griffith's portrayal of Ethel Pierpont, Theo's racy mistress, is very convincing.
The lurid nature of this film shows the somewhat surprising extent to which sexual subjects were handled in the silent era. Although no actual physical lovemaking is shown it is implied heavily throughout in the acting, in the title cards and in Clara's romantic wardrobe of undulating evening dresses and tea-gowns (designed by the ubiquitous couturier Lucile).
As good as the story is, as capable as most of her costars are, and as gorgeous as her clothes are, it's the magnetic appeal of Young's femme fatale part that makes this movie so enjoyable.
Although not a unanimous critical success upon its release, Mid-Channel has stood the test of time and offers a revealing taste of Clara Kimball Young at her most scathing.
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