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Through the Back Door (1921)

When her mother remarries, a young Belgian girl is left behind with her nurse, but when Germany invades the country, she is sent to America to find her mother.
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Cast

Credited cast:
...
Gertrude Astor ...
Louise Reeves
Wilfred Lucas ...
Elton Reeves
Helen Raymond ...
Marie
C. Norman Hammond ...
Jacques Lanvain
...
Margaret Brewster
...
James Brewster
Peaches Jackson ...
Conrad
Doreen Turner ...
Constant
John Harron ...
Billy Boy
George Dromgold ...
Chauffeur
Rest of cast listed alphabetically:
Jeanne Carpenter ...
Walter Wilkinson
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Storyline

In Belgium in 1903, widowed Madame Bodamere is remarried to a rich American, who insists that she leave her young daughter Jeanne behind with the child's nurse Marie. Several years later, the mother comes back to reclaim her child, but Marie, not wanting to give up Jeanne, tells the mother that the child is dead. When Belgium is invaded in 1914, Marie fears for Jeanne's safety and sends her, now a teenager, to America along with a letter to Jeanne's mother confessing Marie's deception. On the trip, Jeanne picks up two young Belgian orphans and takes them with her. Jeanne finds her mother living on a large estate, and is repeatedly denied the chance to explain who she is. She ends up taking a job as a maid in her mother's mansion, and claiming the two orphans as her own. Meanwhile, her mother grows increasingly despondent, and her marriage soon stands on shaky ground. Written by Snow Leopard

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis

Plot Keywords:

orphan | nurse | belgium | maid | letter | See All (17) »

Genres:

Comedy | Drama

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Release Date:

5 May 1921 (USA)  »

Also Known As:

Die kleine Mutter  »

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Aspect Ratio:

1.33 : 1
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Connections

Featured in Mary Pickford: A Life on Film (1997) See more »

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User Reviews

 
Good comedy sequences boost this silent feature
24 January 2007 | by (Westchester County, NY) – See all my reviews

When this comedy-drama was made Mary Pickford was at the height of her fame. Like all of the films she produced and appeared in during her peak years (roughly 1917-1927) Through the Back Door was painstakingly crafted: the sets, cinematography, lighting, etc., are all state-of-the-art for the time. Pickford always chose the best supporting players in the business, and never failed to deliver an energetic and charming performance herself. Even the title cards in her movies were carefully composed and often witty, though sometimes a little puzzling; I must admit I was thrown by the introductory title to this film that declared it a "story of mother-love," an assertion that isn't exactly borne out by what follows. In any case, and although it doesn't rank with her best work, Through the Back Door could nonetheless serve as a decent introduction to Mary Pickford for viewers who have never seen her. Beyond its entertainment value, the film also offers several of Pickford's favorite recurring motifs, to wit: 1) regardless of her actual age, the star plays a preteen girl in her opening scenes and a teenager thereafter; 2) she's in search of a mother figure; 3) despite her youth, Mary's character Jeanne also acts as a surrogate mother for younger children who have been abandoned by others; 4) she encounters class prejudice, and is made to feel inferior because of her upbringing; 5) in the end, Jeanne proves that good character wins out over wealth and social position, and in doing so, gains those privileges.

As the story begins Jeanne's widowed mother Louise plans to remarry, but her selfish fiancé, jealous of the attention the girl receives, insists that the child must be raised on a farm in her native Belgium while he and his new wife live in luxury in America. Five years pass, and Jeanne now regards her nurse Marie as her mother, just as Marie regards Jeanne as her own child. When Louise belatedly returns to claim her daughter Marie falsely claims that the girl has died, so the heartbroken woman returns home. At the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 Jeanne is sent to America, carrying a letter signed by Marie in which she confesses her lie, but circumstances prevent Jeanne from handing over the letter and identifying herself. She winds up working in her mother's household as a maid, until at last she is able to reveal the truth.

As the synopsis may indicate, there are aspects of the story that challenge credibility. Even if we accept that Louise is willing to give up her daughter in order to remarry, why would she wait five years before going to see her? Would she believe the nurse's story of her daughter's death with no further confirmation? How is this "a story of mother-love"? Louise's actions don't seem plausible, but the greatest strain to our credulity comes in the second half, when Jeanne arrives in America (with two orphaned boys in tow) and is inexplicably reluctant to reveal her identity to her mother or anyone else. We're given to understand that she's embarrassed about her low station in life as a war refugee raised on a farm, afraid her mother might be ashamed of her, but even so we're bewildered as she passes up one opportunity after another to identify herself. I believe this plot device would have worked better if Jeanne's motivation for keeping her identity a secret had been stronger, or at least explained more fully; as it is, we watch in frustration and wonder what's the matter with the girl.

On the plus side, however, the filmmakers made a special point of lightening the atmosphere with several bright comedy sequences, especially in the film's first half. In the best known bit Jeanne scrubs a floor by putting thick brushes on her feet, and skating around the room through the suds. Here Pickford suggests Chaplin in The Rink, not only in her grace but in her comically panic-stricken near-falls. A little later Jeanne has a run-in with an ornery mule in a scene which, strictly speaking, is irrelevant to the plot, but nevertheless welcome as comic relief. The film's second half would have benefited from more humor along these lines; instead, the story turns conventional as Jeanne helps thwart a scheme to defraud her step-father. This secondary plot is played straight, and must have felt overly familiar to viewers even in 1921.

All told, Through the Back Door is a well-made, entertaining movie with a number of pleasing elements and a winning performance by the star. If the screenwriters had fully worked out the lead character's actions and not fallen back on formula in the second half, this might have ranked with Mary Pickford's most memorable works. Even so, second-tier Pickford is still expertly crafted silent cinema.


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