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A wealthy young Southern aristocrat, Joseph, graduates from a seminary and, before he takes charge of his assigned parish, decides to go out and see what "the real world" is all about. He winds up in New Orleans and finds himself attracted to a poor, unsophisticated orphan girl, Bessie. One thing leads to another, and before long Bessie finds that she is pregnant with Joseph's child. Written by
The White Rose is melodrama to be sure, but Mae Marsh, returning to Griffith after 6 years with other directors, gives a terrific performance as the orphan who learns to "vamp" and falls in love with a clergyman--British matinée idol Ivor Novello in a rare Hollywood film.
Her flapper, named Teazie, is meant to be a spoof of the 20s jazz babies known as flappers. Having come out of an orphanage, Teazie has to be taught how to primp and pose and vamp a man. Of course she's ridiculous because it's not her true nature. But the fact that the yokels fall for her vamp act is Griffith's comment on the phoniness of flappers and the stupidity of bumpkins.
One of the bumpkins gossips constantly about Teazie and convinces the preacher she's a tramp. He goes away after their one night together. She has the baby and is turned out of her job at the local inn. Despondent and starving she considers suicide but hangs on. But poverty and threats from others to turn her in and take away the baby take their toll. She becomes ill and lies dying when the preacher finally finds her. The ending is pure Griffith.
Marsh certainly ranks among the great early silent film actresses. She was much more expressive than Lillian Gish or Mary Pickford and sometimes now comes off as hammy, but she has moments in The White Rose where she is magnificent and matches her best work in The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance. Handsome Novello suffers nicely as the guilty clergyman and probably could have given Rudolph Valentino and Ramon Novarro a run for their money as a Hollywood Idol, but he worked mostly on stage in London. Carol Dempster (Griffith's protégé) is bland as the clergyman's friend. Neil Hamilton, despite good billing, has a small part as the poor boy trying to make good. Lucille Laverne is fun (in blackface) as Auntie Esther.
Despite its melodramatic nature and moralizing tones, Griffith still packs this film with great scenes and his trademark layered action (foreground and background). The DVD I have is also washed out (noted elsewhere in comments) and some faces appear as white blanks, but this is a 1923 film that has not been restored.
Little Mae Marsh, one of the first movie stars, certainly deserves to be remembered. But The White Rose was her last real shot at stardom, and as talkies came in her work in the teens was forgotten She worked in films in bit parts through the 60s. But to fans of silent cinema Mae Marsh ranks with the greats and deservedly so.
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