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In the year 1550, Sir George Vernon agrees to have his young daughter Dorothy betrothed to John Manners, the son of the Earl of Rutland. Sir George signs a contract, promising that the marriage will take place on Dorothy's 18th birthday, or else he will have to pay a large penalty to Rutland. But when the two children have grown older, rumors of John's wild behavior in France provoke Sir George to call off the engagement, and to pledge his daughter instead to her cousin Malcolm. Rutland now claims the forfeit from Sir George, and meanwhile, John has befriended Mary Stuart, the sworn enemy of Elizabeth, who is now Queen of England. Written by
The screening was introduced to us with the promise that this 'was the nearest thing Mary Pickford ever did to a Douglas Fairbanks film', but also with the caution that she herself felt diffidently that 'everyone else's costume films were better than mine'. As a swashbuckling historical adventure, I'm not entirely sure it gels -- but Miss Pickford herself, in the title part, is definitely the one to watch.
She plays Dorothy as the fiery daughter of Sir George Vernon, a roaring bull of a man -- like father, like daughter, as the scenario wryly comments at several points. When his temper gets away from him, Sir George is capable of the most Shakespearian of arbitrary action, but there is a genuine affection evident between father and daughter, despite his tyrannies and raging, which makes sense of their joint predicament towards the end of the story.
The lovers are a lively pair and convincing together, although Allan Forrest is perhaps a little lacking in mischief for a plot in which the young couple are attracted by a shared delight in pranks. The scene between them in Dorothy's chamber reminds me of a role-reversed Robin and Marian from "The Adventures of Robin Hood": it is Dorothy's daring and impudence -- as when she calmly hands him her cloak and announces that he is taking her with him -- that alternately enchant and horrify her more timid consort. Her quick-thinking decision, when there is no time for escape, to conceal his presence by disguising him as a chair(!) and sitting on him, and her subsequent straight-faced explanation for the betraying toecaps beneath her skirts, rank among the comic highlights of the film.
Less successful is the over-reliance on pure slapstick early in the film, often milked by repetition beyond what it will bear. The set-up with the footstool is a case in point -- what could have been a single effective payoff is laboured almost beyond being funny, as is the business about the defective lock on Dorothy's door. So much attention is drawn to this device that I was certain it must prove significant during subsequent tense scenes revolving around this very room, but in fact it is forgotten after the early part of the film, where it is used only for farce.
The main fault of the production, I felt, lies in this lack of integration: a true swashbuckler will mingle laughter, tears and thrills without drawing a discernible boundary, but "Dorothy Vernon" has an uneven start, with chunks of broad comedy and all-too-deliberate pathos parachuted into the basic plot with what feels like arbitrary intent. By and large I felt it improved as it went on, pulling together as a more coherent entity as the stakes increase, perhaps because the excitement of the plot is felt to be sufficient on its own without the need for byplay. The threat of the hanging is especially effective because it has earlier been established, in a scene still shocking to modern audiences, that leading men of the rival families can and will be hanged out of hand, with no conventional last-minute rescue.
As for the rival Queens, Estelle Taylor provides sufficient dark and long-eyed beauty as Mary Stuart to justify Dorothy's suspicions, while Claire Eames is the very image of high-nosed Elizabeth of England... provided she doesn't laugh! Someone seems to have construed the caption "a King in petticoats" a little too literally, and Miss Eames is directed to produce an uproarious, thigh-slapping performance that bears all too great a resemblance to that of a cross-dressed pantomime principal boy.
Overall, however, this is very much a star vehicle for one woman, somewhat to the unfortunate Allan Forrest's eclipse, and Mary Pickford plays up splendidly as a self-willed, spitfire young woman unintimidated by any notions of what is reasonable or indeed practical for a girl of her era, and yet without betraying the character in any way into anachronism. Admittedly she spends much of the film in a state of complete termagancy... but Mary, you're so beautiful when you're angry ;-)
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