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C. Aubrey Smith
Norma Besant, daughter of a Southern doctor, is an incorrigible flirt and has many boys on her string. She begins to favor Michael Jeffrey, who, shiftless and hot-tempered but fundamentally honorable, is warned off by her father. When Michael returns after a long absence, the pair are innocently compromised, and Dr. Besant's old-South paternal rage brings tragedy. Written by
Rod Crawford <firstname.lastname@example.org>
More than the silents that preceded it, this is a rare glimpse into a world that is almost impossible for our generation to imagine. The acting style seems bizarre by modern standards. The characters walk as if they were trying to dance, and they speak as if they would rather sing their lines. Okay, sound equipment may have been awful then - "talkies" were brand new in 1929 - but that fact does nothing to make it less pretentious when the characters stretch their mouths to yawn proportions to utter dated lines like, "darling, I love you more than life itself."
Then there's the plot, another feature of this film that is as quaint as the acting and the dialogue. "Norma," played legendary silent screen actress Mary Pickford at the end of her prolific career, becomes "compromised" by a night with a boyfriend, Michael. Michael vows to marry her but instead finds himself in an angry confrontation with Norma's father, the doctor.
Father takes a gun to avenge his violated daughter - who is played, remember, by a 37-year-old woman. And poor Norma, finding her lover on his deathbed, pours forth a mind-numbing, melodramatic declaration of her love that had to have been way over the top even in those days.
But the most amazing part is the end, where the doctor is on trial for murder. Norma takes the stand to accuse her lover of rape and thus save her father, which she does admirably and with all the flourishes and eye-batting appropriate for the era. Suddenly, the father's conscience is stirred and he rushes to the feet of his daughter - this in a court of law - and pleads with her to let him take the blame with honor. The doctor eyes the murder weapon, a revolver sitting on a table before the judge, and then stands before the court and demands that he pay his debt to the state. Imagine that!
Father then rushes to the arms of daughter and begs her to "hug daddy" as she used to. What follows was surely, even to audiences of the day, an excessively-long, gruesomely-sentimental embrace. To a modern viewer seeing it in the contemporary context, it would clearly suggest incest, though this was certainly not the meaning of the scene. That done, father grabs gun and commits suicide in the courtroom. To the film's credit, the event is conveyed well by the sound of a single gunshot - no blood.
Pickford may have been the darling of silent film, and she was undeniably a remarkable actress in that setting. But her talkie debut is flawed in every conceivable way, from the bogus southern accents of her and others' characters to the comical arm gestures she makes to emphasize her schmaltzy love-talk with Michael.
You have to cut this film some slack not only for the year it was made, but also because sound movies were then in their infancy. Still, the story line and script are painfully exaggerated and the acting horribly stilted.
But is it worth watching? I say yes. It's important cinema history. And it's fun.
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