Abuse and Friendship Contrast Against a Desert Background
Having contracted with Paramount for a several stars in 1917, Thomas Ince became responsible for a series with Enid Bennett, as I outline in my Ince biography. Partners Three (1919) was a full-scale "women's" film centered on Mary (Enid Bennett), and her troubled odyssey through work, marriage, spousal abuse, and true love. Driven to sing in a café, she abhors the gaze of the men there, but falls for Haywood (Robert McKim), who is attracted by her virtue. Initially dismayed at his crudeness, he apologizes and over several months she falls for a stream of flowers (shown simply and effectively with successive shots of bouquets, a delivery boy, and ultimately a ring, as the calendars change behind her), culminating in their marriage. However, no sooner have they returned to his home out west than "liquor plays its old part of unmasking brutality." When their car stalls in the desert because of his drunken driving, and his hip flask smashes, Haywood pushes her out of the car and drives off, leaving her to walk back to town if she can.
Hardy (John P. Lockney), a "desert rat," finds her near death, and takes her to Sandflat, a railroad stop where she can get a job. There she meets Arthur (Casson Ferguson), exiled to the desert for ill-health, and now broke. His physical weakness has led the locals to despise him. She takes him in, causing the gossips to turn on her as a wicked woman. Hardy takes both of them back to the desert, where they can become "partners three." Arthur regains his strength, falls in love with Mary, and soon a vein is struck in Hardy's mine. She refuses Arthur's marriage proposal, however, without telling him why, although her instincts toward him have gone beyond the maternal.
Meanwhile, Haywood, hurt in a brawl, has finally recovered, and is told by suspicious townspeople to bring back the wife he claims is with relatives. He happens across the mine, and steals the claim paper buried beneath a nearby stone marker. He persuades Mary that he is reformed and now a wealthy man, and should leave with him in the night, not telling Hardy or Arthur. Naively, stretching credulity, yet also in character for such a woman, she agrees, failing to see Haywood empty Hardy=s water supply and taking the goodbye note she had written. She finds the note and claim in his pocket the next day, and realizes she has been deceived again. As she drives to save Arthur, Hardy stalks Haywood into the desert. Cowardice and panic cause Haywood to flee until he ultimately dies in just the manner he planned for Hardy and Arthur, and Mary earlier. As a widow Mary is finally free to marry Arthur.
The use of the setting was reminiscent of Ince's The Empty Water Keg (1912), and as in The Family Skeleton (1918), Partners Three highlights the evil of alcohol as America began its experiment with prohibition. Mary incarnates the purity of her name, and the movie is striking for the harsh events she must endure. The desert environment is initially no less so, but reveals a beauty of its own. While it exposes Haywood's degradation, it is ultimately a source of strength for Mary, Arthur, and Hardy. In it is the opportunity that will bring them wealth from the mine, along with a clean life with a husband who will honor her love. Similarly, the work in Sandflat contrasts with the degradation she endured singing in the urban café. Equally significant among the partners three is Hardy, who accepts his fatherly position with Mary, although clearly her gratitude has touched him in decidedly un-paternal ways. His own upstanding nature has ended his isolation and won him a place in a newly-formed family.
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