The White Rose (1923) A Silent Film Review

Child neglect, single moms, personal crisis… Just another day D.W. Griffith-land. Mae Marsh is Teazie, a young orphan who flirts as way to get much-needed attention. Ivor Novello is Joseph, a freshly ordained minister who mistakes her flirtations for an immoral character. What follows can best be described as Way Down East meets The Scarlet Letter.

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

Note: I am also reviewing the 2007 Turkish drama Bliss. Click here to skip to the talkie.

Forgotten Griffith

D.W. Griffith’s later career is a long, sad tale of declining box office receipts and an eventual descent into irrelevance. Oh, there were hits here and there but not of a caliber to resurrect his career and lift it back to the heights that he had enjoyed in the ‘teens. However, it must be emphasized, just because many of Griffith’s later films did not catch fire with the ticket-buying public does not mean that they should be ignored.

The White Rose was Griffith’s second completed feature after parting ways with Lillian Gish, his most famous leading lady. Hoping to catch some of the old Biograph magic, he cast Mae Marsh (whom he had not directed since 1916’s Intolerance and Hoodoo Ann) in the lead role of The White Rose. It turned out to be an excellent move.

The story really involves a sort of Southern love square. Poor boy John (Neil Hamilton) loves rich girl Marie (Carol Dempster), who has been expected to marry wealthy minister Joseph (Ivor Novello) since childhood, but his heart has been stolen by Teazie (Mae Marsh), an orphan who is known as a sort of virginal strumpet. (We’re in very Victorian territory.) So, no one is with the person they really want and that creates the bulk of the film’s tension.

Looks naughty, is really nice.
Looks naughty, is really nice.

Although Griffith claims in his introduction to the film that it is about characters, not melodrama, don’t believe him. Melodrama all the way. Illegitimate babies, attempted suicide, dying of a broken heart, it’s all there. Fortunately, melodrama is exactly what Griffith excels at.

Teazie doesn’t mean to be a bad girl. She is just a lonely orphan. Her flirtatious nature stems from her need for love and acceptance. Her boss encourages the behavior since a coquette waitress brings in more money. Even though she still as pure as the virgin blah blah blah, her behavior has earned her a bad reputation.

Teazie regrets
Teazie regrets

Joseph is a priggish minister, freshly ordained. He is off to see the world so that he can save it. He is immediately drawn to Teazie though he is contemptuous of her flirty nature. A local lothario encourages Joseph to sow his wild oats with Teazie. Believing that other men have had her (why not him?) Joseph seduces her and leaves town the next day.

Meanwhile, Joseph’s childhood sweetheart, Marie, is secretly pining over the dirt-poor John. Hoping to win the hand of the rich Marie, John sets off to the city to seek his fortune as an author.

The newly-ordained minister is entertaining some decidedly impure thoughts about Teazie.
The newly-ordained minister is entertaining some decidedly impure thoughts about Teazie.

The illicit lovers do not fare as well. Joseph is stricken with a guilty conscience and the knowledge that he really did love Teazie. Teazie has it even worse. She gives birth to Joseph’s son and is thrown out into the streets. Will love conquer all and so forth?

The White Rose is an enjoyable trifle made much better by Mae Marsh’s sensitive performance. Her transformation from child to vamp to terrified mother is believable and tragic. The requisite scenes where she must look for a job, baby on her hip, are heart-rending. Trying to get another waitressing job, she only has references from her orphanage. No enough for employers to overlook the formula of woman-husband+baby=unemployable. Marsh’s despair and piteous hope that someone will help her is thoroughly convincing.

Teazie loves Joseph even though she knows she will lose him.
Teazie loves Joseph even though she knows she will lose him.

British idol Ivor Novello’s only performance with Griffith is a good one though he does descend into hysterics a bit. He’s best known to modern audiences as the title character in The Lodger, Alfred Hitchcock’s first real Hitchcock film. In both that film and this one, Novello is at his best when he is intense, in despair, filled with regret, etc. He doesn’t handle “happy” quite as well. All in all, however, he matches Mae Marsh in intelligence and sensitivity.

Carol Dempster is a little harder to accept. As the goody two shoes of the film, she really has nothing more to do than be supportive of the two men in her life. Unfortunately, Dempster has an irritating, jerky manner of moving. Her fluttering about, meant to be charming, dainty and Gishy, made me want to shout at the screen, “For Pete’s sake, Carol, stand still!” When she actually does stand in one place for a moment without twitching, she is quite effective. But such moments are few and far between.

Marie has her own romantic woes
Marie has her own romantic woes

Spoiler for this paragraph: Kudos to Miss Dempster, however, for the climactic scene where she watches the man she is supposed to marry reunite with his lover and son. Sorrow, relief and just a dab of jealousy pass across her face. Well done!

What really stops The White Rose from finding a wider audience are the racial stereotypes that Griffith unfortunately felt the need to include. White actors in blackface makeup play the servants and townsfolk. The portrayals range from offensive to clueless. It’s a pity since the role of Auntie Easter, the only character who has the guts to take poor Teazie in, was a juicy one. If only Griffith had seen fit to cast a more appropriate performer in the role!

Marie and Auntie Easter comfort the gravely ill Teazie.
Marie and Auntie Easter comfort the gravely ill Teazie.

So, in the end, The White Rose represents a wasted opportunity. It is a good little tear jerker but it could have been much more. Some of the problems can be traced to a script with too many main characters (the second love story could have been jettisoned with few consequences) but most of it can be put down to a general lack of originality. The story is essentially Way Down East meets The Scarlet Letter.

A better script and more sensitivity in racial matters might have made The White Rose one of Griffith’s better potboilers. Don’t expect a masterpiece and you will find an enjoyable film but not a great one.

white-rose-review-rating-verdict

Where can I see it?

This movie is available as a low-quality, blurry and overpriced DVD release from Classic Movie Streams. The budget disc outfit, Alpha, has also released their version of the film. It’s not a huge jump in quality but at least the price is reasonable. (You can usually get discounted copies of Alpha films for as little as $2.)

white rose header (2)Sometimes movies can improve when paired with one another. In this case, The White Rose and Bliss. One is a forgotten 1923 work from an American master. The other is a critically acclaimed 2007  Turkish film. Both deal with questions of female purity, male guilt and how far society can go to claim its honor.

Bliss (2007)

Modern American society is a hundred miles away from the world portrayed in The White Rose but in some parts of the world, a woman is still judged by her perceived virtue. Remaining pure is literally a matter of life and death.

In rural Turkey, 17-year old Meryam (Özgü Namal) is suspected of losing her virginity. She refuses to name her partner or to explain suspicious circumstances that led to the accusation. The only answer to the blight on the family name is to perform an honor killing. Since Meryam will not go through with suicide, her uncle, a rich factory owner, wants the business done quickly and quietly as honor killings are illegal in the eyes of the secular Turkish government. Meryam’s distant cousin Cemal (Murat Han) is the eldest son in the clan and he is given the mission of taking Meryam to Istanbul where she can be killed without suspicion.

Cemal is an army verteran with a bad case of post traumatic stress from combat with Kurdish seperatists. He is also in love with Meryam, though he won’t even admit it to himself. When the time comes, though, he can’t bring himself to harm her. The pair know they cannot return to their village and that they will be pursued. They go on the run. By chance, they befriend Irfan (Talat Bulut), a college professor who is running away for different reasons.

Meryam (Özgü Namal) reveals her secret to Cemal (Murat Han).
Meryam (Özgü Namal) reveals her secret to Cemal (Murat Han).

The unlikely trio sail along the Turkish coast in Irfan’s yacht. All three are carrying emotional scars. Meryam’s sense of self-worth is in tatters and she is struggling with her love for Cemal. Cemal is seething with jealousy over Meryam’s supposed lover and is unable to outwardly express any emotion except anger. Irfan is running from a life he considers empty and a wife he does not love.

Will three lost souls find peace or is it beyond their reach?

Both films deal with the hypocrisy and double standards that are so often present in society. However, Bliss handles its subject matter in a more imaginative and compelling way. This superiority of plot and character have nothing to do with the time that has passed between the two films (the story itself is timeless) and everything to do with the care with which Bliss was assembled.

Meryam is expected to kill herself in order to restore the family honor.
Meryam is expected to kill herself in order to restore the family honor.

While there is a central mystery in Bliss (did Meryam have a lover, was she a willing participant and if not, who was her attacker?) it is not nearly as important as the people. The character studies are absolutely enthralling. Further, the movie is stunningly shot. As Meryam gradually regains her sense of self-worth, the movie goes from drab khaki tones to vibrant jeweled hues.

Like The White RoseBliss is fortunate in its leading lady. Özgü Namal, a decade older than her character, perfectly captures the final shades of girlhood in Meryam and shows her emerge as a confident adult before our eyes.

Irfan (Talat Bulut) views Meryam as a daughter.
Irfan (Talat Bulut) views Meryam as a daughter.

As Irfan, Talat Bulut is the opposite. In spite of his intellect and sophistication, he is a man-child who still takes innocent delight in running away from the world. He is also the very person needed to heal Cemal and Meryam, both of whom have had to grow up far too fast.

The most difficult part belongs to Murat Han as Cemal. If the horrible practice of honor killings turns daughters into victims, it turns sons into killers. Cemal is caught between his need for his father’s approval and his own conscience that tells him that whatever Meryam is accused of, killing her is wrong. Cemal is no saint, however. He is violently jealous and is uncertain whether he did the right thing in saving Meryam’s life. In short, a very intriguing character.

The bittersweet love between Meryam and Cemal is one of the great strengths of Bliss.
The bittersweet love between Meryam and Cemal is one of the great strengths of Bliss.

While The White Rose is a pleasant enough melodrama, Bliss is a fully realized, beautiful piece of cinematic art. However, watching both films side by side can illustrate the progress (or lack thereof) for women’s rights. The similarities in content of the two films will keep your mind active looking for parallels in two films separated by decades and continents.

Availability: Bliss has been released on DVD.