The Love Flower (1920) A Silent Film Review

Director D.W. Griffith attempts to showcase his protegee, Carol Dempster, in this ocean-themed crime drama. An accused murderer is hiding out on a South Sea island with his daughter. The long arm of the law is closing in. How far will she go to make sure that her dear old dad stays free?

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

“As an actress, Miss Dempster is an excellent high-diver…”

Before I begin the review, I think that a little bit of background on the leading lady of this picture is required. Carol Dempster is one of those actresses whose personal life has overshadowed her body of work. Only 15 years old when she made her debut in the Babylonian sequence in Intolerance, Dempster quickly went from supporting player to leading lady in director D.W. Griffith’s acting troupe.

Griffith was fixated on Dempster and his preference for her ended up alienating  his stable of leading ladies. What didn’t help matters was the widely held belief that Dempster was a copycat; that she mimicked the acting mannerisms of other Griffith actresses (such as the Gish sisters and Mae Marsh) rather than creating her own characterization and acting style. Dempster was Griffith’s preferred leading lady from about 1922 to 1926.

Carol Dempster: Most maligned woman in silent cinema?
Carol Dempster: Most maligned woman in silent cinema?

Author Anthony Slide, who seems to have a hate on for poor Carol, went even further in his book Silent Players, quoting numerous performers with a negative view of Dempster and repeating anti-Dempster anecdotes: Lois Wilson described her as “as sharp offscreen as she was on.” Wilson and friend Bebe Daniels were united in their dislike of her. Dorothy Gish  had a little dog that would bark at screenings whenever Dempster appeared in the film. Yipes! Snark! Even D.W. Griffith later acknowledged his twitterpated behavior. (Notice how everyone neatly places the blame on Dempster, a teen when she started working with Griffith, rather than the man who kept pushing her forward?)

So, does Dempster deserve the contempt that she receives? What is she like onscreen? Have her performances aged well? Is she a hack actress or a forgotten gem? I had seen her in supporting roles but it was time to decide if Miss Dempster could carry an entire movie on her shoulders. And so I took a look at The Love Flower, one of Carol Dempster’s earlier starring roles.

The not-so-happy couple.
The not-so-happy couple.

Dempster stars as Stella Bevan, a teenager who worships her father, Thomas Bevan (George MacQuarrie). Father and daughter live on a sponge farm (literally, they harvest sea sponges) but business is not good. Bevan is married to a younger woman (Florence Short) who is none too pleased about being stuck in the middle of nowhere.

Right away, the problems with this film are obvious. Mrs. Bevan is portrayed as a dreadful shrew for asking her husband not to smoke around her. That may have been seen as nagging in 1920 but nowadays it is the pushy smoker who is seen as obnoxious.

The usual audience reaction.
The usual audience reaction.

And then there is Carol Dempster. While her character’s age is not specified, I am assuming that she is supposed to be 14 or 15. (Dempster was 19 when The Love Flower was shot.) The script calls for her to be whimsical and perky, extremely child-like. The problem is that Dempster doesn’t come off that way. With her weird twitchy movements and her mad dashing about, she doesn’t seem cute so much as insane. The film points out that Stella is lonely and plays with shadows for company. You read that right. A teenage girl is scampering about playing with shadows for entertainment.

Sigh.

Mr. Griffith, this is not charming. It is deranged.

And, I am sorry to report, Dempster is a copycat. Guilty as charged. If you have seen even a few Griffith films, you can tell which actress she is imitating at any given moment. Now she is Lillian Gish, now Dorothy Gish, then a touch of Mae Marsh. The problem with imitation is that it rarely matches the original. If I want to see Lillian Gish, I will watch Lillian Gish. No need for substitutes.

Stella and Dad hold up Crane to make their escape.
Stella and Dad hold up Crane to make their escape.

Anyway, back to the story. Mrs. Bevan is irritated with her husband, whose finances are not healthy, and with his daughter. While the movie goes out of its way to portray her as unsympathetic, I have to say that I feel sorry for Mrs. Bevan. Boorish husband, wacky step daughter, no money… Sounds like a dream life to me.

However, Mrs. Bevan has a secret lover (Crauford Kent) who comes to call when her husband is away. One day, however, Bevan finds his wife in the arms of her, er, friend. Bevans attacks the lover, there is a struggle for a gun and Bevan shoots him. Mrs. Bevan is screaming that he is a murderer. I say manslaughter. However, the script, Mr. Griffith and Stella all see things differently. He is innocent! (Um, no.)

Stella on her island.
Stella on her island.

Stella and Bevan try to flee but are almost caught by Crane (Anders Randolf), a police detective who always gets his man. Stella distracts Crane while her father sneaks up on him with a gun. They are able to make good their escape but Crane vows to hunt them to the ends of the earth.

Stella and her father make their way to the South Seas and begin a new life on one of the islands. Years pass and Stella grows older. Whether or not she grows up is a matter of opinion. She is still twitching and awkwardly frolicking, I am afraid.

Crane doesn’t even like the ukulele! Who doesn’t like the ukulele? Surely a villain!
Crane doesn’t even like the ukulele! Who doesn’t like the ukulele? Surely a villain!

This movie has not yet introduced a love interest. Here he comes: Bruce Sanders (Richard Barthelmess) is a wealthy young man who enjoys sailing. One day, his travels take him to an island near Bevan’s. And there he meets Stella. She is afraid that he might turn her father in to the police so she is curt with him. However, a group of natives (actually white people dressed unconvincingly as natives) try to rob him and Stella takes up a spear and saves his life. Sanders is smitten with Stella and gives her a hyacinth, the love flower of the title. Stella is also in love with Sanders and she daydreams about him from then on.

Crane is hot on the trail. Sanders returns to port and agrees to give him a lift to the island where the Bevans live. He believes that Crane is just out to catch butterflies. He is not at all suspicious of Crane’s brusque manner and lack of conversational abilities. Crane quickly locates the Bevans, marches up and makes his arrest. Stella sees Sanders with Crane and thinks that he sold her father out. She steals away while the men are talking and grabs an ax. Crane is not going to take her father! Stella hacks a hole in Sanders’ boat and sinks it.

Sanders tries to get back into Stella’s good graces.
Sanders tries to get back into Stella’s good graces.

While Stella is off destroying his boat, Sanders tells Crane that he will not let him use his boat for the arrest. Bevan tells Sanders to just cooperate, if Crane doesn’t use Sanders’ boat he will use another. Stella, of course, does not hear any of this and still considers Sanders to be a snitch. He runs into her and tries to explain himself but she smacks him in the face. Sanders kind of likes it. A man who knows his place, ladies and gentlemen!

I have to cut in at this point and say that this movie has a really wonky moral compass. I mean, I know that movieland is big on Love at First Sight but Sanders knows nothing about the Bevans. Nothing. And Thomas Bevan is an accused murderer. Yet Sanders is willing to risk obstructing a police officer in performing his lawful duty. I realize that we the audience are supposed to hate the cantankerous Crane but the man is just doing his job.

The boat is gone! Well that puts a monkey wrench into things. Crane builds a signal fire to summon assistance. Realizing that she merely delayed her father’s arrest, Stella decides that the Wile E. Coyote approach is called for. She shimmies up a pole and reaches a cliff face. Crane and Sanders are below. Stella shoves boulders down on them. A miss! Drat!

Crane (left) arrests Bevan
Crane (left) arrests Bevan

And Sanders tries for another reconciliation. I may be wrong but generally a girl throwing a boulder at your head equals a resounding “No!” (Yes, I realize he didn’t see her do it but anyone with a fair amount of brain power could put two and two together. However, math is not Crane’s strong suit.) Another cunning plan! Crane is taking a dip in the ocean. Stella swims underneath him and tries to pull him under to drown him. However, Crane is finally able to break her grip and get to the surface. Curses! Foiled again!

Crane and Sanders still don’t guess that this series of strange accidents may be man (or woman) made. How did Crane get to be a detective anyway. Stella is doubtlessly consulting the Acme catalog for a giant catapult when something terrible happens: Sanders discovers that his boat has washed ashore. Stella spots the boat as well and watches nervously to see what Sanders will do. He takes an ax and sinks it again. Stella is thrilled! Reconciliation! (They deserve each other, they are equally nutty.)

However, winning the love of Sanders doesn’t mean that Stella is going to stop her murderous campaign. She has a new plan. She will lure Crane to a rope bridge and then cut it, killing them both. But Sanders is allied with Stella and her father. It is now three against one! Why not just lock Crane up and sail away? Oh yeah, they sank the boat. Sigh.

Stella after one of her murder attempts.
Stella after one of her murder attempts.

Will Stella kill Sanders? Will the police backup arrive in time? Will Stella get the help she desperately needs? You’ll have to watch The Love Flower to find out!

Again, what struck me most about this movie is how strange its morals are. When Bevan finds his wife in the arms of another man, he is the one who escalates the conflict by attacking him. However, the lover’s death is portrayed as almost an accidental suicide. Of course I realize that laws in the 1920s were different but generally self-defense doctrines do not protect the person who started the fight. (Well, usually) Bevan did not commit pre-meditated murder but he is responsible for a man’s death.

Further, Crane needed to be shown as an unreasoning zealot, determined to bring in Bevan even when any logical person would have given up. This film does not succeed in this. Crane comes off as married to his job but not some kind of fanatic.

The real fanatic would be Stella. Her numerous attempts to kill Crane. Let’s take away Griffith’s glowing intertitles praising her courage and filial piety.  What we end up with is a really nasty case of Father Fixation.

Stella underwater
Stella underwater

It seems that murder runs in this family. Stella’s attempts seem pointless though. It’s not like Crane is the only person who wants her father arrested. There is a whole file on him at the police department. Killing the investigating officer doesn’t end an investigation. If nothing else, it will actually bring even more police.

The film was shot in Florida and the Bahamas and the scenery is quite lovely. However, the shots of  real people and places make the later portrayals of “savage” natives seem even more fake. Probably the most visually stunning aspect of The Love Flower is the underwater photography. There are several swimming scenes and a few underwater action scenes and they look excellent. The scenes were added after Griffith decided the film needed more oomph. Good call.

A spear-wielding Carol Dempster.
A spear-wielding Carol Dempster.

It is in these action scenes that Carol Dempster actually shines. I know I have been pretty hard on her but I have to give her credit for her physical abilities. In fact, the action scenes are the only time when Carol is Carol. Not Lillian. Not Dorothy. Not Mae. Carol. When called upon to sink Richard Barthelmess’s boat, Carol Dempster leaps on deck and slams the ax into the wood with great conviction. Not a woman to be trifled with! Dempster swims beautifully, looks great in the underwater scenes (though Griffith’s camera does tend to leer), she climbs like a champ, wields a wicked spear and generally does all that is asked of her with athletic confidence.

Then it hit me. Always starring Dempster may have hurt Griffith’s career (his films were never the same after he lost Lillian Gish in my opinion) but Griffith also hurt her career. Carol Dempster is not a great dramatic actress. She isn’t even a good one. But she could have been an amazing action star of serials or adventure films. She would have been fantastic! Unfortunately, Griffith saw her (and she apparently saw herself) as the latest great artist in a long line of Griffith leading ladies. However, it would be unfair to lay the blame for this mess of a film on Dempster.

Richard Barthelmess emerges unscathed
Richard Barthelmess emerges unscathed

The scenario (based on the story “Black Beach” by Ralph Stock, which was itself suggested by Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables”) never gels. It could have been interesting. The tale of a man hounded by the law and defended to the death by his vivacious daughter. The problem is that none of the heroes are nearly as appealing as they need to be to pull off the narrative. Because when you get down to brass tacks, the entire third act is spent with the heroine of the tale trying to bump off a cop. Such material needs a deft touch and Griffith seemed to be having an off day.

I should mention that Richard Barthelmess tries his best and his considerable charm helps. Unfortunately  he  is introduced late in the tale and his character is ineffectual for most of the story. Silent filmmakers should remember one important rule: More Richard Barthelmess, not less.

One of many loving closeups of Carol Dempster.
One of many loving closeups of Carol Dempster.

The Love Flower did not make a great impact when it was released, either artistically or financially. Photoplay famously had this to say: “If Mr. Griffith wishes us to become well acquainted with his latest discovery, he will not be disappointed. We have seen Carol Dempster through the misty close-up and under water; we have seen her outlined against the sky, the wind whipping her filmy costume about her. We have seen her one expression for love, hate, fear, and the other cardinal emotions. As an actress, Miss Dempster is an excellent highdiver.”

In the end, The Love Flower would be considered one of Griffith’s lesser films even if it had starred one of his great leading ladies. But the presence of Carol Dempster in the lead turned an already troubled film into a disaster.

Stella and her dad. Oh dear.
Stella and her dad. Oh dear.

Is it worth seeing? Maybe. If you just love Griffith, you may find something to enjoy. The photography is splendid. If you are a Richard Barthelmess fan, you may be disappointed at how little of him is in this tale. If you are a Carol Dempster fan, please don’t hit me. I do not recommend this film to newcomers to silent cinema. It is just too… weird. And not a good weird.

love-flower-image-(14)

Where can I see it?

The Love Flower has been released on DVD by Grapevine.