Gretchen the Greenhorn (1916) A Silent Film Review

An extremely rare film with Dorothy Gish in the starring role. She is Gretchen, a newly transplanted Dutch maiden who finds romance, adventure and danger in her new home, New York. When she stumbles onto a counterfeiting ring, Gretchen must find a way to save herself and her father from the ruthless criminals.

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

Daddy’s girl.

Gretchen the Greenhorn is a remarkable film for several reasons. First, it is a Dorothy Gish vehicle. Dorothy’s films have a much lower survival rate than those of her famous sister. Second, its discovery is the sort of thing silent film fans dream about.

Gretchen in peril.
Gretchen in peril.

Thought lost for years, a complete print of Gretchen was discovered in an old barn in Washington state. Third, Gretchen is a gorgeous film to look at. While it was not meant to be a big prestige picture, it still manages some lovely cinematography and understated tinting schemes. But how is the story? Let’s find out!

Gretchen (Dorothy Gish) has just arrived in America. Her father, Jan Van Houk (Ralph Lewis, of Birth of a Nation villainy fame) is a master engraver who is having a bit of trouble finding work in his new country.

Gretchen meets the neighbors.
Gretchen meets the neighbors.

Jan lives in tenement housing with a large assortment of fellow immigrants. There is Widow Garrity (Kate Bruce, D.W. Griffith’s go-to mom), who has more children than  she can feed, and there is Pietro (Frank Bennett), a charming Italian who immediately falls for Gretchen. Who can blame him?

However, a cloud soon falls over Jan and Gretchen. Rodgers (a very young and thin Eugene Pallette) runs a counterfeiting ring and he wants to make use of Jan’s engraving talents. He tells Jan that he can get him a job working for the U.S. government if he manages to make a plate for a dollar bill. Jan naively agrees and soon Rodgers is printing some very high quality forgeries. Gretchen unknowingly passes one of the fake bills and is implicated as well.

Eugene Pallette is up to no good.
Eugene Pallette is up to no good.

Now the father and daughter are in a pickle. They realize that they have been duped but do they dare go the police? And Rodgers is not about to allow a couple of do-gooders to ruin his plans.

Will the counterfeit ring get smashed? Will Gretchen get her Pietro? Watch Gretchen the Greenhorn to find out!

As I mentioned before, not many of Dorothy Gish’s solo starring efforts have survived. This is a shame as she was Lillian’s equal in talent (though the sisters had very different personas and styles).

The usual thumbnail sketch: Lillian specialized in drama while Dorothy was a lively comedienne.

Dorothy didn't always clown.
Dorothy didn’t always clown.

However, this oversimplification does not really do justice to Dorothy’s talent. She was a peppy little thing (only 18 in Gretchen) and could be funny as all get-out but she handled pathos beautifully. Her acting is particularly fine during Widow Garrity’s death scene, where she is entrusted with the dying woman’s children. Dorothy conveys her sorrow with delicate facial expressions. It is a mature performance, especially considering that this was 1916 and old stage hams were still overacting their way across the silent screen.

The performances in general are fairly restrained for their time. Eugene Pallette glowers but that is to be expected from the villain. Ralph Lewis, as Gretchen’s dear dad, is particularly enjoyable. He and Dorothy create a sweet father/daughter relationship that adds a nice texture to the film.

Cute Italian guys: just one more benefit of immigration.
Cute Italian guys: just one more benefit of immigration.

Immigration was a hot button issue back in the ‘teens and numerous films were made concerning the plight of the newest citizens. Gretchen takes a lighter approach to the topic but does not shy away from some of the sadder aspects. The newcomers are poor and sometimes hungry but they are also determined to make a go of it. While the characters do speak in dialect title cards (not a huge fan of those but very common), the film is generally quite sympathetic and does not make them objects of derision.

The co-direction by brothers Sidney and Chester Franklin is excellent and the cinematography is beautiful. The whole film has a shopworn quality to it; you actually believe that these characters live in their small apartments and on their crowded streets. (The film was made by Fine Arts, which meant that it had the blessing and support of D.W. Griffith.)

Tasteful tints.
Tasteful tints.

The film is also notable because of its casting. The young Eugene Pallette is a treat, of course, but there is also a pre-Tarzan Elmo Lincoln as his evil confederate. There are numerous Griffith veterans to be seen as well. In general, a film buff’s dream.

Gretchen was not meant to be a gigantic blockbuster. If the world of silent films were a bar, it would be one of those Smirnoff coolers: light, tasty, not meant to be examined or treated like a gourmet offering but popular and fun.

Movies Silently’s Score: ★★½

Where can I see it?

Gretchen the Greenhorn was released as part of the More Treasures from American Film Archives box set. It’s out of print but worth seeking out.

17 Replies to “Gretchen the Greenhorn (1916) A Silent Film Review”

  1. I’m so happy you wrote about Gretchen the Greenhorn. This was the first non-Griffith movie of Dorothy’s that I saw. You’re right, she played the comedy and the pathos beautifully.

  2. Nice work. I would like to see this one day if it ever makes it here to the UK (97 years and counting….)

    I have to say that people (especially a certain mister David Wark Griffith) claimed they could never tell Lillian and Dorothy apart but looking at some of those screencaps, for the first time I can actually see a resemblance! 😛

    Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  3. This blogathon has been like a crash course on the Gish Sisters, and your post is no exception. Admittedly, I haven’t seen anything with Dorothy, but I hope to remedy that as soon as possible. It’s always great to discover a film that was previously thought to be lost. Considering how many silent films are gone forever, Gretchen the Greenhorn sounds like a gift from the movie gods. Nice job!

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