Enid Bennett and Ramon Novarro play a pair of young lovers who just want to get married. When they are separated in Paris, each begins a slide toward degradation and depravity. Will the unfortunate pair find one another again or are they too damaged to rekindle their love? Heavy stuff.
Paris ain’t what it used to be.
Before I get things started, I think a small disclaimer is in order. The Red Lily is full of dark stuff and has been known to upset viewers. I am going to be discussing various technical aspects of the film but let me be clear that admiring camera work does not necessarily mean I am oblivious to the material being filmed.
I mention this because I have had people who were upset by film discussions that centered on the technical rather than the emotional. I hope to strike a balance here but I do tend to view things from a more clinical perspective.
So, now that you have been properly warned, here is The Red Lily.
I think most viewers watch this film for Ramon Novarro but I came for Enid Bennett. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy Novarro’s performances enormously but I was very much looking forward to seeing Miss Bennett’s true acting range.
A popular lead actress in the ‘teens and early twenties, Bennett slowed her output as the 1920s wore on. Her two most famous roles were Maid Marion in Robin Hood and Rosamond in The Sea Hawk. Both films were popular hits but neither gave Bennett much to do besides look beautiful and/or distressed.
Directed by Bennett’s husband, Fred Niblo, The Red Lily was a definite departure from her more famous maidenly parts. (I will be covering some of Bennett’s earlier starring work at a later time.)
It was also uncharted territory for Novarro. The talented young actor had been discovered by director Rex Ingram, who cast Novarro in numerous meaty roles. The Red Lily was only Novarro’s second starring film that was not directed by Ingram. (Novarro’s first non-Ingram film was Thy Name is Woman, also directed by Fred Niblo. Director and star would reunite for the epic silent version of Ben Hur.)
The story begins with both Bennett and Novarro playing their usual roles. She is Marise, the penniless orphaned daughter of a shoemaker and he is Jean, the naive son of the mayor. They live in a tiny town in rural France and are so obliviously in love that they ignore nosy neighbors and railroad crossings.
Marise is forced to live with her poor, sleazy relations but when the man of the house tries to horsewhip her, she flees into the storm. (I detect the influence of the D.W. Griffith/Lillian Gish collaborations here.) Jean finds her huddled in her old house and comforts her. The pair fall asleep by the fireplace, unaware that they are being watched by those nosy neighbors I mentioned.
Jean’s father (Frank Currier) is furious. How dare this girl try to entrap his son into marriage? Jean refuses to be separated from Marise and vows to take her to Paris and marry her. The young couple, barely out of childhood, are giddy with excitement as they take the train away from their old life. However, circumstances back home are conspiring to destroy their dreams.
Jean’s father has discovered that money has been stolen from his office safe. Jumping to the conclusion that Jean must be the culprit, he sends detectives to arrest his son in Paris. Jean has stepped away from Marise when he is arrested. She does not see the arrest and has no idea where he is. And so she waits. And waits. And waits some more.
Jean manages to escape his captors and he races back to Paris but Marise is no longer at the train station. Jean’s father, meanwhile, discovers that his clerk is the real thief. The damage is done though. Thinking he is a wanted fugitive, Jean is thrown into the Paris underworld. He meets Bo-Bo (Wallace Beery), a boisterous burglar who takes a liking to Jean and decides to show him the ropes. Jean becomes a thief, truly wanted by the police now. He continues to search for Marise, whom he describes as an angel.
Marise is being shoved from menial job to menial job. She must fend off amorous employers at every turn. Finally, the factory where she was working closes down. The next time we see Marise, her clothes are flashy and her skirt is short. She has found steady employment of the oldest kind.
Jean serves a stint in prison for burglary. When he is released, he is greeted by the jovial Bo-Bo who teases him for his continued search for the angelic Marise. One night, Jean is being chased by the police when he lady of the night offers him refuge. He accepts out of desperation (he still refuses to think of any woman but Marise) and follows her up to her flat. The light is dim and he does not recognize her at first. Then she lights a lamp and Jean finally is face to face with the woman he used to love.
Will Jean and Marise rekindle their romance? Watch The Red Lily to find out!
This is a dark film, even by silent standards. (Variety described it as “unpleasant” but it was a mid-sized hit at the box office.) It’s also gritty, grimy and Dickensian. But is it good? For the most part, yes.
What stops it from being wholly good? Well, the story (written by Fred Niblo) relies a little too much on its characters being utterly helpless. Jean and Marise first lose one another at the train station and both return frequently to the bench where they parted. No one thought to leave a note? Carve a message in the bench? Ask a porter if he had seen the missing half of the couple?
The film also has its leads pass by one another without realizing how close they were. I think this was meant to be a heartbreaking testament to the great irony of fate or something. Me? Well, I have seen this cliche one too many times and so my reaction is not so much heartbreak as a wish that the characters would make an appointment with their optometrist. Such terrible peripheral vision cannot be healthy.
Note to all potential screenwriters: If your central conflict can be resolved by a character obtaining a new eyeglass prescription, you may want to consider revising.
Fred Niblo was a fairly pedestrian director but he shows some interesting flourishes in this film. I was particularly interested by the way he used light as a symbol for harshness, exposure and danger. When Marise is running from her violent kinsmen, she takes refuge in the barn. However, the wild storm outside causes lightning to illuminate her hiding place and forces her to flee again. Later, Jean lights a fire to warm her but the light attracts the attention of the neighborhood busybodies. Finally, lighting a lamp exposes Marise to a violent man once again– only this time it is Jean.
Speaking of young ladies fleeing from violence, Enid Bennett’s performance as Marise is often compared to Lillian Gish (Some critics even claim a strong physical resemblance. Well, they were both women.). While the scenario of the movie does indeed have a resemblance to a Griffith potboiler, automatically dismissing Bennett’s performance as a Gish variation is simply wrong. Let’s make one thing clear: Bennett’s style of acting is completely different from Lillian Gish. While Gish favored a fluttering, stylized performance, Bennett was calmer and more natural. (This is not meant as a slam against Gish, just a stylistic observation.) Of all the Griffith leading ladies, Bennett is probably the most similar to Blanche Sweet but that is a different story.
Both Enid Bennett and Ramon Novarro embraced the gritty nature of their characters and were not afraid to look really, really horrid for their roles. Bennett’s slide into the underworld is portrayed not as a single disastrous misstep (as was so common in films of this era) but rather a slow descent brought on by weariness. She is simply too tired to fight anymore. Bennett deserves praise for going all the way– she looks truly terrible by the time she meets Jean again. No dainty little bruises or pleasingly disheveled hair for this actress. Marise has been dragged through the gutter and she looks it. Bennett’s posture and mannerisms match her transformation. She is hunched, stooped, cowed by what she has been through but still clinging to a few shreds of dignity.
Novarro is good as Jean, though he is allowed to ham it up a bit, particularly in the beginning of the film. His character also begins to drown in the seedy side of life but his performance is not quite as convincing as Bennett’s. (Miss Bennett had been starring in films since 1917 while Novarro did not win a major role until 1922. Her five year head start shows.) In the first place, it is less of a descent than a flying leap. In one scene, an innocent Novarro is on the run from the police and takes shelter with Wallace Beery’s merry miscreants. In the next scene, Novarro is happily cracking a safe. We are not shown the steps that led the character from being an innocent man on the run to a guilty fugitive.
(By the way, Wallace Beery plays… Wallace Beery. I think that’s pretty much all I need to say.)
However, I have to say that Novarro was very brave in agreeing to take Jean as far down the path of darkness as he did. It has been noted before that the Latin Lover of the silent era often had a streak of sadism about him. This was portrayed as a sexy element of danger in a passionate romance; a beautiful brute who takes what he wants. Novarro’s character takes this expectation and removes the veneer of glamour. Jean becomes a violent brute but there is nothing sexy about his behavior.
(In case you didn’t read my preamble, I’m obviously not condoning his character’s actions, merely expressing astonishment Novarro’s willingness to play someone who is so unlikable.)
The reunion scene gives an excellent example of what I mean. When he discovers how Marise has been making her living, Jean smashes her across the face with a wine bottle. Marise is thrown backwards by the impact and her face is covered in blood. The scene was sickening because of its suddenness and because no matter how low his character has sunk, audiences simply do not expect a romantic leading man to do something so awful to his leading lady.
One complaint about Novarro’s character is the belief that he cast aside Bennett because she was no longer beautiful. That conclusion is ignoring a few vital clues.
It doesn’t take a scientist to know that men like beautiful women and Marise’s beauty is undeniable. However, one word that kept popping up in the titles was “angelic.” Jean was looking for an angel in the slums of Paris. He was not in love with her beauty so much as what that beauty represented to him. Namely, Marise’s utter purity.
Even when he hit rock bottom, Jean still resisted advances from other women. He was waiting for Marise and he intended to be faithful. Marise, of course, did not have that luxury. When Jean sees her, he recognizes that her angelic appearance is gone but, more importantly, the innocence he dreamed of was also gone. Even though he is a convicted thief and the member of a criminal gang, he still feels superior to her. A massive case of the pot calling the kettle black.
I should note that the film absolutely takes Marise’s side and Jean is portrayed (and properly so) as an utter rat for treating her so harshly. The face smashing is just the beginning. He insults her, humiliates her and, at one point, offers her to a particularly loathsome member of his gang.
With the hero morphed into a villain and the heroine barely hanging on, you may be wondering how the film could possibly resolve its plot. Well, here is where things fall apart. Obviously, I am issuing a huge spoiler warning for the remainder of the review.
The ending is probably the single biggest flaw of The Red Lily. Here’s the breakdown:
After tossing Marise to the proverbial lions, Jean feels remorse– though not enough to actually do anything to save her. Marise managed to save herself but then the police raid the joint. Jean opens a trapdoor that leads to the sewers. There is only enough time for one to escape. Marise tells Jean to go; she is a nobody and the police will leave her alone. Jean takes her advice and escapes. Marise is shot in the ensuing melee.
When Jean returns, he is told that Marise is dying. He goes to her bedside at the hospital knowing that he will likely be arrested. Marise has returned to her angelic appearance and Jean is overcome by regret. He is led away by the police.
If the film had ended here, it would have been a good (albeit depressing) motion picture.
It does not end here.
Two years later… Marise survived and is taught to be a seamstress by kindly nuns. Jean serves his two years and is released. He and Marise reunite and return to the country together, with Bo-Bo in tow. As they drive, they are so much in love that they ignore train signals.
Wait, so that’s it? Jean acts like an utter beast and he gets off with the cinematic equivalent of a slap on the wrist?
Look, I am not against redemption for characters but it can’t be that easy. They need to work for it. If the film had added ten of fifteen minutes to its length to show Jean cleaning up his life, I would have been fine with the happy ending. As it is, I simply did not feel that he deserved his wedded bliss with Marise.
I have a theory that I would like to put forth. It’s a new way of looking at that ending. Marise does in fact die and the happy scenes at the end are her last feverish thoughts as her life slips away. Jean is taken away to prison but his greatest punishment is losing the one person he loves. And poor Marise wanted nothing more than for Jean to be redeemed. She gets her wish but loses her life in the effort.
(Not perfect, I will admit, but better than what the film delivers.)
The movie sobs for a sad ending. I am not a fan of tragedy for tragedy’s sake but I also think that the ending should fit the film. I have reviewed numerous books adaptations and I have defended happy endings that replaced sad ones (The Wind) and sad endings that replaced happy ones (The Penalty). I want my five hankie ending for The Red Lily, dern it! You know, Jean giving his life for Marise or some such thing.
I deeply suspect that the film was meant to have that sad ending but the idea was squashed by studio heads, either when the script was being approved or during production. After all, Novarro was being groomed as a romantic lead. It wouldn’t do to have him act like a jerk and get his lady love killed in the same film.
In the end, this movie is a great showcase for Enid Bennett, a demonstration of Ramon Novarro’s range and a stylistic exercise for Fred Niblo. It is not for everyone (the abuse plotline is quite distressing) but it is a fascinating film for fans of the silent cinema.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★½
Where can I see it?
The Red Lily was released on DVD-R by Warner Archive. It features a really wonderful score by Scott Salinas. The eerie, moody music is perfect for the film, improving it immeasurably. A movie with this much melodrama could be undone by syrupy music but Salinas knows exactly how to create the sorrowful-yet-hopeful sound that the scenes require. It immediately became one of my favorite silent film scores! (You can hear some samples on the TCM website)