A rare curio, this film features the unlikely pairing of Tyrone Power, Sr. and serial pioneer Kathlyn Williams. It’s a family drama until it isn’t. Power plays a cuckolded husband and Williams is his cheating wife. There is murder, adultery, theft, bigamy and attempted infanticide. Age of innocence, my eye!
Meet the other Tyrone Power.
In 1915, there was a very famous Tyrone Power in the movies. No, not that one. The matinee idol of Hollywood’s golden age was just one year old when Sweet Alyssum was released. The Tyrone Power in the film was his father, a successful star of the stage who was trying his hand at the flickers. He made his screen debut in 1914 and continued to act until his death in 1931.
While Tyrone Power, Sr. (as he is often billed these days) had decades on the stage under his belt and was already in his mid-forties, he was still seen as quite a “get” for his studio. During this period of film history, stage and screen were starting to realize that they could form a mutually beneficial partnership.
The screen got big names and respectable talent, which helped studio heads sell their product to the middle class. The stage stars got a large infusion of cash and a lighter workload. As an added bonus, immortality. (Assuming that their films did not rot away.) Everybody won.
Tyrone Power, Sr. was the grandson of an Irish stage star and his name came from his famous forebearer. This makes the name of Tyrone Power unique as it has been owned by successful performers over three centuries. The Powers had two things in their bloodline: Acting talent and some righteous eyebrows.
Seriously, how strong is that gene? I half expect a bronze age Power to be unearthed in Ireland with arched bushy brows still clinging to his skull.
Anyway, Sweet Alyssum was made under the Selig Polyscope banner. The Selig name may not be as familiar as other early studios like Biograph or Essanay but it was quite influential. In 1913, it produced what is believed to be the first cliffhanger serial, The Adventures of Kathlyn. It was not the first serial, just the one that ended on a da-da-DUM note. Except for the first chapter and a few fragments, the serial is considered lost. (You can read more details about the Selig studio in Col. Willian B. Selig, the Man Who Invented Hollywood.)
Sweet Alyssum was only Power’s third film appearance and his earliest surviving performance. (His previous two films, Aristocracy and A Texas Steer are missing and presumed lost. Check those attics!) He had a penchant for playing wronged spouses and stern father figures. Power’s most famous work from this period is probably the controversial 1916 anti-abortion/pro-birth control social drama Where Are My Children? directed by Lois Weber.
Some of the topics covered in Sweet Alyssum: Abuse of authority by the one percent. Adultery. Bigamy. Justice denied. Innocent men railroaded. Oil. Throwing a baby into the path of a shotgun blast.
The story concerns a family with peculiarly plant and nature-based names. The father, Roanoke Brooks (Tyrone Power), works as a night watchman. His wife, Daisy (Kathlyn Williams, star of The Adventures of Kathlyn), stays home with their baby daughter, Alyssum (Gene Frazer).
Daisy is dissatisfied with her dreary existence in the big city. She longs for adventure, excitement or at least a new hat. However, the couple had previously agreed to put every extra penny aside for Alyssum’s education and Roanoke means to stick to pact.
Roanoke’s boss, Robert Garlan (Frank Clark), spots Daisy as she tends to her battered husband, who has attempted to fend off some robbers. Knowing that her husband will be occupied during the night, Robert sets about seducing Daisy with a few “have some Madeira, m’dear” scenes. (One contemporary critic stated that the film should have been censored.)
Before long, Daisy is happily engaged as Robert’s mistress, complete with furnished apartment and maid. However, she still wants to keep things together with her husband and child. Every night, she waits until Roanoke has gone to work and then leaves Alyssum with a babysitter. She always makes sure to return before his night shift is over.
Roanoke is not stupid. He soon begins to wonder why his wife is suddenly sporting a fancy hat and his suspicions are further piqued when Daisy is late and he catches the babysitter on the job. He finally knows all when he discovers a love letter detailing the location and features of Daisy’s apartment.
To say that he is angry would be an understatement. Daisy runs to Robert for help but both flee when the enraged Roanoke enters Robert’s mansion. Robert tries to climb out a window and falls to his death. Daisy shoots herself before her husband can speak to her.
Well, that escalated quickly.
Apparently, no one asks any questions about the two dead bodies. Roanoke and Alyssum move to the country. Some years pass and Alyssum grows up to be Edith Johnson. Meanwhile, we are also introduced to the late Robert Garlan’s boy, Wynne (Wheeler Oakman).
Wynne works at a bank and is happily married. Or so he thinks. His wife is having an affair with his co-worker (not this again!) and the pair frame him for theft. Wynne escapes, changes his name and heads to the country. Just guess who he meets and falls for?
At this point, the movie is only about 60% into its runtime. It’s only 57 minutes long. You can see the problem, right? Too many plot points and shifts in setting. Frankly, I thought the Kathlyn Williams/Tyrone Power storyline was really well-done and wanted to stay with it.
Anyway, Wynne can’t marry Alyssum because he is married already. Then Alyssum tells her dad she had a dream about oil wells and he should dig for oil. So he does and they strike it rich. Two years pass. Wynne marries Alyssum and they have a baby. We still do not know if his other wife divorced him. Then Wynne is exposed as a possible thief, probable bigamist and son of Robert Garlan.
Roanoke’s not having it. He tries to saw Wynne in half with a shotgun. To save her husband, Alyssum thrusts her baby in the path of the shotgun blast. Roanoke tries to shift aim and seems to hit the baby, clay pigeon style.
I swear I am not making this up.
Roanoke is horrified and Alyssum scolds him for killing her baby and trying to kill Wynne. Well, no, she killed the baby by HOLDING IT IN FRONT OF A SHOTGUN BLAST! Everyone calls a truce when they realize that the baby was not hit by the shotgun. The poor kid merely crashed down on the grass. Well, thank goodness for that!
Seriously, why didn’t Alyssum throw herself in front of the gun like any other self-respecting movie heroine. Using her baby like that is just… I mean… who does that?
Roanoke finds his daughters to be so awesome that he immediately forgives Wynne. (Huh?)
I’m stopping now. This is too crazy for me. I have to give the screenwriters credit, though. That is an impressive amount of nutty to cram into 15 minutes. Of course, all ends well but getting there was all the… fun? Well, at least it was never boring.
I dare say that most viewers of the film decided to see it in order to watch Tyrone Power’s dad in action. If that is the case, I do not think you will be disappointed. A tall, powerfully-built man with a craggy face, Power is well cast as the family man with an explosive temper.
Tyrone Power, Sr.’s many moods:
Power brings intensity and the kind of epic emotion that a stage veteran could wield. However, he does not succumb to the hamminess that sometimes did in stage stars on the silent screen. He is matched in skill by Kathlyn Williams, whose weak character is undone by her own greed.
As I stated before, I would have liked the movie a lot more if it had chosen one plotline (preferably the Kathlyn Williams narrative) and stuck to it. While the first half of the film is an interesting morality tale, it loses steam once Williams shoots herself.
The rest of the movie is spent doing what I call the “and so he did” style storytelling. You know, he wanted to move to the country and so he did. He wanted to find oil and so he did. There are relatively few realistic obstacles to the character getting what he wants.
Sweet Alyssum is interesting but it tries to be too many things at once. Tyrone Power, Sr. gives a compelling performance but the script works against him. It is an interesting film from a historical standpoint and certainly worth viewing for fans of his famous son. I give it a tepid recommendation.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★
Where can I see it?
Sweet Alyssum was released on DVD-R by Grapevine. The image is a little soft at times but it is very watchable.