She’s a sophisticated English girl. He’s a rough-hewn Canadian wheat farmer. She needs a place to go. He needs a wife to help out at the farm. They soon find themselves in a marriage of convenience and then things take a turn for the dark. Underrated upon its initial release, this film has started to build quite a reputation for itself since its rediscovery.
I will also be reviewing the 1932 semi-remake The Purchase Price, starring Barbara Stanwyck. Click here to skip to the talkie.
Country schmountry, where’s the golf course?
Time has not been kind to William Beaudine. Once a respected contract director, Beaudine was reduced to churning out budget films and television episodes later in his career. In their film trivia books of questionable scholarship, the Medved brothers cruelly dubbed him “One Shot” Beaudine—supposedly because he never did a retake—and the nickname stuck. (Beaudine was NOT called “One Shot” during his lifetime.) Beaudine shot economically but the idea that he was a one-shot hack is a myth. Nuts to you, Medveds!
Mary Pickford also damaged Mr. Beaudine’s reputation by claiming that he made her crawl over real alligators with a real baby on her back in Sparrows. This is absolutely false. Beaudine made use of elaborate and realistic puppets and employed double exposure (as any astute viewer will quickly comprehend) to ensure that the actors were never anywhere near dangerous animals. Hal Mohr, the film’s cinematographer, confirmed that this was indeed the case.
So, as a result of these two misconceptions, Beaudine is known as a gator-wrangling hack to many movie fans. In fact, he was a budget-conscious director who worked right up until his death. He made the jump from silent to talking pictures and from the movies to television. That’s more than some of his esteemed contemporaries managed.
In fact, Beaudine was capable of being a very fine director. Sparrows is a wonderful slice of Southern Gothic (you can read my review here). The Canadian, shot the same year, opened to ho-hum reviews and was quickly forgotten. (Well, except by Frances Marion and Lillian Gish, who shamelessly lifted from the scenario to give The Wind some oomph.)
Most contemporary critics agreed that the film was not bad, it was just not melodramatic enough to suit their taste.
Motion Picture News complained that the acting was too understated and there was not enough “faw down go boom” humor.
“It has its faults, but these are minor ones — faults which reveal a scarcity of incident and humor and too much repressed acting by the star and his leading woman, Mona Palma.”
The traditionally dense Mordaunt Hall liked the picture but he seemed confused as to just what he liked about it.
“Wyndham Standing figures as Marsh. He gives a splendid portrayal of the man who had married a woman who would never trouble the contestants at a beauty show, but who was a wonder a cooking, sewing and cleaning.”
Um, okay, Mr. Hall. Whatever you say. Now go home and diagram that sentence.
Photoplay deemed the film booooooring because, apparently, there was not war and mayhem and lust in every frame.
“…there is really nothing of consequence in this tid-bit. The direction and acting are good but the story has no objective — with the result that it relies on the appeal of its star for its popularity.
The Canadian was thought lost for decades before turning up in the late sixties. Mr. Beaudine was guest of honor at a 1970 Los Angeles screening. Due to his busy schedule in the twenties, he had never actually seen the finished product, so the screening was particularly special. With its character-driven, slice of life plot, The Canadian was much more to the taste of seventies audiences than it had been to moviegoers of 1926 and the screening attendees were ecstatic. The Canadian has since become a fixture of silent film festivals.
So, who is right? The twenties audience or the modern one? Is The Canadian a forgotten prize or is it dull and lifeless? Let’s start with a brief overview of the plot.
Frank Taylor (Thomas Meighan) is a would be wheat farmer in Canada. In order to earn money to seed his farm in the coming year, he has taken a job as a laborer for Ed Marsh (Wyndham Standing). Ed is an Englishman who started from nothing but now owns a large and successful farm.
The whole place gets turned upside down with the arrival of Ed’s kid sister, Nora (Mona Palma), from England. Nora is willowy, stylish and reserved. Although she is a grown woman, Ed still sees Nora as his darling little sister and treats her accordingly. While she loves her brother, Nora makes no secret of the fact that she considers her new acquaintances to be a lot of oafs. This doesn’t matter so much to Frank and the other laborers but it doesn’t sit so well with Ed’s wife, Gertie (Dale Fuller). Gertie is a loyal wife, a hard worker and an accomplished cook and she does not appreciate her sister-in-law’s prissy ways and condescending manner.
Things come to a head at the final day of the harvest and the result is a verbal knock-down drag-out between the women. Nora emerges the winner but Gertie issues an ultimatum to Ed: Either Nora apologizes in front of everyone or Gertie will leave. Nora ends up apologizing but her wounded dignity will not allow her to stay in the house. She calls Frank aside and makes her offer. He has said before that he needs a wife to help with the chores at his small farm and that he has no use for romance. She is willing to marry him and be that helper. He gets free labor, she gets a place to stay. Strictly business.
Frank accepts her offer and one trip to the justice of the peace later, they are Mr. and Mrs. Of course, we have all seen enough movies to know that “strictly business” very rarely stays that way. Will our rough Canadian farmer and our icy English lady learn to get along?
The Canadian was based on a 1913 four-act play entitled The Land of Promise by W. Somerset Maugham. (You can read a free public domain version here.) It was adapted into a novel in 1914 by D. Torbett. (And you can read a free version of that here.) And then made into a motion picture in 1917, starring Thomas Meighan and Billie “Good Witch” Burke. (That version is missing and presumed lost. It was not unusual for movie studios to destroy the original when a new version was scheduled for release.) Remake fever is not a new condition. In fact, silent Hollywood had the worst case to date. Paramount decided to showcase the popular Meighan in the Maugham tale one more time and the result was The Canadian.
The movie differs from its source material significantly but I will be discussing that later. First, I want to talk about the performances and characters.
The acting in The Canadian is understated. As the review snippets at the beginning show, it was a little too understated for the tastes of some critics. However, this underplaying works enormously to the film’s advantages and makes quite accessible to the modern viewer.
Thomas Meighan possessed a certain dignity to his bearing, which stood him in good stead in ridiculous films like Heart of Wetona and The Forbidden City (both starring Norma Talmadge). In The Canadian, he really has a juicy role. While friendly enough, Frank’s basic personality is taciturn and no-nonsense but with a dark temper lurking deep inside and a capacity for caring that he does not wish to acknowledge. Meighan’s performance is subtle and it takes a few viewings to see everything he is doing with his expressions and gestures. A slight eye roll here, a sympathetic glance there, Mr. Meighan does an economical bit of acting and the movie is stronger for it. He is especially good in the aftermath of a very dark scene (to be discussed in a moment). Meighan is ashamed of himself but he is also afraid himself and what he was capable of doing.
Mona Palma is not a household name. She made only one film after The Canadian and then quit the movies. More’s the pity because I liked what I saw here. Palma was reportedly selected by Meighan himself to play Nora and I applaud his taste. Physically, she is ideal. Tall and imperious, it is easy to see why she intimidates poor dumpy Gertie. Palma also displays a talent for sarcasm but her character also has nervousness underneath her prickly exterior. It may not be obvious on first viewing but it soon becomes clear that Nora’s snobbery is a defense mechanism for a deeply insecure woman.
Wyndham Standing does a good job as the affable Ed, whose inability to balance his affections causes much of the tension between his sister and his wife. However, it is Dale Fuller as Gertie who really deserves praise. As the heroine’s antagonist, she still manages to engage audience sympathy. Who likes to be put down in her own house? Her revenge is childish but understandable. Finally, Charles Winninger (who plays a character nicknamed Pop, though he was five years younger than Thomas Meighan) provides just the right touch of humor and a non-threatening shoulder for Nora to cry on.
At this point, I am issuing both a spoiler warning and a trigger warning. You see, The Canadian deals with some dark aspects of human nature. Frank and Nora spend the first weeks of their married life in cold silence. This is rather awkward in a cramped shack and the tension bursts out one night. After a heated argument, during which Nora attempts to shoot her husband, Frank breaks down the bedroom door and rapes his wife.
The scene, while not graphic, is unambiguous. There is no room for alternative interpretation. Due to the nature of the content, I felt it important to tell would-be viewers that the scene exists. I should also tell you what the scene does not do. It does not treat the incident as glamorous or romantic. It does not suggest that Nora was asking for it, deserved it or wanted it. (Recall the “No! No! Yes!” scenes so common in the fifties and sixties.) It does not treat it as a natural reaction in a man upon seeing a beautiful woman. (Sheik films in general.) It certainly does not treat it as a necessary corrective measure or as a way to break down Nora’s frigid exterior. (The Marnie approach, if you will.) The scene is handled maturely, which is more than can be said about films made before or since. In the aftermath, Frank is torn with shame and guilt, Nora is consumed by hatred. Both reactions are treated as legitimate. The rebuilding of trust is the topic of the film’s final act.
I realize that the topic is hot-button (to put it mildly) but The Canadian does handle the matter as tastefully as possible, given the controversial nature of the scene.
The Land of Promise was a popular play in its day but it presents the situation in a manner that most modern viewers would find quite offensive. Frank threatens Nora with beatings, terrorizes her psychologically and always intended to force himself on his wife. The story makes it clear that this is an appropriate way to “tame” the city woman. She even tells him that it was all no big deal later in the play. Needless to say, this does not go over well.
The Canadian is a serious and, at times, very dark film that is driven by its characters. The acting is excellent from stars to extras. The location shooting in Canada adds authenticity and an earthy quality to the film that I do not think it could have achieved with a California shoot. William Beaudine’s direction is assured and confident. Like the story, it is not flashy but there is a comforting naturalness to it. The cinematography by Alvin Wyckoff further anchors the audience in a dusty reality.
The Canadian is a very fine silent film. While its content is certainly not for everyone, its mature way of handling adult themes has won it accolades wherever it is shown. Silent fans who only know Meighan through his work in DeMille’s glitzy marital comedies or Norma Talmadge’s vehicles will be pleasantly surprised by his range and subtlety. Mona Palma is a revelation and I regret that her career was so brief as she showed real promise.
A few months after The Canadian’s 1969 rediscovery, as screening was arranged in Los Angeles. The 1970 event was a hit and well-timed. Beaudine passed away just one month later. It makes me very happy that Mr. Beaudine was able to see this film again and bask in well-deserved praise before his death. All too many silent veterans never got that chance.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★★½
Where can I see it?
The Canadian was released on DVD by Grapevine with an organ score. I bought it sight unseen based on its reputation and was not disappointed.
So, now we are going to be discussing The Canadian‘s Pre-Code semi-remake, which is much, much more famous than the original thanks to the presence of fan favorite Barbara Stanwyck. Let’s take a look.
The influences of The Purchase Price are so complex that I almost felt the need to draw a graph. Here is a recap and a brief explanation of the script’s pedigree:
In 1913, W. Somerset Maugham wrote a play called The Land of Promise, which was subsequently adapted into a 1917 film of the same name. Meighan reprised his role in another adaptation of the play, the one made in 1926 and retitled The Canadian. The scenario for The Canadian (co-written by Arthur Stringer) made a few alterations to the play and these alterations were lifted to give Lillian Gish’s 1928 vehicle The Wind a bit more romantic whatsit.
Arthur Stringer then took the basic shell of The Land of Promise, his additions to the Canadian and several elements from The Wind and wrote a short story called The Mudlark, which was picked up by Warner Brothers and turned into The Purchase Price.
Got all that?
The story is a bit whiplash-inducing. Please keep all limbs inside the car, this is going to move fast.
Barbara Stanwyck plays Joan Gordon, a New York chanteuse who wants out of the clubs and into a job as a homemaker, preferably in a home that overlooks Park Avenue. She is dating Eddie Fields (Lyle Talbot), a bootlegger who aims to make Joan his permanent companion. He’d marry her but that would be bigamy. I feel a Marx Brothers quote coming on… Come to think of it, Eddie is about as menacing as Groucho.
Joan gives Eddie the heave-ho so she can become engaged to a rich louse but, being a rich louse, he cannot stomach her past and dumps her. Eddie thinks the romance is back on but Joan skips town for Montreal. Eddie’s guys soon track her down. At that same time, Joan discovers that the hotel maid, Emily (Leila Bennett), has been using her picture at a matrimonial agency. Emily has an offer of marriage from a farmer in the Dakotas. Joan pays off Emily and takes her place, believing that Eddie will never look for her in the sticks.
Jim Gilson (George Brent) is a cheapskate oaf with a head cold. He figures that he has struck matrimonial gold and whisks her off to the justice of the peace. (But why does he never ask why her name is Joan and not Emily?) Later, back at the farm, he gets all Sheik on his blushing bride, who responds by socking him in the kisser. A little later, she spots him bent over a stubborn stain on the floor and starts to think that he (or his backside) is awfully cute. Jim is still huffy and refuses all advances. (If this guy were any stupider, Joan wouldn’t marry him, she would water him.) And, of course, the farm is in hock to the bank and the whole thing turns into a “you must pay the rent, I can’t pay the rent” sort of tale.
This movie has a small but loyal following. I will not be joining their ranks. Maybe I would have been gentler on the film if I had not seen The Canadian first and been so impressed. But I did. So there.
The main problem, as I see it, is that the plot moves the characters. It should be the other way round. What do I mean? Well, take Eddie’s relationship with Joan. We know he is a bootlegger and he loves the ladies but he does back off if Joan is stern enough with him. He does nothing to indicate that he is violent or that he would ever resort to violence. Our heroine even calls him a swell guy later in the film. So why the heck does Joan go to such great lengths to get away from him? Just tell him where he can get off and then move out of town!
Example of their relationship:
Joan: Let’s break up. I want to marry a Beverly Hills turnip salesman.
Eddie: But my deranged little cheese Danish, I’m nuts about you.
Joan: Too bad. Here’s your key back.
Eddie: Oh, okay. Good luck, kid.
New thriller tagline: She was mildly annoyed by her somewhat clingy ex who would not leave until she told him firmly. And then he did. Leave, I mean. Opens Friday in theaters everywhere.
Not exactly heart-pounding, is it? (There was the same problem in The Bells. “Help! Help! I’m being inconvenienced!”) Joan is the cinematic equivalent of those people who call 911 because McDonald’s is out of chicken nuggets.
See, moving to Montreal was not a huge step but what about agreeing to marry a farmer she has never met? What, was she afraid Eddie would come along and whine for a few minutes before leaving again? The movie makes clear that she has money (she pays off the maid with $100 in cash) and that she is a good enough performer to get a job most anywhere. Why not head for Los Angeles? Or London? Or Hong Kong? Why marry a man she has never met? She has the cash, why not buy her own farm if she is looking for the simple life? She has enough for a down payment at least. Why not, as the film says, actually meet the guy first and try out the goods before she buys. This is Barbara Stanwyck. Do you think she would have trouble finding a willing fella? Or she could just tell Eddie to go away. Like she did at the beginning. And the end.
Then there is the wedding night scene. By this time, the film has taken great pains to portray Joan as pragmatic and cool under pressure. But when Jim starts to voice broad hints that he is in the mood for love, she acts like she had no idea he would want… that. Look, Jim’s a goon and I completely understand her not wanting him to paw her but would Joan really be shocked that he would try? Nope, Joan would have calmly put a chair under the doorknob and gone to bed. Once again, the characters act in a certain manner in order to keep the story going, not because it is natural for them.
Now on to George Brent. Whoo boy. What in the name of heaven was Joan supposed to see in him? I mean, first he’s snuffly and weird. Then he’s lusty and weird. His idea of portraying desire is to bug out his eyes and leap on his wife like a Doberman on a rib eye steak. This man is what squirt bottles were invented for. After he’s finished being lusty, he’s grumpy and weird. The whole time, he never does a single thing to convince us that his IQ is above room temperature, although the film assures us that he had a college education. From where? Honest Bob’s High-Quality and Authentic Degrees by Mail? And then suddenly Joan gets soused on hard cider and spends the rest of the movie trying to woo him. And, presumably, his bottom.
As for Lyle Talbot, he is hardly a menacing gangster type. He comes off as a little pushy and whiny but nothing Joan can’t handle. Certainly not worth marrying George Brent for. The film would have been much stronger, I think, if Eddie were dangerous or if he had been concealed and then revealed as the mystery of Nora’s past unraveled or if he had been, not dangerous, but more clueless and unable to take a hint. You know, more Moose Malloy.
While the marriage in The Canadian was extremely in-character for both Nora and Frank, Jim and Joan basically get married because the script said so. I do not believe for a moment that this was Joan’s only option. Jim… yeah, he pretty much had no matrimonial chance without a mail-order bride. But Joan had thousands of options that did not include him.
Oh, and can we even start to talk about Joan’s domestic skills? She has never lived in the country but she is instantly the Martha Stewart of the Dakotas. She can bake, cook, sew, milk cows, you name it. How did she learn this? When did she learn this? You’re not going to tell us, are you, movie? (In contrast, city girl Nora had to struggle at first but was a pretty fast learner.)
Of course, the pedigree of The Purchase Price is so incestuous that it is a wonder that anything comprehensible made it onto the screen. I should note, though, that viewers watching for Pre-Code-ishness will not be disappointed.
Barbara Stanwyck is excellent (when is she not?) and does what she can with her character but the script is so bad that she is thwarted. Lyle Talbot comes off as affable and not particularly frightening. George Brent swings between being a block of wood and swallowing the scenery whole. A very hit and miss affair with the misses far outnumbering the hits.
And the winner is…
Character-driven, well-acted, smart and serious, The Canadian is pretty much everything that The Purchase Price is not. Both partners in the marriage of convenience are given equal screen time and equal development as characters. In contrast, The Purchase Price is held together by string, chewing gum and Barbara Stanwyck.
Another area of difference is the way the films treat their rustic cast members. In The Canadian, the country folk are rough-hewn and flawed but often big-hearted. In The Purchase Price, the countryside is populated by drunks, dullards and creeps. Director William Wellman tries to lighten things up with awkward slapstick. It does not go well. Why, exactly, does Joan want to stay there again?
Most of all, The Canadian works because I believe in the world and characters created. The Purchase Price is the height of artificiality, from the missing mirror in Joan’s dressing room to the phony snow on the ground.
The Canadian has earned all the accolades that it receives and actually deserves to be better known. The Purchase Price is worth seeing for fans of Barbara Stanwyck and Pre-Code aficionados but it really isn’t all that good.
If you are a fan of The Purchase Price and intend to box my ears for this review, I ask that you please watch The Canadian first. Then, if you come back and still say The Purchase Price is better, I’ll box your ears.