Forbidden Fruit (1921) A Silent Film Review

A Cinderella-of-the-Tenements tale, Forbidden Fruit is also a decadent slice of the twenties, as viewed through the extravagant lens of Cecil B. DeMille. Lavish production values, crazy costumes and a surprisingly clear-headed look at a marriage gone wrong. Plus, you know, Cinderella dream sequences. This is DeMille after all.

Home Media Availability: Not yet available on DVD.

Third time’s the charm.

Longtime readers of this site know that I have a certain affection for old C.B. DeMille. If you have only seen his talkies, you will be forgiven for thinking of him as a kitsch king at best. Clunky dialogue, crazy costumes, mad historical inaccuracies…

The thing is, 75% of DeMille’s output was silent. If you’ve never seen one of his silents, it’s impossible to truly say that you understand the work of Cecil B. DeMille.

DeMille on the job.
DeMille on the job.

DeMille debuted in 1914 with the old west melodrama The Squaw Man (you can read my review here). Just one year later, he enjoyed what I consider to be his richest cinematic year. In 1915, he released his tacky masterpiece, The Cheat, and a lean, mean adaptation of Carmen. At the very end of the year, he also directed a film that is less well-known to the public at large but praised to the skies in critical circles.

Anything worth doing is worth doing twice.
Anything worth doing is worth doing twice.

The Golden Chance (which borrowed heavily from another 1915 DeMille film, Chimmie Fadden) was a Cinderella story about a woman married to a burglar. She is hired to round out a dinner party, falls in love with a rich man but is forced to flee when her marital status and her husband’s occupation are discovered. A happy ending comes eventually but not before a considerable amount of grit and grime.

The Golden Chance has been described as a revelation, a film to win over non-fans to the DeMille ranks. The direction is trim, agile, stylish, moody. It’s a smart, snappy and heartfelt motion picture.

Same story, new glitz.
Same story, new glitz.

While the first few years of his career had DeMille directing everything from comedies to melodramas to Balkan romances (yes, that was a thing in the ‘teens), he soon focused on one particular genre and it became his specialty from the late ‘teens to the mid-twenties: Blends of comedy and drama that focused on modern marriages. Marital dramedies focused on real problems (infidelity, divorce, remarriage) and DeMille sweetened the serious stuff with outlandishly stylish fashions and often included elaborate dream/flashback sequences as well. By 1921, he had made over a half-dozen and was ready for more. At this point, he and screenwriter Jeanie Macpherson dusted off The Golden Chance and gave it the twenties glitz.

The Mallorys have a problem.
The Mallorys have a problem.

The story concerns the business difficulties of Mr. Mallory (Theodore Roberts, scenery chewer extraordinaire), who is trying to slice himself a nice corner out of the oil business. His plan relies on the help of Nelson Rogers (Forrest Stanley), who is in no mood to talk business and wants to return home to the west. In order to keep him in New York, Mrs. Mallory (Kathlyn Williams, pioneering action star) tells him that she is relying on him to entertain her special guest—the most beautiful woman in the city.

Rogers is intrigued and agrees to stay for the dinner party. Then disaster (well, by her standards) strikes when the lovely woman in question gets a toothache and cannot come. At this point, Mrs. Mallory spots Mary (Agnes Ayres), her seamstress. She’s certainly lovely. With the right clothes, a few borrowed jewels…

What about… her?
What about… her?

Mary is reluctant but Mrs. Mallory’s twenty dollar bill quickly makes up her mind. What’s the harm in playing Cinderella for the evening? (And in case you didn’t get the idea, we get a daydream sequence in which Mary imagines herself as the cinder girl herself.)

The plan works like a charm. Rogers is hooked. Mary is even able to navigate the elaborate dinner service and use the right fork with some helpful signals from the Mallorys. (This is one of the funniest scenes in the film, thanks to Roberts and Williams.)

I think they included a spork to mess with her head.
I think they included a spork to mess with her head.

Mary returns her borrowed finery and goes back home to her husband, Steve (Clarence Burton), a lay-about, spendthrift and general waste of space whom she has to support. He is happy with the money she has earned but then accuses her of earning it through an activity less wholesome than mending socks, if you know what I mean. When an insulted Mary threatens to leave him, he pulls the whole “you have a duty to me” thing and guilts her into staying. A real prize, this one.

Meanwhile, there is another panic at the Mallory residence. Rogers wants to go home but Mrs. Mallory managed to persuade him to stay by saying Mary is staying the weekend. Now she needs Mary. Our heroine is not inclined to go until her husband decides to show his displeasure by killing her pet bird.

Good grief, man!

Seriously.
Seriously.

Anyway, Mary tells Steve that she has a job in New Jersey and heads off to the Mallory home. Steve thinks she is angry because he doesn’t have a job. Off he goes to the billiard hall to think things over. That’s when he meets Pietro Giuseppe (Theodore Kosloff), the butler for the Mallory household. The butler says that he knows of a rich woman who is staying at the house over the weekend and she owns some beautiful diamonds. If he were to leave a window open…. Fifty-fifty split?

So, as Steve plans to burgle his own wife, Mary is starting to really fall for Rogers. His appeal is obvious. First, he works. Second, he has yet to kill one of her pets. An ideal man, really. However, when Rogers proposes, Mary cryptically tells him that she is forbidden fruit. Hmm.

Their plan is flawless. Except for all the flaws.
Their plan is flawless. Except for all the flaws.

Will Rogers win over Mary? Will Mary ever get rid of Steve? Will Steve stop killing small animals? Find out in Forbidden Fruit!

Forbidden Fruit is one of DeMille’s better marital dramedies, at least from what I have been able to view. It’s a pity that it has not received official home media release but I believe we can blame that on the lack of big names. Thomas Meighan, Bebe Daniels and, of course, Gloria Swanson still command a certain amount of clout among silent fans but you’re not going to see a whole lot of Forrest Stanley Forever! Blogs on Tumblr. (Naturally, you would never ever catch someone as adult and sophisticated as myself creating a fangirl page for a long-dead actor.)

No big names.
No big names.

In fact, the leads are probably the least interesting aspect of the films. The supporting cast manages to steal the show. Not that I’m complaining. But back to the leads.

Forrest Stanley was born in England and he is probably most famous today for playing one of the sinister suspects in the horror-comedy classic The Cat and the Canary. As for the leading lady, Agnes Ayres made six films in 1921. Forbidden Fruit was the first but the last was the movie that would grant her cinematic immortality, albeit as something of a footnote. She was cast as the object of Rudolph Valentino’s desire in The Sheik.

A few months away from Valentino.
A few months away from Valentino.

While Ayres is considerably better in Forbidden Fruit than in The Sheik, she still cannot hold a candle to Cleo Ridgely, who starred in The Golden Chance. Ayres comes off as a pretty and all but her performance does not have much depth. She seems to feel only the immediate emotion (love, pain, sadness) but offers no complexity to enrich her acting.

I will take this opportunity to clear up a little misunderstanding about Miss Ayres. She is often erroneously listed as a casualty of the talkie revolution. Nope.

Ruined by the talkies?
Ruined by the talkies?

According to Dangerous Curves Atop Hollywood Heels by Michael Ankerich, in 1921 Ayres became romantically involved with Jesse Lasky, one of the heads of Paramount Studios. Under his patronage, she was given the choicest roles in the best films.

Ayres’ career hit the rocks years before sound came to the movies. She broke up with Lasky, married unwisely, endured a bigamy scandal, signed on with DeMille’s new studio and later sued him for not casting her in his pictures. DeMille countered that she had broken her contract by putting on considerable weight. What was not mentioned in the trial was that Ayres had apparently been battling mental illness. Then came a cameo in The Son of the Sheik (as the mom of the son of the sheik), a divorce and a demotion to short films and supporting roles. By the time sound was in full swing, she had lost her fortune in the financial crash and her popularity was in tatters.

No fairy tale ending for Agnes Ayres.
No fairy tale ending for Agnes Ayres.

Ayres endured a sad decline and passed away in 1940. She was only forty-eight. (Ayres’ birthdate is often listed as 1898 but Michael Ankerich tracked down a census that lists her birth as occurring in 1892. This earlier date is backed up by the fact that she was working as a bookkeeper in 1910—hardly a typical job for a girl of twelve but quite common for a woman of eighteen.) A victim of sound? No. Like almost all of the other “victims” of the sound revolution, Ayres’ career declined thanks to multiple outside factors.

A Mallory conspiracy!
A Mallory conspiracy!

Even if Forrest Stanley and Agnes Ayres don’t manage to set the world on fire, we can take comfort in the confident performances of Kathlyn Williams and Theodore Roberts as the scheming Mallorys. Theodore Roberts passed away in 1928 and is probably best remembered as Moses in the original version of The Ten Commandments. However, that role was actually going against the grain of what Roberts did best. He was wonderful at playing pretentious blowhards and his role in Forbidden Fruit is no exception. Not a villain exactly, Mr. Mallory is selfish and thoughtless and more than a little snobby. Because he is so awful, though, you can’t help being amused by him and even liking him.

The old scene-stealer himself.
The old scene-stealer himself.

Kathlyn Williams was one of the very first serial stars back when the title actually meant something. Patrician in appearance and possessing the athletic ability required for the requisite stunts, Williams switched over to dramatic roles after her initial success in the serial genre. In Forbidden Fruit, Williams proves her comedic chops as she is Roberts’ equal in comic awfulness.

Mrs. Mallory is the brains of the outfit.
Mrs. Mallory is the brains of the outfit.

If the acting is not quite equal to The Golden Chance, the writing more than compensates. The script is actually an improvement on the original. Anyone who has experienced a Jeanie Macpherson-penned film knows that her style is… singular. She shared DeMille’s love of trash and decadence (she was, however, considerably less religious) and she could write overwrought title cards with the best of them. An actress and director before she turned exclusively to screenwriting, Macpherson knew how to keep things lively.

The Golden Chance’s biggest flaw was that we could not understand why the wealthy, sophisticated Cleo Ridgely would have married her charmless lout of a husband. Rich girls marry poor boys but they have to have a motive to do so. This issue is corrected in Forbidden Fruit. Agnes Ayres’ character was never rich and it is easy to see why she would have fallen for the oily charm of Clarence Burton.

Marry in haste…
Marry in haste…

Of course, the DeMille/Macpherson team could not resist driving home their Cinderella point without a decadent fantasy sequence. Your enjoyment of these elbow-in-the-ribs scenes pretty much hinges on your appreciation for DeMille’s antics. I rather enjoyed the scenes and felt that they blended nicely into the narrative. Okay, so it’s obvious. Still, the scenes are imaginatively staged and fun to watch. They certainly work better than the staid fantasy sequence (cough, cough) D.W. Griffith shoehorned into Way Down East.

Very funny running gag: Mary fibs about her shoe size and gets caught.
Very funny running gag: Mary fibs about her shoe size and gets caught.

Another notch in the film’s favor is the delightfully over-the-top set and costume design. Natacha Rambova took the usual Rococo look that Cinderella is often saddled with and made it transparent. We end up with a kind of science fiction French court, complete with a light-up skirt for the fairy godmother. The look is amplified by the glass sets and stylized performances. Behold!

Light-up skirts… (See the hem? Lights!)
Light-up skirts… (See the hem? Lights!)
Transparent gown…
Transparent gown…
Water-on-glass ballroom floor…
Water-on-glass ballroom floor…
The pass.
The pass.
Um, okay…
Um, okay…
Lost that little sucker…
Lost that little sucker…
There it is.
There it is.
Happy ending.
Happy ending.

While Forbidden Fruit could have benefited from livelier leads, it is still a delightful confection. The costumes are divine, the supporting performances are excellent and the script is surprisingly smart. With its nimble pacing and flip zaniness, it is never boring. Here’s hoping this one comes out on home media soon.

Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★★

Where can I see it?

Forbidden Fruit has never been released on DVD, alas.

18 Replies to “Forbidden Fruit (1921) A Silent Film Review”

  1. How did you see it if it’s not available on DVD? Do you have a projector, and did you buy one of the prints on eBay?

  2. Great stills – epic headpiece in those first two images! That rococo styling really lends itself to fairytale and fantasy, you’d be disappointed if it wasn’t over the top. I’ll have to do some more research into Natacha Rambova; such a shame this isn’t widely available on DVD.

    1. Yes, Natacha was a talented designer but her marriage to Rudolph Valentino tends to overwhelm her reputation as an artist in her own right. That’s why I consciously omitted his name in relation to her.

  3. Arrgh, so being a Meighan/Swanson/Costumes/Daniels fan myself, here’s some tantalizing DeMille goodies dangling in front of me and there’s no place to see it! That fantasy sequence alone looks well worth an eventual DVD release. Rambova was definitely a talent–I liked her striking work in “Salome” although frankly her sets for “Camille” leave me cold.

    1. Yeah, DeMille is woefully underrepresented on DVD, which is a crying shame as he actually preserved his own films and I think only a few are lost due to Paramount’s neglect.

  4. I enjoy Rambova’s over-the-top rococo aesthetic. She was also a fascinating woman; such a shame she gets an excess of hate from Valentino fanatics.

    1. Yes, the exes certainly become targets, don’t they? I think Natacha is guilty of nothing more than being a woman with a messy love life (an artist with a messy love life? gasp! horrors!) and an artistic temperament. I do believe accounts of her being demanding on her husband’s sets but seeing as how word has it that Theodore Kosloff (the hound) actually stole some of her designs, I can see why control would be important to her.

  5. I am one who has never seen any of Cecil’s silent films which, as you said, doesn’t offer a complete look at him as a filmmaker. I think seeing his older works would help me understand him more…and, hopefully, make me less prone to mocking certain scenes in movies like “The Ten Commandments”, for instance.

    1. I wouldn’t count on it. If someone can get through The Ten Commandments without snickering, they are far better nicer than I will ever be. 😉 Sound really exposed DeMille’s biggest flaw, his tin ear for dialogue.

      “Oh, Moses, Moses, why of all men did I fall in love with a prince of fools?”
      or
      “To me you are a lily, and I want water.”

      :-/ Yikes.

  6. That was fun, Fritzi. I want to see it, but “her husband decides to show his displeasure by killing her pet bird.” Unless he’s a cat in disguise, what a creep. Thank you for organizing the blogathon and for sharing the wonderful essay with all of us.

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