Marion Davies is a wacky Dutch maiden who dreams of romance. Of course, everything goes wrong in the zaniest way possible, that’s a given. Owen Moore is on hand as the Irish tourist who wins our heroine’s heart but Karl Dane and Louise Fazenda easily steal the show as the film’s secondary couple.
The windmills of your mind.
I always look forward to films set in the Netherlands. According to family lore, my great-great-great-grandparents were Dutch immigrants who started out in Nova Scotia, headed west and then slid over into Michigan kinda sneaky-like and so here we are! (“Papers? Papers, you say? Look, a ducky!” Runs away.) I was looking forward to The Red Mill anyway and the fact that it starred Marion Davies was the icing on the cake.
The Red Mill is an interesting specimen. It was a troubled production and not much seemed to go right as the film was being made. These backstage tales have overshadowed the film itself. Is it worth seeing on its own or is it a mere curio? That’s what we are about to discover.
The red mill of the title is actually an inn in the Netherlands. Of course, this is Movie Holland. You know how in Hollywood movies all Scotsman wear kilts, all Chinese know kung fu, all Italians have mob connections and all Parisians live in apartments with views of the Eiffel Tower? Well, in Movie Holland, everyone wears wooden shoes, has a windmill in their back yard and is well supplied with pots of tulips.
(If you want a look at what the Netherlands was really like in the 1920s, I stumbled across this blog post with pictures of the author’s grandmother in Amsterdam during that decade. Good stuff.)
Marion Davies plays Tina, the freckle-faced slavey of the Red Mill. She’s a plucky thing who keeps a pet mouse in the toe of her wooden shoe and generally gets into mischief. The inn’s owner, Willem (George Siegmann), isn’t above smacking Tina when she annoys him by taking breaks and working less than an eighteen hour day.
Tina dreams of love and the answer to that dream is an Irish tourist named Dennis Wheat (Owen Moore). Dennis is making quite the hit with the ladies in spite of his spindly gams. Presumably, this is because all the Dutch men in the movie are obliged to wear Mickey Mouse pants with giant buttons in front.
Tina ends up winning a kiss from Dennis but he reneges on the deal and returns to Ireland. No romance for Tina, it seems. She begins to spread the tale that Dennis loved her passionately but she totally broke up with him.
The local burgomaster’s daughter, Gretchen (Louise Fazenda), is being forced into an arranged marriage with the governor. However, her heart belongs to Captain Jacop van Goop (Karl Dane). Tina is trying help the two zany love birds live happily ever after.
And of course Dennis comes back and thinks he’s in love with Gretchen but it’s really Tina disguised as Gretchen and then he gets jealous when he sees the real Gretchen canoodling with Jacop and…
Yeah, the plot gets a little hard to follow at this point.
The Red Mill was based on a 1906 musical in two acts by Victor Herbert and Henry Blossom. In the original tale, the romance between the burgomaster’s daughter and the ship captain was the main plot but it got moved to the back burner for the film.
There is an erroneous notion that the Marion Davies character was invented for the film. She wasn’t.
Tina the barmaid was a supporting character in the original musical. Essentially, the adaptation simply had Tina and Gretchen switch places. (Tina was Willem’s daughter in the original plot and he was a kindly man rather than the monster that the movie makes him out to be.)
Compared to her masterful adaptation of Stella Maris, this script is a disappointment for Frances Marion fans. The Gretchen/Jacop romance is clichéd but it has real conflict and suspense. Tina and Dennis have no real obstacles to their love other than Dennis being a jerk and everyone being an idiot.
Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, still struggling after his trials, was the director for much of the film. He took the name William Goodrich for the job but his real identity was openly reported in fan magazines.
The name change was less a matter of disguise and more a case of simple rebranding. The Arbuckle name was still toxic in some circles and a fresh start seemed to be called for. (I say this because some people have the idea that Arbuckle directed this film from the shadows and that his real name was kept secret from the general public. He didn’t and it wasn’t.)
I mention this now because I will not be reviewing this film in the context of Arbuckle’s comedic style and personal life as I feel this angle has been done to death. My focus is on Marion Davies and Frances Marion.
The acting in The Red Mill is wildly inconsistent. Davies is a doll but she struggles with the derivative slapstick. Her performance only comes to life when she is allowed to simply be herself and react the wild goings-on. In those scenes, she is glorious.
Karl Dane and Louise Fazenda neatly steal the show between them. In addition to having a more compelling storyline, the experienced pair knew exactly how to dominate scenes and deliver punchlines. It’s a pity that the partnership was not repeated.
George Siegmann does his heavy routine a little bit too well. The Red Mill is a very light comedy and having such violent and determined villainy throws things out of whack. I mean, one moment Tina is talking to the mouse in her shoe and the next she is reenacting Broken Blossoms with Siegmann trying his best to flog her.
Overall, The Red Mill has three main flaws. First, the script is lazy. Frances Marion simply cribbed dibs and dabs from the Mary Pickford back catalog, heaped on some dubious humor and let ‘er rip.
The plot meanders and feels padded out with tedious slapstick. Comedy requires internal logic in order to succeed but the jokes in The Red Mill are crammed in with little thought as to why such a setup would exist. For example, Tina gets locked in a haunted mill during a storm. There are loud noises but they turn out to be bowling balls tumbling down the stairs. Um, why is anyone storing bowling balls at the top of a haunted mill? Or stuffed coyotes? And whose skeleton is that?
Worse, the gags tend to punch down rather than up and whole thing has an unpleasant tone of meanness. The script is packed with fat jokes and repeated snickering at the Netherlands. Dress, culture, language, food, you name it. “Ewww! Dutch cheese is strong! Who wants food with flavor?” (Remind me to lob a chunk of Edam at Frances’ head.) “Don’t those Dutch people have funny names? Why can’t they have normal names like Beulah or Spottiswoode?” (We can’t all steal our names from slave-owning guerrilla commanders of the American Revolution, Miss Marion.)
The story also introduces major subplots and then abandons them without explanations. After Dennis departs, Tina assumes she will never see him again and so she begins to spread around that they had a passionate romance but she dumped him in the end. This has huge potential for humor (what will she do when Dennis hears?) but it’s just allowed to die.
Later, Dennis is shown to be penniless and in hock up to his ears but he still manages to take all these vacations and at the end of the picture he is even promising to make Tina “an Irish princess.” This seems a questionable offer if one considers the political climate of Ireland in the twenties but it’s their happy ending. (Is Dennis green or orange? Which Ireland does he live in? Inquiring minds wish to know.)
The second major flaw in the film is that the intertitles try a little too hard. They’re the movie equivalent of someone constantly elbowing you in the ribs to make sure you get it. It’s a lot of painful puns, stale quips and general unfunniness. Worse, a lot of the jokes are based on characters speaking in a Dutch accent. But if two people are speaking Dutch to one another, why would they have a Dutch accent? I’m so confused.
In fact, the single biggest laugh in the film comes from Karl Dane’s well-timed delivery of this simple intertitle:
Simplicity is the key, my dears, simplicity.
Third, Owen Moore is not a very appealing leading man. Moore always had a tendency to smirk his way through his roles. This is evident in his early features like Cinderella (1914) all the way up to his talkie debut (opposite Carole Lombard!) in High Voltage (1929). Davies’ best leading men matched her in good cheer or at least attempted to put on an air of affability and Moore has neither good cheer nor affability in any amount. On top of that, his character is not terribly sympathetic.
Some not-terribly-reliable sources state that Moore was generally disliked by one and all on the set. I think this is probably true as it seems to show up in the picture. He and Davies have little chemistry and his thunder is thoroughly stolen by the lovable Karl Dane.
Marion Davies, when she isn’t bogged down in slapstick or love scenes with Moore, is a sparkling delight. Frankly, the film would have been comedic masterpiece if they had just let Davies, Dane and Fazenda cut loose for the entire picture. What a movie that would have been! I would kill to see it.
The Red Mill is not Davies’ best film but it does have its moments. It’s worth seeing for her fans but newcomers are advised to seek out Show People instead.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★
Where can I see it?
The Red Mill was released on DVD by Warner Archive. It features an excellent orchestral score by Michael Picton, which does a lot to add to the charm of the picture.