The Great Divide (1915) A Silent Film Review

A rare Lubin feature film about a young woman who goes west and ends up being forced to marry an alcoholic mine owner. Based on a smash hit play from the same era, this film was hailed as one of Lubin’s best.

I will also be reviewing the 1929 remake with Dorothy Mackaill, Ian Keith and Myrna Loy. Click here to skip to the talkie.

Home Media Availability: Not currently available.

Go west, young woman

An enormous thanks to Martyn Stevens for generously granting permission to review this rare print from his collection.

A few disclaimers before getting started: While I consider myself to be a reasonably tough reviewer, I do try to give movies a fair shake and not draw the knives without cause. This movie has given me cause. You’ll see what I mean as the review progresses but this is fair warning that I will be hitting below the belt. This picture deserves nothing less and, frankly, if the hero had been hit below the belt a bit more, a good deal of trouble could have been saved.

This is our hero, by the way.

Even though I did not care for the picture, I am thrilled to have this opportunity to review it because I have been dying to get my hands on later Lubin work. So, again, Mr. Stevens has my gratitude.

Siegmund Lubin was among the first independent filmmakers to rival the Edison film production unit and his brash, sleazy films and ripoffs have raised eyebrows ever since. While he eventually allied with Edison and joined the Motion Picture Patents Company, Siegmund Lubin remains a quirky figure in film history. His company didn’t survive the transition to features but his technical knowhow saved the future Paramount from ruin.

America’s greatest play? Look, I know we’ve made mistakes but I’ll be hanged if I take responsibility for this! (Beautiful typography, though.)

That’s not to say that no Lubin features were produced. The company tried to keep up with audience tastes but was eventually forced into bankruptcy in 1916. The Great Divide was released at the very end of 1915 and was hailed as one of the finest productions Lubin had ever created.

Just so you know, I will be spoiling the heck out of this thing. Content and trigger warnings in place. Let’s do this.

Look out, guys, she’s gazing heavenward!

Like all good westerns, the film opens in Massachusetts. Ruth Jordan (Ethel Clayton) has decided that she and her brother (Hayden Stevenson) will head out to Arizona to seek their fortune. They are accompanied by sister-in-law Polly (Mary Moore) and Dr. Winthrop Newberry (Warner Richmond), who has an awful crush on Ruth. Of course, as we all know, nobody with a name like Winthrop Newberry stands a chance of winning a heroine’s heart.

So, our merry band of Massachusites head west (the film was shot on location) and Ruth thinks it’s all marvelous. If only she could find a rough and unpolished man. Well, in the proud tradition of Monkey Paw wishes, Ruth’s is about to be granted.

Did I hear “a violent alcoholic?”

One night, Ruth is left alone at the house. Three drunks break into the house, overpower Ruth and resolve to shoot dice for “Exclusive rights to love, honor and cherish ‘til we’re tired of her.” Ruth appeals to the least ugly drunk, Steven Ghent (House Peters), promising to marry him if he will save her from the others. Ghent agrees, buys off one man with a necklace of gold nuggets and shoots the other dead.

And this is where Charles Bronson, Charlize Theron or their 1915 equivalent breaks down the door and shoots Ghent in the face.

What’s that? They don’t? What kind of joint is this?

Okay, fine. Sigh.

Our hero. Let that sink in. Our hero.

Ghent makes Ruth write a note saying that she has gone off to marry the man she loves and then he takes her to a frontier minister who ties the knot. And then it’s off to Ghent’s cabin, located conveniently atop the Grand Canyon. When Ruth locks him out of the bedroom, he declares that he married her and paid for her, so he owns her to do with as he sees fit.

And this is where Charles Bronson, Charlize Theron or their 1915 equivalent breaks down the door and shoots Ghent in the face.

They STILL don’t? You have got to be kidding me.

Our. Hero.
Hero. Ours.
Our. Hero.

Ruth learns how to weave baskets and she works to earn money to buy herself back from Ghent. (Um, it’s not legally binding, she does know that, right? Ruth really hasn’t two brain cells to rub together, does she?) Ghent goes to town, gets drunk, returns to the cabin and forces himself on his wife.

And this is where Charles Bronson, Charlize Theron or their 1915 equivalent breaks down the door and shoots Ghent in the face.

Oh, you cannot be serious. Who shoots him in the face? You can tell me. Nobody EVER? What kind of nonsense is this movie?

Ruth doesn’t like to be kidnapped. Spoilsport!

He’s totally sorry the next day and promises he is a reformed man, said EVERY ABUSER EVER. Will Ruth find (gag) “love” with her kidnapper and abuser? Will she return east? Will she sell more baskets than anyone? Those questions are answered in The Great Divide.

Okay, you can see why I have problems with this, right? And if anyone questions the tales of abuse told by actresses, this movie is a prime example of why I believe them.

The plot is essentially The Sheik with a smelly bum in the lead. Now The Sheik is obviously problematic but it has kitsch to soften the blow, for better or worse. In this film, the grit and realistic settings just make it so, so, so much more awful.

Hide all the breakable objects, Ruth is posing again.

The leads of The Great Divide contribute to its problems. Ethel Clayton is beautifully photographed and gets kudos for her subtle makeup but her performance is just the sort of thing trotted out to make fun of silent films. Clayton does not act so much as glide from one pose to another, always playing to the cheap seats. There’s lots of gazing heavenward, flailing of arms, that sort of thing. Clayton is not helped by the fact that her character is a complete nincompoop but I would have preferred less thrashing about.

Our hero. Our big, strong hero.

I am not the biggest House Peters fan in the world. He plays his parts with this irritating “Look, ma, I’m in pictures!” grin and displays very little range beyond it. Reviewers of the time politely remarked that he does crank his drunk scenes up to a rather exaggerated degree. I would go further and say that he plays them like a slapstick lush.

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This may sound strange but my biggest problem with House Peters as an actor is how he uses his hands. He doesn’t seem to know what to do with them. In The Captive, he just kept them shoved in his pants, which was weird but I was willing to forgive because it was Blanche Sweet’s movie and he was just there as eye candy. In the case of The Great Divide, Peters keeps his elbows bent and his wrists limp, looking not unlike someone who has just soaped up their hands to wash but has discovered that the running water is on the blink. Or maybe he thinks he’s a kangaroo. I can’t imagine what it’s supposed to mean and must conclude he was just a peculiar man giving a peculiar performance.

The supporting cast is better. Mary Moore easily has the best part in the picture as Polly and she plays it for all it is worth. While the leads are making dramatic pronouncements and striking poses, Polly says things like this:

In 1915, Polly would have come across as the comedy relief but to modern viewers she’s the voice of reason. I kind of love her. Is it too late to get our heroines swapped?

I feel you, Polly.

Warner Richmond, probably best remembered by silent film fans as Richard Barthelmess’s big brother in Tol’able David, does good work as Ruth’s rejected suitor. I mean, the character needed to take a hint but Richmond plays him well, with subtly and no weird kangaroo hands. A low hurdle, to be sure, but one worth mentioning.

And now we have to talk about the rather distressing story. With the exception of lopping off the third act, the film follows the play closely. We get everything from soup to nuts to rape. Oh goody gumdrops. Reviews of 1915 and 1916 did not phrase it quite like this, of course, and chose instead to focus on the scenery, and what they called powerful themes and an unusual romance. Um, that’s a bit of an understatement.

What a prude!

The worst part is how everybody gingerly steps around the pachyderm in the parlor to this day. Here is how the Encyclopedia Britannica describes the story: “A prose play about conflict between eastern U.S. puritanism and the individualism of the western frontier.”

Okay, let’s start from the top, Britannica. Not wanting to be raped is not generally classified as being puritanical, just so you know. And if this is western individualism, I am packing my bags for Connecticut immediately.

Britannica: Women, eh? Can’t live with them, can’t find them sometimes.

Normal Person: I hope to spend an evening in my own home and not become the victim of a violent crime.

Britannica: Oh, where’s your sense of humor? You’re no fun anymore!

At least my faith in humanity was restored slightly by a review of a revival in the New York Times:

“A more obscure 1906 melodrama that provides a new set of clichéd characters who, at their best, are intriguing reflections of a changing nation… Because the play is crudely drawn and clumsily plotted, its chief value might be as a cultural artifact.”


Look, I’m all for twisted romance. Heck, The Forty-First is one of my favorite movies. But the characters have to behave like actual human beings, okay? Ruth’s bizarre acceptance of the “bargain” she made with Ghent strains the audience’s suspension of disbelief to the breaking point and beyond.

Deals with home invaders are null and void. This is basic stuff.

Let me put this another way. If the heroine’s house was broken into and the burglars threatened to burn it down unless she signed the lease over to them at a lawyer’s office the next day, she would definitely be smart to go along with the plan but she would be nuts if she actually signed the lease over in front of witnesses. “I have to keep my word!” has no power if the promise is extracted through threats of violence. This is, like, Promises 101 stuff.

Not only does Ruth sign the marriage license when she is among people who could have helped her, she also accepts that her value is a string of nuggets. Um, I believe the 13th Amendment is a thing. A war was fought about it, is this ringing any bells?

In short, the characters act like characters in a play and not like any normal human beings who ever walked the earth.

Actual dialogue from the play. I can’t even. I hope Ruth gets indigestion.

I should give the film credit for toning down the character of Ruth a bit. In the original 1906 play by William Vaughn Moody, she is so smug and superior that I was rooting for Polly to haul off and slug her by the end of the first scene. She’s still annoying in the film but it’s more of the typical “Ooo, look at the tree! Look at the flower! I must swing my arms and prance!” kind of thing, pretty common in silent films.

As stated above, the play also has a third act in which Ruth does leave Ghent and return east but (spoilers for a play released eleven decades ago) decides he is absolutely marvelous for sending her mother money. For somebody who declares that she cannot be bought, Ruth is certainly happy to accept cash once it passes through an intermediary. Obviously, Ruth doesn’t deserve the horrors that the play visits upon her but let’s just say that I would not be sorry to see her stub her toe in the night.

The Great Divide, based on a movie, based on a play! (Anthony P. Kelly wrote the screenplay.)

Oh well, I suppose it’s better than the tie-in short story by Norman Bruce published in Motion Picture Magazine. That bit of deathless prose features descriptions like “gallant girl-person” and “woman thing.” Gollum, is that you and how did you come to be hired by Motion Picture Magazine?

Gallant girl-person, precious, we loves them, we does.

The movie has its flaws but it definitely could have been worse.

So, there you have it. The Great Divide is a rare surviving Lubin feature and while the story is not at all to my taste, I am very glad to have had an opportunity to see it and to research a forgotten bit of early twentieth century American pop culture. I can’t say that I recommend it for pleasure viewing but it is interesting all the same.

Where can I see it?

Not presently available on home video but I will let everyone know if it ever becomes available.

I know what you’re thinking. “Sure, The Great Divide was pretty tacky but at least Hollywood moved onto more sophisticated fare during the studio era.”

About that…

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

The Great Divide was remade in 1925 (a copy is presently held in a Swedish archive) and again in 1929 as a talkie. It was remade once more in Technicolor in 1931 and given the eyebrow-raising title of Woman Hungry. I’m tackling the 1929 version today because it’s the one on DVD. I’m not sure it was such a great decision.

Poor, poor, poor Myrna Loy.

While the 1925 version and the 1931 version both follow the play reasonably closely, the 1929 version goes its own way and makes up its own plot. Given the horrors of the play, I would normally be in favor of this but the new 1929 plot is just as disturbing. What it lacks in sexual harassment, it makes up for with racism.

Steven Ghent (Ian Keith, who was Mr. Ethel Clayton when this film was released) is a mine owner who has been supporting his late partner’s daughter in New York for years. He remembers her as a kid but kids do have a way of growing up.

Oh yeah, totally not interested at all.

Ghent is the object of affection and obsession for Manuela (Myrna Loy, still in her exotic vamp period) and while he doesn’t say yes, he doesn’t exactly say no either. The film tries to portray this as honorable when it’s really eye-rolling.

Anyway, that kid back east, Ruth Jordan, is now played by Dorothy Mackaill and she is a sassy flapper who can knock back a cocktail and loves to dance. The screenwriters (all men) hope to convince us that she is the wild spawn of Satan and Everything Wrong With Young People These Days. To me, she comes off as a perfectly normal young woman whose idea of a wild time is stopping off at a fiesta and having a cocktail sometimes. Is this the direct 1920s equivalent of those “Millennials are killing…” articles? I think so. No word yet as to whether or not Ruth eats avocado toast.

One of those awful flappers in her cloche.

Ruth stops off at that fiesta, makes a few racist remarks, casually calls for genocide and runs into Ghent. He affects a Mexican accent and pretends to be a bandit. At least I think it’s supposed to be a Mexican accent. It could have been Irish, Russian or Cambodian for all I know.

He follows Ruth and her friends (including silent veteran Creighton Hale, who plays her fiancé) into a bar where he is persuaded to sing a song. Now Ian Keith actually could sing but you’d never know it from this film. Keith’s lipsyncing is so bad that I kept waiting for some kind of punchline, like wheeling out a gramophone or something. But no, this is supposed to be his real voice.

Ghent better not get on Manuela’s bad side or she might sing another song.

If that wasn’t enough, Manuela sidles up and sings a seductive song to get Ghent’s attention. Myrna Loy does a better job of lipsyncing but the song…

Actual lyrics: One dance with me, Si Si senor. One chance with me, Si Si senor.

Ugh. Please explain to me again how talkies won because I am still a bit baffled.

Live by the goofy accent, die by the goofy accent. Ghent deserved what he got.

Anyway, Ghent is ogling, which makes Ruth jealous and then he romances her (still with the terrible accent, mind you) and she starts to fall for him. But then he is exposed as being an American, Ruth is like “What the heck?” and then heckles him for being a dweeb (fair).

And then Ghent discovers that Ruth is really the daughter of his late partner and he gets angry. He storms into her train car, declares that she is promiscuous, shouts at her for drinking and smoking and generally comes off as a pompous, prudish ass. Kids these days, amiright?

Ruth’s expression is exactly what mine was at this point in the film.

So, he kidnaps her, a mature reaction. What follows is your typical Teach the City Girl a Lesson cliché stuff. Fear of wild animals, sore feet, the whole enchilada. Let’s see, drag someone out into the wilderness, frame yourself as their protector, regulate every aspect of their existence. Yep, sounds like a recipe for Stockholm Syndrome to me.

And, of course, our young lady changes her tune about Ghent after another session of insultingly incompetent lipsyncing. Seriously, grade school kids manage to lipsync convincingly, it’s pretty darn easy.

I suppose I shouldn’t reveal the ending, though a reasonably intelligent sea sponge can see it coming.

At least SOMEONE can act in this joint.

The cast is pretty mixed. Ian Keith clearly has no idea what to do with Ghent but Dorothy Mackaill is able to bring a little charisma to the table. It’s a thankless role as the Straw Flapper who symbolizes the excesses of her generation (a cocktail before bed, the minx!) but she does what she can.

Poor Myrna paying her dues.

Roles like Manuela were par for the course at this point in Myrna Loy’s career. Her sharp comedic timing had not yet been discovered and she was still being wasted in clichéd vamp parts. There’s always a certain amount frustration in watching Loy at this point. It’s like seeing a fully qualified lawyer being obliged to serve coffee.

And the winner is..

The Talkie

I want to be clear that this was a race to the bottom. Both films are deeply disturbing, the 1915 version because it glamorizes rape and the 1929 version because it glamorizes an abusive, paternalistic relationship and embraces Stockholm Syndrome.

Basically, this is a contest between stylized nastiness and something that can and does happen in the real world. Neither option is particularly savory.

The 1929 version also gets some points for most excellent hats.

But a winner must be chosen and so I will say that the 1929 version wins because Dorothy Mackaill is a good actress. She deserved better but she gives this silly, dangerous film much more than it deserves. Incidentally, after her film career ended, Mackaill spent the rest of her life in Hawaii. Good for her!

The talkie does suffer from set-bound sequences and rather fakey scenery, along with some painful comedy relief from Lucien Littlefield as a singing cowboy but I think Mackaill’s performance makes up for it.

Singing cowboys AND bad lipsyncing? Oh swell.

I don’t like the Code one little bit but I must grudgingly admit that I am grateful that it saved us from further remakes of The Great Divide.


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14 Replies to “The Great Divide (1915) A Silent Film Review”

  1. Wonderful! I was actually thinking of the talkie version when I messaged you on Twitter (which I only know about because Myrna Loy; I have certainly never seen it).

  2. You are very funny and I think I am behind Charles Bronson, Charlize and you in wanting to slap this man up the side of his head…and maybe the girl too. Happy New Year!

  3. Hilarious! But, yeah, unfortunately this film is the sort of nonsense some people immediately think of when the term ‘silent movie’ is mentioned.

  4. Great cloche hats and I do love that one shot of Dorothy’s bob hairstyle-very cute . Just watched for the first time After the Thin Man, due to it’s New Year’s Eve setting, and again, Loy and Powell were great in it. I was wondering if you know what the break out part for Loy was to get her out of playing evil, exotic females?

    1. I believe it was the one-two punch of Manhattan Melodrama (which showcased her chemistry with fellow silent era villain William Powell) and The Thin Man in 1934 but Loy fans are free to correct me if they know of an earlier picture.

  5. How’s this for “context?” :

    The stage play “The Great Divide” opened on Broadway Oct 6 1906, and by mid-November, there was already a satire, a musical “burlesque” of it, called “The Great Decide.” It was apparently a brief one-act, three scene piece (with two songs) that played as a sort of teaser along with a larger musical-comedy revue, “About Town.” It was produced by Lew M Fields, a popular vaudeville and musical comedy performer/producer, and included in the cast a young Vernon Castle and, believe it or not, in the chorus, Mae Murray!

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