Child neglect, single moms, personal crisis… Just another day D.W. Griffith-land. Mae Marsh is Teazie, a young orphan who flirts as way to get much-needed attention. Ivor Novello is Joseph, a freshly ordained minister who is a little too willing to have a taste of the secular world.
Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.
D.W. Griffith’s later career is a long, sad tale of declining box office receipts and an eventual descent into irrelevance. Oh, there were hits here and there but not of a caliber to resurrect his career and lift it back to the heights that he had enjoyed in the ‘teens. However, lack of box office magic does not necessarily mean all of his later films were bad.
The White Rose was Griffith’s second completed feature after parting ways with Lillian Gish, his most famous leading lady. Hoping to catch some of the old Biograph magic, he cast Mae Marsh (whom he had not directed since 1916’s Intolerance and Hoodoo Ann) in the lead role of The White Rose. It turned out to be an excellent move.
The story really involves a sort of Southern love square. Poor boy John (Neil Hamilton) loves rich girl Marie (Carol Dempster), who has been expected to marry wealthy minister Joseph (Ivor Novello) since childhood, but his heart has been stolen by Teazie (Mae Marsh), an orphan who is known as a sort of virginal strumpet. (We’re in very Victorian territory.) So, no one is with the person they really want and that creates the bulk of the film’s tension.
Although Griffith claims in his introduction to the film that it is about characters, not melodrama, don’t believe him. Melodrama all the way. Illegitimate babies, attempted suicide, dying of a broken heart, it’s all there. Fortunately, melodrama is exactly what Griffith excels at.
Teazie doesn’t mean to be a bad girl. She is just a lonely orphan. Her flirtatious nature stems from her need for love and acceptance. Her boss encourages the behavior since a coquette waitress brings in more money. Even though she still as pure as the virgin blah blah blah, her behavior has earned her a bad reputation.
Joseph is a priggish minister, freshly ordained. He is off to see the world so that he can save it. He is immediately drawn to Teazie though he is contemptuous of her flirty nature. A local lothario encourages Joseph to sow his wild oats with Teazie. Believing that other men have had her (why not him?) Joseph seduces her and leaves town the next day.
Meanwhile, Joseph’s childhood sweetheart, Marie, is secretly pining over the dirt-poor John. Hoping to win the hand of the rich Marie, John sets off to the city to seek his fortune as an author.
The illicit lovers do not fare as well. Joseph is stricken with a guilty conscience and the knowledge that he really did love Teazie. Teazie has it even worse. She gives birth to Joseph’s son and is thrown out into the streets. Will love conquer all and so forth?
The White Rose is an enjoyable trifle made much better by Mae Marsh’s sensitive performance. Her transformation from child to vamp to terrified mother is believable and tragic. The requisite scenes where she must look for a job, baby on her hip, are heart-rending. Trying to get another waitressing job, she only has references from her orphanage. No enough for employers to overlook the formula of woman-husband+baby=unemployable. Marsh’s despair and piteous hope that someone will help her is thoroughly convincing.
British idol Ivor Novello’s only performance with Griffith is a good one though he does descend into hysterics a bit. He’s best known to modern audiences as the title character in The Lodger, Alfred Hitchcock’s first real Hitchcock film. In both that film and this one, Novello is at his best when he is intense, in despair, filled with regret, etc. He doesn’t handle “happy” quite as well. All in all, however, he matches Mae Marsh in intelligence and sensitivity.
Carol Dempster is a little harder to accept. As the goody two shoes of the film, she really has nothing more to do than be supportive of the two men in her life. Unfortunately, Dempster has an irritating, jerky manner of moving. Her fluttering about, meant to be charming, dainty and Gishy, made me want to shout at the screen, “For Pete’s sake, Carol, stand still!” When she actually does stand in one place for a moment without twitching, she is quite effective. But such moments are few and far between.
Spoiler for this paragraph: Kudos to Miss Dempster, however, for the climactic scene where she watches the man she is supposed to marry reunite with his lover and son. Sorrow, relief and just a dab of jealousy pass across her face. Well done!
What really stops The White Rose from finding a wider audience are the racial stereotypes that Griffith unfortunately felt the need to include. White actors in blackface makeup play the servants and townsfolk. The portrayals range from offensive to clueless. It’s a pity since the role of Auntie Easter, the only character who has the guts to take poor Teazie in, was a juicy one. If only Griffith had seen fit to cast a more appropriate performer in the role!
So, in the end, The White Rose represents a wasted opportunity. It is a good little tear jerker but it could have been much more. Some of the problems can be traced to a script with too many main characters (the second love story could have been jettisoned with few consequences) but most of it can be put down to a general lack of originality. The story is essentially Way Down East meets The Scarlet Letter.
A better script and less racism (I know, I know) might have made The White Rose one of Griffith’s better potboilers. Don’t expect a masterpiece and you will find an enjoyable film but not a great one.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★½
Where can I see it?
Released on DVD by Grapevine. (My screencaps are from another, earlier release from a budget company.)
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