The Idol Dancer (1920) A Silent Film Review

White Almond Flower (Clarine Seymour) is a flapper-ish island girl who just can’t choose between a sickly missionary (Creighton Hale) and an atheist beach bum (Richard Barthelmess). Will WAF be “civilized” or will she be free to continue her moonlight idolatry? D.W. Griffith directs this tale of religion, the nature of civilization and shimmy-shimmy shakes.

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

A missionary, a beach comber and an island dancer walk into a bar…

1920 was a year of extremes for director D.W. Griffith. He released three films: Way Down East, which was partially shot in a blizzard; and The Idol Dancer and The Love Flower, which took advantage of the lush foliage and sandy beaches of Florida and the Bahamas. While Way Down East is remembered as a hit and a triumph, the island pictures are relegated to being historical footnotes.

Both island films were shot simultaneously and shared supporting actors, including the hardworking Richard Barthelmess doing triple duty as the leading man of all three 1920 Griffith releases. And the leading ladies?

Gee, I wonder if this outfit will help at the box office...
Gee, I wonder if this outfit will help at the box office…

Well, Griffith’s most famous lead actress, Lillian Gish, was kept busy (read: sidelined) overseeing the construction of his new studios and directing a movie for the first, and only, time. With Gish doing all his construction work for him, The Idol Dancer and The Love Flower provided opportunities for Griffith to showcase two younger actresses from his troupe: Carol Dempster and Clarine Seymour.

It is inevitable that the films– and the actresses– would be compared. While The Love Flower was a near-disaster (read my review here), The Idol Dancer has built up a small following over the years. There is one reason for this: Clarine Seymour.

While Griffith is most known for his virginal waifs, he also enjoyed putting his share of spitfires on-screen. Constance Talmadge, Dorthy Gish and Clarine Seymour are the most famous. Seymour had been playing supporting roles in the Griffith company. Characters with names like Cutie Beautiful and Little Flameheart, you get the idea, flappers at the very start of the flapper era. The Idol Dancer was one of Seymour’s few big parts, she passed away one month after the film opened. She was only twenty-one.

She certainly has the attention of Richard Barthelmess.
She certainly has the attention of Richard Barthelmess.

Clarine Seymour is often described as saucy, vivacious, a ball of energy… Let’s take a look for ourselves.

The Idol Dancer is set on a south sea island where a small missionary family is attempting to convert the native people. The patriarch, Rev. Blythe (George MacQuarrie) has focused his attention on traditional dress. He has been pressing the men to wear trousers and the women to wear gingham dresses. His wife (Kate Bruce) and young son, Donald (Thomas Carr, who would grow up to have a long career directing sound Westerns), support the reverend in his quest to push European standards of modesty on everyone.

The most vocal holdout is White Almond Flower (Clarine Seymour). Adopted by Old Thomas the fisherman (Herbert Sutch), WAF straddles two worlds. However, she has completely embraced the native religion of her people and enjoys moonlight dances before a wooden idol.

A bit intense, aren't we, Richard?
A bit intense, aren’t we, Richard?

WAF is frolicking on the beach when she stumbles on Dan McGuire (Richard Barthelmess), an alcoholic, atheist beach-comber. WAF treats Dan like a lost puppy and takes him home to daddy. Dan and WAF are united in their dislike for Rev. Blythe and their contempt for the religion that he has brought to the island.

Our love triangle needs a third point. Rev. Blythe’s nephew, Walter Kincaid (Creighton Hale), is a sickly young man who leads a sheltered life. He suffers from the mysterious Movie Illness, which has a terrible cough and some kind of heart trouble as its symptoms. Rev. Blythe invites his nephew to come stay with him on the island in hopes that the warm climate will help his illness.

Walter is just as devout as his uncle but he is not so obnoxious about it. He engages in polite theological debates with Dan and gently tries to persuade WAF to give church a chance.

Pack your bags, you're going on a guilt trip.
Pack your bags, you’re going on a guilt trip.

Both Dan and Walter are madly in love with WAF by this time and she takes the opportunity to play them against one another. Walter seems oblivious, distracted by his illness perhaps, but Dan is consumed with jealousy. In his frustration, he contemplates murdering Dan and abducting WAF.

However, there is a character on the island who is much more dangerous. The Blackbirder (Anders Randolf) and headhunter Chief Wando (Walter James) believe that there is a cache of pearls in the missionary house and they mean to take them by force.

So, to recap, Dan is in a violent funk, Walter’s health is deteriorating, the Blackbirder and Chief Wando are about to attack…

The villains. Hey! No giggling back there!
The villains. Really.

Sounds like it’s time for a race to the rescue…

Clarine Seymour is just as energetic as advertised. She is constantly on the move, as though she is going to burst with excitement. Had she lived, I have no doubt that she would have taken her place as one of the top flappers of the 1920s. As it is, she is a delight in her role as White Almond Flower.

Okay, so there is no beauty shop on the island to give her that perm she sports. And I don’t know where she dug up the ballet flats she is wearing. And I don’t really buy her character for one minute.

Clarine Seymour’s dance of questionable authenticity.
Clarine Seymour’s dance of questionable authenticity.

But guess what?

None of that matters.

Clarine Seymour is a magnetic performer. Cute, mischievous  vulnerable, sweet, fiery… She manages it all with youthful vigor and a dose of honest-to-goodness talent.

She particularly shines in her scenes with Richard Barthelmess (more on him later) and George MacQuarrie’s missionary. WAF’s refusal to convert frustrates the old preacher but she is a merciless tease. Alternating between flirtatiousness, anger and taunting, WAF sends her would-be converter packing. And later, when he comes hat in hand to ask her to visit his ailing nephew, WAF’s concern for the reverend makes it clear that she was fond of the fuddy-duddy all along.

She has a weakness for fuddy-duddies.
She has a weakness for fuddy-duddies.

Richard Barthelmess also deserves credit for his performance. He was a versatile actor but was the All American Boy variety in Tol’able David and Way Down East. Dan, in contrast, is a very dark character indeed. He has had a rough life and he has contempt for almost everything in the world except for WAF. When Walter shows up and ruins the status quo, Dan’s rage flares up. However, the last shreds of a conscience cling on just enough to prevent him from acting on his anger. Barthelmess expertly shows all of these emotions with his eyes and manages to create a reasonably subtle performance in this melodrama.

Now we have to move on to the bad news.

The Idol Dancer has many faults that prevents it from being considered great or even good. Let’s take them on one-by-one.

Yeah, culture issues...
Yeah, culture issues…

First, the portrayal of race and non-European/North American culture is problematic. As was typical for films of this period, white actors in dark makeup are unconvincingly interspersed with performers of color. Many of the performances by the white actors are quite insulting in modern eyes. Florence Short’s performance as Pansy, a converted native woman, is particularly egregious. She rolls her eyes and drops into a bizarre shimmy any time a man, any man, comes within a few feet of her.

(And, just to remind everyone, the targets of racial, ethnic and cultural stereotypes did object during the silent era so let’s have none of that “look at context!” business.)

The characters of the film debate religion and culture but there is little doubt as to whose point of view will win out. The Blythes are portrayed as overzealous but on the side of right. For example, little Donald Blythe’s forcible conversion of an islander is played for laughs.

What shall she do with her idol?
What shall she do with her idol?

I am going to talk a bit about the finale so consider yourself spoiler-warned.

Credit should be given to the film for portraying an interracial romance in a positive light. The problem is that WAF is forced to shed her entire cultural identity in order to earn her happy ending.

The setup is as follows: Walter collapses after fighting with his uncle about his association with WAF. The feverish man asks for WAF and Dan to come to his bedside. Rev. Blythe melts under his nephews entreaties and fetches both WAF and Dan, neither of whom had ever been allowed to enter the missionary home before.

Dan and WAF are so touched by Walter’s saintliness that they both rush off to make sacrifices  in order to save him. Dan throws his gin into the ocean while WAF tosses her idol to the waves. After that, WAF wears the missionary gingham that she had previously despised.

Taking things a bit far, aren't we?
Taking things a bit far, aren’t we?

In the grand finale, Walter is killed by the Blackbirder’s men. WAF and Dan arrive too late to save him. A more intelligent film would have used to tragedy to allow the characters the question the efficacity of their newfound faith. Not so here. Dan and WAF remain as devout as ever.

I should emphasize that movies portraying religious conversion can work very well. But there has to be some kind of internal character struggle that goes along with it. Because WAF and, particularly, Dan are interesting characters, the audience deserves a deeper portrayal of their conversion. The Idol Dancer basically puts down their reasons for conversion as “Walter is really nice.” That may be a good start but there has to be more to it than that.

Barthelmess in Walter's fan club.
Barthelmess in Walter’s fan club.

A fine example of a conversion done right would be Hell’s Hinges, in which William S. Hart’s conversion starts with the example of a good woman but then grows organically from the character. Hart’s character struggles to give up his violent ways and succumbs to them one last time in the finale. Dan, on the other hand, gives up his gin without any struggle at all. As a result, we in the audience are not as invested in his conversion as we should be.

Since the film is almost entirely focused on the religions of its characters, this lack of believability means that the whole film comes crashing down around the final act.

A final issue with The Idol Dancer is the lack of connection between the story and the setting. What do I mean? Well, the island setting doesn’t really add much to the film besides some admittedly pretty scenery (and a ballooned budget).

Admit I'm right! Admit I'm right!
Admit I’m right! Admit I’m right!

Let me put it this way: The story would have worked just as well, probably better if it had taken place in mainland America. With almost no rewriting, here is the plot:

A reverend wants his incorrigible parish to behave. A wild party girl refuses to knuckle under and she has an ally in an alcoholic atheist hobo. However, the reverend’s saintly nephew arrives and soon is able to show the party girl and the hobo the error of their ways. But a local gangster has heard a rumor that the church has a treasure hidden inside and he means to get it by any means possible…

See what I mean? A few names changed and the plot works. It could just as easily been a western, set in South America, Africa, China… the list goes on. I realize that the island setting allowed Griffith to dress Miss Seymour in (for the time) scandalously tiny outfits but surely there were easier ways of adding cheesecake. I just feel that a setting should be woven tightly in with the plot. Could Tol’able David have taken place anywhere else and been as good? Could Underworld? Could Gold Rush? I doubt it.

Clarine wins us over.
Clarine wins us over.

Maybe I’m being hard on this poor little potboiler but the caliber of acting talent involved makes me wish that it had been much more.

I give this film a grudging recommendation. Seeing Clarine Seymour and Richard Barthelmess is a treat but the picture as a whole is deeply flawed.

Movies Silently’s Score: ★★

Where can I see it?

Grapevine Video has released a DVD of this title with the Griffith 1909 Biograph short Mountaineer’s Honor included as an extra. It stars a 17-year old Mary Pickford and her future husband, Owen Moore


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