Mary Pickford plays a kid left behind in Belgium when her mother remarries. She finally makes her way to America for a reunion but nobody knows who she is, so she needs to sneak in under the radar by taking a job as a servant.
Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.
The Belgian Waffle
Mary Pickford’s career was long and she played a large variety of roles but her child parts tend to dominate the discussion despite making up just a fraction of her overall output. Pickford herself was aware of this and tried to mix things up but she understood that her audience wanted the little girl and so she would deliver.
Pickford’s child roles also provoke a strong reaction today, quite often along the lines of “Eww, that’s creepy!” In fact, Pickford’s performances were often intelligent and funny examinations of the adolescence of young women and she would take her characters from tweenhood to the dawn of adulthood. Considering how underappreciated the inner lives of young women are in modern Hollywood, Pickford is a breath of fresh air. Plus, Florence Pugh has a whole Oscar nomination for the same trick so maybe Mary was onto something…
Through the Back Door is not considered to be Pickford’s best film and it sometimes gets lost in the shuffle but it has several elements that make it worth a viewer’s time. It was one of the very first silent films I watched and I’ve always had great affection for it.
It’s the story of Jeanne (Jeanne Carpenter as a toddler, Mary Pickford the rest of the time), the daughter of a stylish and attractive mother (Gertrude Astor), who is about to wed the rich Elton Reeves (Wilfred Lucas). Elton tells his fiancée that he is jealous of the attention her daughter receives and tells her to leave the girl with her nurse, Marie (Helen Raymond), while they honeymoon.
Me, yelling at screen: Red flag! Red flag! Stop the wedding!
They do not stop the wedding.
Jeanne stays in Belgium on Marie’s farm and months and then years pass without the mother returning for her daughter. When she finally does return, Marie is so attached to Jeanne that she does not want to give her up. She lies and tells the not-so-new Mrs. Louise Reeves that Jeanne is dead. This leads to estrangement between the Eltons.
Me, yelling at the screen: Poison his coffee! Bury him in the rose garden!
She does not poison him.
When WWI breaks out, Marie decides to send Jeanne to safety in America. She sends a certified confession with the girl. On the way, Jeanne picks up a couple of orphaned boys and decides to take them with her to America but when she arrives in her new old country, she is unable to contact the grand Mrs. Reeves as everyone takes her for an immigrant looking for a job and she is hired as the maid.
Meanwhile, Elton Reeves is ticked that his wife is still upset about her daughter and wishes she would get over it already.
Me, yelling at the screen: Throw an electric fan in the bathtub! Bury him under Giant’s stadium!
She does not electrocute him.
And so, Elton Reeves starts chasing the fashionable Margaret Brewster (Elinor Fair), who is a houseguest along with her brother James Brewster (Adolphe Menjou). Anyone who has read any P.G. Wodehouse can probably guess that the pair are actually married and they’re after Elton’s cash.
Meanwhile, Billy (John Harron, brother of Bobby) is the rich boy next door who has fallen head over heels for Jeanne. And Jeanne both overhears the schemes of the Brewsters and must find a way to reveal her identity to her mother, so things are in a pickle. Personally, I would let the Brewsters take Elton for every penny but Jeanne is much nicer than me.
Will Jeanne save the day? Will the Brewsters make off with the Reeves fortune? And, most important of all, will mother and daughter finally be reunited? Find out in Through the Back Door.
I am the first one to admit that the plot is incredibly slight and that Elton Reeves is so despicable that I spent most of the runtime imagining unpleasant deaths for the character. That being said, there is a lot to recommend this picture.
First and foremost, this contains some fine physical comedy from Mary Pickford. She was the equal of any of her male contemporaries in this regard and the scene where Jeanne scrubs the floor with brushes on her feet is justly famous. And Pickford and Gertrude Astor beautifully sell the more emotional scenes as a lonely child and a grieving mother. The ending is a foregone conclusion but darn if I wasn’t waiting breathlessly for the reunion.
Elinor Fair and Adolphe Menjou are delicious as the pair of grifters hoping to wheedle some cash out of the awful Elton. We all know that Menjou could carry off such a role in his sleep but I was also impressed with Fair and this is easily the best performance I have seen her deliver.
The film is also full of little clever, economical flourishes. For example, Billy asks Jeanne is the children she is caring for are “hers” and she cheerfully replies that they are. (She found them, didn’t she?) Billy naively doesn’t ask how a girl of seventeen managed to have a seven-year-old child and instead takes the blow of the revelation, decides he can live with it and continues to court Jeanne, bringing along gifts for the kids. (In the name of heaven, do not share any information about how a seventeen-year-old can have a seven-year-old.)
With this plot point, the film establishes that Jeanne is not falling into the same trap that her mother did, that the fellow she likes accepts her children and that he’s a nice guy. Very tidy.
Still, the lightness of the story is a bit of a detriment at times. For example, the film shows that Jeanne understands her life as a Belgian farmgirl is not compatible for the glamorous world of her mother but then the thread is just kind of left hanging and Jeanne has no trouble at all with cotillions and lace frocks. I realize this was all meant to be light fare but then why bring the issue up at all?
Through the Back Door was officially co-directed by Alfred E. Green and Jack Pickford, little brother of Mary, but at least one contemporary source lists Pickford as Green’s assistant director and cameraman Charles Rosher claimed that he contributed next to nothing.
There was a bit of an attempt to revive Jack’s reputation a few years back and I think I managed to ruffle a few feathers because I have never found him particularly appealing or charismatic as a film star. (And, yes, I have seen Tom Sawyer and The Goose Woman.) As for directing, all I can say is that his credits consist only of Through the Back Door and Little Lord Fauntleroy, both in 1921 and both starring his sister. Green went on to direct Ella Cinders and Baby Face. I know who I think did most of the work in Through the Back Door. (I am not touching Jack’s personal life with a plastic fishing rod.)
Through the Back Door isn’t exactly a masterpiece but it’s a fun, clever and entertaining family film, exactly how it was advertised. It’s also a fun showcase for Mary Pickford’s comedic chops and her acting ability as she takes her character through young womanhood with skill and grace. The talented supporting cast help things along.
Try it, I think you’ll like it.
Where can I see it?
Released on DVD by Milestone but, alas, very out of print. Here’s hoping a new edition is made available soon.
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