A young woman is forced to choose between love and money when her parents push her to marry a wealthy family friend. Hoary to be sure but particularly fine and sensitive acting elevates this Vitagraph melodrama.
Home Media Availability: Released for digital download.
Putting the Mellow in Melodrama
Melodrama has become something of an insult when referring to motion pictures in general and early motion pictures in particular. Yes, there were certainly some bad melodramas in the early days of film but then again, if we want to talk about realism, we live in an age when grown movie heroes shoot lightning bolts from their hands whilst wearing their underwear on the outside, so I am not so sure we have any room to talk.
Melodrama can be thunderous and delightful (I highly recommend The Mystery of the Rocks of Kador) but it could also be played with surprising subtlety and it is the subtle that we will be discussing today.
An Old Man’s Love Story was released in 1913, one of many pictures produced by the innovative Vitagraph company. At the time, Norma Talmadge, just eighteen when this picture was made, was one of the top stars of the studio and well on her way to becoming one of the top box office draws of the silent era.
The story is probably one that audiences of the day had seen a hundred times: Ethel (Talmadge) lives in genteel poverty with her parents (Florence Radinoff and James Lackaye) but dreams of marrying Cyril (Frank O’Neil), a boy her own age. Mom and dad put the kibosh on the burgeoning romance and instead want Ethel to marry James Greythorne (Van Dyke Brooke), an older friend of the family who also happens to be incredibly wealthy.
And so, Ethel is forced to choose between pleasing her parents and saving the family finances and marrying for love. Alas!
This particular topic was popular grist for the entertainment mill. One of the top songs of 1900, A Bird in a Gilded Cage, sums up a popular attitude:
She’s only a bird in a gilded cage,
A beautiful sight to see,
You may think she’s happy and free from care,
She’s not, though she seems to be,
‘Tis sad when you think of her wasted life,
For youth cannot mate with age,
And her beauty was sold,
For an old man’s gold,
She’s a bird in a gilded cage.
There’s a minor plot twist here in that the older suitor is quite a good egg. Graythorne, while he loves Ethel, wants to make her happy and so he goes about conspiring to circumvent parental disapproval and help Cyrus win Ethel’s hand.
Actually, I suppose “twist” is too strong a word to describe this plot as it’s hardly something unheard of in fiction. A noble suitor gallantly quitting the field in favor of his lady’s true love is as old as the hills. In short, I hope I have put across clearly that there is not going to be anything new in the story. And that doesn’t matter one bit.
This picture has some really fine acting, some of the best I have seen from this era of picturemaking. The performers play things close to the chest, acting for the camera and not the cheap seats of a theater. (Which was definitely an issue with some pictures at the time.) There are so many tiny touches that improve the scenes and make the film believable and touching.
I don’t usually agree with vintage silent era reviews but this little bit from Moving Picture World hits the nail on the head with this picture:
“There have been greater pictures with more significant stories, but we doubt whether there have been many better or more pleasing in this showing of natural, human things… The picture’s real quality comes from the way the script has been handled by producer, stage manager and artists. The unconstrained naturalness of its characters is its best charm, but not its only high quality by any means; for camera man and nearly everyone else concerned have worked together to an end that is truly worthwhile. The second best quality that we notice is the economy of its action, the things that it didn’t show delight us greatly; we are bothered with nothing our eyes would picture for ourselves and miss no link that our imagination needs… There is much credit due the producer. Van Dyke Brooke, for his direction of the players, which is perfect. A desirable release.”
(At this point in film history, directors were frequently credited as producers and producers as directors. I think they did it just to drive future film history nerds bonkers.)
The cinematography is indeed very attractive with lovely bits using shadows and smoke. Oh how the 1910s loved moody shadows and smoke. Anyone who thinks those things became popular in the movies with film noir is in for a surprise.
But the acting! I personally loved the sweet, casual chemistry between Ethel and Cyril. There were no overblown proclamations of adoration, just a couple of young people singing duets, joking and enjoying one another’s company. I also liked the subtle, irritated glances between mom and dad when they realize that their daughter is in peril of making a most (to them) unsuitable match. And there’s a dainty business with Ethel and Cyril exchanging notes hidden in a tree; Talmadge is lovestruck without simpering and she never once feels compelled to kiss a bird.
Kudos to director Van Dyke Brooke for guiding his cast to such lovely performances! I have reviewed several of Brooke’s films but the prints of both Sawdust and Salome and John Rance Gentleman were so smeared and blurred that I think perhaps I missed some of the nuance that would have been present originally. The Helpful Sisterhood was played a bit more broadly but its tale of sororities and shoplifting kind of called for that.
I did a bit of digging and found a nice little selection of Brooke’s pictures courtesy of the EYE Film Museum and while I will save the details for individual reviews, I must say that I was quite impressed.
And since Norma Talmadge herself did end up marrying the older and connected producer Joseph Schenck, I do think that I should clarify that he did help her career but her talent also increased his prestige. If she had been a talentless doll he tossed onto the screen, she wouldn’t have enjoyed independent success at Vitagraph years before she married him.
In fact, I would say that this picture showcases Talmadge to great advantage and it’s an excellent choice if you want to see the kind of roles that made her a star in the first place. (If you want to enjoy her in full movie star flower, I recommend The Devil’s Needle or Kiki, both of which feature excellent Norma performances.)
The plot of An Old Man’s Love Story is something of a warhorse but it was considered to be that in 1913. However, the critic of Moving Picture World was right; this is a natural, human film that features some very fine and subtle acting from its cast and Van Dyke Brooke deserves special notice for his direction.
Where can I see it?
Available for streaming and digital download from Harpodeon.
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The cat briefly visible on Cyril’s bed is Gasoline the Vitagraph Studio Cat (1904-1917). She was a stray who found her way to the Vitagraph studios in Flatbush and was encouraged to stay because she kept vermin out of the set dressings. She featured in “innumerable” films according to Greater Vitagraphics but this is one of the few sightings that still exist.
I am very much in favor
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