A woman named Gabrielle Darley gunned down the man who abused her and threw her aside and nearly a decade later, her story was brought to the screen. The resulting film caused a scandal and inadvertently helped to establish privacy law as we know it.
Home Media Availability: Released on DVD and Bluray.
The Right to be Forgotten
On New Year’s Eve of 1915, a young woman from Prescott, Arizona followed her fiancé and pimp into a Los Angeles jewelry store. He was buying a wedding ring but not for her. Gabrielle Darley pulled a pistol from her fur muff and shot Leonard Topp dead.
The subsequent trial was a media circus with flamboyant defense attorney Earl Rogers mounting a theatrical defense of Darley. Topp had been an abusive brute and the jury was easily persuaded that his fiancée had been well within her rights when she took matters into her own hands.
Adela Rogers St. Johns followed the trial and reported on it. Earl Rogers was her father, so she had what can be safely described as an inside angle. The story of Gabrielle Darley stuck with her and in 1924, St. Johns wrote a highly sanitized and fictionalized account of Darley’s tribulations for The Smart Set and a year later, it was adapted for the screen as The Red Kimona. (Or “The Red Kimono” depending on who’s spelling it. I used “Kimona” because it was the original title card. But we can really blame inconsistent romanization for the confusion.)
The film is somewhat legendary for the deep bench of female talent behind the camera. The story by St. Johns, adapted by Dorothy Arzner, produced and possibly co-directed by Dorothy Davenport… wow.
Davenport billed herself as Mrs. Wallace Reid. Her movie star husband had died due to his morphine addiction. The grief-stricken Davenport felt compelled to make a movie about the tragedy of addiction, the lost picture Human Wreckage. She followed it up by acting in and producing Broken Laws, which condemned parental indulgence and was based on a story by Adela Rogers St. Johns.
With Davenport’s taste for producing social pictures and St. Johns’ ongoing interest in the Gabrielle Darley case, a collaboration along those lines was almost inevitable.
The film opens with Davenport consulting newspaper archives and coming across the story of Gabrielle Darley. Addressing the camera directly, Davenport informs the audience via title card that the goal of the film is to motivate viewers to “help—rather than hinder—the upward struggle” of unfortunate people who want to redeem themselves.
Ironic, that, in light of what happened later…
But first, the film.
In a New Orleans brothel, Gabrielle Darley (Priscilla Bonner) discovers that Howard Blaine (Carl Miller), her fiancé, has gone to Los Angeles. She follows, discovers him buying an engagement ring and it’s clear that it isn’t for her. She shoots him and is immediately arrested for his murder and put on trial.
Beverly Fontaine (Virginia Pearson), a local socialite who engages in charity provided the press is there to cover it, takes an interest in Gabrielle’s case and makes a show of supporting her. On the stand, Gabrielle reveals that Blaine had offered her marriage but it had all been a ruse to lure her to New Orleans and force her to work in a brothel. She still loved him, however, and clung to the hope that he would eventually marry her. Seeing him buy another woman a wedding ring with the money she had earned had been too much for poor Gabrielle.
The sympathetic jury quickly acquits her but Gabrielle’s problems have only begun. She has nowhere to go and doesn’t want to return to New Orleans. Beverly Fontaine swoops in and takes her to her mansion. There, she is treated as a prop and the socialites only want to laugh at her behind her back and demand details about her sex life, a traumatic topic for a survivor of trafficking.
The Fontaine family’s chauffeur, Freddy (Theodore von Eltz), is disturbed by all of this and begins to fall in love with Gabrielle but he is forced to accompany his employer on vacation. Once all the publicity and social buzz has been wrung out of Gabrielle, Mrs. Fontaine sends her away. Gabrielle soon discovers that her lack of references and notoriety make it impossible for her to find a job. Freddy is still gone and nobody else is willing to help her. Desperate, she decides to return to New Orleans.
Will Gabrielle find happiness? Will Freddy return in time? See The Red Kimona to find out.
My feelings toward this picture are complicated and I’ve spent considerable time trying to process them. While I like many elements of the picture, particularly its cinematography, its sanctimonious tone does wear thin after a while. And then there’s the context…
Davenport was eager to avoid any suggestion that her film was merely an exploitation picture even if the advertising department didn’t entirely get the memo. Ads for the film simultaneously screamed that the film “Packs a Wallop! Fills the Till!” and whispered “a daring subject delicately.” One Pennsylvania theater marketed the film by advertising a sex ed lecture from the “Educational Director of the American Institute of Social Hygiene.”
In general, the film succeeds in its mission of portraying a victim of sex trafficking without sexualizing or objectifying her. In many ways, it feels like a throwback to the 1910s social films of Lois Weber or Cecil B. DeMille with its heavy-handed symbolism but it all feels a decade too stale. One of its most famous sequences is showcasing the red dressing gown of the title with hand-applied red, just so we all get the point. The same red is used to paint an “A” across Gabrielle’s chest when she tries to apply for a nursing job.
There’s nothing terribly new here and I have to concur with some points made in the review in Photoplay:
“Something terrible. It started out with a good story by Adela Rogers St. Johns and was directed by Mrs. Wallace Reid. But somewhere the great qualities of those ladies’ talents got completely lost. It’s the one about the innocent, downtrodden girl, the city clicker, the white slavery, the slicker falling for the other girl, and offering her a wedding ring, the shot, the trial, repentance, and then what do you suppose comes? Surprise, surprise, c’est le war. No matter how much trouble it is, avoid this one.”
“Terrible” is a bit much because there are some nice moments, including the climactic race to save Gabrielle from New Orleans, but the story elements are presented in a tropey, samey manner. It’s not as if acquitted murderesses couldn’t be exciting. See: 1927 version of Chicago. Terrible? No. But a few more runs through the old editing process for the screenplay wouldn’t have done a bit of harm.
I should also note that treating sex workers sympathetically was not at all unusual in the silent era. Sadie Thompson, the silent Anna Christie, Lady of the Night and The Wicked Darling, just to name a few, were all released around the same time as The Red Kimona. The topic of reform and redemption was equally popular, with Alias Jimmy Valentine and Regeneration both portraying the difficulty of leaving an infamous past behind. Heck, William S. Hart carved himself an entire career out of the topic. The gist of all this is that the topics of The Red Kimona had been handled better before and would be handled better again.
As for the performances, Priscilla Bonner does well, even if she lays on the Magdalene schtick a bit thick and gazes heavenward a few times too often. Virginia Pearson has fun consuming mass quantities of scenery as the unethical Mrs. Fontaine. Theodore von Eltz probably gives the best performance in the picture as the sympathetic and non-judgmental Freddy.
The stronger scenes in the film, in my opinion, are the small character moments. There’s a very nice sequence in which Freddy takes Gabrielle for a drive but isn’t sure if he should seat her beside him in the back or beside him in the front seat. After an awkward start, Gabrielle cheerfully moves to the front, which is a sweet way to communicate their budding romance.
While officially based on reality, The Red Kimona was considerably polished and spiffed up for the screen, partially to appease censors, partially to jazz up the story and partially to appeal to the middle class. The real Gabrielle Darley was of Italian descent and some sources suggest she was born in Italy but she is presented as Anglo-Saxon as can be in The Red Kimona. (The Prescott Weekly Journal-Miner, Darley’s hometown paper, declared “Italian Beauty Acquitted of Murder” after the 1915 trial.)
The action was moved from Prescott to New Orleans, the latter having a much more famous red-light district, and the date moved from 1915 to 1917 in order to accommodate the combat ex machina that plays a role in the film’s conclusion. (Photoplay wasn’t kidding in its review. “When in doubt, throw in the Great War” was the mantra of many a studio production.)
And, of course, most of the characters were renamed. Leonard Topp became Howard Blaine and the self-absorbed Beverly Fontaine was based on singer and philanthropist Lark Ellen. Ellen seems to have peed in somebody’s Cheerios because including such an incredibly specific takedown in both a short story and film seems like bizarre overkill, especially with rats like Leonard Topp around.
More importantly, here’s where we hit an ethical sticky wicket and a major reason why this picture does not work for me: to be frank, St. Johns, Davenport and Arzner did exactly what they accused Lark Ellen of doing. They used Darley’s story for their own purposes and left her to shift for herself. Ellen and even the objectively horrible Topp were offered the shield of pseudonyms but Gabrielle Darley’s real name was emblazoned across prop newspaper for all to see. Why did the filmmaking team fail to take the simple step of renaming her? Did they look down on her and view her as not being worth the effort?
(I don’t hold Dorothy Arzner too responsible for the content of the picture given that she didn’t wield as much creative power and her subsequent body of work was considerably more sympathetic to women. Davenport seemed to have been caught up in righteous fervor and St. Johns was St. Johns.)
In Adela Rogers St. Johns’ 1924 short story, Gabrielle of the Red Kimono, she included a brief introduction stating that she wished to find the heroine of her story: “I do not know where Gabrielle is now. Wherever she is. Is she should happen to read this story, perhaps she will know that every hand was not against her, and that all women are not like Louise Fontane. There were many who would have tried to help her, if they had known in time. If they had known in time.”
(Louise Fontane was, of course, renamed Beverly Fontaine in the film’s title cards. Again, what exactly did Lark Ellen do to illicit this level of dislike? I am dying of curiosity and suspect that it has absolutely nothing to do with Gabrielle Darley. I am visualizing a Mapp & Lucia situation between the Lark Ellen and Rogers St. Johns households. Au reservoir!)
I have reason to doubt that St. Johns’ search for Darley was very thorough and will discuss that a bit later. The matter at hand now is the question of why nobody involved in the film thought to give Gabrielle at least a new surname. The Smart Set, which carried the original story in 1924, sensibly changed her from Darley to d’Or. (I should also note that, for reasons known only to herself, St. Johns conceals that her father was Darley’s defense attorney and buries him under a pseudonym as well.)
Keeping the Darley name proved to be costly mistake on the part of the filmmakers. The very much alive and kicking Gabrielle Darley (now Mrs. Bernard Melvin) saw her name in lights and obtained legal representation. The case wended its way through the California court system before the final judgement was handed down. The opinion of the court was quite stern and, I think, justified considering the social stigma associated with the Darley case:
“The use of appellant’s true name in connection with the incidents of her former life in the plot and advertisements was unnecessary and indelicate and a willful and wanton disregard of that charity which should actuate us in our social intercourse and which should keep us from unnecessarily holding another up to the scorn and contempt of upright members of society…
…We believe that the publication by respondents of the unsavory incidents in the past life of appellant after she had reformed, coupled with her true name, was not justified by any standard of morals or ethics known to us and was a direct invasion of her inalienable right guaranteed to her by our Constitution, to pursue and obtain happiness. Whether we call this a right of privacy or give it any other name is immaterial because it is a right guaranteed by our Constitution that must not be ruthlessly and needlessly invaded by others. We are of the opinion that the first cause of action of appellant’s complaint states facts sufficient to constitute a cause of action against respondents.”
The case is still references when Right to Be Forgotten matters are discussed. In the days before the internet, it was easier to hide from one’s past but almost impossible if someone made a major motion picture based on the biggest event of somebody’s life. The judicial smackdown was totally appropriate, under the circumstances.
(The Right to Privacy had been a known legal factor in the press for decades at the time of The Red Kimona’s release and the Harvard Law Review had published the influential and groundbreaking article by Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis in 1890. Again, as a journalist, St. Johns would have been aware of this and the publishers of The Smart Set certainly were.)
But get ready for a plot twist… Darley had been in the Los Angeles area news between her acquittal and her lawsuit against the makers of The Red Kimona. In 1922, the Los Angeles Times printed an item about Darley’s husband, Bernard Melvin, being arrested for stealing $2,000 from his wife. ($30,000 in today’s money.) Melvin claimed that the money was a gift and that Darley had earned it through prostitution. Darley countered that Melvin had robbed her at gunpoint and absconded with the funds. Melvin returned money and jewelry to his wife and the charges were dropped.
Had The Red Kimona crew been aware of this story, I am sure it would have been used in their defense when Darley sued. And, of course, there is no way of checking up on the “he said, she said” accusations that the spouses leveled against one another. But given how connected Adela Rogers St. Johns was with the Los Angeles newspaper scene, the fact that she was unaware of this information does not reflect well on her abilities as a reporter. Also, I should note that Darley moved back to Prescott (1920 population: 5,000), from whence she came. It wasn’t like she took a slow boat to China. A few telephone calls would have saved a world of trouble.
As a matter of fact, Darley had been something of a newspaper fixture since her trial, popping up here and there in nationally syndicated pieces. In 1919, there was a purple prose-infested account of her reunited with the prison matron who cared for her and revealing that she was married and hoped to be a mother.
(I won’t go too far down this particular rabbit hole because we have enough on our plates as it is, but every single one of Darley’s lovers and spouses seemed to have a way of dying under violent or mysterious circumstances. If somebody were to make a one-woman play of Darley’s life and times, I would be forever grateful.)
St. Johns herself revisited the case in her 1962 book, Final Verdict, a biography of her father. She prunes the truth to fit her chosen narrative, as usual and of course, but openly reveals her close connection to the case at last. St. Johns also unambiguously confirms that Louise Fontane was a pseudonym for the then-safely-dead Lark Ellen.
The Darley section does not make for pleasant reading. St. Johns acknowledges that Darley’s relationship with Topp was horrifically abusive (author’s note: duh) but gets misty-eyed and romantic at the notion that the young woman would love her man enough to kill him. Hoo boy…
(In one creative decision that may have displeased St. Johns, Gabrielle’s lawyer in the movie is portrayed as a bloodsucker and his wife as a heartless social climber who kicks the acquitted murderess while she’s down.)
While perhaps—and I must emphasize the “perhaps” here—the basic intentions of the people who worked on this picture were good, the whole thing leaves a bad taste in my mouth. The utter contempt for Darley’s privacy is jarring, obviously. And then there are those catty attacks on Lark Ellen for (checks notes) using Darley to further her reputation as a reformer? Yeah, I guess the creative team of The Red Kimona would know about that. (Sips tea.)
I mean, I suppose you could argue that the viewer can divorce the film from its subsequent legal battles but we already discuss it in the context of the real life murder trial that inspired it. The Red Kimona has both feet planted firmly in the real world and specifically demands that the audience remember the Darley case and apply its lessons. Well, I think we need to apply all of its lessons.
The Red Kimona is highly exploitative and I don’t mean it in the fun, trash cinema way. While it is an interesting film on many levels, there is a tone of condescension that I find difficult to stomach and my feelings on the subject have been confirmed by digging deeper into the writings of Adela Rogers St. Johns. Your mileage may vary here and I am afraid that it simply did not work for me.
Where can I see it?
Released on DVD and Bluray as part of the Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers box set.
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