Castles for Two (1917) A Silent Film review

An Irish American woman decides to rent a castle back in the old country and quickly finds herself surrounded by pixies and in the middle of an awkward flirtation with the lord of the manor. Marie Doro and Elliott Dexter were a popular screen team who were also married in real life. There are also pixies and this movie kind of started a riot in Montana, but more on that later…

Home Media Availability: Release scheduled, stay tuned.

How King James I, Potatoes and Cecil B. DeMille’s Mom Started a Riot in Butte, Montana.

Beatrice deMille was a remarkable woman and not just because of her famous sons, directors Cecil B. DeMille and William C. de Mille. (The spelling of “de Mille” was very much a matter of personal taste in the family and Beatrice actually used a couple of different versions herself.)

Born in Liverpool, she emigrated to America and met Henry deMille, a lay minister, educator, playwright and actor. United by their shared love of the theater, the pair married and mixed teaching with acting. Henry died from pneumonia at the age of thirty-nine, leaving Beatrice with children to support. After a period of working in education, she threw herself into a career as an agent, play broker and playwright full time and once her sons were established in Hollywood (through the direct help of her theatrical connections), she followed them there.

The elfin Marie Doro, star of “Castles for Two”

By all accounts a lively and flamboyant personality, Beatrice deMille took to writing for the movies and collaborated with Leighton Osmun on ten features released by the Lasky company (Paramount). Castles for Two is one of her surviving works.

The film is probably most notable for starring Marie Doro, a renowned beauty of the stage who had turned to screen. Doro scored a hit playing the title character in the lost 1916 film adaptation of Oliver Twist. Her filmography is full of lost titles but a few of her collaborations with real-life husband Elliott Dexter do survive.

A calm family discussion about marriage.

Castles for Two is set in Ireland and Doro plays Patricia Calhoun, an American heiress who decides to enjoy a vacation in the homeland of her ancestors and rents a castle. Dexter plays Brian O’Neil, the local lord of the manor who is too nice to ask for rent and is being hounded by his three sisters to marry money.

Once she arrives in Ireland, Patricia decides to let her secretary (Mayme Kelso) pose as the “rich American lady” while she will pretend to be the maid, Clutie. Brian’s sisters pressure him to court their wealthy new neighbor but he balks and would much rather spend time with Patricia, who he ran into by chance.

Patricia is nice but she’d buy sand in the Sahara.

All is not well, though, because the local peasants see an opportunity to profit from Patricia’s naivete. They claim they are abused by the cruel Brian O’Neil and convince Patricia to give them cash, which they intend to spend on drink at the local fair. Thoroughly intoxicated, they bop one another on the head with shillelaghs.

Patricia has been communing with the local pixies, who are determined to set her up with Brian. He rescues her when she is terrorized by a docile dairy cow and takes her home to his disapproving family. Patricia discovers his true identity but decides to put her feelings about feudalism aside and pursue Brian in earnest. He, of course, has no idea that she is the real rich American.

Will Patricia get her man? Will Brian grow a backbone? See Castles for Two to find out!

Off with the pixies.

So, my basic verdict of this picture is that it is a major mixed bag. Dexter and Doro have very real onscreen chemistry and his performance is subtle and honestly too good for the film. Doro is good when she throws herself into the role but, like Mae Murray, she is given to posing with her lips twitching. She’s much more appealing when she is flirting with Dexter or playfully interacting with Mayme Kelso, who plays her secretary and partner in crime.

There’s a wonderful scene that takes place after Brian has paid his first call on “the rich American.” Kelso is laughing and calling his romantic suit ridiculous but Patricia stops her and says it’s not ridiculous at all. The women exchange knowing glances as Doro twitches her feather duster to and fro. Whoohoohoo!

Girl talk

A key problem with the picture is that the central source of conflict in the first half, the issue of dishonest peasants, disappears entirely in the second half with no explanation. The peasants are introduced, scam Patricia, get drunk and then are never seen or heard from again. Likewise, Patricia’s belief that he is a brutal landlord just kind of goes away after he saves her from the cow and is never mentioned after that. Instead, the disapproval of his sisters and the question of whether he will pursue love or money take center stage.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that the second half of the film is considerably better than the first because we trade in broad stereotypes for classic romantic farce set pieces. Characters in disguise, having to be in two places at once, that kind of thing. It’s not particularly fresh but it’s done well with appealing performers.

Brian helps Patricia with her “job”

I do wonder if the Irish elements of the film were added onto an existing story. They don’t feel entirely organic and even the pixies could have been used in any Ruritanian setting. Adding an Irish veneer would have made sense from a business standpoint. At the time, studios were trying to create international appeal by casting their stars in as many varied roles as possible. For example, Mary Pickford played Chinese, Indian, Scottish, Italian and French characters in rapid succession. Norma Talmadge played Chinese, Spanish, Russian, Algerian and Blackfoot roles.

If that was the goal of the film’s producers, it backfired spectacularly.

Oh dear heavens.

Castles for Two received generally favorable reviews but there was relatively little coverage after its initial release with a few notable exceptions. I found an item in Moving Picture World published about a month after the films release detailing the objections of Irish Americans.

The Order of Hibernians, an Irish Catholic fraternal organization, received permission to censor Castles for Two from the People’s Theater in Portland, Oregon. The Hibernians took exception to the picture’s portrayal of Irish peasant life and they were not the only ones.

Yikes.

Moving Picture World stated that the Hibernians had been forewarned of the picture’s controversial nature by a communication from Butte, Montana. In Butte, Castles for Two “came nearly receiving rough handling by reason of its alleged uncomplimentary portrayal of Irish peasant life.” The People’s Theater in Butte likely did not help matters when it actively courted Irish audiences and, as a publicity stunt, sprinkled imported Irish soil in the entryway and advertised that patrons could “walk on Irish ground to-day.” It could have been worse. The picture was originally planned as a St. Patrick’s Day feature.

This leads to some obvious questions: Given the popularity of Irish themes in American films at the time, what made Castles for Two particularly offensive to Irish Americans? Stereotyped Irish behavior was not unusual in films of the time, after all. There had to be more to the story and there was.

Irish home life in the film.

To understand, we need to discuss the Plantations of Ireland. Without getting too tangled in the weeds of a very complicated topic, the basics: King James I decided that the best way to quell the “rude and barbarous” Irish was to seize their lands and hand them over to English and Scottish Protestants. This led to generations of absentee landlords and some extremely horrifying abuses of power.

Skipping ahead by two centuries, the Irish Potato Famine, which killed as many as a million Irish citizens and caused another million to emigrate, was the direct result of misrule and unfair tariffs on foodstuffs. These measures forced the Irish peasantry to rely on a single crop and they were therefore vulnerable to crop failures, blight, etc. This second wave of Irish immigrants formed the backbone of the Irish American citizenry. The first wave had been made up of mostly men but the second, famine-induced wave brought entire families.

Add to that the white-hot revolutionary feelings that were stirring in the 1910s. The Irish republicans launched the Easter Rising against British rule in 1916 and the Irish War of Independence kicked off in earnest in 1919. So, with all of this going on, all of the history under their belts, the fact that some survivors of the 1845 famine could have been very much alive and kicking in 1917, you can see why portraying a landlord in Ireland as the innocent victim of nasty peasant lies would be incredibly offensive.

To put this in American terms, suppose a film portrayed American revolutionaries as lazy, alcoholic liars who spent their money on whisky and vexed the kindly redcoats, who barely asked for a penny in taxes and certainly would never forcefully billet soldiers in a private residence, the very idea!

Now, we have another question: could an American production company of the period be expected to know all of this? Well, Irish and Irish American talent was extremely prevalent in silent films of the period but I’ll do you one better. Sidney Olcott and Gene Gauntier were the heart and soul of the O’Kalems, the affectionate nickname given to Kalem studio’s foreign production unit that journeyed multiple times to Ireland.

After parting ways with Kalem, Olcott and Gauntier returned to Ireland and made For Ireland’s Sake (1914), a film with the message that can be summed up as, “Hell, yeah, revolution!” and it was hardly the only pro-independence film of the O’Kalems. Gauntier retired in 1915 but Olcott made more Irish-themed films and then signed on with Famous Players that same year. Famous Players and the Lasky film company distributed through Paramount and all three formally merged in 1916 and Olcott directed Marie Doro and Elliott Dexter in Diplomacy that year. Not to mention the fact that the company’s biggest star, Mary Pickford, was, like Olcott, a loud and proud Irish Canadian.

Heroic landlords weren’t going to fly.

It’s important to note that, while Irish immigrants suffered discrimination, by 1917, they wielded considerable institutional power. This is proven by the fact that their concerns were taken seriously and at least one theater granted them censorship powers. It’s important to remember that other groups who were targeted for cinematic ridicule or worse did not enjoy that privilege. However, the tale of Castles for Two’s expurgation proves that the argument “nobody was offended back then” is pure bunk.

Was Paramount attempting to avoid political tangles altogether? Quite possibly but they failed. The United Irish League, a nationalist political party in Ireland, condemned the picture for depicting Irish people as “drunken, dirty, mean and altogether despicable.”

We like the romantic fantasy better.

A final question we must consider is which scenes were censored in Portland. While there are no records detailing the cuts, we can make some educated guesses. The peasant scenes in Castles for Two contain nearly all the offensive material and they are confined to the first half of the picture. Since they are never seen nor heard from again in the later acts and quite possibly were not part of the story in the first place, snipping them out of the picture would have done very little to change the film’s plot. When combined with a few slightly altered title cards, I dare say most audiences would never have been able to tell the difference.

Castles for Two is a mixed bag but worth seeing. When it works, it works really well but most of the best scenes are found in the second half, so be patient. Doro doesn’t quite live up to her still portraits but she is nonetheless an appealing heroine, especially when she bounces off Dexter and Kelso. The scenario by Beatrice deMille is inconsistent but I am not entirely convinced that this was her fault. I suspect studio meddling. I have no evidence but I am deeply suspicious.

Twoo wuv.

In any case, if you get a chance to see this picture, take it. If nothing else, you can see exactly what caused a riot in 1917 Butte, Montana.

Where can I see it?

The only known copy of Castles for Two has been preserved by the Library of Congress and it was rescued just in time because there are brief sequences of extreme decay. These decayed sections do not interfere with the plot, thank goodness. The film enjoyed a successful Kickstarter release courtesy of Edward Lorusso and there are plans underway for a retail release to the general public later this year. I will be sure to update this review when the film is available.

☙❦❧

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6 Comments

  1. Edward Lorusso

    Very interesting review! This film was added as an “extra” to the Kickstarter project partly because of the decomp. The “main” film is LOST AND WON (1917), which also co-stars Doro and Dexter, and this whole project was really the brainchild of Joe Harvat who co-produced with me. I know David Drazin had fun scoring these two films, especially the Irish pixie scenes, which are pretty well done as special effects.

    Doro was divorced from Dexter in 1922 and made her final films in1923. She became increasingly reclusive and drawn to the “spiritual life.” She became famous for eluding friends. and for her long periods of seclusion. She died in 1956.

  2. richardsd3

    Thanks for the fascinating history lesson of Irish and British relations and how they played into the cut of this movie. After Britain won wars in Ireland and later Scotland, many POW, the ones that weren’t executed, were sent east to the colonies, often to become indentured servants. In 1917, Butte was at its peak as a rich copper mining city with a population close to 100,000, with a high percentage of Irish. Now it’s 35,000 people. Riots in Butte were not uncommon because the miners had serious issues with the mine owners. I’m no doubt telling you stuff you know.

  3. Icewineanne

    Excellent review! Now I’m pumped to see this. So very glad that most of the film survived. Think I’ll oil up my dvd player in anticipation 😊

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