The Worldly Madonna (1922) A Silent Film Review

One’s a nun! One’s a cabaret singer! Identical twins join forces to solve the murder of a drug dealer! No, it’s not an 80s action film, it’s a vehicle for Clara Kimball Young, designed to show off her acting range in the double role.

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

The Cubist Conspiracy

Dual roles were phenomenally popular during the silent era. They gave actors a chance to show off their range and play roles that they never would have been permitted to take on under normal circumstances. Stars might play their own parents (like Rudolph Valentino playing father and son in Son of the Sheik) or a doppelganger from the past (Joseph Schildkraut and William Boyd in The Road to Yesterday) or strangers who coincidentally look just alike (Norma Shearer in Lady of the Night).

Two Claras for the price of one!

Sometimes, the star would even play dual roles of people who looked nothing alike, like Mary Pickford as both the gorgeous heroine and the homely waif of Stella Maris. And, of course, the monstrous Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde transformation of John Barrymore counts as a double role.

But the most common and longest-lived take on the trope is probably the good old identical twin plot device. Bonus points if both twins have taken completely different paths in life, the better to contrast the actor’s performance as each sibling.

A theater’s decor to promote the picture.

You don’t get much more contrasting than Clara Kimball Young’s two characters in The Worldly Madonna. A devout nun and a flirty, drug-addicted singer who just happen to look exactly alike… yeah, chaos is bound the ensue.

Young plays both Janet, the nun, and Lucy, the cabaret performer who plies her trade at the Cubist Café. Those youths with their abstract art! The real problem at the café, though, is the free flow of drugs. Politician John McBride (William P. Carleton) loves Lucy and wants her away from the narcotics. Ramez (George Hackathorne) is a hunchback (?) who also loves Lucy and just hangs around.

The resident cubist clown, I guess.

Ramez’s lurking comes in handy when a drug dealer attempts to force Lucy to pay for her fix with sexual favors. A struggle ensues, Ramez shoots the cad but McBride thinks Lucy is guilty, so he pretends to be the shooter. This leaves him open to blackmail by the café owner, Alan Graves (Richard Tucker). Later, in the throes of drug withdrawal, Lucy shoots McBride and flees. Got all that?

Believing she has killed McBride, Lucy runs to Janet and begs her to take her place in prison. Janet agrees because… that’s what nuns do? Prisons are filled with nothing but nuns, it’s a well-known fact.

Janet is collared.

The sisters switch places and Janet is promptly arrested. But it turns out that Lucy didn’t bother checking and McBride is both alive and happy to continue his relationship with his assailant. Despite the mystery being solved, Janet decides to go undercover at the Cubist Café because (mumble mumble) and turns Lucy’s act into a G-rated affair. Why she does any of this, I have no idea but the patrons eat it up.

However, Alan is still plotting against Lucy and McBride. Lucy is becoming steadily more devout and Janet seems to kind of like McBride. Will the mysteries be solved and the murderer brought to justice? See The Worldly Madonna to find out!

Cleaning up the cubists.

Okay. Yeah. That plot. Reviews of the time complained that the whole story was ridiculous and confusing and it is but at least it’s ridiculous in an interesting way. Plots of the early feature era had been kitchen sink affairs with one mad twist after the other but the rise of the studio system meant safer, tested stories. So, The Worldly Madonna is something of a throwback, the kind of thing that would have been common five or seven years earlier. Or it would have been huge in the eighties, the decade of welder-by-day-exotic-dancer-by-night being a viable plot.

Why is anybody doing any of the things they are doing? I have no idea. I am not sure screenwriter Sada Cowan had any idea. In fact, considering that she wrote the absolutely nutter-butter, cuckoo-for-cocoa-puffs Fool’s Paradise the previous year, I think I am sensing a pattern.

Never trust a cafe with swirl décor, apparently.

However, it did give Clara Kimball Young her chance to play multiple roles. She had already played around with alternate timelines, so why not this? Young’s fame was on shaky ground when The Worldly Madonna was released in 1922. A popular star and acclaimed dramatic actress, Young is not extremely well known outside of silent film circles and even in them, she is probably best remembered for The Eyes of Youth, the aforementioned alternate timeline picture, which featured a pre-fame Rudolph Valentino.

Reviews of the time pretty much align with my opinion of the picture: Young is clearly trying her best with a ridiculous story and your enjoyment of the film depends very much on your admiration and affection for the star.

Janet as Lucy.

The story could have worked with a bit more care. If we had been shown scenes of Lucy adjusting to convent life, if we had had more explanation of why Janet felt the need to continue the charade after it was clear McBride was alive, if there had been an actual point to any of it… Alas.

Spoiler: One major thing that was not clear to me was the ending of the picture. One sister marries McBride, one returns to the convent but which is which? Could lost footage be to blame? So, I decided to dig into contemporary coverage to see if I could find an answer.

Which sis is which?

Exhibitors Herald states that, after the real killer is revealed, “it is then disclosed that the two sisters had changed places. Lucy, however, has found contentment within the convent walls and is happy in the knowledge that Janet and McBride are to be married. There are aspects of the religious theme which are liable to entail criticism.”

I mean, yeah, but at least we have an answer. The sisters changed places.

But then I read the synopsis in Film Daily. “In the end of the story the guilty sister repents and marries her lover, but there is nothing to show that she freed herself of the drug habit.”

Clear as mud, my dears.

The truth at last.

My instincts tell me that the nun and singer both returned to their places as wiser women but I cannot be 100% certain. As sacrilegious as this picture apparently was, I cannot imagine anyone greenlighting permanent swapsies. It wouldn’t be ethically sound for a desk job, let alone a religious calling with vows and whatnot, plus a real marriage. Further, when the sisters reunite, the woman in the nun’s habit identifies the woman in secular garb as Lucy to McBride. If they did switch places, they didn’t bother telling him, another ethical issue.

Film Daily does make a good point about Lucy’s drug addiction. After a brief scene of her looking nervous, it is pretty much forgotten and she is next shown as serene and religious. Portrayals of recovery from drug addiction were reasonably common during the silent era, with films like The Devil’s Needle providing big opportunities for dramatic acting. However, 1922 was the year Will Hayes came to Hollywood, so it is possible that the film was more coy about addiction and recovery as a result. Still, a simple title card saying something like, “After many difficult hours, Lucy is freed from the grip of her addiction” would have solved the problem.

We’re wacky and we know it!

The Worldy Madonna is not a good movie by any stretch of the imagination. But it is an extremely entertaining one. I wouldn’t recommend it as your first introduction to Clara Kimball Young but as a bonkers bit of fun… yeah, pretty amazing stuff. So, I recommend this film with a few caveats.

Where can I see it?

Released on DVD by Grapevine.

☙❦❧

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