If Silents Were Golden… 1919-20

BEST CHOICE:

 Male & Female 

(Paramount; Cecil B. DeMille)

EXTANT


Honorable Mention1a


stA melodrama about con artists who find God while trying to fleece a faith healer, The Miracle Man spoke to a post-war nation clamoring for some old time religion, before the Aimee Semple McPherson scandal weakened the tent revival movement later in the decade. In the meantime, movies like The Miracle Man, which demonstrated how faith could move mountains, healing those sick in mind, body, and soul, proved extraordinarily popular with a grieving public hungry for evidence of a higher power at work in the world.

Directed by the gifted, forgotten George Loane Tucker, The Miracle Man was, without question, the film of the year, accorded pride of place by The New York Times in its annual ranking of the year’s best movies, and no doubt would’ve practiced some laying on of hands had Oscars existed at the time. Though lost now, the movie’s most celebrated sequence, in which Lon Chaney’s fake cripple feigns an on the spot ‘recovery,’ only to behold this sham trigger a chain reaction of genuine miracle cures, survives, which is fortunate since, by all accounts, it was the film’s dramatic highlight. But to declare The Miracle Man Best Picture of 1919-20 based solely on an excerpt would, I fear, be taking the film’s virtues on faith alone. The year that ushered in the Roaring Twenties was, appropriately, also the one in which American movies discovered sex. Emerging from a prolonged adolescence, Hollywood suddenly found it permissible, in the freer, post-war climate, to deal irreverently with once sacred cows such as marital incompatibility and infidelity. In response, outraged civic and religious leaders, already condemning the movie colony’s loose morals, threw their support behind safe, sanitized family fare as healthy alternatives to the seemingly unstoppable sin tide washing across the country’s screens. All the more reason for Oscar to have honored The Miracle Man, which presented the industry in the best light possible by proving how morally uplifting movies could be.

Blind Husbands, The Virgin of Stamboul, and the brazenly titled Sex, all exotic, provocative films with a high erotic quotient, were among the other pictures generating comment. Even Cecil B. Demille found it prudent to change the name of an established literary property like James M. Barrie’s The Admirable Crichton, to the far racier Male and Female when bringing it to the screen. My choice for Best Picture, Male and Female caused a sensation when released, becoming, along with Erich von Stroheim’s Blind Husbands, the most polarizing picture of the year. It also starred Paramount contract player and The Miracle Man’s lead Thomas Meighan, this time around as a butler who takes pleasure in turning the tables on his aristocratic employers. Loam House, London is sharply divided along class lines. Upstairs resides the nobility, Lord Loam (Theodore Roberts), his daughters, Lady Mary (Gloria Swanson) and Agatha (Mildred Reardon), and their cousin, the Honorable Ernest Woolly (Raymond Hatton). Downstairs, in the servants’ quarters, toils their staff. Tweeny, the male&femalefigure5maleandfemalescullery maid (Lila Lee), is in love with the butler, Crichton (Meighan), but he’s too besotted with his mistress to pay her any mind.  For her part, Mary, on those occasions when she deigns to acknowledge the butler’s existence, takes the opportunity to upbraid or belittle him. When her friend, Lady Eileen (Rhy Darby), confides that she’s in love with her chauffeur, Mary is aghast at the idea, scoffing “it’s precisely as if I were to marry Crichton.” During a cruise, the Loams and their servants are shipwrecked on a desert island. When the other castaways prove incapable of fending for themselves, Crichton takes command. Mary is initially hostile, but soon softens toward her masterful butler, even sparring with Tweeny for his attentions. After saving Mary from a leopard, Crichton relates the legend of a Babylonian king who threw the Christian slave he loved to the lions, and was doomed thereafter to serve her down through the ages. Now social equals, the two decide to marry, but during the ceremony a rescue ship is spotted.

Ecstatic, Tweeny informs Mary that Crichton will return to her since class is again an obstacle to their happiness. Back home, the Loams assume sole credit for their survival. Only Mary remains true to her butler. When Crichton overhears Eileen, now a social outcast, pleading with her old friend not to make the same mistake she did however, he announces his intention to wed Tweeny. The two will immigrate to America, where who you’re born need not be a determining factor in how far you go in life.

Best remembered now for his conventional historical and biblical spectacles, and on the basis of them written off as a great showman of negligible artistic consequence, Cecil B. Demille once stood among the giants of the movie industry. A pioneering innovator, heavily influenced by the theatrical productions of David Belasco, he’d done much to raise the standards of photography (with his “Rembrandt lighting” effects) and scenic design on the American screen.

Disappointed by the response to his daring, depressing psychological drama, The Whispering Chorus, Demille turned his talents in the late teens to a set of trendy, mix and match marriage comedies centering around the rising divorce rate and the eternal battle of the sexes. Amusing romantic roundelays like Old Wives for New, Don’t Change Your Husband, We Can’t Have Everything, and Why Change Your Wife?, raised eyebrows with their cynical take on that most honorable of institutions, and furthered the evolution of sophisticated sex comedy into a cinematic art form all its own. In them, Demille honed the delightfully sly, irreverent wit exemplified by Male and Female, the single most sparkling entry in this series.

While it may now seem a none too subtle satire on the ruling class, Male and Female was startlingly topical when originally released. The Russian Revolution was still a fairly recent event, and the social unrest and paranoia it stirred up here at home had helped fuel America’s first Red Scare, resulting in suspected communists and subversives being rounded up wholesale and faced with deportation. In such a tense political climate, this far fetched farce about a marooned servant who incites class mutiny was considered quite controversial. When Crichton wrests leadership away from the Loams, lording it over his former lords and ladies, comparison to the recent revolution is both invited and unavoidable.

Furthermore, the island settlement is initially depicted as though it were a socialist collective. In the interest of the common good, each castaway must pool their resources, handing over private property like pocket watches to spark campfires, or mesh fringe to use as fishing nets. If any are to survive, all must pitch in by hunting game, gathering fruits and vegetables, crafting utensils and pottery, or smelting iron for tools. As Crichton points out to Mary, who absurdly expects things to go on as before, “Those who are not willing to serve– are apt to find themselves both cold and hungry!” Demille goes so far toward holding up this island utopia as the functional, working model of an agrarian commune, one might almost think he were endorsing that way of life as some sort of sociopolitical ideal.

But despite the movie’s apparent leftist slant, Demille remained a staunch conservative and naively positions America at the conclusion as a classless democracy where Crichton can find contentment. To further diffuse any potentially incendiary stance, Male and Female’s focus is shifted from social to sexual politics. As its title would suggest, Male and Female is less about class warfare than the battle of the sexes, and it was this shift in tone that likely prompted the name change, rather than an apocryphal studio head, as Hollywood legend would have it, fearing ticket buyers would mistake the “admirable” Crichton for the “admiral” Crichton, at a time when sea pictures weren’t selling. Demille had touched on the theme of gender role reversal in his earlier Joan the Woman, but with Male and Female he really brought it to the fore. We’re proffered a picture in which women, while presumably created as man’s inferior, have in fact assumed a station in society superior to his own. Conversely, soft living has emasculated the men of Male and Female. As butlers, houseboys, chauffeurs, etc., they’re left to perform all the menial domestic duties traditionally relegated to the weaker sex. This is a topsy turvy world, in which modern civilization has become the exclusive province of the frivolous and feminine, and society’s most industrious, resourceful, pragmatic, hard working, noble man is not an aristocrat but a butler. Everything’s already upside down, so the turnabout on the island is actually setting things to rights.

The shipwreck reinstitutes the ‘natural’ order of things, allowing man to again assert his supremacy as the superior of the two sexes just as God, invoked in that opening quote from Genesis, had intended. Once back to nature, Crichton’s domineering masculinity, strength, size, brawn, stand him in better stead to weather the harsh conditions of this inhospitable island environ. Clinching proof that Crichton and Mary have, for the time being, accepted their proper Male and Female designations is immediately forthcoming. When a leopard threatens, Crichton instinctively assumes a protective stance, placing a frightened, now helpless Mary in a small shoal grotto for shelter while he stands guard, brandishing an oar for a weapon. The Freudian symbolism here is quite frank and, frankly, unmistakable.

This fantasy island, with its unlikely mélange of flora and fauna, doesn’t appear far removed from Neverland, that enchanted realm whimsical Irish author James Barrie dreamed up for Peter Pan. In actuality, however, it’s meant to be taken as Paradise rediscovered, a new Eden, where life can be lived in the raw, away from the corrupting influence of civilization, closer to the soil and traditional bedrock values. Just as unbelievers were converted by contact with The Miracle Man, the island here exerts a transformative influence on all concerned. Each castaway is changed for the better. Lord Loam, initially as sedentary as that ancient tortoise he mistakes for a pillow, becomes alert and spry, the feckless Agatha more useful and practical, foppish Woolly learns the value of a hard day’s work, while featherbrained Tweeny develops a mind of her own and starts thinking for herself.

The biggest sea change, however, occurs in Mary. Over the course of her island stay this vainglorious peacock, all fuss and feathers beforehand, becomes progressively less spoiled and helpless (she now spears pheasants for food, the hunted has become the hunter). Most importantly, Mary becomes less class-conscious. In London, she had cautioned her friend against marrying beneath her with “Would you put a Jackdaw and a bird of paradise in the same cage? It’s kind to kind Eileen- and you and I can never change it!” By movie’s end, in an echoing scene, her narrow, snobbish views have undergone a radical revision. Now able to understand and sympathize with fellow feeling, she urges her friend to follow her heart, regardless of all impediments, “If you really loved him it wouldn’t matter if he were king or chauffeur.”

Washed up on shore, all are stripped of their class, rank, status, titles, and again set on equal footing, allowing those best equipped by nature, to rise to the top. As Crichton philosophically forecasts, with just a slight rumbling of class resentment, “one cannot tell what may be in a man, my lady. If all were to return to Nature tomorrow, the same man might not be master- nor the same man servant- Nature would decide the matter for us!” It’s the natural world, rather than society, that offers the more valid assessment of a man’s true mettle. This is natural selection, Darwinism at work. Male and Female also offers some wry observations on the immutability of human nature. Even in this new Eden, the social equivalent of original sin will rear its head. What begins as a co-op becomes a stratified monarchy to mirror the one left behind. By the second anniversary of the shipwreck, Crichton has “firmly established his kingship,” and is waited upon hand and foot, precisely as Mary had been back home. Eventually exiled from paradise, he’s well aware of what caused his fall. “There was just as little equality on the island as elsewhere,” he ruefully recalls, “I didn’t even take my meals with the family!”

This butler’s in fine company. For Demille, despite the lip service he pays to the wholesomeness of the simple life, likewise betrays his own decadent conditioning. From force of habit he can’t help turning his Garden of Eden into a worldly garden of earthly delights. Lushly sensual, Male and Female is so slickly polished it’s like unadulterated material bliss. The cameraman Alvin Wycoff, assisted by a young James Wong Howe, uses his lens as though it were a velvet keyhole. Only instead of Lady Godiva, we play Peeping Tom on Swanson’s Lady Mary, in bed or, becoming increasingly intimate, following her into an ornate bath that comes across like an architectural shrine to the aesthetic. This déclassé dip was such an eye popping smash in its day that Demille would virtually restage it, with characteristic aplomb, for The Sign of the Cross, filling an ancient Roman bath with gallons of Grade A milk.

The stark shifts in locale, ranging from the high fashion heights of London’s Loam House to the survivor chic of the island, present a veritable tour de force in window dressing. The craftsmanship of Demille’s imaginative art director, Wilfred Buckland is most strongly evidenced in Male and Female’s other classic bit, where Swanson is thrown to the lions. Clearly, Buckland’s fanciful reconstruction of the king’s court, an incident not to be found in Barrie, took its inspiration from the Babylonian episode of Griffith’s Intolerance, which had been re-released as a separate feature, The Fall of Babylon, earlier in the year. Demille had theatrical costumier Mitchell Liesen specially brought in to design Swanson’s fanning, peacock headdress, along with her skirt, which seems strung together from pearl drops, but his contribution was well worth the trouble and expense. In these fine feathers she’d make fitting kitty kibble for any self respecting king of the beasts. Just leave it to Swanson, a notorious silent film fashion plate, to dress for the occasion.

Although Demille and scriptwriter Jeanie MacPherson were criticized at the time for departures like this one, they thankfully treat their source material with less reverence than they would later on, when turning their hand to lavish transcriptions of The Good Book. The clever captions they composed are fun to read, full of humorous puns, quips, and plays on words, and help make the movie so much their own that it has surpassed its source. Male and Female’s basic premise has lent itself to such diverse reworkings as TV’s cartoonish Gilligan’s Island and Lina Wertmuller’s angry polemic Swept Away.

Just as The Miracle Man made major stars of its principal players, Thomas Meighan, Betty Compson, and Lon Chaney, Male and Female boosted the careers of its three main leads as well. Meighan, Swanson, and Lila Lee would all go on to major stardom in the coming decade. The supporting cast, headed by Demille regulars Theodore Roberts and Raymond Hatton, is also uniformly fine, but this is Swanson’s showcase all the way. Male and Female is the most flattering vanity piece the director would mount for his greatest star. When Demille waxes nostalgic about the young Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, I’d wager he’s specifically recalling Gloria Swanson in this film. All synthetic and sybaritic, the two together reach the limits of artistically licensed insanity. Demille may not have been a cinematic visionary like Griffith, but he was ahead of the curve in all the garish, gaudy ways that make his colossally campy movies such guilty pleasures to watch now. Hokum of the highest order, Male and Female remains among the most unabashedly entertaining of all silent movies.

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 See Who Would’ve Won

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