There would have been solid competition for Best Supporting Actress of 1916-17, including Gertrude Berkeley, mother of Busby, who was signed at Nazimova’s insistence to repeat her stage role in the screen version of the star’s vaudeville play War Brides. Adele DeGarde, all grown up from her days as a Biograph child actress, got all the best lines (even if they were only titles) in the first screen version of Within the Law, stealing the movie from star Alice Joyce. While Josephine Crowell, who movie critic Julian Johnson correctly assessed as “a great character player this actress,” more than held her own opposite British theater legend Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree in his final American film The Old Folks at Home, garnering the lion’s share of praise from reviewers. And Florence Vidor, as Edward Wagenknecht notes in Fifty Great American Silent Films, repeated screen history as the seamstress who accompanies Sydney Carton to the guillotine in Fox’s A Tale of Two Cities, sparking the same sort of brief, dramatic charge as Norma Talmadge had in the earlier Vitagraph short. But the odds for winning the Oscar were ever in Miriam Cooper’s favor.
In her autobiography Dark Lady of the Silents, the actress observed –– “I’m the only person, let alone the lead, who appeared in all three (of the American screen’s most important early epics): The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance and The Honor System.” Though Cooper wasn’t really the lead in any of these movies, given such blanket exposure it’s unlikely that her supporting appearances would have gone unnoticed. Three times being the charm, her accumulated trio of high-profile roles should have added up to a golden statue. Now lost, The Honor System, a social problem picture about the inhumane living conditions of inmates in a Southwestern penal colony, was apparently a forerunner of prison reform melodramas like I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. And as directed by Cooper’s husband at the time Raoul Walsh, a former D.W. Griffith protégé, it was likely inspired by the modern story of Intolerance, which had weighed the unbalanced scales of America’s judicial system.
Comparing The Honor System favorably to the epics she had starred in for Griffith, Cooper described it as “one of the great movies of the period…Reviewers of the day raved about it, saying it made film history. It also made money.” So much so in fact that she has the temerity to claim “If there had been any award for best picture of the year in 1917, the year it was released, The Honor System would certainly have won it.” It was Intolerance however, 1916-17’s true best picture that actually contained Cooper’s finest work. But because Griffith’s quartet was a box-office disappointment that didn’t draw well outside metropolitan centers, few were privileged to witness one of the most gripping dramatic turns of the teens. As a result, the silent actress’ superlative performance has never received the full-throated accolade due it, despite the picture having played repeatedly for more than a century since.
Cooper is A Friendless One in the Modern Story, victim of a mill town strike violently put down by the ironfisted owner, Jenkins (Sam de Grasse). Along with The Boy (Robert Harron), who always treated her kindly, and the innocent little Dear One (Mae Marsh), she’s forced to relocate to a neighboring big city, where she falls under the corrupting influence of The Musketeer of the Slums (Walter Long), becoming his mistress while The Boy joins his criminal gang. Leaving the racket to turn over a new leaf after marrying Dear One, The Boy is framed by his former boss as punishment. While serving out his term, The Musketeer moves in on his abandoned wife by promising to retrieve her baby, taken away by Jenkins funded reformers. With the Friendless One’s jealousy piqued, she follows The Musketeer on his latest rendezvous and while he and the recently released Boy struggle, shoots him from her unseen perch outside the window. When The Boy is sentenced to the gallows for the crime, she wrestles with her conscience over whether to turn herself in. A Kindly Cop (Tom Wilson) who has taken an interest in the case, coerces the remorseful woman to admit to the shooting and hoping to secure a stay of execution, the group races by car to head off the governor’s train.
Acclaiming her performance, Julian Johnson noted in Photoplay, “All actresses who honestly provide for home and baby by the business of vamping and gunning, would do well to observe Miss Cooper’s expressions and gestures.” Although the actress was no fan of Theda Bara, who husband Walsh frequently directed, Cooper’s dark, languorous looks often led Griffith to cast her in a similarly vampish vein – the exotic other woman, in contrast to the fair-haired damsels that otherwise ruled his roost. A seemingly atypical Griffith heroine, Cooper represented something different to him, though in her way she must have also embodied the quintessential Old South of his imagination, since he cast her in that guise for The Birth of a Nation. But it’s just as likely that the director had seen her in the innumerable Kalem shorts she’d appeared in to honor the anniversary of the Civil War, and indirectly came to associate Cooper with the era. So much so that he had his reps hunt her down long after she’d left Biograph, to join him in California for his landmark epic. Cooper had been good, if too sedate, as Margaret Cameron in The Birth of a Nation, so Intolerance was a revelation of banked dramatic fires and furies.
When her Friendless One flirts with The Boy for instance, practically under the very nose of the man who now runs them both, rather than backing down, she takes violent offense at The Musketeer’s well-founded accusations, slapping him full across the face. Immediately dousing his rising fury before he has time to react, she twists his anger into warped sexual passion by clasping him to her in a brutal embrace that practically shrieks “kiss me, my fool! However Cooper’s Friendless One is nuanced in a way that far removes her from the soulless sirens Bara usually played.
“A friendless one – alone – as a result of the strike,” Cooper’s nameless character is intended to represent all women with hard luck lives since time began. Bereft of father, brothers or husband to seek shelter from when turned out of house and home, she’s left to fend for herself in a hard, cruel man’s world. Given the lack of gainful employment available to women at the time, the Friendless One finds it even harder than The Boy to survive on her own. With no other avenues open to her, she can only make ends meet by selling her body.
Through crosscutting, Griffith makes the enlightened point that the Friendless One’s allowing herself to be picked up by The Musketeer outside of a restaurant where she’s hungrily pacing, is no more worthy of our condemnation than The Boy, who resorts to rolling a drunk for money. As a title relates “…unable to find work – at last – ” … both are reduced by capitalist society to the same common denominator in their desperate struggle for survival.
When the Mountain Girl is later put on public display for male perusal in Babylon’s marriage market, Griffith further connects the dots, telling us that it’s “– perhaps not so different from the modern way,” where the Friendless One was similarly apprised before that shop, just another enticing window display to be purchased. While Jenkins’ reformers congratulate themselves on “righting the world that was all wrong,” confident they’ve stamped out prostitution, the irony is that the economic forces they’ve set in motion have actually led the once innocent Friendless One down that same primrose path.
Though in her autobiography an indignant Cooper is adamant that she was not playing a prostitute in Intolerance, the director clearly wanted to give viewers that impression. There’s only one interpretation possible of this scene where he has her walk the street in front of the restaurant, waiting to be propositioned by a lip-smacking customer hungry for something other than food. Whether he kept the actress in the dark about his intentions or not, given Cooper’s own anecdote about Griffith’s surreptitious efforts to backlight her while she was wearing translucent harem pants, so that she would appear virtually naked from the waist down, there’s a tacit understanding regarding what was really being implied.
According to Photoplay, “Miss Cooper is police dock – she is blotter transcript. Her face is what you really see some nights under the green lamps,” basking in the sort of unflattering shades of limelight that can wreck a girl’s reputation. Our first glimpse of the Friendless One in her scandalous new surroundings, having become the Musketeer’s mistress, are pastel-toned, scenes shaded the color of purple passion – alluding to a relationship more akin to hooker and pimp. She may be reporting to The Musketeer now instead of Jenkins, but this working girl’s being exploited just as badly. The revealing, diaphanous costumes she’s swathed in are likened to the similarly sheer, filmy garments worn by Babylon’s vestal virgins.
These “Handmaidens from Ishtar’s temple of love and laughter,” some allegedly cast by Griffith’s assistants with actual extras from the red light district, licentiously loll about in sensual abandon as if drugged on ecstasy, swaying to a refrain only they can hear. The director draws the allusion further by describing the state wards put on Babylon’s auction block as “…corresponding to our street outcasts…” the Friendless One included. Dressed in the damnedest getups, vamp de rigueur for the time, she now appears indistinguishable from that painted lady the little Dear One spied on the street trailing a train of men, leaving little doubt into what circumstances she’s fallen. While the Dear One is tempted to play at being a whore, naively practicing the wriggle of this loose woman she sees in hopes that “men will like me too,” the Friendless One becomes one in fact. Due to the prescient intercession of The Boy, who marries her, Dear One can remain respectable, while Cooper’s tarnished character becomes a scarlet woman.
Remembering their acquaintance from the old days, the Friendless One still carries a torch for The Boy, an eternal flame as undying as The Mountain Girl’s for Belshazzar. An unspoken backstory between the two is discreetly alluded to in the scene where they say their goodbyes, The Boy setting off for the big city. Seeing his suitcase and realizing he’s going away forever, Cooper recalls her Margaret Cameron in The Birth of a Nation, heartbreakingly bidding adieu to her Northern friends for the final time before war breaks out. Having been passed around, it isn’t surprising that the Friendless One would hold such a soft spot in her heart for this Boy from back home, the sole surviving link to the good girl she once was and the only man to ever treat her with respect. As it would be with Lillian Gish in True Heart Susie, the Friendless One’s feelings for him are such that she’s willing to go to extremes to protect him from afar without asking for anything in return, even when such actions run counter to her own self interests.
Appearing in the bedroom door beyond, a haunting, morose figure wrapped in a sheet as The Musketeer struggles with The Boy, she makes no move to prevent the man who ruined her from being thrashed, for instance. When the situation is reversed however, and The Musketeer is on the brink of clobbering the kid with a chair, she’ll impulsively shoot him, despite his being the only thing standing between her and a life on the streets. Having tracked the Musketeer to the Dear One’s tenement, dogging his steps like a possessive wife, she’ll prove hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. Despite suffering agonies of mental and emotional distress, the gangster’s moll is loath to shoot him when he initially attacks the Dear One, still smarting from her having married the only man she ever loved, and now threatening to alienate the affections of the one keeping her.
Befitting Griffith’s epic of contrasts, Cooper’s characterization becomes a fascinating array of contradictory emotions. One minute smirking at the Dear One’s naivety at letting herself get cornered in such a compromising situation, the next on the verge of hysteria for being helpless to do anything to help her. The actress’ dark hair, black hat and Elizabethan ruff collar serve to frame and enhance the conflicting emotions playing across her face. In her autobiography, Cooper discusses how she lived her parts, becoming her characters and feeling their emotions in an intuitive form of early Method acting, and her realistic performance bears her out. The actress was so in the moment during this scene that she bit her lip hard enough to draw blood, which Griffith’s camera captures in appreciative close-up. So Cooper’s anguish is real as she suffers magnificently for her art. Appearing to be something of a loose cannon, packing the same pistol in her purse The Boy had earlier turned in, she climbs out onto the fire escape, precariously inching her way along a narrow ledge like Pearl White, to get a better view of what’s going on through the second-story window, and a clear shot. An elderly Indian named Eagle Eye doubled for Cooper in the shot when she leaps to the ground and slips away undetected.
Where her friendless One fired with the intention of saving the Boy’s life, remembering all his kindnesses toward her, she ironically ends up getting him sentenced to death instead. And her wavering indecisiveness over whether to admit to the murder or let him take the wrap, is the stuff of pure acting gold for Cooper. She’s haunted by the knowledge of what she did, wracked with remorse, and it’s her guilty conscience that ends up giving her away, as it did the Edgar Allen Poe character in Griffith’s The Avenging Conscience. Harried by her inner voice, she relives the traumatic events over and over in her mind, eyes glazing over and mind fading out as delayed shock sets in. Her psyche seems to intuit The Boy parading the prison grounds in the convict stripes she fitted him for, forcing her to rub feverishly at her throbbing temples as if to push the thought from her head. Slumping in her chair dazed, she suddenly comes to, staring off in stark terror at the frightful fears flooding over her. A fascinating series of stills exist of the actress working herself up to the proper emotional pitch for this scene, one of her most harrowing, but there are many others to compare it with.
Case in point, when Cooper attends the Boy’s trial, she assumes a cool air of unconcern, even turning around to stare down a spectator behind her making off-color cracks. But despite being in the clear she feels compelled, like all criminals, to return to the scene of the crime (“The irresistible impulse.”), haunting the premises as surely as she herself is constantly haunted by her own guilty conscience. Feeling pursued and persecuted, her shifty eyes and increasingly agitated manner make it plain that she’s become paranoid. Inadvertently rousing the suspicion of The Kindly Cop with her conspicuous behavior, she evades his questions when confronted, brazenly pretending to have just been powdering her nose before sauntering off. Subconsciously acceding that she should be the hunted party, the Friendless One instead begins shadowing the cop, loitering outside the governor’s mansion when he takes the Dear One to plead for a reprieve. The truth will out and, deep down, Cooper’s character wants to be caught, to be punished for her sins, and in so doing, exorcised of the personal demons bedeviling her. It’s why she so readily caves under cross-examination, breaking down once given the third degree, coming clean and admitting to everything.
The treatment of the woman taken in adultery in the Christ tale, is quite pertinent in light of the Friendless One’s similar sins. Though pilloried by society, like that nude statue of a woman lashed to the stake alongside the other erotic artwork and French postcards decorating the Musketeer’s love nest, a sympathetic Griffith never condemned his female characters for falling from grace, holding out hope for their spiritual redemption. Numbing herself to the little wife’s pleas, the Friendless One initially refuses to be moved for instance, though a telling, baleful tear escapes her eyes nonetheless. In such scenes of contrition and remorse, Cooper transforms her character into the moving vision of a repentant Magdalene. An emotional firestorm in her unforgettably dynamic big moments, Cooper, in a movie teeming with excellent actors and exceptional turns, drew out of herself what is, to my way of thinking, one of the supreme acting achievements of the time. Registering an astonishing array of fervently felt passions, this must have been an incredibly taxing, physically exhausting, spiritually draining workout, requiring the actress to be put through the emotional wringer. The results were nothing if not Oscar-worthy.
Following her success in Intolerance, Griffith approached Cooper with the prospect of appearing in a version of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam he was developing, with the intention of promoting her to stardom, but it was already too late. Having secretly wed Raoul Walsh, the actress skipped over to Fox to work near her husband. But her new company was not known for its creative ambition. As Eve Golden states in Vamp, Fox’s biggest star at the time, Theda Bara, “would have given her eyeteeth for a project as (creatively) fulfilling as Intolerance.” Apart from her warmly admired, long lost version of Evangeline, Cooper never again delivered on the dramatic flash viewers momentarily caught sight of here. But at least her talents were given their brief season in the sun by Griffith. Having reached her dramatic peak as an emotional actress in Intolerance, this golden standard would have been one hard act to follow.
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