If Silents Were Golden… 1919-20

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BEST CHOICE:

 Thomas Meighan

  (Male & Female)

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Honorable Mention1a


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Just like his film character, John Barrymore was leading a double life in 1920, appearing in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde at the movies while moonlighting on Broadway in Richard III. If photos of his stage Richard are any indication, the actor evidently carried over much in the journey from screen to stage, borrowing both his crook backed scuttle and, with only slight modification, his Hyde makeup as well. The exertion of portraying two such high powered parts so close together triggered a nervous breakdown and sympathies stirred by such evidence of the actor’s dedication to his craft would have clinched the Best Actor Oscar Barrymore already had in the bag. Jekyll and Hyde’s split personality must have been catching. There are times in the movie when Barrymore appears unsure whether he’s acting in front of the footlights or a camera. His initial changeover for instance, shot in one static take, as if on a stage, is so overdrawn that it’s inclined to evoke laughter. With his jutting jaw, crossed eyes, and jagged leer, his Hyde looks more like a figure of fun than of horror. Though Barrymore’s performance improves as the picture wears on, becoming effectively creepy, he still tends to careen into silent acting overdrive whenever afforded the opportunity. His Hyde is pure ham.

Nevertheless, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was the film that finally established Barrymore as a top movie star after eight years on screen. Thrilled that the public was so taken with his daring physical transformation he’d go on for years inserting Hyde-like homages into his work. While the role, in a sense, typecast him, this matinee idol once billed as ‘The Great Profile’ still seems all wrong as the sort of misshapen silent movie monster that fairly cries out to be played by Lon Chaney. To my mind, the Best Actor of 1919-20 wasn’t John Barrymore, or Lon Chaney for that matter, who’d garnered great notices in Paramount’s The Miracle Man, but rather Chaney’s co-star in that film. Thomas Meighan’s featured role in The Miracle Man had lifted him to screen prominence and would surely have reserved him a select place among the acting nominees. Yet, however impressive he may have been in that lost film, Meighan couldn’t have been any more deserving of an Oscar than he was for Male and Female, in which he played a butler who bests his betters.

Film historians tend to lump Meighan in with other popular but stolid stars of the day, workmanlike but unimaginative leading men such as Milton Sills and Lewis Stone. But as the British butler in Cecil B. Demille’s version of The Admirable Crichton, Meighan wasn’t impeded by his stoic style since it blended rather nicely with the stiff upper lip national character. According to Joe Franklin in his Classics of the Silent Screen, “Meighan did particularly well in a role ideally suited to his personality – the ultra capable but undemonstrative English butler.” Male and Female hands the actor a part tailored to his stiff necked reserve, then cleverly subverts it so that he can loosen up a little by going native once shipwrecked. In effect, Meighan is afforded the opportunity to present duel facets of his character, just as Barrymore was in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. There are other similarities between the two as well. Each actor played an uptight Englishman who’s consecrated his life in service to others but who, after immersing himself in the ‘big drink,’ is freed to rebel, unleashing his primal scream upon polite society, if with more benign results in Crichton’s case. While both effectively persuade us that such contrasting natures could co-exist within the same individual, Meighan’s self contained underplaying is much easier on modern eyes than Barrymore’s florid theatrics.

As a butler, Crichton has been shunted into the traditional female role of homemaker, preparing and serving meals, dusting and doing housework. He eagerly awaits Mary’s appraisal of her breakfast spread as if he were a nervous newlywed bride who’d just prepared her first dish. Denying his more masculine impulses has become second nature to him. Whenever eager to please, he’ll rub his hands together in obeisance, toadying like Dickens’ Uriah Heep. The island, full of wide open spaces, proves a liberating landscape for this butler, a cousin to the fastidious valet who goes west in the Ruggles of Red Gap, as he casts off his inhibitions. Once out of his native habitat, he finds himself in his element for the first time, speaking out and taking charge. Here he becomes his own master, displacing the Loams in the social pecking order. Crichton also restores the ‘natural’ order of things by becoming lord and master of his former mistress. Where Crichton had served Lady Mary meals, she now waits upon him. Having reclaimed the dominant, ‘male’ role in their relationship, this previously passive butler can now begin aggressively pursuing his romantic interest in her.

On the island, Meighan’s performance stresses Crichton’s virility, whether assuming the captain’s role by going down with the ship, teaching Mary to shoot a bow and arrow, defending her from a leopard, or wielding oars, ram’s horns, axes, all phallic props intended to accentuate his masculinity. If the aged, impotent Lord Loam, the puny Woolly, and the handsome but chaste young priest who accompanies them on their cruise are any indication, the other men of Male and Female have been effectively neutered, leaving nothing more virile to recommend them than money, titles, position. Amidst this collection of inert bluebloods, Crichton, fittingly for a story with such strong socialist sentiments, appears to be the lone red-blooded man of action, the one best equipped by nature to take up the reigns of leadership.

At his height, Thomas Meighan towers over the other actors in the movie, diminishing them by comparison. His presence dominates the screen whenever he’s on it. Squaring off with Mary in a contest of wills over who her maid should take orders from, for instance, the director must crowd both women, along with Mary’s sister Agatha, and a boulder to the left, simply to balance out the frame. It seems almost comically incongruous for this hulking man to be delicately polishing silver and pouring weak tea. The discrepancy of Meighan’s substantial physique in these miniature surroundings provides the movie’s most subtle visual gag concerning the constrictions imposed on individuals by a social order devised to keep them down. The point Male and Female makes is that the natural aptitude of men like Crichton is unjustly squandered by a restrictive class system that doesn’t permit them to reach their full potential. This butler by trade, though a born leader, has instead been reduced to the level of menial who must march to the orders of others. He has all kinds of hidden talents that his station in life has never afforded him the opportunity to exercise. Only on the island can Crichton’s inherent skills and commonsense know-how assert themselves.

At first Crichton doesn’t set himself up as king over this island community, instead expecting everyone, himself included, to pull their fair weight. Eventually however, his absolute power as the castaway’s uncontested autocrat goes to his head. He’ll strut about like a crowing rooster, blowing his horn as if it were a factory whistle, to bring his workers running. He no longer seems the first among equals but has promoted himself to a loftier position. Serving simply in a supervisory capacity, he oversees the work of the rest, evaluating the quality and quantity of their daily production, while he himself lounges about comfortably indoors, reading and soaking up the easy life. The castaways now prepare his meals, file in for inspection, and bend over backward trying to please him, just as Crichton and his staff earlier had Mary. When Mary actually puts herself in harm’s way to secure the figs Crichton had requested for dinner, it’s clear that his outlandish demands have become every bit as unreasonable as her own seemed to him beforehand. It’s now Crichton who’s been spoiled.

The butler’s gesture of obsequiousness, which had, for a time, disappeared entirely, reemerges once the rescue ship is sighted. As Mary bears witness, Crichton slips back into his earlier state of servility, ripping off his royal raiment of lion skin and, unconsciously wringing his hands, deferentially bows his head low before her. The complex emotional effect, on Mary, as well as viewers, is equal parts pity, horror, and revulsion, similar to what we feel when Barrymore’s good Dr. Jekyll quite abruptly, and unexpectedly, reverts back into Hyde at the end of that movie. Barrymore may have been commuting from stage to screen, but Meighan matched his acting stamina by appearing back to back in two of the year’s biggest hits, and, unlike Barrymore, the strain didn’t tell. To the contrary, it was Elliott Dexter, the actor originally slated to play Crichton, who suffered the nervous breakdown, permitting Meighan to step in as a last minute replacement. Though Dexter had most recently been Demille’s actor of choice, in retrospect, it is Meighan’s looks that seem more in keeping with the director’s preferences. With that curly hair, strapping frame, and jutting brow ridge imparting the unfortunate impression that he’s wearing a perpetual scowl, Meighan bears more than a casual resemblance to such later Demille stalwarts as Charles Bickford and Henry Wilcoxen.

If The Miracle Man made Meighan a star, it was Male and Female, following so closely upon it, that firmly cemented that status. The actor would go on to an important career in the ‘20s, but he was at his best in the light romantic comedy-dramas of the Demille brothers. Cecil’s Male and Female and Why Change Your Wife?, and William de Mille’s Conrad in Quest of His Youth, offered the actor a genial change of pace and the chance to considerably lighten his dour image. Though Meighan, who sports a granite demeanor to rival William S. Hart, doesn’t seem the comic sort, much of Male and Female’s humor is derived from his Crichton’s quips and flippant remarks. When Mary crabs at breakfast that her toast has gone soft, he counters, with a thinly veiled gibe, “Are you certain, my Lady, that the toast is the only thing that’s spoiled?” Emboldened by the distance separating the castaways from home, he delights in ruffling Mary’s feathers even further with his insolent behavior, and even in the jungle never loses his very civilized sense of humor. Later, when the Loam’s disregard the substantial part Crichton played in their survival, he saves face by cleverly twisting his words, as would Christ in Demille’s King of Kings, so that he reveals the truth of the matter without actually contradicting their more self serving version of events. Like his survival skills, Crichton’s droll wit is much keener than the nobility’s. He’s not only more of a man, in relation to his betters, but more of a gentleman as well. During the shipwreck, that penultimate ordeal calling for a chivalrous display of gallantry, Wooly and Loam fail to adhere to the time honored code ‘women and children first,’ making a beeline for the lifeboats and leaving it up to their butler to carry the collapsed Mary out of the thundering surf. In our eyes, this heroic act elevates Crichton to titanic proportions.

When he performs his final grand gesture, stepping aside so that Mary may wed Brockelhurst, who can provide for her the sort of life to which she’s accustomed, his sacrifice raises him even further in our esteem. In putting the needs of others before his own, he proves selfless to a fault, a paragon of the practically perfect English butler. Crichton has behaved not just admirably, but nobly, much more so than the assorted lords and ladies who by dint of birth, rather than worth, have presumed to bestow that honor upon themselves. He is nature’s nobleman. It’s fitting that we should acknowledge his superior qualities, for once home, slapped back down into his ‘proper’ place, no one else bothers to. As a title laments “There are none to salute him now – unless we do it.” An Oscar for Meighan would’ve served as a sort of tribute by proxy.

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See Who Would’ve Won

About Author: David Craft is a graduate of West Virginia State University where he received his BA in Art. Working to better the world one review at a time, he currently resides in New Jersey, the birthplace of the movies!!!

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