Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Love Light (1921)

Mary Pickford as Angela

Certain films, no matter how far removed we may be from the time and culture that created them, never lose their immediate appeal. A thousand years from now, if people are still watching movies, they'll still be laughing at the Little Tramp.  Others, however, require us to calibrate our expectations somewhat, to place the work in the context of its time and intended audience. Most likely, the creators of these films never intended them to be viewed this way. The majority of movies, even as late as the 1970's, were meant to be enjoyed by a contemporary audience only. It wasn't until the video age that filmmakers really started to think about making films for posterity. To accuse a film like The Love Light of ridiculous overacting and stomach-turning melodrama, then, is not really fair. After all, we are not the film's intended audience and are likely judging it by a set of standards no one in 1921 could have anticipated.

Back in 1921, Mary Pickford could do no wrong. Even divorcing her husband to marry her movie star lover failed to tarnish her good girl reputation, and there seemed to be no limit to her appeal. Fans went wild for her wide, expressive eyes, bow lips, and trademark curls. She was America's Sweetheart, but the whole word loved her. Oddly, considering the difference in their ages, she played a number of the same roles as the next young lady to wear that crown, Shirley Temple. Mary was still playing pre-teen girls well into her thirties, and the bulk of her appeal in roles like Pollyanna, much like that of Shirley Temple's entire career, was simply the "cute" factor. However, unlike Shirley, Mary's extra years allowed her, when it suited her, to bring to her films the emotional resonance of a mature performer.

Mary Pckford and Fred Thompson as Joseph

Writer/director Frances Marion only helmed three films, but she wrote dozens upon dozens of others, including many of Pickford's finest (Stella Maris, Poor Little Rich Girl, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, and Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley, just to name a few), as well as the Valentino classic Son of the Sheik and Garbo's acclaimed first talkie, Anna Christie. It's a shame that Marion didn't spend more time behind the camera, though, for it is the imagery she creates in The Love Light that is the source of its lingering appeal. 

The camera opens on a quiet Italian village where the villagers are calmly going about their calm village lives. Quick glimpses reveal a woman giving her pig a bath and a merchant partnering with a monkey to cheat his customers. These are not plot elements--they are only there to let us know that this is the sort of village where the monkeys are not always honest, but the pigs still get their weekly baths, whether they need it or not. Another sequence not long after shows a whole slew of farm animals getting into a cask of wine, then reeling around drunk in long, super slow motion close-ups, proving yet again that chickens can't hold their liquor.  It's almost enough to make us forget that this is not, in any way shape or form, a comedy.

Mary plays Angela, a young village girl who is left alone when her brothers and sweetheart all leave to go to war. She takes over care of the local lighthouse while the men are away, until one day she finds a mysterious man who has been washed up on the rocks. He claims to be an American sailor, who has accidentally become separated from his ship and so is being sought as a deserter. He plays on her sympathies and gets her to hide him in her cellar, until, naturally, she falls in love with him. What Angela doesn't know is that Joseph is not an American deserter, but a German spy, who is using her, and her lighthouse, to sink Italian ships. By the time she learns the truth, it is too late. They are married, she is pregnant, and she is herself largely responsible for the sinking by German submarine of the ship carrying her wounded baby brother back home.

All this takes up barely half the film. The remainder tracks Angela's journey through a bout with insanity and out the other side, reunited with her first love, Giovanni (blinded during the war), and trying to regain custody of her child, which was placed in a foster home while she was crazy. It's the sort of movie Sally Field could have made in the 80's. It is a genuinely touching performance, even if the content is not to the taste of a modern audience.

The cinematography is powerful and lovely, making full use of the seaside location shooting. The film uses the key image of the lighthouse as a repeated motif throughout, so we find we are always looking into a world of darkness illuminated by a single spark of light. We see this both literally, in the lighting and staging of shots, and thematically, as for instance when the villagers first come to suspect the presence of the German spy, from the simple discovery that a few bars of chocolate have been stolen: a thief means a stranger, and a stranger means an enemy.

The romantic melodramas of the 20's are among the least accessible films of the silent age for modern audiences, but it is easy to see, even today, why The Love Light was one of the best of its kind.

No comments:

Post a Comment