The Goose Woman (1925) + shorts

Kennington Bioscope at the Cinema Museum, Lambeth, London

                                                             6 September 2017


The nights may be drawing in but the good thing about the onset of autumn is the return of the KenBio after their summer break and they were back at the Cinema Museum this evening with a cracking programme, curated and introduced by renowned film historian Kevin Brownlow. The main feature was Clarence Brown’s 1925 melodrama The Goose Woman, with a knock-out performance by Louise Dresser.  But as always at the KenBio, there were a couple of interesting warm-up presentations.

First up was an amusing little compilation of train footage produced by film-maker Lyman H Howe and, somewhat modestly, entitled Lyman H Howe’s Famous Ride on a Runaway Train (1921). Beginning with a short animated sequence the film then shows a train setting off followed by some stunning footage of trains crossing bridges and viaducts.  Gradually the pace of the film picks up, helped by increasingly speeded up photography, as we see the view from the front of the supposedly runaway train.  Splicing together footage of standard, narrow gauge and funicular railways the film takes on the feel of a crazy amusement park ride as we head towards the sudden and inevitable train crash ending.  

Interesting as the film was, the story of its maker is perhaps more so.  Born in Pennsylvania in 1856, Lyman Hakes Howe (image right) began work as a painter, travelling salesman and then brake-man on the railways before establishing himself as a travelling showman.  Touring the state with a working model of a coal-mine, which he termed “the greatest work of mechanical art ever attempted” and giving the spectator the opportunity to experience the dirt and danger of mine work in complete safety. This idea of the thrill without the danger would become a tenet of much of his later cinema work.   With a strong curiosity for scientific development, Howe had become interested in Thomas Edison’s development of the phonograph, purchasing one in 1890 which he used to give concerts in dance halls and churches. When Edison developed his Kinetoscope, Howe attempted to buy a machine but was unsuccessful.  Instead, he worked to develop his own film projector, the animotoscope.  Using spliced together Edison films to provide a longer show he gave his first animotoscope screening in 1896.  Focusing upon what he termed ‘high-class moving pictures’ aimed at a wealthier, middle-class audience Howe eventually had several touring exhibitions working on a fixed and profitable circuit.  By 1901, Howe was also making his own films, initially focusing on travelogues and newsreels.  Ever an innovator, he was the first to use a phonograph to provide sound for his films as well as incorporating sound effects and one of the first to shoot a film from an aeroplane. The vertiginous effect produced by his ‘Ride on a Runaway Train’ would be a precursor to ‘Cinerama’ and 3D cinema developed in the 1950s and which remains a key element of modern action films.  For more information on Lyman H Howe see High-Class Moving Pictures: Lyman H. Howe and the Forgotten Era of Travelling Exhibition, 1880-1920 by Charles Musser and Carol Nelson.

Lyman H Howe’s Famous Ride on a Runaway Train was believed lost until a copy was discovered in New Zealand in 2010,  The film was originally accompanied by a phonograph soundtrack.  An original copy of the soundtrack survived and is preserved at the US Library of Congress. But for this evening’s screening the film benefited greatly from the live piano accompaniment of Cyrus Gabrysch, the pace of which left us all breathless.  

 ( Lyman H Howe’s Famous Ride on a Runaway Train is available on disc on Lost & Found: American Treasures from the New Zealand Film Archive (1914-1929) distributed by Image Entertainment while a good quality version can also be viewed on-line (You Tube) with the original phonograph soundtrack.)  

We then had something of a rarity at the KenBio, a talkie!  Well, a sort of talkie. Back in the early 1960s, the US television series Silents Please was making one of the first serious attempts to re-evaluate and revive interest in silent cinema.  Made by noted film historians and collectors Paul Killian and William K Everson, each programme in the series centred on A particular silent artist or feature and the programme we got to see tonight was that focused on the film The Patent Leather Kid.  Directed by Alfred Santell in 1927 and starring Richard Barthelmess in the title role, the film tells of a gifted but arrogant and unpopular boxer. In the crowd, Curley Callahan (Molly O’Day) has come along with everyone else in the hope of seeing him get beaten but when he wins yet again he asks her out and a relationship develops.  With America’s entry into the First World War the Kid has no wish to sign up to fight, even when Curley goes to Europe as a nurse.  When he’s eventually drafted he is initially shown to be a coward.  However, after his friend is killed he becomes the hero although in doing so is badly wounded but is eventually reunited with Curley.

In all, we got to see about 25 minutes of what was originally a 150 minute film but it was enough to give a good idea of the plotting, albeit somewhat hampered by the running commentary and sound effects!.  Made very much in the afterglow of The Big Parade (1925), it was not a film I had previously come across but did see enough to make me interested in seeing it in its entirety. Although neither as successful or critically acclaimed as The Big Parade, it did have some impressive action footage as the American troops launch their offensive and the early boxing scenes were well staged.  The film certainly did much to revive the fortunes of star Richard Barthelmess whose career had been in something of a decline since Tol’able David (1921) and it got him a best actor nomination at the inaugural Academy Awards of 1929 (although he lost out to Emil Jannings).

The film also made a star of actress Molly O’Day. Born Suzanne Noonan, her name was changed to Sue O’Neil when she signed for First National Pictures. It then changed briefly to Kitty Kelly until another actress of the same name threatened legal action, at which point she became Molly O’Day. Supposedly just 16 at the time The Patent Leather Kid was made (although more likely 18) she had previously had minor parts in some of Hal Roach’s Our Gang series and an early Laurel & Hardy vehicle, 45 Minutes From Holiday. She went on to star in several more silent films, including another co-starring with Richard Barthelmess, The Shepherd of the Hills (1928).  Although she appeared in several talkies, studio demands that she keep her weight down led her to undergo  drastic weight reduction surgery which badly affected both her appearance and her health and her career was effectively over by the mid-1930s.

The only downside to The Patent Leather Kid was the supremely hackneyed ending when, no longer able to use his arms, The Kid asks Curley to take the salute for him! Pass the sick bag!

(NB  The Patent Leather Kid is available on DVD from Queensbury DVDs.)

It was then time for the main feature, The Goose Woman, directed by Clarence Brown , whose work should be familiar to KenBio regulars from The Signal Tower (1924) and Smouldering Fires (1925), both screened by them in recent years.  

Mary Holmes (Louise Dresser) lives in an isolated, remote hovel where she tends her geese.  Twenty years earlier she was the renowned opera singer Marie Di Nardi, until she gave up singing to have a child.  Now a hopeless alcoholic she spends her time listening to a recording of her singing and reading her old press cuttings.  Late one evening, son Gerald Holmes (Jack Pickford)comes to visit and is shocked at her alcoholic state and bedraggled appearance.  When he accidentally breaks her treasured recording she accuses him of being responsible for destroying her voice and her career, strikes him and throws him out.  Gerald goes to the local theatre where his friend Hazel Woods (Constance Bennett) is an actress. At the stage door, he confides to doorman Jacob Rigg (Spottiswoode Aitkin) that he is going to propose to Hazel that evening.  Rigg warns Gerald that he needs to take Hazel away for her own well being and he later discards flowers delivered to the theatre for Hazel from an Amos Ethridge.     

The next day, Mary Holmes hears that her neighbour, the same Amos Ethridge, has been murdered.  When the police call to ask if she knows anything about the crime she sees the chance of once again getting her name in the papers and recreating her earlier fame, so she spins a story of having witnessed the murder and seen the killer.  The police learn from Hazel Woods that Ethridge was her manager and a relentless rival for her affections.

When Gerald visits Mary that evening to tell her of his engagement she takes revenge for his supposedly destroying her voice and career by revealing to him that he is illegitimate, the shame of which she thinks will destroy his hopes of marrying Hazel. But when Gerald breaks the news to Hazel, she promises to stand by him. Just then, however, the police arrest Gerald because the evidence given by his mother has unwittingly pointed the finger of guilt at him.  

It is only when Mary Holmes is brought in by the police to identify the murderer that she realises it is her evidence which has implicated her own son. Despite now revealing that her evidence was false, the police refuse to believe her.  But the police then find the gun used to kill Ethridge and discover that it belonged to the stage doorman, Jacob Rigg.  He confesses to killing Ethridge to protect Hazel from his sinister attentions. Mary, Gerald and Hazel are all reunited.    

Based, albeit very loosely, on a real-life murder story (and one that was still unfolding as the film was being made) in which a witness by the name of Jane Gibson, but nicknamed “the Pig Woman”, gave unreliable testimony during the investigation in an attempt to generate media attention, The Goose Woman underlined director Clarence Brown’s ability to make a fine picture from fairly modest material and limited resources.  The story is well structured and cogently plotted.  At barely 80 minutes, there is a wonderful economy of effort with barely a wasted scene.  The film also looks superb, particularly the scenes filmed in Mary’s hovel of a home which are beautifully shot and lit.  

The film also either rides roughshod over or neatly circumvents some long-standing Hollywood no-go areas.  For example, this is no traditional charm story of a homely mother and her love for her son.  No, this is a drunken and bedraggled harridan who hates her son and positively relishes the apparent ruination of his life. But in 1925, the word ‘illegitimate’ would have been too much for the censor, so Brown smartly side-steps this problem by having an ink-blot from Gerald’s pen efface his surname when he attempts to write it. Similarly, in an era of prohibition, the drinking of alcohol on film was another no-no.  So while we see empty gin bottles merrily being launched out of Mary’s window, whenever she needs to ‘imbibe’, her back is conveniently to the camera or her head is out of shot.

But as good as Brown’s direction is, the film’s strength also lies in the uniformly good performances of the cast.  Louise Dresser, in particular, was superb in what must have been a brave role for an actress still only in her mid-40s to take on, as the haggard and drunken Mary (image right), devoid of make-up, hair bedraggled, clothes torn and boots mud splattered.  And we’re certainly spared none of the detail of her dishevelment, from the dirt under her fingernails to the tide-mark she leaves in the bath.  So convincing is she in this role that her eventual transformation back to the immaculately dressed, well coiffured and motherly Marie (image left) is almost too much to take in.

Dresser was already a leading vaudeville star before embarking upon a film career and had had a number of leading roles before The Goose Woman but it was this film that made her a star.  If the Oscars had existed in 1925 she would surely have been a contender. Her success led to a leading role the next year in The Eagle (1926) with Rudolf Valentino and Vilma Banky, also directed by Clarence Brown.  She successfully made the transition to sound and continued to act in films until the late 1930s, and is probably best remembered in this period as Empress Elizabeth in The Scarlet Empress (1934) with Marlene Dietrich.

In the role of Gerald, Jack Pickford (Mary’s little brother) was also convincing as the son facing up to a drunken mother and struggling to understand her hatred of him.  Appearing in films from as early as 1909, mostly in bit parts, Jack Pickford’s career got a major boost in 1917 when sister Mary signed a $1million contract with First National Pictures which included a lucrative contract for her brother.  His first role at National was as Pip in Great Expectations (1917), although many of his subsequent films were at best ‘B’ picture standard. However, The Goose Woman gave him a rare chance to demonstrate his talent although his career was already being blighted by the drug and alcohol addiction which would lead to his eventual death in 1933, aged just 36.  

Constance Bennett as Hazel Woods also got an opportunity to show her acting ability.  Having made her first film appearance in1916 (aged 10) she was getting star billing by 1922 (although almost all of these early films are apparently lost).  Suspending her career for a short-lived marriage she resumed acting in early talkies quickly becoming a popular star in features for MGM, Warner Bros. and RKO, notably What Price Hollywood? (1932) and Bed of Roses (1933). Her stunning looks not only benefited her acting career but also the successful fashion and cosmetics businesses she launched which  saw her working less frequently in film.

Two minor characters who also contributed greatly to enjoyment of this film were Gustav von Seyffertitz as District Attorney Vogel and James O Barrows as Chief of Detectives Kelly (image right, seated with Louise Dresser) in something of a bumbling, comedy partnership role which provided much of the very well timed comic relief in the film. However, what proved to be one of the most amusing scenes was probably not intended as such, when Gerald was seemingly almost pressured into falsely confessing his guilt by Kelly breaking open peanuts at his desk, another cop jangling his loose change and the noise of a dripping tap.  Clearly Gerald was not a character who was going to stand up well to serious torture!

Director Clarence Brown (image below left, directing Pickford and Bennett) came from an engineering background, entering the film business in 1913 and learning his trade from French born director Maurice Tourneur.  His early films including The Great Redeemer and Last of the Mohicans (both 1920) were co-directed  with Tourneur before his first solo effort, Don’t Marry For Money (1923). In 1926 he directed his first film starring Greta Garbo (Flesh and the Devil) and six more were to follow.  He also directed Joan Crawford six times.  In 1944 he made National Velvet with a young Elizabeth Taylor and two years later directed that perennial tear-jerker The Yearling (1946) with Gregory Peck.  In all, Brown’s films received some 38 Academy Award nominations, including five for himself as best director but he was never to win that accolade.  He made his last film in 1952, retiring a wealthy man thanks to some smart business investments and died in 1987, aged 97.  

The Goose Woman was accompanied on piano by  Cyrus Gabrysch who successfully captured both the melancholy of Mary Holmes existence and the doomed relationship with her son and greatly enhanced the growing suspense over his arrest.

(NB   The Goose Woman is available on DVD from Televista (although the quality is reportedly poor) and can be watched on-line (You Tube) albeit with spoken Spanish translation of the inter-titles!)