(director: Walter Lang; screenwriters: Dorothy Arzner/Adela Rogers St. John; cinematographer: James Diamond; cast: Priscilla Bonner (Gabrielle Darley), Theodore Von Eltz (Frederick), Virginia Pearson (Mrs. Fontaine), Nellie Bly Baker (Clara), Mary Carr (The Matron), Emily Fitzroy (The Housekeeper), Carl Miller (Howard Blaine); Runtime: 75; Mrs. Wallace Reid / Vital Exc;1925-silent)
“An unbearable tearjerker.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
This silent film from 1925 is based on a true story, as reported in the Hearst newspapers by reporter Adela Rogers St. John. It was produced by Dorothy Davenport, who liked to call herself Mrs. Wallace Reid. Her husband, Wallace, was a big silent screen star, but died two years before the film from his morphine addiction. He developed the drug habit after an accident while filming and having that drug prescribed to him. The screenplay was written by Dorothy Azner, who made it into a statement film about women being abused in a male-dominated society. It’s Walter Lang’s debut as a director.
The film starts out in New Orleans and tells about the lack of love in Gabrielle Darley’s (Priscilla Bonner) childhood house, where her father treated her as if she was dirt. Not knowing what love is she fell for a con man, Howard Blaine (Carl Miller), who told her he loved her and then put her to work in a whorehouse. After promising to marry her, she one day finds herself abandoned. Feeling depressed she is comforted by her best friend Clara, who tells her Howard went to Los Angeles.
Gabrielle goes to Los Angeles and while looking into a jewelry store, she spots Howard buying a wedding ring. Something snaps inside her when confronting Howard, as she will state in court — “When I saw him buying the wedding ring…with the money I earned… .” Gabrielle then shoots him and when he is lying dead on the floor she becomes hysterical, yelling out, “Howard–forgive me–I love you.”
At the trial, Gabrielle tells her story and of her years in bondage to Howard. The sympathetic jury comes in with a not guilty verdict. Now she only wants redemption and to work off her guilt and do service to others to help restore her good name. A leading social figure and philanthropist, Mrs. Fontaine (Virginia Pearson), takes Gabrielle home as a guest and gets notoriety in the papers about her good deed of helping out the unfortunate one. Mrs. Fontaine’s chauffeur, Fred (Theodore Von Eltz), falls in love with Gabrielle and they shyly act friendly to one another. But when Mrs. Fontaine gets all the publicity out of her that she could get, she gives Gabrielle a letter of recommendation to the County Hospital to become a nurse and asks her to leave the residence. The hospital director recognizes her from the trial and refuses to hire her, so she wanders the streets of Los Angeles where she can’t find work. Fred, meanwhile, had to take Mrs. Fontaine to Sacramento for a month and so she misses his support.
The movie is an unbearable tearjerker; Gabrielle is forced to return to New Orleans to get help and meets with one misfortune after another. Gabrielle is so disillusioned with life that she is ready to go back to work in the whorehouse. Fred, when he learns that Gabrielle went to New Orleans gets fired from his job, after giving some lip to Mrs. Fontaine for being such a phony. Unfortunately before Fred could reach her in New Orleans, Gabrielle was being sexually attacked in the street by a burly man and when she ran from him, she got hit by a car and is taken to the hospital for a prolonged stay. Fred tries the address she should have been staying at, but finds out she never showed and no one knows where she is. Why Gabrielle didn’t tell her friends via note where she was… is beyond me.
Recovering at the hospital, Gabrielle learns that America just entered World War 1 and the hospital is in desperate need for helpers. She becomes a cleaning woman, and one day Fred comes into the hospital in an Army uniform and they meet again. In a melodramatic scene they embrace and he asks her to marry him, telling her that in a few minutes he is shipping out to the front. She tells him that she wants to wait until after the war.
As an upshot of this true story, after the picture became very popular, the real Gabrielle Darley got upset that her name was once again public knowledge. She wanted to forget the past and live with the good name she has since achieved. So she sues Mrs. Wallace Reid, the producer, and wins her law suit for infringement of her rights. As payment, she gets the luxury house Mrs. Reid’s husband left her. If the film didn’t use her real name, the law suit would have been dismissed. Ironically, at the film’s conclusion, Dorothy Davenport Reid made an impassioned plea for fallen women to be given a second chance.
The film itself was unconvincing and too banal to strike a chord for those caught in such dire circumstances. It therefore doesn’t surprise me that, perhaps, Gabrielle wasn’t as nice a person as portrayed in the film. This film is worth a look only for historical reasons and to see how melodrama was done before there were talkies.
REVIEWED ON 8/15/2000 GRADE: C-