Released today: The Little Minister (1921) – the Christmas edition
December 24, 2008 § 1 Comment
When looking for films officially released on Christmas Day in the 1920s, one faces an awkward choice: Should it be Flesh and the Devil (a personal favorite) or Curtiz’s The Third Degree (a timely topic), both from 1926 ? A swashbuckling family romance (Regeneration, from 1923, which tells the story of a couple left on some uninhabited island they call “Regeneration”), or a romance of the French-colonized, Foreign-legion owned desert (A Man’s Past from 1927, with Conrad Veigt), or one of a myriad of small run-of-the-mill westerns (the alluringly-titled Land of the Lawless, also from 1927) ? A family drama from 1921 (Ashamed of Parents, where poor boy turned college footbal star is ashamed of his poor relatives) could be ideal for family viewing…But parents beware ! The family drama is a slippery category as Eden and Return, from 1921, shows. It has a promising title, but the plot turns around a rebellious girl who refuses her father-approved suitor for a flashy big spender who regains his fortune by stealing stock market tips from his father-in-law ! Ah, the stock market really brings out the best in people…
One thing is clear: there is no Christmas pattern here. One reason for that is that the release date, as indicated on AFI records, does not necessarily coincide with the premiere date. But even when it does, there is still no Christmas pattern here, at least in the film plots. Consider Back Home and Broke, with a New York premier on 24 dec. 1922: featuring Thomas Meighan, it has an impossible story of a young man who goes West to make money through oil, then returns home and saves village business owners from the threat of a Mr. Keane. Not much of Christmas here (Regeneration, quoted above, is another example of a Christmas premiere with nothing of Christmas in it: it opened in Jacksonville FL on Dec. 24, 1923, but it’s largely a treasure island yarn).
So I’ve picked a very obscure film, offering a genre that is quite remote from us: the Scottish fantasy highland life. The film is The Little Minister, 6 reels from Famous Players-Lasky, directed by Penrhyn Stanlaws, with Betty Compson. Moving Picture World offers this plot summary:
“When the weavers of Thrums, enraged by a reduction in prices for their products, rise against the manufacturers, Gavin, ‘the little minister’ intervenes with the constables in their behalf. Babbie, a supposed Gypsy girl, is suspected of having notified the rioters that the police were coming so they might be prepared to fight, and a price is placed on her capture. But when Gavin questions her, her beauty and appeal charms him and he aids her to escape. A romance between the pair impends, much to the dislike of the elders of the Scotch kirk and Gavin is about to be defrocked when the Gypsy girl is brought into the meeting and discloses that she is in reality Lady Barbara, daughter of Lord Rintoul, the baron-magistrate of the district. In aiding the girl to escape Gavin had told the constables she was his wife, which in Scotland constitutes legal marriage if admittance is made before witnesses.” ( Moving Picture World, 7 Jan 1922, p112.)
Recommending it to our attention, the film was based on a James M. Barrie novel, then play (the novel is accessible through Google Books, here). This would be the same Barrie as wrote The Admirable Crichton (DeMille turned this into a statement on modern morals in his 1919 Male and Female) or Peter Pan. Childish romance, meet hard realities: a strike in Thrums is averted by the Minister but helped by a Gypsy girl who in reality is none other than some socially OK big shot…The pattern is well-known.
Stanlaws, it turns out, is quite a figure: a commercial artist who drew covers notably for the Saturday Evening Post, from 1913 to 1935 (and other similar proper publications),
he also had a very short lived (1921-1922) film career as a director for Lasky, and the vein seems to have been goody-two-shoes stories on par with his illustrations. Stanlaws had been specializing in genteel drawings of nicely behaved ladies since the late 1880s, and had made quite a name for himself (his illustrations are everywhere: Life, New York Times, Ladies’ Home Journal…): a 1903 article from The Atlanta Constitution, noting the illustrator’s desire to become a playwright (his first, one-act play, had just been taken up for production in London), reverently called him “the American depictor of pretty girls” and “the inventor of the ‘Stanlaws girl.'” In sept. 22, 1907, Stanlaws “gallantly leapt to the rescue” of the American girl, slandered by a Mr. Masson-Forestier, a columnist in the British Standard, who had claimed the American girl inferior to the Italian or the English in beauty, as judged by the paintings they all had inspired. Stanlaws was not amused, and concluded his defense with an interestingly proto-multicultural appeal:
Does M. Masson-Forestier believe himself to be a better judge of Japanese beauty than the Japanese? As for the Indian type, I wonder if M. Masson-Forestier has ever seen a Pawnee girl or a young Iroquois brave. (New York Times, 22 sept. 1907)
Quite a polemic, indeed. In 1913 the “American Girl” is back to the fore in a series of articles in the New York Times, for those interested. And in an interview to The Atlanta Constitution taken at the Famous Players Studio, Stanlaws decidedly assumes an air of knowledgeable authority over “the” American girl and her beauty thanks to a solid supply of meaningless clichés (“our modern woman has more in common with the great English beauties, etc.”) and has this to contribute to the motion pictures:
After waiting a moment I ventured to intrude with my next question, concerning Mr. Stanlaws’ aims in the moving picture industry, into which field he has but recently entered. What at first seeme da rather strange adventure on his part was defined more clearly as he talked about it. In spite of the marvels so far accomplished, the moving pictures, not as an industry so much as from the purely dramatic and artistic standpoint, are still in their swaddling clothes. And it is with this recognition that the services of such men as Barrie, Stanlaws and many others of dramatic and artistic note, to say nothing of the eminent actors from the speaking stage, are being enlisted, so that through the wonderful medium of the camera not only varied types can be introduced, but whole and successive stages of their lives and emotions, their manner of dressing and of behaving through all the stress and complexity of the manifold conditions of modern life.
Mr Stanlaws feels that the real American girl should be depicted more freely and more faithfully in the modern pictures. The Western girl, and that not as she is today but as she was thirty or forty years ago, has been done to death. Let the more representative girl take her place. And dramatist as well as artist, Mr. Stanlaws is putting all his artistic fervor and genius into the work of writing and producing and assembling the most realistic and the truest types of interest to the restless, exacting theatergoer of today. (Atlanta Constitution, 8 aug. 1920, p. 13)
Typically for the times, Stanlaws could both be a commercial artist purveying rose-coloured pretty girls for immediate consumption, and a realist. He’d already established this position through paintings such as the 1915 Between Poses. Frank light that avoids any hint of dramatic, hyped-up conflict, a simple background opening up into more space in back (not unreminiscent of sets that movies would come to use in the late 1910s), and its thinned-out, unclassical view of the feminine body (the arms are bony, the stomach is bulged), it has Eakins written all over it. The moment itself is a familiar trope of realist painting, debunking the tradition-sanctioned moment of the artistic pose by showing a scene taken in between posing sessions: a behind-the-scene type of look, so to speak.
Interestingly, the movies, in their quest for cultural legitimacy, were indeed hungry for whatever recognized artists such as Stanlaws or Barrie could offer in terms of marketing: the double promise of beauty and realism was, from a commercial perspective, simply irresistible for movie producers. It fit right in with the critical trope of the days applied countless times to movies, the infancy-adulthood debate. The nature of movies, a modern product, was to offer a modern view of modern life: technically deficient, the movies could only progress, “grow up”, and their nurturing would be provided by artists versed in the modern artistic schools of the theater or of painting: the realist and the beautiful schools. Stanlaws, as H.H.Hill makes clear, is a perfect choice for both (The Atlanta Constitution has the story, in Feb 12, 1922, of how actors on a Stanlaws production, Over the Border, were arrested by Revenue Agents who had taken them for real bootleggers. Their advice to Stanlaws: “not to be so derned realistic” the next time…).
Evidence that Stanlaws could read this game perfectly is shown in a 1914 interview from the New York Times: Stanlaws, based on his experience of drawing the portrait of Miss Norma Phillips (the Mutual Girl?) shows himself interested in the movies “as a means of spreading the desire and cultivating a taste for art”.
Stanlaws, the New York Times of 29 may 1920 notes, is “a native of Scotland”, so his selection for a Scottish story makes, for the time, sense. Though this argument only goes so far: Stanlaws’ first film for Lasky, At the End of the World, also featuring Betty Compson, took place in China. Still, the Los Angeles Times pulled it for its pre-release review of the film, noting:
It was peculiarly fitting that Penrhyn Stanlaws should direct this production, for he was born within a few miles of Thrums, and was reared amid the atmosphere which b arrie so successfully wrote into the play. The result of this knowledge, plus Stanlaws’s artistic perception, is an exceptionally beautiful production, which loses none of the homely humor and shrewd insight that originally made the play a success. Add to this the acting of Betty Compson, and you have what should prove a most appealing holiday presentation. (Los Angeles Times, 18 dec. 1921)
So it was a Christmas movie with Christmas on its mind, after all. I guess the formula hasn’t changed much: fantasy, Olde England, beautiful girl…and appropriate music indeed:
In addition to this feature picture, Sid Grauman has prepared a musical program that will harmonize with the spirit of the season, and numerous novelties also devised to promote holiday cheer. (Los Angeles Times, 18 dec. 1921)
While the music was probably heavy on carrols, the fact remains that the “holiday” in a “christmas” release did not have to be borne by the film itself, as is the case today, as the film presentation was surrounded by other media opportunities to fit the film within the calendar.
Still the film advertised its true-to-life documentary quality as it could. The Boston Daily Globe informed its readers (Dec. 25, 1921):
It was some search for a weaver in which the property department indulged when Penrhyn Stanlaws was filming “The Little Minister.” A loom was ordered by Mr. Stanlaws, and everywhere the property men searched before they at last found the required Scotch loom of the vintage of 1830 safely tucked away in the attic of a Los Angeles Scotchman. But no one knew how to operate that loom. For some days the scene was delayed, until the right man was found who could operate the loom and teach the actors how it should be done.
A story dutifully reprinted in The Washington Post of dec. 25, 1921, which had no qualm naming its review of the film “Scotland in 1830”. And The Chicago Daily Tribune agreed:
While it wasn’t made in Scotland, it is vurra suggestive of ye bonnie braes, so far as I can see (Never having been in Scotland). The photoplay has that intangible thing known as “atmosphere.”
The New York Times (dec. 26, 1921) approved of the “artistic” sets (“well-composed”, “pleasing as pictures, easy to comprehend with the eye”), but found the film too talky (“its dependence upon conversational subtitles”). But Robert Sherwood, in Life (Jan. 19, 1922), had no criticism for the film; Penrhyn Stanlaws the illustrator, however, came in for some characteristically Sherwoodesque fun:
Penrhyn Stanlaws has undergone a magnificent metamorphosis. When he was doing magazine covers a year ago, he was unquestionably a bad artist. In fact, he wasn’t an artist at all. He was a professional depicter of beautiful dumb-bells. Then he went into the movies as a director, and today he stands out as an artist, in a field where real artists are all-too rare.
“The Little Minister” is a work of art. Pictorially, it can be compared favorably with any motion picture that has ever been made. In composition, in lighting, in selection and construction of backgrounds, and in photography, “The Little Minister” is as close to perfection as it is possible for a movie to be. To eyes that are weary of looking at miles of harsh photography, crude, unintelligent settings and careless, uninspired composition, this picture is incredibly beautiful and soothing.
It is fine, too, from a dramatic point of view (…). The story is developed in simple and logical style in Edfrid Bingham’s scenario.
Was the film re-titled between Christmas and New Year ? Was Sherwood not as bothered by the dialogue titles, where the New York Times, in its highbrow fashion, would have placed the artistic bar higher, and in a more visual dimension, than Hollywood films were accustomed to ? The film, sadly, appears lost today.
(and that, folks, is all for 2008. I’ll see you all back in ’09 as I’m off to some skiing. Thanks and come back in January!)