While preparing for my essay on the well-known and not-so-well-known movies of 1916, I stumbled across a rather obscure Lillian Gish feature, Sold For Marriage, which I'd recommend both to fans of the legendary actress and to those interested in how Hollywood treated what was then, as now, a hot-button issue in American politics, immigration.
By 1916, approx- imately one of every eight persons living in the United States was a first- gener- ation immigrant, with a million more arriving every year, and given that most studio owners were themselves immigrants, it should come as no surprise that the daily lives of immigrants was a frequent topic of movies throughout the decade. Sold For Marriage is specifically about Russian immigrants, a substantial community of over 3 million mostly Jewish, Ukranian and Belarusan peasants and laborers who between 1881 and 1914 had arrived in the U.S. seeking political and religious freedom and economic opportunity.
The story opens in Russia with Gish playing Marfa, a young woman on the verge of being sold into an arranged marriage to the town's most eligible bachelor, a short, fat "beast" who nevertheless promises wealth and social standing. Predictably, Marfa prefers Jan (Frank Bennett), a young, handsome—and poor—laborer. Following a narrow escape from a lusty army officer who won't take no for an answer, Marfa and her family immigrate to the U.S., where once again a struggle ensues between Marfa's desire for Jan and her family's desire to arrange a profitable marriage.
Even though Sold For Marriage was directed by Christy Cabanne, the ending is straight out of the D.W. Griffith playbook, with classic three-part intercutting between Gish and her tormentors as her would-be savior rushes to the rescue, the sort of sequence Griffith more or less invented in 1909 and repeated many times, including in Gish's very first film, 1912's An Unseen Enemy.
I'd like to tell you that Sold For Marriage is a nuanced look at life in the Russian community on par with near- documentary quality films such as Traffic in Souls or The Italian. It isn't. Instead, the story of a girl forced into marriage has a ripped-from-the-headlines feel to it, exploiting a hot topic for quick box-office bucks rather than offering any meaningful insight into what life might have been like for these newly-minted Americans.
And you thought Law & Order invented cheap exploitation.
What makes Sold For Marriage worth tracking down is Gish's performance. Not only is it good—as you would expect—but it reveals a side of her I can't say I've seen before. She's sullen, she's petulant, at times she funny, and more to the point, she's flirtatious and sexual, for example, clinging to Frank Bennett with a hunger that is as refreshing as it surprising. Even her performances in The Scarlet Letter and La Boheme, a pair of romances from 1926, didn't prepare me for the notion that Gish as an actress could ever be particularly comfortable as a romantic lead.
While we think of Gish from this era as D.W. Griffith's go-to girl—e.g., The Birth of a Nation, Broken Blossoms and Way Down East—her chief collaborator in 1916 was a Griffith protege, director Christy Cabanne, and maybe this accounts for the uncharacteristic nature of Gish's performance. While Cabanne isn't nearly as imaginative a director as Griffith, perhaps he didn't so narrowly conceive of Gish as the embodiment of a virginal Victorian fantasy, allowing him to see in Gish possibilities Griffith never did.
In any event, Sold For Marriage is an unusual entry in the Lillian Gish filmography and will require me to broaden my sense of her range.
Finally, a word about the DVD. If you're not familiar with the outfit, Classic Video Streams sells copies of rare silent-era films through Amazon.com. Generally, the videos are transferred from 16mm reduction prints and vary in quality from not-too-bad to beat-to-hell; the discs also include music scores cobbled together from pre-existing recordings. There are no "extras" so don't look for any.
In researching the films of 1916, I bought DVDs from Classic Video Streams starring Norma Talmadge, Douglas Fairbanks and Lillian Gish, and while I'd say every one of the films presented cries out for a proper restoration, for a film history buff such as myself, they are very much better than nothing.