At first blush, Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall is a radical departure for its star Mary Pickford.
Based on a popular novel by Charles Major, Dorothy Vernon is a lavish costume drama set during the conflict between Queen Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots. Pickford plays the title character, a real-life aristocrat who for reasons history has not quite remembered managed to alienate both sides in the battle of royal succession. The film is full of court intrigue, murder plots, sword fights—in short, the sort of movie Pickford's husband Douglas Fairbanks might have made during this period.
But as the story develops, the Pickford we know and love quickly emerges. She plays an adult role for once, but an eighteen year old on the eve of an arranged marriage to a scheming cousin who wants to use the occasion to attract the presence of Elizabeth, whom he plans to murder in a plot to put Mary Stuart on the throne of England.
If you know your British history, you know Mary Stuart never sat upon the throne of England so I don't think it's a spoiler to say that the plucky, feisty, bonny Dorothy—the traits most typical of a Pickford character—saves the day. (For more background about Pickford, click here.)
She succeeds with the help of her true love, Sir John Manners, essayed by Pickford's brother-in-law, Allan Forrest. (The film was a real family affair, with Pickford's sister Lottie playing Dorothy's lady-in-waiting.) Forrest plays his part in the Douglas Fairbanks style, with lots of swashbuckling and leaping about, and even throwing his back and laughing uproariously, a patented Fairbanks move.
And therein lies the film's weakness—Forrest is no Douglas Fairbanks. That fact is made abundantly clear in his very first scene, a shot of his wide muscular back as a doctor attends to wounds received in battle. Forrest was, in fact, a quite slender lad, and the back is doubled by none other than Fairbanks himself, who was filming The Thief of Bagdad one set over. I couldn't help but wonder how much more fun the film would have been if Fairbanks had actually played the role of John Manners. Not only would the acting and swordplay have been better, but the outsized nature of his magnetic personality would have short-circuited the need for so much character exposition that bogs down the beginning of the film.
But, alas, Fairbanks and Pickford made only one movie together, the 1929 talkie, The Taming of the Shrew.
Still, a Pickford movie is primarily about Mary Pickford, and she does not disappoint. She had one of the most expressive faces of the silent era, and one of the most appealing personas. Throw in the wonderful costumes and Pickford's stunt work performed herself when her double was injured—including a particularly dangerous gallop up a three-foot wide stair to the top of a narrow stone wall—and you've got a pretty entertaining movie on your hands.
The film wasn't one of Pickford's blockbuster smashes upon its release in 1924, but it did turn a tidy profit and was a nice prestige release for Pickford's studio, United Artists.
A newly-restored 35 mm print of the film is playing now in a limited run in select cities. Film historian Christel Schmidt, author of Mary Pickford: Queen of the Movies, will be touring with the film, as will Ben Model, who provides live musical accompaniment. If you get a chance to see it before it heads back to the archives at the Cinematheque Royale de Belgique, by all means, don't miss it.