Saturday, April 27, 2013

Mary Pickford: Dorothy Vernon Of Haddon Hall (1924)

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.


Anonymous said...

Hi Monkey. Good blog. Two things. Pickford played MANY adults prior to Dorothy starting in 1909. And the costume designer on Dorothy was Mitchell Leisen who went on to be a movie director not director Marshall Nelian. I'm glad you mostly liked the film. :)


FlickChick said...

Coming to a theater near me this week. I plan to see it - so many thanks for the timely review!

Mythical Monkey said...

And the costume designer on Dorothy was Mitchell Leisen who went on to be a movie director not director Marshall Nelian.

That's what I get for knocking this thing out on the fly.

Mythical Monkey said...

And don't get me wrong from the blog -- we had a great time at the show! The musical accompaniment was top notch and the pre-show speaker is the best! I'm just thinking in terms of all the Mary Pickford I've seen, this one slots in sort of in the middle, ahead of The Little Princess and The Little American, but behind Stella Maris, Sparrows or The Poor Little Rich Girl.

And you're right, of course, she played a lot of adult roles -- A Romance of the Redwoods and The Pride of the Clan, for example. It just seems like the blockbusters were here as a tweener.

A sloppy post all around, knocked off between a late breakfast and our drive down to the Nats-Reds game, which started at 1.

Anonymous said...

Christel Schmidt is by far the most accomplished pre-speaker about Pickford films today, and what she has done, through much dedication and sweat of her brow, for Pickford's legacy, is incalulable.

My belief is that Dorothy Vernon was meant to radically change the image of Pickford's RANGE, not her age. Movies about picturesque royalty of the past were all the rage (see "When Knighthood was in Flower"). In Dorothy, Pickford played a woman of power, which was new to most viewers, as well as a magnetic, romantic woman.

Bravo to Ms. Schmidt and the Mythical Monkey.

Kate Pollack said...

I emailed you about this, too, but I wanted to post because I see how much you write about Mary Pickford! I research Roy Pomeroy, who tested Mary's voice for talking pictures. He was Hollywood's most prominent sound technician until he was usurped by William B. De Mille, Cecil's brother, in a coup engineered by Jesse Lasky.