The Sunday Intertitle: Dot on the Line

Concluding Maurice Tourneur and Frances Marion’s A GIRL’S FOLLY.

It’s a notoriously shaky proposition, identifying “firsts,” but this movie’s portrayal of a movie studio commissary may well be the original of its kind, evoking a mildly surreal, giddy feeling from the spectacle of cops and cowboys dining together. On my first visit to the BBC’s offices in Glasgow I got treated to this kind of sight, less common today when so few TV programmes are made in-house, especially the kind that involve dressing up. The canteen scenes in A HARD DAY’S NIGHT and BLAZING SADDLES are very fine examples of the type.

Flashback! Not as uncommon as you’d think in 1917. Doris Kenyon looks thoughtful, and Tourneur fades up a field of flowers, and we get the idea of a mild, wistful homesickness. It might not be a specific memory of a field, it could just be an imaginary vision of the general concept of fields and flowers, therefore not a flashback so much as an act of imagination, but curiously enough this ambiguity doesn’t result in muddle: whichever it is, the idea comes across.

The next significant intertitle deals with our butterfly’s rival. Since it would, apparently, outrage morality to have Robert Warwick’s movie star a married man cheating on his wife, and to have Doris Kenyon the kept woman of a married man, the intertitle affects ignorance of the nature of the relationship.

A low-key decadent party — Johnny Hines sups an admixture of everybody’s drinks from a lady’s shoe. then announces his intention to dress up as a “sky-pilot” and marry the whole throng. I haven’t heard this slang term for preacher used outside of MASH, where it’s flung at Robert Duvall when he prays, I think. It seemingly never occurred to Damien Chazelle that blasphemy would be a potent form of bad behaviour back in silent Hollywood. Surprising to find it in use here.

Doris’ mom crashes the party — the only reason she was set up earlier was so she could do this — and the film starts dissolving in a blaze of nitrate decomposition. This is the usual effect of your mom showing up at your party unannounced. An “A” composition captures Doris’ expressions as Warwick turns on the charm, so mom won’t suspect anything amiss.

Shades of LA CAGE AU FOLLES — the party must now pretend to be thoroughly respectable — and just at the wrong moment, Johnny Hines comes prancing back in, dragged up as a minister. Everyone pounces to subdue him.

Warwick’s gentility here is a quality he’d retain — the decorous way he treats a bereaved Veronica Lake in SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS echoes his kindness here.

Another rather startling appearance by the SILENT MOVIE SWASTIKA — in those substantially pre-Hitlerian days, it was often used as a good luck symbol. Like the dog in DAMBUSTERS its a disconcerting reminder of different times, but is actually completely innocent in this context. Let’s not go copying it though.

Warwick, touched by Dot’s mom, suggests to his possible-mistress that they’re ABOUT TO make a grave mistake. Which reassures the censor that he hasn’t had it off with her yet. With hot sex with a muscular movie star off the cards, Dot yields to her mother’s complaint of loneliness (and the message from Johnny Applesauce or whatever his name is, her country beau) and gives up the fleshpots of Fort Lee for a quiet, virtuous, boring existence in the hills.

This is all delivered quite straight, as if it were sincere, despite the self-evident fact that the choice of peaceful rusticity over movieland misbehaviour is not one that anyone whatever involved in this film would dream of making. To take the curse off it, Johnny Hines, still with his collar on backwards but secreted behind a curtain like the Wizard of Oz, gets a last gag —

I’m not familiar with this use of “flivver” — I knew it meant a car, as the intertitle suggests, but it also seems to mean “bust” or “wash-out.”

Warwick returns to his previous wife/mistress — played with a bit of melancholy and a bit of tenderness — Dot returns to the boondocks, where her reunion with Johnny Applecart provokes an ironic commentary from two train station employees:

How do you pronounce “romantick”?

A GIRL’S FOLLY starred Mr. LeBrand; Mme Pompadour; Mrs Brand; Torchy; and Rita Pring.

8 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Dot on the Line”

  1. How do you pronounce “romantick”?
    To rhyme with “gothick”.

  2. Magick is pronounced mage-ick, appropriately enough, so should romantick be romane-tick?

  3. bensondonald Says:

    The film’s careful deniability about whether Sin has taken place or is even being contemplated can be chalked up to avoiding trouble from local moralists. But there’s also the matter of characters’ attitudes.

    Doris succumbs to temptation very matter-of-factly. Warwick’s offer is tempting, but no, so he goes to have lunch. Still, she really wanted money and dresses … and she doesn’t want to go home a failure … and she hates the country … and she fondles a motorcar … Doris is not racking up sympathy points here.

    She sees a charwoman, also a failure (a failed actress who became a charwoman, or a failed charwoman now reduced to mucking about in a dump?). Okay, she’ll be a kept woman. No fuss about being driven to it by love or despair — she doesn’t even miss a meal, trotting in to join the gang at lunch. An intertitle here would have been fun: “What’s the soup today? Oh, and is that mistress spot still open?”

    The arrival of trusting, countrified Mother at the party would seem to be setting up the cliched tragic scene of her being cruelly mocked by the sophisticates, of horrible realization, and the heroine’s painful repentance and hard-earned redemption. Instead, a pithy scolding from Warwick and everybody is shamed into best behavior.

    Now Doris decides to go home, and it’s as quick and simple as her decision to be kept. Nobody, including Warwick, seems unduly emotional either way (although Warwick does have that homecoming scene). When Doris and her mother get off the train, you’d think they were just back from a weekend with relatives. No retraction of hating the country or expressed acceptance of coming back a failure.

    I’ve seen a few silents that were oddly hesitant about too much drama or raising the stakes for more than a moment. Perhaps there was a brief vogue for films that merely distracted, telling stories calculated not to overexcite in any way. Ancestors of affable family sitcoms.

  4. I guess they had the unique behind-the-screen angle, so they could soft-pedal the soap. Neither Frances Marion nor Maurice Tourneur, though capable of subtlety, are otherwise known for leaving any of the potential drama of a story untapped.

  5. david, your short reference of mash made me think of something you may be interested in- a radio mash up of mash and nashville on, a listener sponsored radio station, no commercials, on a show called inflatable squirrel carcass, midnight est, april 1st. regardless its a good station to know about. check it out

  6. Oh, sounds interesting. Unfortunately that’s going to air at 5am, UK time, unless there’s a way to catch up later.

  7. all shows are archived, it’ll just take a bit of searching unless you log on a few hours after airing, when its on the home page.

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