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06 October 2014

D.W. Griffith's Perplexing Western, Scarlet Days

(Above: Eugenie Besserer and Clarine Seymour)

Scarlet Days has been treated like Mr. Griffith's red-headed stepchild for quite a while; the Wikipedia article about it says it's often called his worst movie. Possibly so; it does have a certain unstructured feel. But it's not entirely worthless. Made in 1919, it is certainly unlike anything Griffith or anybody else did before. The differences between this and a classic Western, a genre which had developed its own conventions by this point, are striking.

The story takes place in a wild Californian gold prospecting settlement, circa 1850. But the main characters -- the people who move the plot -- are women. Everything is set in motion when women take action. Sure, Griffith introduces Alvarez, the dashing bandit, first thing, but frankly I think that's because he couldn't take the camera's eye off of 24-year-old Richard Barthelmess, who was not only gorgeous but brilliant. The character, though colorful, doesn't really instigate anything.

Second, the gold town is clearly shown as being barely civilized (as most of them probably were), completely without amenities and lacking glamor or romance of any kind. A motley collection of prospectors work brutal hours under rough conditions, and spend what leisure time they have drinking and gambling in a ramshackle saloon, where they are preyed upon by assorted card sharps and bar "girls," who are not beautiful young girls who just happen to enjoy working in a saloon, but pretty low-status fallen women.

Thirdly, and most startlingly, the person around whom the plot actually revolves is a hard-drinking, broken down, middle-aged semi-prostitute known as Rosy Nell. The experienced stage and film actrss Eugenie Besserer (whom viewers probably will not recognize as Al Jolson's mother in The Jazz Singer!) gives a powerful performance as a once-respectable woman who has sunk just about as low as possible. We first see her dressed in shabby, all-too-revealing finery, her face unbecomingly painted, scraping a living performing a clumsy dance in the sordid saloon -- and, it's pretty clear, doing anything else she can to make a little money. But this off-putting yet pathetic creature has a noble secret -- she  has a young daughter (played by the lovely Clarine Seymour) who she has had brought up in a decent home back East. The plot starts to move when this daughter discovers her mother's whereabouts, and decides to seek her out, completely unaware of her circumstances. By the time Nell receives a letter telling her the girl is on her way, her life has spiraled further downward, since she accidentally caused the death of another of the saloon girls who was trying to rob her -- a girl who was the lover of the powerful town boss, who vows revenge.

Nell is doomed. and she knows it. But all the toughs and rowdies, even the baddest of the bad guys, agree to allow her three days to be reunited with the girl in the guise of a respectable matron. (Yes, it's just about the same plot as "Lady for a Day," based on Damon Runyon's story Madame La Gimp -- which was published ten years later, in 1929. Maybe Runyon saw the movie!) There is a romance between the daughter and a nice, clean-cut prospector (from Virginia!), and a subplot concerning one of Griffith's little tomboys (Carol Dempster) and her love for the dashing Alvarez. But these are all side issues; the drama and emotional weight are all tied to the mother and daughter. Their meeting -- with an extraordinary range of emotions flooding Besserer's face as she embraces the innocent girl -- is truly moving, and truly worthy of Griffith.

The plot resolves itself in various melodramatic ways -- the said bad guy conceives a truly icky passion for the girl -- but still, the gunfights and chases aren't the heart of the film; the love between mother and daughter is. After that is resolved, everything just sort of trickles away.

For these and other reasons I think this movie disconcerts people, even viewers familiar with silents and with Griffith. We don't expect a completely unromantic view of the West. In the story, it is taken for granted that when a virtuous young woman arrives in this town, she'll require an armed guard at all times to keep her from being molested. Griffith, frequently thought to have a Victorian sensibility, never apologizes for the fallen Nell; to him, her mother love excuses all. Viewers might also come to this film expecting a men's story; Richard Barthelmess became a major star almost immediately, and all the posters feature his character. (This doesn't bother me, personally; I love Barthelmesss, and this is a very sexy performance. He can't have too much screentime for me.) I also don't mind the basic laxity of the story structure; the film is full of off-the-cuff comments, and pointless dead-ends; it veers between pathos and lame comedy. Mr. Griffith's fulsome titles aren't as obtrusive as in other films, but they are there.

But I for one don't care! All in all, I find the film worthwhile for the complex things it has to say about love, crime, redemption, etc., not really as a western at all.

Anyway, look at this face (this is Alvarez watching the meeting between mother and daughter):

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