01 June 2016

D. W. Griffith's Scarlet Days: Talk about Pre-Code!

Eugenie Besserer
Scarlet Days is often called D.W. Griffith's worst movie. This is certainly no Intolerance or Way Down East, but second-rate -- okay, maybe third rate -- Griffith is more interesting than ten other filmmakers works put together. Admittedly, this film rambles, but it rambles in interesting directions.

Made in 1919, Scarlet Days is certainly unlike anything Griffith or anybody else did before. It is technically a western, in that it takes place in the old west. But there are no cowboys or Indians, or schoolmarms or homesteaders. Griffith introduces us to the setting, a meager, ramshackle mining town, without sentimentality or sugar coating. The inhabitants are miners, gamblers, the barebones staff of a ratrap saloon, and prostitutes. There is no church, no school, no bank or store. The saloon's owner owns everything else, too, and if the miners want to buy anything, they have to get it from him. There is one law enforcement officer in the person of a sheriff, who does his best to hold back the tide of open iniquity, but who is simply outgunned. It's a hellhole.
Barthelmess as Alvarez

The differences between this and a classic Western, a genre which had developed its own conventions by this point, are striking. The most important difference is this -- the events unfold in a tough, lawless California mining town, true, but the main characters -- the people who move the plot -- are women. Everything is set in motion when women take action. It's true that Griffith happily introduces Alvarez, the dashing Mexican 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. The miners spend what leisure time they have drinking, gambling, and whoring in the saloon, where they are cheated in every conceivable way by card sharps and bar "girls," who are not beautiful young women who just happen to enjoy working in a saloon, but pretty much the dregs of female humanity.
Rosy Nell dressed to kill

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 actress Eugenie Besserer (whom viewers probably will not recognize as Al Jolson's sainted 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 Carol Demptster) whom 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 -- one who was the lover of the powerful town boss, Bagley, who vows revenge.
Nell and her daughter

Nell is doomed. and she knows it. But at the suggestion of the sheriff, 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. Could Runyon have seen the movie?) There is a romance between the daughter and a nice, clean-cut prospector (from Virginia, like Griffith), and a subplot concerning one of Griffith's little tomboys (Clarine Seymour) 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 sensitive bandit and the kind-hearted miners are
Watching the reunion
so overwhelmed by emotion that they can hardly bear to watch.

The plot resolves itself in various melodramatic ways -- the black-mustachioed bad guy conceives a nasty passion for the girl, intending, apparently, to set her up as the main attraction in the saloon. He leads his gang to kidnap her and hang Nell for the death of his mistress, revealing to her daughter what kind of life she has led. The two young men, Alvarez and Randolph, defend the two women, who have taken refuge in Randolph's cabin. The bad guys overwhelm their defenses eventually, and capture the women (see Bagley repulsively pawing the fainting girl), but the sheriff arrives with reinforcements in the nick of time. Nell sacrifices herself and is forgiven by her daughter -- and then dies in her arms.

Alvarez is injured, and given over to the care of the little tomboy who loves him. Randolph and the girl declare their love for each other, thus pairing off the four young people in a satisfying manner. But neither the romances nor the gunfights and chases are the heart of the film; the love between the mother and daughter is. After that is resolved, everything just sort of trickles away.
Chiquita and Alvarez

I think this movie disconcerts viewers familiar with silents, with Westerns, and with Griffith. We never expect a completely unromantic view of the West, from anyone. In another nod to reality, for example, it is never questioned 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, but he's really just there for decoration, not to move the plot. 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 all in all, I find the film worthwhile for the complex things it has to say about love, crime, redemption, etc.,as any great film does. Like the westerns of Ford, Hawks, and Lang, this film has richness and depths of meaning seldom seen in genre films. Griffith just couldn't help himself.