Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Suspicious Wives

Suspicious Wives. Mollie King as Molly Fairfax.

Greater Than Love
US 1921
regia/dir: John M. Stahl.
scen: Paul Bern.
sogg/story: Robert F. Roden.
did/titles: William B. Laub, Harry Chandlee.
photog: Harry Fischbeck.
mont/ed: Harry Chandlee.
cast: H. E. [Henry] Herbert (James Brunton, Jr.), Mollie King (Molly Fairfax), Ethel Grey Terry (Helen Warren), Rod La Rocque (Bob Standing), Gertrude Berkeley (vecchia/The old woman), Frank De Camp (vecchio/The old man), Warren Cook (James Brunton, Sr.).
prod: Trojan Film Corporation.
dist: World Film Corp.
riprese/filmed: 1919 (prod. American Cinema Corporation).
uscita/rel: 1.9.1921.
copia/copy: 35 mm, 5798 ft (orig. 6240 ft), 65′ (24 fps); did./titles: ENG.
fonte/source: BFI National Archive, London.
    Not released in Finland.
    Le Giornate del Cinema Muto (GCM).
    Grand piano: Daan van den Hurk.
    Viewed at Teatro Verdi, Pordenone, with e-subtitles in English, 9 Oct 2018

Pamela Hutchinson (GCM): "Suspicious Wives is a melodrama audacious enough to personify its elaborate plot contrivances. “Is chance at times an angel as well as demon,” reads an intertitle, “or is it always evil, hiding its grinning lips behind a mask of seeming kindliness?” The coincidences that separate a husband and wife in this film are certainly improbable, and it’s a tribute to John M. Stahl’s judicious cross-cutting and control of his material that this film can take the liberty of drawing attention to its unlikely narrative. The scenario itself is credited to Paul Bern, from a story by Robert F. Roden, and is augmented by a slate of similarly florid cards written by Harry Chandlee and William B. Laub. Perhaps the latter pair is to be credited with the highbrow allusion to Pierre-Simon Laplace’s theory of causal determinism – the demon of chance."

"After making three films with Florence Reed at Tribune, he signed up with the American Cinema Corporation to direct Mollie King, the popular star of the Pathé serial Mystery of the Double Cross (1917), “in a series of special productions”, and this was to be the first. Directed by Stahl for ACC in 1919 under the title Greater Than Love, the film was subsequently sold to the Trojan Film Corporation, which released it in 1921 via World with a new title, Suspicious Wives."

"Suspicious Wives concerns a well-to-do young husband and wife simmering in mutual distrust until two chance misunderstandings threaten to separate them for good. However, it’s the circumstances in which they are brought back together that test their mettle, and the audience’s credulity, the most."

"Molly (King), a sunny socialite who believes in bathing “twosomes” and weekend parties that “last until Tuesday morning”, accepts a marriage proposal from sober James (stage actor Henry Herbert, usually credited on film as Henry Hebert, but here named as H. E. Herbert), despite a rival offer, just too late, from the more flirtatious Bob (Rod La Rocque, a few years away from his big break in The Ten Commandments, 1923). A shooting at their wedding breakfast proves a bad omen and the rot sets in, while in a parallel, unexplained narrative we meet Helen (Ethel Grey Terry, best remembered now for 1920’s The Penalty, starring Lon Chaney), stewing in a tenement “while another woman becomes the mistress of that mansion!” James suspects his wife of carrying on with Bob, while Molly wonders where her husband goes every Thursday night. The audience is privileged to know Molly’s secrets, but not, entirely, the cause of James’s perplexing behaviour, or the nature of his connection to Helen."

"That mysterious gunshot, an infant death, a car accident, and a holy vision raise the stakes considerably: while Suspicious Wives has much in common with Stahl’s other silent marital melodramas, such as Husbands and Lovers (1924) and Her Code of Honor (1919), the combination of violent action and spiritual perception, not to mention speeding cars and blindness, here offers a foretaste of Magnificent Obsession (1935)."

"The film was made, and advertised, under the grander title of Greater Than Love in 1919, but not released until 1921 due to a dispute over the rights, by which time that title had already been taken by Fred Niblo. The new title suggests more of an adult caper, such as those being made by Cecil B. DeMille and Erich von Stroheim at the time, which is perhaps a case of false advertising. Just like Molly, Suspicious Wives is not as naughty as it appears, unless narrative misdirections are your penchant. Publicity for the film’s production emphasized its glamour, revealing that the grand wedding scene was shot at the ballroom in the famous Sherry’s restaurant in New York. This was just before the restaurant moved to the Hotel New Netherland, giving the film a touch of nostalgic splendour on its belated release."

"King, a now largely forgotten actress who proves such a strong lead here, was a former child actor on the stage, who entered the film business in 1916 and soon became a serial star. After Suspicious Wives, she and Stahl made just one more film, 1920’s Women Men Forget, and she retired altogether from acting after playing the lead in Her Majesty (1922) and making a small appearance in Pied Piper Malone (1924), aged 29 and now a wife and mother. As if anticipating this domestic retirement, Stahl coyly contains Molly’s own experience of motherhood into an interlude, and to one physical space in the set – then uses reflections to unleash its implications discreetly on the central drama. There is also a “half-demented mother” pivotal to the narrative, but she and the unsavoury circumstances of her life are likewise largely hidden from view."
Pamela Hutchinson (GCM)

AA:  Many melodramas have plots that defy plausibility, but the convoluted plots of some of John A. Stahl's films transcend credibility in such a blatant way that they seem to evolve in nightmare mode. They seem to belong to a special category of surrealism. For someone not familiar with such storytelling the films are hard to relate to.

Suspicious Wives is a triangle drama with murder, multiple misunderstandings, morbid jealousy, single motherhood leading to infant death, a mad car rampage, and blindness after a crash.

All remains a mystery until the end when everything is explained in a few quick all-encompassing intertitles. Helen is not James's other woman but the daughter of his disinherited uncle. James's father was killed at the wedding party by Helen's deranged mother. Coincidentally Bob went to Mexico on a business trip on the very same day when Molly left her husband.

Such an account may sound satirical but there is a rather cosmic sense of misunderstandings and coincidences dominating lives. The playful approach of the art intertitles feels like an unintentional Verfremdungseffekt.

All this is hard to stomach. Undisputed is Stahl's talent in powerful imagery for instance in scenes of the empty nursery with a view to the baby's grave.

A fair print with a slightly duped look.

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