I’m beginning to really enjoy these silent films. I was doubtful of American technical abilities after comparing the stillness of Birth of a Nation with Feuillade’s capacity to make a traditional stage setup seem to come alive, to grow deep and epic in space. Perhaps Feuillade has a more positively raw sense of illustration, sexy and violent and somewhat nihilistic; but Walsh, even in what seems to be working in the classic American version of Socialist Realism (boy loves tractor, boy loses tractor, boy reaffirms party values and regains tractor for all time–being in this case: boy loves girl, girl meets untimely death, girl lives on through the burgeoning notion of Christ in boy, boy loves Christ and lives happily ever after). The gunshot that kills her, unfortunately, gives her what seems to be an orgasm–especially as there’s no blood though she’s shot in the heart. So I was entirely surprised when she died a couple minutes later, after kissing Owen (which we do not see, though who needs to see it after watching her prance around without a bra for the past hour? And that orgasm, oh, and her introduction to us being her lying suggestively in bed? And she’s played by Anna Q. Nillson, who is very, very pretty when she isn’t done up like a typical film star of the era. Seeing someone dressed down–sigh. Let’s get back to business, even though I have a crush on a woman who was born almost a hundred years before me).
I procrastinated watching this film, because I’m beginning to get tired of these things, and the plot seemed a little trite. But almost immediately something caught my eye, something extremely modern, something I have not seen an earlier instance of yet: During an early scene Owen is sitting down at the dinner table, in the center of the shot, with his exploitive neighbors, husband and wife, on either side of him, facing each other. And they begin a messy, violent fight as he sits there, lots of arms and things being thrown about. The camera slowly zooms in to Owen, with all the violence framing his body in the shot, and then the faded portion of the screen encircles his head. Offhand, it’s the sort of thing you’d see a lot of in Babe (the gallant pig). It happens only once, but it draws us into Owen as a person, not simply another character, but a mass of hopes and faults and memories.
Walsh learned the ropes from Griffith, with whom he worked, including a role as Booth in Birth of a Nation. So I’d perhaps expect a Griffith knockoff, and from my only experience of Griffith, that would be characters who fit types rather than having any depth. Owen, in this film, is given a life, and rather than present him first as a gangster amongst gangsters, he is first a child in mourning, then a child exploited, then a child rebelling from his slavish life, and then the leader of the gangsters, who values and enacts justice. And as the story progresses he suffers a dialectic between his gangster ethics of human justice, and the Christian ethics of pacifism at any cost. At the center of the story is Christian charity, and it is reached from two directions: on one side is Owen and the street life of degeneracy; on the other is Mamie Rose and the life of abundance and indifference. But neither fit in their places, and thus they meet in the middle, through Christian love and charity. Mamie Rose sheds her past life by moving into a life of frugality, Owen sheds his leadership of the gang by following his love of Mamie Rose and the goodness she instills in him. Ultimately, because of his difficulty in removing himself entirely from his old life, Mamie Rose pays with her life, a sort of martyr, who is then responsible for Owen’s giving up the last of his way of life, taking up the innocent child we know has remained in him (especially given the scene juxtaposing older Owen drinking beer with younger Owen eating ice cream.) And just as we find a middle in their lifestyles, so we find a middle in their lives, when combined, they lose their former selves and Mamie Rose in her death enters Owen’s heart and soul, so Owen may be called dead, who yields a new, better person.
Honestly, I just have a crush on Mamie Rose.