Saturday, December 5, 2009

Film Review: Suds

"Suds" *** (out of ****)

December is usually a time to look backwards. To take stock of what was. With a new year approaching we asses the year. As far as movies go, around this time film critics start giving us their "top ten" list, reflecting upon the best films they have seen and since we are not only ending a year but an entire decade, critics and movie fans will look back and determine what were the best films of the last 10 years (I will post my list very, very soon). So, since December lends itself to looking at the past, I thought it might be fun this month to put a spotlight on silent cinema. Hey, if we're going to look to the past, lets not play around and really go back to the past.

Silent cinema is an often neglected art form. After many years of college as a film student, I can honestly say, unless it was part of a class assignment, I never, not once, discussed silent films with any film major. The overwhelming majority of them (it might have been every single one of them, but, I'll cut them a break) had no interest in silent movies. They couldn't name any of the great stars or great films which emerged from the era. Even people who consider themselves film lovers, that I know, aren't familiar with silent cinema. This makes me very sad. If you consider yourself a film lover I simply don't understand why you wouldn't watch some of the great silent films. And just so you know, I personally, wouldn't consider such a person a true "film lover".

I've tried to introduce readers to some of the great silent films. I haven't done the best job I can, but, I've made a minor attempt. I have primarily discussed the comedies and the work of Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd and Harry Langdon. I've done this because I feel the best way to ease some viewers into silent films might be through comedy. Though, in my defense, I have written about some serious movies as well. The work of D.W. Griffith as been discussed on here. I have even included his "Birth of A Nation" (1915) in my "Masterpiece Film Series". I have also name dropped such directors as King Vidor (I have reviewed his work) and Clarence Brown.

And I've tried to introduce readers to not just the great directors but the major movie stars of the era. I've discussed Rudolph Valentino, Greta Garbo, Louise Brooks, Clara Bow and John Barrymore among others. But of all those great stars I have neglected a few giants as well. One that bothered me the most was Mary Pickford.

I have wanted to discuss Mary Pickford on this blog for a very long time. One of my original intentions was to include "Coquette" (1929) into my "Masterpiece Film Series" some time ago. I saw that movie many years ago and remembered thinking it was a masterpiece. I reviewed it on It was also Pickford's first talking picture and the only film for which she won a "Best Actress" Oscar. So it seemed like a worthy entry. I watched the movie again but didn't have the same reaction. That is not to say the movie wasn't good but it wasn't a masterpiece and I couldn't in good faith include into my series. I watched it a third time just to make sure. But my reaction was still the same. "Coquette" was a good movie but not a great one. Still, I never substituted "Coquette" with another movie to write about and the days turned into months and I never wrote about Pickford.

Now that so much time has passed I figured I better take immediate action. And this leads me to write about "Suds" (1920). It is not Pickford's best movie but it just might demonstrate to you what the Pickford appeal was.

Pickford was called "America's Sweetheart". She was known for her curly hair and sweet, naive charm. She started off by playing young innocent girls. One of her major roles was in "Pollyanna" (1920), "Suds" was her follow-up film. She is as important to the history of cinema as any other actress and for that matter any director.

She was born in Canada in 1892 and according to appeared in 249 films between 1909 and 1933. Her last film was "Secrets" (1933) directed by the great Frank Borzage. I shouldn't even have to mention it, but, naturally I haven't seen all 249 films which she appeared in, however, I'm willing to bet, no one alive today has either. Regardless, of those 249 titles some do stick out and deserve to be seen. "Suds" is one of them and others include the already mentioned "Coquette", "My Best Girl" (1927), which co-starred one of her future husbands "Buddy" Rogers, "Sparrows" (1926), "The Love Light" (1921, which I might review) and "Daddy-Long-Legs" (1919) which was adapted into two other films, one in 1931 with Janet Gaynor and a musical version in 1955 with Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron.

Pickford was also known for being a business woman. Today we tend to think of the movie industry as a "man's world". There may be some truth to that, but Pickford wasn't going to take that lying down. She actually produced many of her films (she produced "Suds" for example) and was one of the co-founders of "United Artist" along with Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith (who gave her a break) and Douglas Fairbanks (another one of her future husbands). She had so much influence and power that she even named her salary. And remember, we are talking 1920s America here. Women had only recently gotten the right to vote and here was Mary Pickford producing movies, starring in them and having salary demands. And for all her hard work she was given an Honorary Oscar in 1976, three years before she died.

"Suds" is in many ways linked to a fairy tale. We are told at the beginning of the film this will not be one of those sweeping romance pictures about a great love. Instead this is the story of a shirt. The shirt belongs to Horace Greensmith (Albert Austin) who has taken it to a dry cleaners where Amanda Afflick (Pickford) works. Horace is well dressed and so Amanda takes him for a wealthy gentleman. Through him Amanda dreams of one day leaving the dry cleaners and even marrying Horace, who could give her the life she has always wanted. And so we get one theme of the movie; the power of imagination. Imagination can turn our grim realities into hopes and dreams. It can help us get through the day and give us something to live for.

Horace has left his shirt at the dry cleaners for quite some time. But Amanda doesn't care. The shirt reminds her of him. Not knowing when he will come back she even washes the shirt twice a week to make sure it will be clean upon his return.

Now since young Amanda is such a daydreamer she has concocted a story to her co-workers and boss, Madame Didier (Rose Dione) that she is really the daughter of an archduke. Her father did not approve of her romance with Horace and decided she needs to go out into the real world and get a job and do so without any of the influence her title or money would offer. But one day Horace shall return and take her away.

Now do you see why I link the story to a fairy tale? It is almost a Cinderella type of idea. Poor, hard working young woman who is mistreated, not by her evil stepmother but her boss, awaits her prince charming to take her away. In some ways I suppose it is the most typical idea for a romantic comedy.

The whole appeal of the film rests on Pickford's performance and her ability to bring us into the story. We are suppose to root for her and hope Horace does return and fall in love with her. For the role Pickford abandons her good looks and gives herself more of a homely appeal. This however only makes us feel more sorry for her. And while her looks may not be typical her character traits are. She is young and innocent, a daydreamer. She knows of the harsh realities of life but hopes for something better.

The material could have been played for straight melodrama, just picture D.W. Griffith directing Lillian Gish. But director John Francis Dillon and Pickford give the movie a light feel. It is not exactly a comedy but is lighthearted. The viewer never senses great tragedy though there is a moment near the end, which I won't reveal, where Pickford breaks our hearts a little. She is fearful her dreams will not come true and the man she loves will not return the same feelings. What is remarkable about the sequence is how effortlessly Pickford goes from lighthearted gaiety to melodrama in a blink of the eye. And it is by that time we notice how involved we have been in this silly story and Pickford's performance.

And since it is a Hollywood movie the film gives us a different message than we may have at first expected. It is important to have our hopes and dreams. But little Amanda was wrong in thinking money would solve all her problems. Money wouldn't make her happy in the long run. Love would. I guess only a young, naive, innocent girl would believe that. And that's what is so great about Pickford. She almost makes us believe it too.

I hope people take my advice and see this movie, it is available on DVD as part of the Milestone Collection. I think Pickford's performance is good enough that even young, modern audiences will enjoy it. And if you do, please see the other titles I mentioned in the review. Mary Pickford is one of the giants of cinema and shouldn't be forgotten by today's audiences.