Carol Dempster: The Gentle Gypsy (1926 article)

 

 

carol dempster

The Gentle Gypsy

Author: Gladys Hall

 (Motion Picture Classic: October, 1926)

“The Perfect Life…” we said to Carol, “what is your idea of it?  The life above all other lives you would like to live if you could wave a magic wand, say Abracadabra and presto, have it so?”

“If I had been a boy,” said Carol, “and I wish I had been a boy…I should like to have been a vagabond.  A gypsy.  A sailor sailing the Seven Seas.  I should like to have tramped the earth, to have slept under sun and stars.  I should like to have touched at strange ports…to have stayed in them just so long as I found color there.  Romance.  Adventure….then sailed on again…questing…seeking…working my way, if necessary…with just enough money to get from place to place… It seems to me that would be living at the quick of life.  Really living, you know.

“So few people really live.  So very few really live their own lives.  They live the lives of dozens of other people.  They are circumscribed by this and that, caged, hemmed in, forced to do the thing they really don’t want to do, doing it gracefully or ungracefully as they happen to be.   Poor things, most of them do it all gracefully.  After awhile they don’t care.  After awhile they become superficially content.  That is the saddest time of all.

“For me, the Perfect Life would be the life of a vagabond…roving…roaming…”

 Would Live a Man’s Life

The place was Sherry’s.  The hour was the tea-hour.  The atmosphere was one of head-waitered and hushed conventionality.  Well-groomed women sat to left and to right of us, imbibing lemon-tinted tea and nibbling at pastried flakes with well-bred indifference.  Carol herself, in dove gray, her gentle face musing, her clear eyes fired with dreams of the venturesome Might-Have-Been…if she had been a boy, with the heart of a vagabond.

We feel, now, that we did Carol some sort of injustice.  We don’t know what kind of injustice, but some kind, we are sure.  For we thought that she would say, demurely, “I should like a little rose-vined cottage in the country, with baby faces at the windows and a cow browsing in an adjacent meadow…”  Or that she would say, intelligently, as her contemporaries have impressively said before her, “I should like best of all a life of study and meditation…a life among my books.”  Or, possibly, “I live but for my Art…I wish to give to the world a Masterpiece…”

But she didn’t.  The gentle gypsy, toying with lobster salad, and fresh from The Sorrows of Satan, bespoke a life of vagabondage, a gypsy life, a man’s life…hardy and adventuresome and free….

“But as you were not born a boy,” we persisted, never knowing when to let well enough alone, “as you have to be a girl in this incarnation at rate, what then?”

“I’d still like best of all to be a vagabond,” smiled Carol.  “I suppose I’m not inherently domestic.  Not yet at any rate.  I wouldn’t want to do anything unconventional, however, being a girl.  I’m no an admirer of unconventionality.  It’s usually a pose – or worse.  But if I could, even being a girl, I’d love to be a vagabond…”

Just a Care-Free Girl

“I seem to have no possessive instinct.  I mean, I don’t care a bit about having things.  I head girls say ‘Oh, I’d give my life to have this…or that…’  I never feel like that.  I’m not crazy about clothes.  I don’t care a bit about jewels.  I haven’t the slightest desire to own cars or houses or anything concrete.  That may be a part of my vagabonding instinct.  Perhaps it is.  The thought of owning things, possessing things, tires me.  Bores me.  The fewer possessions I have to think about, the more care-free I feel.  I never want to have anything really desperately.  The instinct of possession is simply left out of me…”

 Romantic Musings

“I think The Sorrows of Satan will be a great picture.  I’ve seen some of the rushes and it looks wonderful.  I’m extremely grateful that I had the opportunity to play in it.  Ricardo Cortez does the most splendid work…I don’t think he’s ever touched this standard before…and Mr. Menjou is marvellous, of course.  He is, too, very lovely to work with.”

“What do you think about Platonic friendship?” we asked.  “We talked to John Gilbert on the subject quite a while ago, and he said that such a state is not possible between an attractive, unattached man and an equally attractive, unattached woman.”

“I’m not qualified to speak in the way Mr. Gilbert is,” Carol said.  “I never like to make a definite answer to any broad question, because I feel that I don’t know.

“Life changes so.  People change so.  What is true for you today is not true for you today.

“Besides, I’ve had so very little experience in the – well, the romantic way.  I really feel unable to speak on that subject.  But I don’t know why there shouldn’t be Platonic friendships between men and women.  I can’t imagine any good reason why not.  After all, every man doesn’t fall in love with every woman, nor every woman with every man.  That element doesn’t always enter in, I’m sure.  I know quite a few men I enjoy talking with, but wouldn’t even think of falling in love with.  I’ll have to wait, tho, to deliver my final pronunciamento (sic) on that score.”

Her Secret of Happiness

“I’ve bought a little farm up in the country…outside of Brewster, New York.  It’s an old house with old things in it…big trees…a swimming hole…I’m going up to it when I’m not working.  When I am working I’ll live in hotels…Perhaps when I retire from the screen I’ll live there permanently…unless I go a-vagabonding…I’d rather like to retire in about two years.  I know no one ever has retired when they have said they would – but I hope I do.  I think it’s such a sad mistake to linger on after your pinnacle is reached.  It’s a form of death and I am too keen about living…

“Then, perhaps, I might marry…have children…I realize that, for a woman, is the only real life, the only satisfactory life, especially after your first youth is gone.  It’s a matter of making choices, always, isn’t it?  We usually want two things very much.  To do two things.  We’ve got to take one or the other, never both.  Alternatives.  I think I’m a bit of a fatalist.  I believe in living each day as it comes along…doing the best you can…waiting for the next day to turn up.  It seems to me that that is about all a person can do, really.  If we plan – well, most of us know what becomes of plans.”

Obeys Her Hunches

“If I have one talent about another, it’s that of being instinctive.  Or, in the vernacular, I have ‘hunches’.  If I obey my hunches I come out all right.  If I dont (sic) – the reverse.  Even in the smallest matters…I’ve come to trust my hunches…”

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Over the last year or two I have been slowly working on editing together a collection of vintage articles from fan magazines and newspapers of the 1910s and 1920s that are written by – or interviews with – silent film personalities.  It’s been an on/off affair, and there was one point when I abandoned the idea completely and so published a handful on this blog.  But now it’s all but finished, and the final product (in paperback and Kindle format) will have twenty-five articles in total, covering eight stars/directors: Renee Adoree, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Theda Bara, Clara Bow, Greta Garbo, John Gilbert, F. W. Murnau, and Jack Pickford.  The hope is that further volumes will follow, but we shall see how it goes.

The above Carol Dempster article was intended for the project, but ultimately hasn’t made the grade.  As it was already typed up, I thought I would share it here.

Birth of a Nation: Happy 100th Birthday?

BOAN

D W Griffith’s epic film Birth of a Nation is 100 years old on 8th February – and still remains possibly the most controversial movie in history. It is a movie of two halves, the first dealing with the American Civil War, and the second half dealing with the Reconstruction Era.

On the one hand it is a remarkable film. For the most part, Hollywood was still reliant on one or two-reel films (up to about 20 minutes in length), although longer, more ambitious films had started to come through from around 1913 onwards – but they were not dominant at this stage. But America had never produced a film on the scale of, or as technically sophisticated as, Birth of a Nation before. Griffith drew inspiration from the Italian epics of the early 1910s, taking their scale and ambition and applying them to a more realistic, American setting. It was, in many ways, the dawn of the modern film.  This wasn’t the first feature film, but with Birth of a Nation, American cinema had come of age.

And then there is the other side of Birth of a Nation. The fact that the second half of the film is a putrid, foul, racist diatribe in which African-Americans are not just portrayed as stupid and lazy, but also as rapist and murderers…with the Ku Klux Klan portrayed as the heroes of the film, not the villains.

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Some today still argue that the film was simply a sign of the times, and stands today as a historical record of the views of 1915. But that, in my opinion, is just burying our heads in the sand. This wasn’t a film that was just re-iterating racial stereotypes or utilising blackface, it was one that was full of hatred and venom – it literally turned whites against blacks in America. There were demonstrations against the film even in 1915, and appeals to get the film banned in some cities. This didn’t happen in most cases. Instead, membership of the KKK swelled over the next few years, as did racially-motivated murders and lynchings. But hey, the film was great box office.

In 1916, partly to silence his critics, Griffith made Intolerance, a film simultaneously telling four stories in four different time periods – flitting back from one to the other faster and faster as the three-hour film progresses. But Griffith appears to have been hiding behind a mask in putting forward a film that was supposedly going to prove that he was anti-prejudice, for in 1930 he filmed an interview to be screened prior to a re-release of Birth of a Nation and he stands by the film and its contents totally. By this time, though, Griffith’s worthy, preachy, self-righteous films were out of favour, and he made his last film, The Struggle, the following year.

How does Birth of a Nation stand up today? Well, no-one can deny its achievement: in many ways the birth of modern film-making. Very little has changed from the point of view of techniques and film grammar in the last one hundred years. And yet Birth of a Nation when viewed today is, to me, a bore. Compared to other feature films from the era, the pace is slow and the direction heavy-handed. There is a sense of self-importance here which weighs the film down, and doesn’t allow it to work as entertainment in the present day. This isn’t true for all films of the period. Many features from the mid-to-late 1910s are still enjoyable today, but sitting through Birth of a Nation is a chore. Is this because of its length? No – Intolerance is just as long, but much more entertaining – even if its innovative structure takes a little getting used to.

But it’s Birth of a Nation that is still shown to poor first-year film students – presumably as punishment of some kind.  No doubt many of the students actually never see the racist elements of the second half of the film due to the fact they had nodded off sixty minutes earlier.  Why do we show it to them?  I have no idea.  Yes, it’s an important film, but it’s not typical of film-making in 1915.  As is so often the case, film students are shown a canonical work instead of a typical movie of the period, and therefore come away with no idea of what people watched most of the time during the mid-1910s.

More importantly, when viewed today, Birth of a Nation leaves one with a foul taste in the mouth, and rightfully so. It makes for remarkably uncomfortable viewing thanks to the racist elements. On the 100th anniversary of its release, we might celebrate what Griffith achieved technically, but that’s where the celebrations should end. Many people suffered, and many people were murdered/lynched as a result of the film being made and shown and kick-starting a resurgence of the KKK.

So, happy birthday, Birth of a Nation – may we never see the likes of you again.

Ten Favourite Films of the 1910s

When people write film lists, it’s generally the “best” films that are included, with their enjoyability not always taken into account.  So, here is my own film list (or at least part one of it), in which I highlight some personal favourites.  Don’t expect to see many critics choices here; after all, I’d rather watch Final Destination than wade through Barry Lyndon or Metropolis!  The films for each decade are in chronological order.  And these aren’t my “favourite ten films”, but simply “ten of my favourite films” for each decade.  And so, come with me back to the 1910s!

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The Land Beyond the Sunset (1912)

land

This short film from 1912 is not for those who cry easily at films.  Directed by Harold M Shaw, it stars young Martin Fuller as a boy who sneaks away on an outing for poor children to the country.  Once there he hears a fairy story about a land where children live happily and feel no pain.  At the end of the day, the boy makes a decision which is bound to have you reaching for the tissues.  Beautifully filmed and movingly acted, this was released on DVD as part of the Treasure of American Film Archives set.

Old Scrooge (1913)

Seymour Hicks appears on film for the first time as Ebenezer Scrooge, a role he would return to in a 1930s remake.   Hicks is perfectly cast here, in the first film treatment of the story to be more than just a series of tableaux based on the novel.   The effects are surprisingly good, and this early adaptation is well worth seeking out.

A Florida Enchantment (1914)

One has to wonder what audiences made of this bizarre gender-bending comedy when it appeared in 1914.   After taking some seeds, a woman realizes that her soul changes gender while she retains the same looks.  She then proceeds to have a great deal of fun at the expense of others that results in what appear on the surface to be same-sex relationships.  Daring for the time, but with a cop-out ending, this has to be seen just in order to realize how barmy some early feature films actually were.

Intolerance (1916)

Ok, I confess.  I like Intolerance.  I can agree with most of the anti-Griffith sentiment out there, but here his love for epic proportions work in his favour and, while the narrative format doesn’t always work, it’s a hugely entertaining failed experiment.   There is much more to enjoy here than the sluggish and offensive Birth of a Nation, and much for the eye to take in.  Most of all, though, is the touching “modern” storyline which remains as moving now as when the movie was first shown nearly a hundred years ago.

Poor Little Peppina (1916)

POOR LITTLE PEPPINA.avi_snapshot_05.04_[2012.12.20_19.48.58]

Anyone who knows my ramblings well will know that my love for Mary Pickford is not great.  That said, this rare little film is both ridiculous from a narrative point of view, and charming from the point of view of characterization, and well worth seeing.  Pickford plays a girl kidnapped by the mafia, presumed dead, but then lands up in Italy knowing nothing of her past.  When she later stows away to New York she (very) coincidentally finds herself involved with the members of the mafia that kidnapped her in the first place.  Jack Pickford has a lovely little cameo as her brother.

Vingarne (1916)

Vingarne 3 (2)

This is Mauritz Stiller’s take on the novel Mikael by Herman Bang, in which an a princess comes between an aging artist and his protégé.  Generally thought to be the first gay-themed feature film, but there is a problem in that the nature of the relationship isn’t made totally explicit.  Nonetheless, it contains early performances from Lars Hanson and Nils Asther, and Mauritz Stiller pulls out all the stops with a complex structure in which a framing device is used in which the actors play themselves making the film.  Confused?!

Himmelskibet (1918)

One of the first feature-length science-fiction films, this Danish movie directed by Holger-Madsen doubles up as a plea for peace in war-torn Europe.  Thought lost for many years, this is a wonderful find.  Of course it’s all rather naïve, but it’s also surprisingly entertaining, and the thought of there being a race of peace-loving vegetarians on Mars is much more pleasant than most modern tales of alien life!

Anders als die Andern (1919)

As a gay man, I could hardly leave out this remarkable film pleading for the legalization of homosexual acts in Germany.  Directed by Richard Oswald and starring Conrad Veidt, the film is still remarkably touching even when viewed today in its fragmented form.  Sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld helped write the script and appears in the film playing himself.   Surprisingly ahead of its time – Victim would be seen as progressive when it tackled a similar theme and narrative over forty years later.

In Wrong (1919)

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There was a cycle of rural coming-of-age dramas during the late 1910s and early 1920s and, of those that are still in existence, this is one of the most charming.  Jack Pickford plays the somewhat lazy but likeable teenager who can’t seem to do anything right, until finally he does and wins over the girl.  That’s pretty much it, folks, but this is a delightful character study, and Pickford demonstrates just why he was a box office draw during the 1910s.  The vast majority of his work from this period is lost, but this shows just what he was capable of – and there are some lovely moments between him and a mongrel dog as well which are really rather touching.

The Lost Batallion (1919)

A rarity in that this is an entertaining war film from the 1910s, based on the true story of a battalion fighting in World War I that is saved from certain death by a carrier pigeon that, rather oddly, was then awarded a medal!  The soldiers mostly play themselves, and make a good job of it, with the first half of the film being particularly entertaining as they sign up, train and get to know each other.  The second half isn’t so successful, but this is still good stuff.