Today was all about the wee ones. The Home Maker (dir. King Baggot, US, 1925, The Parade’s Gone By… strand) featured the three offspring of Lester and Eva Knapp. They are a loving couple and Lester works hard, if uninspiringly, to secure a raise and thereby relieve Eva of some of the household chores that preoccupy so much of her time. Friends and neighbours admire Mrs Knapp’s “efficiency” but Mr Knapp is sorely lacking in this department – according to his boss anyway – and so is passed over for promotion. Knapp then accidentally on purpose tries to end it all in the hope that his life insurance will pay out but he makes a botch of that too and ends up paralysed from the waist down, even less able to provide for his loved ones than before. Thing is, this turns out to be “God’s blessing” as it frees up the missus to go to work, where she shines, whilst allowing Lester to spend more quality time with the kids.
(image: The Home Maker)
The children who had previously been, variously, brattish and prone to tantrums, surly, and given to nervous indigestion, all blossom into loving, compliant but still characterful children. I responded to this film’s message about how cleaning the floor shouldn’t come between you and your loved ones but was conflicted about the conclusion that being “confined to a wheelchair” precluded you from fulfilling the role of material provider in a society where the one thing guaranteed to make you less of a contributor than even a woman was disability. However, the resounding case for reversing traditional roles of care-giver and bread-winner because it might suit everyone better was very compelling. Special mention to José María Serralde Ruiz for his piano accompaniment guiding us with subtlety through all the emotional ups and downs.
I was particularly struck by the portraits of the children and parenting in this film. To be fair, the youngest one was definitely brattish and needed taking in hand. But the film shows us that the best method of raising well-adjusted children was not the punitive approach favoured by the tattling neighbour (a spare the rod and spoil the child kind-of-a-person), but rather to show compassion and attention. This film was made 20 years before Dr Spock’s ‘Baby and Childcare’ was published. Spock was the first to use psychoanalysis to try to understand children’s needs and family dynamics and to advocate that parents should be more flexible and affectionate with their children, treating them as individuals, so in this regard at least Baggot’s film was ahead of its time. Too far ahead for the critics it seems as Kevin Brownlow points out in his programme note that contemporary critics deplored the film’s progressive stance with Variety complaining “too much delving into child psychology when the picture gets on the wrong track” and Picture Play writing “interesting picture ruined by too much baby talk”. *
(image: Memory Lane)
With barely a pause for breath, and certainly no comfort-break, the next film of the day was Memory Lane (dir. John M. Stahl, US, 1926). This was a smooth-edged melodrama about “a girl and two boys”. Donald Sosin accompanied this one on piano and judiciously added his trademark singing when the title song loomed large in the plot (plus a bit of – I think – pre-recorded – harmonica, to great effect).
Mary is betrothed to Jim but sneaks out to meet Joe on her last night as a single lass. Joe has been incommunicado, trying to make a success of himself, but without any word from Joe, Mary has decided to cut her losses and get hitched to Jim. If only she’d known Joe was still holding a torch for her she might have waited. Refreshingly, both Jim and Joe are very likeable chaps, and Mary is lovely too so there are no villains for the audience to rally against. It’s all just very awkward. Jim maybe has the slight edge – he’s so thoughtful. He even got a house built for Mary as a surprise and furnished it from top to bottom, complete with framed photographs of Mary’s parents on the piano and a dish of hair pins. It’s like ‘Don’t Tell the Bride’ but the only gaff he makes is to buy pins for blondes whilst Mary is a brunette. Doh!
Anyway, Mary and Jim get married and have a baby and we join them, a few years down the line at said baby’s first birthday party. I don’t know why it is but there is something extra affecting about babies in silent film. Perhaps it the hindsight that these images are effectively memento mori and the little ones are likely to be aged or deceased by now. Or perhaps it is just that they are natural in front of the camera, without any of the histrionic gesturing of some actors in the earliest days of cinema. This wean appears to be called ‘Baby’ – at least that’s the name iced on the cake. A colleague at lunch was outraged that the scene should leave the baby anonymous but another suggested that this may have been because Stahl himself didn’t have children when he made the film and so was clueless in these matters. He must have had a way with babies to some degree because a performance was coaxed from Baby who stole all the scenes, s/he was in. Asleep in a high-chair in front of the birthday spread, cooing and reaching for the birthday gifts, and (when left unattended as mom prettified herself for her –ex) escaping from the high chair to scoff the cake, before falling asleep again, on the table with the remains of the cake serving as a pillow. A sign that Mary had chosen Mr Right was his eagerness to help settle the little one. He sprang from the table to the cot, Baby reached for her daddy and he expertly soothed the child back to sleep. What a hero.
(image: Tokkan Kozo)
The Rediscoveries strand this afternoon included Tokkan Kozo (A Straightforward Boy) (dir Yasujiro Ozu, Japan, 1929) with suitably mischievous accompaniment by Stephen Horne. This was an abbreviated version of a lost longer film. A boy is kidnapped and has fun running rings around his kidnapper until the hapless criminal decides he’s had enough and deposits him back. The little boy is played by six-year-old Tomio Aoki and his role as the head-strong child brought him fame as a child actor. This was Aoki’s second film for Ozu who went on to give him a lead role in I Was Born, But… (HippFest 2012). Apparently the great Japanese director was much taken with the star qualities of the boy and cast him in several more films. Meahwhile Aoki himself was clearly enamoured of his screen persona too and changed his name to the film’s title: Tokkan Kozo (roughly translated as “charges” or “crashes” about). Avoiding being seen and not heard little Kozo went on to enjoy a long career in the sound era, appearing in over 100 films until his final performance and death in 2004. Being able to see a child’s personality shining through even a worn-out, blown-up 9.5mm print, and knowing those reels captured their youth while they grew up in film after film, gives me a shiver. These shades of immortality haunt me and are why I will always be drawn to silent film.
* (PS. The Home Maker included my intertitle of the day “emancipated by joy in her work she brought joy to her home”).