Tuesday, September 06, 2011

SECRETS (1933)

One of only a handful of talkies starring Mary Pickford. Her name is still well known among film buffs, if only because of her role in establishing United Artists with Charlie Chaplin and her husband Douglas Fairbanks, but her films are hard to come by. I’ve only seen one, LITTLE ANNIE ROONEY, in which, at the age of 33, she played a teenage street waif, and none too convincingly. But apparently the public loved her in those roles. By the sound era, she was finally playing adults, but in this, her last film before retiring, she plays a character from youth to old age. The film breaks neatly into three parts. In the first half-hour, set in what appears to be post-Civil War New England, Pickford is a debutante, heading for a boring arranged marriage. She and the relatively dashing Leslie Howard meet cute during a buggy ride, fall quickly in love, and run off together to the Wild West as a pioneer couple. The second part of the film shows them establishing a home on the range (with handyman/sidekick Ned Sparks, a grouchy fellow incongruously nicknamed Sunshine, the best laugh in the movie). They've got a cattle business going, but when rustlers break in while Howard is out, threaten Pickford and her baby, and steal their cattle, Howard and others take the law into their own hands and lynch some of the thieves. Unfortunately, the survivors return for a shootout, resulting in the death of the child (a bloodless but startling scene). In the final section, set several years later, Howard, who has become a wealthy and important citizen, runs for governor, but his dreams are almost dashed when an affair he's been having with a saucy Mexican woman becomes public knowledge.

This fits snugly into the family saga genre, or a subgenre I have dubbed the "abridged family saga," in which a family story which covers many years is told in too short a time to have much narrative impact. Each individual section could probably have been expanded into a film of its own, but as it stands, the parts don’t cohere into an effective whole. Pickford, at 40, is too old to pull off the cutesy ingĂ©nue of the opening section, but she handles the rest of the film fairly well, looking a bit like Helen Hayes by the end. Howard is fine as the essentially good man who strays, though because of the "abridgement" of the narrative, we mostly have to take his goodness on faith. Mona Maris is the rather unlikely mistress (we are informed that she is not the first), the reliably gruff C. Aubrey Smith is good as Pickford's father, and Sparks is fun as always. No one else makes an impression (though of course I would notice the attractive Huntley Gordon in a small role as the couple's grown son in the last section). Not a bad film, but mostly of interest to fans of Pickford. [TCM]

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