This week’s program was very interesting in its exploration of family relationships, gender roles, and conformity.
The first film shown was 1925’s The Goose Woman, directed by Clarence Brown, who was said to have been Greta Garbo’s favorite director. Louise Dresser plays the eponymous role of Mary Holmes, an alcoholic woman living in a home that is filthy and falling apart. She spends her days raising geese and other animals and spends her evenings drinking gin and remembering her long past glory days as opera singer Marie de Nardi. We find out that she gave up her career when she got pregnant and has resented her illegitimate son ever since.
We meet Mary’s son Gerald, played by Jack Pickford, when he drives his new car (which cost all of $265 in 1925) to her farm to visit. Gerald is excited about his car, his job, and his girlfriend Hazel, an actress played by Constance Bennett. We can see that Mary is not particularly interested in any of it, as all she is thinking about is the bottle of gin she’s hidden in the coffee pot on the stove.The visit turns sour when Gerald clumsily knocks a phonograph cylinder of Mary performing in Tannhäuser to the floor, shattering it.
When a dead body is discovered at the next farm over, reporters write an article mocking Mary’s eyewitness account (mainly because of her appearance and that of her farm), and call her The Goose Woman. Her fragile ego is restored when the district attorney realizes who she really is and wants her to testify — once she’s had a complete makeover, of course. The film’s ending is tied up in a tidy little bow, including the obvious outcome of the murder case, but this film is worth seeing for Louise Dressler.
The Mary Holmes/Marie de Nardi character is hardly sympathetic, especially when we see her telling her son that having him has ruined her life. However, Dressler’s portrayal was so humanizing that we can’t help but root for her. In an era when film performances were often over-the-top, Dressler’s subtlety is really powerful.
The second feature, though not of the same caliber of The Goose Woman, was far more intriguing. The Home Maker, also released in 1925, is a surprising examination of household gender roles. This film was directed by King Baggot (can we pause for a moment to imagine being named King Baggot?), based on a novel by Dorothy Canfield Fisher*.
The story revolves around the Knapp family. Eva Knapp (Alice Joyce) is an efficient housewife who clearly doesn’t enjoy housework but is admired by friends and family for how good she is at it. Her mothering skills are less successful; it’s clear that she sees her children as obstacles to keeping her house clean. Eva’s husband Lester (Clive Brook) is an ineffectual office worker who is passed over for a promotion for a younger employee.
When Lester is disabled, he must stay at home and Eva goes out to work. We see the family dynamic change for the better almost immediately. Lester has an affinity for having fun with his children, which results in their behavior improving. Eva is soon earning double what Lester was, and is much happier with her children once she is no longer their primary carer.
I can only imagine how strange this arrangement might have seemed to audiences in 1925. Even now, there is a certain stigma against men who choose to stay at home while their wives are the primary earners for their families. I have a couple of friends who are stay-at-home dads, though, and they are happy and have successful families.
As usual, Dennis James’s accompaniment on The Mighty Wurlitzer fit in with the films perfectly. He continues to provide a great deal of education about silent film accompaniment and restoration and manages to do so without making the audience feel as though they’re in class.
*In doing a little online research, I found out that Canfield Fisher had a large part in bringing Montessori education to the US and was generally involved in social activism. I’m curious to do some more reading about her. If any of you can recommend a biography, please let me know in the comments.
See you at the movies!