Friday, February 4, 2011

Gretchen The Greenhorn (1916, Chester M. Franklin, Sidney Franklin)

1916 saw the release of both Chester M. and Sidney Franklin's impressive B-picture Gretchen The Greenhorn and Louis Feuillade's masterful, superior serial Judex. Each film's female lead is the daughter of a man in over his head in corruption. Each film features orphans who save the day. They both feature fake ambulance smugglings, secret ship hideaways, and elaborate crime syndicates. It's as if writer Bernard McConville somehow had intimate knowledge of the French serial (that was completed, but shelved in 1914), though failing to take advantage of it until the film's final third.

Dorothy Gish stars as Gretchen Van Houck, a dutch immigrant who arrives to America with her father who has already set up shop as an engraver. Day to day life is difficult, though most difficult for tenement neighbor children who become orphaned at the midpoint of the picture. Since, apparently, Gretchen sometimes give the children cake, the dying mother insists, rather unfairly, she act as their mother. These relationships are never really developed, so the consequences seem trivial. The same can be said of the relationship between Gretchen and the Italian immigrant trying to woo her. Pietro (Frank Bennett) wins her over with a few songs, and after half an hour of some underplayed middling (which, don't get me wrong, Gish's low-key performance is preferable to much of the flamboyant pantomime of the early silent era), finally the action begins.

Gretchen's father, Jan (Ralph Lewis) is tricked into engraving plates in a counterfeiting scheme. Although the film's melting pot sensibilities are ethnically-sensitive, all things considered, Jan is something of a dolt--the appearance of which isn't helped by the comedic rendering of the Dutch-English vernacular on the title cards. The father and daughter are kidnapped and pursued in a rather impressive sequence befitting of D.W. Griffith (of whom the Franklin brothers were something of a protege). The editing is fast-paced, the locations are gripping, and the children are charming. One of the orphans is on to the crime syndicate and as Jan is drugged, smuggled away on a fake ambulance and ferried aboard a private ship (remember, this isn't Judex), we are even treated to one of my favorite title cards of all time: "Little Micky suspicious". Like The Liquorice Kid in Judex, Little Micky leads the police to the hideout in time for Gretchen and Pietro to get married.

Though it is unfair to expect Little Micky Suspicious: The Movie in 1916 (or any year), the film banks too much on Gish in an underdeveloped, milquetoast role. Though no fault of her own, Gish's Gretchen is the least interesting thing about the project. While head and shoulders above many A-features of its time, Gretchen The Greenhorn forgivably stutter-steps its way through much of the narrative, but makes up for it in a sincere view of the American melting-pot, on-location alley/tenement shots and a gripping conclusion. -- **½ / four stars

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