The Making of a Man (Biograph, 1911)
(None of the characters are named, so I’m just going to refer to them by their actor’s name)
Blanche Sweet and her boyfriend, Guy Hedlund, are sitting in the front row at the playhouse, eagerly awaiting the performance of a traveling theatrical troupe. The curtain rises on a masher (Donald Crisp) assaulting a woman (Claire McDowell). Dell Henderson appears and separates them, probably saying something like ‘away with you, foul cur!’ The audience bursts into rapturous applause.
Later, at a dance, Blanche meets Dell, and to say that they hit it off is an understatement. Her boyfriend is understandably put-out. When he sees them together at the train station, he rushes to tell her father (William J. Butler). Father appears just as Dell leans-in for a goodbye kiss. He frogmarches Blanche home.
Blanche runs away. She finds Dell in his hotel room and, direct to the point, asks him “will you marry me?” For a moment, Dell is staggered by the question, but is in the middle of gladly accepting her proposal just as they hear a knock at the door. Guy Hedlund, who’s pretty firmly veered into stalker territory at this point, has been trailing her with Father in tow.
They give him the slip, and within the hour, they’ve got a marriage certificate in hand. Back at the hotel, they meet their pursuers, who have now also involved the police. It would seem that perhaps Blanche hasn’t been entirely forthright with Dell: she’s actually just fifteen years old. This is excellent casting, as Blanche Sweet — the actress herself, I mean — was indeed only fifteen years old at the time, but she legitimately does look several years older.
Back at home, Father presents Blanche to her little sisters as the very model of damnation. Big brother (Edwin August?), who would be a Bible-thumper if he could ever put down his Bible long enough to thump it, sermonizes her before proudly strutting off with his nose in the air. Meanwhile, at the hotel, the other actors try to make light of the situation, but Dell is deeply disturbed by the turn of events. It seems that he might know something that’s as yet a secret to everyone else…
Blanche runs away once again, this time leaving a letter that “tells the tragic story”. (If you haven’t picked up on the not terribly subtle clues, she’s pregnant.) It’s just after Father reads this note that Dell appears at the door. He’s come to reason with him, but all Father has to say is “My daughter is dead. Get out of my house.”
Shortly afterward, Blanche returns to beg her father’s forgiveness, but she finds him dead from a heart attack. Brother appears and immediately lays into Blanche. After he’s done berating her, he, too, discovers that his father is dead. Blaming her, he expels her from the house. The editing is a bit sloppy in this scene. When brother enters, he’s shockingly without his Bible, but at some point it magically reappears.
Some time later (evidently, given that Blanche has a baby now), we find a slumlord hassling Blanche for the rent, only to leave empty-handed. Blanche picks up a newspaper and reads… something. I’m not watching a release print of this film. What I’ve got is either a work print or, more likely, an answer print. Plainly, there was supposed to be an insert shot of a newspaper, but instead, all that’s there is just a single-frame slug with “news paper” scratched onto it to mark where the shot should be spliced in. It’s pretty easy to guess, though, that what she saw was an advertisement that the theatre troupe would be coming back to town.
We cut to the theatre just as Dell is bowing to an even more enraptured audience (and look, there’s Mabel Normand clapping her heart out a scant six weeks after being dropped from Vitagraph for not being star material — will her career ever recover?), but it’s plain that Dell has a heavy heart. Backstage, he’s greeted by a ghost. A ghost with a baby. “Reunited at last” — Dell embraces Blanche, who is turns out isn’t as dead as he thought; and Blanche embraces Dell, who didn’t abandon her after all.
I’m a sucker for maudlin melodramas (and not on some ironically-detached level, I really get invested in them — it’s rare that I’m not teary-eyed by the end), but even I tend to find Griffith’s Biograph shorts to be mawkish and overly sentimental. The Making of a Man (1911) isn’t entirely free of Griffith’s heavy hand, but the cast goes a long way toward making it work. I’ve already mentioned Blanche Sweet being ideal for the role, but I haven’t mentioned Dell Henderson’s wonderfully subtle performance. The film was his to lose, but he manages to perfectly convey the conflicted position he’s in without ever resorting to the sort of white knight histrionics employed by his character in the stageplay-within-the-photoplay. Take the scene when Father tells him that Blanche is dead. Imagine Carlyle Blackwell in the role: he’d stagger back a few steps, the back of his hand would shoot to his forehead, his mouth agape, lips quivering. Henderson does none of that. With his brows downcast, he stares for a moment into the middle distance. He absently passes his hat from one hand to the other. At the garden gate, he pauses just for an instant and steadies himself on the fence post before walking away, slumping slightly, but as if making an effort to hold himself together. It’s beautifully acted by the entire cast, really, except for the brother. I have to give the actor some slack because he’s playing a caricature and there wasn’t much else he could do, but still, he comes across entirely too comic. I’ll ignore how heavily the corpse breathes.
My rating: I like it.
I vaguely recalled once reading about this film in Motion Picture Story Magazine (which I’ve got a pretty large collection of), so I pulled out a few from around its release, and sure enough, it was novelized in the November 1911 issue. According to it, the newspaper read: “Wanted:- A woman with infant. Apply at Grand Theater, after matinée today.” Also, it names Blanche Sweet’s character Ruth Merritt and Dell Henderson’s Morton Travers. So there you go.