The Light in the Dark was a seven reel (about 90 minute) feature released in 1922 starring Hope Hampton. In a supporting role was one Lon Chaney, whose name — unlike Hope Hampton’s — you might actually recognize. In 1927, the film was re-released in an edited form to capitalize on Chaney’s appearance. The Light of Faith, as it was titled, re-worked the original footage to make Chaney into the main character. That could not have been an easy task, considering two thirds of the film had to be cut to accomplish it — The Light of Faith is barely more than half an hour long. Today, the original release of The Light in the Dark is lost, but The Light of Faith version still survives.
Tony Pantelli (Lon Chaney) is a boarder at a rooming house. He’s a crook… I guess? The film isn’t terribly clear on that point. At any rate, he’s there when a new boarder arrives — a pretty girl named Bessie (Hope Hampton). She spends her last dollar on the room and the next day sets out in search of work. After some time passes, Tony finds Bessie collapsed on the stairs. The doctor is called and she’s diagnosed with “break-down”. In her delirium, she calls for someone named Warburton.
Meanwhile, J. Warburton Ashe (E.K. Lincoln) is trying to “forget that he is an unhappy man”, and that means hunting in rural England. His dog leads him into a ruined abbey where he digs up an ancient chalice. Back at the pub, some guy suggests it’s the Holy Grail (spoilers: it is).
Tony brings Bessie the newspaper and she reads about Warburton’s discovery. Tony is unfamiliar with the Grail story, so Bessie briefly recounts the tale of Sir Galahad. This is, hands down, the best part of the film. She tells Tony that the Grail has miraculous healing powers and that’s cue enough — Tony goes to Warburton, punches him right in the face, and runs off with the cup.
Bessie is healed by the power of the Grail, but Tony, unfortunately, finds himself arrested for assault and robbery. At the trial, as Bessie gazes at Warburton, “the misunderstanding that caused her to flee melts away like mist in the sun”. The… the what? There was a misunderstanding? Anyway, Bessie apparently forgives Warburton for something and Warburton refuses to identify Tony as the culprit because that follows, I guess. The end.
Much of the confused plot is obviously the result of cutting 60 minutes from the picture. E.K. Lincoln, who was second billed in The Light in the Dark, barely exists in this version. I’m sure “the misunderstanding” at least got a mention in the original, I’m sure that there was some characterization of Bessie and Warburton, and I’m sure that the plot had some kind of logical progression — but that isn’t the case here.
Abridgements can be done well if handled by a skillful editor, but The Light of Faith was not well edited. For example, at the trial, Warburton is being questioned about the crime when the judge asks to examine the Grail in the dark. The bailiff switches off the lights, the Grail begins to glow, the clouds part, and a beam of sunlight streams through the window like a spotlight on the cup… then the questioning proceeds as if nothing happened. What should be the big, emotional climax is rendered absurd.
However, the Sir Galahad sequence still stands out. In the original release, it was hand-colored — which must have made it even more impressive — but even simply tinted, it’s wonderful.
I’m going to recommend this film. Bessie’s telling of the Grail story is legitimately good, and the rest of the film is the funny kind of bad, which can be just as entertaining.
My rating: I like it.
Okay, so I’ve read a press sheet and a few contemporary reviews, and I can fill in some of the details cut from the story in The Light of Faith:
Bessie is a poor girl from Vermont who travels to New York to find work. She gets a job in the cloakroom of a hotel. While walking home from work one day, she’s accidentally run over in the street. The woman driving the car is a wealthy socialite who afterwards takes a fancy to Bessie and decides to make a project of her. The woman lives with her several siblings, one of which being Warburton. Bessie falls in love with him and he leads her on. She later sees him wooing another girl of his own class and, heartbroken, runs away. In her absence, Warburton realizes he did indeed love Bessie, but all his efforts to find her fail and, to escape from unpleasant memories, flees to England. During his sojourn, he finds an old silver chalice in a ruined abbey, which he brings back with him when he returns to New York.
At the boarding house, Bessie’s savings run out and she begins to starve. Tony, a gangster, at first sees Bessie as a mark, but after finding her unconscious in the stairwell (and after rifling through her purse and finding it empty), he takes pity on her, gives her food, and calls for a doctor. He finds Warburton’s calling card and puts two and two together. He goes to find him and offers to betray the location of Bessie if his price is met. Warburton refuses. Tony knocks him out and robs him of the cup, which he pawns.
Warburton recovers the cup from the pawnbroker. That night, the servants see it glowing on the mantle and begin to believe that it’s the Holy Grail. The story finds its way to the papers. Bessie hears about it and recounts the story of the Grail to Tony, who decides to steal it again. He gives it to Bessie, who is convinced of its authenticity and believes to have been healed by it herself. She takes it around the slum, healing the sick.
The police trace the crime to Tony and he’s arrested. At the trial, the pawnbroker explains that the cup glows because he accidentally broke a vial of radium on it. Bessie forgives Warburton, and Warburton forgives Tony for his part in bringing them back together. The cup, meanwhile, has mysteriously vanished from the courtroom.
What with it being a book about adultery, abortion, venereal disease, and homosexuality, Michael Arlen’s controversial 1924 novel The Green Hat was an odd choice for a screen adaptation. A Woman of Affairs (1928) does its best to sanitize the story and it changes some significant details that both lessen its impact and make the mystery rather farfetched (more on that later), but it couldn’t completely bowdlerize it.
I chose this to be the third installment in my series of reviews of gay-themed silents because of the Jeffry character (called Gerald in the novel – everyone’s got a new name in the film). He’s quite a long way from the laughing sissy stock character of The Soilers. He’s a morose, withdrawing young man, given to drink, whose only joy in life seems to be a man named David.
Since childhood, Diana Merrick (Greta Garbo) had been in love with Neville Holderness (John Gilbert). Neville loves Diana as well, but his father, Sir Morton (Hobart Bosworth), thoroughly disapproves of the Merricks and does everything in his power to keep the two apart. Sir Morton secures a job in Egypt for Neville and hopes that, in the two years he’s away, he’ll have moved on from Diana.
Neville isn’t Diana’s only admirer. David Furness (John Mack Brown), star of the rowing team, thrills to be near her, just as Diana’s brother Jeffry (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) thrills to be near him. Jeffry’s reliance on alcohol, always an issue for him, becomes more pronounced when David’s attention is monopolized by his sister.
It seems Diana couldn’t wait and she marries David while Neville is in Egypt. On their honeymoon in Deauville, two men appear at their hotel room door demanding to see David. One holds a pair of handcuffs. On seeing them, David leaps to his death from the window. At the inquest, Dr. Hugh Trevelyan (Lewis Stone), David’s doctor and an old friend of the Merricks, wants to declare it an accident, but Jeffry, drunk and highly agitated, forces Diana to admit that it was suicide. She won’t say why he killed himself, only that he did so “for decency”.
The film continues from there. Sir Morton, interpreting Diana’s words to mean that David killed himself for her decency, suggests that she not return to England. She stays on the Continent, moving from one affair to another with a countless number of men. Neville marries the acceptable Constance (Dorothy Sebastian), although he never loses his love for Diana. Jeffry shuts himself up in his apartment and slowly drinks himself to death.
The book is not ambiguous and makes Gerald’s motivation clear, but in the movie, Jeffry’s love of David is more subtextual. A less observant watcher may see it as simple idolization (David was the star of the rowing team, etc.) and be left to think that Jeffry wildly overreacts to David’s marriage to Diana and subsequent death, but an observant one will see it – it is there. For example, I’ve mentioned Jeffry’s drinking when separated from David, but notice how the exact same scene is repeated later in the film when Neville leaves Diana to return to his lie of a marriage.
The movie’s changes and glossing-over of details do make some segments perplexing to someone unfamiliar with the source. Diana is hospitalized for some sudden and mysterious malady – it goes unsaid that she’s recovering from an abortion; she became pregnant the night she allowed herself to “fall” with Neville. Dr. Trevelyan knows the reason for David’s suicide and keeps it a secret for Diana’s sake. Why? I won’t spoil either the book or movie, but it’s very clear why he knows in the former, but not at all in the latter. Changing David’s reason from being a personal to a public vice also asks the question why it didn’t come up at the inquest – even if Diana kept quiet about the two men who came to their room, surely they were seen by others at the hotel.
Compared to Garbo’s other silents, A Woman of Affairs isn’t that well remembered. The story definitely has its faults, but what can’t be denied is that it’s beautifully shot. Clarence Brown was mostly thought of as a “woman’s film” (a contemporary term roughly analogous to today’s “chick flicks”) director and I don’t think he gets the credit he deserves as a filmmaker. I especially love his long tracking shots, which he makes frequent use of here.
As I said, it isn’t a flawless work nor would I call it Garbo’s best, but with some reservation, I’d recommend A Woman of Affairs. I would suggest reading The Green Hat first, though.
My rating: I like it.