To close out the gay-themed silent films review series, I’ve decided to take a look at a film that doesn’t feature any gay characters, but does star a notable gay actor: J. Warren Kerrigan.
Great God Kerrigan, as he was known, was one of the first major movie stars and appeared in well over a hundred short westerns in the first half of the 1910s. He principally worked for the American Film Manufacturing Company – or the Flying “A” – under the direction of Allan Dwan. Very, very few of those early shorts survive. I’ll be looking at one of them: Three Million Dollars (1911).
Joseph Close (George Periolat) receives a letter from the lawyer of his wealthy and recently deceased brother informing him that his daughter Estella (Pauline Bush) stands to inherit $3,000,000 on the condition that she marries before the end of the month, but “the girl refuses to get married because nobody loves her”. Joe isn’t about to let $3,000,000 slip through his fingers over so minor an issue. He offers a thousand dollars apiece to a group of cowboys to abduct his daughter, find and abduct a suitable husband for her, and then bring them before the Justice of the Peace.
The unwitting groom is Arthur White (J. Warren Kerrigan). He’s taken, tied and blindfolded, to the feed lot, where they already have Estella waiting, similarly encumbered. Before the Justice of the Peace arrives, Arthur wiggles free. He unties Estella, the two steal a horse, and they make their escape into the desert.
As they flee from their kidnappers, Arthur and Estella fall in love and decide to go back. They tie themselves up again and wait for the Justice of the Peace, who marries them on the spot. Joe, so pleased with the outcome, kisses both Estella and Arthur – the latter making quite a show of spitting and rubbing his face afterward.
Three Million Dollars is a silly film, but I don’t know if that’s intentional. It was billed as a western romance, but it strikes me as more of a comedy. The romance doesn’t exist – after a frantic escape across the desert, they climb a rock and Arthur says “Let’s go back and get married”. That’s the extent of the romance between the two leads. Apart from that, though, I have to say that I was very impressed by Pauline Bush. She acted extremely well during the abduction and escape. Kerrigan was hamming it up and not taking his role at all seriously, but I can’t say I blame him.
What happened to Kerrigan’s stardom? There were a few factors at play. The studio line was that he lost his audience’s favor by refusing to enlist in the First World War, which was true. It’s also true that he made some rather unfortunate remarks in that regard, to the effect that it was a good thing so many plebes were going over to be cannon fodder that a star like him could stay safe at home. It was said jokingly, but it didn’t make him any friends.
The other and probably more significant reason was Kerrigan’s refusal to marry and his disregard for secrecy. In the early days, it didn’t matter. The industry was small and insular, and when it came to the performers’ personal lives, audiences were only spoon-fed whatever lies the studio thought it best for them to hear. By the end of the 1910s, it had got too big and the stars lived too much in the public’s eye. The studio may not care whether or not an actor was gay, so long as they kept selling tickets, but they had to shield themselves from the moral crusaders crying for censorship and government oversight, and overtly gay actors were a liability. Others, like Alla Nazimova and Charles Bryant, entered “lavender marriages” – where a gay actor and a lesbian actress marry, show themselves off together in public, and give a few interviews about how married they are – but Kerrigan wouldn’t do that. Kerrigan also had a tendency of being a little too catty in interviews. In one famous example, his usual reply to the “Why aren’t you married?” question – “I have my mother to take care of” – wasn’t good enough and the interviewer kept doggedly approaching it from different angles until at last asking point-blank if he even liked girls. Kerrigan replied: “I like them just fine, when they leave me alone.”
Kerrigan never entirely vanished, but his days of being a star were over. He attempted a come-back in the mid-1920s, with films like The Covered Wagon (1923) and Captain Blood (1924), but his career didn’t revive and he retired from the screen. When he died in 1947, he was survived by his boyfriend of nearly forty years, James Vincent, who he met on set when he was just starting out at the Flying “A” in 1910.
How do I rate the Three Million Dollars? As a pure romance, it’s laughable, but taken as a comedy, it’s not bad – far from good, but not bad. That can only mean…
My rating: Meh.
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