Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Golden Chance: a Photoplay

Cecil B. DeMille began directing films in late 1913, after forming an alliance with Jesse L. Lasky, Lasky's brother-in-law Samuel Goldfish (who would later change his name to Goldwyn) and attorney Arthur Friend. None of them had been involved in making motion pictures before, and the name of the new venture, the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company, indicated the company's theatrical beginnings. Lasky had been a vaudevillian, and DeMille had come from a family of playwrights. The pair had initially joined forces as producer and director of not-terribly-successful Broadway productions.

The Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company's first film, released in February 1914, was the Squaw Man, based on a very popular play by Edwin Milton Royle. Indeed, the majority of films DeMille would direct over the next two years would be adapted from the theatre: the Girl of the Golden West and Rose of the Rancho by David Belasco, the Warrens of Virginia and the Wild Goose Chase by Cecil's brother William, and quite a few more, including a version of Carmen that for legal reasons had to be positioned as an adaptation of Prosper Mérimée's novel, but that starred opera diva Geraldine Ferrar and was certainly intended to exploit audience interest in Bizet's opera. Like another failed playwright named D.W. Griffith, DeMille had a theatrical instinct that helped broaden the cinema's reach beyond the Nickelodeons, attracting middle-class audiences clamoring for narratives that would be sustained for more than just a reel or two at a time. Unlike Griffith, he never released a film less than four reels long (about an hour in duration).

But beginning in 1915 with the Captive, DeMille began directing films based on original scenarios. Two of these were produced, for all practical purposes, simultaneously, one during daylight hours and one at night: the Cheat, with a script by former theatre critic Hector Turnbull, and the Golden Chance, by DeMille and his writing partner (and mistress) Jeanie MacPherson. Sumiko Higashi, in her 1994 study Cecil B. DeMille and American Culture writes:
A move that secured his claim to authorship, the decision to collaborate with a scriptwriter rather than to purchase rights to existing works was also cost-effective: Macpherson received $250 for the script of The Golden Chance, whereas playwright and novelist Charles Kenyon was paid an advance of $2,000 against 10 percent of the royalties for the adaptation of Kindling.
Higashi describes the Golden Chance as "an exercise in middle-class voyeurism with the heroine in the mediatory role of a tourist." As in the Squaw Man, Carmen and other DeMille adaptations, much of the drama of the Golden Chance lies in the crossing of social class boundaries, in this case on the part of the audience surrogate Mary Denby, played by Cleo Ridgely. We are not shown Mary's transformation from judge's daughter to struggling wife of an impoverished alcoholic; it's revealed in a newspaper headline seen at the beginning of the film. But her role-play as a high-society belle in a scheme concocted by Mr. and Mrs. Hillary (played by Ernest Joy and Edythe Chapman) invites the viewer to dream of an opulent life with rich, handsome Roger Manning (played by Wallace Reid) just as the scenes involving Mary's husband (Horace B. Carpenter) serve as a warning against marrying below one's station.

If none of this narrative material seems likely to appear fresh to modern observers, it probably wasn't particularly fresh at the time, either, at least not to anyone familiar with the Cinderella myth. What comes across, then and now, is how the story is told. The cinematography, especially the lighting, has been praised approximately as often as the film has been written about. In his recent DeMille biography, Simon Louvish extracts the following passage from a Peter Milne review for Motion Picture News contemporaneous to the film's release:
...the countenances of the players are clearly defined by rays of light that strike them full in the face, leaving the backgrounds totally dark...aiding the story beyond measure...
Higashi quotes W. Stephen Bush from Moving Picture World:
If the paintings in a Rembrandt gallery or a set of Titians or Tintorettos were to come to life...and transferred to the moving picture screen the effect could not have been more startling.
Perhaps just as interesting as the lighting is the staging and editing of the film, especially as it develops across the sweep of the picture. In the first reel or so of the Golden Chance, each of DeMille's cuts comes at a natural geographic separation point, almost as if a scene shift in a play. Every shot concludes either a) at the moment of an explanatory or dialogue title card, b) at a shift of location from one room or one location to another, or c) at a shift of focus to a character entrance, as when DeMille cuts from Mary hearing someone at her apartment door and responding (mouthing) "come in!", to the rent collector entering through a door in the room unseen in the previous shot.

It's only in the DVD's 18th minute, during Mary's debut at the Hillarys' party for Roger Manning, that DeMille begins to stretch his continuity editing muscles. Though the occasion is once again a character entrance, the cutting is much more complicated than anything seen in the film up to this point, and it remains at this pitch for the rest of the sequence. After a title card announcing Mary's arrival in the room ("The Substitute.") we see Roger Manning entertaining a trio of young women at the gathering.

Cut to Mary, beginning her descent down the grand staircase.

Back to Roger and his group, now noticing the new arrival in the room.

Then a shot establishing the geography of the room and the distance between the two.

A close-up of Roger, looking intently at his object of attraction.

Mary, surveying the scene.

Back to the establishing shot, as Mary continues her descent into an attractive but ultimately forbidden world.

As she completes her journey down the steps, she is greeted by her duplicitous guide, Mrs. Hillary.

One final shot before we get to the title card bearing Mrs. Hillary's introduction.

Mary and Roger have been introduced, and now we get the payoff: a two-shot.

The scene continues with a lavish dinner filled with continuity editing choices, cross-cut with a single-shot scene of Mary's husband scrounging for sustenance at home. It's as if DeMille is using cuts within a scene to signal Mary's fantasy world; either its dream-come-true quality, its mendacity, or both. Unvarnished truth about the dark side of urban society gets relatively long takes that may or may not hearken back to theatrical staging strategies, but the world of hopes, desires, and lies is gloriously woven together by splicing tape in the Grand Hollywood manner, as only the cinema can achieve.

Approximately a year after the Golden Chance was released, DeMille's first full-blown epic was unveiled: Joan the Woman. It was not as financially successful as had been hoped, but that did not deter the director from continuing to attempt to bring more and more opulence and spectacle to his films. By the time he remade the Golden Chance as Forbidden Fruit (a film I have not seen apart from a few clips) in 1920, he felt it necessary to include "elaborate Cinderella fantasy sequences," as Robert S. Birchard has described them, that caused its budget to soar to well over $300,000, where the original version had cost under $20,000 to produce. However, few who have seen both films report Forbidden Fruit to be more effective than the Golden Chance.

-Brian Darr


girish said...

Brian, thank you for this detailed, helpful post, and for doing all this research for us! I learned a lot from it.

Anonymous said...

Brian, this post made my viewing of this movie more enjoyable. Thanks. I like the way you broke down the editing strategy in the scene of Mary's entrance into the party.

I'm interested in reading your thoughts on DeMille's composition/editing in the big fight scene near the end of the picture. The full shot allows us to see the action play out almost from beginning to end as it would on the stage. That reminds me of the style of a 1910s slapstick picture. The scuffle affects items in the room as well as the bodies of the actors too. Of course, the violence isn't for laughs here so it isn't exaggerated to that effect.

Brian said...

Thanks, Girish, Thom. I'd say that, by looking at the editing rhythms in the rest of the film, it might help us guess what DeMille was going for in the scene. If DeMille tends to use continuity editing in the scenes of Mary's masquerade in front of Roger Manning, and more stage-like, single-take long shots in the scenes depicting the sad reality of her matrimonial predicament, then the fact that he gravitates toward the latter technique in the scene in which these two worlds converge may indicate that for DeMille, the reality is meant to win out over the fantasy, even if the struggle he's depicting favors Manning over the husband and his ally.