Movie Of The Month by JB Kaufman

A Girl's Folly (1917)

February, 2013

Paragon/World, 1917. Director: Maurice Tourneur. Scenario: Frances Marion and Maurice Tourneur. Camera: John van den Broek. Film editor: Clarence Brown. Cast: Doris Kenyon, Robert Warwick, Chester Barnett, Jane Adair, June Elvidge, Johnny Hines, Leatrice Joy.
            The recent induction of Maurice Tourneur’s The Wishing Ring (1914) into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry is a fresh reminder of the charm and craftsmanship of this unassuming little feature. Once a forgotten film, The Wishing Ring was rediscovered in the early 1970s by no less than Kevin Brownlow, who arranged for its preservation and brought it to public attention with a written appreciation. A second tribute by that other giant, the late William K. Everson, helped to cement the film’s place in history, and still more scholars have offered their own praises during the intervening decades. Having now taken its place in the National Film Registry, The Wishing Ring would seem to be safe from obscurity.
            Film enthusiasts who seek it out on this DVD will receive several pleasant bonuses, including an abridgement of another Tourneur feature. A Girl’s Folly is a particularly delightful entry in that specialized genre: movies about the movies. Filmed at the Paragon studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey, during that city’s bustling heyday as a production center in the 1910s, A Girl’s Folly provides us with not only a behind-the-scenes glimpse of moviemaking in 1917, but also a precious historical record of the Paragon studio itself. Historian Richard Koszarski, a passionate advocate of East Coast film history, has gone so far as to describe this film as Tourneur’s “love letter to the Paragon studio and the creative energy he found there.”
            The story is simple enough: a movie company, on location (in the wilds of New Jersey!) to shoot action scenes for a Western, runs into difficulty when a local girl, alarmed at what she thinks is a scene of real violence, rushes into the scene and spoils the take. The girl is upbraided by the film’s director and other members of the company, but the incident serves as an introduction, and she trails them back to the studio and gets a firsthand look at the way movies are made. The “folly” of the title refers to her decision to remain there in an illicit relationship with the leading man. The film originally ended with the girl’s mother arriving at the studio to reclaim her daughter, who then realized the error of her ways and dutifully returned home. The currently available abridgement, missing those scenes, now ends with the girl and the leading man happily settling into what looks like a long-term relationship! (The complete film has survived, but David Shepard created this abridgement to spare the viewer long sections of excessive nitrate decomposition in the source negative. The narrative logic of the remaining scenes makes perfect sense—and, if we are to be allowed only three unblemished reels of A Girl’s Folly, these are the reels to have: short on the various characters’ romantic entanglements, long on fascinating details of 1917 filmmaking in Fort Lee.)
            One of the plot incidents is the girl’s (Doris Kenyon’s) attempt to break into the movies herself, filming a screen test in the hope of becoming a movie star. In a rather touching scene, she and her new companions happily pile into the studio screening room to watch the completed test. Tourneur never shows us the image on the screen; the viewers’ faces tell us all we need to know. One by one, jaws drop, eager visages are clouded by disappointment, and the sobered professionals quietly exit the screening room. The young hopeful herself, seemingly oblivious to any shortcomings, is still happily reveling in her projected image—until she notices her companions’ expressions, and sadly comprehends their unspoken verdict. In real life, of course, Doris Kenyon was already well established as a star, would continue her successful career through the rest of the silent years and well into sound, and was also accomplished as a writer, singer, and stage actress.
            Of equal interest is the film’s leading man, Robert Warwick, cast as a famous Western star (appropriately enough, since he does bear some resemblance to William S. Hart). I’ve always found Warwick an interesting actor; in this and other films he projects an easy grace that is, I think, surprisingly little remembered today. His prolific career long outlasted his leading-man status, and as late as the 1960s he was still appearing in film and television, and still investing even minor character roles with that same sense of dignity and grace.
            But the real star of A Girl’s Folly is the Paragon studio itself, its huge glass-enclosed structure and much-vaunted revolving stages proudly on display. As the story proceeds at a leisurely pace, we are treated to privileged glimpses of rehearsals in progress, sets under construction, studio cutting rooms and laboratory. Today, of course, Tourneur is remembered as one of the great pictorialist directors, but in A Girl’s Folly he seems content to forgo pictorial effects and simply indulge us with a straightforward account of moviemaking during these exciting years. It’s worth noting that Clarence Brown, who would likewise make his mark as a legendary pictorialist during the 1920s, had been with Tourneur for several years and worked on this film as assistant director and film editor. And, in fact, a third pictorialist legend seems to have left his mark on this film as well: numerous observers (including this one) have ventured to identify one unbilled cast member as the young Josef von Sternberg! In 1917 Sternberg was indeed employed at the Paragon studio, and he (if it is he) is a constant presence in the studio and location scenes in A Girl’s Folly—cast, appropriately, as a cameraman.

J.B. Kaufman