Saturday 12 July 2008

Lorna Doone (1922)

Outside the White Horse Inn on the Devon coast, John Ridd, a farmer's son returning from boarding school, meets Lorna, daughter of the Countess of Lorne. They immediately hit it off but are quickly parted. There are highwaymen on the London road, it would seem, and Lorna's guardian has the false assumption that they don't attack women, so John gives Lorna a knife with his name on it to protect her from them. They are the Doones, a band of thieves and cutthroats led by an exiled nobleman, Sir Ensor Doone.

Needless to say, the Doones, as befitting any self respecting group of villains, don't have any compunction about attacking women. They force Lorna's coach into the sea, rob them, dump her guardian on the beach and steal Lorna away: after all she has spirit and so would make a good wife for a Doone someday. Years pass and Lorna blossoms into a beautiful young lady, favoured by Sir Ensor, who is a decent enough sort for someone who leads an outlaw band. He promises that while he lives she can marry whoever she chooses, thus keeping her safe from the likes of Carver Doone, the wildest of all the Doones.

Unfortunately as we meet the grown up Lorna, Sir Ensor doesn't have long to live. Fortunately, before he dies, John Ridd is swept downstream while lifting a treetrunk for the fun of it, and right into her presence. He lives only a mile away from the valley of the Doones and is now the strongest man in Devonshire, so she has a handy rescuer ready and available when Carver takes over everything in the Valley of the Doones, including her.

The cast is an interesting one, though because this is 1922, they exaggerate their movements in true silent movie style, posturing and swaggering and cowering with emphasis. The one notable exception is John Bowers, who plays John Ridd in a more naturalistic manner free from most such posturing. Bowers was apparently quite a star in the early twenties, but he was one of the actors who failed notably to transition into sound. In 1936 he rowed out into the Pacific and drowned himself, thus allegedly inspiring similar demise of the character Norman Maine in A Star is Born.

He's credited behind the real lead, Madge Bellamy, appearing two years before The Iron Horse\ and looking quite lovely. After that film her career gradually foundered, through impetuosity rather than any lack of talent, and she made more headlines as a private citizen than as an actress. By the time she starred opposite Bela Lugosi in White Zombie (probably her most frequently seen movie today) in 1932, she'd married and divorced a stockbroker in a period of only three days. Later in 1943 she shot her millionaire lover who had left her to marry another woman.

Uncredited as the Countess of Brandir, and so Lorna's guardian, is Gertrude Astor, no relation to Mary, who I've seen many many times without really noticing who she was. She had a long career, beginning in 1915 and running all the way through to 1962's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. She was the first actress to sign with Universal, she played trombone on a Mississippi showboat and she and Lilyan Tashman were often referred to as the best dressed and most elegant woman in Hollywood. She made over 250 films.

The director is Maurice Tourneur, who was a major name in the silent era, with such films behind him as the 1920 versions of Treasure Island and The Last of the Mohicans. He was also the father of Jacques Tourneur, whose films I sought out for some time, being a fan of his work for Val Lewton (Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie and especially The Leopard Man) as well as the much later Night of the Demon and some intriguing films noir.

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