12 September 2012

The Goose Woman

Louise Dresser is The Goose Woman.

The Goose Woman (1925) is a real gem of a film. Who knew that an unlikeable, drunken woman could not only carry a film but win over the audience as well?

Mary Holmes is a former opera star (stage name Marie de Nardi) who was forced to give up her career and the limelight when she lost her singing voice after giving birth to an illegitimate son, Gerald, whom she now despises. Destitute, she lives alone in a small cottage, herding geese (hence the title of the film) and drinking bottles of gin. When one of her neighbours is murdered, Mary sees her chance to be in the public eye once more and gives a false description to the police of the murderer whom she claims to have seen. Her actions result in Gerald being mistakenly arrested for the crime, and Mary is left to choose between her son and fame.

Written by Rex Beach, the story was inspired by the Hall-Mills murders that had happened a few years prior on September 14, 1922, in which an Episcopal priest and his lover, a member of the church choir, were found shot to death. The suspects, the priest’s wife and her brothers, were tried for the crime but acquitted largely in part because of conflicting testimony from an eyewitness who was nicknamed the “Pig Woman.”

With this storyline, one might expect nothing more than your run of the mill silent melodrama. But in the skilled hands of director Clarence Brown, the film is a moving, well-made drama with scattered moments of comedic relief.

One of the reasons it works so well is the casting of Louise Dresser as the Goose Woman. Dreiser is amazing. When we first meet her she is unkempt and dirty. Appearing slightly deranged, her only seeming comforts are looking at a scrapbook of old press clippings and listening to a recording of her singing. When her son arrives and expresses concern for her condition, she scoffs at him. In a very symbolic moment (there are more in the film), he accidentally breaks her recording, shattering the remnants of their relationship. She tells him that she hates him and throws him out. Later, when she is taken under the wing by the district attorney and cleaned up to look presentable, her transformation is incredible. She’s once again a grand dame, graciously accepting compliments and impressing the people around her. Not only do her clothes and hair change, but her mannerisms and stance as well as the look in her eyes. It really is a tour-de-force performance.

Jack Pickford gives one of his finest performances in this film. Naive but with the best intentions at heart, his Gerald is a son who despite everything still loves his mother and comes across as genuine. Pickford is often dismissed as an actor but his sister Mary believed he was a better actor than she was and in this film you can see how good he was.

Gerald’s fiancĂ©e is played by a young Constance Bennett who sports some thick eyebrows (She is definitely one star for whom the thin, arched brows of the 1930s was an improvement). The scene in which he confesses the truth about his parentage to her is subtle and lovely, and Bennett holds her own with Pickford.

The film is wonderfully shot by Milton Moore (he also shot the fabulous He Who Gets Slapped) and the sets reek of authenticity (apparently Brown had a real goose woman’s cottage moved to a Hollywood back lot). And the new print looks amazing thanks to a recent restoration by the UCLA Film & Television Archive.

I saw The Goose Woman at Film Forum this summer as part of their Universal 100 series celebrating the studio’s 100th anniversary. Steve Sterner provided live piano accompaniment (save for the scene in which you hear Mary sing; that audio came from the film) and afterwards Bruce Goldstein, the repertory program director, let the audience hang out and watch an old episode of This Is Your Life that featured Louise Dresser surprising her old friend Buster Keaton. What a great night and what a great film.

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