Monday, 24 June 2013

Louise Dresser in Clarence Brown's The Goose Woman (1925)

At the recent showing  of The Eagle (reviewed below…), Kevin Brownlow showcased the magnificent opening ten minutes of Clarence Brown’s The Goose Woman and I’ve been keen to see the full film ever since.

This deceptively simple tale was instrumental in showing Brownlow what magic existed in American silent films and set his career on course to uncover as much as he could of the rest. In particular, it also sparked his interest in Clarence Brown, a director who still demands more attention.

The Goose Woman is certainly a film that demonstrates the range of Brown’s abilities with a satisfyingly consistent atmosphere perhaps reflecting his debt to Maurice Tournier. Shots flow together quickly and there are some deft moving shots, the camera tracking before Dresser and her goose as she stomps towards the murder scene and alongside the printing press as the rapid-response media of the day begins to circulate the story.

In another clever move she enters the front of her shack and the camera pans round to see her throwing an empty gin bottle into a bin overflowing with similar items: in a time of prohibition, Brown had to be careful how much apparent drinking he actually showed.

Pickford and the charming Constance...
There are some marvelous performances not least from Mary’s kid brother Jack Pickford and the utterly charming Constance Bennett who went on to become a major talking star in the thirties. There’s also excellent light relief from a strong under-card including Gustav von Seyfertitz and George Nichols as the heads of the police investigation.

But it’s Dresser’s film…if they’d invented the Oscars a couple of years early, it would have been nailed on. The dramatic shifts for her character are a gift to an actor of her ability and she grabs the opportunity with both hands, even with a bottle of gin stuck under one arm and a goose under the other.

Louise Dresser
Opera star to geese-keeper is one heck of a fall but that’s where we find Mary Holmes at the film’s start. Brown deftly establishes her heart-breaking back story as she shuffles drunkenly around her ramshackle shack, gazing in pain at pictures of her past as Marie de Nardi, rising opera star who lost everything after becoming pregnant.

The full details of the loss of her voice are not clear but the disgrace weighs heavily on her shoulders…at that time there was no coming back.

Home discomforts
The source of her shame, son Gerald (Pickford), arrives in his new motorcar, one light blinking off as he crosses a bridge. He tries to fix it but the engine gives him a shock… in exasperation he makes his way to his mother’s home…

Gerald is fresh-faced (strange to see the Pickford features and energy in another context) and seems a decent sort but he doesn’t appear to spend much time with mom. He can’t hide his disappointment at Mary’s dishevelled state and her attempt to disguise her drinking can’t mask the stench of gin.

She has one precious shellac recording of her former glories but this is accidentally knocked onto the floor by Gerald… it says it all, will he never stop hurting her? She resents every maternal bone in her body and the object of her instinctive affection…

Dresser and Pickford
There’s some vibrant scene setting as Gerald arrives at the theatre where his sweetheart, Hazel (Bennett) is rehearsing, off-stage sound-effects showing the comical artifice and all manner of scene shifting stage-work getting in the way of the young couple.

A bunch of flowers also arrives for Hazel but these are intercepted by Jacob Rigg (Spottiswoode Aitken) who throws them away in disgust… They are from the theatre owner, Amos Ethridge (Marc McDermott) and Jacob obviously doesn’t want to see his boss abuse his position… yet again.

Gerald thinks he’s got it made with his new car (plans to become a taxi driver?) and proposes to Hazel. As he slips on the ring her eyes are drawn to a cartoon showing the evolution of an engagement ring into a crying baby, an echo of Mary’s disappointment but a gamble the young actress is willing to make.

The deed ...
So far so domestic but events are about to take a serious turn. Ethridge is found shot dead and the fates begin to conspire as, in addition to being Hazel’s sexual harasser, Ethridge just happens to be Mary’s neighbour – his splendid mansion in sharp contrast to her crumbling shack… Legend has it that Brown found the shack on a scouting mission and had it transported, lock, stock and crumbling roof onto the backlot.

A paper boy breaks the news and Mary marches to investigate, accompanied by her most loyal goose. She finds the murder scene crawling with journalists who instantly buttonhole her as an untrustworthy drunken joke… as she reads about herself in the next day’s papers; Mary’s remaining self-esteem is crushed.

She fights off further incursions form the paparazzi hordes but is more receptive to the forces of the law as she is quizzed by Mr Vogel, the erudite States Attorney (von Seyfertitz) and his rather more down-to-earth colleague Detective Lopez (Nichols).

The polite force...
There’s a great comic undercurrent between the well-educated Vogel and career cop Lopez, but Brown balances this with the melodrama. Vogel discovers that Mary is in fact Marie de Nardi and decides she can be trusted and rescued at the same time. He was a fan in his younger years having seen her perform in Paris… But we’re a long way from France and none more so than Lopez who smells a rat… or is it a goose?

Mary senses her chance to regain her lost prestige and encouraged by the attorney’s interest sees a way of coming back to the public eye… I won’t go any further with the plot, needless to say that all is interlinked and redemption can only come through suffering… this is a Hollywood film after all!

Dresser’s theatrical experience makes her shine from the first moment she’s on screen, her character utterly believable and even likeable through all her deceit and weakness. She salutes her gin bottle in absolute recognition of her own culpability: she knows who’s really to blame for her situation.

Being all of us similarly responsible, we hope for the best as it’s the best we can hope for… as Pete Wylie once said. I can see why this was such an inspiration for Kevin Brownlow.

The Goose Woman also provided one other poignant signifier for Brownlow who used it as a way of meeting Mary Pickford. She was keen to see her brother once more in the film; poor Jack died aged 36 after living his life far too fast… but so began a major strand in the reclamation of her own fame.

The Goose Woman is – frustratingly – only available in a so-so DVD transfer – you can buy it here. There’s also versions of various length and quality on the inter-web if you’ve the patience but it’s crying out for a proper release of the re-mastered print shown at film festivals over the last few years.

Clarence directs Jack and Constance


  1. I adored The Goose Woman when I was so fortunate to see it at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. I'd waited decades to see it and it was so very much worth the wait. Thank you for your wonderful write-up!

    1. I'd love to see the whole film on screen - was that with Stephen Horne as well?

      It's a special film that shows how talented Mr Brown was.

      Thanks for reading!