Sunday, 16 July 2017

Equality begins at home…The Home Maker (1925), Persephone Bookshop

“This is a box-office picture par excellence for all audiences. It is hard to conceive an audience that will dislike it.”

Remarkable film and remarkable venue… I’ve never watched a silent film in a retail environment before but this felt more like a club as the tea cups and saucers were passed around along with strawberries and cream scones…

Persephone specialise in keeping significant books by women authors in print and one of these is The Home Maker written by Dorothy Canfield's and published in 1924, it offers a glimpse into our grandparents’ world that may still surprise and shock.

Mary O’Hara adapted the story and King Baggott directed what Moving Picture World breathlessly described as: “One of the Finest Pictures Ever Made” whilst Variety was more mealy-mouthed saying that it “…almost reaches the heights of greatness… Perhaps had the plot not been so typically American, one of the highly touted foreign realistic directors might have done something big with it.”

Alice Joyce still from Greta de Groat's Silent Diva site - link below.
That would have been to have missed the entire point of mainstream American culture attempting a story such as this, one that touches the most delicate of subjects: American manhood and the role of the American wife in supporting the same. This picture is a brave and subtly-astonishing one because of those who made it.

The Home Maker is down as “quite hard to find” but when you have connections like the Persephone you can ask to screen your friend Kevin Brownlow’s copy. It was cramped but convivial and I’ve rarely seen as attentive and respectful audience outside of the more established silent film emporiums.

Alice Joyce (no relation, probably… I mean yes, possibly, at some point from the 1800s and, co-incidentally her mother was a McIntyre, my mother’s clan…) plays Eve Knapp the very able wife of a not so able husband played by Clive Brook, who made a brave decision in accepting this role. The operative word that keeps being repeated is efficient and Eva Knapp copes very well with every situation she faces whereas husband Lester struggles to make his mark at work.

Clive Brook (
Lester fails to get promoted, his lack of efficiency meaning the rule that length of employment guarantees seniority. It is a supreme humiliation for the main bread-winner and he can see no way out other than to take his own life and make sure the insurance money gets paid to Eva and their three children. He succeeds in accidentally falling off the roof but doesn’t perish only leaving himself crippled in a wheel chair.

Eva refuses charity from his previous employer and asks for a job instead. Reluctantly Lester’s old boss agrees and she is soon doubling sales and making herself invaluable.

Back at home, Lester too finally finds his metier, as he starts to relish spending more time with the family; the joys of parenting outweighing his failure in the world of work and his physical condition. Here at last is something he is good at and there’s a lovely moment when he watches his youngest, Stephen (played by the quite remarkable Billy Kent Schaeffer) try to beat an egg, father’s patient encouragement pays off as the boy works out what to do.

Detail from a lobby card
A new equilibrium is achieved in the home but it’s still an uneasy one for if Lester were to recover the couple would have to resume their old roles bizarre as it may seem in 2017. I won’t give anything away but I liked the way this story was essentially about a family working together even if sacrifices have to be made above and beyond gender expectations and, yes, even the maintenance of male pride.

Alice Joyce is superb, holding so much emotion with almost casual ease, her huge dark eyes running deep with meaning. Clive Brook’s also a class act and any worries that his character will simply be a loser are blown away by his display in the film’s second half.

Young Billy Kent Schaeffer is a live wire and was later compared with Mickey Rooney but didn’t sustain a career in spite of this exceptionally-promising performance. There’s also George Fawcett, always good value, gurning away in the amiably convincing role of the family doctor.

High on strawberries and fine tea I may well have been, but this is a film well worth seeking out.

Another dramatic lobby card!
Naturally I couldn’t leave without the book – the cover and production values are so high at PB and these are tactile treasures you’ll want to hold as well as read. My daughter has already taken it: a nineteen year old keen to find out what went before… Persephone helps books continue and there’s nothing so important to writing and stories that they persist and that they are read!

Copies of The Home Maker can be obtained from the Persephone website whilst there is also some interesting background about book and author on their forum.

Not for the first time I’m indebted to Greta de Groat’s excellent website, The Unsung Divas of the Silent Screen from which I gleaned the reviews and images above. It’s a thoroughly-researched site and you can easily get lost there for days… Thankyou Greta!

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