The Story of Mrs. Wallace Reid, Gabrielle
Darley, and the Red Kimona:
Kino has released a silent film in their First Ladies film series that
was previously only available on VHS tape: The Red Kimona.
This is a film was produced by Wallace Reid's widow, written by Dorothy
Arzner from a story by Adela Rogers St. John, and while Walter Lang gets
the directorial credit in the film, Mrs. Reid was very involved and approved
all of the shots. A socially conscious film, (the type that wouldn't
be produced any longer once the Hays Code came into being,) this melodrama
is entertaining, if slightly predictable. It's also one of those
films where the story behind the story is just as interesting as the movie
itself, if not more so.
Mrs. Wallace Reid:
Dorothy Davenport was an ingénue of 17 at Universal Studios when
she was cast opposite an up and coming actor, Wallace Reid. The two
hit it off and were married in 1913. Dorothy continued to act until
1917 when she gave birth to her first child, Wallace Reid Jr.
Reid's star grew. He appeared in D.W. Griffith's A Birth of
a Nation (1915) and then signed with Famous Players and was soon their
biggest star, headlining a series of daredevil race films that were popular
with the public.
In 1919 tragedy struck. While filming a train wreck for The
Valley of the Giants, Reid injured his back. Not wanting to lose
their star for any longer than was necessary, the studio sent a doctor
to Wallace who prescribed morphine to kill the pain and get him back in
front of the camera. Already a heavy drinker, Reid's back healed
but the need for morphine didn't leave. He was addicted and the studio
made sure he had a good supply so that he could keep working. In
a few years his health started to fade and in January of 1923, at the age
of 31, the once fit and strapping Wallace Reid died of influenza which
had ravaged his weakened system.
Dorothy poured her anger and frustration at her husband's senseless
death into making movies. That same year that he died, she made Human
Wreckage with Bessie Love. Now a lost film, this movie tells the
tale of a wife (Davenport) who tries to save her lawyer husband from a
drug addiction. The film was a popular and critical success, and
made Davenport, who was now billed as Mrs. Wallace Reid, enough money to
start her own production company. Next she made another film spotlighting
one of society's ills, Broken Laws (also lost.) This one dealt
with Juvenile Delinquency. In 1925 she made her third and
final film with a conscience, The Red Kimona which centered on prostitution.
For her story she took a real-life crime, a sensational case in the LA
area when it occurred (1917,) and dramatized it. Written by Dorothy
Arzner from a story by Adela Rogers St. John, the film was The Red Kimona.
The Red Kimona:
The film opens with a lady (Mrs. Reid herself in an uncredited role)
leafing through a compendium of newspapers. She stops at one headline
that reads "Story of Gabrielle Darley Startling Human Document" and informs
the audience that the story she is about to tell is true, and that "if
it contains bitter truths, remember that I only turn the pages of the past.
The narrative then turns to Gabrielle Darley (Priscilla Bonner1),
a prostitute in New Orleans. In a flashback we discover that Gabrielle
grew up in a house with a cruel father (played by Tyron Power Sr, father
of the famous swashbuckler) and an indifferent mother. When a smooth
talking city fella, Howard Blaine (Carl Miller) starts to admire the attractive
school girl she immediately falls in love with him. He promises to
marry her when they get to his home in New Orleans, and the two run off
One in the Big Easy however, Howard takes Gabrielle to the red light
district and sets her up in her own apartment. An apartment where
she entertains men for money. She does this because she loves Howard
so much and wants to make him happy.
When she discovers that Howard has taken all of her money and run off
to LA in order to marry someone else, she follows him. When she discovers
the man she loves in a jewelry store buying a diamond ring for another
woman she can't stand it and shoots him dead. She is arrested and
tried for murder. Telling her story and painting Blaine as a monster,
Gabrielle is acquitted. Now something of a celebrity, the socialite
Mrs. Beverly Fontaine (Virginia Pearson) offers to take her in, but only
so she can be the centerpiece of her tea parties and social gatherings.
After Fontaine tires of the young girl, she kicks her out onto the street.
There, poor Gabrielle can't seem to hold a job. She works hard and
is willing to learn, but whenever someone discovers her past, she's fired.
It seems like there's only one route left open to her, to return to her
earlier lifestyle. But will she?
This was a fine film, with some nice direction but ultimately there
wasn't a lot to separate it from the other melodramas of the period, aside
from the subject matter. They treat the prostitution tastefully,
never actually mentioning sex or showing Bonner with a man, but it's obvious
what's going on. The ending is predictable (I left out the sub-plot
about Fontaine's chauffer who falls in love with Gabrielle in my synopsis)
and very "Hollywood" but still satisfying.
Bonner does a great job playing the hooker with a heart of gold who
just wants to be given a fair shake. She's isn't as over-the-top
as I was expecting, and manages to breath life into her character.
The scene where the bell in her apartment rings, signaling that a customer
is coming up, was very good. She bolts the door and stands against
it defiantly, but slowly realizes that she has no choice. She physically
withers as she unbolts the door and powders her face for her visitor.
The Real Gabrielle Darley:
The film opened in 1925, and soon after Dorothy Reid (as she was now
known) found herself being sued for $50,000 for invasion of privacy.
The real Gabrielle Darley (now Gabrielle Darley Melvin) saw the film and
was aghast. It wasn't the fictitious parts of the movie that bothered
her, but the true events. In her court filing Darley-Melvin stated
that after her trial she married, settled down, and was a respected member
of society. None of her friends and neighbors knew of her past since
she took her husband's name, but when the movie come out she found herself
ostracized once again.
It's ironic that a movie that pleads with its viewers to "help - rather
than hinder - the upwards struggles of such unfortunates" would end up
ruining the life of the exact person they were trying to help. Presumably
Reid used Darley's real name in order to create a little publicity and
entice people who remembered the trial into the theaters. The
odd thing is that every other real person in the film was either unnamed
or had their name changed. Darley's attorney for her murder trial
in real life was one of the best trial lawyers around, Earl Rogers, father
of the writer Adela Rogers St. John. He wasn't named in the film.
There was a socialite that appeared with Darley in court and took her in
afterwards, the famous soprano Ellen Beach Yaw. Even her victim's
name was changed; in reality he was named Leonard Topp. It
would be unfortunate that Reid didn't change the main character's name
Today it would be a hard case for the plaintiff to win. Events
in the public record are fair game; look at the recent movie about the
2000 Presidential Election recount in Florida. Things were a bit
different in 1925 however. Both the lower court ruled in Darley-Melvin's
favor. It was almost like they were looking for a reason to grant
her a win when they proclaimed that the California Constitution guarantees
the pursuit of happiness, and that Reid made that impossible for Darley-Melvin
with her film. The upper court agreed, and the Supreme Court for
the State of California refused to hear the case, granting Gabrielle her
victory. Reid was forced into bankruptcy.
The Story Continues:
The odd thing about Gabrielle's court victory is that her case against
Reid was pretty much fabricated out of whole cloth. Unlike the film's ending,
Gabrielle had reverted to her old ways. She was a prostitute and
Madam and apparently spent most of the rest of her life as one or the other.
Not only that, but she left a trail of dead lovers behind her. By
one account six of her lovers were either shot, poisoned or died under
mysterious circumstances. Ya know, I bet there's a movie in that
The scene-specific piano score was written and performed by Robert Israel
and he does a very good job. There were a couple of sections where
I thought the music could have been a little dourer to mirror the heroine's
troubles, but this is a minor point. In general the score fits the
mood quite well and makes the film more fun to watch.
It looks like Kino has used the same master that they employed for the
videotape release some years ago. (The VHS tape release was aimed
at libraries and rental stores and retailed for $50, 2 ½ times the
MSRP of this DVD!) The film was restored by Bret Wood and is from
the American Film Institute at the Library of Congress. It looks
very good though it doesn't fall into the top-tier of restored silent movies.
The contrast is very good and the level of detail is also fine. Some
highlights are washed out, but this isn't a major defect, and there are
some spots and dirt on the print, which isn't surprising given the age
of the film. The movie does include the hand-painted sequences that
match the original release.
There are no extras.
This is a fine example of a socially conscious film, something that
was largely missing from Hollywood's output during the days of the Hays
Code. (And some would say now too....) The story is a bit melodramatic,
but it's still very enjoyable and worth a spin. And while the print
has a little damage, the image is overall very good. Fans of silent
films should certainly check it out. Recommended.
1) Though she's not famous today, Priscilla Bonner
had a number of important roles in the silent era. She stared in
two of Harry Langdon's best films, Long Pants and The Strong Man and was
Clara Bow's best friend Molly in It. This film shows that she's just
as adept at dramatic roles as she was at comedies. She left acting
when she married her second husband in 1928.