Milestone Films continues their releases of Mary Pickford films with her rarely seen 1921 movie Through the Back Door. This film, released through United Artists, showcases Pickford at the top of her form; she energetic, funny, and above all lovable. The restored print of the film comes with a great bonus too: Pickford's 1914 feature, Cinderella.
Hortense (Gertrude Astor) is young and a wealthy widow. As the film opens, she becomes engaged to a rich man, Elton Reeves (Wilfred Lucas.) The only problem is Hortense's five year old daughter, Jeanne. Elton doesn't really like children, so he convinces his soon-to-be wife to leave her in Belgium while they go on their honeymoon. But weeks turn into months and soon five years have passed with hardly a word from Hortense.
Jeanne (now played by Mary Pickford) has been raised this whole time by Marie (Helen Raymond), a friendly peasant woman and her husband. She's grown into a charming child and inventive child who causes some trouble, but always has fun and brings joy to those around her. Marie has come to think of Jeanne as her own, so when she receives a letter from Hortense saying that she's coming to pick up her daughter she doesn't want to give her up.
Sending Jeanne away for the day, Marie tells Hortense that her daughter has died. This devastates the mother, but she soon heads back to America where she now lives.
Jeanne and Marie make a happy family until 1914 when WW I breaks out. Fearing for the young girl's safety, Marie writes a confession to Hortense and reluctantly sends her ward to America to live with her mother. When she arrives though, Jeanne finds her real mother different than she imagined. She's very cold and aloof, and she won't even talk to Jeanne. Instead she instructs her servant to make sure the child is fed. In the kitchen, the Belgian cook takes a liking to her and gives her a job as a maid. But even working in her own mother's house as a servant, Jeanne finds it hard to let Hortense know who she really is.
The best Pickford films are ones where she plays a plucky young lady who overcomes adversity, and that describes this movie to a tee. This is a charming film, and Mary is able to ooze sweetness and purity, without making the film becoming saccharine or sappy. She is able to accomplish this by making her characters have good intentions, but still getting into trouble. A perfect example of this is when she has to clean a floor that she's inadvertently gotten muddy. In the best scene in the movie, and one of the most comical bits in any Pickford film, Mary discovers that the brushes she's using will just fit onto her shoes. So she dumps the buckets of water onto the floor, straps two brushes on her feet and 'skates' around, cleaning as she goes. And making a horrible mess.
Not only are the antics in the film humorous, but the intertitles are some of the funniest I've seen and add a lot to the charm of the movie. After Hortense has found her husband kissing another woman, this card notes the change of setting: "If it were not for New York Hotels, where would elopers, divorcees and red plush furniture go?"
Pickford did a very good job in this film, as she usually does, but the rest of the cast gave good performances too. Gertrude Astor, who is best known for playing the tall society lady in many Hal Roach two reel comedies, was able to create a character who was unpleasant at the beginning but sympathetic by the end of the movie. In one scene, Astor needed to cry when she discovered that her husband was being unfaithful. As the story goes she couldn't produce any tears. So Mary Pickford took her aside and told her that it was all right; there was still time to replace her and she wouldn't tell anyone that she was fired for being unable to preform. They rolled the cameras, and Astor had no trouble producing tears.
The directing was good, but not extraordinary. A co-directing credit is given to Mary Pickford's brother Jack, but by all accounts he didn't do more than suggest a few gags. Mary gave him the job to help take his mind off the recent death of his wife, the beautiful actress Olive Thomas who died abruptly on the couple's second honey moon. Alfred Green was the real man behind the camera. This was the first time that he directed Pickford, and would also be at the helm of her next picture, Little Lord Fauntleroy. He was able to make Mary the dominant character in the movie, while still giving the other actors the screen time they needed to tell a good story.
This is a really fun film. Pickford is full of energy and vitality in this picture, not to mention being very gorgeous. Her antics are very amusing and they make the film really enjoyable. At the same time the film has enough drama so that you care about the characters without it becoming melodramatic. That would have been very easy to do given the subject matter, but the film doesn't even come close to falling into that trap.
This film is accompanied by a small orchestral score composed and conducted by Robert Israel. This music fits the movie very well. The two channel audio track is very clear and clean. A good sounding disc.
As with the other Milestone silent titles, the picture quality on this DVD is very good, especially for a film this old. The print has been restored by the Mary Pickford Institute and the image is very clear and bright with an excellent amount of contrast. Details are strong also. There is some print damage, a tear or two, a couple of missing frames and some lines and dirt, but these don't mar the presentation and are to be expected in a film of this age. The only real complaint I have is that the image was enhanced digitally causing some lines and background details to be brighter than they should be. This is most noticeable in the parts taking place in the Reeves estate where the carved columns all shine and the seem to be outlined in white. I would prefer to have a softer, more realistic images than one with excessive bright lines and halo effects. This is the only thing that harms an otherwise very good presentation.
There is a 2½-minute reel of publicity stills, lobby cards, and postcards issued about the movie but the real treat is the second feature: Cinderella. This 1914 film stars Mary as the abused step daughter, and her real life husband at the time, Owen Moore, as Prince Charming. It's a little ironic that Mary cast her husband in that role, since they had anything but an idyllic marriage.
This movie follows the familiar story pretty well, with only a few minor alterations. Poor Cinderella is a virtual slave to her evil stepmother and two mean step sisters. One day an old lady comes knocking at their door, and Cinderella gives the lady a drink. The old lady is really a fairy in disguise, and promises to help Cinderella in payment for her kindness. When the King holds a ball so that his son can choose a bride, the fairy makes Cinderella look like a princess, but the effects will only last until midnight.
I was glad that Milestone included this rarely seen Pickford film as a bonus, but in truth, the movie is fairly lifeless. There are some good costumes, and Mary Pickford does a good job, but this movie just doesn't have a spark to it. The problem is that Cinderella doesn't really solve her own problems, she just reacts to what happens around her. That's not the type of role that Pickford excelled at. Her best characters are down and out people who through sheer spunk and guts make good, and that's not Cinderella at all. While it was a nice try, in the end this film is a rather dull and uninspiring affair.
This print may be missing scenes; the movie does start rather abruptly and there isn't a lot of explanation to explain the plot. Of course that could be the way it was filmed also. Directors would often film familiar stories and assume that the audience knew the plot.
The print used for this transfer is below average. Some sections of this film have a faded or overly bright look to them. The part where Cinderella is gathering wood in the forest at the beginning is a good example. Many parts of this scene are washed out and suffer from having little contrast. The rest of the film is missing some frames, more than average, and there are a fair amount of scratches and other print damage. That isn't to imply that this film is unwatchable, it isn't, it just isn't up to the standard that Milestone usually sets. I assume it is for that reason that this feature is included as a bonus item.
I really like the Pickford films that I've seen. Mary had a sense of energy and pluckiness that few female stars of that time did. Through the Back Door is a great example of this. Pickford plays a ten-year-old girl perfectly, with the wide-eyed wonder and an acute sense of mischief that children of that age often posses. A funny film with several touching moments, this is an enjoyable movie, even 80+ years after it was made. Even though there was a little too much digital enhancement for my tastes, this Milestone DVD looks very good. Including Pickford's version of Cinderella on the disc is a great bonus too. The folks at Milestone have put out another great DVD. A very high Recommendation.