With CARMEN, KINDLING and THE CHEAT, plus a dozen more shorts & hour-length features, 1915 was an early annus mirabilis for Cecil B. DeMille. KINDLING, a tale of tenement life, one of DeMille’s most surprising productions, realistic & forward-looking, is unavailable in any video format, but KINO has an excellent edition of this more typically ‘DeMillean’ High Society melodrama. Stage star Fanny Ward (already in her mid-40s, but still new to film) plays against real-life husband (and lousy actor) Jack Dean, as a heedless high-maintenance wife who’s lost $10,000 in charity funds on a bad investment and, desperate to replace it, borrows from handsome Burmese ivory dealer Sessue Hayakawa*, a man who has his own ideas about a proper repayment plan. Yikes! With nods toward MERCHANT OF VENICE and SCARLET LETTER, Hector Turnbull’s story revels in stereotypes (Oriental and Upper-Crust), popular enough for three remakes (see below) including a French version twenty years on, also with Hayakawa.
What makes this one stand out is the extraordinary visual treatment from DeMille and ace cameraman Alvin Wyckoff, making a true ‘Shadow Play’ of it.* Plus breakthru East-Meets-West conceptual touches, and a showcase trial after the husband takes the wife’s blame for shooting the would-be rapist, a sequence as well-composed & technically savvy as anything in DeMille. Playing despicable villain, Hayakawa’s frank sexuality was a sensation, and made him a major star for a decade, long before BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI/’57.
ATTENTION MUST BE PAID: *Hayakawa’s character was renamed to change him from Japanese to Burmese for the film’s 1918 re-release after an Asian-America Society objected to the portrayal.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *The Movies, The Silver Screen, Motion Pictures, ‘Shadow Plays,’ never The Silents or Silent Film. That term only came in after ‘The Talkies’ took over.
DOUBLE-BILL: KINO’s DVD comes with MANSLAUGHTER as second feature, DeMille’s big 1922 release, and he’s already showing contempt toward his audience in this ludicrous drama about careless rich girl Leatrice Joy who mows down a policeman, and the D.A. (Thomas Meighan, star of KINDLING) who both convicts and falls for her.