THE HOME MAKER
King Baggot (US 1925)
The director of this picture, King Baggot, was responsible for two of the worst silent pictures I’ve ever seen – Raffles (1925) and Down the Stretch (1927). How can the same man possibly have made one of the best?
The Home Maker seems to me a forgotten classic. It was recommended to me by Bob Gitt , then at UCLA. He had recently restored another of my favourite silents, The Goose Woman (1925) – and had just finished work on this. I watched it on a flatbed viewer –the harshest test for any film – and I quickly realized I was watching King Baggot directing like King Vidor. How did this happen?
Baggot was one of the remarkable number of Irish-Americans attracted to the picture business. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1879, he went into real estate with his father and also played semi-professional baseball. He was active in amateur theatricals and was one of the earliest stage personalities to move permanently into pictures. This was in 1909, when actors preferred to be anonymous. He was the first to make a public appearance under his own name – a mob stormed the railroad station when he and co-star Leah Baird arrived at his hometown. He was one of the top stars of the period 1910-1916, playing in more than 300 pictures. He came to England in 1913 to make Ivanhoe for director Herbert Brenon – a fellow Irishman. He began directing in 1915 and wrote and directed many of the films he played in. Perhaps his most famous production was Tumbleweeds (1925), William S. Hart’s elegiac tribute to the Old West.
Although everyone liked him, he was a heavy drinker, and when he made a return to the stage in 1919 he was assigned a special assistant. I met this fellow [Frank Blount], who was actually a cameraman, paid simply to keep him sober. Perhaps it was the alcohol that made his work so wildly unpredictable? Baggot directed his last film in 1928, but continued, like so many early directors, playing bit parts until his death in 1948.
He owed his film career to Carl Laemmle, who turned the IMP company into Universal Pictures, turning out inexpensive pictures on an assembly line for the undemanding audiences of the Midwest. These cheap pictures were called Red Feathers and Bluebirds. Universal later invested in spectacular epics to try to capture the big theatres. Films like The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) were known as Super-Jewels. But sometimes equally interesting were the Universal-Jewels, such as Clarence Brown’s Smouldering Fires and Baggot’s The Home Maker, both made in 1925. They were given extra time and money and unusual care and affection, and some have survived with a higher reputation than the epics.
Admittedly, the 1924 novel by Dorothy Canfield was an exceptional book, and Mary O’Hara’s adaptation stays close to the original, but it was still possible – just possible – for a film company to ruin a fine book. There is, however, an intelligence apparent throughout this picture which does credit to all those who worked on it.
Of the critics, the all-important Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times seriously objected, “I could not abide the leading character’s weakness.” Otherwise, Screenland called it “terrific”, and Photoplay “intelligent, sternly realistic”, although Variety judged “Too much delving into child psychology when the picture definitely gets on the wrong track”. And Picture Play wrote: “Interesting picture, ruined by too much baby talk.”
When I interviewed Clive Brook in the 1960s, he showed me a photograph of Alice Joyce signed “Memoranda of a most pleasant engagement”. And yet not once does he refer to The Home Maker in his unpublished autobiography. I did ask him about King Baggot (“Oh yes, such a nice chap”) and Alice Joyce (“very impressive and very difficult”), but I knew nothing of the distinguished film they both worked on. Alice Joyce, incidentally, was married to director Clarence Brown.
Historian Richard Koszarski, an expert on Universal, wrote that The Home Maker was one of the few dramatic works of the 1920s to argue unequivocally for the abandonment of stereotyped sex roles and to criticize the structure that prescribes such behaviour.
Lester Knapp (Brook) is fired from his job in the office of a department store, and in order that his wife, Eva (Alice Joyce), can benefit from his insurance, he tries to commit suicide. He is crippled and confined to a wheelchair, so Eva has to become the breadwinner. She finds work far preferable to domesticity, and does so well she is quickly promoted. Lester equally enjoys being a house-husband, and because he pays so much attention to the children, they are far happier than before.
As the slogan on the poster put it: “IT WILL START A RED-HOT DISCUSSION.”
According to Sally Dumaux’s book on King Baggot, the story is very similar to an IMP picture of 1910, Bear Ye One Another’s Burdens, which featured Baggot and Florence Lawrence.
Nicola Beauman of Persephone Books, who reprinted Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s novel in London in 1999, was deeply impressed by the film. “I sat there with my mouth open. I thought it amazing how well they had adapted the book. And that child [Billy Kent Schaeffer] – how on earth was he directed?”
Billy Kent Schaeffer also appeared in The Hills Of Kentucky (1927), a Rin-Tin-Tin melodrama in which he was directed to give a more routine performance. Jacqueline Wells was renamed Julie Bishop when she grew up.
When sound arrived, Universal gave orders for most of its 35mm silent negatives and prints to be destroyed – I have seen a letter which listed the titles to be saved. The Home Maker was not among them.
In an unintended tribute to the output of the silent era, Variety said, “There are moments when The Home Maker almost reaches the heights of greatness. Unfortunately, the general impression … is only that of one more average feature picture.”
I suggest we all keep looking for more of those average feature pictures.
regia/dir: King Baggot.
scen: Mary O’Hara.
photog: John Stumar.
cast: Alice Joyce (Eva Knapp), Clive Brook (Lester Knapp), Billy Kent Schaeffer (Stephen), George Fawcett (Dr. Merritt), Virginia Boardman (Mrs. Prouty), Elaine Ellis (Molly Prouty), Maurice Murphy (Henry), Jacqueline Wells (Helen), Frank Newburg (Harvey Bronson), Margaret Campbell (zia/Aunt Mattie Farnum), Martha Mattox (Mrs. Anderson), Alfred Fisher (custode/janitor), Alice Flowers (Miss West), Mary Gordon (Mrs. Hennessy), Lloyd Whitlock (Mr. Willings).
copia/copy: 35mm (blow-up da un 16mm “Show-at-Home”/blow up from a 16mm Show-at-Home print), c. 6370 ft., 85′ (20 fps); did./titles: ENG.
fonte/source: UCLA Film & Television Archive, Los Angeles (Stanford Theatre Foundation Collection, David Packard, ex-Hampton Collection).