Early & Silent Film

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The Whispering Chorus, USA 1918.

Posted by keith1942 on December 11, 2014

Voices Chorus

This film, released in March 1918, was Cecil B. De Mille’s 29th feature. He had started his film career in 1914 with The Squaw Man. This was filmed for the J. L. Lasky Feature Play Company. In 1916 a merger with Adolph Zukor produced the Famous Players – Lasky Corporation. In 1935 the company became Paramount Pictures Inc. De Mille was a founder member and the Director-General in the early years. He worked with the company in two periods right up to the end of his career.  Nowadays he is best remembered for epics like The Ten Commandments (1956), but in the silent era he was an important and innovative director. The Whispering Chorus makes exceptional use of chiaroscuro and of superimposition. Its story, adapted from a novel, seems to prefigure aspects of the later film noir genre. Apart from the contrast between light and shadow, the protagonist, John Tremble, is drawn into a world of criminality by siren voices and finally succumbs as a victim hero.

De Mille described aspects of the film in his 1959 Autobiography (Edited by Donald Hayne).

The same critic who called The Devil Stone “piffling” said that my next picture, The Whispering Chorus, was “the quintessence of morbid­ness”. I hope that he has lived to see some of the screen’s more recent offerings. The Whispering Chorus, written by Jeanie Macpherson from a story by Perley Poore Sheehan, was in fact one of the first, if not the first, of the films that have come to be called “psychological”. The conflict in it is in the souls of the characters rather than in forces external to them. It is the story of a man condemned to death for his own murder. …

The Whispering Chorus was “supposed to be a non-star production”, Randolph Bartlett wrote in Photoplay Magazine, “but Raymond Hatton is the unmistakable star [as John Tremble], in as brilliant a character study as the films have ever produced”. Kathlyn Williams played his wife, and Elliott Dexter [is George Coggeswell] ….

In addition to Raymond Hatton’s remarkable performance, this film was noteworthy because of the “chorus of faces” which gave the film its name. To show the thoughts struggling in the troubled mind of John Tremble, we faded in and out, around his figure on the screen, various faces, kindly, sullen, tempting, laughing, accusing, encouraging as if they were speaking to him what he himself was thinking. This was for its time an outstanding feat of photography. It was done by double or multiple exposure of the film. For the final appearance of all the faces together in the condemned man’s cell, there had to be as many exposures as there were faces, accomplished with all the carefulness and precision which such treatment of film demanded.

In the making of most motion pictures, there is some incident which seems funny in retrospect but does not at all seem so when it happens. To portray John Tremble’s degradation during his years as a fugitive, Jeanie Macpherson had written a scene of his being lured into a low dive in Shanghai in the course of a rather wild celebration of the Chinese New Year. A Chinese New Year meant crowds and fireworks, of course. We transformed one side of Selma Avenue into an approximation of a Shanghai thoroughfare, with elaborate fire­works strung all along the block, and we assembled a suitable number of Chinese extras to throng the street.

His description includes a number of tropes familiar in the world of noir. Rather than a femme fatale we have the siren voices that tempt John to criminal action.  This is the `Whispering Chorus` of the film:

text Chorus

he hears voices that both tempt him to illegality [misappropriating monies from the firm in whose accounts office he works] and voices that caution proper conduct. The visual superimposition of these voices presents those of temptation as male and that of virtue as female. This ties into the plot of the film where virtue is connected to gender. John`s wife, Jane, and his elderly mother who lives with them, are happy to live within the limited means provided by his salary.

There is also a class dimension to the plot. John is a lowly paid clerk and one whispering voice argues

You work to hard – just to make a rich man richer.

Contrasting John is another character, George Coggeswell, a ‘fighting young senator’ – fighting corruption. He is clearly more affluent than John and later becomes Governor and acquires a fine mansion. His investigations lead to John’s fraud coming to light and his flight from justice. Coggeswell also comes to the aid of the grieving Jane, who believes John is dead. And their romance becomes important in the film’s resolution.

Whilst De Mille was fairly innovatory at this time and also often pushed at the boundaries of the censorship parameters of the time, he tended to fairly conservative moral values: there are several titles bearing biblical quotations. The critic noted the ‘sentimentality’ of the film. This is especially apparent in the representation of the women in the film. We first see John’s mother, an elderly grey-haired woman, in a chair, sewing petals, and with a birdcage just above her head. Jane copes with the limited income as a model of domesticity, mending worn clothes and cooking from a limited budget.

As De Mille notes the cameraman, Alvin Wyckoff, makes an important contribution to the film. The superimpositions are excellent and the use of shadows is especially atmospheric. This can also be seen with Wyckoff`s camerawork in the earlier feature, The Cheat (1915), a notably stylish film. The Art Director, a post developed as Hollywood developed the studio system, was Wilfred Buckland. He was also an important influence in the teens and 1920s in the studio system. The use of settings and props add a dimension to the characters and their actions. In an early sequence Jane, at the behest of her mother, hangs mistletoe in preparation for John’s return on the eve of Christmas: when he arrives without her promised present she sadly removes the mistletoe. In a parallel manner flowers frequently recur. After the petals we see flowers by the sick bed of the mother. They are prominent in Coggeswell’s office when Jane visits him. Later in the film a wedding ceremony has centrally placed flowers. Another important sequence involving the mother Jane and Coggeswell is placed in the garden. And towards the end a prostitute plays with flowers around John: he crushes them and then they are carelessly tossed to the floor. The editing emphasises such moments and also draws parallels across story and the experiences that happen to John on his wanderings and to Jane as she waits at home. At one point the film cuts from a prostitute with John in an opium den to the wedding ceremony back home. Other cuts between the increasingly decrepit John and the increasingly successful Coggeswell reinforce the division.

So this is a fine example of a feature film from the late teens as the Hollywood Studio system developed. In fact it seems that the film was not successful at the box office, it was probably a little too challenging in terms of the cinema conventions of the time. However, it is clearly an important influence in terms of the studio technical and stylistic developments.

The film was screened in a retrospective of De Mille’s silent work at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto. The print was from the George Eastman House and preserves the notable use of tinting in the film. The film is seven reels in length and the recommended projection speed is 20 fps, giving a running time of just over 80 minutes. Like all of the de Mille’s early films this is well worth viewing. There are several video versions to be found on the Web and it was available from the BFI.


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