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The Right to Happiness, USA 1919

Posted by keith1942 on January 10, 2018

Red heroine, Sonia.

This film was part of the ‘Rediscoveries and Restorations’ programme at the 2017 Le Giornate del Cinema Muto. In the Brochure it was one of two films titled ‘The Red Peril’, an apparent witticism that seem inappropriate just before the Centenary of The Great October Revolution. This film at least had the merit of being less virulent than the second title, The World and its Woman (also 1919).

Kevin Brownlow, in the Festival Catalogue, recorded that

“1919 was the year of the Red Scare, when Holubar [the director and co-writer] exchanged the Hun as villain with the Bolshevik, in one of the many political films that appeared just before the movies rejected “message pictures” and embraced the Jazz Age. …. the film was not an anti-Bolshevik hate picture. It was unique in presenting not only good and bad Capitalists but good and bad Communists.”

Whilst Kevin Brownlow is correct that the film avoided the virulent caricatures of The World and its Woman he does not really address the negativity of the film’s representations. These are embodied in the films’ title. The outcome of the film narrative is that this ‘right’ is only to be found in the USA. In a trope that runs through mainstream cinema the positive characters leave Soviet Russia. However, the ‘happiness’ of the resolution is partial.

The print we saw was 4,819 feet in length, about five reels. But the original was eight reels so there were extensive gaps in the narrative. Thus some of the film’s plot and treatment has to be surmised.

The film opens in the Jewish quarter of ‘Petersburg in 1898: [an error or mistranslation as it would have been St. Petersburg then]. A US businessman, Hardcastle (Henry Barrows), is staying there with his twin daughters, Vivian and Dorothy. The quarter is swept by a pogrom perpetrated by Cossacks. In Hardcastle’s absence the two girls are caught up in the violence. Vivian survives thanks to a faithful nanny, Leah, and is found next day by Hardcastle. Dorothy is lost but rescued by a Russian peasant woman and her son. Whilst Hardcastle return to the USA with Vivian, believing Dorothy lost or dead, Dorothy is bought up by the Russian family as Sonia.

The film moves forward to 1917. Sonia is now a radical and supporter of the Revolution. We see her as a firebrand speaking at a public assembly. She is followed by her step-brother Paul (Robert Anderson) and by a Bolshevik character, Sergius (Hector Sarno). Neither Sonia’s nor Sergius’ politics are clearly defined; typical; in this type films. But a title card notes that Paul is a follower of Tolstoy whose values were inimical to the revolution, tending to religious pacifism.

Sonia leaves Soviet Russia, with Paul and Sergius, possibly to garner support for the Revolution. The plot moves to New York. Here we cut between the Hardcastle home and factory and a cheap boarding house where the visiting trio now live. Paul opines that the

“sun of freedom”

is found in the USA whilst Sonia reckons

“conditions must change.”

At the factory we see disagreements between Hardcastle and his partner Forrester (Winter Hall). Hardcastle is a typical profit-driven capitalist, Forrester a more liberal example. The key disagreements are about re-employing workers who return from serving in the armed forces and wage rises because of rising costs of living. Forrester leaves the business and sets up a co-operative, employing workers who have returned from overseas.

Vivian is now a wealthy and fashionable young woman. She has two lapdogs, one canine and one human, George. Vivian does ask her father for money to support the Red Cross whilst George pointedly declines to join up and support the war effort. Vivian is also friendly with Tom (William Stowell), a foreman at the factory. Tom provides a link across the two contrasting settings as he lodges at the same boarding house as Sonia and her two friends.

The film does address the poverty of the period. Another resident at the boarding house is Lily (Alma Bennett) is a poor, unemployed ,

“victim of darkness.”

Lily’s plight is mirrored by a declining plant on the window ledge of her room, declining through lack of sunshine. We also see Vivian visiting and assisting families in the slum area. But in a familiar trope the mother seems feckless and is sermonised by Vivian. Through Tom Vivian also becomes aware of the exploitative nature of the work at Hardcastle’s factory. This is also the focus of the political activity of Sonia and Sergius. At one point we see them agitating outside Forester’s co-operative factory, but the worker merely jeer at them. However, at Hardcastle’s factory they have a more positive response and Sergius is active in organising a strike.

The strike leads to violence at a demonstration outside the Hardcastle mansion. Sonia leads the mass of strikers. She is confronted by Vivian with Tom and there is a moment of unrealised recognition. The violence escalates and Sonia is shot. As she is carried into the mansion by Paul her history is revealed and Hardcastle realises that Sonia/Dorothy is the missing twin. Dying Dorothy begs her father for his workers,

“help them, love them’.

Following her death Hardcastle speaks to the mass of workers promising a co-operative, an announcement greeted with cheers. The film ends with Hardcastle, Vivian and Tom in the family garden.

The film’s treatment of the central characters is important in presenting the values inscribed in the drama. Dorothy/Sonia is a ‘good communist’, however she is also a US-born citizen. So the film avoids having an indigenous Bolshevik presented in a positive light. Moreover, Sonia/Dorothy dies at the end, rather in parallel to the death in genre films of women tainted by illicit sexuality. Because she is tainted by Bolshevism she cannot survive.

Sonia and Sergius

The other communist character, Sergius, is played in a relatively villainous manner. He is instrumental both in the strike and the violence. At one point in the boarding-house Tom sees his gun and tells him,

“we’re not in Russia, pal.”

Moreover, Sergius is a negative character in personal terms. In New York he makes advances to Sonia which she rebuffs. He then turns his attentions to Lilly. He give both women, at different points, a medallion; a sign of his duplicity. And Paul is a pacifist and supporter of Tolstoy. In her final moments Sonia’s plea to her father is more in line with Tolstoy’s values than those of the Communist movement, or indeed of the radical US labour movement.

Vivian is changed from a rather light-headed socialite into a socially caring character, mainly through the influence of Tom. Tom is a typical petty-bourgeois who subscribes to the basic tenets of capitalism, though with a socially acceptable façade. And Hardcastle, originally an explicitly exploitative capitalist is changed by the death of Dorothy into a more acceptable boss, though his company will still depend on the extraction of surplus value from the workforce. A point that is clear from their continued occupation of the affluent mansion.

The attributes of the Hardcastle characters are emphasised by the use of familiar tropes. So when we meet the young Vivian and Dorothy in Petersburg, each has a pet; Vivian a cat and Dorothy a dog. Dorothy’s Borzoi is instrumental in her rescue when the Cossack sack and burn the quarter. Later, Vivian’s frivolous nature is epitomised by the lapdog she carries. However at the finale, in the garden of the family mansion, the accompanying dog is a rough collie, the prestigious breed in Hollywood films.

It is difficult to judge the film overall from what survives. The style is conventional for the period. The set pieces are well done, especially the Cossack attack on the Jewish quarter: dynamic and dramatic. The ‘riot’ at the mansion seems rather truncated. The print we saw had both tinting and toning, and this was especially effective in the Cossack raid. I was preoccupied for much of the running time with keeping tabs on the characters and their actions. We had a dramatic accompaniment at the piano by Phil Carli, which I think also used some melodies and airs of the period.

Camera operator, star and director.

Overall the film’s message was summed up by a comment in ‘Photoplay’,

[Holubar] asks the working man a question: which will you have in this country to better your condition – destruction under the red flag, or construction and cooperation under the American flag?”

This at a time when the US state was suppressing the IWW and busy deporting left-wingers, especially anarchist, to Soviet Russia. More to the point of the film’s message was that the USA, along with Britain, France, japan and other countries, was involved in the invasion of the young Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic.

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One Response to “The Right to Happiness, USA 1919”

  1. Reblogged this on Kenny Wilson's Blog.

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