The Red Lily (1924) – reviewed by George

This silent film, both written and directed by Fred Niblo, is really a pleasure to look at. The placement of the actors is marvelous, with a lot of full-figure shots and almost no close-ups. Medium shots are favored when normally a close-up would be used. And the acting is controlled and deeply felt.
The mayor’s son Jean Leonnec (Ramon Novarro) and the cobbler’s daughter Marise La Noue (Enid Bennett) are in love, but even in a tiny village in France their difference in class prevents any thoughts of marriage. Therefore, Jean is planning on running away with Marise. Then her father dies and she is a pauper. The mayor (Frank Currier) orders her out of her apparently rented house, and off to another village to live with relatives. Her next of kin are worn, unwashed, unhappy. So the husband drinks while his wife carps, and they and their three children live sordid lives. And into this situation, sweet, innocent Marise arrives to live. One night she defends one of the children against the father, who then chases her with a whip. She barely escapes and makes her way back to the only home she has ever known. Jean sees the light and comes to investigate. He ends up staying – building a fire which the two of them sit in front of all night. The next day the worst is thought of them, and the mayor insults Marise and orders her out of town again.
They run away to Paris and are going to be married, but they are separated and she is robbed. They don’t see each other again for years, during which she has to take awful jobs in order to exist and he becomes the apprentice to a master thief, Bobo (Wallace Beery). The message of the movie seems to be “The world is carelessly cruel and completely random.”
Niblo is very clever inventing cinematic ways for the two to barely miss each other again and again, and I think it likely that all the film conventions about these near-misses come from this film. It’s all imaginative and yet very frustrating, as is the moment when they finally meet.
At one point we meet the Bouchards, Papa and Mama (George Periolat and Emily Fitzroy), and they are the source of my favorite dialogue cards. Papa to serving girl: “Soon my fat wife will die, and I will take you to St. Moritz” And immediately Mama to male worker: “His liver gets worse every day. It won’t be long before we go to Monte Carlo together.” And Nana is played by Rosemary Theby, who with heavy makeup and a really hideous wig is possibly the most unattractive prostitute in film history.
I really like silent films, and this is one of the best I’ve seen. Though I don’t know what the title means.

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