Smouldering Fires (1925) Universal Pictures. Director: Clarence Brown. Screenplay: Sada Cowan, Howard Higgin, Melville Brown. Titles: Dwinelle Benthall. Story: Margaret Deland, Sada Cowan, Howard Higgin. Camera: Jackson Rose. Art director: Leo E. Kuter, E. E. Sheeley. Editor: Edward Schroeder. Assistant director: Charles Dorian. Cast: Pauline Frederick, Laura La Plante, Malcolm McGregor, Tully Marshall, Wanda Hawley, Helen Lynch, George Cooper, Bert Roach, Billy Gould, Rolfe Sedan, Jack McDonald, William Orlamond, Robert Mack, Frank Newberg. 8 reels.
Copies of this film are held by UCLA (16mm.), and George Eastman House (incomplete 35 mm with Italian intertitles). This film is also available on video, and numerous 16mm prints exist in private collections, making it easily the most available of Frederick's films. Fortunately, it is one of her best.
Click thumbnails for larger view
|Caption: "Good night Scotty." (Frederick, Tully Marshall, and Malcolm McGregor)||Caption: "Do you really love me?".(Frederick and Malcolm McGregor|
|Frederick, Laura LaPlante, and Malcolm McGregor (no caption on this one)||The little sister introduces her young friends (no caption on this one--thanks to Derek Boothroyd for the scan)|
|A poster courtesy of Donna Hill|
|A still courtesy of Jane of the Historical Ziegfeld site|
|A panel of 9 stills from Derek Boothroyd|
|An advertisement courtesy of David Menefee|
Universal-Jewel, starring Pauline Frederick and featuring Laura La Plante. Story by Sada Cowan and Howard Higgins. Directed by Clarence Brown. Shown at the Picadilly, N.Y. week March 28, 1925. Running time, 80 min.
|June [i.e. Jane] Vale||Pauline Frederick|
|Dorothy Vale||Laura La Plante|
|Robert Elliott||Malcolm McGregor|
|Kate Brown||Helen Lynch|
Maybe the authors of screen play didn't see "Three Women," which Ernst Lubitsch produced for the Warners, with Pauline Frederick, May McAvoy, Marie Prevost and Lew Cody in the cast. Either way they have turned out a story in which the central situation is so similar to the one in the previous picture it seems to be more than a mere coincidence, especially as Miss Frederick is in the cast.
"Smouldering Fires" is a decided step forward as far as the average run of Universal productions go. It is better in story, production, direction and what is most remarkable, photography. As much cannot be said for the final editing, for there are three or four spots where it just jumps from one sequence to another without rhyme or reason.
From a boxoffice standpoint it looks as though here is a picture that will do far better than the average Universal-Jewel. It has two names in Pauline Frederick and Laura La Plante and is acted by a cast that seemingly knows what it is about, due to the direction of Clarence Brown, who, by this time, should rate the top grade among the U. directors.
A self-sacrificing love on the part of an older sister, who divorces her husband, years younger, in favor of her more youthful sister, is the theme. In the case of "Three Women" it was the mother who first won the man and then he managed to vamp the daughter also.
Miss Frederick gives a fine performance as in "Three Women." Miss La Plant scores, and in Malcolm McGregor U. has a leading juvenile it can build into starring material eventually. Tully Marshall gave his usual finished performance, while George Cooper was the comedy relief who landed his points.
Pauline Frederick gives another outstanding performance in this film as a businesswoman who finds her young husband and young sister have fallen in love. Frederick's subtlety, sensitivity, and intelligence create an unforgettable characterization. It is a rare film from the 1920s that deals with a woman executive, much less one in her 40s, and the social attitudes reflected in the film leave some feminists cold. Sumiko Higashi found the film "deadly," and one can see her point. We first see her character in mannish clothes and making her points emphatically to a room full of yes-men, and being a strict disciplinarian with her employees. She is mocked by the other characters for being unfeminine, and when she falls in love with a younger man she is mocked for being old and foolish. She just can't win--she is so incompetent as a woman she can't even make pie crust, and has to get up earlier than her husband so she can sneak to her cosmetics table to put on her rejuvenation creams. And we, the audience, see that youth always trumps beauty--Laura La Plante is one of the plainest of Hollywood leading ladies. But Higashi misses the humanity invested in the character by Frederick's acting and by the superb direction of Clarence Brown. We see her made gentler and more understanding by her love, and she devises an escape from her humiliating situation that will not only insure the happiness of her beloved husband and sister, but leaves her with dignity and control. Though presented unsympathetically in her first scenes, by the end she is far more likable than the other two characters. Indeed, the New York Times notes that "One is apt to think that Elliott is not good enough for Miss Vale and that he is foolish to fall in love with Dorothy."
This film is available from Grapevine Video (DVD-R), Sunrise Silents (DVD-R), Ebony Showcase Theatre, Nostalgia Family Video, New York Film Annex, Hollywood's Attic, TV Video, Ronnie Cramer's Cult Film Site, and many other public domain video dealers
I viewed the video formerly available from Grapevine Video. The print is not very good, a bit soft, contrasty and scratchy, as was the 16mm print which I have seen. The organ score is good, and the film runs 91 min.
More information on this film can be found in the following sources:
Everson, William K., Love in the film.. Seacaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press, 1979.
Higashi, Sumiko, Virgins, Vamps and Flappers. Montreal: Eden Press, c1978, p. 108-109.
Magill, Frank N., ed., Magills Survey of Cinema: Silent Films. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Salem Press, c1982 (entry on Smouldering Fires by DeWitt Bodeen).
Last revised, August 5, 2011