The Red Lily
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For the film fan making the case that silents were truly golden, The Red Lily is a color that serves them well. Hue plays an important part in this "black-and-white" classic, using sepia, red and orange to convey a complexity of mood and emotion. After the death of her father, Marise La Noue (Enid Bennett) can find no safe haven, so she runs off to Paris with Jean Leonnec, the mayor's son (Ramon Novarro). Seeking a better life in Paris, Jean and Marise plan to meet at a specific time and place. When circumstances intervene, the two lovers miss their rendezvous, never reunite and are destined to lead separate lives that become more and more degrading. Marise turns to prostitution and Jean succumbs to the delightful debauchery of a thief named Bo-Bo (Wallace Beery in one of his earliest roles). Heartthrob Navarro and delicate Bennett make a magical combination in this deeply moving tale of fate, tragedy and redemption.
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The story's contrivances--conscious and unashamed--are not gratuitous; they are thematically necessary. The director's canny use early on of what was already a well-worn cliché by the time the picture was made--I refer to the oncoming locomotive--is, in my opinion, not only symbolic of the larger issues of the film but also his way of prepping the audience's sensibilities for the broad strokes of the oncoming plot. By the time this motif comes to its apotheosis in the film--I am being vague here to avoid spoilers--we perhaps come to understand that normal life too is lived through broad strokes and near-misses.
The era in which his important acting took place, as well as his shocking death, combine to distance us from Ramon Novarro. This is a profound pity, as few actors at any time in the history of cinema inhabit a role to the degree that Novarro does; few actors can make their often uniquely disjunct characters resonate in us as does Novarro. Though this is one of his earlier films, he shows not only this ability to serve as a vehicle of empathy but also the great range of his talent in developing his role from that of a guileless country boy to that of an embittered denizen of the criminal underworld. In his career, he did not often have the opportunity to play "bad"; here he shows that he had the acting chops to deliver hardened viciousness no less than his customary ardent love.
Enid Bennett--the wife of the film's director, Fred Niblo--similarly is called on to deliver a range of emotion in her role in the odyssey her character moves through in life. Successful in this in the terms of her era, she perhaps most of any of the principals evokes, particularly in sentimental moments, the older style of acting which, for those unaccustomed to it, may take a little getting used to to appreciate properly. And yet, within this context, she delivers a wonderfully nuanced and affecting performance.
At the head of the secondary roles is that played by Wallace Beery, perfectly cast as a raffish but likeable street criminal, his acting style being the most natural and modern of all. It could be argued that, over the course of his career, Beery is usually just playing Wallace Beery; but I've never seen him in anything from early in his career to late in which I did not come away enthusiastic about his professionalism and dedication to his role.
Production values are high in this film. The set designer obviously went to great lengths to evoke, realistically, the decaying and decadent corners of Paris.
The currently-available DVD version, a Turner Classic Movie restoration, gives us "The Red Lily" in black and white splendor with its original moody and evocative tinting. The musical score is a new one, largely successful; and yet I have just one quibble with it: My impression is that the new composer was not "on board" with the spirit of the final scene of the show. See what you think!
One of the most shattering scenes to me is when Marise (Enid Bennett) rescues from the police someone whom she thinks is just some random man on the streets of Paris. Instead, it is her former fiancé, Jean (Ramon Navarro) turned into the thief he was wrongly accused of being years before. When he sees her haggard face compared to "the face of an angel" memory, and sees what she has been reduced to in terms of making a living, he turns all of his anger on her. At first she is ashamed, blurting out excuses, but soon she accepts his derision as what you feel she has become accustomed to. The young man even takes her to his fellow-thief friends and laughs at her, trying to stamp out any memories of his feelings. Ramon Navarro rocks quite convincingly between loathing and love in these scenes, and although much has been justly said about Enid Bennett's performance here, I think we need to give Ramon Navarro his dues too.
This film is artfully shot and, up to the last couple of minutes, takes you to a very dark but believable place. The last two minutes are the reason I say this one is more of 4.5 instead of 5 stars, because even though it is the ending you want to see, it does not seem plausible. Highly recommended in spite of the tacked on happy ending.
This is a DVD-R with no extras and no chapter stops. You may only go forwards and backwards in 10 minute increments. The film was restored by Turner Classic Movies in 2006 complete with a new score, and that is the version you are getting here. The video quality is excellent and I highly recommend it.