By Janine Gericke.
During the silent film era, some of the most prolific and highest earning producers, writers, and filmmakers were women. Many of these films involved stories about issues such as prostitution, birth control, and abortion. Issues that continue to cause controversy today. Dorothy Davenport created a trilogy of films referred to as the Social Issues trilogy, including the 1925 drama Red Kimona. With live musical accompaniment by the Monte Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, this restoration (by the UCLA Film & Television Archive) was a sight to see during the San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s 2018 Day of Silents.
The melodrama begins with co-director Dorothy Davenport (often billed as Mrs. Wallace Reid) speaking directly to the audience, telling us the true story of Gabrielle Darley (Priscilla Bonner), who has been accused of murder in 1917. It’s an unfortunate story where a young woman is looking for an escape from her troubled home. She meets Howard Blaine (Carl Miller) who promises marriage and a new life, only to force her into prostitution in New Orleans’ Red Light District. When she discovers that Howard is living in Los Angeles and plans to marry another woman, Gabrielle confronts him and ends up shooting and killing him.
At her trial, Gabrielle is found not guilty by the court and is taken in by a wealthy society woman, Mrs. Fontaine, who is only interested in exploiting Gabrielle for her and her hoity toity friends by having her work as part of her staff. Gabrielle then meets and falls for Mrs. Fontaine’s chauffeur, Frederick (Theodore von Eltz). Gabrielle is poorly treated by everyone she encounters, except for Frederick, who sees in her what others do not. She is humiliated and left by Mrs. Fontaine and is unable to find work, so she returns to New Orleans. Davenport shows us that Gabrielle is someone who deserves love and redemption—women can have more than one dimension. At the end of the film, Davenport reminds the audience not to judge women like Gabrielle, as they are more than their ill-fated circumstances.
Red Kimona was restored by using a 35mm preservation duplicate negative, which was derived from a nitrate print. Portions of Red Kimona were originally hand-tinted, which you can see in the restoration. Particular items are tinted in red, such as the not-so-subtle street lights in the Red Light District. One scene shows a red A on Gabrielle’s chest, harking back to Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter. Much like Prynne, Gabrielle is also shamed and must struggle to find redemption.
This past November saw the release of Kino Lorber’s Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers, curated by film historian and professor Shelley Stamp. And, thank Santa, I was recently gifted a copy! This set highlights so many of these early films, some forgotten and many beloved. The set includes films by Lois Weber, Alice Guy Blaché, Mabel Normand, and Davenport. Red Kimona is a beautiful and heartbreaking film that stays with you long after viewing. Davenport has made a significant contribution to our film history and her statements definitely deserve your time.
Janine Gericke is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.