Movie Critique – The Red Kimona

Stars: 5 / 5

Recommendation: A tale of damaged innocence; shattered dreams and fighting back to gain a steady ground out of the muck she was in; Gabrielle's story definitely touches everyone who sees it, and cannot help but shed a tear.

The Red Kimona is a 1925 American silent film drama starring Priscilla Bonner, Nellie Bly Baker, Virginia Pearson and Carl Miller in the lead cast. Directorial debut by Walter Lang and Produced by Dorothy Davenport, the primary plot revolves around prostitution and how one of them tries to get out.

Gabrielle Darley (portrayed by Priscilla Bonner) in order to escape her unhappy family finds solace in Howard Blaine (portrayed by Carl Miller). Hoping he would marry her she leaves her home to New Orleans with him. Instead Blaine sells her into prostitution and she starts servicing other men for Blaine. The rest of the story shows how Darley lives through prostitution, and finally gets a break to come out and live a life of peace on her own. 

Producer Dorothy Davenport is credited as Mrs. Wallace Reid for this film. Although not credited, she also co-directed with Lang. Dorothy Arzner adapted the screenplay from the true story written by reporter Adela Rogers St. Johns. Azner would go on to become Hollywood's first female director. Piano solo through the film was performed by Robert Israel. 

Adela's story was based on a real-life case of prostitution in New Orleans in 1917. Gabrielle Darley, around whom the story revolves, is a real person and this is her story in the film. The Red Kimona that is seen all through the movie refers to Gabrielle's prostitution life.

One of the few films in the silent era where women produced and written for a film. It is amazing to see female power in the silent era, women who paved way for so many others who came after them.

Davenport had married the then famous and handsome actor Wallace Reid at the age of 18 in 1913. However in 1919, Reid was injured in a train wreckage. During his recovery phase he was prescribed morphine, to which he was addicted. And finally in 1923, at a very young age of 31 years, he lost his life to overdosing on morphine.

Her husband's loss woke Davenport to look at the social evils. She opened a treatment facility in her husband's name for drug addicts. She also opened a production company called Mrs. Wallace Reid Productions, through which she created magic on screen addressing social evils.

This was the third film in that series by Davenport. Prior to this she produced two movies - Human Wreckage in 1923 on drug addiction (which is sort of autobiographical story of Wallace Reid focusing mainly on his drug addiction) and Broken Love in 1924 on excessive parental love. With this film Davenport exposes white slavery, prostitution and the traffic in girls. 

You can see Davenport addressing the audience at the beginning and the end of the movie emphasizing about the perils of traffic in girls, focusing on women viewers to give them the consequences of white slavery, and above all asking to show compassion towards this upward struggle of these women in such profession.

Note the actress on a rumpled bed looking up right below the title of the film in the opening credits. She tried to push her point across in every frame of the film. 

When the film was promoted, the following message was used

A thundering message and a plea for America's girls by the woman who awakened America with "Human Wreckage."
PARENTS This picture is not suitable for children - DO NOT BRING THEM.

Priscilla Bonner gives a very impacting performance emoting every kind of feeling from a person - dejection, repulsion, sorrow, anger, scared, hopelessness, happy, innocence, and every other emotion under the sun.

Although the entire film is black and white, the only shade of color you can see is Red - in the Red Kimona that Darley sees in her reflection after she is left at a home in a sleazy neighborhood by her boy friend Blaine. The red color symbolizing her giving into Blaine and getting into prostitution. 

The Red Kimona and the red color continue to appear all through the film during significant milestones of Darley's life - when the matron is packing her stuff; then immediately after when Darley takes it from the matron and drops it on the floor symbolically purging herself off prostitution; a scarlet letter A appears on Darley when she is recognized by the hospital superintendent where she goes for work; as a red street light when Freddy is looking for Darley in the streets of New Orleans suggesting he had been going through every seedy area there.

Davenport shows how society ignores these unfortunates in various ways in the film - in the way the judge almost dozes of listening to Darley's story; Mrs. Beverly Fontaine (portrayed by Virginia Pearson) taking advantage of Darley's situation to further herself into fame; how upper class women or employers shun her employment when they know the truth.

I always wondered what do the actors talk on screen when the title card has just a single line or a couple lines, but the scene shows a longer conversation. Were the screenwriters writing the entire script with dialogues even though their words are not heard on film?

A tale of damaged innocence; shattered dreams and fighting back to gain a steady ground out of the much she was in; Gabrielle's story definitely touches everyone who sees it, and cannot help but shed a tear. Davenport's production and Lang's direction were equally skillful as was the excellent performance by Bonner.

As if the drama of her past, the court room trial and the fiasco with the benefactor wasn’t enough in Darley's life; Davenport and Lang give a thrilling end to the film with misunderstandings, mishaps and missed connections. Don’t miss the humor by Theodore as Freddy brings in when the scenes become a bit grim. 

Yet, for the time this film was released, it came as a shock to viewers. The story of woman degradation leading to her redemption was not received well in several places and had been banned including the British Board of Film Censors in 1926. 

More troubles followed Davenport because of the film. After the film was released Darley had sued Davenport on the fact that Darley was trying to live a life forgetting her past, and using her real name now caused a lot of churn in her reformed life. Darley won the case and almost bankrupted Davenport in the process. 

Despite all hurdles, Davenport successfully delivers a film with a message to the audience; a hope in the middle of nothing for the likes of Gabrielle;  and in the end leaves a happy ending for her; unlike many unfortunates who may not have had. 

Spoiler Alerts:

1) Movie Trivia:

a. In the opening scene, Davenport is telling the story is looking at Gabrielle's case file. Her backdrop is clear that is a painted one and not real.

b. Note the name of the jewelry store that Darley goes to in Los Angeles looking for Blaine. It is "H.E. Reid Jeweler". Perhaps homage to Wallace Reid?

2) Grammatical / Historical / Location / Character Errors:

a. In the opening scene when shown from over Davenport's shoulder, you can see hat the collar is not folded properly. However it is seen adjusted in the following shot from front.

b. Daley and Terrance O'Day "Freddy" (portrayed by Theodore von Eltz) go on a roller coaster ride called Giant Dipper. However, if the film was set in 1917, they couldn’t have gone on that ride cause Giant Dipper didn't open until May 17, 1924; a good five years after this film was set in. More about this historic wooden roller coaster here..


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