Distributed by Warner Brothers Pictures
Directed by William A. Seiter
Premiere: March 18, 1923
Cast: Claire Windsor (Leila Morton), Kenneth Harlan (David Graham), Hobart Bosworth (John Morton), Walter Long ("Big Hex"), Pauline Starke (Hetty), Alec B. Francis (Reverend Bradley), Margaret Seddon (Mrs. Graham), George Cooper (Jude), Winter Hall (Doc Graham), Cyril Chadwick (Mark Hanford)
"The Little Church Around the Corner" has the look and feel of a story that would have been a perfect vehicle for D.W. Griffith. The opening credits to the movie state that it is "by Olga Printzlau" and "from the play by Marion Russell." Vintage reviews state that it is based on a 1902 melodrama by Charles F. Blaney. Either way, it certainly reflects the turn-of-the-century period much more so than the emerging flapper era in 1923 when it was released. Some of the elements we tend to associate with Griffith - "quaintness," "small town," "religious values," "morality lessons," and the signature ending of a "race to rescue" are all present in this film. However, although an enjoyable film to watch, one can't help but wonder how it would have been differently and better in the hands of the Master rather than director William Seiter. Still, Seiter was a very competent and prolific director who continued directing until 1954 with some relatively good films and some not so good. It is reported that one prominent actress of the 1930s referred to Seiter as the most unimaginative director she'd ever worked with (1) . . . thus making our curiosity even greater in imagining how Griffith's hand would have crafted this story for the screen.
Actually, the early scenes of the movie with our leading characters as children are some of the most compelling in the movie. Little David Graham, who lost his father in a mining accident, is destined to be a minister one day. His message to the other kids that "you can't think wrong and do right" is conveyed not only in his daily actions but through regular Sunday morning worship services that he leads for kids in a local barn. We see his beliefs lived out as he deals with the local bully, "Big Hex," who not only taunts and terrorizes David, but the other kids, as well. David observes Hex take an apple away from Hetty, a little girl who can't talk. When David intervenes, Hex slaps him and tells him to go ahead and turn the other cheek so he can slap him again. David responds, "It would only give you the chance to be worse than you are."
But David has his limits, too. As he and Hetty walk away with David's dog, Hex shows off in front of a group of other boys by throwing a large rock and hitting the dog. David's temper flares, and he fights Hex, beating him and warning him never to harm another dog.
Hex doesn't give up, though, he forcibly drags Hetty into David's Sunday morning worship service and says, "If you believe what you say, make Hetty talk." Although Hetty tries, she can't. Hex succeeds in turning many of the kids against David, and several get up and leave the service. He tells Hetty it was his fault. "I was full of hate. You can't think wrong and do right - but keep your faith, Hetty, and one day you'll speak."
Something good does come out of this episode, though. The wealthy John Morton has come to visit the mine that heowns. An intertitle makes it abundantly clear where Morton stands regarding church - "To John Morton, Sunday morning just meant an opportunity to inspect his mines." However, his young daughter, Leila, wanders into the barnand observes the episode between Hex and David. She remains, apparently taken with this upstanding young man. Her father comes looking for her and - coincidentally - David's foster father arrives. The men discuss David's future,and - since David's father lost his life working in Morton's mine - Morton says he will take on the expense of David's education, and he goes to live with Morton.
Thus the story begins, and when we next see David and Leila, David is a minister, and Leila a very pretty young girl deeply in love with him. As noted earlier, the story up to this point has been very compelling - we are always moved to see "good vs. evil," and with a well-defined "hero" in David and an evil bully in "Hex," laced with the pretty girl - Leila - and another who is pitiable - Hetty - you've got a pretty good mix for a story.
Unfortunately, these elements are not used to their best advantage - the story's good, but there's more potential here than is realized. The first "dilemma" we encounter is when David, as an adult minister, agonizes over whether he should go back to "his people" at the mines or remain with the wealthy and accept Rev. Bradley's invitation to assume a position at his local church. Leila wishes to stay among the rich and reasons to David, "Teach the rich charity as you have taught me love." He concedes.
At a reception to introduce David to the congregation, we are introduced to a rival for Leila's affection - a local bon vivant named Mark Hanford. At the reception, David seems to be a hit with the women. One humorous encounter has an older married lady tell David, "I'm so unhappy - my husband doesn't seem to understand me. Won't you come and talk to me - sometime soon? . . . to which David replies, "My dear Mrs. Devon. I think I should talk to your husband," and walks away. Following this encounter, David is surrounded by several young women. As Hanford and Leila watch the gathering around David, Hanford tells her, "Since Graham took the church, the ladies have acquired spiritual difficulties." Unfortunately, this is the last we see of Hanford, and the potential for this rivalry to be developed is lost.
However, David's decision to take on the position at the church is changed when representatives of the miners arrive at Morton's home demanding that he repair a dangerous mine shaft. Morton resists their pleas, and David steps in. Morton is surprised that David takes the side of the miners. "I hardly expected this from you, David," he says. David replies, "You forget, sir, that my own father lost his life in your mine." It's not too difficult to figure out where this is going - the climax of the film is a cave-in at mine, and there is a rather stirring race to rescue the trapped miners before their oxygen runs out. The viewer may find it a little odd, though, that David - the local minister (although he worked in the mine until Morton took him away as a young boy) - is the one who leads the rescue efforts.
So David returns to his hometown and what he refers to several times in the movie as "my people." We are not quite sure at this point if Leila is to follow later or if their relationship is ended. Nevertheless, we see David return and wait for the inevitable mine disaster. In the meantime, we are finally returned to "Big Hex" and Hetty. Hetty is still unable to speak, but, to make matters worse, she has never married and only serves as a drudge for "Big Hex" and her brother, Jude, whom we are told in an intertitle is "still under the influence of 'Big Hex'." Our dislike of Big Hex is intensified when he and Jude come in from work, and Big Hex walks up behind Hetty, put his arms around her and rubs her forearm. Jude watches disapprovingly and suggests the sit down to eat. Big Hex looks as if he will take a swing at Jude, but reluctantly sits at the table. Of course, we must ask ourselves, "Why is 'Big Hex' there? Is he rooming there - just coming over for supper?" This relationship or arrangement is never made clear, but we are told in an intertitle that the years have only intensified his "evil." To add to our dislike of him, we see him throw a metal plate at the dog who runs from the house with Hetty close behind to protect and soothe him.
The mine cave-in occurs fairly soon after David returns, and it is very well done -- and for that, William Beaudine deserves credit. It certainly appears as if a real mine was used for the interiors. The men are convincingly dirty and sweaty, and the urgency of the rescue efforts is conveyed dramatically. Of particular note is the crowd (made up of possibly a hundred or more extras) awaiting word and pressing on the gates leading into the mine area to hear the fate of their loved ones. One woman with a baby is shown several times to personalize the tragedy (again, something at which Griffith was very adept). Then we are shown her husband - one of the trapped miners who is on death's doorstep - pulling out a pocket watch with a picture of his wife and child. The miner is cradle in the arms of his dad, also a miner, who urges his son to hold on The son asks his dad to take care of the wife and children after he dies. Later, when the miners are rescued, we see the young man reunited with his wife and child - a touching scene.
When word of the disaster reaches Morton, he and Leila race to the mine in their chauffeur-driven limousine. Again, Beaudine's deft handling of the crowd shows a mob converging on the car in anger when Morton arrives, and he and Leila barely make it into the office without harm - a rock having been thrown at the limousine and breaking a glass. Two armed guards stand at the door of the office with rifles to protect them.
The story does provide a nice surprise, though. We assume that after the rescue, all is well, and the story would come to a nice, neat conclusion. Not so. Instead by the mob is enraged - mainly incited by "Big Hex's" rantings - and go after Morton. David heads them off at the door. "Hate and violence have never solved a problem for anyone. Love and faith can do anything. Have faith and you will win." Not convinced, the mob says they are tired of promises and want "proof." At that point, Hetty comes up on the porch with David. Well, you should be able to figure out what happens after this.
One disappointment is the absence of any consequences for "Big Hex's" actions. From the time they were children, the story portrays "Big Hex" as "evil," continuing with his inciting the mob to "get" Morton. Our expectation with "good guys" and "bad guys" in a story is that the "bad guy" will, in the end, get his "come-uppance" in some fashion. However, after inciting the crowd, we never see "Big Hex" again - giving us the feeling at the end that all has not been resolved in this story.
For those who may shy away from a story that is perceived as preaching religion - "The Little Church Around the Corner" treads lightly. More so, it is a "feel good" story about kindness, having faith, and just plain doing the "right" thing. Also, one may be struck with some sense that the story feels more like a Victorian melodrama than what would be expected in 1923, but it does stir the emotions and provides 72 minutes of entertainment that doesn't bog down and lose the viewer. As a side note, it is interesting that Variety reviewed the New York premiere at the Strand Theatre and questioned why it ran 55 minutes when the advertised footage indicated a longer running time. "That seems to indicate that considerable footage was clipped for this house," the reviewer said - something we find surprising for a venue of the stature of the Strand. The reviewer goes on to note that the story ends "without one grasping which of either the two girls the minister finally wed." This is definitely not the case in the version from Grapevine Video which brings the story to a very satisfying and complete conclusion.
Our two leads - Kenneth Harlan and Claire Windsor - provide a handsome and beautiful couple; however, neither gives an inspired performance, Harlan's portrayal being almost "wooden." Windsor is given some opportunity to emote, though, when she arrives at the mine office to await word of David's involvement in the mine rescue - and she gives some life and emotion to the sequence. All things considered, the supporting players - Walter Long as "Big Hex," Hobart Bosworth as Mr. Morton, and Pauline Starke as Hetty - give their parts more passion than do Harlan or Windsor. Long never fails to intimidate and rankle our indignation. Bosworth is well-cast as the aloof and stern owner of the mine, and Starke evokes the pity and sympathy that the character of Hetty should draw from the viewer.
Also, the child actors in this film should not be dismissed, each doing a commendable job. Winston Miller is excellent as the young David Graham. His calm in dealing with the bully, "Big Hex," and preachment of "you can't think wrong and do right" come across as genuine and not artificial. Miller was 13 at the time he made "Little Church Around the Corner" and went on to have a successful career as a screenwriter during the sound era, contributing to the script for "Gone With the Wind." (2) He worked in television production in the sixties and seventies and passed away in 1994 at age 84. Mary Jane Irving portrayed Hetty and gave a restrained, but moving performance. Only 10 years old at the time of this film, Irving is listed on the Internet Movie Database as having appeared in 59 movies between 1917 and 1938. She passed away in 1983 at age 69. Interesitngly, these are the only two identified in the opening credits, and the AFI Catalog and the IMdB also list only Miller's and Irving's names. The young man portraying "Big Hex" is excellent as the bully and David's nemesis. The young lady portraying Leila only has a small part - appearing in the barn at David's church service, but she is both charming and attractive. By the way, although we feel the prologue with the young thespians is well-played and interesting, Photoplay magazine disagreed, saying, "Omitting the long prelude made horrible by many blond infant prodigies, this picture isn't so bad." (3)
Variety makes no comment on the actors; however, Harrison's Reports lists each cast member's name with the comment, ". . . all do excellent work." It goes on to praise the movie calling it, "A genuine melodrama, which, without taking undue license, offers the kind of thrills the average picture-goer enjoys. . . It should appeal to all. (4) Variety was less enthusastic. ". . . it is a fair type of melodrama of the ten-twent-thirt school and, as such, will have a certain appeal, but hardly in the bigger first-run houses like the Strand." (5)
At the time of this writing, "Little Church Around the Corner" was available on DVD from a minor company in somewhat poor quality with a passable score (some sequences being scored terribly inappropriately) and running about 67 minutes. Grapevine Video (www. grapevinevideo.com), however, has released a print on DVD that is much better quality, has a very commendable score by Christopher Congdon, and runs 72 minutes. A couple of key scenes that the viewer will want are included in Grapevine's version that are not in the previously available version.
1. "Little Church Around the Corner" review. Variety.
March 29, 1923.
3. "Little Church Around the Corner" review. Photoplay. June 1923.
4. "Little Church Around the Corner" review. Harrison's Reports. March 24, 1923.
Copyright 2012 by Tim Lussier. All rights reserved
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