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June 30, 2007

Silent Reflections – The Whispering Chorus (1918)

by HELEN GEIB

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For a long time I thought Cecil B. DeMille was a talentless hack. Then I saw The Cheat and The Whispering Chorus and realized it wasn’t that he lacked talent, it was just that after 1920 he seldom chose to exercise it. DeMille cruised through most of his exceptionally long and commercially successful career on a popular formula of titillation and censoriousness. It came as a surprise to discover that for a few years at the beginning of the feature era, he was an innovative and critically lauded cinema pioneer.

The Whispering Chorus is a fine example of traditional Hollywood filmmaking, combining strong storytelling, effective performances, good production values and special effects on the then cutting-edge. The protagonist is a non-hero, a weak man who embezzles money from his employer and abandons his wife. He has no real ambitions or positive desires, he simply sees disappearing with a little money in hand as an easy escape route from an ordinary daily life he’s grown tired of. Within a very little time he becomes consumed by a paranoid fear of discovery and arrest. His changing physical circumstances through the film reflect his steady mental decline, culminating in a climactic psychological struggle between right and expediency.

In the film’s most striking sequences, his mental struggles are depicted in a sophisticated variant on the familiar picture of a man with an angel on one shoulder and devil on the other. Visions of people from his past and his present appear to exhort, cajole and excuse his choices and desires. It is an elegant visualization of interior monologue, and a remarkable technical achievement.

A bare recitation of all the twists and turns of the plot would make Chorus sound like a cut-rate melodrama. The reason it is not that is because it is essentially a character study that is grounded in sincere performances and DeMille’s understated and skillful direction. Chorus has a gripping, if admittedly wildly implausible story, but it is not a plot-driven movie.

Perhaps the best evidence for my assessment of Chorus as character study is that the theft is not portrayed as the cause of the man’s troubles, as you would expect in a typical Hollywood crime doesn’t pay melo, but rather as one (and not the first) misstep in a series of wrong steps. While one misstep leads to another and leads the man into increasingly degraded circumstances, the wellspring of his troubles is the essential flaws in his character.

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